Friday, September 06, 2013

Village Academic Curriculum: Cradle to Career

Nearly 50 years and more than $180 million after LBJ launched it, the Head Start program has yet to significantly, some say measurably, improve children's lives. But that's not stopping Barack Obama from trying to extend the program -- and the hand of the federal government -- even closer to the cradle. Recently, he touted his universal pre-k plan, claiming that "it works for our kids" and "provides a vital support system for working parents." In reality, studies show that kids who spend longer hours in daycare fare more poorly than those who spend more time under maternal care. But this fact hardly helps Obama's real goal: getting kids under government teaching from "cradle to career." A head start, indeed -- straight to statism.

Lest you imagine any altruism in Obama's move, consider that his administration is targeting states that have adopted school choice programs. Recently, Obama's Department of Justice went after Louisiana and Wisconsin, citing threats to desegregation and non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, respectively. These states give parents and students non-public school options, effectively stripping government of its primary forum for indoctrinating the young. Coincidence? We think not.


College Costs Will Keep Rising Under Obama Plan

Colleges’ exploitation of young Americans through rapidly rising and increasingly exorbitant fees is a national scandal that can no longer be ignored. In his college tour this week, President Barack Obama is speaking at length about what he intends to do about it, after promising “tough love” on higher education for the last two years.

Some of what he proposes is good in principle; some is very bad.

He wants to expand access to information on colleges by having the Department of Education issue a ranking of institutions relating outcomes to costs. The government has the power, via the Internal Revenue Service, to get some interesting data on college graduates’ earnings, and providing that data to consumers would be useful. Even independent college rankings -- such as those published by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes (the latter compiled by my Center for College Affordability and Productivity) -- could be improved with more data.

Tying federal funding after 2018 to the new federal ratings, which in turn incorporate performance measures such as graduation rates, may be a step toward giving colleges incentives to take cost reduction seriously. But the potential for unintended and damaging consequences is high: If the key to federal funding is raising graduation rates, colleges may lower already abysmally low standards.

Similarly, the proposed funds for promoting educational innovation are, in principle, a good idea. But previous federal education spending in this area has had a pretty dismal result.
Easy Money

Without any federal aid at all, cheap or free online courses are appearing all over. The accrediting agencies will probably try to stall this innovation, because it isn’t controlled by their member universities. A better approach would be to reconsider federal sanctioning of assistance to unaccredited schools, for example.

The president’s proposal has one very bad idea: a forgiveness boon for those paying off loans right now. The proposal, limiting loan payments to 10 percent of income, potentially relieves millions of students from repaying part of their obligation. So why not major in fields the economy values least -- anthropology or drama instead of engineering or math -- if you don’t have to worry about earning enough to pay off your student loans over a certain period?

The idea simply raises incentives for future students to borrow more money, if they know their obligation to pay it back is capped. That, in turn, allows colleges to keep raising costs.

Obama proposes to ignore or worsen the root cause of much of the explosion in student costs: the federal financial assistance programs that encourage schools to raise costs and that haven’t achieved their goals of providing college access to low-income Americans.

Two recent studies highlight the problem. First, the National Center for Education Statistics released data suggesting that federal college financing is growing rapidly. Now 84 percent of full-time undergraduate students get some aid. Average grant assistance for dependent full-time undergraduate students (unmarried, younger than 24) was $10,600 in 2011-12, up 34 percent in just four years -- four times the inflation rate.

Middle-class kids who were previously denied Pell grant aid are now increasingly getting it: In 2011, 17.5 percent of dependent students from families with $60,000 to $80,000 in annual income received Pells, compared with a mere 1.6 percent just four years earlier. A number of federal aid programs -- for example, tuition tax credits and the PLUS loan program -- now disproportionately serve students from relatively affluent families. According to College Board data, total federal student financial assistance programs totaled $56.8 billion in 2001-2002, compared with $173.8 billion a decade later, an astonishing compounded annual rate of increase of 11.7 percent.

A new study by Dennis Epple, Richard Romano, Sinan Sarpca and Holger Sieg for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the impact of these aid programs is clearly different from what federal policy makers intended. “We show that private colleges game the federal financial aid system,” they conclude. Every dollar in new financial aid to students leads to about 40 cents less spent by the colleges on institutional financial aid -- so students benefit far less than federal policy makers intended.

In 1987, Secretary of Education William Bennett argued that more federal aid leads to higher tuitions, enabling schools to increase spending. This seems broadly consistent with the latest research results. The net attendance impact of these federal programs, according to the study for NBER, is “modest.” In short, these programs haven’t substantially spurred student access to colleges, all the while burdening taxpayers and student borrowers.

The ballooning federal aid increases schools’ spending. The researchers don’t analyze changes in university spending, but an examination of other evidence suggests that money isn’t going primarily into improving instruction. Colleges have gone on a building spree (financed in part by amassing large debt -- more than $220 billion at schools whose bonds are rated by Moody’s alone), and pay and perquisites for top university administrators has risen sharply.

Obama’s “tough love” on higher education should begin by reversing the financial aid explosion that has contributed to this spending binge and, more importantly, to the system that has produced a generation of young debtors with mediocre job prospects. The president is looking at the tip of the iceberg, not its bigger base.


WaPo Editors: DOJ Wants to Keep Poor Minorities in Low-Performing Schools

Roughly 90 percent of school voucher recipients in the state of Louisiana are African-American, according to the Washington Post. Which is why the paper’s editors are utterly bewildered that the DOJ would petition a U.S. District Court to force the Pelican State to end the practice by 2014 – unless, of course, certain steps are met on the absurd grounds that the program threatens to re-segregate public schools (H/T Ed Morrissey):

NINE OF 10 Louisiana children who receive vouchers to attend private schools are black. All are poor and, if not for the state assistance, would be consigned to low-performing or failing schools with little chance of learning unless the skills they will need to succeed as adults. So it’s bewildering, if not downright perverse, for the Obama administration to use the banner of civil rights to bring a misguided suit that would block these disadvantaged students from getting the better educational opportunities they are due.

The Justice Department has petitioned a U.S. District Court to bar Louisiana from awarding vouchers for the 2014-15 school year to students in public school systems that are under federal desegregation orders, unless the vouchers are first approved by a federal judge. The government argues that allowing students to leave their public schools for vouchered private schools threatens to disrupt the desegregation of school systems. A hearing is tentatively set for Sept. 19.

There’s no denying the state’s racist history of school segregation or its ugly efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s to undermine desegregation orders by helping white children to evade racially integrated schools. These efforts included funneling public money to all-white private schools. But the situation today bears no resemblance to those terrible days. Since most of the students using vouchers are black, it is, as State Education Superintendent John White pointed out to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “a little ridiculous” to argue that the departure of mostly black students to voucher schools would make their home school systems less white. Every private school participating in the voucher program must comply with the color-blind policies of the federal desegregation court orders.

It’s obvious what’s going on here, isn’t it? To give the states more autonomy is to directly undermine and allow state governments to challenge the status quo. And that, in turn, is unacceptable.

As many have said before, the special interests -- namely, the teachers unions and their constituents -- benefit tremendously from a public school system that puts administrators, bureaucrats, and yes, teachers, over the educational needs of students. This allows the powers that be to continue providing jobs and, of course, paying teachers’ generous salaries and unsustainable pension plans. How else to explain why the DOJ is going to such “perverse” lengths (a word, incidentally, the Post editors used) to create more rules and regulation for state governments who’ve clearly found a better way to educate their children? It just doesn’t make any plausible sense for why a federal agency would see fit to involve itself in Louisiana’s internal affairs on such tenuous grounds.


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