Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

New York Can’t Afford NOT to Have School Choice

I wrote recently about the bad economy causing parents to pull their kids from private schools and enroll them in public school; it costs school districts and taxpayers a bundle of money to educate these new kids.

The New York Post reports today that Catholic schools are hemorrhaging students:

In the Archdiocese of New York - which operates schools in Manhattan, Staten Island, The Bronx and northern suburbs - enrollment at elementary and high schools dropped by nearly 6,000 students in one year, to 88,273, officials said.

Those 6,000 students put taxpayers on the hook for another $120 million dollars at New York’s current $20,000 in per-student spending if they go to public school.

Regardless of what you think about educational choice, governments and taxpayers are in no shape to pony up that kind of cash. It’s a lot cheaper to keep those kids in Catholic schools with an education tax credit.

A little more than a quarter of current public per-student spending – $5,500 in tax credit funds – would pay for the entire average Catholic high school tuition. An education tax credit that size would mean a savings of $14,500 for every kid that stays in private school because of the credit. A credit like that might have saved taxpayers more than $80 million if it kept those 6,000 students in the school of their choice.

And that’s just Catholic schools … private schools are losing students across the board because many parents can’t afford to pay both school taxes and private tuition in this economy. Every kid they lose is a huge cost to public schools and taxpayers.

A recent Cato fiscal analysis found that a broad-based tax credit could save New York more than $15 billion in the first ten years … and that doesn’t even count savings from kids who would otherwise have gone to public schools without the credit.

New York and other states in financial trouble need education tax credits – they can’t afford not to have school choice.

For Better, Definitely for Better

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli thinks that “for better or for worse,” when it comes to federal education policy, congressional Republicans will dump their eight-year, NCLB-led foray into big-government education and get back to following the Constitution.

OK, Mike didn’t mention the Constitution — I added that part — but the important point is that the sooner Republicans abandon a rotten law and a failed political strategy, the better.

OK, I added the “failed law and failed political strategy” part, too, but Mike does think congressional Republicans will get back to small government, and no matter what he thinks is the reason for that, it would be great news.

Maybe Gates Is Starting to Get It

Yesterday, I wondered aloud why Bill Gates keeps banging his bucks and head into the public-schooling brick wall rather than backing reforms that go around it. I noted that no matter what he does—as his efforts to date have borne out—he will never be able to turn the immovable teachers unions, administrators, and politicians.

Mr. Gates might be starting to see what I’ve been writing about. As reported in Education Week’s Campaign K-12 blog, at the event in which Gates unveiled his plans to create and promote national standards (obviously, he hasn’t completely learned his lesson), Gates admitted that his reforms haven’t worked because they wouldn’t help influential people, and that his very establishment Strong American Schools effort (which also went by the moniker “ED in 08”) just did what tweak-the-beast reforms always do: cause people to “mouth platitudes,” and little more.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is a better way: Universal school choice—like, say, universal tax credits—will get a lot more people on board than a small school here, or a new test there, because it would offer tangible benefits to everyone. That’s how you get broad-based support. And as far as getting past platitudes, the only way to do that is to get around the system in which nice rhetoric, not education, is what’s most important. Again, I give you school choice.

Bill vs. Reality

Fresh off his failure to defeat political reality with his Strong American Schools—which tried to push education high on the list of presidential election concerns—as well as disappointment with his small-schools efforts, Bill Gates is trying a new fix for American education: national standards.

How much money does this man have to lose before he gives up on the socialist, monopoly system we’ve got now and starts pushing truly game-changing reforms like school choice?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against Gates trying to formulate standards and tests and convince schools to use them. I don’t distrust Gates because he’s too influential, for instance, nor do I have any problem with national standards as long as parents are free to choose schools, and schools are free to adopt, oh, let’s call them Standards Vista. I just think Gates is delusional if he thinks the inevitably politicized, special-interest-dominated public schooling system that he’s never been able to change before is going to suddenly rush to adopt really challenging standards and tests.

As I’ve repeated until I’m blue in the face (or numb in my typing fingers) really high standards and rigorous tests will never be adopted and maintained by most public school systems because they would be hard to reach and, hence, a big pain for the people with all the power: teachers, administrators and politicians. Why challenge yourself when you can get the money for free?

So let’s get first things first, Mr. Gates: Get education money to parents, and autonomy to schools, so we can have real choice and competition. Then I’ll gladly cheer on Microsoft as it battles Apple, the Educational Testing Service, Billy Mays, or anyone else who wants a piece of the suddenly competitive, innovative, and dynamic national-standards action.