Topic: Education and Child Policy

Could It Be They’re Listening?

While Friday’s compromise on the bankrupting “stimulus” would just dust snow off a glacier – and who knows what will end up in the final version – there is a small silver lining for those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom: education saw the biggest reductions.

For months we have been hammering away at the utter waste of cramming yet more bucks into already obese schools, and maybe, just maybe, someone has been listening. They haven’t been listening all that well – there’s still a Toll House factory’s worth of extra dough for everything from Head Start to Pell Grants – but compared to the already passed House version, the compromise bill would eliminate $40 billion from the “State Fiscal Stabilization Fund” (a massive bailout for hugely bloated state education apparatuses) and all of the money for k-12 and higher education facility construction. So, even if the remaining bill still robs children tomorrow to enrich education bureaucrats today, at least there’s a bit of movement in the right direction.

Hitting Bone Is the Least of Our Worries

Once again, the monthly jobs report is woeful except in education, health services, and government, where there were employment gains. Yet a huge part of the ever-growing “stimulus” — about $140 billion, last I’d heard — is aimed at education, including $79 billion to help ensure that states don’t have to cut a nickel from their public schools and possibly let some staffers go. I mean, the situation is dire, right?

“We’re well past cutting through the fat, through the flesh, muscle,” Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho frantically warned in USA Today  last month. “We’re now sawing into bone.”

Ignoring the infamous dysfunction in Miami, is there any reason to believe that nationwide, many states or districts are really about to hit bone? I mean, when was the last time they even saw muscle, much less what lies beneath it?

Let’s take a look at some long-term trends and see how lean and mean our schools really are, keeping in mind that throughout the last few decades long-term reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress have been essentially stagnant, especially among 17-year-olds, our schools’ final products.

First, let’s examine per-pupil expenditures. The chart below, taken from table 174 of the federal Digest of Education Statistics, has a line for every state showing inflation-adjusted, current per-pupil expenditures between 1969 and 2004 (the latest year with available data). Obviously, you can’t pick out individual states, but I wanted to show that the overall trend for every state is upward. In addition, to help better put this chart into context, know that the average, per-pupil expenditure nationwide went from $4,060 in 1969 to $9,266 in 2004, a 128 percent increase. Also, the bottom line in the chart represents Utah, and even that state saw a 73 percent funding increase between 1969 and 2004. Finally, note that these are expenditures covering current costs, which exclude capital costs like building construction and maintenance, so the numbers do not reflect full educational expenditures.

What about the threat to jobs? Public employees and officials are masters of warning about falling skies, so there’s a good chance that without any stimulus schools wouldn’t have to let nearly as many people go as some officials claim. But the important question from education and tax-paying standpoints is not whether people will have to be let go, but whether it can be done without hurting the final product. Keeping in mind the stagnant academic results we’ve gotten over the last several decades, the answer seems to be “Yes, it can.”

The next chart, taken from table 61 in the Digest, helps make this clear, showing changes in public school pupil/teacher ratios between 1970 and 2005. We have certainly been adding a lot of teachers, with the ratio dropping from 22.3 pupils per teacher in 1970 to 15.7 in 2005, a 30 percent decrease in the number of students per teacher.

The same thing has happened with administrators, as shown in the last chart, which uses data from Digest table 77. In 1969 there were 697.7 students per public school administrator. By 2005 that number had dropped to 435.3, a 38 percent decrease in the number of students for each administrative employee.

In light of these trends, here’s my diagnosis: We’ve been employing a lot more people and spending oodles more money to get essentially the same results, so we definitely do not need to worry about hitting this patient’s bones. Indeed, what we need to worry about is quite the opposite: As quickly as possible, getting him the life-saving financial lipo he so desperately needs!

Putting Children First

Last week’s The Economist reported this regarding the bad blood between Turkey and Israel over the latter’s recent military incursion into Gaza:

An education ministry circular particularly annoyed Israel by telling Turkish schoolchildren to observe a minute’s silence in solidarity with Palestinian children. In the event, the Israelis persuaded the Turks to cancel a proposed essay and drawing contest for schoolchildren to air their feelings of hatred towards Israel. Israeli officials were apparently poised to respond by proposing a programme in Israeli schools for discussing the genocide of Armenians by Turks in the first world war.

I guess this is one of the many “wonders” of public schooling. You can take diplomatic rows to the classroom and teach your children how to distrust your neighbor.

We’ve Heard This All Before

I’m sure there’ll be much ado about President Obama’s rallying cry for the ever-growing “stimulus” in today’s Washington Post , but to me it reads as just so much lofty but empty rhetoric. And at least in education, we’ve heard it all before.

Here’s what the President wrote about education in today’s op-ed:

Now is the time to give our children every advantage they need to compete by upgrading 10,000 schools with state-of-the-art classrooms, libraries and labs; by training our teachers in math and science; and by bringing the dream of a college education within reach for millions of Americans.

Now, where might I have heard this sort of thing before? Oh, here’s an example! From President Jimmy Carter back in 1979, pushing for creation of the U.S. Department of Education:

The Federal government has a limited, but critical responsibility…to ensure equal educational opportunities; to increase access to postsecondary education by low and middle income students; to generate research and provide information to help our educational systems meet special needs; prepare students for employment; and encourage improvements in the quality of our education. 

President Carter, of course, got his Department of Education, and schools have also gotten a lot more money, as Adam Schaeffer and I pointed out yesterday. Indeed, looking specifically at the period between 1979-80 and 2004-05 (the latest for which data is available), inflation-adjusted, per-pupil expenditures in public elementary and secondary schools rose from $6,549 to $11,470, a 75 percent increase. And total federal education funding? Adjusted for inflation, In 1980 Washington spent or helped to provide $94.5 billion. By 2006, that figure had ballooned 146 percent, hitting $232.0 billion!

So how can we have pretty much all the same needs as we had in 1979? Because education spending is almost always as empty as the rhetoric that drives it, doing little or nothing to actually improve outcomes for students while letting politicians appear to “care” and enriching powerful education interest groups. In other words, it does nothing of what it promises, but keeps the busted status quo going strong!

Cato Unbound: An Appreciation of Partisanship

This month’s Cato Unbound is up, featuring a lead essay by Harvard Professor Nancy Rosenblum. She discusses themes developed more fully in her book On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship. Rosenblum makes the case that political parties have gotten an undeserved bad reputation, and that they do useful, unappreciated coordinating work in democratic politics.

In the first response essay, Brink Lindsey replies in essence that political parties are much better than they used to be, but there’s still plenty to complain about. Response essays by Henry Farrell of George Washington University and James Fishkin of Stanford University will appear on Friday and Monday, respectively, followed by a blog chat among the authors.

My own biggest questions on the topic are as follows.

First, is it even meaningful to say that we are “for” or “against” partisanship? Or, when we say this, are we really just saying that we’re for or against certain aspects of partisanship? Political parties seem to appear wherever we find the concepts of representative democracy and loyal opposition. Complaining about political parties is a bit like being against the weather.

We may hate many of the things that political parties do, but their main alternatives seem to be dictatorships and death squads. Even the most committed anti-partisans wouldn’t go that route. And even those who cheer for partisan politics may seem to be making a virtue of necessity.

Second, what about the legal regime that sustains the two-party system? The rules that support partisan politics were written by partisans, after all. Certainly we can’t just take them as a given. Ballot access regulations, campaign finance rules, and the incumbent advantage help to give us the specific type of partisan politics we have. Who else gets to write their own ticket like that, and should we let them?

Drop the Pipe Dream

The gargantuan “stimulus” coming down the pike has suddenly gotten education a lot of attention, but commentators continue the pipe dream that politicians might finally leverage this infusion of cash into effective reform.

Here’s an idea: Wake up and smell reality instead of hoping upon hope that this time our billions…er…tens of billions will get us something. As Adam Schaeffer and I document today on RealClearPolitics, the U.S. has been stimulating education at all levels for decades, and have gotten essentially nothing for our money. And of course we haven’t: As the “Washington must do something” rhetoric driving the pork-laden stimulus-to-end-all-stimuli well illustrates, the overwhelming goal of most legislation is to make politicians appear to “care,” not to actually accomplish anything. And nothing, unfortunately, says “care” as much as wasting tens of billions in the name of cute, innocent children.

US News and World Report Gets it Wrong

US News and World Report contributing editor Bonnie Erbe writes that “school vouchers… have already drained federal tax coffers of hundreds of millions of dollars.” With all due respect, this is not true.

There is only one federal school voucher program, in Washington, DC. That program is serving fewer than 2,000 children with an average voucher amount below $6,000, for an annual price tag under $12 million. It is in its fifth year of operation. Perhaps Ms. Erbe can explain to her readers how 5 * $12 million can be made to exceed $100 million?

Of course, even if the value of the vouchers to date did exceed $100 million, that wouldn’t mean it had “drained federal coffers” as Erbe claims. That’s because, as I wrote in the Washington Post and on this website, DC’s public schools spent $24,600 per pupil in 2007-08 – more than four times the average voucher cost. Much of the DC school system’s budget comes from the federal government, and the DC voucher program is saving taxpayers a great deal of money for every child it serves in place of the exorbitant district schools.

Ms. Erbe’s misrepresentation of the cost of federal vouchers calls into question the reliability of the US News and World Report. A correction is in order.