Topic: Education and Child Policy

American Federation of Teachers: How Dare You Defy This Corrupt Government!

Freedom House simply categorizes Uganda as “not free.” Transparency International ranks it among the 30 worst countries for perceived public sector corruption. And the American Federation of Teachers—the second largest teachers union in the United States—is outraged a for-profit company is daring to provide low-cost education to Ugandan children against the wishes of the government.

From the AFT press release hailing a new study attacking Bridge International Academies (BIA) by an outfit the AFT helps bankroll:

The report…documents in distressing detail BIA’s disregard for legal and educational standards established by the Ugandan government….

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, an EI member organization, said: “This report serves as a warning about what happens when private education providers put profits above people. BIA’s shameful abuses, cookie-cutter curriculum and cost cutting make for distressing reading but sadly aren’t in the least bit surprising.”

That’s right: The AFT will apparently side with even one of the world’s worst governments if, it seems, doing so could hobble for-profit schooling.

But what about those horrible abuses Weingarten bemoans? If you read the report, you’ll get the sense that the most egregious is that BIA schools use a scripted curriculum delivered electronically, which is apparently excruciating torture for teachers and children. How they have any employees, and over 100,000 students, is a mystery.

The schools also don’t seem to follow rules and regulations set forth by Uganda’s education ministry, such as building and curriculum standards. But if you have ever read James Tooley’s revelatory writing on education in countries like Uganda, you’d understand why people who want to get education to poor children don’t comply with rules and regs: complying would make delivering affordable education at scale extremely difficult, and the regulations often exist to protect the public sector, including government inspectors who expect to get paid in both salaries and bribes.

Nevada Supreme Court: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional, Funding Mechanism Isn’t

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Nevada today upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s most expansive educational choice law. However, the court ruled that the funding mechanism the legislature adopted is unconstitutional. If the legislature creates a new funding mechanism–as it could and should in a special session–then the ESA program could be implemented right away.

Enacted in 2015, Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) policy was originally scheduled to launch at the beginning of this year, but it immediately drew two separate legal challenges from the government schooling establishment and the ACLU and its allies. Nevada’s ESA provides students with $5,100 per year (plus an additional $600 for low-income students or students with special needs) to use for a wide variety of approved educational expenditures, including private school tuition, tutoring, text books, online courses, homeschool curricula, and more. Families can also roll over unspent funds from year to year. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I have explained, the ability to customize a child’s education and save funds for later are significant improvements over school vouchers:

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school-choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent, in a manner similar to the way they would spend their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. 

Of the five existing ESA programs, Nevada’s is the most expansive. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee restrict their ESAs to students with special needs. Arizona originally restricted ESA eligibility to students with special needs, but has since included foster children, children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to district schools rated D or F, and children living in Native American reservations. In Nevada, all students who attended a public school for at least 100 days in the previous academic year are eligible. 

In two separate lawsuits, opponents of educational choice alleged that Nevada’s ESA violated the state constitution’s mandate that the state provide a “uniform system of common schools” (Article 11, Section 2), its prohibition against using public funds for sectarian purposes (Article 11, Section 6), and a clause requiring the state to appropriate funds to operate the district schools before any other appropriation is enacted for the biennium (Article 11, Section 10). The court found that the ESA was constitutional under the first two constitutional provisions, but the way it was funded violated the third.

Turn “Banned Books Week” into “Educational Freedom Week”

We are in the midst of “Banned Books Week,” a time dedicated not so much to shining light on books that have actually been banned—that no one may legally read—but that parents object to their children being forced or encouraged to read by the public schools for which they must pay and, de facto, use. Such parents are frequently accused of “banning,” but are often really objecting to a public school—a government school—pushing their children to read material they think violates their religious convictions, is offensive, or is just age-inappropriate. They aren’t trying to ban books, they are trying to escape government-privileged reading they do not think is right for their kids. It is parents doing what school boards, librarians, and teachers do whenever they assign or purchase one book, and reject another.

The more basic violation is not parents objecting to books—a free society lets people freely choose what they read, and parents are the guardians of their children—but government placing some people’s speech above others. Indeed, public schools are supposedly democratically controlled, so in theory every parent is supposed to be able to raise objections to any book, and if they can convince a majority to remove it that is supposed to be just fine. But the country is not supposed to be a democracy. Rather, it is built on individual liberty that is to be defended even against—perhaps especially against—the majority will.

But how do you protect liberty with a public schooling system? How can one elementary school, or district, to which people are assigned based on their home address, tailor instruction and readings to each individual family and child?

The answer is it can’t, and one consequence is wrenching, divisive conflict. You can get a sense for this with Cato’s interactive Public Schooling Battle Map, which contains summaries of more than 220 book battles in public schools. And the map only contains conflicts that have made headlines or been reported to the American Library Association. Likely many others have occurred that did not make the news, and no doubt many parents object to readings but do not feel they can fight.

Clinton back to Debt-Free—Not Tuition-Free—College?

Education didn’t come up much in last night’s debate, but Hillary Clinton regularly uses “college” with some form of “free” after it to illustrate how she would help middle-class families, and she did so again last night. Whenever she did, she referred to “debt-free” college, not “tuition-free.”

This sounds like a reversion to her old college proposal before she adopted more of the Bernie Sanders model—some suggest to clinch his support at the Democratic convention—which would spend federal money to induce states to spend their own money to make public college tuition-free for all but roughly the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans. It’s a plan that would presumably have greater appeal for people planning to go to college—why settle for no debt if you could have no tuition at all?—though the devil is in the details. Depending on how you structure it, “debt-free” could be even more generous than “tuition-free” if you promise to make sure no one has to take on debt not just for tuition but also fees and living expenses. Still, “tuition-free” probably sounds better intuitively, and Clinton’s campaign website talks about being both debt- and tuition-free. Maybe the idea is to sound more or less fiscally responsible, depending on the audience.

No matter what the plan, nothing with “free” in it is a good idea for higher education. None of this would be free to taxpayers, of course: the Clinton tuition-free plan has been estimated to cost the feds $500 billion over 10 years, and would cost state taxpayers billions more if states matched the spending increases to get federal bucks. The debt-free plan was estimated to cost the feds $350 billion over 10 years, also with state matching. Of course the “wealthy” would pay for all this, likely removing money from more productive uses.

Wait. More productive than education? Yes, because the evidence—to borrow from Donald Trump—is YUGE that current subsidies already fuel massively wasteful, counterproductive demand for college. Greater subsidies would likely exacerbate the giant non-completion problem from which we already suffer—barely half of students finish a two- or four-year program within six years—and driving even worse credential inflation. Already about a third of bachelor’s degree holders are underemployed, while earnings for degree holders have been largely stagnant for about two decades. Maybe most important, it doesn’t seem people actually learn all that much in college, with dropping literacy rates for degree holders and only tiny gains in critical thinking while in school. And isn’t learning kinda the point?

Hillary Clinton may be pivoting back to her old college plan. But it’s still a move in the wrong direction.

Work “Nonprofit”? Get Free Grad School!

The Cato Institute is a 501(c)(3)—a nonprofit organization. Of course, as an employee I get paid more than my job costs me—I make what you might call “profit”—but because of the tax designation of my employer, I could be getting big forgiveness on any federal student loans I might have. Indeed, a new, quick-read report from the Brookings Institution shows that someone could potentially get all of their graduate schooling covered for free through the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program which, by the way, is expected to cost the American taxpayer a lot more than originally anticipated.

The general way PSLF operates is if you work for government, a 501(c)3 organization, or some other qualifying entity like a public interest law firm, you can get the remainder of your federal student loans forgiven after 10 years of regular payments. Sound great? Well don’t order yet! Those payments are also controlled, capped at 10 percent of income above 150 percent of the poverty line. So a single person would pay nothing on income below $17,820, and 10 percent on income above that. And it doesn’t matter if you get paid more than your job-description doppelganger in a for-profit venture—as long as you work for a “nonprofit” you qualify for PSLF.

The Brookings report describes how someone could essentially get a graduate degree for free through PSLF as long as he had substantial—but not huge—undergraduate debt and worked in a relatively low-paid field. Of course, many people will want to earn more than low pay, but PSLF furnishes strong incentives to stick with a low-paying job for awhile, or more likely, take on much bigger debt and all the nice-to-have college stuff that goes with big college revenue.

Go ahead, future Jack McCoy, take that dip in the lazy river!

Of course, this is not free to taxpayers, many of whom have not gone to college, or may work in struggling for-profit businesses, or may even have thought the right thing to do was to get an inexpensive—and frill free—education. But according to the report, their PSLF bill is rising as enrollment in the program is much higher than anticipated, and nearly one-third of enrollees have debt exceeding $100,000. The report doesn’t give estimated total costs because those are very hard to predict, but estimates of what would be saved with controls such as capping forgivable amounts have risen by more than 2000 percent just from 2014 to 2016! The figures are in the billions of dollars.

There is a strong argument, of course, that there is nothing more noble about working for government, or a nonprofit hospital, or even a think tank, than owning a neighborhood shoe store, or being an accountant at Apple, or risking all you have on a new, entrepreneurial venture, all of which seek to offer things of value to other people. Heck, it is the production of goods and services for profit that gives us the “excess” wealth that enables us to pay for government and all its programs. But few employees, regardless for whom they work, are losing money on their jobs, and many—see, for instance, federal workers—make big profits from their nonprofit jobs not just financially, but also with lots of vacation time, or job security, or simply doing something fun every day.

We’re all working for profit. Why should we be treated—especially given big costs and unintended consequences—differently just because of our employers’ tax designation?

Are ITT Alternatives Much Better?

The outcome was certain the moment federal and state regulators spilled blood in the water and swarmed ITT Technical Institutes, but today it became official: ITT is going out of business. No proven guilt, just accused to death. But we’ve been over all that.

What is worth pointing out now are the alternatives to ITT. I’ve recently seen a couple of stories from Ohio about community colleges offering to take in students stranded by ITT’s demise, and thought it might be worth doing a little comparison between Ohio ITT branches—I mean, former branches—and these would-be rescuers.

Here is some broad info from the federal College Scorecard on Ohio ITT branches, and it is certainly not great: Annual after-aid costs ranging from $21,212 to $24,258, graduation rates from “not available” to 52 percent, and salary after attending of $38,400, which appears to be listed for most ITT campuses nationwide.

How about those community colleges?

I couldn’t find Butler Tech or Great Oaks on the Scorecard, but Cuyahoga Community College has an annual after-aid student cost of $5,832—enabled by upfront taxpayer subsidies—but only a 6 percent graduation rate and an annual salary after attending of $27,600. Cincinnati State Technical and Community College has an annual cost of $7,021, a graduation rate of 22 percent, and a salary of $29,700. The community colleges are cheaper than ITT, but their outcomes appear appreciably worse.

The Scorecard, importantly, is a seriously flawed tool, but it comes from the very federal government that has targeted ITT, and it gives the kind of first-blush data that have readily been employed to attack the for-profit sector. What I looked at is also, of course, anecdotal. But what it suggests is that the alternatives to ITT, at least in Ohio, are probably no better than ITT was, and may well be worse. Which supports what you’ve read here many times, and which broader evidence upholds: For-profit colleges are not distinctly terrible. It is the whole, federally distorted system that is a wreck.

Ending Fed Ed Would Hardly Be Pure Loss

The Center for American Progress Action Fund (CAPAF) has sounded the alarm: Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would be pure loss because a lot of people use federal education money. Lost jobs, lost college access, lost learning. Which makes sense if you assume that the federal government miracles money into existence, people can’t adjust to changing circumstances, and federal control can only help.

Of course, the federal government does not just will money into existence. It does spend far more than it has, but sooner or later someone is going to have to pay for that. And money arriving through taxation comes from people who may have used it for other, more productive things. Taxpayers may have spent it on new businesses, or housing, or food, or lots of other things that would have potentially grown the economy and created new jobs. Or heck, just made them happier. So there are costs—maybe big ones—that CAPAF ignored: opportunity costs.

Then there are costs to dealing with ED demands. Yes, as CAPAF points out, the department has a relatively small workforce—about 4,300 full-time equivalent employees—but that is in part because ED makes states do a lot of the administrative heavy lifting, forcing them to hire a lot of bureaucrats. There is also a sizeable compliance cost that goes with federal programs. The latest available numbers I could find were from a 1998 report—pretty old—but that precedes the No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly expanded federal management. That report suggested that for every dollar sent to Washington only 85 cents made it back to local districts, and noted that there were nearly three times as many state employees being funded by federal money as ED employees.

How would ED be eliminated? While it is unclear how Trump would do it—details do not seem to be his thing—he would likely phase the department out, not just kill it all at once. Of course, he could just move the programs elsewhere in the federal bureaucracy. But assuming that by killing ED he means to kill the programs, he would probably phase them out, leaving states, districts, colleges, and students time to adjust. And if he were to couple phasing out the programs with, say, proportionate tax relief, or even just block grants to states, that money could still be used for education! It would not necessarily mean any lost teacher jobs, student aid, or anything else. It could just mean that instead of losing 15 cents in bureaucratic processing for each dollar, taxpayers could keep the whole buck!

Would trimming what we spend necessarily even be bad educationally? Signs pretty clearly point to “no.” As the graph below shows, as well as this report on SAT scores, large spending increases haven’t come close to producing commensurate improvements in achievement, at least as measured by standardized tests for high school kids. Those scores have essentially sat still. Same for staffing: In roughly the same period as is covered in the graph, public schools went from about 14 students per staff member, to just 8 students, approaching a doubling of employees per child. Even the high-school graduation rate “all-time highs” that sound so nice aren’t: CAPAF cited a report based on only four years of data, and longer-term data show in 1969–70—close to when the feds first got heavily involved in education—the average freshman graduation rate for public schools was 78.7 percent. As of 2012–13—the latest data on the chart—it was 81.9 percent. Hardly a huge increase, and possibly one inflated by “credit recovery” and other dubious practices. Oh, and the feds coerced states to adopt a single curriculum standard—the Common Core—only to see tremendous backlash after the public finally became aware of what had been foisted on them. At the very least, great political acrimony and stomach-churning educational turbulence have been the result.

The evidence—more of which can be found here—suggests that in K–12 education, federal involvement may well be a loss, not a gain.

How about higher ed? Federal student aid, it is becoming increasingly certain, has largely translated into skyrocketing prices, major non-completion, credential inflation, and big student debt. Hardly the pure affordability effect that is all CAPAF discusses. You can get more in-depth on higher education here.

There is one other thing that ought to be mentioned, though it may seem passé: Washington has no constitutional authority to meddle in education outside of DC itself, federal installations, and prohibiting state and local discrimination in education provision. Yet the vast majority of what ED does goes far beyond those things. Ignoring the Constitution comes with costs all of its own, which CAPAF—and everyone else—may learn very quickly if there is a President Trump and he, among other things, unilaterally tries to change federal education policy. You know, like President Obama.

CAPAF portrays the U.S. Department of Education as all gain, and it’s possible ending all pain. But there is a whole other side to federal education meddling: costs. And they are big.