Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

A Little Education Math

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

With the on-going controversy in Wisconsin about teacher compensation and collective bargaining issues, the sides seemed to have hardened. One side sports the green eye shades claiming there is no more money and teacher compensation needs to be limited. The opposite side claims compassion for teachers and concern for the students. We submit here that the entire structure of public education with a state monopoly teamed with public service unions is inefficient and results in lower compensation for teachers than would otherwise be the case.

I live in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC with a median household income of nearly $72,000, substantially higher than the $52,000 median household income of the entire US. By any reasonable definition, the county can be considered affluent. Perhaps, it is not as affluent as other counties in the Washington, DC area, but it is certainly affluent by national standards.

With the weak economy, the county like others is struggling to maintain spending. Part of the problem is decreased local revenues and part of it is reduced revenues from the similarly pinched state of Maryland. However, a closer look a the numbers is revealing.

The restricted school system budget of Prince Georges County this year is $1.6 billion dollars, which represents a $155 million shortfall. The school system has an enrollment of about 128,000 students for a per student expenditure of about $12,500. In the county, the average class size (although there is variation at different grade levels) is 27 students. Hence, each class room represents an expenditure of $350,000. An average teacher earns about $55,000. Let us make the extremely generous assumption, that total compensation including medical care and retirement is about $100,000 per teacher. It still means that a classroom costs at least three and half times the cost of the primary education provider, the teacher.

These numbers are very approximate. There are legitimate costs outside the classroom including school buses and bus drivers, school nurses, and counselors. In addition, some students have special needs that require greater-than-average spending. Nonetheless, it seems that a disproportionate amount of spending is not going directly into the class room.

If we offered as a choice a voucher to parents, even a smaller amount per student of $10,000 to spend at any school, public or private, my guess is that parents would find options for which teacher compensation would be greater both relative to total expenditure and in absolute terms. This system would offer better education at a ower cost and probably with higher teacher compensation.

Random Thoughts

Sunday, February 20th, 2011


If you happened by a newsstand on Tuesday morning February 15, you might have sighted the headline of the Washington Post “Obama Budget Makes Deep Cuts, Cautious trades.’’ The irony is the the first sentence of the article by Lori Montgomery was at war with the headline . She more cautiously explained that, “President Obama submitted a budget blueprint for fiscal 2012 on Monday full of surgical cuts and cautious trade-offs…” Which is it? Were the cuts “deep” or “surgical?”

The conflict between the headline and the article must have been noticed, because the later online editions substituted the headline: “Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012 focuses on education, energy, research”

Perhaps showing a healthy separation between the news and an editorial pages, the editors of the Post did not find the budget cuts either deep or surgical. They concluded that on the subject of the budget, “the President punted… Having been given the chance, the cover and the push by the fiscal commission he created to take bold steps to raise revenue and curb entitlement spending, President Obama, in his fiscal 2012 budget proposal, chose instead to duck.”

Those Signs Again

Any group of people with the energy to take time out of their normal activities to engage in protest are, by definition, the most passionate. Among these, one can find the deliberate and wise as well as angry and bitter, and even mean spirited.

During the protests this week in Wisconsin against proposals by Republican Governor Scott Walker along with the Republican state house to have some public employees contribute to their health and retirement plans, some protesters ported particularly very nasty signs. These included ones that equated Scott with Hitler and another with cross hairs centered on a picture of the governor.

It would be unfair to extrapolate from those signs that the entire group of protesters were mean spirited, rather than robustly making their feeling known. However, if those protesters were sympathetic to Tea Party, we would be directed by the Left to make exactly.those extrapolations.

Religious Oppression

Officals of the University of California-Davis recently defined religious discrimination as:

“The loss of power and privilege to those who do not practice the dominant culture’s religion. In the United States, this is institutionalized oppressions toward those who are not Christian.’’

This proclamation is wrong on so many levels. First, although discrimination is easier for dominant group to implement, it certainly does not preclude minority groups from exercising discrimination. Second, the fact the the university could issue such a definition indicates that the dominant view on that campus is secular humanism. If, for the sake of argument, we adopt the university’s point of view, the we could re-write the university’s definition as:

“The loss of power and privilege to those who do not practice the dominant culture’s religion. At the university, this is institutionalized oppressions toward those who are religious.’’

Fortunately, the university recognized the error after Christians on campus complained and pulled the definition. I suppose we should congratulate the university, but one wonders about an institutional culture that could produce such a definition in the first place.

Compromising the Education of the Poor

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

The cost  is not even a rounding error in the national budget, but the Congressionally-funded Washington DC voucher program is highly symbolic and therefore a conspicuous target for those fearful of giving parents — particularly poor parents —  choices in the education of their children.  The average spending per pupil in the country is a about $9000, at least $4000 less than what is spent per pupil in the District of Columbia. Others have made the same calculation for DC public schools and compute a much higher value for per pupil expenditure. In any case, this amount if properly used, would seem sufficient to create at least a competent educational program. Nonetheless, DC public schools continue to rank at or near the bottom when compared to other systems.

The children of the affluent in the District of Columbia have no shortage of private schools to choose from. Indeed, President Barack Obama has availed himself of this option by sending his two daughters to Sidwell Friends at about $30K a piece. It, therefore, seems somewhat parsimonious for the President to a minor extent and more specifically for Democrats in Congress to end this scholarship program in the Omnibus Spending bill just pasted. The program offered a $7500 scholarship to offset tuition at a private or charter school to 3000 disadvantaged children, This enable the children of  poor parents to opt out of (some might say escape) local failing schools.  The long waiting list for the program attests to its popularity, or at least to disrepute of public schools.

The program is not expensive and the cost of any program has not seemed to be a deterrent for spending for the present government. The problem is that the success of non-public run schools represents an embarrassing indictment of DC public schools and of the teacher unions that are dependent upon them. Public school teacher unions would hate to see the idea gain popularity an provide unwanted competition. The termination of the program in the District of Columbia is a simple payback to the teacher’s unions. No one in the government has suggested that scholarships be part of the stimulus package. I suppose the money is better spent saving jobs in non-existent Congressional districts.

It is often said, “politics isn’t bean bag.” To the victor go the spoils. Teachers unions have received a good return on their political investments. However, in this case it would seem that the current government could avoid making the desperate children in DC public schools educational collateral damage.

A Test of the President’s Education Priorities

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

At a recent gathering of state school officials, President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan were warmly received. Despite the fact that Obama suggested that perhaps teachers’ pay should in part be based on student performance and perhaps charter schools should be considered, he received enthusiastic plaudits. Was this because public school officials believed that Obama really believed in those policy prescriptions or because they  were convinced that the current education establishment would be further subsidized under Obama’s leadership?

We have a current chance to measure rhetoric against actions. Congress has previously subsidized the Opportunity Scholarship program, a voucher program that provides $7500 to about 1700 to low-income students. This value is some what less than the over $9000 the public schools in the District of Columbia spend per pupil. Student’s can apply this voucher to private schools to offset tuition.

The new spending bill includes a provision (added by Senator Dick Durbin, Obama’s former Senate colleague from Illinois) to remove these vouchers, a unbashful curtsy to teacher unions. The unions fear that their monopoly would be attenuated if students could use vouchers to choose to leave under-performing public schools.

The elimination of the program will have an ironic effect on two students Sarah and James Parker who attend Sidwell Friends, the same elite school attended by President Obama’s girls. Obama can financially afford to enroll his girls at Sidwell Friends as opposed the DC public schools. (President Jimmy Carter did send his children to public schools.) Unfortunately without the vouchers the Parker family cannot exercise the same option.

Obama has a choice to support the teachers unions or the Parkers. It is a test of rhetoric versus action.

Obama Opts Out of the Public School System

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

For much of the last few years, the Left and the Left media have not been discontent to just oppose Bush’s Iraq War policies. They have tried to pull the rug from under George Bush’s sincerity with regard to the Iraq War. This was particularly true when the war was not going well. Now that the surge has apparently worked despite what the chattering classes just knew to be true, this sort of noise has diminished. Nonetheless, as recently has 2007, the LA Times was whining that the Bush family was not setting a good example by serving in the military.

Jenna Bush was donating the her earnings from her book to UNICEF, yet the LA Times complained that the ``25-year-old makes the rounds of TV talk shows this fall in a White House limousine, dozens of her contemporaries will be arriving home from Iraq in wooden boxes.”

Of course, and the LA Times knows it, it is not  possible to hold  Bush morally responsible for his adult daughters’ decisions. There is no evidence that if any of the Bush children wished to serve in the military George Bush would have objected. Moreover, as Prince Harry of Great Britain discovered, despite the noblest of intentions to serve, the presence of celebrity can endanger other soldiers.

It is not unreasonable for parents to have mixed feelings about dangerous occupations for their children. For example, everyone would agree that firefighting is a noble and dangerous profession that is crucial for society. Yet there is no parent of a firefighter who does not worry about the safety of their child and many who wish their children would find a safer occupation. This does make parents hypocrites, but parents.

It is unlikely that the LA Times will rope President-elect Barack Obama with he same stilted standards it tries to bind Bush with. Obama was supported overwhelmingly by public school teachers’ union members. Yet when given the opportunity to use the services offered by his ardent supporters, he politely declined. He will not send his young daughters to a District of Columbia public school, something the President Jimmy Carter did. Despite having heaped praise on D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, Obama will be sending his daughters to the elite private school, Sidwell Friends. What does this say about Obama’s real assessment of DC public schools? This particular school choice is a decision made by the adult Obamas, not by their children as in the case of military service for Bush’s children.

This is not a criticism of Obama. He has an positive obligation to provide for the best education of his children. If he did less, we should all believe less of him. However, we should remember that Obama’s choice is an option that he withholds from others when he stands with the public school teachers’ union in refusing to give the parents of poor children even modest school choice.

Nor are we likely to see the LA Times praise Senator John McCain or Governor Sarah Palin for sincerity on their Iraq War positions since they have children who serve or have served there.

Unintelligent Debate Over Intelligent Design

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

“…the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” — Stephen Jay Gould.

The debate between some scientists and some believers over the issue of Intelligent Design is only useful in that illuminates the re-occurrence of issues that should have been settled rather definitively in the last century. The movement to promote Intelligent Design as a critique of Darwinisn is primarily reflective of a reaction by believers against some rationalists and humanists who wish to stamp out belief.

Intelligent Design posits an answer to a question that science, as a matter of axiom, refuses to allow itself. The essential argument of Intelligent Design is that Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not sufficient to explain either the origin of life or of its observed wondrous complexity and beauty.  Hence, there must be an “intelligent designer.” Although the theory of natural selection has proven extremely useful and effective in explaining observed evolution, there are surely open questions that need be addressed or observations that can not yet been completely explained.

One axiom of science is not to permit itself to resort to supernatural explanations. When confronted with the unknown or unexplainable, scientists must step a back and simply say science is not sufficient, at least not yet, of explaining the observations. An intelligent agent behind nature is excluded from the scientific solution set

Nonetheless, people are free to adopt the disciplines of science or not depending on their purposes and preferences. Indeed, one can assert the existence of an intelligent designer even if we find scientific explanations largely sufficient.

As Gould observes “…the magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.” Religion answers the questions of why not how. In any integrated personality, both these questions must be addressed, but there is no reason why an individual cannot use the different ways of thinking to address different problems. For example, no one would find it unexpected that one would use a different set of sensibilities for  scientific inquiry than literary or art appreciation.

At this point, the polemical extremes are battling it out. One one side we have evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who mock traditional believers and not too subtly paint them as simple-minded and religious belief as inherently destructive. On the other hand, Ben Stein in the new film Expelled criticizes the scientific establishment for using dismissals and tenure denial as a heavy-handed means to suppress criticism by Intelligent Design advocates. Science, which is based on open inquiry, is thus easy to paint as hypocritical.

This is an unnecessary battle resting on a misunderstanding of the appropriate relationship between science and religion.

School Study on Character

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

A focus on race and ethnicity on applications for jobs and student enrollment is a conspicuous measure of the importance on which some in government place on these traits. Of course, the key reason for gathering these statistics is to insure that jobs and school performance are proportionately distributed by government action. Any disparity in outcome becomes a reason to allocate more resources to minority students or to provide preferential treatment. The repetition of such actions and thoughts inevitably results in the internalization of such race-conscious view of the world. The recent controversial study commissioned by Fairfax County, a prosperous county in suburban Virgina, is one unfortunate consequence.

By examining teacher marks on report cards on whether a student “listens to and follows directions,” “respects personal and school property,” “complies with established rules,” and “follows through on assignments,”  the study compiled statistics on this admittedly rather crude estimates of character. The authors of the study found that Asian and white students scored higher than Hispanic and black students on their measure of  “sound moral character and ethical judgment.”

This disparity is not so pleasing because it does not obviously suggest that more government resources should be devoted to minority groups, but rather re-enforces negative racial and ethnic stereotypes. It is hard to be too sympathetic to this Liberal quandary because such situations are result of persistently focusing on race and ethnicity instead of more relevant issues and concerns.

I am not sure whether such statistics are available to Fairfax County researchers, but it would seem more relevant to search for correlations and possible causes of character problems with the concern of parents as to the moral education of their children, whether there are two parents active in the child’s life, the number and quality of books in the home, the amount of television watched in the home, parental drug and alcohol abuse,  and whether the children are overly exposed to the negative cultural influences such as “gangster rap.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that skin pigmentation in any way influences moral character. However, situations that are correlated with inadequate child rearing have come to be associated with race, ethnicity an poverty. In some ways, we may be all to blame. Perhaps our Libertarian instincts make it difficult to involve ourselves in our community to encourage proper more behavior. Maybe welfare programs and public housing programs were unintentionally structured in a manner that discourages the involvement of fathers in lives of their children.

These are all  reasonable and fruitful areas for academic inquiry. However, an inordinate focus on race and ethnicity may have been responsible for looking for correlates to moral character in the wrong places. Are we now at a time when Conservatives and Liberals can at least agree on this much?

The Right to Homeschool

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

The Amish are a convenient group to have around. They are, by their very nature, non-threatening . The Amish are a small, pacifist religous denomination that generally wishes to be left alone to practice their simple lifestyle as dictated by their religious beliefs. Sometimes restrictions on religious practices as imposed by the state are born out of a fear of unconventional religious groups. Without this fear, the dispensation granted the Amish under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment can be applied to all religious groups.

In 1972, the Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder ruled that the Amish could pull their children from public schools after the age of 14 and continue their vocational education at home despite Wisconsin law requiring school attendance untill 16. The Court conceded that the state retains a legitimate interest insuring that children are appropriately educated. However, this interest must be balanced against, “fundamental rights, such as those specifically protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children.”

The Amish had demonstrated in the court record that the Wisconsin requirement conflicted with the Amish’s religious precepts and that the exercise of these rights would not “not impair the physical or mental health of the child, or result in an inability to be self-supporting or to discharge the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, or in any other way materially detract from the welfare of society.” In essence, given a conflict between religious practice and state regulation, reasonable accommodation should be made for religious practice.

We are now face with a new case in California involving homeschooling. According a State Court of Appeal, students must be enrolled in public schools “unless (1) the child is enrolled in a private full-time day school and actually attends that private school, (2) the child is tutored by a person holding a valid state teaching credential for the grade being taught.” Hence, interested parents who are not credentialed do not have the right to educate their children at home.

The facts of this case are somewhat different from the Wisconsin v. Yoder case. There is no specific religious group being discriminated against, but it is clear that one of the primary motivations of many homeschoolers is to raise children with values not always encouraged in public schools. To be consisten with Wisconsin v. Yoder, it would seem that the free exercise clause would protect homeschooling parents. Of course, the state as explained in Wisconsin v. Yoder does have a real interest in insuring that students adequately educated,, and the quality of teachers is certainly relevant to this question. However, empirical evidence shows that homeschooled students perform better than their public school counterparts. Hence, the real state interest appears to be to maintain the public school monopoly rather than the proper education of children.

It is not likely that this particular case will stand further legal scrutiny. After all, California Courts are notorious for getting it wrong. Moreover, the politics works in favor of homeschoolers. Even the majority of parents who elect to send their children to public schools, do not appreciate being told that they do not have discretion on how to educate their children.

Attuned to this popular sentiment, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that “Parents should not be penalized for acting in the best interests of their children’s education… This outrageous ruling must be overturned by the courts, and if the courts don’t protect parents’ rights then, as elected officials, we will.” California could simply change the law to specifically allow homeschooling by parents.

The National Education Association and other lobbyists on behalf of the public school monopolies would be best not to fight the political inclination to allow home schooling. Homeschooling is always going to be the choice of only a small minority. It takes too much sacrifice on the part of modern families for homeschooling to seriously affect public school attendance. However, making too much of issue of this will cause unflattering attention to be paid to how poorly public schools do in comparison to parental amateurs.

Student Privacy

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

It is not surprising that the nation is asking itself what might have prevented the massacre of 32 student and faculty and Virginia Tech. The killer (I am deliberated not according him the honor of mentioning his name) was 23-year old student who had a history of mental illness. There will be discussion about gun control laws and whether a different reporting regime would have prevented the killer from acquiring the weapons he employed. Here we address an important ancillary issue, the extent to which laws protecting student privacy prevent a healthy relationship between the university, students, and their parents.

The old tradition of universities and colleges was to manage students as parents would, the princple of in loco parentis. However, the ethos of extreme personal autonomy has spread to campuses. Students are treated as full adults, even if greater concern and care seem warranted. If as student is having academic or personal problems, parents will not be generally notified. Parents do not have right to view student grades. Parents are only notified if the policy are called or emergency medical treatment required.

In many ways this is convenient for universities. Schools still insist upon parental finanical support to the extent they practically can, but the source of funds is separated from the consumers, the students. Parents who pay for the services are more likely to confront school administrators about the quality of educational services and the manner in which they are provided.

Federal law prohibits universities from releasing student records, even grades, to anyone unless the student has granted permission. This crucial point is often time explained to parents at orientation classes for parents of prospective freshman. Don’t bother to call the school to find out how Johnny or Sally are doing, because federal law keeps the university from responding.

However, what is generally not said is that one important exception to the law is that the parents of children who are still dependents, as defined by the Internal Revenue Code, have every right to student records. This situation applies to many incoming freshman. The fact that this exception is not generally made clear to parents is an indication that universties rather not be bothered by pesky parents.

The extent that universities really care about the welfare of student is in part measured by their genuine attempts to involve parents in the education and care of student, not just fund raising and boosterism. The first step is to make sure that parents understand their rights.

Milton Friedman – R. I. P.

Saturday, November 18th, 2006

“A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome —ahead of freedom will end up with neither. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who will use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.” – Milton Friedman, Free to Choose.

We often do not recognize the intellectual giants of an era until long after their passing. This fortunately was not the case for economist and the plain-spoken polemicist Milton Friedman who died November 16, 2006 at the age of 94. Friedman received professional recognition by winning the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976 for his work on “consumption analysis” and “monetary history and theory” as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributing to the idea that “man’s economic rights are as vital as his civil and human rights.” Friedman matched his professional notoriety with the ability to explain his economic and political ideas to lay people. In his seminal TV series “Free to Choose,” broadcast ironically on PBS, Friedman took his case for economic and political freedom to millions of viewers. The series was an outgrowth of a book by the same, co-authored by his wife Rose. Conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. described the book as an “important, shrewd, omnicompetent readable guide to reasoned thought for those who choose to be free.”

The early decades of the last century marked the rise of collectivist ideology that maintained that societies are run more efficiently if centrally managed. The course of the century made clear that such societies are lees free and generally less economically well off.

Friedman walked in the footsteps of Friedrich Hayek the Austrian economist and political philosopher who wrote The Road to Serfdom. Hayek argued that whether Fascist or Socialist, centrally-controlled societies inexorably led to a loss of freedom and individual autonomy regardless of the how well-intentioned the motives of government are. Friedman continued the making case arguing that free enterprise is a necessary component to any free society. It is the market that insures that no one power, the government, a business, or a union has too much power. Indeed, Friedman argued that free markets protect both workers and consumers more than effectively than governments or unions.

Friedman is perhaps best known as an articulate spokesman for vouchers for public education. Like any monopoly public schools are inefficient and primary serve the interests of the monopoly and not the customer. If parents were given a “voucher” to spend for their children at any school, publicly or privately run, the will of parents rather than education bureaucracies would be sovereign. Those schools that most efficiently met the needs of parents seeking the education of their children would be the ones that prospered. In the book Free to Choose, Friedman demonstrated that the decreased educational output was correlated with the growth of larger and larger educational bureaucracies. Comparing the periods 1968-1969 to 1973-1974, the “number of students” in public schools “went up 1 percent, the total professional staff went up 15 percent, and teachers 14 percent, but supervisors went up 44 percent.”

Opponents of vouchers argued that it would harm the poorest students the most, but Friedman countered that they would be the most empowered. Presently, parents already have some choice in education, only it is means tested. Wealthy parents can send their children to any school they want to. The middle class can do they same at significant economic sacrifice, while the poor have no choice but to accept their local publicly-run school. Armed with vouchers, poor parents would begin to have some of the same choices as wealthier ones. All schools would improve under the pressure of an education market.

Friedman’s wit and ire was most passionately directed at the conceit of some school administrators who object to vouchers or any market approach to education on the grounds that educational professionals are more component to make such decisions than parents. Friedman derisively cited the headmaster of a school in Kent England as suggesting that “I’m not sure that parents know what is best educationally for their children.” This arrogance is a consequence insulated bureaucracies. [See this exchange from “Free to Choose” at YouTube.]

By way of comparison, even though the cost of medical care is a complex mixture of private and public spending, people are still generally free to choose their own doctors and medical treatment. Even though medical treatments are far more complex the educational decisions, everyone would cringe at a system that forced specific doctors and treatments on patients on the grounds that doctors know better than patients what is medically best for them.

Milton Friedman’s happy manner made it impossible for some on the Left to demonize him as uncaring and his academic credentials made it difficult to caricature as a Neanderthal Conservative. The force of his intellect and clarity of his exposition were important factors in ushering in the Reagan Revolution and the Right-ward shift of the country. It is an important measure of his success that it is hard to remember how truly revolutionary and liberating his voice was in the 1970s. Many present Conservatives were suckled on words of Milton Friedman. For those who were intellectually aware of the political debate during that time, his loss is a heavy one mitigated by the fact that his words will live on in his books and television series.