Saturday, December 18, 2010

Real Academic Accountability Requires Real Choices

With fresh data showing that students in the United States are falling further behind their international peers, a commitment to universal parental choice at all levels of government is needed now more than ever. Without putting too fine a point on it, our nation’s sustained competitiveness and long-term economic survival hang in the balance.

According to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — released to considerable hand-wringing in Washington, D.C. last week — America’s reading scores have slipped by four points over the last nine years. Our fifteen-year-old students now trail their counterparts in Shanghai by 56 points — with even larger gaps existing in science (73 points) and mathematics (113 points).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called these disappointing results a “wake-up call,” adding that “I think we have to invest in reform, not in the status quo.”

He’s right. But Duncan’s boss — President Barack Obama — has made it clear that he categorically rejects the one reform that America has yet to try. And not only does Obama oppose expanding parental choice, last year he shut down Washington D.C.’s limited, means-tested program — a decision that prompted USA Today to rethink its previous position on this important issue.

“By federal measures, students at 12,978 U.S. schools are failing to improve adequately — 13% of the total,” USA Today wrote last May. “Giving them another option, by vouchers or by other means, provides an escape route and pressures public schools to improve.”

American politicians have tried to fix our nation’s chronic academic woes with more taxpayer money — but those efforts have failed.

“Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending increased 42 percent between 1989 and 2007, from $7,911 to $11,233 per pupil,” a recent Rockefeller Institute study noted. And thanks to Obama’s bureaucratic bailouts, the recent recession hasn’t slowed this explosive growth. According to the U.S. Department of Education, a record $1.1 trillion was spent on education funding during the 2009-10 school year.

Politicians have also tried adding new layers of bureaucracy — including funding federally-administered education grants beginning in 1965 and creating the 5,000-employee U.S. Department of Education in 1980 to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”

While these efforts have similarly failed to accomplish their objectives, they have succeeded in extending the reach of the federal government far beyond its intended scope — forcing taxpayers to pick up a whopping $1.4 trillion (and counting) tab.

In 1990-91, the federal share of total K-12 spending in the United States was just 5.7 percent. That total has nearly doubled over the intervening two decades to 10.5 percent.

Part of this ever-expanding taxpayer obligation includes new “accountability” measures like President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. Yet instead of erasing the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — and improving test scores — these costly exams have merely created another set of numbers to be manipulated and another layer of bureaucracy to be subsidized.

In their latest attempt at satisfying increasingly impatient parents, politicians have turned to “Choice in Name Only,” or choice within the government-run system. A handful of municipalities – but no states – have also passed limited, means-tested choice programs.

Unfortunately, these efforts have been halfhearted at best — and the limited availability of options has also limited the constituencies needed to protect them from bureaucratic poaching. During the last school year only 62,000 students nationwide were given academic scholarships. Meanwhile, 1.4 million students attended charter schools. To put those numbers in perspective, 57 million students are currently enrolled in public schools.

Why should we try universal choice? Because to be perfectly blunt we’ve tried everything else — and nothing has worked. Also, aside from the perpetual demonization of choice by those who have a vested financial interest in preserving our nation’s failed status quo — why shouldn’t we try it?

Needless to say the stakes are high. For example, a recent study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Stanford University researchers found that if America could boost its average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years, it would result in $41 trillion worth of economic benefits for the generation of Americans born in 2010.

That’s the sort of rising tide that lifts all ships — and could lift this nation to its former glory assuming our leaders summon the courage to try something new. Let’s hope they hurry, because the world clearly isn’t waiting.


Democrats diverging from teachers' unions

Government employee unions have long been one of the Democratic Party's most loyal and dedicated constituencies. For years, Democratic politicians have supported public employee unions' agenda of increased government spending, leading to more government jobs and thus, more potential union members.

For teachers unions - among the most politically powerful government unions - such support has paid off as Democrats have helped them resist popular school reform efforts that could threaten the government school monopoly, including school choice and charter schools.

That was a great deal for the unions and their political allies but a dead weight on everybody else, as taxpayers funded a continually expanding government sector while a growing number parents saw their children stuck in underperforming schools. Cracks finally are starting to show in that alliance - and they may get wider in the near future.

It is perhaps no coincidence that some of the nation's boldest education reformers have been Democrats. From outgoing D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who was a Democrat before he reregistered Republican and is now an Independent) mayors in Democrat-controlled cities are the ones who have faced the most dire conditions in the schools they were elected to oversee.

Both Mr. Fenty and Mr. Bloomberg saw the need for drastic action - thus their appointment and strong support for their respective school chancellors, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, both of whom pursued an aggressive reform agenda.

Now Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, also a Democrat (and with a teachers union background, to boot) has joined the pro-reform chorus. In a speech last week, he denounced his city's teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), as "one unwavering roadblock to reform." He said, "At every step of the way, when Los Angeles was coming together to effect real change in our public schools, UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of reform."

UTLA boss A.J. Duffy angrily dismissed Mr. Villaraigosa's remarks. "Pointing fingers and laying blame does not help improve our schools," he said. Yet pointing fingers at those responsible for the dire state of public schools is what is needed.

Mr. Duffy's reaction, while unfortunate, is not surprising. For he and other government union bosses to change course, the incentive structure under which the UTLA - and government employee unions in general - operate needs to change.

As the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, so honestly put it, "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren." Until they do, Mr. Villaraigosa's call on UTLA leaders to drop their opposition to his administration's reform efforts and join him in making Los Angeles' public schools better is likely to continue falling on deaf ears.


Subsidizing education makes it more expensive

A very unscientific Google search for ‘government education grants’ yields over 4,000,000 hits. There are all manner of scholarships, grants, and loans available for every conceivable category of person, with the possible exception of politically conservative religious white heterosexual males. There is no room on college campuses for hate-filled superstitious racist homophobes.

Not unless they are hate-filled Islamofascist racist homophobes, that is. They apparently go to the front of the Financial Aid line at University. But I digress.

Federal, state, and local governments subsidize higher education with billions of our taxpayer dollars every year. And every year, costs go up. Tuition, textbooks, housing, parking fees . . . you name it. The rate of increase far exceeds the rate of inflation.


But it does not exceed what the market will bear.
When Uncle Sam opened the floodgates to government-backed student loans without parent income restrictions in 1992, colleges welcomed the news with open arms. The sudden injection of millions of additional aid dollars only furthered tuition increases.

When the government made it exceptionally easy for students to borrow massive amounts of money, the colleges followed the lead by increasing their tuition rates. This combination led to record-level borrowing. (Source:

The price is what the market will bear. That is the reason why textbooks that cost perhaps $25 each to publish will fetch upwards of $300 at checkout. And the main reason why higher education costs have skyrocketed over the past 50 years is because – you guessed it – the government subsidizes much of it. There are other contributing factors, but by far the biggest reason why tuition costs have skyrocketed is because everyone (well, everyone outside government) knows that no matter how ridiculously high costs soar, there will be some government subsidy to pay for most or all of it. Favored populations who qualify for these subsidies take for granted that the subsidies will be available semester after semester, year after year. Expectation leads to entitlement, and when a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement is combined with radical leftist pedagogy, you have a timebomb on your hands. This is what is happening in Great Britain, right now.
The once-great British university system has been slowly degenerating thanks to the progressive socialist agenda since the 1960s.

State interference affects the daily attitudes of students and professors. After the Education Act of 1962, University education was subsidized entirely by the taxpayer (or “free,” as the left like to call it) until 1997, when minimal tuition fees were introduced for students — fees that were eventually expanded to allow institutions to charge up to £3,290 in 2006.

So-called “free,” or at least cheap, university education has led to an attitude of apathy and confusion as to what the institution of a university is for. The traditional understanding of a university as an institution of learning has been replaced by the view that university is a place where one has an “experience” or discovers oneself.

With little or no cost to the student, the university attracts many people who would not normally go, but who choose it because it offers a fun way to spend a few years and come away with a qualification at the end. Although there are a number of students who wish to learn, train, and come away with a good degree, the spirit of apathy toward education at even some of the best universities is overwhelming.

Over time, student life has focused more on drink, drugs, and casual sex (assisted by state funded “safe-sex” schemes) than on lectures. Less time in the library and more time in the Student Union bar means more opportunities to be roped into left-wing-controlled “activism,” whether it is fair-trade, animal rights, eco-extremism, or plain old Marxism and anti-Americanism. As I write, news is filtering through that this week’s Stockholm bomber graduated from a British University, just like the “Christmas Day bomber,” Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab. One does not have to look far to see where their anti-Western attitudes may have been formed.

The current university system also allows for lazy lecturing. (Source: Britain’s Left Are Panicking, by Adam Shaw in American Thinker)

The solution to the soaring costs associated with higher education is less government subsidization, thus reducing the amount the market will bear. Other added benefits include more studious students, better teachers, and degrees that actually mean something.


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