Topic: Education and Child Policy

Make that: “Even if We Bus Kids to Mars…”

In my last post I observed that U.S. public schools would save $100 billion annually if they returned to the staff/student ratio that existed in 1970, and that this would be more than enough to erase the budget crunches districts are facing due to higher fuel prices “unless we start busing kids to Mars.”

Well, I’m a tad embarassed to admit I was a little off. Assuming that one could actually drive to other planets, $100 billion would be more than enough to fuel a fleet of three school buses making round trips to Mars every day for the full school year. And the nation’s school districts would still have $13 billion in pocket change left over to cover their higher fuel bills here on Earth. (Numbers crunched below the fold).

Average distance to Mars 143,000,000.00 miles
Savings from 1970 student/staff ratio 100,000,000,000.00 dollars
Bus fuel economy 7.50 miles per gallon
Average price of diesel 4.21 dollars per gallon
Could buy this many gallons 23,752,969,121.14 gallons
Could drive this many miles 178,147,268,408.55 miles
Could make this many trips to Mars 1,245.79 trips
School years of one bus service 3.46 years (two trips per day, 180 school days)

Unless We Start Busing Kids to Mars…

We’ve all been told that school districts around the country are feeling the pinch from higher fuel costs. What’s never mentioned is that districts are supposedly suffering budget crunches despite spending more than twice as much – in real, inflation-adjusted dollars – as they did in 1970.

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, districts spent an average of $5,247 per pupil in 1970 (in 2008 dollars). Today, the average is about $12,000. How is it possible that districts could have trouble covering higher gas prices when they have an extra $6,500 to spend per pupil? One reason is that the public school bureaucracy has been doing what bureaucracies do best: growing. Since 1970, total public school employment has nearly doubled to over 6.1 million people, while total enrollment has increased by less than 9 percent. It is to support this army of new public school employees that taxpayers are being asked for more and more funding each year. If the public schools were to return to the student/staff ratio they had in 1970, they would have an extra $100 billion per year with which to fill the tanks of the nation’s school buses. And unless we start busing kids to Mars, that should probably cover it.

Of course, taxpayers might be willing to foot this lavish bill if the smaller class sizes and larger bureaucracies of recent years had led to improved student outcomes. They haven’t. Students at the end of high school score no better in reading and math today than they did in 1970, according to the Long Term Trends tests administered as part of the National Assessment of Education Progress. In science, their scores today are lower.

Taking a Poll…and Some Salt

It’s hard to care much about polls; they’re easily gamed, the questions are usually too narrow to give any real insight, and just because a majority thinks something doesn’t make it right. That said, a new poll from Education Next deserves a bit of comment.

First, I have to repeat a beef I had with last year’s Education Next survey: Why load the No Child Left Behind questions? While the pollsters attempted “survey experiments”—tinkering with question wording to see how it affected results—they just replaced “No Child Left Behind Act” with “federal legislation” in the experimental version of this question:

As you may know, the No Child Left Behind Act 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. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act. What do you think Congress should do?

The results are pretty damning for NCLB. When it’s identified by name, 50 percent of respondents think the law should either undergo “major changes” or not be renewed at all, versus 42 percent thinking the same way about semi-anonymous “federal legislation.” Worse, last year’s results were significantly more positive about the law; the percent of respondents with favorable views of NCLB has dropped by seven percentage points.

Of course, none of this gets to the public’s true opinion about the law because neither version of the question gets rid of the description of NCLB as, essentially, Clarence the angel in It’s A Wonderful Life, intervening to make all schools do well!

So how would the law have fared were people asked what they thought just of NCLB, not “NCLB: The Standardsmaker”? Since I registered this same complaint last year I haven’t seen any polls that have asked about NCLB straight-up. But suppose the same changes in NCLB support found by Education Next were applied to the Educational Testing Service poll I mentioned last year, a poll that asked about NCLB unadorned (slide 11 in the link). In 2007, ETS found that only 41 percent of respondents had a “very” or “somewhat favorable” attitude about the law. Drop 7 percentage points from that, and you’re down to a measly 34 percent.

And to think, some people think it’s “foolish” to even consider that NCLB should be scrapped!

Unfortunately, assuming the order of questions in their write-up is the same as was presented to respondents, the Education Next folks chose to ask about national standards right after greasing the skids with their encouraging description of NCLB. Not surprisingly, they found that large majorities favored having the feds establish standards and tests for the whole country.

Here we encounter almost all of polling’s shortcomings. For one thing, it’s hard to pin down the effect of the question order, but it certainly seems reasonable to conclude that describing the federal roll as demanding high standards would lead people to conclude that the feds ought to set the standards. But what if the pollsters had described NCLB as a law “that requires states to set standards while safeguarding local control”—which President Bush would tell you it does—or something like that? And what if the national-standards issue were explored in some depth, with questions about how the standards would actually be set and what they would be? Suddenly, different thinking would probably kick in. Of course, even with all that it’s possible that a majority of Americans would still support federal standards. Which brings us to the polling problem that majority support doesn’t necessarily mean good policy….

On school choice, the poll offers mixed news: Vouchers keep on struggling, but tax credits seem to have a very bright future. Nationally, only about 40 percent of people support vouchers, versus 54 percent who support tax credits. This is not to say that vouchers are dead—there’s only 40 percent opposition to them as well, meaning you’ve got two evenly-matched armies and 20 percent unclaimed territory—but compared to tax credits, vouchers have a long slog ahead. And tax credits fare even better when opposition as well as support is considered; only 28 percent of respondents opposed tax credits.

Of course, wording could have a lot to do with these results as well (for instance, the term “voucher” never actually appears in a question, but the almost as emotionally freighted “government funds” does), and all the other caveats about polls still apply. Even with that, though, the tax credit news, if nothing else in this poll, has to be a little encouraging.

How Can They Deny Freedom?

Maybe those people who constantly spew the mantra against school choice that it would “destroy public education” have never considered what putting some faceless, bureaucratic system above actual human beings really does. Well, there’s a great piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution today by Lydia Glaize, a parent who’s struggled mightily to keep her children out of atrocious public schools, that directly attacks this sorry, but all-too convenient, excuse for denying parents freedom. There’s only one critique I’ve got for Ms. Glaize: She doesn’t make the distinction between public schooling, which is the real problem, and public education, into which a school choice system would fit very nicely. But that’s a distinction we’re just starting to get people to recognize.

So how will the public-schooling-at-all-costs crowd respond to Ms. Glaize? I suspect, sadly, with more of the same.

What “Open Discussion?”

Over at New Talk, a public policy discussion project that purports to bring in “experts…who have different points of view…and a commitment to the kind of open discussion that might take place around a dinner table,” anything but an open discussion is going on about the No Child Left Behind Act. Yes, the e-talkers range from neoconservative Chester E. “Checker” Finn to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, but in one way or another all of the discussants believe in significant federal involvement in education. That’s left out one very important perspective: the Constitution’s.

Here’s moderator John Merrow’s reason for keeping away those who think that the federal government has neither the Constitutional authority, nor the ability, to run American education:

Any talk of abandoning No Child Left Behind is foolish because NCLB is the continuation of a long trail of federal education legislation that traces back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Congress and the next Administration must do something, but what? That’s the question posed to a remarkable roster of deep thinkers and activists.

Merrow’s question framing has, predictably, produced not the “open discussion” promised by New Talk, but a very narrow exchange dominated by “national standards” chat. Indeed, former Columbia Teachers College president Arthur Levine remarked in his first contribution to the forum that he “was surprised at the commonality of views the group shares.” He shouldn’t have been: For the most part, the group is a collection of education policy insiders with a big bias toward government “doing something,” and the moderator made certain that asking whether the feds actually can do something — at least of value — was off limits.

Of course, it isn’t rational to just assume that NCLB — or any federal interference in education—will remain forever just because it is the continuation of legislation dating back to 1965. Consider that as recently as 1996 the Republican Party had eliminating the U.S. Department of Education in its platform. Or that two major pieces of legislation that would essentially dismantle NCLB — the LEARN and A-PLUS acts — are working their ways through Congress. Or that several states have seen considerable efforts to leave NCLB behind, despite the sizable financial blow doing so could entail. Or that in polling Americans often express great distaste for NCLB.

So what about the question of whether the federal government is actually capable of producing good education? The evidence, whether we bury our heads in the sand or not, is that it can’t. Since 1965, real federal funding for elementary and secondary education has grown nearly six times larger, while achievement has been essentially flat or declining. Under NCLB, what scores were increasing have seen improvements slow while others have seen losses. And why is this? Politics. Washington, like all government, is more responsive to special interests that make their living off of government programs than the people those programs are supposed to help. So the feds keep lavishing cash on the public schools, while the states keep setting almost subterranean “proficiency” bars, using statistical gimmicks to exclude the groups the law is supposed to make visible, and the administration cheers NCLB’s “success.”

The one highlight of the New Talk discussion so far (it runs through tomorrow) has been education historian Diane Ravitch, whose past calls for national standards I’ve taken to task. She’s still calling for national standards, but she has nonetheless been the most realistic of the discussants. After asserting that “there is little to commend NCLB,” she made clear that any national standards would have to be disconnected from federal sanctions because “states and localities” — not Washington — “are closer to the schools and likelier to come up with workable reforms.” She also deflated the soaring rhetoric of those who talk about NCLB as an historic shift because it has finally shone light on the kids left behind (though she also leads one to conclude that she might actually want stronger national tests than she outlined earlier):

OK, so NCLB is historic. No doubt about it. Never before has the federal government reached so deeply into each and every public school in the nation. There was a fundamental error, however, in allowing states to define their own standards and write their own tests. As a result of this error, the public does not have the information that Checker speaks about; instead, in most states, the public gets a wildly inflated picture of student performance.

Unfortunately, as Ravitch being the highlight portends, another perspective is almost wholly absent from the discussion: that accountability exercised by parents through universal school choice, not continued top-down accountability from states or Washington, is the key to truly effective education reform. Consumer choice is the primary driver of accountability for almost everything in America that we take for granted — consumer electronics, package delivery, automobiles, greeting cards, sneakers, home construction, and on and on — but not so for schooling. Maybe that’s why over the decades education hasn’t progressed at all, while almost every other good or service has gotten much better. Maybe that’s also why school choice should be a part of any “open discussion” about how best to deliver education.

New Talk could have put together a truly valuable forum on federal education policy if it had included all perspectives. Sadly, it chose not to.

Stop Blaming the States!

Yesterday, both the House and Senate passed the atrocious new Higher Education Act, a 1,158-page monstrosity packing 62 new programs, oodles of new spending, and a bureaucrats’ dream of new rules and regulations. I won’t go into all the gory details — I’d need hundreds of blogs just to do the file-sharing provisions justice — but one piece in particular really gets my goat.

One of the services the new HEA supposedly provides is that it will encourage states to keep up their share of higher education funding so that public colleges don’t have to make money — here comes every student group’s favorite phrase — “on the backs of students.” Thankfully, it’s a weak measure, threatening only to withhold a state’s allocation of a small, new grant program, but it’s the entire premise on which it’s built that’s infuriating. Today’s Wall Street Journal article on the bill provides a great example of the problem:

It is this very reduction of funding that state schools cite as an important factor pushing them to raise tuition. Total state appropriations for higher education have dropped to 11% for fiscal 2008, down from 15% 20 years ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Meanwhile, the average annual cost of attendance at a four-year public college, including tuition, fees and room and board, was $13,589 in 2007-08, 78% higher than it was two decades before, even after adjusting for inflation, according to the New York nonprofit College Board.

The argument here is that because the percentage of funding that schools get from their states has declined, the states aren’t keeping up their end of the funding bargain. But the real question should be whether states are staying consistent with their total per-pupil funding, which shows whether their commitment to higher ed has been steady. It has been: While state spending has fluctuated largely in accordance with the ups-and-downs of the economy, the 20-plus-year trend is one of overall consistent funding. This graph from the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ report State Higher Education Finance: FY 2007 makes this abundantly clear:

In real dollars, the 2007 public appropriation per full-time-equivalent student was $6,773, $34 higher than in 1980. Indeed, the highest public expenditure on the chart, $7,581, was very recent — 2001 — and while there have been lots of fluctuations, the trend is clear: states have been keeping up with their expenditures.

Something else, then, must be responsible for rampant tuition inflation — maybe, ever-increasing student aid, colleges and universities having more and more sources of income, or both — and state taxpayers shouldn’t be scapegoated by federal politicians. But then, what would be the excuse for passing garbage like the new Higher Education Act?