Topic: Education and Child Policy

Bow Down Before the One You Serve

Last week, I wrote about the presidential candidates’ September 11 confab on state-subsidized “service.” Today, in the Wall Street Journal, Shika Dahlmia makes the case that even though both candidates hector us ceaselessly about national service, Obama has more detailed, and more troubling, plans:

Mr. Obama would create several new corps of his own: a Classroom Corps to help teachers and students in underperforming schools; a Health Corps for underserved areas; a Clean Energy Corps to weatherize homes and promote energy independence. The last is separate from his Global Energy Corps, to promote low-carbon energy solutions in developing countries.

Mr. Obama calls all this his “Plan for Universal and Voluntary Citizen Service.” It might live up to its “universal” billing, given that it would prod Americans of all age groups – from preteens to retirees – to sign up. But as to its voluntariness, the plan will make generous use of Uncle Sam’s money – and muscle.

By Mr. Obama’s account, he will make federal education aid conditional on schools requiring that high-school and even middle-school students perform 50 hours of service each year. He will also offer college students $4,000 every year for doing 100 hours of public service. That works out to $40 an hour – a deal that only the very wealthy could refuse. (The Obama campaign puts the price tag for this alone at $10 billion.) He promises to provide older Americans who perform civic service with “additional income security, including assistance with retirement and family-related costs, and continuation of health-care coverage.” But a government that links benefits to service can take away benefits for nonservice.

Neither candidate explicitly endorses mandatory national service. But of course, if you can’t graduate high school without a stint in Obama’s Power Rangers, that’s hardly voluntary.

School Choice Pioneer Rooney Dies

J. Patrick Rooney, a pioneer of the modern school choice movement, has died. Rooney, who was 80, founded a trend-setting private scholarship fund in 1991. The Educational CHOICE Charitable Trust provides financial assistance to low income families in Indianapolis who want to send their children to private schools. The year after it was created, similar programs began to crop up all over the country, from San Antonio to Milwaukee.

This model, in which donors give money to a k-12 scholarship organization, which then distributes it to the families who need it, became the framework for some of the school choice movement’s greatest successes. Today, school choice programs in six states offer tax credits to businesses or individuals who donate to such scholarship organizations (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island).

For every dollar donated, the donor’s tax bill is reduced by anywhere from 80 cents to a full dollar. Scholarship donation tax credit programs have grown faster than other kinds of private school choice programs, and have garnered more bi-partisan support. In Florida, the newly appointed director of the state’s largest scholarship program is a former public school teacher and union leader. A recent expansion of that state’s education tax credit program garnered the support of half of the black Democratic caucus. Two leading advocates of creating such a program in New Jersey are Newark Mayor Corey Booker and state senator Ray Lesniak, both Democrats.

Milton Friedman laid the theoretical groundwork for the modern school choice movement, and J. Patrick Rooney was one of the leading social entrepreneurs who helped bring that theory to life. His contribution will continue to be felt by many future generations of children.

More Education Hypocrisy from Liberal Democrats

This is not a blog post about Senator Obama sending his kids to an expensive high-quality private school while opposing school choice proposals that would offer that opportunity to poor parents, even though that would be an understandable assumption given the “education-hypocrisy” title. Instead, we’re talking about the head of the Liberal Democrat Party in the United Kingdom, who just warned his members that he is probably going to send his kids to non-state schools even though the party is wedded to a throw-more-tax-money-down-a-rat-hole approach of propping up government schools. The Daily Mail reports:

Nick Clegg yesterday admitted he might send his children to a private school - as his party vowed to end ‘educational apartheid’. He said he would not rule out ‘ dipping into his pocket’ for Antonio, six, and Alberto, four, because of the poor quality of state schools. ‘I am not holding my children’s future and education hostage to a game of political football. I am a father before a politician,’ said Mr Clegg, who attended the independent Westminster School. He said he was concerned about the state secondaries close to his home in Putney, South-West London, claiming they were ‘too big and alienating’.

The Fraudulence of Bureaucratic ‘Accountability’

Most education policy analysts, most politicians in both parties, and both presidential candidates have expressed their support for bureaucratic “accountability” in education — the belief that government-imposed testing regimes can signficantly improve the quality of American education. They persist in this belief despite the fact that U.S. academic achievement has stagnated or declined both before and after the passage of No Child Left Behind, the signature legislation of accountability gurus.

Perhaps what is needed is a visceral example of WHY government-mandated testing has proven to be of such dubious worth. For example, this Charleston, SC school’s meteoric test score gains over the past five years have all but vanished in a single year after the administration and grading of students’ tests were taken out of the hands of school officials.

True accountability is not achieved when the quality of a child’s education is measured by a single set of government tests. It is achieved when parents are free to choose from among a variety of competing, mininally regulated schools.

Teachers Union Leader Joins School Choice Group

Ron Matus of the St. Petersburg Times writes that Florida’s school choice movement has a couple of new recruits: former teachers union leader Doug Tuthill and former St. Petersburg Times editorial writer Jon East — both erstwhile critics of the state’s education tax credit program. The two have just signed on as the new president and new communications director, respectively, of the Florida School Choice Fund. The Fund accepts taxpayers’ donations and then offers tuition assistance to low income families who want to send their children to private schools. The taxpayers making the donations can then claim dollar-for-dollar credits against state taxes.

As noted twice before on this blog in just the past several months, the times they are a changin’. Support for private school choice was once a thoroughly partisan affair, and seen in some quarters as a threat to the ideals of public education. That is becoming less and less the case. Sooner or later, educational freedom will reign in this country.

For now, there are still politicians who send their own children to private schools while opposing programs that would bring that same choice within reach of lower-income families. Perhaps, in the long run, they may be forgiven by posterity. In the medium term, though, they are likely to pay a price at the ballot box.

Obama Touts Failed Federal Program

Senator Obama launched a major education counter-offensive today, in a speech laying out his vision for the future of American schooling. Calling for a renewal of the public school system to “meet the challenges of a new time,” Obama held up the National Defense Education Act of 1958 as a model for what he has in mind. He told the Dayton, Ohio crowd that “Eisenhower doubled federal investment in education after the Soviets beat us to space. That’s the kind of leadership we must show today.”

The trouble is, the NDEA was an expensive failure. Congress’ goal was to improve achievement in math and science following the Soviet Union’s launch of the Satellite Sputnik. There are no nationally representative science results from the time, but high school mathematics performance actually fell in the eight years following passage of the law, according to national norm studies conducted by the College Board, which administers the SAT and PSAT (see figure below). By 1983, math scores had still not returned to the level they had been at before the NDEA was passed.

Math Scores, National Norm PSAT Studies
(11th graders), 1955 to 1983

 national norm studies '55 to '83

(Source: College Board data reported in Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, “What’s Really Behind the SAT-Score Decline,” Public Interest, no. 106 (Winter 1992): 32-56.)

Either the Senator’s advisors were unaware of the NDEA’s disappointing results, or they offered it as a model despite them. Neither scenario inspires confidence in the future of federal education policy under an Obama presidency.

More on the results of federal education interventions like NDEA below the fold….

Could the decline be the result of more kids taking the test? No. Each time the test was administered by the College Board, it was to a random, nationally representative sample of all 11th graders.

Could the NDEA and subsequent federal programs have just taken a long time to work, ultimately resulting in a sustained improvement in performance in math and science? No. The Long Term Trend tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress become available around 1970. Here’s what they show:

NAEP Long-Term Trends Results
(17-year-olds), 1969–70 to 2003–04

NAEP long term trends

[Sources: SOURCES: Rebecca Moran and Anthony D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), p. 17; Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2000), p. 9.]

Could the problem be that federal, state, and local governments have not spent enough on programs like NDEA and its successors? No. Here’s the inflation adjusted history of public school revenues, in 2008 dollars:

spending history

[Sources: Thomas Snyder, Sally Dillow, and Charlene Hoffman, Digest of Education Statistics 2007 (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2008), Table 162. Missing values linearly interpolated. Historical consumer price index inflation factors from]

There is simply no getting around the fact that Barack Obama has hitched his ed policy wagon to an expensive failure. Caveat voter.

SAT Scores — What the Media Are Missing

When the College Board released SAT scores for the nation in late August, media outlets and state departments of education around the country were quick to report overall statewide averages. Sometimes, this mislead the public. A press release from South Carolina superintendent of education Jim Rex noted, for example, that the state’s “high school seniors… raised their average SAT scores by two points” from the preceding year. Though they still placed 48th out of the 50 states.

Shortly thereafter, a few astute folks in the Palmetto state noticed that South Carolina’s average rose solely due to a substantial improvement in the performance of private school test-takers, and that the composite scores for public school students actually fell by 5 points.

That, however, is not the end of the story. Many in South Carolina have long assumed that the state performs below the national average on the SAT in part because of the socio-economic and racial composition of its test takers. In plain English, there’s a widespread belief that South Carolina is brought down by its large share of poor and African American students. Umm. No.

What the data show is quite different. Middle-income South Carolinians score 32 points below middle-income families nationally. Those from families earning less than $20,000 score 72 points below their income peers nationally. And those from families earning over $160,000 score 74 points below their income peers nationally. It is the richest South Carolinians who are the furthest behind their income peers around the nation.

As for the racial breakdown: Blacks in South Carolina are 30 points behind those elsewhere around the country, while whites in South Carolina are 42 points behind whites nationally.

The belief that South Carolina’s most privileged families are getting an excellent public school education and that their scores are being dragged down by those less fortunate is a fiction with little basis in reality.