Monday, May 31, 2010

The Public Education Spending Binge Must Stop

On Wednesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to publicly shore-up support for the $23 billion “Education Jobs Fund” being considered by Congress. Flanked by union heads Dennis Van Roekel (President, National Education Association) and Randi Weingarten (President, American Federation of Teachers) and Representatives Dave Obey (D-WI) and George Miller (D-CA), Secretary Duncan pleaded for additional taxpayers dollars:
School boards and state legislatures are finalizing their education budgets for the upcoming school year and many face tough choices about whether to retain teachers and continue programs that are vital to their ability to provide a world-class education for their students. We must act quickly and responsibly to provide schools the resources they need so they don’t have to make choices that would not be in the best interests of their students and teachers.

But the Washington Post today editorializes against Congress’ plans for another public education bailout, suggesting that the doom-and-gloom picture painted by the administration is overblown:
The unions predict layoffs could go as high as 300,000. It’s hard to imagine losing that many teachers without some damage to learning.

But that many teachers almost certainly are not going to lose their jobs. For technical reasons, school districts must send notices in the spring to more teachers than they actually expect to let go in the fall. What’s more, the unions’ 300,000 estimate includes not only classroom teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade but also support staff and college professors. The bill would distribute money to states according to their population, not expected layoffs; states where no layoffs are imminent would get checks anyway, and the majority of states would receive more than they could possibly need to avoid layoffs. The Senate version of the bill permits them to spend the excess on other things.

The Post hits the nail on the head. For the past several decades, states have acted like a hungry child at an all-you-can-eat buffet. When the economy was good and state revenues were plush, school districts increased staff roles. And more recently, with eyes bigger than their stomachs, a seemingly endless buffet of federal funding has enabled states to continue bloating their staff roles even when state budgets needed trimming. In particular, states piled up on non-teaching staff positions. In the mid-20th century for example, public schools employed about 2 teachers for every non-teacher on their rolls; today, only half of those people employed by public school districts are teachers.

But the billions in additional taxpayer dollars the administration seeks will continue to support a decades-long hiring binge by states. From the 1997–98 school year to the 2006–07 school year, student enrollment in public schools increased 6.8 percent. Over the same time period, the number of teachers in the classroom increased 15.8 percent.

The Post suggests that, if intent on spending another $23 billion of taxpayer dollars on public education, Congress should press for long-term education reforms.
If the goal were to preserve the maximum number of good K-12 teachers at minimum cost, the bill would encourage states to lay off teachers according to ability, rather than seniority — as current rules, sacrosanct to unions, dictate… Many jobs could be saved if more teachers accepted wage and benefits restraint, as workers in other hard-pressed industries have done.

Last year, the Department of Education received an unprecedented $98 billion through the so-called stimulus. Although that money was supposed to span a two-year period, Congress and the Obama administration are already asking taxpayers for billions more to support unsustainable public education spending. Instead of coming back to taxpayers for another public sector bailout, states should work on cutting costs in areas that are long overdue for reform: age-old tenure practices, teacher compensation and pension reform. Not only would this prevent already overburdened taxpayers from incurring more debt, but it would put states on a path toward meaningful education reform.


Give peace a chance with government-free schools

by Jeff Jacoby

THE TEXAS STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION made headlines this month when it approved new curriculum standards for US history and social studies. The standards -- which dictate what will be taught in Texas public schools and incorporated in textbooks and achievement tests -- include teaching students about the "unintended consequences" of the Great Society, the link between McCarthyism and "Soviet agent infiltration of the US government," and how government regulations and taxes affect consumer prices. Critics (mostly liberal) blasted the new standards as a politicized travesty; supporters (mostly conservative) praised them as a long-overdue rebalancing. After months of debate, during which more than 20,000 people submitted comments, they were adopted on a party-line vote.

A new Arizona law, meanwhile, restricts what can be taught in ethnic studies classes in the state's public schools. The measure bars any courses that "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group" or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." The legislation was a pet project of state school chief Tom Horne, a candidate for attorney general and a vocal opponent of the Mexican-American Studies Program in the Tucson public schools. The new law was greeted with indignation from Hispanic activists and a protest outside the headquarters of the Tucson school district.

Such skirmishing over textbooks and classroom instruction is anything but new. It was 85 years ago last Tuesday -- May 25, 1925 -- that John Scopes was indicted in Dayton, Tenn., for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. Scopes, a high school science teacher, was charged with violating a law passed by the Tennessee legislature and signed by the governor just two months earlier. His "monkey trial" that summer drew thousands of spectators and made front-page headlines nationwide. More than 80 years before that, a controversy over Bible reading in the Philadelphia public schools led to deadly riots, in which 25 residents were killed, more than 100 were wounded, and dozens of homes and churches were burned down.

"Throughout American history," writes Neal McCluskey, a scholar at the Cato Institute, "public schooling has produced political disputes, animosity, and sometimes even bloodshed between diverse people." Political fighting is neither rare nor anomalous: In the course of just one school year, 2005-06, McCluskey tallied almost 150 reported cases of public-school conflicts.

There were bitter battles that year over Darwinism-vs.-intelligent-design in Pennsylvania and Kansas, heated fights over books about Cuba in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and an emotional dispute in California over the portrayal of Hindus in history texts. In at least 13 states, controversies flared over what should be taught in sex-education classes. And in Lexington, Mass., a teacher's decision to read a story celebrating gay marriage to her second-grade class without notifying parents first triggered a fight that ultimately wound up in federal court.

Again and again, Americans find themselves at war with each other over public schooling. Yet furious conflict over religion in this country is almost unheard-of. Why? Why don't American Catholics and Protestants angrily attack each other's views of clerical celibacy or papal infallibility? Why is there no bitter struggle between Orthodox and Reform Jews to control the content of the Sabbath liturgy? Why don't American atheists clash with American believers over whether children should be taught to pray before going to sleep?

Americans presumably feel as strongly about religion as they do about education. So why does the endless variety of religious life in the United States lead to so little strife, while the strife over public schooling never seems to end?

The answer is no mystery. America is a land of religious freedom, in which people decide for themselves what to believe and how to worship. No religion is funded by government. No church or synagogue has a state-supported monopoly. Elected officials have no say in the doctrines of any faith or the content of any religious service. Religion flourishes in America because church and state are separate. And it flourishes so peacefully because no one is forced to support anyone else's faith, or to attend a church he isn't happy with, or to bring up children according to the religious views of whichever faction has the most votes.

Religion is peaceful because it is government-free. Liberate the schools, and they too would be at peace. Taxpayer-funded, one-curriculum-fits-all schooling makes conflict inevitable. There would be far less animosity if parents were as free to choose how and where their children learn as they are to choose how and where they worship. Separation of church and state has made America an exemplar of religious pluralism and tolerance. Imagine what separation of school and state could do for education.


Companies ignoring British graduates for jobs that need good language skills

British students let down by their educational system again -- but they all know how to "save the planet"

British employers are ignoring graduates from the UK, assuming that they cannot speak foreign languages. Managers of some leading companies, in research seen by The Times, admitted that they do not consider British candidates for jobs that need another language.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has received complaints from overseas businesses setting up in Britain about the lack of language skills among British graduates.

Research for Cilt, the government-funded National Centre for Languages, has uncovered the extent of the problem. Personnel managers from Boots, McDonald’s, Google, RBS and the law firm Slaughter and May, and medium-size businesses across a range of sectors, were among those interviewed. Cilt found: “Employers view the pool of those with high-level language skills as a global one, with the UK a relatively weak player. Candidates were more likely to come from outside the UK. Indeed, some employers feel our young people are falling behind, or at a disadvantage, in comparison to those from other countries.”

One respondent from a large company said: “We would look abroad if we wanted applicants with strong language skills.” There is growing demand for applicants who can speak another language, because more companies are international, the research suggested.

Businesses bringing investment to Britain, particularly those from Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands, have complained to the Foreign Office about having to recruit engineers from their home countries or elsewhere. A source said they expected people in technical or management jobs to have a good grasp of the parent company’s home language, but that was missing among British applicants.

The number of teenagers taking a foreign language GCSE has dropped by a third since studying one stopped being compulsory in 2004, a trend reflected at universities.

Employers have noticed the difference. Keith Herrmann, deputy chief executive of the Council for Industry and Higher Education, said: “Increasingly, many of our member companies recruit globally and are looking for people who have a global perspective.

“Crucial to that is an expertise in languages. Graduates who have international experience are highly employable because they can demonstrate that they have drive, resilience and intracultural sensitivities, as well as language skills. Young people need to understand that they are not competing against their neighbour, but in a global marketplace.”


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