Finally, an Education Muckraker!

I’ve often complained on this blog that there are no education muckrakers – no reporters who will actually go out and investigate the misleading claims so often fed to them by politicians and public school officials. Well, it turns out there’s at least one, and his name is Ron Matus.

After being told countless times that public schools in Florida spend just $7,000 per pupil annually, Matus decided to do what no other ed reporter in the state (so far as I know) has done: check it. In a blog post today, he explains where the $7,000 number comes from, he points out that the actual total is $12,000 per pupil, and he lets readers decide which number is more relevant to them. Way to go, Mr. Matus!

I particularly enjoyed this line: “[Department of Education] officials say it’s fair to roll federal money into a per-pupil spending figure – that money does go to operational costs - but not capital outlay and debt service.”

Apparently schools don’t need buildings anymore! Wonderful news! Now that Floridians no longer have to pay for construction and renovation costs, they’ll save $6 billion a year. That is, they’ll start saving it as soon as the Department of Education gives it back to them. What’s that? They don’t want to give it back even though they say it doesn’t count? Gee. I guess it does count then, doesn’t it?

This public school emperor isn’t just naked, he’s mincing about flamboyantly and daring on-lookers to call him sartorially challenged. Well we dare, pal, we dare. If you want buildings to house all those students, and you want the billions to pay for them, then the St. Pertersburg Times, at least, is going to start counting it.

If there are any other reporters out there who have similarly tracked down the real total per pupil spending numbers, let me know and I’ll cite your work here. Or, if you’d like to try it but don’t know where to start, acoulson [at] cato.org (subject: Real%20Education%20Numbers) (drop me an e-mail.)

Those Who “Serve” Us Celebrate

adamsThose who think that the college-educated, or soon to be so, should have more and more of their education funded by taxpayers – whether those taxpayers themselves attended college or not – are shooting off the fireworks a bit early this year, celebrating increasingly generous federal aid going into effect today.

Perhaps the most galling part of all the increasingly free-flowing aid is how much is being targeted at people who work in “public service.” Ignoring for the moment that the people who make our computers, run our grocery stores, play professional baseball, and on and on are all providing the public with things it wants and needs, to make policy on the assumption that people in predominantly government jobs are somehow selflessly sacrificing for the common good is to blatantly disregard reality.

Consider teachers, as I have done in-depth. According to 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, adjusted to reflect actual time worked, teachers earn more on an hourly basis than accountants, registered nurses, and insurance underwriters. Elementary school teachers – the lowest paid among elementary, middle, and high school educators – made an average of $35.49 an hour, versus $32.91 for accountants and auditors, $32.54 for RNs, and $31.31 for insurance underwriters.

So much for the notion that teachers get paid in nothing but children’s smiles and whatever pittance a cruel public begrudgingly permits them.

How about government employees?

Chris Edwards has done yeoman’s work pointing out how well compensated federal bureaucrats are, noting that in 2007 the average annual wage of a federal civilian employee was $77,143, versus $48,035 for the average private sector worker. And when benefits were factored in, federal employee compensation was twice as large as private sector. But don’t just take Chris’s word and data to see that federal employment is far from self-sacrificial – take the Washington Post’s “Jobs” section!

And it’s not just federal employees or teachers who are making some pretty pennies serving John Q. Public. As a recent Forbes article revealed, it’s people at all levels of government, from firefighters to municipal clerks:

In public-sector America things just get better and better. The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector’s $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

Recently, my wife and I have been watching the HBO miniseries John Adams, and I couldn’t help but make the observation: In Adams’ time, many of those who served the public truly did so at great expense to themselves, often risking their very lives and asking little, if anything, from the public in return. Today, in contrast, many if not most of those who supposedly serve the public do so at no risk to themselves – indeed, unparalleled security is one of the great benefits of their employment – but are treated as if their jobs are extraordinary sacrifices. And so, as we head into Independence Day, it seems the World has once again been turned upside down: In modern America, the public works mightily to serve its servants, not the other way around.

Banks, Bailouts, and Political Pressure

The Washington Post reports:

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye’s staff contacted federal regulators last fall to ask about the bailout application of an ailing Hawaii bank that he had helped to establish and where he has invested the bulk of his personal wealth.

The bank, Central Pacific Financial, was an unlikely candidate for a program designed by the Treasury Department to bolster healthy banks. The firm’s losses were depleting its capital reserves. Its primary regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., already had decided that it didn’t meet the criteria for receiving a favorable recommendation and had forwarded the application to a council that reviewed marginal cases, according to agency documents.

Two weeks after the inquiry from Inouye’s office, Central Pacific announced that the Treasury would inject $135 million.

As we’ve said here many times, going back to 1983, when government is in the business of making economic decisions, you inevitably get more lobbying, more campaign spending, and more political influence on economic decision-makers.

Education Tax Credits Pass in Indiana

Despite the economy and the dogged opposition of powerful Big Ed, education tax credits are surviving and thriving. The latest state to jump into k-12 tax credits is Indiana. From the Friedman Foundation yesterday:

Indiana lawmakers today approved a $2.5 million scholarship tax credit program in the home state of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The new scholarship program was inserted into the state’s budget and won approval in the late hours of the special legislative session. The bill, which passed the Senate 34-16 and the House 61-36, now goes to the governor who is anticipated to sign it in the coming days.

Unfortunately, the credit is only 50% for each dollar donated, unlike the more powerful ones in PA, FL, and AZ. But I know Friedman, School Choice Indiana and their allies will be fighting hard in coming years to increase the credit amount and program cap.

Sounds like Governor Mitch Daniels deserves kudos for keeping the bill in his budget and pushing for the program. And the word is that around 27 percent of the House Democrats voted for the budget despite the tax credit and virtual charter school programs that the teachers unions opposed. Big Ed ain’t what he used to be.

Hate Crime Legislation: A Shocking Disregard for Federalism

Last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings (video at the link) on the proposed federal hate crimes bill showed the dark underbelly of the Senate. The road to undermining the rule of law is being paved with the best of intentions and casual disregard (if not outright hostility) for the principles of limited government and equality under the law.

I raise some objections to the bill in this podcast:

The bill federalizes violent acts against victims by reason of their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

Never mind that these acts are already prosecuted by the states, and that violent crimes of this nature are universally perceived as an affront to justice. Matthew Shepard, the gay man brutally killed in Wyoming, has provided one of the rallying cries for passage of this legislation. His killers both received two consecutive life sentences from a state court. James Byrd, Jr., the African-American man dragged to death behind a truck in Texas, is cited as another reason to pass the law. His killers received death sentences or life imprisonment.

The federal government would also be authorized to prosecute whenever “the verdict or sentence obtained pursuant to State charges left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence.” While this doesn’t violate the letter of the Supreme Court’s Double Jeopardy jurisprudence (the federal and state governments are considered separate sovereigns) it certainly violates its spirit.

The hearing video shows a complete disregard for limitations on federal power. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) claims that we need a “uniform” law across the states (82 minute mark). This claim ignores the fact that 45 states have their own hate crime laws and that violence against others is universally unlawful and routinely prosecuted. It also disregards the fact that general police powers belong to the states, not to the federal government.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) then makes a brief appearance (89 minute mark) to slander opponents of the legislation - how could anyone oppose legislation with such a noble goal? He claims that this is tantamount to saying that it is acceptable to harm people because you do not like who they are.

The problem is that a broad array of actions are implicated as “hate crimes.” Virtually all rapes seem to fall under the new law - it is hard to see how the choice of a rape victim would not implicate their sex. Gail Heriot, a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights (which came out 6-2 against this legislation), testified that when she consulted with Department of Justice attorneys in previous attempts to pass this legislation, they didn’t seem fazed by this prospect.

Don’t expect the application of this legislation to be the rare and exceptional prosecution that Attorney General Holder promises in his testimony. Janet Cohen testified that her upbringing in a racially divided America decades ago justifies passage of this law. She also proposes that prosecutions with the new law will be “wise” on account of Holder’s “brilliance and integrity.”

And to think, we were once a nation of laws, not of men.

This legislation doesn’t promote the rule of law, it undermines it. Prosecutions that favor one group of victims over another mark the destruction of equality before the law.

The worst facet of the legislation is its counterproductive nature. A real true believer, a hardcore racist or homophobe, would want to be prosecuted under a statute that criminalizes his motives. Prosecution under a murder statute makes him a common criminal; prosecution for murdering someone given special status by the government makes him a martyr for his cause and incites those motivated by his brand of hatred and animus.

This is nothing new. The Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) criminalized harassment, vandalism and violence against companies that test their products on animals. When seven activists from Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty tried to intimidate people associated with Huntingdon Life Sciences, a company engaged in animal testing, they weren’t just prosecuted for stalking. They were prosecuted for conspiracy to violate a federal statute enacted at the behest of their target industry. This made martyrs of the “SHAC 7” and highlighted the undue influence that an industry can exert over government. The focus is now on the propriety of the law used to prosecute someone, not the fact that they unlawfully stalked people engaged in lawful commercial activity.

You don’t defeat politically motivated violence by politicizing the laws used to prosecute it.

Murder is always murder most foul. We criminalize rape, assault, vandalism, and criminal threats because they harm a citizen - not a super-citizen held in some special regard by the government.

For more Cato work on hate crime legislation, go here and here.

Why Wal-Mart Supports an Employer Mandate

wal-mart-logoA couple of years ago, I shared a cab to the airport with a Wal-Mart lobbyist, who told me that Wal-Mart supports an “employer mandate.”  An employer mandate is a legal requirement that employers provide a government-defined package of health benefits to their workers.  Only Hawaii and Massachusetts have enacted such a law.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Wal-Mart is a capitalist success story.  At the time of our conversation, this lobbyist was helping Wal-Mart fight off employer-mandate legislation in dozens of states.  Those measures were specifically designed to hurt Wal-Mart, and were underwritten by the unions and union shops that were losing jobs and business to Wal-Mart.

But it all became clear when the lobbyist explained the reason for Wal-Mart’s position: “Target’s health-benefits costs are lower.”

I have no idea what Target’s or Wal-Mart’s health-benefits costs are.  Let’s say that Target spends $5,000 per worker on health benefits and Wal-Mart spends $10,000.  An employer mandate that requires both retail giants to spend $9,000 per worker would have no effect on Wal-Mart.  But it would cripple one of Wal-Mart’s chief competitors.

So yesterday’s news that Wal-Mart is publicly endorsing a “sensible and equitable” employer mandate – i.e., a mandate that hurts Target but not Wal-Mart – didn’t come as a surprise to me.  It merely confirmed what I learned in a cab on the way to the airport: Wal-Mart has gone native.  That great symbol of the benefits of free-market competition now joins its erstwhile enemies among the legions of rent-seeking weasels who would rather run to government for protection than earn their keep by making people’s lives better.

In 2007, Wal-Mart officially joined the Church of Universal Coverage when it entered one of those countless strange-bedfellows coalitions with the Service Employees International Union.  At the time, I criticized Wal-Mart for “self-congratulatory puffery” and “jump[ing] on the big-government bandwagon.”  I also criticized then-CEO Lee Scott for spouting economic nonsense.  (I later learned that Scott was not amused.)

This is so much worse than that.