Category Archives: Education / Youth

Back to School

We Americans are suckers for bumper sticker solutions to complicated problems. When it comes to education, those who don’t want to deal with the thorny issues of public education reform insist that we can sidestep contentious decisions about curriculum, resources and equity, and just give parents “choices,” by which they mean voucher programs or charter schools.

So how’s that been working out?

In Colorado, where the state’s Supreme Court recently struck down a Denver charter school “initiative,” the Denver Post reported that

the district created a make-believe charter school called the Choice Scholarship Charter School that would collect the state per-pupil funds. A portion of that $6,100 per student would be sent to the student’s chosen school in the form of a check to the parent, who would use it for tuition.

It’s not enough that the virtual charter school had no buildings, employed no teachers and had no curriculum. Its students never attended a day of class. The school’s existence was to collect money for private schools.

Sixteen of the 23 private schools under the program’s 2011 pilot phase were religious in character, and 93 percent of the 271 scholarship recipients in 2011 enrolled in a religious school. Fourteen of those schools were outside of the district’s boundaries.

The Institute for Policy Studies recently compiled a report detailing current research on charters, and concluded that “While there’s little difference in the overall performance of charter schools and public schools, charters are riddled with fraud and identified with a lack of transparency that leads to more fraud.”

The problems go well beyond outright scams, however. In Tampa, the state Board of Education has voted to include a new requirement in the charter application process ­­­—  school hopefuls must now disclose which charter groups and companies they have been affiliated with in the last five years. As a member of the  Board explained, although some charter schools thrive, others have experienced recurring problems and closed.

Among them is Newpoint Tampa, which closed in 2013 after declining enrollment and financial problems. School district officials said the school’s board meetings were not being held in public or in an appropriate manner…

Earlier this year, two Newpoint charter schools in Pensacola that were run by the same management company operating the Tampa school — Newpoint Education Partners — were shut down after allegations of grade-tampering and contractual violations, the Pensacola News Journal reported.

Because of stories like these, charter school experts say placing extra scrutiny on operators is a must. The goal is to prevent those who have operated schools experiencing serious problems from opening more.

Oversight, obviously, is critical. But we’re talking about a lot of money, and political clout can counter accountability measures. In Ohio, lobbyists succeeding in delaying passage of a charter school reform measure that had broad bipartisan support. The Columbus Dispatch reported on derailment of a bill to implement significant charter-school reforms after charters had been sharply criticized both inside and outside the state.

Sources told the Dispatch that lobbyists were very active behind the scenes, especially the Batchelder Group,representing the White Hat group, a major for-profit charter-school operator run by David Brennan, an important GOP contributor.

Similar stories from other states are plentiful.

The moral of this story is not that charter schools are bad. Some are, many aren’t. Just like traditional public schools.

The moral of this story is: there aren’t easy answers or magic bullets–in education or any other policy domain. Bumper sticker solutions to complex problems often create more complex problems.

The performance of any school depends upon a large number of factors, none of which have much to do with whether the school is a charter or a traditional public school. If we really want to improve American education, we can’t avoid the hard work of defining desirable outcomes, identifying the qualities that define a good teacher, figuring out how to balance accountability with the school-level autonomy that will allow professionals to do their jobs, and ameliorating the effects of poverty that have been shown to impede learning.

The real “choice” is between fixing or abandoning our public schools.

Bought and Paid For

A Federal District Court judge in Washington recently upheld new Obama administration rules that deny federal aid to career training programs that charge outrageous amounts, saddle students with crushing debt, and give them useless degrees in return.

As the New York Times editorialized

The ruling strongly reaffirms the government’s authority to regulate these often-corrupt programs — and comes at a time when federal and state investigations are uncovering fraud and misconduct by for-profit schools all over the country. Regrettably, however, Republicans in both houses are moving bills that would block the Obama administration from enforcing the rules.

As the editorial notes, the new rules were inspired by data showing that students in for-profit schools account for only about 12 percent of college enrollment, but nearly half of student loan defaults.

We the taxpayers have been footing the bill for these predatory practices.

Research has consistently shown that graduates of for-profit institutions are more likely than graduates of other institutions to have debt of more than $40,000 by the time they leave school, and far less likely to find the employment promised by those marketing these programs.  What is particularly odious about these “schools” is that they deliberately target veterans, minorities and the poor.

Republican attempts to block the new rules are not sitting well with organizations that work on behalf of consumers, veterans and the poor. This spring, a coalition of these groups sent a letter reminding Congress that 37 state attorneys general are jointly investigating allegations of fraud in for-profit schools. Various investigations have already uncovered deceptive tactics; dismal graduation rates; false or inflated job placement rates; and dubious sales and admissions policies that target veterans and students of color.

It’s hard to argue with the Times‘ conclusion.

At issue here is an industry that routinely exploits the country’s most vulnerable citizens and fleeces the federal student aid program at the same time. The administration’s effort to bring it under control deserves support, not legislative sabotage.

Misunderstanding Tenure

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker seems to be engaged on a vendetta against higher education.

Walker has cited Wisconsin’s (very real) fiscal woes as justification for slashing  $250 million dollars from the University of Wisconsin’s budget; however, Time Magazine reports that he has proposed forking over that same amount– $250 million in taxpayer money– to help construct a new arena for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, who have threatened to relocate if the city doesn’t build them a new home by 2017.

Walker previously tried to change the mission statement of the University from a search for truth to “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” He retreated after that effort created a firestorm within the state, but now he has launched an entirely gratuitous attack on tenure.

There is immense public misunderstanding of tenure. Tenure is not “job security,” as it is often portrayed; as Josh Marshall recently wrote at Talking Points Memo, 

Tenure is among other things in place to protect scholars from the patronage and political demands of the moment and incentivize independent scholarship free of ideological, market or political pressures. That is 100% true. And by and large it is a good system – especially when understood in the larger context of academic life.

Tenured professors are protected from dismissals based upon the expression of  unpopular viewpoints. We are not protected against dismissals for poor work performance. (My own school has a post-tenure review process that defines performance expectations and expressly permits sanctions–including termination–for continued failure to meet those expectations.)

In a very real sense, however, the actual operation of the tenure system is beside the point. As Marshall notes,

The crown jewel of the Wisconsin university system is the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It is one of the top research universities in the country and the world. With this move, you will basically kiss that jewel goodbye. To me this is the more salient reality than whether you think academic tenure is a good thing or not in itself.

If this happens, over time, the professors who can will leave. And as the top flight scholars and researchers depart, so will the reputation of the institution. So will graduate students who want to study with them, the best undergrads, money that flows to prestigious scholarship. Don’t get me wrong. Not in a day or a year or even several years. But it will. If you don’t get this, you don’t understand the economy and incentive structure of university life.

If Walker’s attacks on a storied academic institution are successful, the University will be hard pressed to “meet the workforce needs of the state,” let alone engage in a search for truth.

Student Debt is a Very Big Problem

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently estimated the amount of total student debt at nearly $1.2 trillion. (Yes, that’s trillion with a “t”) and reported that federal student loans alone make up more than $1 trillion of that amount, with private loans making up the remaining $165 billion.

But as the website Vox reports, actual debt incurred for college is probably higher. Some students or parents use credit cards, loans from retirement plans, or home equity lines of credit to pay tuition, fees, and living expenses. Those financial products aren’t included in the $1.2 trillion estimate.

The total amount of student debt in the US has more than tripled in the past 10 years, as more students attend college and a higher proportion of those students take out loans. Thanks to rising costs, they’re also borrowing more than students did in the past.

The staggering amount of student debt isn’t just bad news for the students anxious to find good paying jobs that will allow them to repay those loans; it’s a huge drag on the economy. Student loan borrowers are less likely to buy a car or a house, in part because they can’t save for a down payment. They have less disposable income for consumer spending. Their credit scores are worse.

And since the students taking on debt tend to be from needier families, the student loan crisis is yet another structural impediment to greater income equality.

There has to be a better way.

Many countries have either free higher education, or extremely low tuition and grant aid: Germany, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Mexico and Brazil. Other countries that don’t offer free higher education have instituted small student fees. Australia and New Zealand have a system tuition and fees, but student loan repayment is entirely based on later earnings; student borrowers who make less than $50,000 a year owe zero monthly payments, and never pay more than 8 percent of income.

If they can do it, so can we.

Remember when America was the land of opportunity and social mobility wasn’t just a story we told each other?

Economic Straw Men

A friend recently sent me one of those irritating articles purporting to lecture “liberals” about economic realities. This one was unusually smug. It was written by a self-styled “economist” and published by Forbes; titled “Ten Economic Truths Liberals Need to Learn,”   it mostly rebutted “straw man” positions that no one–liberal or not–actually takes.

I won’t go through the whole list, because you can read it for yourselves, and because we’ve all heard these “truths” before.

“Government cannot create jobs” is an oldie but goodie. Like many of the others, it is “true” only in a very limited sense; obviously, government can and does create jobs for teachers, police officers, and other government workers, and when it invests properly in infrastructure, those investments also generate jobs.

What that flip formulation also misses is the essential role government plays in providing the infrastructures that make private enterprise and private job creation possible.

Several other “truths” on the list are equally wrongheaded: the author claims that low wages are not exploitative, for example–among other things, conveniently overlooking the fact that taxpayers are making up the (enormous) difference between low wages and living costs, and thus effectively subsidizing corporate profits.

I guess it depends upon what your definition of “exploitative” is.

But the “truth” that sent me over the edge was this one:

Education is not a public good. We provide publicly funded K-12 education to all (even to non-citizens), but the education provided produces human capital that is privately owned by each person. This human capital means more work skills, more developed talent, and more potential productivity. People with more human capital generally get paid more, collecting the returns from their education in the form of higher earnings. One common defense of education as a public good is worth refuting here. Yes, education helps people invent things that benefit society. However, they will expect to be paid for those inventions, not give them away for free in return for their education.

This betrays an appalling lack of understanding of both education and the public good.

READ MY LIPS: Education is not synonymous with job training. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s essential–but a genuine education is far more than a skill set that makes someone marketable in the dystopic society idealized by the (presumably trained but clearly uneducated) twit who wrote this.

Job training produces people who produce things. Education produces people who create art and music and literature, who develop philosophies and political systems, who innovate and imagine and beautify cities and civic environments.

Job training allows people to be productive economic units. Education allows people to be responsible citizens.

If a polity consisting of thoughtful and informed and genuinely educated citizens isn’t a public good, I don’t know what is.