Topic: Education and Child Policy


President Obama delivered an interesting inaugural speech yesterday. His theme was responsibility, a theme that provides a useful frame for his administration.

The individual versus the collective: Americans generally affirm individual or personal responsibility for one’s life. To be an adult – to put aside childish things - means taking responsibility for one’s actions and outcomes. Yet language permits another possibility. “We” can take responsibility for this outcome or that injustice. Putting aside childish things means taking collective responsibility through government action. In this view, emphasizing the individual suggests a childish selfishness that should be overcome. Obama seems to be about both kinds of responsibility right now. But extending state control over society vitiates personal responsibility. The new president will have to choose between the two.

The rule of law versus charisma: In a free society, individuals associate together through consent within a set of impersonal rules enforced by an impartial judiciary. Societies may also be ruled by charismatic leaders who are thought to have special powers granted by divine favor or by other means. Charismatic authority undermines both individual and collective responsibility. No one need do anything: the special man will say the magic words and everything will change for the better. Moreover, charismatic men with special powers should not be restrained by mere laws. They are above such restraints and must be so to do their work.

Consequences versus absolute ends: In an ethic of responsibility, leaders and followers look to consequences in acting politically. President Obama alluded to an ethic of responsibility yesterday. We want a government that works; programs that do not work will be ended. The thought is admirable, the reality unpromising. Ronald Reagan eliminated two federal programs, one of which was a training program that worsened the lot of its clients. Reagan was thought to have a mandate to cut back government. Obama was elected for many reasons, none of which were constraining the federal government. More than a few of his followers expect he will, as he put it yesterday, “remake the world.” Those who set out to remake the world rarely notice the immediate consequences of their crusade. After all, the benefits of bringing heaven to earth will more than overcome the costs of the crusade.

Obama’s modest demeanor suggests an understanding of his own limitations.  If that is true, he may turn out to be more a politician and less a priest, a president content to live within the laws and achieve marginal changes in public policy.

But I wonder. Living in Washington, DC, I have recently had reason to recall Samuel Johnson’s remark about Shakespeare: “In his plays, there are no heroes, only men.” Obama seems to be telling a different story, a tale about charismatic heroes and utopian aspirations. When the talking stops and the doing begins, one question will be answered: Do Americans really want to live out a play where there are no men, only heroes?

President Obama and the D.C. Schools

For the third time in 30 years, a president has to decide where to send his school-age children after moving to Washington, D.C. And having school-age children naturally gives any new president a particular interest in the D.C. public schools. A big headline in today’s Washington Post (actual paper copy) proclaims, “Obama Interested in D.C. Schools.” In an interview with the Post, President-elect Obama said he was determined to be part of the local community and that

he and his wife had specifically discussed working with the D.C. public schools, using their own celebrity and success “as leverage to get kids and parents and teachers excited about the possibilities of an education.” He said he was “trying to think about regular visits to local schools to meet with kids and meet with teachers and principals” and reiterated his desire to open up the White House “in ways that haven’t been done before.”

At a policy level, he said that he had met D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee but had not spent much time with her and that he expects his incoming Education Department secretary, Arne Duncan, to be “interested in how the school experiment here goes.”

But the next sentence acknowledges that

Obama’s two daughters are attending the private Sidwell Friends School.

So he’d like to make regular visits to the D.C. public schools, but he ain’t sending his own kids there. Which is perfectly understandable. Neither did Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore. Or Vice President-elect Biden’s son. Indeed all their children attend or did attend Sidwell friends. The Carters sent Amy to D.C. public schools, but that was the last time a president did so. The Obamas don’t seem to have considered public schools. They’re sending Malia and Sasha to Sidwell, a school of choice for the Washington elite.

Of course, the Obamas also sent their daughters to private school in Chicago. What’s most striking to me in all of this is that Obama has named Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan to oversee the nation’s schools, even though in seven years he wasn’t able to produce a school in Chicago that Barack and Michelle Obama would send their own children to. “What he did for Chicago, he can do for America”?

Perhaps Obama and Tim Geithner believe that taxes and public schools are for the little people. And it would be nice if they’d give the little people a break on their taxes and a choice of schools.

Higher Ed Spendapalooza

When word first started leaking out about the upcoming “stimulus package” — not Bush’s little TARP, mind you, but the $825 billion doozy unveiled by congressional Democrats yesterday — it was clear that k-12 education would be in store for some serious cash. Well, that didn’t sit well with the higher education community, which complained — I mean, suggested in the interest of the common good — that giving it billions and billions of federal dollars is also crucial for stimulating the economy. It appears they’ve been heard: the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009 would furnish a windfall for all of education, blowing more than $100 billion on everything from university-based research to “teacher technology training.”

Now, don’t worry — I’ll be focusing a lot more on k-12 in the coming weeks. I wanted to attack one notion, however, right off the bat, especially since we held a forum that addressed it just two days ago: that higher education somehow needs increased government support.

Let’s start by confronting the constant and, one can’t help but conclude, deliberately misleading assertion that higher education has been the victim of ruthless public funding cuts that have forced costs onto “the backs of students.” As I made clear on Wednesday (watch the streaming video of the forum and/or download my slide show for details) the inflation-adjusted trend for total state and local higher education spending has been hugely upward over the last 25 years, and on a per-pupil basis has remained essentially constant. At the same time, net per-pupil public college revenue coming through tuition has gone consistently up, rising much faster than would have been needed to make up for any “lost” state and local funding. If you isolate four or five-year stretches — as the Delta Cost Project, for instance, has just done — you could say that tuition has increased just to keep revenue stable. If you check out the long-term trend, however, you absolutely cannot conclude that.

Which brings us to the second big public expenditure for the ivory tower: student aid. When college prices go up, the taxpaying public largely absorbs the blow. Between 1982 and 2007, total inflation-adjusted federal and state aid, including grants, loans, work-study expenditures, and education tax benefits, rose from $30.8 billion to $103.9 billion (Table 1). On a per-pupil basis, real grant aid (including, importantly, both institutional and federal and state aid) grew from $1,939 to $4,965, and federal loan aid rose from $1,562 to $4,841 (Table 3). Both amounts grew faster than the price of tuition, fees, room and board at public and private four-year colleges (Table 5).

So let’s be clear: The public has been paying out the nose for higher education. Indeed, all of this public largesse is a major reason — though not the only one — that the United States leads the rest of the industrialized world hands-down on tertiary education spending (Table B1.1a). And, as you’ll see on my slide show from Wednesday’s forum, it’s not like the money has translated into smarter grads. Quite the opposite: It seems largely to have enabled our college students to live higher on the hog while greatly depreciating the meaning of “a college degree.”  

Oh, and there’s one more thing: A common complaint about higher education is that professors care more about research than students. Well, don’t tell that to the stimulators, who want to “put scientists to work” by spending billions more on university-based research. Sure, inflation-adjusted federal expenditures on research at academic institutions rose from $13.9 billion in 1980 to $31.4 billion in 2006, and the unemployment rate for scientists and engineers hit an all-time low of 2.5 percent in 2006 (the latest year with available numbers), but we obviously need a lot more government–funded science projects.

Now, maybe blanketing college campuses with another several feet of taxpayer cash would be worthwhile if doing so really would produce economic growth, but here’s the thing: there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that it would. Indeed, as I noted during Wednesday’s forum, when Prof. Richard Vedder attempted to determine the effect of higher education spending on state economic growth, he found a negative impact. Why? Because if they could keep their hard-earned money, taxpayers would spend it more wisely and efficiently than will politicians, students, and academics who get it, essentially, for free.

Maybe think of it this way: Would you trust a wealthy man who keeps crying poverty so that you’ll give him more money and he can get richer? Of course not: He’s a swindler, for crying out loud!  Well guess what? That rich man really exists: He lives in a great big ivory tower, and he’s about to come into a whole lot more of your hard-earned dough.

Now’s the Time To Pass School Choice

Gov. Mark Sanford is really on a roll lately, decrying and rejecting bailouts and now recommitting to real education reform. From the Beaufort Gazette:

The Republican governor highlighted four priorities in education reform: enacting funding that “follows the child,” charter school funding, school choice, and access to higher education.

Of course, the government school fanatics are trying to head him off again. Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, for instance, thinks “now is not the time to toy around with school choice again… not in the environment that we are in now.”

Hmm. Fiscal problems, slow economy, and school choice has been shown over and over to save money. In fact, a large-scale program could save South Carolina taxpayers over $1 billion.

It’s the perfect time to pass a robust education tax credit system in South Carolina, or anywhere else for that matter.

How to Cut Taxes, Balance Budgets, and Help Kids

Thanks to the economic crisis and its impact on state revenues, most states are faced with a tough and unpopular set of choices: which and how many services to cut; how much to raise taxes? Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to cut taxes while expanding the services available to citizens? As it happens, there is.

I’m in Las Vegas this morning to present a new study showing how broad-based education tax credits would impact Nevada’s finances. Over the first 10 years, I estimate the program would save nearly a billion dollars, and that by its fifteenth year in operation it would be saving $426 million annually. Not only that, per pupil spending in the state’s public schools would actually rise over time under this program.

One of the most interesting things about this study was how easy it was to complete, and how easily it could be reproduced in other states. Last year, economist Anca Cotet and I published a Cato Institute paper presenting a generalized Excel spreadsheet tool for calculating the fiscal impact of education tax credits on any state’s finances, based on some state-specific data input by the user. Using that tool (and in fact refining its model a little) I was able to run the numbers for Nevada quite easily. The only new math in this paper is the calculation of the marginal cost of public schooling in Nevada (the amount district spending rises in response to the enrollment of one additional student, and the amount it falls when enrollment declines by one student).

So if there are any legislators out there fretting over how to balance their state budgets in these difficult economic times, consider education tax credits: they cut taxes while dramatically expanding the range of educational options available to families. And they’re an increasingly bipartisan idea.

Educator Droning

As I’ve noted before, an incessant, plaintive drone comes from educators at both the k-12 and college levels about chronic underfunding of education and ever-falling financial skies. It’s a drone the media, all too often, is happy to amplify, repeating it constantly and almost never muting it with contradictory evidence.

In k-12 education, the most discomfiting part of this din is the mantra that public school teachers are woefully compensated. In a report released last month I present considerable evidence that this just isn’t true. On their teaching salaries alone – in other words, not including extra money they can and often do earn with their significant time off – first-year teachers in sixteen diverse districts could afford everything they need to lead comfortable lives…and then some. And salary is just a part of teacher compensation. As RiShawn Biddle lays out in a new American Spectator piece, the non-salary compensation that public school teachers get might be the real prize, including generous – and massively taxpayer-subsidized – health and retirement benefits. Check out Biddle’s story and my analysis, and you’ll get a good sense for the reality of k-12 educators’ compensation.

In higher education, there is no bigger myth than that government support for the ivory tower has been gutted, especially when in comes to public colleges and universities. (Just yesterday, a San Antonio Express-Times article stated that public colleges and universities have had to get “used to starvation.”) If you look at inflation-adjusted state and local funding per-pupil – as I have highlighted before – the trend is essentially flat; there has been no “starvation.” Indeed, digging deeper reveals significant evidence that far from starving, higher education is actually suffering from obesity.

So what is the obesity evidence? Unfortunately, as with the mention of my teacher salary report, I am writing this post as much to plug as to inform, so I’m not going to lay out all of the evidence right now. (Though, honestly, it’s not that hard to find.) To get all the fatty details, you’ll either have to come to Cato this Wednesday for our forum “Does Public Higher Ed Funding Drive Economic Growth?” or watch the proceedings via streaming video. In other words, if you want to cut through the tedious droning of public higher educators, you’ll have to put up with some quick and insightful presentations by forum panelists. It should be worth the effort.

Supreme Court Makes It a Little Interesting

The common refrain this Supreme Court term is that, after several years of blockbuster cases—race-based school assignment, partial-birth abortion, the rights of Guantánamo detainees, the D.C. gun ban, etc., etc.—this year the Court is giving the front pages a break. Indeed, as we celebrated the advent of 2009, the only cases guaranteed to make it into the Cato Supreme Court Review were a drug regulation case (Wyeth v. Levine) and one involving the detention of a civilian in the United States as an enemy combatant (Al-Marri v. Pucciarelli). Almost all the cases garnering media and scholarly attention would have been after-thoughts in previous years.

On Friday, however, as it rounded out its docket for the term (no more than a handful more will be added to the list of cases to be argued and decided before the Court recesses in June), the Court gave us four fascinating cases to chew on:

Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Mukasey

This is a challenge to the requirement of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that certain state and local governments, mostly but not entirely in the South, obtain “preclearance” before making any changes affecting voting. A small (3,500 residents) utility district in Austin, Texas, argues that it has never been accused of voting discrimination or other irregularities and should not have to seek federal permission to, for example, move the location of a polling place or coordinate voting for its board with other county or state elections. You may recall that the latest extension of the VRA, in 2006, did not pass without some controversy. Indeed, in our federal system, should certain jurisdictions still be under the Justice Department’s thumb over 40 years after the demise of Jim Crow (and to this extent of micromanagement)?

Ricci v. DeStefano

A group of firefighters (19 white, 1 Hispanic) allege that New Haven city officials racially discriminated against them when they refused to certify the results of two race-neutral promotional exams that yielded racially disproportionate results (i.e., a much higher percentage of whites and Hispanics qualified for promotion than did blacks). As offensive as the facts of the case are, the way that the Second Circuit—a panel including oft-mentioned Supreme Court contender Sonia Sotomayor—summarily dismissed the petitioners’ appeal is even more disconcerting. When the full court voted 7-6 not to rehear the case en banc, Judge José Cabranes (a Clinton appointee) excoriated his colleagues, concluding that “[t]his perfunctory disposition rests uneasily with the weighty issues presented by this appeal.” I won’t get into the weeds of legal analysis here, but Ed Whelan has two excellent posts discussing the Second Circuit shenanigans over at NRO and Stuart Taylor last month wrote a typically hard-hitting piece on it for the National Journal. But again, however the Supreme Court decides this one, it has already provided a potent line of attack on Judge Sotomayor when the next vacancy arises on the high court.

Republic of Iraq v. Beaty

This case asks the simple question of whether U.S courts have jurisdiction over claims regarding misdeeds committed by the Saddam Hussein regime—or whether today’s Iraqi government can assert sovereign immunity. This simple question actually involves the interplay of a host of legislative and executive action that the Court will have to wade through. Beaty joins the Eurodif (international trade, about which I wrote here) and Elahi (treaty enforcement) cases as this year’s leading contributions to the Court’s international law jurisprudence.

Horne v. Flores

Taking up a complicated conflict between the No Child Left Behind Act and earlier legislation, this is the term’s leading education case. The main issue is whether a state, in this case Arizona, which complies with NCLB on English language instruction can still be violating the funding requirements for such instruction imposed by the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974. The Ninth Circuit declined to modify an eight-year-old injunction requiring Arizona to spend millions on this instruction and imposing millions in fines. It’s a highly technical case but one with significant ramifications for a key part of President Bush’s domestic policy legacy.

Despite these four grants, however, it is still safe to say that Court shied away from many, many cases that should interest readers of this blog—not least the patent/abuse of state sovereign immunity case called BPMC v. California, which I had earlier urged the Court to accept for review.  I will be commenting further at least on NAMUDNO and Ricci when the Court hears argument and decides them.