Topic: Education and Child Policy

A Little Student Loan Perspective

For months, college students and their advocates have decried impending increases in federal student loan rates. This past Saturday, it happened: variable interest rates on existing taxpayer-subsidized Stafford loans rose from 5.3 percent to 7.14 percent, and new loans were pegged at a fixed rate of 6.8 percent. Doomsday had arrived!

Or had it? As a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics makes clear, it wasn’t very long ago that students faced significantly higher interest rates than those that went into effect Saturday, yet for the most part borrowers were able to repay their loans without great difficulty.

According to the report, most borrowers who graduated in the 1992-93 academic year paid interest rates of 8 percent in their first four years after graduation, and between 6 and 9 percent for the remaining years. Despite that, relatively few borrowers had long-term difficulty repaying their loans, and even many who at some point defaulted eventually got back on track.

What this shows, of course, is that taxpayer-backed loans aren’t nearly the burden on students that college activists have made them out to be. But don’t expect student advocates to admit that anytime soon. After all, if they didn’t act incessantly oppressed by having to pay for some of their own education, it would be a lot harder for them to get politicians to fork over ever-more taxpayer dollars.

Breaking News: Not All Children Are the Same

An article in this morning’s Los Angeles Times reports that delaying children’s entry into kindergarten “appears to help some, harm others or have no effect at all.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, what would have been surprising is if all children responded to delayed kindergarten in precisely the same way. After all, no two children are exactly alike, right?

Of course. Which is why American public education works so poorly: Even though all children are different, public school districts have no choice but to educate them as if they weren’t. By their very nature, uniform systems of education must do things uniformly.

Consider reading instruction: Just like their varied responses to delayed kindergarten entry, children respond in numerous ways to different reading curricula. School districts, however, can typically teach reading using only one technique, usually either whole language, phonics, or so-called “balanced” instruction. That means that if your child would benefit most from phonics-based instruction but is in a whole language district, he’s out of luck.

Or look at discipline. Some children need rigid rules and regulations, while others need freedom to thrive. School districts, however, can’t apply different disciplinary rules to different children, so a large number of children are going to get the short end of the stick (or carrot) no matter what.

The best way to ameliorate this problem is to eliminate it: Get rid of one-size-fits-all public schools, and create a system in which “the public” does nothing more than help needy parents afford the schools that best address their children’s needs. In other words, let the market go to work. Only then will all children finally get the made-to-order education they need to succeed.

Pulp Non-Fiction: The Seedy Side of Monopoly Schooling

The Detroit Free Press reported recently that the city’s schools have been ordered to repay nearly a million dollars in federal Title I funding because “there are no assurances that these [funds] did not benefit an employee personally.” The money went to flat screen TVs that are nowhere to be found, anger management classes that never occurred, and half a million dollars to, uh, pass out flyers. Did I mention that the $500,000 paper route went to an ex-con in a no-bid contract?

Critics of market-based education reform claim that it would open the door to corruption. As it happens, corruption has been living happily within the public schools for some time now, raiding the icebox and stealing kids’ lunch money – not to mention the money that is supposed to go toward their education. Cato’s Neal McCluskey published a run-down of this broken-down system last year.

Hat tip: Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Money Packs

Perhaps because it’s what most Americans grew up with, we tend to assume that “public education” must mean public entities building and controlling schools, and students going wherever they are assigned by their home address. It’s a system that has failed us for decades, yet many people can imagine nothing else. Thankfully, public education doesn’t have to be this way.

In today’s New York Daily News, Fordham University professor Bruce Cooper introduces a simple but powerful way to reinvent public education: Attach funding to children, not schools and districts, enabling parents to choose their children’s schools and forcing schools to compete for students.

Unfortunately, Professor Cooper’s proposal would only let kids take their new “backpack[s] of education funding” to different public schools. But there is no compelling educational reason for such a restriction. Instead, we should give parents maximum educational freedom by letting them send their children to any schools they want—public or private—with their new money packs attached. Do that, and we might finally have a system of public education worth keeping around for decades.

Challenging the NEA: Priceless

To quote the old Mercedes Benz airbag commercial: “Some things in life are too important not to share.”

The National Education Association’s national convention begins today at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL. Outside, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (a Washington State think tank) is parking a truck with a billboard highlighting some of the expenditures the NEA listed on its 2004 federal financial disclosure forms. 

The billboard is too important (and good) not to share:

You can read about the case Evergreen is making against the NEA (both in the court of public opinion and soon the U.S. Supreme Court) here and see some of the truck’s other displays here.

If teachers gain the freedom to decide how their own paychecks are spent, it will in no small part be due to the folks at Evergreen.

Are We Reading the Same Report?

I have to disagree with Arnold Kling’s surprisingly upbeat assessment of the draft report from the Secretary of Education’s higher education commission. While some of the recommendations he likes may be tolerable in an ideal world, it’s critical to remember that we’re talking about politics here.

First, Arnold applauds the report’s call for colleges to improve data collection on student persistence in order to help inform prospective students and parents. That’s fine, and I would encourage consumers to avoid schools that wouldn’t furnish such information. Unfortunately, it’s not supply and demand that the report says should make schools publish the data. It’s government:

Federal and state policy should focus on improving persistence and sealing the leaks in the educational pipeline at all levels: K-12, post-secondary and workforce education. Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit. Improved collection of data on student persistence will allow consumers of higher education to evaluate institutional success and identify best practices.

What a terrific tool for government control! Once they collect persistence data, opportunistic politicians can declare that schools must graduate very large percentages of their students in order to receive government funds. If grade inflation seems bad now…

Next, Arnold blesses the report’s recommendation that states and schools “review and revise” their credit transfer policies. Again, this is a fine thing for consumers to require, but if government mandates it, credit transfer policies will end up being based on political calculations, not academic merits.

The same problem applies to Arnold’s next point, in which he supports reorienting student aid from “broad-based” to “need-based.” That sounds good at first, but the reality is that in order to build enough political support to give more aid to the “needy,” politicians will define “needy” to include almost everyone. Just look at the current system, which directs oodles of cash to aid programs in the name of the poor, yet somehow always ends up putting a bunch of it in the hands of upper-middle-class kids.

Finally, Arnold approves of the recommendation that all 50 states encourage “the collection of data allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning.”

Now, I’m not so sure I want state governments encouraging colleges to implement standards and testing regimes, which is what this would ultimately require. I’m positive, though, that I don’t want the feds doing it, because federal “encouragement” invariably leads to federal “control.” Just look at elementary and secondary education, where the No Child Left Behind Act has given Washington unprecedented control over local schools.

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, say hello to NCLB:

The federal government should provide incentives for states, higher education associations, systems, and institutions to develop outcomes-focused accountability systems designed to be accessible and useful for students, policy makers, and the public….

In the end, like Arnold, I encourage people to read the Commission’s draft report for themselves and reach their own conclusions. As far as I’m concerned, though, one recommendation alone completely sums up the report’s frightening, command-economy thrust:

The Secretary of Education should take the lead in developing a national strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of the knowledge revolution, creating a system that encourages knowledge and skills to be obtained and continuously updated on a regular basis through a lifetime of learning.

I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds like a bad thing to me.

Another Look at the Higher Ed Blueprint

I was prepared to share Neal McCluskey’s outrage at the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education preliminary draft report, but then I followed the link, and I have a different take.  I’d give the report at least a B+. Of course, this sort of report this late in a President’s term is almost sure to be nothing but a dust collector regardless of what it says. But let me point out some of the good points.

Colleges should be held accountable for the success of the students they admit. Improved collection of data on student persistence will allow consumers of higher education to evaluate institutional success and identify best practices.

Good idea. Before you send your kid to a college, know whether the kid is likely to graduate.

States and institutions should review and revise standards for transfer of credit among higher education institutions to improve quality and reduce time-to-goal.

Another good idea. When the University of Maryland balked at giving my daughter credit for calculus she took at the University of Rochester, I was flabbergasted.

The present financial aid system should be replaced with a strategically oriented, results-driven consolidation of programs to serve students who need aid in order to attend college.

Again, a good idea. Need-based aid instead of broad-based aid.

At the state level, one promising approach that should be encouraged is placing increased emphasis on empowering consumers by redirecting assistance to individual students instead of institutions. The same effect could occur with a well designed expansion of the Pell Grant program.

This is a very powerful idea. Give the money to the education consumers instead of the rent-seekers.

The collection of data allowing meaningful interstate comparison of student learning should be encouraged and expanded to all 50 states. By using assessments of adult literacy, tests that many students already take for licensure and for graduate and professional school admission, and specially administered tests of general intellectual skills such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, state policymakers can make valid interstate comparisons of student learning and identify shortcomings as well as best practices.

As a parent about to help a third child choose a college, I really resent the lack of hard data on college effectiveness. It is tempting to shop on the basis of price, because we have no objective measure of quality.

Overall, this report says government should do more things that are relatively good, such as gather useful data, direct funds to needy consumers, and examine ways to encourage more entry and competition (which is why the issue of accreditation needs to be opened up–it’s a strong cartel-enforcement tool). It also says, if perhaps more implicitly than one might like, that government should do fewer things that are relatively bad, such as throw money at institutions.

I guess the bottom line is, don’t take my opinion or Neal’s opinion as gospel. If you think that the report matters (and again, I have my doubts), then read the draft yourself.