Topic: Education and Child Policy

… or Maybe it Was THE ICEBERG!

Former IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner has a piece in the WSJ today in which he laments the stagnation in educational outcomes of the past several decades. His solution? Reduce the number of districts nationwide to 70; adopt a single, homegenous set of nationwide standards and tests; and lengthen the school year.

This is not merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It is rearranging, repainting, and reupholstering those deck chairs….

Back in the late 1920s, there were roughly 130,000 school districts. The reduction to the 15,000 we have today has not been associated with a surge in productivity. On the contrary, scores have stagnated while inflation-adjusted per-pupil costs have skyrocketed. Similarly, moving authority over testing from individual schools, to districts, to states did not solve our educational problems, so it’s unrealistic to believe that that moving that authority one rung higher, to the federal level, will offer a substantial improvement in achievement.

If the nation’s business leaders – current and former – want to know why there has been a staggering productivity collapse in public schooling at odds with the radical progress in other fields, they need look no further than the fact that public schools have a government-protected monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in taxpayer funding.

What would the computer industry look like today if, back in 1960, the government had given IBM a massive government funding monopoly? Would anyone have bought other manufacturers’ computers if they could get IBM’s for free? Could many other manufacturers even survive? Would IBM have bothered diversifying into laptops and services?

The reason public schooling is sinking is because a yawning gash exists below its waterline, cut by an iceberg named “monopoly.”

What Exactly Does “Cost Neutral” Mean?

I won’t pretend to be the least bit able to keep track of who is getting bailed out how and at what price anymore. When we were talking about a nice, simple, $700-billion bailout of some type to someone, sure, that was easy to follow. But there’s practically a new proposal involving hundreds-of-billions of dollars every day now, and at this point it just seems that Hank Paulson is throwing out dollar signs like a random number generator set between $100 billion and $800 billion. Forget about any average taxpayer being able to figure it all out, especially how much he is ultimately going to be on the hook for.

One would hope that just a small piece of the action — in my area, student loans — would be easier to follow. It isn’t. Since May the U.S. Department of Education has been erecting financial Rube Goldberg devices of all sorts to ensure that no potential student goes without money for college. You can catch up on all the goings-on here, but one thing in particular concerns me: Who, ultimately, is going to pay for all this? Unfortunately, like the overall bailout (or bailouts? or rescues? or giveaways? whatever…) federal officials give vague promises not to hurt taxpayers, but how that miracle will be accomplished basically comes down to “trust us.” Witness the Education Department’s description of all that the feds will do to keep loan dough flowing. It promises that “these programs will be cost neutral and in the best interest of the taxpayer,” but how, exactly, will that cost neutrality be achieved? For those minor details, we’ll all just have to stay tuned:

To assure cost neutrality, different parameters may be placed on the terms for these programs. The Federal Register notice will include the final prices, terms, and conditions, as well as the Department’s methodology for determining cost neutrality.

Pardon me and my aching head if I don’t find this either helpful or reassuring. For some reason I just don’t trust these people.

The Constant Bailer II

The superintendent of the financially inept Miami-Dade Schools wants a federal bailout, and it’s hard to blame him for desiring a piece of Washington’s ever-bigger Ineptitude Rewards Programs. But, as I wrote a couple of months ago – and a professor echoes in the article about the Supt’s request – public schools are, essentially, constantly being bailed out. They live off of government money, which come to think of it, might be why they seem constantly to be in trouble. Something about government control just always seems to end badly.

I’ll Tell You What’s Tedious

Jonah Goldberg finds “conservative complaints about Barack Obama’s public-schools hypocrisy…all a bit tedious.” Well, aside from my not having actually seen many conservatives complaining about Obama choosing a private school for his kids while telling the rest of us to support public schools, I find arguments like Goldberg’s main one tedious. Very tedious. Like, we-should-just-keep-trying-to-force-excellence-out-of-socialism tedious.

Here’s the meat of Goldberg’s contribution to education reform:

The real issue is why the public schools are unacceptable to pretty much anyone, liberal or conservative, who has other options.

His culprit, talk about tedious:

Teachers unions, arguably the single worst mainstream institution in our country today.

Now, I’m sure not going to tell you the teachers unions aren’t a pain. They are. But they are not our root education problem in any way, shape or form. The root problem is that we have a system in which no one has a choice – that’s right, boring ol’ “choice” – about financing a government education monopoly, and there is little competition, innovation, or anything else decent as a result.

Oh, and why does Goldberg think the unions have so much power, anyway? Surely he knows that private-sector unions have been disintegrating for decades while their public-sector cousins keep going strong. That’s because no one can choose not to fund the public sector – unless, that is, they enjoy time behind bars – while industries that are disciplined by consumer choice simply can’t afford efficiency-crushing unions.

So let’s get one thing straight. School choice – especially universal school choice – is not some boring cop-out that dull folks reflexively whimper about because they’ve got nothing better to say. No, it is the essential ingredient to getting an education system that actually works, and no amount of pooh-poohing it for the sake of excitement, giggles, seeming cool, or whatever, can change that.

There’s No Change Here

He’s still months away from officially becoming president, but on education Barack Obama is already indicating that his brand of change is much more about high-flying rhetoric than sober reality. Whether it’s choosing a private school for his kids, or promising to expend billions to “modernize” public schools, so far Mr. Obama is turning out to be just as politicized as everyone else in Washington.

Start with Obama’s choice of the Sidwell Friends School for his kids, which was sneakily announced around 5:00 pm on Friday — perfect timing to ensure the decision got as little press as possible (not that the press was going to be tough, anyway). There is nothing wrong with the president-elect selecting the best possible school for his kids — indeed, doing so is his obligation as a parent — but as documented by Andrew Coulson, the hypocrisy is glaring for those who choose to see it.

“We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them,” Mr. Obama declared to the American Federation of Teachers this summer. But, of course, by “we” he meant “you,” just like all those folks in Congress mean when they send their kids to private institutions while opposing school choice and singing the praises of saintly public schools.

But perhaps even more aggravating than President-elect Obama’s eschewing public schools for his daughters — again, it is his responsibility to get them the best education he can — is his proposal to include presumptive billions (I’ve not yet seen an itemized breakdown of proposed spending) on public-school construction as part of his ever-growing economic stimulus plan.

As I testified to Congress earlier this year, heap all the federal cash you want on school construction, you’re neither going to fix most of the true problems nor get any kind of value for taxpayers. Indeed, in 1999 the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that it would take about $127 billion to get all U.S. public school facilities into good shape. According to School Planning and Management magazine, however, since 2000 school districts have completed projects totaling more than $166 billion. So why is our schooling infrastructure still crumbling? Because many districts build absurd School-Mahals featuring extravagances ranging from television studios to planetariums, while others are so bogged down in red tape they can’t get anything done.

Of course, as is far too often the case, it probably doesn’t really matter to Obama or others in Washington that money on school construction is almost sure to be wasted. The primary motivation behind Obama’s proposal isn’t educational, but political, with any project backed with federal money almost certain to carry union prevailing-wage requirements — a nice little hors d’oeuvres before the card check main course — and the appearance of caring and “doing something” is most important, anyway.

For a “change” administration still months away from official existence, this does not bode well at all.

The Obamas Walk Away from Public Schools

A few months ago, Barack Obama told a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes private school choice programs, adding: “We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them.”

It’s not clear whether or not the president-elect will be able to fix our public schools, and I don’t know if he’s thrown up his hands, but he and his two daughters have just walked away from the public schools. Again. When they move from Chicago to D.C., Malia and Sasha Obama will be moving from the prestigious private Lab School to the prestigious private Sidwell Friends school — Chelsea Clinton’s old stomping ground.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s wonderful that the Obamas had such a broad range of public and private school choices available to them. What’s puzzling is that the president-elect opposes programs that would bring that same easy choice of schools within reach of families who lack his personal wealth. By his actions, Senator Obama is demonstrating that he is not willing to wait for his own policy prescriptions to “fix and improve” public schools, but he expects folks with less ample bank accounts to patiently await his hoped-for change.

And while many reports will no doubt trumpet the $25,000+ tuition at Sidwell Friends, implying that this is extravagantly beyond what is spent in D.C. public schools, they will be mistaken. As I wrote in the Washington Post and on this blog, D.C. public schools also spent about $25,000 per child in the 2007-08 school year.

It’s not that president-elect Obama is against spending a lot of money on other people’s kids — he’s just against letting their parents choose where that money is spent.

College Rent-Seeking and the Meteor

I am a frequent lurker and occasional poster on a chat board for my favorite college hoops team. On that board, some of the chatters refer to games between two of our rivals, or teams we just don’t like, as “meteor games” — contests where instead of having to choose between two evils, we root for a meteor to come crashing down and obliterate the whole arena.

Well right now, on a slightly different college court, there’s just such a game shaping up.

According to an article in today’s Inside Higher Ed, there’s a battle brewing between, on one side, financial aid officers and lenders who want the federal government to bail out banks that make truly private — as opposed to federally backed — student loans, and, on the other side, student and other higher education advocacy groups who hate private lenders because they try to make evil profits. Activist students especially think that making money off of them is unconscionable, and whatever loans they get should have to have very generous terms backed directly — as opposed to indirectly through a bailout — by you, the taxpayer.

A pox — or meteor — on all their houses! In this battle of the utterly shameless rent-seekers, the only good outcome would be for both sides to lose.