Category: Educational Choice

For too long government-run systems have dominated American primary and secondary education. As innovations of the past two decades such as charter schools and vouchers prove, parents, children, and society benefit when government promotes rather than stifles educational reform based on choice and competition. Add to the mounting evidence another success story: St. Martin de Porres school in Philadelphia. This inner city school is finding new life through the cooperation of three not-always-cooperative entities: church, community, and government.
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In this Great Recession, it is sad to travel through this great country and see the ranks of the unemployed crowded with so many youth. I think we can all agree that this is deplorable—and that we should endeavor to find an equitable and efficient method for improving the lives of our young people.

So, I have a proposal: Tuition and books at a public university should be free to all students. Students would attend the public university closest to their home. This would be financed by some combination of local, state and federal taxpayer dollars. And it would be regulated by a similar combination of local, state, and federal oversight– university boards, parent-professor associations, state legislators, and a new federal program, “No College-Student Left Behind” (NCLB).

Those who want to attend a private university would still have that option. They would pay taxes to support the public universities and then pay private school expenses on top of that. A wide variety of private schools—some religious, but mostly secular—would be available to satisfy the demand for various niches in the market for higher education services.

All government loans and grants would be eliminated, since there would no longer be a financial barrier to obtaining a college education. Students could still borrow money from family, friends, or banks to pay for education at a private university.

Think about the benefits: First, in the short-term, it would reduce unemployment among the young people (and others) by engaging them in another productive endeavor.

Second, education—a wonderful thing—would be freely accessible to all. In the long-term, at the micro level, we would expect an increase in worker skills, leading to higher pay. At the macro level, we would expect an increase in human capital and technological advance, leading to more economic growth.

Third, jobs would be created throughout higher education—from administrators to professors to staff. Construction at universities would boom, creating an untold number of jobs in the building trades. Publishers would sell more books; office furniture makers would sell more desks; computer makers would sell more laptops; and so on.

Of course, one can imagine some of the complaints that would arise.
Private schools would vociferously oppose what they would describe as “unfair” competition, having to operate alongside highly-subsidized public schools. But the market they serve is fundamentally different and one might argue that their preferences should not be allowed to supersede the greater, public good.

Some taxpayers might complain about higher taxes. But how many would notice the difference? With the costs spread over multiple levels of government and across many taxpayers, the per-tax, per-person costs would be modest. In any case, what’s the big deal about those in the middle and upper classes paying additional taxes?

Bureaucrats connected to government grants and loans might lose their jobs. But more bureaucrats would be needed to regulate the growing public sector efforts in higher education. And those displaced from loans and grants could probably be shuffled to other areas of the education bureaucracy without much impact.

The biggest ruckus would probably be raised by economists. As George Stigler once pointed out, economists are “the premier ‘pourers of cold water’ on proposals for social improvement”, particularly through government activism. Although political supporters and utopian dreamers focus on the benefits of such proposals, an economist would inevitably ask about its (opportunity) costs as well.

The costs? Resources taken from taxpayers would be diverted from efficient uses to the subsidized area. Some people would have money taken from them through taxation—to support an activity that other people would not value enough to devote their own resources.

Proponents of free higher education would point to its positive ripple effects. But the diverted resources would also have negative ripple effects. On net, we would be merely moving resources from one sector of the economy to another. In a grand shell game, jobs would be gained, but more jobs would be lost.

Economists would also wonder about the impact of reduced property rights and ownership. If one doesn’t pay for something, they are less likely to take it seriously. This is already a concern since higher education is subsidized significantly by the federal and especially state governments. With even less skin in the game, students would be more likely to treat the education casually, reducing its value for all students.

Of course, if you don’t like my proposal, then you should also be opposed to our current provision of K-12 education. Elementary and secondary public schools are free and students must attend the government-run school in their neighborhood—unless their parents are wealthy enough to attend private schools or resourceful enough to homeschool.

If my proposal is not all that swift for young adults, how can it be the policy of choice for children?

Political discourse and news media have been consumed of late by talk of debt, spending, and recession, but meanwhile the educational freedom movement has been making real progress. State legislatures across the country are giving a green light to vouchers and tax incentives that will in the future pay impressive dividends in the form of better educated students and more efficient schools.

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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, August 25, 2011

My friend Joe Knippenberg notes some of my musings on the field of “philosophical counseling,” and in fact articulates some of the concerns I share about the content of such practice. I certainly didn’t mean to uncritically praise the new field as it might be currently practiced (I did say, “The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable.”).
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Even philosophers can be entrepreneurial when economic reality comes crashing in, creating an existential crisis. That’s one lesson from this intriguing Washington Post story (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Philosophical counselors rely on eternal wisdom of great thinkers.”

The actual value of philosophical counseling (or perhaps better yet, philosophical tutoring) might be debatable. But it does illustrate one response to the variegated crisis faced by higher education, particularly by those in the liberal arts and humanities. When you are done with school and have dim employment prospects and looming loans, you have a few different choices. You can ask, “Would you like fries with that, sir?” Or you can get out and create something for yourself in an entrepreneurial fashion.

These philosophical counselors represent something significant in the latter realm of response. And this is illustrative of the new kind of mindset that academics are going to have to have, even if they find places in traditional educational institutions. For a long time the entrepreneurial dynamism in higher ed was largely expressed in founding new centers and even independent think tanks and research institutions. This will continue, but it seems to me at the individual level scholars are going to have to be more creative and innovative simply to make ends meet. This will mean starting consulting businesses and creating new ways of providing a service to people, often outside of a traditional classroom setting. These realities are new for many in the liberal arts, but they are nothing new to researchers in the natural sciences.

So higher education is definitely undergoing a kind of destruction, but philosoprenuerial efforts like those in the WaPo piece will help determine whether that destruction is “creative” or not. I have hope that the decadence of humanities higher education can be challenged by these kinds of economic and moral realities.

Such examples are also instructive for those in other fields, perhaps especially theology. Increasingly institutions are realizing the need for “ecclesiastical entrepreneurs,” so to speak, and looking at new ways of integrating and aligning the interests of the academy and the church. In some cases this means new ways of combining programs, or launching new majors to provide expertise and instruction in a variety of institutional settings.

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

There were several comments and comments on comments following my recent “Comfy Faculty Lounges” contribution. In the Wall Street Journal, the author of the book I was reviewing makes her own case regarding tenure and teaching versus research.

“At a recent conference where I spoke on collective bargaining in higher education, one professor questioned (and others in the room also fussed about) my right to speak on the subject without—she was incredulous—a Ph.D.! I might ask why a degree in medieval literature or molecular biology would qualify one to discuss the growing unionization movement on college campuses.”

Naomi Riley’s full article “Academia’s Crisis of Irrelevance” is here. And the beat goes on.

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the opening scenes of the classic movie version of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” the narrator tells us that the newspaper boy we are watching toss papers onto the porches nearby will go on to college — an ivy league college I recall — but is sent to Europe during WWI and dies. “All that education for nothing,” he laments.

Naomi Riley has written another book about academia. The large type on the book jacket reads “The Faculty Lounges”  but under that banner is the book’s real warning: “… and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for.”

That second part is addressed to the payer, and in most cases, the payer is mom and dad. So if you’re a mom or dad you’d best take a look at this offering from Ms. Riley while the kids are still in grade school and start your homework lessons on where you’re likely to get the best bang for your buck. Because although Riley offers good suggestions and a smattering of potential improvements to the business plans of America’s college and university campuses, they aren’t likely to be implemented on any large scale by the time little Jimmie or his sister is ready for college. The wheels of the academy turn slowly.

In a recent column reflective of his tv shows, John Stossel remarks, “What puzzles me is why the market doesn’t punish colleges that don’t serve their customers well. The opposite has happened: Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation.”

That reality and more is provided in Faculty Lounges but not by tv personalities. No, the sources of Ms. Riley’s information in many cases are members of the education establishment themselves. And they’re not very forgiving in the criticism.

But Stossel’s comments are poignant. As consumers, parents and the children they finance through four or more years of college tuition, room and board are getting screwed to put it bluntly, or at least defrauded, and nobody seems to care about the protection these consumers aren’t getting. Certainly not the education industry.

You can only get the full picture by reading the book but I can tell you that faculty tenure and the unreal situation it nurtures is a big piece of why college costs so much and continues to get more expensive. Imagine having a workforce that agreed to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2:00, notwithstanding the time it takes for lunch? But despite that work schedule continues to be paid like a full time 40 hours per week employee. Now imagine having an entire workforce of such folks but a physical plant with classroom space based on a capacity that is suited to having students in the rooms from 8 am to 5 pm. In business we call it underutilized plant capacity. It’s the reason you have a night shift or swing shift when business is booming.

In the surreal world of academia, such concepts would never be discussed. Instead, buildings continue to be built, new departments funded and staffed, and tuition raised, raised, and raised again. Where will it end? A tilting point is often reached when mom and dad, facing financial calamity or at the least really tough times, tell little Jimmie to find a job and put college on hold. That’s what happened to my mom and dad in 1932. They met and were married a few years later.

One thing stands out in the many anecdotes in this book and that is how the undergrads financially support the graduate programs. If you know someone who has been accepted or is participating in a PhD program you might have also been told that the tuition, room and board and a stipend were part of the deal. Of course these opportunities are only available to really bright kids but still, haven’t you wondered who’s paying the bills. Well, it’s you and your undergrad. And who’s taking care of the tenured professor’s classes? one of his grad students. And not getting paid for it either. That’s a good reason to think twice about little Jimmie attending the prestigious university with the myriad of researching scholars.

For many, tenure or lifetime job security is what makes the academic life palatable. Yet many use the “academic freedom” argument to make their case. Liberals argue that they’d never survive proposing their enlightenment theories without the protection of tenure. Conservatives argue that they’d never be able to come out of the political closet without tenure. Both making this case in a country that links its founding to freedom of speech, assembly, faith. It makes you wonder if anybody could pass a civics test — teacher and student alike.

Of course all of this talk of college, money and careers has been the subject of the month of June since school calendars were first printed. Books rush to the shelves and abound on how to get into college; is college for everyone; the missing “core” curriculum; and is it all worth the money. But until we consumers really start to push back, it’s likely that for many schools, nothing will change despite the revelations and suggestions like those in Riley’s book. And it’s parents who have to lead here. And either way prepare their children for life with a eye on the unexpected and the common sense to avoid danger.

In April a Yale senior astronomy and physics major was found dead in a college lab. She was working alone during the night with a machine tool — a lathe — and somehow her hair which was long and dangling had been wrapped around the spinning chuck and she had either choked or her neck was broken. Some, reacting to the tragedy, blamed Yale for not sufficiently supervising her.

“All that education for nothing.”

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Imagine this:  a teacher tells her high school students that they are going to enjoy a chocolate cake, while learning about food distribution and economics.  (As a former high school teacher, I assure you, most of the students heard nothing past the word, “cake”.)

The teacher then divides the students into three groups.  In her class of 30 students, one group is made up of 4 students, a second group is 10 students and the third group is 16.  The teacher then sets the cake before them, and announces that she will divide the cake according to food distribution norms among “first, second and third world countries”.

The group of four students will then enjoy half the cake.  The second group of students will get about three-quarters of the remaining cake, and the smallest piece will go to the group of 16 students.  Of course, protests will follow, along with a discussion of how unfair it all is.

The goal of the teacher will be, of course, to see if the students with the most cake will share their cake with the other two groups.  If they don’t, that choice will be discussed as well.  The students will come away with the idea that everyone will have an equal piece of cake if only those with more share what they have.

This is a noble lesson, and we should of course share what we have, regardless of how much that is.  (After all, Scripture doesn’t encourage only the rich to tithe.)  Unfortunately, the lesson is wrong:  it’s based on the idea that there is only one cake, and we can’t possibly get any more.

I have to admit, that as a teacher, I used lessons similar to this one.  And never once, did I or any of my students suggest a most obvious answer:  bake another cake.

We have the same problem, writ large, in today’s economic outlook:  poor nations are poor because rich nations are hoarding what they have and not sharing.  If only the rich nations would “share the cake”, everyone would have enough.  It also reinforces the notion that poor countries have to sit around and wait for some noble rich nation to divvy up cake for them; they couldn’t possibly create one on their own.  That type of paternalistic attitude is both dangerous and wrong.  The “cake game” also supports the erroneous notion that large groups of poor people are going to take stuff from richer folks; therefore, we need to reduce the numbers of poor people in order to keep our “cake”.

This “zero-sum game” fallacy is only one problem with today’s economic policies, but it is a deeply-entrenched one.  We all need to know that there isn’t just one “cake”, and that by enabling people to create their own food sources, create their own wealth and create their own stable economies, it won’t cost us our “cake”.  We will, in fact, all have more cake – and what better reason to celebrate?

Michigan’s State Board of Education is now calling for expanded funding to pay for universal preschool for 3- and 4-year olds.

One could hope that this news story slipped through a worm hole from a parallel universe in which Michigan has a budget surplus, where businesses are flocking to the state to take advantage of a business-friendly tax structure, and where government-funded preschool strongly correlates with future educational performance.

But no, the story comes from our universe, where the state of Michigan faces a major budget shortfall, has been chasing businesses and workers out of the state with a business-unfriendly tax structure, and where, as Carrie Lukas notes, new data shows that government-funded preschooling does not give children a “Head Start”:

The Head Start program was launched in 1965 and today provides subsidized preschool for about 900,000 children from low-income families at a cost of more than $7 billion. The logic behind Head Start is that it is more than just a transfer program (subsidizing childcare for lower-income Americans). Head Start champions argue that the investment in higher quality preschool will lead to better educational outcomes — and therefore better life prospects — for participants. The government books are ultimately supposed to benefit due to participants’ reduced use of welfare programs and greater economic productivity.

Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence to suggest that this is how it actually works. The Health and Human Services department released a congressionally mandated study that examined how former Head Start students fare. The study revealed that what gains Head Start participants enjoyed during the program all but vanished by first grade. In other words, the billions invested in Head Start failed to change the prospects of participants in any meaningful, measurable way.

And keep in mind that Head Start has achieved these disappointing results while bringing kids into preschool who are at higher risk of coming from dysfunctional home environments. Imagine the effect if Michigan begins subsidizing children out of generally healthy home environments and into public preschool?

Certainly preschool is a good option for many families, and there are many loving, conscientious preschool teachers touching the lives of young children in positive ways. But none of this means the government should be in the business of providing free preschool for anyone and everyone. State governments should focus on their core competencies and let families do what families do best–raising children.

I’ve long argued that school choice is the quintessential bipartisan cause, with boundless potential to transform American primary and secondary education. Yet, for various reasons (all of them bad), it has failed to live up to that potential—its significant successes in various places notwithstanding.

One more anecdote to file away on this matter comes from Rich Lowry at NRO: the travails of Eva Moskowitz in New York City.

Favorite quote:

It’s amazing what you can accomplish, she says, when you design your schools “around teaching and learning and don’t think of yourself as an employment program for grown-ups.”