Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Obama signs education initiative for Hispanic children

Two weeks before elections in which Democrats in several states are nervous that depressed turnout by Latino voters could cost them their jobs, President Barack Obama signed an executive order Tuesday to improve educational opportunities for Hispanic children.

Obama's order appeared to be, at least in part, a bid to rally Latinos behind Democrats and him this election season. Many Latinos traditionally back Democrats. Their votes could be of particular consequence in close contests this year in Texas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington state.

A survey that the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center released this month found that education, jobs and health care rank as the top issues for registered Latino voters. Immigration came in fifth, behind federal budget deficits.

The order Obama signed renews the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. The program, an effort to determine the causes of the achievement gap between Hispanic students and their peers and to work to address them, first began under President George H.W. Bush.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the elections had nothing to do with the executive order. "It's the right thing to do, not because of the political calendar," Gibbs said.

Meanwhile, a battle for Hispanic votes in Nevada grew more heated as a Republican TV commercial urging Latinos not to vote was removed from the airwaves Tuesday amid an outcry from Democrats that it was a dirty trick against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his hotly contested race against Republican Sharron Angle. Reid has fiercely courted the Hispanic vote in the contest against Angle, who supports strict immigration policies.

"Don't vote this November. This is the only way to send them a clear message," the ad's narrator says in Spanish. The Republican group Latinos for Reform had planned to run the commercials in Nevada, Florida, California, Texas and Colorado through the Nov. 2 election.


University funding deja vu

Comment on the proposed British upheaval by Jan Boucek

Back in the early 1970s, Canada’s universities were in turmoil from plans to sharply increase tuition fees due surging demand for places and escalating costs to taxpayers.

It all sounds so familiar today. Much of the argument then was similar to that of the UK today – who should attend university, who should pay, what should universities charge, what is the role of the state?

Following Lord Browne’s report last week, there’s some indication that part of the debate may be near a settlement. Although nothing is yet formalised, it seems that UK universities will be able to offer whatever courses they choose at near market-clearing prices. Debate has shifted from the public funding of universities themselves to funding the students directly. No doubt the UK government will remain a big partner to the universities, but the overall structure of academia has moved closer to the Canadian model, if not the full American one.

Back in the 1970s, the fundamental economics of a university education were the same as now – is a university education a consumption good or an investment good?

If the former, then there’s little justification for taxpayer assistance to the consumers of a university education. If a pure consumption good, taxpayers may just as well fund tickets for Premier league football matches. If, on the other hand, a university education is a pure investment good whereby the student increases his or her future income, then again there’s little justification for taxpayer funding.

However, the debate isn’t being framed like that. Instead, positive externalities – social justice, fairness, national productivity and the like - are cited for continued taxpayer funding. Of course, positive externalities are in the eye of the beholder: the Sky Sports subscriber may prefer the externalities of Wayne Rooney scoring a goal for England (if only!) to those of an archaeologist deciphering the writing on a Babylonian vase.

In 1973, an academic study tried to measure the investment component of students’ decision-making process. It found very little evidence that students took any notice of their future earnings when selecting their course of studies. As a denizen then of the various student lounges and bars, I can’t recall any discussion about education as an investment decision. We were too busy having fun, with taxpayers footing the bill.

The study concluded that educational decisions taken by students were driven more by non-investment factors – parental and peer pressure, postponing the dreaded time of actually working for a living, the pleasures of a student lifestyle. As long as the money rained freely from above, there was no need to consider payback time.

UK students currently don’t pay anywhere close to the full cost of their education. As the burden of funding shifts ever more to the student, expect their decisions to become more investment based.

That 1973 undergraduate thesis was under the tutelage of the late Edwin West, an old friend of the ASI, and its author was – me. Plus ça change!


Australia: Results from "stimulus"-driven school-building vary wildly in two nearby schools

THEY are both in the same electorate, both have about the same number of students and both have been given $3 million to spend under the Building the Education Revolution.

But the startling difference between what Mount Crosby and Moggill state schools can afford to build under BER has sparked further outrage over the controversial program, which continues to be dogged by claims of wastage.

At Mount Crosby State School, the centre of one of 21 complaints lodged in Queensland against BER, $3 million is not enough to put four walls around an 831sq m hall and to add a 273sq m library and resource centre to the school's existing 111sq m library.

But Moggill State School, which fought to have its own project manager and won, is building a hall of almost 1500sq m and a library and 458sq m resource centre for the same price.

Alarmed by the differences, Moggill State School P&C Association president Scott Meehan says schools that are still to build under BER should be allowed to choose their own project manager, with the rush to roll out the stimulus program no longer needed because the economy had improved.

"DETA (the Department of Education and Training) is administering our project and Mount Crosby – they know what sort of value for money we got for ours," he said. "How could they be comfortable with the value for money that Mount Crosby is getting?" He said Moggill had ended up expanding its hall by another 200sq m when the P&C realised they had change left from the $3 million.

Opposition education spokesman Bruce Flegg said the comparison between Moggill and Mount Crosby showed taxpayers were footing an enormous bill for inadequate facilities at some schools.

He said all schools should be able to choose their own project and construction managers. "This is one of the most outrageous examples of children's education being robbed by incompetent money-wasting administration that has failed to build what some of these very big schools so desperately needed and provided them with facilities which are clearly not able to meet their needs," Dr Flegg said.

But Education Queensland acting deputy director-general Graham Atkins says it is "unfair" to compare BER projects. "No two BER building projects are the same, each requiring a suite of works that must be viewed in the context of the site requirements, input from the community and other factors," Mr Atkins said.

"The site at Mount Crosby State School has required landfill, retaining walls, piered footings and extensive site services due to the site being less accessible and sloping, whereas the Moggill State School site is very flat."

He said it was the school's decision to build a partially enclosed hall rather than a smaller one. "Value for money has been confirmed by an independent audit quantity surveyor at both Moggill State School and Mount Crosby State School," Mr Atkins said.

The discrepancy comes as Queensland's rollout of BER is set to come under renewed scrutiny with the release of finalised investigations over the next month into complaints about value for money.

A recent federal investigation found $1 billion had been wasted in the rush to roll out the recession-busting school program across the country.


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