Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

When Can You NOT Sue a School?

It seems you can sue a school — and win — if you are a custodian who falls off a stepladder on the job (due, apparently, to having received insufficient training in the use of stepladders).

You can apparently file a suit because your daughter didn’t make the cheerleading squad

But a federal appeals court has just ruled that you CANNOT sue your school district for failing to inform you of the modest school choice rights you are supposedly guaranteed under the No Child Left Behind Act. It isn’t that the suit was filed and lost. The court has ruled that parents do not have standing to sue for their “rights” under NCLB in the first place.

There is another approach to running and funding schools under which everyone would have meaningful choices for their kids, and no one would have to sue anyone to get it.

Let’s Read the Federalist — and Constitution — Right

Over at Jay P. Greene’s blog, Greg Forster takes issue with those who say that the Constitution does not permit federal excursions like No Child Left Behind. I address these concerns over at the New Talk discussion underway since yesterday, and encourage you to check that out. I offer only one, I think fairly conclusive, rebuttal to Forster here.

Greg calls on Federalist Papers nos. 47-51 to argue that federal intervention in state authority over education is presumptively okay because the principle behind checks and balances requires that each federal branch have some power over the others. He admits that these argument are not about federal authority over states, but invokes the Federalist nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Greg misses the clear point of both the Federalist and Constitution concerning federal-state relations. The federal government is given only specific, enumerated powers (see Article 1, Section 8) and all others are reserved to the states or people. It’s put that simply in the Tenth Amendment, and Madison was very clear in Federalist no. 41 that no reading of the Constitution, not even the vaunted “general welfare” clause, gives the federal government authority to be involved in anything outside of the specific, enumerated powers.

“For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power?” Madison asks. “Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars.”

There are arguments for why the federal government should be involved in education — though none that are convincing — but they won’t be found in the Federalist Papers.

There Is NO Conclusive Evidence NCLB Is Working for Anyone

Having just been reading the animated exchange over at New Talk on the merits of preserving or axing the No Child Left Behind act, I notice that the discussants are missing some key evidence on the law’s effectiveness. The conversation has thus far revolved around results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), but there are two other sources of nationally representative score trends: PISA and PIRLS. On both of those international tests, U.S. performance has either stagnated or declined across grades and subjects over the lifespan of NCLB.

Taking these results into account, it is not possible to say with any confidence that NCLB has improved student achievement at any grade or in any subject.

It’s also worth noting that the federal government alone has spent $1.85 trillion on k-12 education since 1965, and yet the achievement gaps between the children of college graduates and those of high-school dropouts remain unchanged in reading and science. In math, the gap has shrunk by barely 1% of the 500 point score scale.

How can one look at these facts and still believe that the federal government has the power to cure our educational ills?

New Talk Better than Old Talk

A few months ago, I was a little miffed at the good folks over at New Talk for hosting a discussion on what to do with the No Child Left Behind Act in which the moderator immediately put scrapping the law off-limits. How things have changed! Today through Thursday New Talk is hosting a discussion specifically asking whether the law should be canned. It’s an especially timely topic given some developing ideological battles, and a topic worth contemplating in its own right. So check out the New Talk. Not the same as the Old Talk!

In Education, the Big-Gov Battle Is On!

Last week, I heartily embraced the possibility, as voiced by the Fordham Foundation’s Mike Petrilli, that congressional Republicans might soon renounce their ill-fated foray into federal education control. The impetus for Petrilli’s conclusion was a Wall Street Journal letter from Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), in which Hoekstra rebuked Republicans for abandoning principle and embracing “compassionate conservatism,” the big-government philosophy that brought us the No Child Left Behind Act.

Fights over federal education policy could very well be the battle for the GOP’s soul in microcosm, and big-government types have quickly pushed back against Hoekstra.

  • On November 15, the WSJ ran a letter by former Vermonters for Better Education Executive Director Libby Sternberg, who blamed Hoekstra and others like him for undermining NCLB and, as a result, “making it very difficult for grassroots education reform and school-choice activists to push forward the principles of choice and accountability embodied in” the law.
  • Today, Petrilli piles on and pitches for — you guessed it — national standards! (National standards that somehow aren’t “federal,” as you’ll see in the Washington Times piece Petrilli links to, but are nonetheless adopted as a result of federal “incentives.” See the illogic with which I have to deal?)
  • Not to be outdone, Petrilli’s boss, Chester E. “Checker” Finn, joins the fray, employing one of the uglier tactics of NCLB apologists: Finn implies that Hoekstra and his ilk don’t care about the poor. “I don’t doubt that his view of education is pleasing to the party’s ‘base,’” Finn writes. “But if it prevails, members of that base may cast the only Republican votes in future elections—and all those poor, minority and inner-city kids who live in districts other than Hoekstra’s will continue to be trapped in the miserable schools that NCLB, however clumsily, sought to transform (or extricate them from).”

Clearly, the big-government types want to tussle. Well let’s get it on!

Let’s start with Finn. For one thing, nothing is more irritating than the argument that if you oppose NCLB you just don’t care about “poor, minority and inner-city” kids. Poor kids might not be your first or even primary concern — you might care about all children, or all taxpayers, or even your own kids first and foremost — but to suggest that you just don’t care about poor children because you oppose NCLB? That’s little more than cheap rhetoric, and Finn gives not an iota of support for it.

Of course, there’s good reason to conclude that NCLB doesn’t help poor and minority kids. It certainly makes a lot of promises to them and spends a lot of money in their names, but there is no even close to conclusive evidence that NCLB is helping them, much less transforming rotten schools or extricating them from educational wastelands. Look at achievement gaps. Yes, the black-white gap has generally been shrinking since 2002, but if you look at either the reading or mathematics National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, you’ll generally see slightly faster gap closure before than after NCLB. Ditto achievement for low-income kids. Of course, the data is a mixed bag, and there are tons of important variables in education in addition to NCLB that render neither gains nor losses conclusively attributable to the law. If anything, though, what evidence we have indicates that what we were doing before NCLB was working a bit better than what we have now.

It’s fairly easy to see why NCLB has caused no great academic upswing: it offers more deception than sunshine. Full proficiency? Maybe, but only if the “proficiency” bar is set really low. “School choice” for extrication from broken schools? Fat chance. Real “accountability” for federal dollars? Well, there have been lots of federal dollars spent, but from what we know about NCLB proficiency and choice, they have delivered little by way of accountability.

How about the permanent political exile Finn hints the GOP will face if it gives up on such stellar performers as NCLB and gets back to liberty-centric, small-government principles? You know, the principles that propelled Ronald Reagan to office in 1980 and congressional Republicans to power in 1994? Surely the electorate loves Washington solving all of its problems, especially with NCLB-esque intrusions?

Again, a little evidence would be nice, but Finn offers diddly. In contrast, Ramesh Ponnuru recently reviewed a host of polling results on whether people prefer more or less government, and less still seems to be winning.

Ah, but don’t people favor big-government education? That depends. Obama was a clear winner over John McCain on education, so at the very least it’s possible that the more education programs you propose, the more you’re thought to be “good” on the subject. It also appears that when you ask people’s opinion of “federal legislation” that “requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not,” a little more than half of the population will like it. Surely these things indicate that the GOP has been on the winning education track the past eight years?

Or maybe not. Call your federal, standards-demanding legislation by its proper name — the No Child Left Behind Act — and you get just 50-percent support for it. Then, remove your leading description and ask about NCLB by its name alone, and suddenly just 41 percent of respondents report liking the law. So measures like NCLB are actually far from proven political winners, while big-government in general is still — subject, of course, to ever-changing world and national events — a likely political loser. 

Sorry again, Mr. Finn.

As for Sternberg’s assertion that opposition to NCLB by people like Hoekstra has somehow hurt “school-choice activists”? I’ve never seen anything showing that conservative and libertarian opposition to NCLB has damaged school-choice efforts. Indeed, much more plausible is that the “standards and accountability” crowd has hurt the school-choice movement, arguing that in the final analysis we need our political betters to tell our kids what to learn, and forcing libertarians and small-government conservatives to expend far too many valuable resources refuting their faulty claims

Ultimately, here is the problem, and big-government conservatives had better snap out of their Bush-era trance and see it: Top-down reforms like NCLB, no matter how well intentioned, will never transform the status quo. The people employed by the system have the greatest incentives and ability to control policy, and what’s in their best interest is to keep standards low and funding high. That’s why “proficiency” means so little. That’s why NCLB “choice” means so little. That’s why Reading First— beloved by the Fordham Foundation—is on its way out. And that’s why it’s time for big-government conservatives to give up their Utopian dreams of bending the system to their will, accept that Washington will only make education worse, and get back to fully supporting the only reform that offers true hope: universal school choice.