Topic: Education and Child Policy

Fairfax County Schools to Fill Budget Gap by Cutting …um, Track?

Here’s a great example of a recurring problem in news coverage: reporters too often seem to think it’s their job to act as uncritical mouthpieces for government officials. This is a particularly grievous problem in reporting on education, where they think that covering both sides of the story means calling a school district rep and a teachers union spokesperson for a quote and then paraphrasing press releases from both.

From the Washington Post on the, as the headline screams, “Bitter Medicine In Fairfax Budget”:

[County Executive Anthony H.] Griffin suggested freezing school funding at $1.6 billion, the same level as the current year, despite a projected enrollment increase of 5,000 in the 169,000-student system. School officials, who had asked for a $57 million funding increase, must now trim programs or lobby supervisors for more money.

The reporting makes it sound as if Fairfax schools are spending a total of $1.6 billion on a projected 174,000 students. The reporters probably think that’s the case … per-pupil spending at just over $9,000. It may be double the national median private school tuition of $4,000, but hey, it’s the government.

If one happens to look at the actual school district budget, one would find that they plan to spend $3.05 billion… that’s about $17,500 per student! Oh well, only 91 percent higher than the implied cost.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale predicted in January that if the county did not increase school funding, the schools would have to raise average class size by two students, eliminate summer school and cut some popular after-school activities, including indoor track. Dale said it would take decades for the school system to recover.

Really? No fat in a budget of $17,500 per student besides summer school, track, and “popular after-school activities?” And track is their talking-point example? How much can track possibly cost; there isn’t any equipment!

Next time the Post might want to do some, you know, reporting.

Cato Scholars Address Obama’s First Speech to Congress

President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress laid out a laundry list of new spending contained within the stimulus legislation and provided hints as to what will be contained in the budget - a so-called “blueprint for America’s future” - he’ll submit to the legislature. Cato Institute scholars Chris Edwards, Jim Harper, Gene Healy, Neal McCluskey, David Rittgers, John Samples and Michael D. Tanner offer their analyses of the President’s non-State-of-the-Union Address.

Subscribe to Cato’s video podcast here and Cato’s YouTube channel here.

Who Is Chucking Kids out of the DC Voucher Liferaft?

As I blogged yesterday, Congressional Democrats have incorporated language into the 2009 omnibus spending bill that would spell the beginning of the end of the DC voucher program.

According to Capitol Hill sources, the new language apparently flowed from the pen of Senator Dick Durbin (D - IL) . But if so, Durbin is not alone in looking to end the program. The DC Examiner is reporting today that House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has urged DC Public Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to prepare for the return of voucher students to DCPS.

How will they – and everyone who votes for this bill – justify their decision to the kids whose dreams they aim to destroy?

David Brooks Unhinged

David Brooks went completely off the deep end last night in critiquing Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s Republican response to Barack Obama’s address to Congress. According to Brooks, “in a moment when only the federal government is big enough to actually do stuff- to just ignore all that and just say ‘government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending,’ it’s just a form of nihilism.”

Now, I thought Jindal’s speech was rather banal and poorly delivered, but since when is it nihilism to oppose “corruption, earmarks, and wasteful spending”? Apparently, government should just do “stuff.” It doesn’t really matter whether that “stuff” is good or not, whether it will actually stimulate the economy or not. And of course, there is no problem with the fact that that “stuff” includes a government takeover of our health care system, an unworkable and expensive energy policy, an extension of a federal education policy that has failed to educate our children, higher taxes, greater debt, and more spending on just about everything. To oppose all of that is “nihilism.”

Then count me as a nihilist – or maybe I just believe in liberty.

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.