National Standards = Terrible; Ed Tax Credits = Effective, Popular, and Passing

Over on Flypaper, Mike Petrilli takes a swipe at NEAL McCluskey for pointing out why national standards are doomed to failure.

And then he compares the infeasibility of national standards, as a method of improving education, to the political difficulty of passing something like our proposal for broad-based education tax credits that would open universal access to school choice.

You see, national standards that improve education are literally an impossible dream because the method is doomed to fail, regardless of its chances of becoming legislation. Broad-based school choice is merely a difficult endeavor like any major reform. But if enacted, it will improve education significantly.

Petrilli implies that a “universal” education tax credit system is impossible.

Really? You mean something akin to the universal voucher program that became law in Utah but was repealed by voters?

Or maybe the donation tax credit programs in Arizona and Georgia, which have no income limits? Those are universal in principle, Mike. A continuing expansion of funding will make them universal in fact.

Our Public Education Tax Credit model legislation combines personal-use credits like those that exist in 3 states with the kind of donation tax credits that exist in 6 states.

Polling consistently shows that universal programs are much more popular than targeted ones. And education tax credits are extremely popular … even a majority of current and former public school employees support education tax credits!

Wake up, Mike. We’re talking about the expansion and combination of widely used, popular, and increasingly bipartisan policies that work.

Biden and “Dumb Wars”

In his now-famous 2002 speech, then state-senator Barack Obama said, “I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” And that would certainly represent an improvement over what we’ve got now. Curious, then, that Obama’s picked a running mate who seems to have no such objection.

Today’s Washington Post details Biden’s role in enabling our Iraq adventure. It’s hardly a “Profiles in Courage” moment, and it also points up the gutless and constitutionally suspect manner in which Congress authorized the war: by delegating the final decision over war and peace to the president:

In the days that led up to the vote on the war resolution, Biden and McCain stood together on the Senate floor, sometimes fighting against each other, sometimes fighting in tandem. They teamed up to shoot down an amendment by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) that would have forced Bush to seek further authorization before an actual invasion. They were on opposite sides of the effort to narrow the war mission from regime change in Iraq to combating Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. And Biden expressed plenty of misgivings about Bush’s intentions.

“The president always has the right to act preemptively if we are in imminent danger. If they are coming up over the hill, he can respond. If troops are coming out of Tijuana, heading north, we can respond. If they are coming down from Toronto, we can respond. If missiles are on their way, we can respond. But that is not the way I hear it being used here. We are talking about preemption, as if we are adopting a policy,” Biden said.

….

But in Biden’s closing remarks before the war vote in 2002, he also voiced a remarkable degree of trust in Bush. “The president has argued that confronting Iraq would not detract from the unfinished war against terrorism. I believe he is right. We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “

Walk, chew gum, and play the harmonica, perhaps–having learned little from the Iraq experience, Biden in April 2007 called for American boots on the ground in Darfur:

Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic presidential candidate, called Wednesday for the use of military force to end the suffering in Darfur.

“I would use American force now,” Biden said at a hearing before his committee. “I think it’s not only time not to take force off the table. I think it’s time to put force on the table and use it.”

In advocating use of military force, Biden said senior U.S. military officials in Europe told him that 2,500 U.S. troops could “radically change the situation on the ground now.”

Joe Biden’s So-So Record on Trade

During his long tenure in the Senate, Joe Biden of Delaware has compiled a mixed record on votes affecting our freedom to participate in the global economy. The record of the Democratic vice-presidential hopeful is more pro-trade than Barack Obama’s but much less so than John McCain’s.

According to our “Trade Vote Records” feature on the Cato trade center web site, Biden has voted in favor of lower trade barriers on 24 out of 48 votes in the past 15 years. On trade-distorting subsidies, such as farm price supports, he has voted for lower subsidies on only 3 of 11 votes. Since Obama joined the Senate in 2005, he has voted for lower barriers 36 percent of the time and for lower subsidies 0 percent. John McCain has voted for lower barriers on 88 percent of votes and for lower subsidies on 80 percent.

Here are the highlights and lowlights of Biden’s voting record on trade:

On the positive side from a free trade perspective, he voted consistently to maintain normal trade relations with China, including permanent NTR in 2000; for the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1993; for the Uruguay Round Agreements Act in 1994; for the Freedom to Farm Act in 1996; for fast-track trade promotion authority in 1998; to defund enforcement of the travel ban to Cuba; to cut sugar production subsidies; and in favor of the Morocco and Australian free trade agreements in 2004.

On the negative side for those who support the freedom to trade, Biden voted for steel import quotas in 1999; for the 2002 and 2008 protective and subsidy laden farm bills; against trade promotion authority in 2002; against the Chile, Singapore, Oman, and Dominican Republic-Central American FTAs; in favor of the Byrd amendment directing anti-dumping booty to complaining companies; in favor of imposing steep tariffs on imports from China to force changes in that country’s currency regime; and in favor of screening of 100 percent income shipping containers by 2012.

For a senator who prides himself on his foreign policy experience, Biden’s record shows great ambivalence about American participation in the global economy.

Joe Biden and Limited Government

Barack Obama and Joe Biden both get a perfect 100 from the big-government liberal Americans for Democratic Action, which probably tells you all you need to know. But I remember a dramatic moment back in 1991 when Biden made his commitment to unlimited government clear and dramatic. Clarence Thomas had been nominated for the Supreme Court, and Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was questioning him. Biden bore in on the possibility that Thomas might believe in “natural law,” the idea, as Tony Mauro of USA Today summarized it, that “everyone is born with God-given rights - referred to in the Declaration of Independence as ‘inalienable rights’ to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - apart from what any law or the Constitution grants.” Biden singled out Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein and Cato author Stephen Macedo and demanded to know if Thomas agreed with them that the Constitution protects property rights. Waving Epstein’s book Takings in the air like Joe McCarthy with a list of communists, Biden demanded to know, as we very loosely paraphrased it in Cato’s 25-year Annual Report (pdf; page 14), “Are you now or have you ever been a libertarian?” As most judicial nominees do when pursued by a senator roused to defend his power like a mama bear, Thomas assured Senator Biden that he wouldn’t take the Constitution too seriously. Here’s Biden on the warpath:

Was Biden right to worry? Well, as we said in the Annual Report, four years later Thomas joined the Court in declaring, “We start with first principles. The Constitution creates a Federal Government of limited powers.” But ten years later the Court finally considered whether the Constitution protects property rights and said, “Ehh, not so much.” Thomas protested, “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not.” Biden was right to worry that Thomas’s understanding of individual rights and the Constitution just might put some limits on the power of government.

We Want Better Answers

I want to thank Mike Petrilli for trying to answer the big national standards question: Why would national academic standards be any less vulnerable to political forces dumbing them down than currently rock-bottom state and local standards? Unfortunately, Mike’s answer is far from satisfying, but since he wrote it while playing Jim McKay, he can probably be excused…for the moment.

Mike kicks off his response by pointing out that Fordham actually addressed this question two years ago in To Dream the Impossible Dream: Four Approaches to National Standards and Tests for America’s Schools. He even takes a snarky dig at Eduwonk—who recently asked the big politics question—for acting like he didn’t know the answer even though he was an expert voice in Impossible Dream

Mike will be glad to know that I read the report when it came out (despite my outrage at its exploiting a favorite inspirational song). I did not, however, really get an answer to my question from it, either the first time I read it or in my dutiful re-reading. The report was more a heavily excerpted roundtable discussion on national standards and tests than a rigorous analysis of specific proposals, and it offered thin treatments of the special-interest-power problem.

While we’re on the report, by the way, I need to stand up for the currently vacationing Eduwonk (he’s had guest bloggers for the last couple of weeks) because it seems that not only he, but Mike himself, may not have read Impossible Dream.

In the report, the Fordham authors, including Mike, endorsed the second model discussed, dubbed “If You Build It, They Will Come.” (Sappy movies and musicals really take a beating in this thing.) That model would have the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)—a quasi-independent entity that currently runs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—create national standards, exams, and accountability metrics in reading, mathematics, and science, and would encourage state adoption either by offering states more money or regulatory relief.

Despite the endorsement of model #2 in the report, Mike points to the third proposal—“Let’s All Hold Hands”—in his blog post as the model to embrace. This Kumbaya little number would have Washington possibly provide financial or other incentives to get states to adopt common standards and tests, but the standards and tests would be created by consortia of states or other non-federal entities. This, Mike says, would evade teacher unions and other standards-sinking interests by furnishing “political cover for governors and state chiefs who want higher standards but can’t easily sell it to their local constituents.”

Since Mike seems to be presenting us with two favored national-standards scenarios, we’ll explore why neither offers anything akin to hope. Let’s start, though, with an assessment of the likely effects of all possible standards-and-adoption combos in a system in which those to be held accountable have outsized influence over the policies that would do the holding:

1. Easy standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will likely adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
2. Challenging standards and tests, voluntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will have little incentive to adopt the standards and outcomes will be poor.
3. Easy standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the standards and have little political incentive to lower them. The outcomes, however, will be poor.
4. Challenging standards and tests, involuntary adoption: Politicians at all levels will adopt the tests, but will face constant political pressure to make them easier. The outcomes will ultimately be poor.

The conclusion here is clear: When schools are controlled by government, the incentive structure always leads to poor outcomes because the people who would be held to the standards — and who have the greatest incentive and ability to affect policy — have every natural incentive to keep standards low while maximizing their freedom and income. So, make the standards tough and they’ll either be ignored or pushed down. Make ‘em easy, and they won’t matter. Roughly a century of public schooling has shown this, and Mike seems to agree that, at least so far, neither the states nor Washington have disproven it.

So would “If They Build It, They Will Come” curb the scenarios above? Nope. If the feds—which includes the NAGB—were to set truly demanding standards and strong incentives to adopt them, serious pressure would be put toward easing the standards.

What could counter it? Fordham rests its hopes on two things: NAGB’s independence, and voluntary participation.

The former, frankly, seems worthless, predicated largely on the fact that the NAGB is currently insulated from politics. But currently there isn’t a dime connected to how well states or schools do on NAEP — it carries no tangible consequences. Attach real regulatory relief or money to adopting the standards and doing well on them, however, and it’ll be sayonara to political insulation. Indeed, Fordham concedes in Impossible Dream that the NAGB “could be compromised by the changes and added burdens here.”

Voluntary adoption is an even flimsier defense. Make the standards too high relative to the rewards of volunteering and states won’t sign-on. In contrast, couple high standards with big rewards and, well, re-read what I just wrote about the NAGB. 

How about “Let’s All Hold Hands”? Mike asserts that this lateral, state-consortia approach is seeing the most traction, with groups like Achieve getting states to sign onto common standards and assessments. But experience with these consortia so far gives little indication that if the groups were to create challenging standards that students struggle to meet, the standards wouldn’t soon be hollowed out. Most states in Achieve’s American Diploma Project, for instance, have only just started aligning their standards and graduation requirements with common benchmarks, and there’s been no time to see what happens if lots of kids or schools can’t hit the standards and are punished as a result.

As for “political cover” for state policymakers who would impose tough but unpopular standards and accountability, I see no reason why a consortium couldn’t just as easily furnish cover to weaken standards or accountability as raise them.

I can just hear it now:

“Mom! Washington State and Maryland are making things easier on themselves! Why can’t we?”

“Be quiet and finish your homework! What? You don’t have any…”

Make no mistake: I’m grateful to Mike for trying to answer my burning national-standards question. Really, I am. But harsh reality just seems to eclipse impossible dreams.

Pre-K Pushers Don’t Know and Don’t Care About the Evidence

Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell have a great article in the Wall Street Journal that argues we should be very concerned about the current mania for preschool.

In response, USA Today editorial page editor and president of the Education Writers Association Richard Whitmire pens this gem on Eduwonk:

I don’t see the need to defend the research behind the benefits of preschool, but here’s the latest I wrote on this.

You’d think his link would take you to a definitive statement revealing the indisputable benefits of preschool. That is, something substantive containing actual analysis.

Unfortunately, his “analysis” consists of a breezy and factually incorrect USA Today editorial swooning over Oklahoma’s universal pre-K program:

Oklahoma educators credit their decade-old preschool program with pushing up reading and math scores in the lower grades, and with raising achievement by low-income children.

In reality, Oklahoma lost substantial ground compared to the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, AKA “the nation’s report card”) during the 1990’s at the very same time the state was aggressively expanding preschool access, increasing attendance, and building a system that the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) rates 9 out of 10 on quality.

  • Oklahoma slipped from one point above the national average in 4th grade math in 1992 to two points behind in 2007.
  • Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading scores plummeted. In 1992, 4th grade reading scores were 5 points above the national average and in 2007 they were 3 points behind.

The one finding Witmire cites — from the High/Scope Perry Preschool project — included home visitations in addition to preschool and had serious methodological problems.

Our Convoluted, Less-than-open Immigration System

If you think the United States has an “open border” policy toward immigrants, check out this immigration flowchart put together by our friends over at the Reason Foundation.

In one graphic sweep, it explains better than mere words why we need comprehensive immigration reform.

Of course, if you are one of those people who like to read the articles and not just look at the pictures, you can check out Cato research on immigration at the Center for Trade Policy Studies web site.