Topic: Education and Child Policy

Who Should Pay for Your Sheepskin?

Over at Economist.com, they’ve just kicked off a debate on the resolution  “that individuals, not the state, should pay for higher education.”

On Monday, they will post my “featured guest” statement on the resolution in question, so I can’t give away my exciting conclusions right now. I can, though, give you a hint about one thing I might discuss. Think “third-party payer problem”—and I heartily encourage you to follow the whole debate and participate if you’d like.

Professor Alison Wolf of King’s College, London, provides an excellent opening defense of the resolution, and I suspect that she and all the participants will offer lots of insightful arguments while this Oxford-style throw-down goes on.

School Choice Can Fix Fairfax County School District Budget

The Washington Post reports today that the bad economy is forcing budget cuts for the Fairfax County school district. The cuts could include “no cost-of-living raise for teachers, an increase in class size and elimination of such services as busing to centers for gifted and talented students.”

Consider the fact that Fairfax spends around $16,000 on every student (when you add the goodies they leave out), I’d say it’s about time for a more efficient use of funds.

But if the school district really wants to save big bucks for taxpayers and not even have to increase class size or freeze teacher pay, there’s a sure-fire way: education tax credits.

The median tuition at a private school only runs around $4,500. If Virginia allowed tax credits for education, they could save more than $10,000 or every student who switched from public to private school.

A recent Cato fiscal analysis showed that 5 different states could each save billions with a robust education tax credit program.

Maybe Virginia policymakers should turn their attention from haphazard emergency budget cuts to a system of school choice that brings a massive and systemic increase in efficiency and improves education at the same time.

Palin, Disabled Kids, and Federal Policy

Last Friday, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin offered a federal policy prescription for disabled students: more choice for parents, tens of billions of new spending on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and some unspecified “reforming and refocusing.”

The Constitution affords the federal government no authority to determine how children are educated, apart from ensuring equal protection of the laws.  A political party that accepted the limited, enumerated powers accorded to the federal government by the Constitution would not have a legislative agenda on this subject, other than rolling back unconstitutional laws already on the books. But, given that no such party exists at present, let’s consider this proposal.

McCain/Palin want to tie existing federal IDEA funding to individual students rather than to the districts that currently serve them, so that parents could take the money to a private school of their choice. Ideally, according to Palin, they’d want the state funding to follow the children, too (as in Florida’s McKay voucher program for disabled students), but it seems they would leave that decision up to the states. This is a better idea than any alternative IDEA reform offered in the past few decades.

The idea of “fully funding” IDEA is, however, one of the worst ideas of the past few decades. There are two problems with IDEA. First, it is not clear how much it helps disabled children. Studies of student performance before and after they enter IDEA programs show little if any benefit. Second, the law has led to a wholesale labeling of perfectly healthy children as “disabled” simply because the public school system has failed to teach them how to read.

Today, just under 3 million American kids are classified as suffering from “Specific Learning Disabilities,” a condition defined in law as reading performance below the level expected for a child of the given age and intelligence.  An obvious deficiency in this definition is that it encompasses children who have not been properly taught to read, and have not managed to pick up the skill on their own. Many public school systems, thanks to their infatuation with ”whole language” instruction and their resistance to structured synthetic phonics, have difficulty teaching many non-disabled children to read. These 3 million “SLD” children represent more than 40 percent of the entire population of students classified as disabled under the IDEA.

Fully funding IDEA without first addressing its recipe for rampant overdiagnosis will likely make this problem much, much worse.

A real solution would be the spread of large-scale school choice programs at the state level, which would allow all families to easily choose a public or private school for their children. As more families migrated to the private sector, and all schools were forced to compete, ineffective reading instruction methods would be discarded as competitive liabilities, saving millions of children from being exposed to them.

Quick Overview of McCain and Obama on Education

With the economy and financial system in turmoil, education has been a bit player in the election. Andrew Coulson has a new must-read overview of Obama and education at NRO (with a sequel to come).

But I thought I’d throw up my very short and simplified version of where I see both of the candidates on education…

The differences between Barrack Obama and John McCain on k-12 education policy center on school choice and funding. McCain is more supportive of school choice and local control than Obama, and Obama supports a much larger increase in federal education spending.

While both candidates speak favorably about school choice, only John McCain supports policies like vouchers and education tax credits that would allow parents to choose any school that works for their child, public or private. Barrack Obama wants to increase funding for charter schools, but speaks often of “accountability” for them. “Accountability” is often a code word used by political actors who wish to restrict the relative freedom of action and independence that make charter schools attractive to many parents.

Obama supports a large, $18 billion increase in federal education spending, with $10 billion of that increase devoted to an expanded federal effort in early education and preschool. Preschool, however, has been shown to be expensive and ineffective at increasing long-term achievement. And the federal government’s effort at other levels hasn’t worked either.

McCain proposes to hold spending at the same levels and focus on expanding virtual education, tutoring and school choice, and encouraging local reforms.

Today at Cato

Article: “Don’t Expand NATO,” by Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan in World Politics Review

Article: “Nuclear Energy: Risky Business,” by Jerry Taylor in Reason Magazine

Podcast: “Jacob Zuma and the Future of South Africa,” featuring Tony Leon

Op-Ed: “Questions and Answers About Obama’s Health Plan,” by Michael D. Tanner in the McClatchy News Service

Radio Highlight: Adam B. Schaeffer On Education

On Dropouts, Listen to Obama’s Favorite Economist

Libby Quaid of the AP reports today on a new Education Trust study of American high school dropout rates. According to that report, today’s kids complete high school at a lower rate than did their parents, NCLB hasn’t helped, and the solution is more federal money and sage oversight. Both the study and the AP story would have benefitted from a look at the work of two University of Chicago economists: James Heckman and Derek Neal.

Heckman, often cited as one of the biggest influences on Barack Obama’s education policy platform, co-authored in 2007 what is still the definitive study of U.S. graduation rates. He found that the graduation rate peaked around 80 percent in the late 1960s and has drifted down by four or five points since then. He also found a sudden up-tick immediately after the passage of NCLB. So did NCLB really help American kids? Not so fast. Heckman writes:

NCLB gives schools strong incentives to raise graduation rates by any means possible. When monitoring was implemented in 2002, minority [student] retention [i.e., flunking] dropped sharply and graduation rates turned upward, especially for minority groups (Figure VI and VII)…. Whether these represent real gains or are an indication of schools cheating the system in the face of political pressure remains an open question for future research, although the timing suggests strategic behavior [i.e., cheating].

The tons of money and federal oversight added by NCLB appear to be sweeping public schooling’s failures under the rug, not fixing them. The recommendation of the new Education Trust study, that even more money and better federal intervention will do the trick, does not inspire confidence. Unless one believes that a prospective Obama presidency will usher in a gilded age of wise bureaucrats and politicians immune to self-interest, there is no reason to expect that more of the same “solutions” will produce anything other than more of the same results.

If any politicians and voters in this country actually care about raising the graduation rate in a meaningful way, they might want to have a look at the work of Heckman’s colleague Derek Neal, and the subsequent work of Greene (2004) and Warren (2008) — all of whom find that private schools significantly increase the graduation rates of urban (especially minority) children over the rates of similar students attending public schools. And they do this, of course, for about two-thirds of the cost.

Alas, don’t expect Obama to listen to Neal, Greene, or Warren on this evidence any time soon, as Obama has publicly expressed his opposition to parental choice programs that include private schools.