Topic: Education and Child Policy

Show Me the Public Good!

My guest commentary for the Economist’s online higher-education funding debate went up today. Give it a read, but before you do that be sure to take in the October 31 commentary by David W. Breneman, longtime Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He offers just the kind of dismissive argument that makes even discussing something as reasonable as the resolution in question— “that  individuals, not the state, should pay for higher education”—next to impossible. Just like environmentalists who strangle global warming debates in the crib by invoking an overwhelming “consensus” about the deadly threat of man-made greenhouse gasses, Breneman essentially declares anyone who would even consider eliminating government subsidies for higher education either dense or bananas.

“The proposition as stated is so extreme as to be absurd, whether considered abstractly as a philosophical principle, or concretely as a policy proposal,” Breneman declares. Apparently, everyone knows that higher education is not just a private but also a public good, and state support is necessary to produce enough of higher ed’s public benefits. And how do we know this? Well, we just do:

The fact that educated people earn more income is reason for them to bear much of the cost, but if any state left the total of such investment to the pure, unsubsidised market, the amount of education purchased would fall short of the socially optimal level. This is an efficiency argument, and although calculating the precise shares of public and private benefits eludes us [italics added], societies everywhere have found it in their interest to encourage more education than the market alone would produce.

So, if I understand correctly, even though no one has actually calculated the public benefits of higher education, we know that these benefits exist, and we know that we must have government subsidies to get these benefits because, darn it, lots of governments have always subsidized higher education to get these benefits. You know, the benefits that we can’t measure in any meaningful way. 

Given the flimsy foundation of Breneman’s argument, it seems a bit excessive to declare “absurd” the mere notion of fully private funding for higher education. This is even more the case when you contrast Breneman’s argument with the very hard evidence we have that government subsidization of students and schools is wasteful, corrupted by politics, and, most tellingly, inversely correlated with economic growth, all which are realities I touch on in my statement. Together, these things clearly put the logical—if not political—burden on the champions of subsidies to prove their case, but unfortunately they find it easier just to dismiss the question entirely.

Who Should Pay for Your Sheepskin?

Over at, 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