Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Hoosiers Show the Way

A nice piece recently published in the venerable Economist reports some good news out of the state of Indiana. The Hoosier state, under the enlightened leadership of Governor Mitch Daniels, has enacted a series of school reforms — reforms that are paying off handsomely for the children of the state.

The reforms crafted by Daniels and his superintendent of schools are interesting, among other reasons, because they are so wide-ranging. They include:

* creating a voucher program for poor students;

* encouraging and empowering more charter schools;

* enhancing the autonomy of school principals to fire the obvious deadwood and respond to parents’ legitimate pressures;

*requiring that teacher evaluations incorporate data on actual student performance.

Naturally, the rentseeking teachers unions hotly oppose these reforms (as they oppose almost all reforms, of any kind). Their position is: how dare these miserable, ungrateful, unwashed parents of kids in failing public schools insist on their right to send their kids elsewhere — or gain the right to see pertinent facts about the performance of the public schools?

The piteous cry is, “What is this country coming to?”

Of course, the deepest of the Indiana reforms is the establishment of a voucher program — which may well become the biggest in the country. Despite the unions’ vicious (and also morally vile) jihad against school reform in general and school choice in particular, there are now 32 voucher programs spread over 16 states. These programs educate only a small portion (210,000 students in total) of all America’s K-12 students, but they represent a growing threat to the dysfunctional status quo.

The anti-voucher forces trot out the usual lies: vouchers drain resources from public schools; they violate the separation of church and state. The replies are obvious. For every student who leaves a public school to attend a private one, yes, the district loses money, but it also saves the money it would have spent on that selfsame student. Apparently, unionized teachers can’t do simple arithmetic. Big surprise.

Further, the Supreme Court has already ruled that vouchers given directly to parents (who can decide to use them at religious, or atheist, private schools) do not violate the separation of church and state — no more than Pell Grants and the GI Bill of Rights, the benefits of which have always been usable at religious colleges. Apparently, unionized teachers don’t know history, either.

In fact, the voucher amount is usually much smaller, per student, than what is spent by public school districts. The Economist draws the obvious conclusion: vouchers save taxpayers’ money.

But I regard that as the least important advantage of vouchers. The most important, the crucial, advantage is that voucher programs (and other forms of school choice) rescue kids from stultified lives of needless underachievement.


Price of Obama's 'college affordability'

"No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don't have the money," President Obama told the Democratic National Convention as he accepted his party's nomination in Charlotte, N.C., this month.

That sentence - key in Obama's "college affordability" agenda - says everything about this administration's approach to selling itself to the American voter.

What's wrong with the message? Let me count the ways.

-- It ignores reality. There is no reason a qualified poor kid cannot get into college in the United States simply because of money. Richard J. Vedder, director of Ohio University's Center for College Affordability and Productivity, told me that Obama is correct, "people might get an acceptance at a relatively expensive private school that they can't afford to go to." But if students are accepted into one college, they can get into another, more affordable college, such as a community college, where Pell Grants cover tuition.

"If he's saying that not everyone can get into whatever college they want to get into, he's probably right," Vedder said. "I'm not sure that the American people would agree that every student should be able to get into the school they want." As an example, he mentioned Harvard.

-- It hints that GOP rival Mitt Romney would usher in a Hobbesian era in which poor kids are denied all opportunity to a college education.

To the contrary, Brookings Institution fellow Beth Akers recently blogged that Romney has "expressed a preference for redistributing aid dollars toward the neediest students."

Akers concluded that both Obama and Romney want to "tackle" college affordability - Romney through market-based reforms, Obama with increased Pell Grants and price controls.

-- It ignores the fact that a college education is not a ticket to the middle class or beyond if graduates cannot land good jobs.

The Associated Press crunched government data recently and found that 53 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. These graduates need good jobs far more than they need a break paying off their student loans. They need careers. They need to see an economic future, a path that can lead them out of a downsized economy.

Recent graduates need a president who can instill employers with the confidence to hire new workers. Yet all Obama can do is wave the promise of bigger loans that are easier to pay off.  Or not pay off.

-- It peddles a form of loan forgiveness in the name of "affordability."

Congress already passed an Obama measure to cap student loan payments at 15 percent of a graduate's discretionary income and forgive any outstanding balance after 25 years. This year, the Democratic National Committee platform held out "avenues for students to manage their federal student loans so that their payments can be only 10 percent of what they make each month." Actually, last year the president issued an executive order that set a loan-payment cap of 10 percent of income and proclaimed forgiveness of outstanding loan balances after 20 years for some graduates.

Romney's plan is to offer smarter financial aid, countered campaign policy director Lanhee Chen, "by working to create more diverse, affordable options for postsecondary education and by simplifying the financial aid system."

The Democrats' 2012 platform warns: "Tuition at public colleges has soared over the last decade and students are graduating with more and more debt; but Mitt Romney thinks students should 'shop around' for the 'best education they can afford.' "

Like it's a bad thing for young people to think about finances when they look at college or a trade school.

America's student-loan debt now exceeds the public's unhealthy credit-card debt. Still, the Democrats think it's bad for students to think about financial considerations when they pick a school.

The president's remedy is to tell Americans: Vote for me, and you can take out really big student loans. Be not afraid. As Vedder noted, "You've got a pretty good chance you won't have to pay it back."

Key elements of President Obama's "College Affordability" plan:

-- Double investments in Pell Grants. Maximum grant raised to $5,635. Number of grant recipients increased by 50 percent.

-- Help graduates manage student-loan debt with "income-based repayment" schedule.

-- Expand American Opportunity Tax Credits by providing up to $10,000 for four years of college tuition for families earning up to $180,000.


British students spend too long in bed or the pub

Traditional universities allow students too much time to sleep or go to the pub, AC Grayling has said.

The philosopher has rounded on modern institutions for allowing undergraduates too much time of their own, claiming there was “too much slack” on degree programmes.

His comments were made as he prepares to open his private university, the New College of Humanities (NCH).  Some 60 students will be the first to take his re-imagined £18,000 courses, which have been described as “double degrees” because of their workload.

“There's room in an undergraduate's life for more," Professor Grayling said, in an interview with the Sunday Times Magazine.   "There's too much slack. They could certainly spend less time in the pub or bed."

This year’s intake will complete a “major” as well as extra modules in subjects such as science, logic and critical thinking.

Professor Grayling compared his educational philosophy to the Aristotelian principle of making “noble use of our leisure time.”

"The obsolescence-proof thing you can take with you to the future is an ability to think broadly,” he said.

His new college, which draws on the Oxbridge model of one-to-one tutorials, has been accused of encouraging elitism by charging double the fees at Oxford or Cambridge.

Among the lecturers on the books are Steven Pinker, a psychology professor from Harvard; a physicist who served Barack Obama, Lawrence M Krauss; and the historian Sir David Cannadine.

Earlier this year, Professor Grayling suffered the embarrassment of having one of his supporters, Professor Steve Jones, withdraw from the enterprise over its fees.

Professor Jones said at the time: “The fees that he has been forced to apply mean that it can now no longer really claim to be about public education, and, for that reason, I have, amicably, withdrawn from it.”

Professor Grayling defended its charges, saying he intends to extend the college’s £250,000 endowment fund.  "I'd like to raise an endowment over time that can pay for everybody who would like to come to the college,” he said. "But I'm not going to wait for 10 years. I've started now."


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