Neal McCluskey

Charters—But Not Private Choice—Take A Spill

The annual Education Next gauge of public opinion on numerous education issues is out, and as always it offers lots to contemplate, including special questions this year on the “Trump effect.” I won’t hit everything, just what I see as the highlights.

School Choice

The poll’s headline grabber is a big drop in support for charter schools, public schools run by ostensibly private entities but subject to many public school controls, especially state standards and testing. When people with neutral opinions were removed, 52 percent of respondents approved of “formation” of charters—that word likely made some difference—down from a peak of 73 percent in 2012. With neutral answers included, only 39 percent of the general public supported charters.

The good news is that support for private school choice programs—superior to charters because they offer access to far wider options, including religious schools—saw upticks. Scholarship tax credits remain the choice champ, with support (absent neutral respondents) rising from 65 percent to 69 percent. With neutrals, support stood at 55 percent of the general public. For vouchers, a lot depends on question wording, but without a loaded emphasis on “government funds,” support (minus neutrals) stood at 55 percent, up from 50 percent the previous year. With neutrals, support was at 45 percent, with 37 percent opposing. Education savings accounts—basically, money parents can use not just for tuition, but other education expenses like tutoring or buying standalone courses—garnered only 37 support from the general public, but the concept is pretty new and people may just not have wrapped their heads around it yet.

Why the big drop in charter support but improved backing of private school choice? As always, wording, question order, and other artifacts of the poll itself matter, but assuming those aren’t the major causes of the results, perhaps the answer is that charters, as a compromise between empowering parents and maintaining government control, have traditionally tended to have the highest profile bipartisan support of the various choice mechanisms. As a result of Trump-driven polarization, perhaps they have also had the most visible schisms, maybe casting a more negative light on them. Or maybe people have started to perceive, as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos borrowed from Rick Hess to warn, charters are becoming “the Man” they were supposed to replace.

At Least as Good at a Fraction of the Cost? Some “Flop”!

A lot of well-intentioned people think it is not enough for families to be able to choose schools. They have to choose “good” schools. Those people often do not think private school choice programs that give parents a lot of control over which schools they select are up to par. Fine. But just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it a “clear flop.”

Writing at The 74, Richard Whitmire warns that we should beware Trumps bearing school choice gifts. He argues that President-elect Trump’s proposal to spend $20 billion on school choice could be dangerous not because of, say, federal rules that might be attached to unconstitutional largesse, but because the money might not be restricted to “great” schools. “Great,” presumably, should be defined by legislators or bureaucrats. After all, you don’t want to replicate the Milwaukee voucher program:

Those in the school reform movement learned the hard way that choice alone does not produce more seats in great schools. If that were the case, we’d all be praising the early voucher program in Milwaukee and the widespread charters in Ohio and Michigan. But in all those cases, choice alone produced nothing.

In Milwaukee, for example, which I visited repeatedly while researching my book On the Rocketship, about the creation of one best-in-class charter network, the more-than-two-decade-old voucher experiment proved to be a clear flop. (Note that I didn’t say unpopular. Who objects to free tuition for their kid’s parochial schools?)

Which Schools Best Serve the Public? New U.S. History, Civics Scores Point to Them

The latest 8th grade U.S. history, civics, and geography results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – have been released, and as usual, things seem bleak: only 18 percent of students scored proficient in U.S. history, 23 percent in civics, and 27 percent in geography. These kinds of results, however, should be taken with a few salt grains because we can’t see the full tests, and the setting of proficiency levels can be a bit arbitrary. Also, we don’t…

Kill the Whole Jellyfish, or the Tentacles Will Grow

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether conservatives (I don’t know if anyone thinks libertarians can be reached) should support current No Child Left Behind reauthorization efforts. The “support this” argument is that bills in the House and Senate are not ideal because they would keep a major federal role in education, but they would end many bad things in NCLB and conservatives should take what they can get politically. But we just got a terrific illustration of what happens when you cut off just a few jellyfish tentacles: they grow back.

Yesterday, an amendment was passed in the markup of the Senate bill that would restore the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. What is the 21st CCLC? A Clinton Era program that furnishes funds – $1.2 billion in FY 2015 – for before- and after-school activities and summer programs. The problem: It appears to be a failure. As I discussed a few years ago, federal studies of the program found it not only largely ineffectual, but possibly even a negative influence. As a 2005 report summarized:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

It isn’t just Cato folk who’ve stumbled on the research. The Brookings Institutions’ Mark Dynarski just laid into the 21st CCLC last month, writing that evaluations “reported on how the program affected outcomes. In a series of reports released between 2003 and 2005…the answers emerged: the program didn’t affect student outcomes. Except for student behavior, which got worse.”

State Spending vs. College Prices

Professor Paul Campos, something of an antagonist of our higher education system, caused a bit of ruckus last week when he wrote in the New York Times that skyrocketing college prices cannot be blamed on falling state appropriations to schools. The reality, of course, is that declining public support could explain some of the increase in prices (though not much at private colleges) but it seems unlikely it would explain all of the increases.

Let’s look at the trends.

First, note that overall state and local support, at least for general operations at public institutions, is indeed down over the last several years. Using data from the latest State Higher Education Finance report – released just yesterday – total state and local support for general operations at public colleges, adjusted for inflation using a higher education-specific index, fell from a peak of $83 billion in 2008 to $73 billion in 2014, a pretty big drop. That said, in 1989 total spending was only $64 billion, which means it has risen since then.

Yes, Fixing Higher Ed Means Eliminating Federal Aid

National Review Online is in the midst of its “education week” – including offerings by yours truly and Jason Bedrick – and today brings us a piece by AEI’s Andrew Kelly on how to fix our higher ed system. Unfortunately, while he largely nails the problems, he stumbles on the solution.

Kelly is absolutely right when he criticizes the Obama administration for demonizing for-profit colleges – see my piece for the evidence that for-profits are not the problem – while simultaneously observing how odd it is for conservatives to decry as some great violation of free-market ideals attacks on institutions that get the vast majority of their funds through Washington. He is also right that the entire ivory tower is awash in waste and failure, and all institutions – for-profit or putatively not-for-profit – are self-interested money-grubbers. Finally, he correctly notes that it is a big problem that by far the largest student lender is the Bank of Uncle Sam, who basically gives to anyone who can breathe.

Where Kelly starts to get into trouble is in suggesting that a lot of these troubles could be meaningfully mitigated if we just had the right data readily available to consumers. He writes, “Basic pieces of information needed to make a sound investment — out-of-pocket costs, the proportion of students who graduate on time, the share who earn enough to pay back their loans after graduation — are either incomplete or nonexistent.”

Bennett Piece Exemplifies Core Problems

This morning, former Reagan administration education secretary Bill Bennett took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make the “conservative” case for the Common Core. In that effort, he actually made a great case for Core opponents, illustrating the contradictions of the Core while furnishing several examples of all-too-frequent Core spin. And he did it, ironically, while implying that Core opponents have “badly and sometimes mischievously muddled” the Core story.

To lay all of this out I’ll provide some quotes, then either respond to them with my own information, or with another, largely contradictory, quote from Bennett’s piece. Let’s begin:

First, we can all agree that there is a need for common standards of assessment in K-12 education.

We can? What’s the evidence for that? Bennett offers none, and even loaded polling questions find that only about two-thirds of Americans support generic standards “that are the same across states.” And I, for one, think there need to be competing standards in order to see what works, what works better, and what works for different subsets of the unique individuals we call “children.”

When I was chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 1980s, I asked 250 people across the political spectrum what 10 books every student should be familiar with by the time they finish high school. Almost every person agreed on five vital sources: the Bible, Shakespeare, America’s founding documents, the great American novel “Huckleberry Finn” and classical works of mythology and poetry, like the Iliad and the Odyssey….That’s the fundamental idea behind a core curriculum: preserving and emphasizing what’s essential, in fields like literature and math, to a worthwhile education.

Presumably, the Core includes these readings that almost everyone Bennett polled agreed students should tackle. Right? Um, no:

Why then is Common Core drawing such heavy fire? Some of the criticism is legitimate, but much of it is based on myths. For example, a myth persists that Common Core involves a required reading list. Not so.

Here we see a basic problem for Core supporters: they want the public to believe either that the Core is rich and rigorous, or that it is empty and just a floor, depending, is seems, on whom they are trying to convince to support it. So in one breath they’ll talk about the obvious need for core content, and in the next they’ll protest if anyone says the standards have, well, core content. This may be because there actually is no unanimous agreement on what students should read.

Governors, state education administrators and teachers used these principles as a guide when they developed a set of common standards that were later presented to the country as Common Core. Forty-five states signed up originally.

Let’s be clear: States adopted the Core, in the vast majority of cases, only after the federal government all but said they had to in order to compete for $4 billion in Race to the Top money. Federal force was further applied by the No Child Left Behind waiver program. And all this occurred in the context of federally driven standards and testing since at least 1994. So, would most states have adopted the Core on their own? We don’t know for sure, but the evidence is heavily stacked against it.

Critics accused President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan of dangling federal money to encourage states to adopt the Common Core. The administration never should have done this. It made a voluntary agreement among states look like a top-down directive from the federal government. But remember: The original Common Core standards were separate from the federal government, and they can be separated once again.

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