Friday, March 02, 2012

Too Little, Too Late

The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives is seeking to repeal two Department of Education regulations that intrude on the authority of the states to set education policy.

The Protecting Academic Freedom in Higher Education Act (H.R. 2117) repeals certain Department of Education regulations that for purposes of determining whether a school is eligible to participate in programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA): (1) require institutions of higher education and postsecondary vocational institutions (except religious schools) to be legally authorized by the state in which they are situated, (2) delineate what such legal authorization requires of states and schools, and (3) define “credit hour.”

The bill also “prohibits the Secretary of Education from promulgating or enforcing any regulation or rule that defines ‘credit hour’ for any purpose under the HEA.”

According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.):

"At the end of the day, the unnecessary state authorization and credit hour regulations will reduce local control and create uncertainty in postsecondary education. Instead of over-regulating the nation’s higher education system, we should focus our efforts on simplifying federal involvement and streamlining regulatory burdens."

Although advocates for the Constitution, decentralization, and limited government are rightly cheering this brief bill, it is unfortunately too little, too late.

The current cabinet-level federal Department of Education began operation in 1980. It was cobbled together from elements of the Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare; Defense; Justice; Housing and Urban Development; Agriculture; and some other federal agencies.

The department’s mission is to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Its current budget is about $68 billion.

Headquartered in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Building in Washington, D.C., the Department of Education employs a total of about 3,600 bureaucrats in the nation’s capital at that and five other locations. There are also about another 1,400 staff members who work in ten regional offices. Thirteen of the D.C. education bureaucrats are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. There are also about 110 other political appointees.

Ronald Reagan proposed abolishing of the Department of Education while campaigning for president in 1980. The Republican Party platforms of 1980 and 1996 likewise called for the department’s elimination:

We understand and sympathize with the plight of America’s public school teachers, who so frequently find their time and attention diverted from their teaching responsibilities to the task of complying with federal reporting requirements. America has a great stake in maintaining standards of high quality in public education. The Republican Party recognizes that the achievement of those standards is possible only to the extent that teachers are allowed the time and freedom to teach. To that end, the Republican Party supports deregulation by the federal government of public education, and encourages the elimination of the federal Department of Education.

Our formula is as simple as it is sweeping: the federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula or to control jobs in the work place. That is why we will abolish the Department of Education, end federal meddling in our schools, and promote family choice at all levels of learning. We therefore call for prompt repeal of the Goals 2000 program and the School-To-Work Act of 1994, which put new federal controls, as well as unfunded mandates, on the States. We further urge that federal attempts to impose outcome- or performance-based education on local schools be ended.

But forget for a minute the Republican rhetoric and look instead at the Republican record.

During Reagan’s first six years as president, the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. The budget for the Department of Education increased from $14.7 billion in fiscal year 1981 (Jimmy Carter’s last budget) to $22.8 billion in fiscal year 1989 (Reagan’s last budget).

During George H.W. Bush’s term in office, Congress was in the complete control of the Democrats. By his last fiscal year (1993), the education budget had increased to $32.5 billion.

During Bill Clinton’s last six years in office, the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. Yet the education budget ballooned to $42.1 billion by fiscal year 2001 (Clinton’s last budget).

Under George W. Bush, the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate for more than four years. During his term in office the education budget increased all the way up to $100 billion in fiscal year 2006 before leveling off in the $60 billion range.

That means that Republicans participated in the expansion of the Department of Education with a Republican president and one house of Congress controlled by the Republicans, with a Republican president and both houses of Congress controlled by the Democrats, with a Democratic president and both houses of Congress controlled by the Republicans, and with a Republican president and both houses of Congress controlled by the Republicans.

Contrary to the image that the Republican Party likes to put forth, it is just as committed to socialized education as the Democrats are. Just as it is just as committed to Social Security and socialized medicine.

The Department of Education should be eliminated, but not because it is too expense, not because it has too many bureaucrats, not because it is too intrusive into state and local affairs, not because it has failed to improve education, not because it is too beholden to the teachers’ unions, and not because it promotes a liberal agenda. The Department of Education should be eliminated because the federal government has been given no authority whatsoever by the Constitution to have anything to do with education.

That means no Elementary and Secondary Education Act, no Higher Education Act, no Education for All Handicapped Children Act, no Improving America’s Schools Act, no No Child Left Behind Act, no Race to the Top fund, no National School Lunch Program, no Head Start, no federal student loans, no Pell Grants, no mandates, no vouchers, no initiatives, no directives, no requirements, no regulations, and, of course, no Department of Education.

All of the fifty states have provisions in their constitutions for the operation of K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Of course, libertarians argue against government intrusion into education at all levels — federal, state, and local — on a philosophical level. But on the federal level, that doesn’t even matter. Because there is nothing in the Constitution that grants the federal government the authority to be involved in any manner with education, the immediate elimination of the entire education department and its bureaucrats shouldn’t even be an issue for Democrats and Republicans to fight over.

For the Republicans to now seek to repeal some Department of Education regulations is too little and too late to mean anything.


The great social engineering flop: Billions spent, but poor miss out on British university boom

The billions of pounds spent on expanding universities over the past 20 years has failed to help the poorest children, a study shows. The failure of the comprehensive system was blamed for the stubbornly low proportion of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to researchers.

The boom in places has mainly benefited the middle classes, leaving behind an ‘underclass’, and indirectly precipitating social problems such as the disorder on our streets last summer.

Peter Elias, a Warwick University employment expert who helped lead the research, called on the Government to take urgent steps to improve social mobility.

But he said attempts to engineer university admissions to favour poorer pupils were unworkable. The study, which covered 34,000 Britons, found that teenagers with white-collar parents have taken up university places twice as fast as peers with blue-collar parents.

This is despite a widely publicised drive to boost the proportion of working-class youngsters in further education.

Professor Elias said the dramatic expansion of higher education from the early 1990s had widened the gaps between social groups. ‘There was an opportunity to do something, and it’s clearly been missed. ‘Over the next three, four, five years we are going to need to make significant progress. If we don’t, the whole concept of the underclass is going to reappear.

‘We only need to look at what happened last summer to see what problems lie in wait if we have an unequal distribution across society.’

Professor Elias said reforms aimed at giving parents a wider choice of secondary schools including specialist schools, academies and free schools should help to boost social mobility.

‘Some comprehensives are extremely good – and parents who pay for private education are wasting their money – but clearly some were failing,’ he said.

He said the lowering of university entry requirements for disadvantaged students was a ‘nightmare scenario’. Just as some parents have been caught faking addresses to beat school catchment areas, there would be fake backgrounds in university admissions, he said. ‘If you try to translate these things into quota systems, straightaway people will try to get around the quota,’ he said. ‘You can have fake backgrounds – “my dad was a brickie and my mum a cleaner”. It’s unworkable administratively and politically undesirable.’

The rise in tuition fees and abolition of grants for poor college students could prove a ‘huge obstacle’ to boosting social mobility, he added.

The study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research based at Essex University analysed two groups of adults – one aged 22 to 34 and the other 37 to 49. The older group would have been able to attend university prior to the expansion that began in 1992.

Of these 25.7 per cent had a degree – a figure that rose to 34.3 per cent among the younger group. When the researchers examined the backgrounds of the graduates, they found stark differences.

The rise among teenagers with managerial and professional parents was ten percentage points. Among intermediate occupations, including clerical jobs, nursing and directors of small businesses, it was 11 points. But among families with routine or manual jobs the rise was only five points.


Benign neglect is good for kids

In Japan, kindergarten kids walk home from school without adults

PICTURE this. It is 2005, I arrive for the first time in Tokyo. I am making my way across the busy city when I encounter a small group of kindergarten children walking home from school. They are oblivious to my presence as they busy themselves crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves and chatting. There is not a supervising adult in sight, no older siblings. As a parent I feel a sense of foreboding - I worry about their safety.

I recount my experience to a Japanese colleague and exclaim, "There were no adults watching out for them." He is taken aback. "What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!"

On average, 80 per cent of primary-age Japanese children walk to school. In Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40 per cent. Why? What happens in Japan that makes it so different?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves aged eight in a special place and to describe it. Most recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children, out of earshot of parents: "My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies" (Richard, 36); "We used to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket" (Andrew, 39).

Author Tim Gill would call this parenting style "benign neglect" and for many of us, growing up in baby-boom suburbia, this was our experience. It made us independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors.

I asked the audience if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no.

The big issue for parents around children's independence in the streets is "stranger danger" and child abductions. Statistics show almost all abductions are by family members, and the numbers have been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia are one in 4 million, they answer like Andrew: "I know the chances are slim but I just couldn't forgive myself."

So is there a middle ground between "benign neglect" and "eternal vigilance"? There is in Japan and in Scandinavian countries, where children's independent mobility is high. While parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated activities to increase their safety.

In inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools, shopkeepers are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS-connected device that hangs around a child's neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre. These strategies are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment to the belief that children being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient in a civil, safe and healthy society.

If we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it's our role as community members to let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.


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