Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Education Is the Business of the States

In 1981, Tennessee’s 41-year-old governor proposed to President Ronald Reagan a swap: Washington would fully fund Medicaid and the states would have complete responsibility for primary and secondary education. Reagan, a former governor, was receptive. But Democrats, who controlled the House and were beginning to be controlled by teachers unions (the largest, the National Education Association, had bartered its first presidential endorsement, of Jimmy Carter, for creation of the Department of Education) balked.

In 1992, the former Tennessee governor was President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of education. He urged Bush to veto proposed legislation to expand federal involvement in K-through-12 education. He said it would create “at least the beginnings of a national school board that could make day-to-day school decisions on curriculum, discipline, teacher training, textbooks and classroom materials.” The veto threat derailed the legislation.

Today this former governor and former secretary (and former president of the University of Tennessee), Sen. Lamar Alexander, is chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He is seeking 60 Senate votes to, he says, “reverse the trend toward a national school board,” which the Education Department has become.

Time was, before Congress acted on any subject, it asked: Is this a legitimate concern of the federal government? The “legitimacy barrier” (a phrase coined by James Q. Wilson) collapsed 50 years ago, particularly with passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which No Child Left Behind (2002) was the 12th major reauthorization.

NCLB mandated that by 2014, every school would have 100 percent proficiency in reading and math. So, Alexander says, “almost every one” of America’s approximately 100,000 public schools are officially failures. This, he says, exacerbates “the irresistible temptation of well-meaning Washington officials” to assert a duty for Washington to approve schools' academic standards (hence Common Core), define success, determine how to evaluate teachers and stipulate what to do about failing schools.

NCLB is more than seven years overdue for the reauthorization/revision that will impact 50 million children and 3.1 million teachers. Hence a recent hearing of Alexander’s committee attracted a crowd, with hundreds overflowing into the hall. Alexander hopes to have a bill on the Senate floor by late February and to get 60 votes with the help of some of the six Democratic senators who are former governors.

And perhaps some others. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., the purity of whose liberalism is wondrous, says education today consists of two worlds. One is “of contractors and consultants, and academics and experts, and plenty of officials at the federal, state and local level.” The other is of those who teach, and “the footprint of that first world has become way too big in their lives.”

Existing law forbids federal officials from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution.” Existing practices ignore the law, especially by using $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funds to bribe states to accept the Common Core standards (to which tests and hence texts are “aligned”). Alexander understands the futility of trying to lasso the federal locomotive with a cobweb of words. His solution is a portion of his 1981 proposal: Devolve to states all responsibility for evaluating schools, students and teachers.

If Alexander succeeds, this will have an effect on the Republican presidential race. Jeb Bush, who supports Common Core, can say to the Republican base, which loathes it: Never mind, imposing Common Core has been outlawed.

Teachers unions hostile to teacher evaluations have part of a point: Schools are supposed to do what parents cannot do as well, such as teach algebra. They cannot, however, supplant families as transmitters of the social capital – habits, manners, mores – necessary for thriving. So, how do you evaluate teachers whose 7-year-old pupils come to school not knowing numbers, shapes or colors because they come from a cacophonous home culture of silence, where no one, while making dinner, says, “Here are 10 round green peas”? Let 50 governors find 50 metrics for K-through-12 progress.

Although liberal academia deserves its government-inflicted miseries, Alexander’s next project will be deregulation of higher education. The need for which he demonstrates by unfurling the taped-together 10 pages – more than nine feet – of forms containing more than 100 questions students must answer when applying for federal aid. Alexander suggests replacing it with a five-by-seven-inch card containing two questions: Family size? Family income? While achieving his impressive curriculum vitae, Alexander has learned to appreciate simplicity.


Obama’s Student Loan Forgiveness Program Has $21.8 Billion Shortfall

The Obama administration’s student loan program came up $21.8 billion short last year because of unpaid and forgiven loans.

According to Politico, which found the number buried in President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal this week, the shortfall is “the largest ever recorded for any government credit program.”

The president’s student loan initiative limits student loan payments to 10 percent of the borrower’s income, and forgives outstanding debt after 20 years—or 10 years if the borrower works in public service.

According to, the initiative is “part of the Obama-Biden administration’s ambitious agenda to make higher education more affordable and to help more Americans earn college degrees.”

Politico reports that 40 million Americans currently hold $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.

Romina Boccia, the Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs at The Heritage Foundation, said the federal government “is hiding the very real taxpayer exposure to risk that arises from its massive and growing student loan portfolio.”

“If the federal government included the market risks of that portfolio, its student loan programs would quickly reveal themselves as big money losers for taxpayers,” said Boccia.

“According to the Congressional Budget Office, using a fair-value approach to account for student loans shows them to drain federal coffers by $88 billion over the decade—a figure that can be expected to grow even higher given Obama’s new repayment program, which would forgive many of the loans,” she added.

According to Politico, because of a “quirk” in how credit programs are budgeted, the $21.8 billion difference can be added to the deficit without “appropriations or even approval from Congress.”


UK: The staggering scale of censorship on campus

This is a big day in the fight for free speech on campus. For the past six months, spiked, with a team of student researchers and academic experts, has been researching, assessing and compiling the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) – the UK’s first-ever nationwide study of the state of free speech on campus. We have collected and analysed the policies and bans of 115 universities and students’ unions, ranking every institution using our traffic-light system – Red, Amber and Green. Now the results are in. And they don’t look good.

Published today, on our exclusive FSUR website, our research has unearthed some shocking statistics. Eighty per cent of UK universities, when the academic institution itself is combined with its students’ union, place binding restrictions on freedom of speech. Forty-one per cent of these are explicit, Red-light bans on particular ideas, parties and individuals. The remaining 39 per cent take a vague, yet in some ways more insidious approach, by placing restrictions on offensive or insulting speech: Amber-light bans.

The scale of the problem is staggering. And students’ unions are leading the way. Our research measures a university’s attitude to free speech by assessing the policies and behaviour of both the academic institution itself and its students’ union. But when assessed individually, 51 per cent of the UK’s students’ unions are ranked Red, as opposed to 9.5 per cent of university institutions. Thirty-seven per cent of SUs still clutch to No Platform policies, which ban far-right and extremist speakers from campus.

But now, Safe Space polices, the new kid on the SU policy roster block, are taking the paternalistic logic of No Platform further, restricting any speech that merely has the potential to create, in the words of the University of Bristol Union, ‘unsafe or unwelcoming conditions’. The Safe Space policy of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association requires students attending union meetings to refrain from using ‘hand gestures which denote disagreement’ and to clap only when a motion is passed, not when a motion falls. If students aren’t even allowed to clap freely, then the prospects for academic life in Britain truly are bleak.

And then there’s the universities themselves, which too often get off the hook. While their fresh-faced counterparts in the SU do sometimes make ‘PC gone mad’ headlines in the press, university institutions’ own censorious ways often go on unseen. Yet our research ranks 61 per cent of universities themselves, leaving off their students’ unions, as Amber, meaning that vague, open-ended and easily abused measures are their preferred method for controlling speech.

Embedded in policy after policy are vetting processes and provisos that restrict student speech. Perhaps the most egregious stat of the lot is that 31 per cent of university Free Speech policies, aimed at ‘securing free speech within the law’, actually place restrictions on ‘offensive’, ‘controversial’ or ‘needlessly provocative’ speakers on campus.

Campus censorship is often painted as a minor issue – a problem of students’ union muppetry and kneejerk university risk-aversion. Banning pop songs and keeping far-right nutcases at bay may be bad things on principle, say the critics, but they hardly impinge on the cut and thrust of university debate.

The FSUR shows that precisely the opposite is true. As soon as you allow the principle that universities should be places of unfettered learning and discussion to be breached, even in the most trivial of circumstances, then censoriousness soon spreads. From the atheist society at the University of Reading being expelled from its freshers’ fair for naming a pineapple Muhammad to the infamous banning of a Nietzsche reading group at UCL, no view – no matter how proper, mainstream or academic – is now safe from censure.

The FSUR is a wake-up call. Universities and students’ unions must reform, lest they risk completely obliterating their distinct moral obligation to create the atmosphere of tolerance, openness and free debate that is essential to the pursuit of knowledge.

Established as an annual survey, the FSUR will continue to keep a check on campus censorship. But reform won’t be achieved without the efforts of students and academics, resisting, agitating and insisting that their campuses be censorship-free zones. They must create a culture of freedom on campus that is so strong that university managers or students’ union officials will have to censor at their peril. We hope the FSUR serves as a valuable resource in that good fight.


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