Topic: Education and Child Policy

Obama on Education: Ho-Hum and Hold On

Despite effusive praise from the education establishment – who, let’s be honest, will applaud anything that gets them more money – there was nothing remarkable about the education portion of President Obama’s Not-a-State-of-the-Union address last night.

Surrounded by broad generalities and standard promises to spend more money, the speech’s education centerpiece was arguably the president’s goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

This of course begs the question, why is having more college graduates in and of itself so important? The answer is, it isn’t. While economically we want people obtaining whatever knowledge and skills best fit their aptitudes, desires, and the needs of employers, the evidence clearly shows that we already encourage way too many people to pursue higher education. As I lay out in Cato’s new Handbook for Policymakers, the six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students is hovering at just around 56 percent, literacy levels of degree holders are falling, and remediation rates for students are very high. Indeed, more than a third of college students have to take remedial classes.

So the reality is not that we aren’t pushing people to college. It’s that a large number of them just can’t handle it.

It’s also important to note that we’re not wanting economically for college graduates. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 percent of all jobs in 2006 required a bachelor’s degree or higher. As of March 2007, nearly 29 percent of Americans ages 25 and older had at least that level of education.

Of course, these numbers don’t tell us whether all those degrees match employer needs – we may have a heck of a lot more English majors than employers require – but that doesn’t matter when the goal is just to get more college graduates. And it also doesn’t matter politically.

For politicians, there is simply little to lose and lots to gain from promising everyone a college education, no matter how wasteful that ends up being.

President’s Auto Gaffe No Laughing Matter

In his address last night, president Obama implied that an American invented the automobile (“The nation that invented the automobile cannot turn away from it”). It doesn’t matter that the president was unaware this is false. Politicians can’t be expected to know everything. What matters is that neither he nor anyone in his inner circle apparently thought it was important to fact check his first major speech to the nation. What other parts of his speech and policy platform are based on mistaken assumptions, we might well wonder?

Alas, some very important ones. In his campaign fact sheet on “21st century threats”, then-candidate Obama declared that

 When Sputnik was launched in 1957, President Eisenhower used the event as a call to arms for Americans to help secure our country and to increase the number of students studying math and science via the National Defense Education Act.

“That’s the kind of leadership we must show today,” he later told a crowd in Dayton, OH.

The trouble is, the National Defense Education Act was an expensive failure. The average mathematics performance of 11th graders fell in the eight years following passage of the law, according to “national norm” studies conducted by the College Board. They still hadn’t returned to pre-NDEA levels a decade later.

In last night’s speech, the president called for increased federal “investment” in public schools, on the apparent assumption that this will improve educational outcomes and with them our economy. History does not support this rosy view.

To have any hope of achieving the lofty goals he has set out for himself, our 44th president would do well to get his future proposals – and speeches – thoroughly fact-checked. While this may starve late-night comics of material, it will save both the president and the American people a lot of heartburn.

Dems Want D.C. Vouchers Dead. Hope Someone Else Pulls Plug.

Republican leaders in the House say that Democrats are using the 2009 omnibus spending bill to try to kill the D.C. voucher program. Democrats deny the charge. Who’s right?

Created in 2004, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was originally authorized for 5 years – a term that would have expired this June. While a typical reauthorization would have extended the program for another five years, Democrats have explicitly authorized funding only through the 2009-10 school year. If that truncated funding were not enough to worry participating families, Democrats have also called for the granting of a new veto power over the program for the DC City Council. If the bill passes as it is currently written, the voucher program can only be funded if it is reauthorized by both Congress and the City Council.

Clearly, this new language doesn’t kill the Opportunity Scholarship Program outright. Just as clearly, it puts the program on life support, and it suggests that Congress is hoping the DC Council will pull the plug for them, so that they can’t be directly blamed for kicking 1,900 children out of private schools that they have chosen and become attached to.

Critics of the program complain that, after its first two years, it had still not raised overall student academic achievement by a significant margin (though parents are happier with their voucher schools). What is less well known is that the program has proven to be dramatically more cost effective than the DC public schools. While voucher and non-voucher students are performing at about the same level, DC public schools spend more than four times as much per student. Total per pupil spending in DC was $24,600 in 2007-08, while voucher schools receive an average of less than $6,000.

If you could save 75 percent on a purchase, get the same quality of service, and know you’d be happier with the result, wouldn’t you do it? It seems Congressional Democrats would not.

“New” NCLB Findings

You probably don’t need to read it unless you really want the details, but the Thomas B. Fordham Institute just released a report finding that academic standards vary widely from state to state under the No Child Left Behind Act, creating an “accountability illusion.” I say you probably needn’t peruse the paper not because it doesn’t have solid data or a decent analysis – Fordham has put out a lot of fine studies on the state of state standards – but because it doesn’t really tell us anything new. We’ve known for years that NCLB is essentially a big lie.

Unfortunately, the findings aren’t the only slightly stale bit in this report. The recommendations are also warmed over, and they’re just as logic-defying as they’ve always been. From the press release for the paper:

In their foreword to the study, Finn and Petrilli wrote that the solution to this dilemma is not to scrap NCLB or to federalize tests and standards. Instead, they argue, the Obama Administration and Congress should create incentives for states to voluntarily sign on to rigorous, comprehensive common standards and tests. Washington should then publish the results for every school in the land but allow states to decide what to do with schools that don’t meet those common expectations. This would ensure greater transparency and reinforce state responsibility. “Best of all,” they note, “it would end the gamesmanship that has characterized the federal-state relationship for the past seven years.”

“Finn and Petrilli” are Fordham President Chester Finn and Vice President Michael Petrilli, and I’ve been over this nationalizing-without-federalizing approach with them before.

First off, when “the Obama Administration and Congress…create incentives,” that is federalizing tests and standards. One need look no further than the last forty-plus years of federal involvement in education, or in almost everything else for that matter, to see clearly that Washington has constantly used monetary “incentives” – change your laws or you don’t get your taxpayers’ dollars back! – to control countless things over which it has no constitutional authority. Whether it’s withholding highway funds to alter drinking ages, or threatening to keep money from states that don’t sign on to NCLB, “incentives” have equaled “control.”

And who would decide whether standards and tests were “rigorous” or “comprehensive” in Finn and Petrilli’s scheme? If federal ducats are the adoption bait, it would almost certainly be the feds. But it doesn’t really matter: As I’ve written many times before, all the standards-setting evidence we have screams that standards set by government, whether states or the same feds who brought us NCLB, will almost certainly be low. Indeed, as I reminded readers just a few days ago, Fordham itself has only been able to point to three out of fifty states with laudable standards. In light of that pitiful batting average, why would we ever think that nationalized standards-making is a promising solution? When we consider how standards are made in a government-run system, we definitely wouldn’t: Special interests employed by the system, ranging from teachers, to principals, to state bureaucrats, have the most motivation and clout to influence political control over the system, and it’s in their greatest interest to have low standards that are easy to hit. Hence, the dismal state-level performance.

At this point, frankly, it’s pretty darn clear that NCLB is a failure. It should also be obvious that further centralizing political control would just be dumping more water into the already submerged ship. Unfortunately, the latter seems to keep escaping the notice of far too many people.

Mass Problems Solved with Mass Choice

Massachusetts is facing shortfalls after an extended binge on tax dollars. The AP reports today that some school districts are cutting grants for full-day kindergarten to save money, but that’s pocket change compared to what they could save with a serious school choice program.

School choice, especially bipartisan and increasingly successful education tax credits, can save states billions of dollars according to a fiscal analysis by the Cato Institute. New York could save more than $6 billion over the first five years alone, while Illinois could save more than $3 billion and South Carolina more than $400 million. And even the small programs already up and running  saved taxpayers more than $444 million between 1990 and 2006 even though most of the programs began at the end of the 1990s or later and were small and restricted.

These huge savings should come as no surprise considering that the median full tuition paid at U.S. private schools is just $4,000, compared to an average of about $13,000 per student in public schools. Massachusetts spends more than $13,500 per student every year.

School choice saves money and children. Massachusetts can’t afford not to have education tax credits.

Expect the Worst

Yesterday, American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten had an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for national academic standards. Of course, union support for national standards is itself almost reason enough to fight any such move to the death, but over at The Corner Ramesh Ponnuru asks a critical question, wondering “why we should expect federal standards to resemble the best state standards rather than the worst ones.”

As I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions, especially to the standards zealots on the right, there is no good reason to expect quality to prevail. The people who would be held to high standards, such as teachers and school administrators, have huge incentives and political power to fight rigor, and given their political heft would almost certainly prevail. Indeed, based on what’s happened with standards to date, the odds seem hugely in favor of wimpiness. As I wrote in response to Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation a couple of years ago:

Given history and political reality, Petrilli and other like-minded conservatives have very few government standards successes to hang their hats on. Indeed, that’s why they’ve had to ask the country to play 6 percent roulette: “Of course, getting national standards and tests right is no small feat,” Petrilli acknowledges. “But McCluskey is wrong to insist that it cannot be done. After all, California, Massachusetts, and Indiana managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can happen in Sacramento or Boston, it could happen in Washington, D.C., too.”

So, because three out of fifty states have gotten standards right, we should gamble on the feds getting them right, too, and give Washington the authority to set the standards for every public school in America? That’s crazy.

Maybe if we tweak Petrilli’s statement, its insanity will be more clear: “Getting national standards and tests right is no small feat. And McCluskey is right to insist that it almost certainly can’t be done. After all, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas – and the list goes on - haven’t managed to develop excellent standards over the past decade. If it can’t happen in Montgomery or Juneau, it probably won’t happen in D.C., either.”