Recently, policies promoting local control and parental choices for students have gained considerable steam. From ensuring that disadvantaged children have access to quality private schools in our nation’s Capitol to strong support from mayors allowing parents to have ultimate control in how their schools are governed, support for multiple educational alternatives is growing dramatically.
When the current administration took office, school choice advocates faced dark days and significant challenges. The first offense was in 2009, when funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program (DCOSP) was terminated. In addition, this administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) blueprint intends to eliminate access to after school tutoring and the ability to transfer to another public or charter school except for those students attending the worst five percent of our nation’s public schools.
It is no secret that this administration opposes local control and school choice and strongly supports a federal takeover of our country’s elementary and secondary schools. For example, the new Race to the Top program, created by the 2009 trillion dollar stimulus, promised billions of dollars to states if they would adopt educational reforms dictated by the federal Department of Education. When that didn’t work, states were bypassed altogether and the administration enticed local school districts with similar incentives, potentially violating state laws. Moreover, in what many view as an abuse of executive branch power, the Department of Education offered waivers of the accountability requirements of NCLB, of which school choice is a key component, if states would implement the core national curriculum standards supported by this administration.
But the tides began to shift in 2010 when conservatives took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and John Boehner (R-OH), the primary sponsor of DCOSP and a longtime supporter of school choice became the Speaker of the House. Together with Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT), funding for the DCOSP was restored and the program was reauthorized for another five years. Nevertheless, this administration continued to oppose this very successful program and even zeroed out its funding in their latest budget. However, Speaker Boehner and Senator Lieberman successfully reached agreement with the President to adhere to the law he had just signed last year.
Other significant victories for local control and school choice are occurring at the state level by reform oriented governors. These governors have had to make changes in the state infrastructure in order to address budget shortfalls when the trillion dollar federal stimulus dried up. Reforms such as asking employees to contribute more to their pension and health plans, instituting teacher pay for performance and allowing schools to competitive bid for health insurance have led to significant savings and meant more dollars in the classroom to educate our children.
In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial (June 8, 2012), Kimberley A. Strassel makes the point,
“By 2010, states were already on a fiscal cliff when the sudden evaporation of President Obama’s stimulus handouts turned emergencies into catastrophes. This gave reform-minded governors the opening to argue that big change was a prerequisite to continued dollars for schools.”
However, rejecting long-standing teacher union policies and returning control to parents is not solely a conservative effort. Led by liberal mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa from Los Angeles, Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously defied teacher unions and voted to return decision making about their child’s education to parents. By strongly supporting the use of parental triggers to allow a majority of parents to change how their schools are governed, these mayors have sent the message that teacher unions will no longer have the power to put up barriers to educating our children, particularly those in low performing schools. This vote has the potential to send ripples through the educational establishment and bring about significant changes to our schools.
Education reforms have always started with innovative ideas at the state and local level and this must continue. Ending the control of teacher unions over our schools and returning decision-making to parents is essential if we expect our students to be competitive and receive a quality education.
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently released a white paper: “A Chance for Every Child[i]” which details his vision for restoring the promise of American education. In it he describes a plan of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice. These policies are certainly nothing groundbreaking or new, but data[ii] has proven that increased federal spending[iii] and regulatory reforms have not significantly reduced the inequities in our education system across states and districts.
Now is the time for the federal government to reexamine its priorities in education policy. After a year of unprecedented action in state legislatures that provided greater options for parents, the evidence is clear; states are seeking policies that promote action at the local level.
Vouchers and Tax Credits[iv]
- In 2011 a record number of school choice bills were passed in a record number of legislative chambers that produced legislation in 41 states and in the U.S. Congress;
- Six states, the U.S. Congress, and a local school board passed legislation creating new school choice programs;
- In all, seven new school choice programs were enacted and 11 programs were strengthened, expanded, or restored from the brink of elimination;
- There are now 27 private school choice programs serving more than 210,000 children across the nation.
- In 2011, a groundswell of parental demand led to 10 states lifting their caps on charter school growth (either partially or entirely), seven states strengthening their authorizing environments for high-quality public charter schools, and 10 states improving their support for charter school funding and facilities;
- There are currently over 5,000 public charter schools open in 41 states and D.C., serving more than 1.6 million students; and
- Children have different ways of learning, and public charter schools simply offer families a wider variety of options to serve such differences.
Virtual, Online, and Hybrid Schools[vi]
- In 2011, 250,000 students enrolled in a full-time online school;
- 40 states have state virtual schools or state-led initiatives; 30 states, as well as Washington, DC, have statewide full-time online schools;
- 74 percent of school districts with distance education programs planned to expand online offerings over the next 3 years.
- Online access to high-quality education ensures that all students have learning opportunities that will prepare them to compete in a global economy.
A Closer Look at the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program
•Over 11,000 D.C. children have applied to the OSP since it started in SY 2004-05
•94 percent of OSP 12th graders graduate
•89 percent of OSP graduates enroll in a 2 or 4 year college or university
•91 percent of parents are happy with their child's current OSP school
•Over $7.4 million in scholarships distributed in 2010-11
More than a year after President Obama signed into law legislation renewing and expanding the highly successful D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), the administration continues to block full implementation of the law, and deny new students access to the program.
The consequences if the Obama Administration continues to defy the law will affect hundreds of underprivileged students in the District of Columbia. These students are being denied access to a lasting, quality education through a program that has an excellent track record.[vii]
The Bottom Line: These ideas are not new. However, a commitment to supporting these policies – where eligible students can choose which school to attend and bring funding with them – represents a new and much needed effort. If our students are to be successful in a globally competitive workforce then they cannot afford to be trapped in schools that fail to provide anything less than a high-quality education.
[i] Romney for President - http://www.mittromney.com/blogs/mitts-view/2012/05/chance-every-child-0
[ii] The Nation's Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress in Reading and Mathematics 2008; April 2009; Bobby D. Rampey, Gloria S. Dion, and Patricia L. Donahue
[vii] Speaker of the House John H. Boehner - http://www.speaker.gov/general/obama-administration-still-denying-poor-dc-kids-chance-good-education
|Fact Sheet - Parental Options 2011.pdf||399.34 KB|
If you haven’t seen it, a recent pseudo-commencement address posted to the web by the esteemed former-Secretary of Labor and current Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, Robert B. Reich is worth the read,[i] as he flippantly proclaims to the Members of the Class of 2012 – “You’re f*cked.”
Professor Reich goes on to detail how, since 2008, failed policies have done little to spur economic growth and next to nothing to produce jobs that these very graduates will soon be searching for. Unemployment is high, last year’s grads can’t find work, and those that do are underpaid. But perhaps more important is the final bill for the education that gets you very little. Outstanding student debt now totals over $1 trillion.
The commencement is concluded highlighting the very facts that nearly 3 million[ii] American families will discuss over the summer at the kitchen table – the exploding cost of higher education.
For some time now, experts have suggested that the rate of tuition increases can be slowed if the federal government would slow down the funding for higher education. Statistics from Education Sector suggest that federal aid in the form of grants, loans, and tax credits totaled $64 billion in the year 2000 and by 2010 they had risen to nearly $170 billion.[iii] That’s an increase of 166 percent — over 10 percent a year!
What seems clear, though left unsaid by Professor Reich, is that while the Obama administration recognizes that there is a problem, the President’s policies have failed to alleviate the high cost of college, growing student debt, and/or stagnate unemployment rates.
What we need first and foremost are jobs, but beyond that, we need policies that address college affordability while promoting flexibility and innovation in the financial foundation needed to ensure student success.
Our financial aid systems need reform that embraces the private sector. Since the government takeover, the federal government has not proven to have any economic advantage in the provision of student loans. On the flip side, the takeover has lead to more federal regulations, mandates and spending. A return to private lending and away from the legislatively imposed one-size-fit-all program would encourage lenders to innovate and allow students to take advantage of products with a variety of terms. There is an appropriate role for the federal government when it comes to student lending. Through grants, such as Pell, and government subsidized loans, such as Perkins, the federal government can compensates for inadequacies in the private market for education loans and inequalities in economic backgrounds. But federal policies should be guided by simple principles:
- Revisit the direct provision of student loans. The federal government has no inherent economic advantage in the provision of student loans. A straightforward implication is that policy should be shifted exclusively to subsidizing borrowing from private lenders.
- Align economic and budget costs regarding market risk. It is desirable to correctly measure the taxpayer burden of both direct loans and loan guarantees in order to accurately guide policy decisions. Government budget presentations should make clear the potential taxpayer liabilities by shifting to a fair-value accounting model.
- Align economic and budget costs of student loan consolidation. Consolidation of a student loan represents an option provided to the borrower – an option that has value and thus represents a costly transfer from taxpayers to the borrower. Budgetary treatment of consolidations should be improved to better measure that cost.[iv]
In the coming months the American Action Forum will put forth policy research that will examine these principles more closely. Stay tuned.
[iv] The Future of Federal Policy and Financing Higher Education; Douglas Holtz-Eakin
This month, in two very different subject matters, both at the national and state levels, educational assessments demonstrated how accountability does work and how its results affect how educators and policymakers respond when test results are transparent and available to the public. While the news is not good on either assessment, it is information that will hopefully motivate teachers, principals, and policymakers to improve student performance and increase academic results, especially among disadvantaged students. It should also empower parents and taxpayers to demand better academic results from our schools so that America’s students can compete on an equal footing with their international peers.
In Florida, earlier this month, student scores on the state writing exam fell dramatically in 2011 compared to 2010 after the state raised the writing standards and changed the scoring mechanisms in an effort to upgrade the test and make it more rigorous. As a result, only 27 percent of Florida’s 4th graders passed the writing exam compared with 81 percent in 2010. In a swift and immediate response, the State Board of Education unanimously agreed to lower the passing grade so that more students would pass the writing test. Opponents of educational accountability, particularly standardized tests, immediately pounced declaring Florida’s tough standards a failure and gleefully predicting the end of the No Child Left Behind accountability era. However, these results and the reaction by Florida state policymakers show that transparency and public disclosure of student test results works.
Florida’s Department of Education Commissioner Gerald Robinson immediately acknowledged that the state had neglected to fully prepare teachers for the changes in how the writing test would be graded stating, “There should have been follow-up on changes in rigor. This should have been communicated much more strongly.” The Foundation for Florida’s Future, Patricia Levesque, agreed stating, “The State Board of Education’s decision provides stability to Florida’s school grading and accountability system, while upholding the higher standards they adopted last summer.” Further, she stated, that the Board’s decision “gave teachers and administrators more time to do what they do best --- equip students with the knowledge and skills to achieve their God-given potential.”
The changes in Florida’s 2011 writing exam included assessing the student’s knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation as well as requiring students to use detailed descriptions to support their writing statements. These criteria were not graded in previous writing exams in Florida which is hard to believe. How can students be judged on their writing skills if the basics of spelling, grammar and punctuation are not part of the equation? Colleges and businesses assume that students know these basics in order to write an essay or simple business letter. Without such skills, students should not expect to get in to a college or find a decent job. Florida should not be condemned for making their tests more difficult. On the contrary, Florida should be commended for raising the academic bar while recognizing that doing so calls for better teacher preparation over a period of time. Hopefully, lowering the passing scores this year will only be a temporary measure to allow teachers to prepare their students for a more rigorous test while putting them on notice that the tougher standards will remain in place. In the long run, such actions will be better for their students and for America’s economy.
However, this experience should serve as a wake-up call to Florida and other states with much lower state standards that American students are not academically prepared. This is clearly reflected in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which has found that two-thirds of 4th and 8th graders are not proficient in reading or math. Additionally, this month, the NAEP reported that less than one-third of our nation’s 8th graders are proficient in science. While scores for black and Hispanic students rose somewhat, particularly for those students living in poverty, there is still a significant achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers. Nevertheless, sixteen states saw their average science scores increase while no state saw its score decrease. Furthermore, the 2011 NAEP reported that students who participated in hands-on scientific experiments outperformed those who did not. Still, these results will not produce the scientists, engineers, and chemists that this country so desperately needs to face an ever changing technological world.
The Florida writing exam and the NAEP science test demonstrate where improvements must be made and clearly put educators and policymakers on notice that changes in how students are taught in these critical subject areas must change if we expect our children to be successful. Without such accountability measures in place, how will educators, policymakers, parents and taxpayers know how our students are performing? Without accountability and transparency, we will return to the days when billions of dollars were spent with no expectation for academic results. Parents must demand that their children are held to high expectations with rigorous content in all academic subjects.
Our national and state policymakers should listen to scholars such as Amber Winkler with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation who made these remarks about Florida’s writing scores,
“Just because students struggle to meet a higher learning threshold does not mean that the threshold should be lowered. Florida is highly regarded by many because it refuses to be complacent about student achievement; it continues to raise the cut scores on its tests to avoid stagnation. Like it or not, there are real consequences to raising expectations, including that many kids won’t be able to meet those expectations initially, but it is best to ratchet them up than be content with the status quo or cave in to political pressure.”
Like it or not, educational accountability and demands for high expectations from parents, teachers and taxpayers is good public policy and must be strengthened if America wants to continue to be a global economic power. State and national leaders, including the Obama administration and Congressional leaders, should pay attention to what educational accountability provisions tell them and use those results to improve education across the country, rather than rush to repeal them because they don’t like what they see.
The president continues to demagogue the issue of interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for no justifiable reason. His presidential opponent agrees that the rate should be kept low, the Republican-led House has passed legislation to actually keep the rate low, and the House also offset the deficit impact to avoid sticking the taxpayers with the bill.
Interest rates are in the public eye because of the hype about student-loan debt. Large debt burdens are an important personal financial issue. But students and families are borrowing ever-larger amounts for one reason alone: the exploding cost of higher education. However, the administration now seems reluctant to even acknowledge the basic problem.
The facts, as published by the College Board are staggering:
- The average tuition at public two-year college increased by only 5 percent in inflation-adjusted (“constant”) dollars over the entire decade from 1991–92 to 2001–02. In the most recent decade, the average constant-dollar price has increased by 45 percent — far too close to 5 percent annually.
- College tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have skyrocketed 25 percent over the past three years. Published in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions averaged $8,244 in 2011–12, up from $6,591 in 2008–2009 — increases of close to 8 percent each year.
While the cost is a difficulty, the value proposition is even worse. What awaits the newly minted college graduate? The Associated Press reports nearly 54 percent of those under the age of 25 who hold bachelor degrees are either unemployed or underemployedWill a one-year extension of past policy errors contain the rising costs of education? Will a one-year retention of the 3.4 percent rate create jobs?
Fortunately, relentless increases in tuition and fees are not a mystery. What sector gets paid every time it does something, and not for the value of what it produces? What sector increasingly puts decisions in the hands of government, and not private-sector individuals? What sector is riddled with federal entitlements and open-ended federal subsidies?
If you said health care, you’d be right. But you’d also be right if you said higher education. Schools collect for every student every semester or quarter, no matter if he or she learns anything of value. They increasingly tailor their budgets to specification of government-loan programs and other federal dictates, not the needs of students and their families. And the federal money is astonishing. Education Sector data suggest that federal aid in the form of grants, loans, and tax credits totaled $64 billion in the year 2000 and by 2010 they had risen to nearly $170 billion. That’s an increase of 166 percent — over 10 percent a year!
It is hard to believe that a massive expansion of federal subsidies is not at least in part fueling higher tuition costs. For that reason, conservatives have pointed out that the rate of tuition increases can be slowed if the federal government would slow down the funding for higher education. Doing so would certainly force the schools to pay more attention to controlling costs. This would reduce the burden on taxpayers, move toward making a college education more affordable for American families, and ease the burden of debt.
At the same time, it makes sense to target that aid more carefully on those who genuinely deserve assistance; improve the transparency of the subsidy process; enhance families’ access to information about fields of study, graduation rates, and employment rates; and thus tighten the link between subsidies and high-quality education outcomes.
There is some inkling of awareness in the Obama administration. In his January 24 State of the Union address the president, said:
Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.
Sadly, however, it would seem that his bold statement was little more than foreshadowing for his recent campaign stump speech targeted to the youth vote and focused solely on extending interest rates for a select few. It is time for the Democrats, who often offer grandiose campaign promises of on this very issue but have done little to nothing over the past three years, to step off the soapbox, roll up their sleeves, and work with Republicans on a practical, long-term solution for controlling the cost of a higher education. For in this era where the national debt increases nearly $4 billion a day, continuing to offer federal subsidies for the sake of reelection is foolhardy and will leave the U.S. penniless.
This originally appeared in NRO on 5.8.12