Topic: Education and Child Policy

It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist to See the Problem Here

Yesterday, the latest science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) came out, and the same sad pattern we’ve seen for years repeated itself. Between 1996 and 2005 scores rose in 4th grade, remained stagnant in 8th grade, and dropped for high school seniors. In other words, it’s still the case that the longer children stay in American schools, the worse they do.

Unfortunately, something else also remained the same: the shameless compulsion among people in Washington, despite decades of failure, to claim credit for good news and to have the solutions for bad. Case in point, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s reaction to the NAEP report, in which she not only dubbed the federal No Child Left Behind Act a cure for failure in subjects the law directly addresses, but even those it doesn’t:

The Science 2005 Report….provides further evidence that accountability and assessments are working to raise achievement levels, even in subjects not directly tested under the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB]. Fourth-graders made significant improvements in science over 1996 and 2000 levels, with the lowest-performing students making the largest gains and achievement gaps narrowing. However, eighth-graders showed no significant gains. And among 12th-graders, scores declined….The results illustrate the need to introduce NCLB’s accountability principles to our nation’s high schools.

So when the same sorry pattern repeats itself, the adults in charge of American education proclaim that they must be doing something right. In light of this, is it any wonder that our children do worse and worse the longer they stay in school?  

I was KIDDING! Seriously. Come on, guys.

This morning’s LA Daily News is abuzz over a debate “gaffe” perpetrated by California Assembly candidate Frank Quintero. After a rough day campaigning for California’s 43rd Assembly District seat, Quintero was asked during a debate with his opponent if he supported school vouchers. His answer: “Yes.”

Oops.

Honestly, what would possess someone to support giving low income families the same educational choice that wealthier families already enjoy? The nerve of this Quintero guy intimating that parents, not bureaucrats, should be deciding what and where their children learn. It’s an outrage. It’s…

Wait a minute, that sounds kinda’ good, doesn’t it? Parental choice in education. More options for kids. Schools no longer being able to take their students for granted and having to compete for the privilege of serving each and every child. So what’s the problem?

Well, Quintero is a Democrat – the party unduly influenced by the nation’s teachers’ unions. Makes a bit more sense, now, doesn’t it?

Naturally, California’s biggest teachers’ union quickly mobilized to crush this brazen heretic, staging a rally outside his offices the weekend after the debate. Quintero quickly recanted, explaining that when he said “yes” to vouchers, he meant it in the sense that, um, he was opposed to them.

Good thing the teachers’ unions are out there to protect us from freedom vouchers.

Bold and Bad

At its meeting yesterday, the U.S. secretary of education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which is tasked with creating a renovation strategy for the nation’s ivory tower, illustrated well why government rarely produces rational policies.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings kicked off yesterday’s confab by urging the commission to make its final report, which is due in September, “as bold and as concrete” as possible. Setting aside that “bold” almost certainly translates into more big government—the last thing needed by American higher education, which is bloated with taxpayer dollars—it was immediately clear that the commission won’t be able to settle on any meaningful policy proposals, bold or otherwise. Indeed, the commission members couldn’t even agree on the definition of “unaffordable” or proper use of terms like “higher education” and “college.” If they can’t nail those things down, how the heck are they going to agree on any truly “bold and concrete” reforms?

In the end, the only things the commission’s final report will probably “boldly” declare are that (1) there’s a “crisis” in higher education, and (2) government must fix it. The report’s remedies, in contrast, will likely be restricted to nebulous proposals like “improving access” to higher education and imposing greater “accountability” on schools—the kind of lowest-common-denominator stuff that is the best one can hope for from a group that can’t even agree on a definition of “unaffordable.”

Of course, that’s probably what most policymakers want. It will give them a perfect excuse to waste even more money on student and institutional aid, pile new rules and regulations on colleges, and congratulate themselves for attacking the higher education “crisis” head-on.

Repeat After Me: “We Are All Individuals”

Back when Steve Martin was doing stand-up comedy (yes, I’m OLD), he had a wonderful bit in which he would get the audience to repeat a series of statements in unison, the last of which was “we are all individuals.” 

I’m sure that this bit of irony would have been lost on the editors of the Washington Post. In a May 9 feature, they asked three authors to discuss the battle between traditionalist and progressive pedagogical methods. The fatal conceit of this feature, to which all the contributors succumbed, was to ignore the most sensible approach of all: let families decide for themselves. 

If parents were free to choose the schools best suited to each of their children, and schools were forced to compete for the privilege of serving them, the most effective methods would flourish and the rest would be marginalized. We’d also likely find that certain methods work well with some children but not others. 

The sooner we overcome the Stalinesque notion that educational excellence can be pursued through more or better central planning, the better off our kids will be.

Why Can’t Suri Laugh?

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (AKA TomKat) had a baby last month, Suri Holmes.  Apropos, this week the Medicare program’s public trustees reported that even though only 7 percent of TomKat’s federal income taxes now go toward Medicare, when Suri turns 15 years old, 25 percent of the federal income taxes levied on her modeling earnings will go straight to Medicare.  By the time Suri turns 25 years old, 40 percent of the federal income taxes levied on her book deal will help finance Medicare benefits for her dear old dad, who will then be 68 years old.

Education and the Constitution

Does the Wall Street Journal think the Constitution is suspended on the weekends? Two weeks ago on Saturday, April 15, the Journal claimed on its front page that “the Constitution guarantees a public-school K-12 education for every child in the U.S.” Then this past Saturday, April 29, the Journal’s usually reliable editorial page deplored the “states’ rampant noncompliance with the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act” and the “lax enforcement of NCLB” by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

In both cases the Journal seems to have forgotten that the U.S. Constitution grants no authority over education to the federal government. Education is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, and for good reason. The Founders wanted most aspects of life managed by those who were closest to them, either by state or local government or by families, businesses, and other elements of civil society. Certainly, they saw no role for the federal government in education.

Once upon a time, not so very many years ago, Congress understood that. The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution, published by the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House in 1943, contained this exchange in a section titled “Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution”:

Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

Not only is the Constitution absolutely silent on the subject of education, but the U.S. Supreme Court has also refused to recognize any right to a taxpayer-funded education. As Timothy Sandefur, author of Cato’s forthcoming book Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America, points out, in San Antonio Independent School Distict v. Rodriguez (1973), the Court specifically declared that education, though important, “is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution. Nor do we find any basis for saying it is implicitly so protected.” Nine years later, in Plyler v. Doe, the Court held that if a state chooses to give such an education to citizens, it must also offer it to the children of illegal aliens. But it has consistently recognized that taxpayer-funded education is a privilege, and not a right.

And as I wrote in the Cato Handbook for Congress a few years ago, the argument against federal involvement in education

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

And that’s why it was a mistake to further centralize the control of our local schools in the No Child Left Behind Act. And why our friends at the Wall Street Journal, who are usually committed to the virtues of federalism and decentralization, should be applauding the several states’ resistance to federal intrusion, not calling for a crackdown.