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Education Reform

Since the Republicans are bereft of ideas these days, I have one for them: get rid of the Department of Education. Now, I know what you are thinking, that’s an old idea. It is, but if the Republicans sold it and implemented it the same as welfare reform they might have something. For instance, if the department were killed and the money were divided among the states as performance-based block grants, we could see real experimentation among the states. Some states would opt for the status quo, others would try vouchers and others still would try structural changes to the existing schools. The latter seems the most hopeful to me these days.

The Cato Institute has a wonderful article accompanied by some graphs that make the point well. From the chart below, you can see that state and local spending per-pupil, adjusted for inflation, has increased dramatically in recent decades for no measurable gain (indeed, science scores have gotten worse).

Total Spending Per Student

I suppose you could reach a number of conclusions from the graph, but to me it indicates that there is a structural problem with school systems unrelated to spending, and performance-based block grants might well be the way to address it. I have one specific model in mind that I’ll address at another time.

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About Robert Prather
Robert Prather formerly blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished and, unlike his co-blogger Dodd, can not kill a mime using only his thumb. Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    This is an idea that I can get behind. I would still raise the question why the federal government needs to gather the money then return it, but as a first step am willing to go this route.

    One route would be to say the state was willing to spend X amount per pupil, which can be spent on your local school board or in private school. That alone would shake things up more than anything else.

    If you really wanted a radical proposal, disallow any union whose membership’s salaries are more than 50% paid by taxes from making political contributions, campaigning or political advertising or forcing union membership or dues. There should probably be a similar restriction on corporate political advertising when say more than 50% of their profit comes from government expenditures. In short, throtelling the link between having your snout in the public trough and spending what you find there to get more swill sent your way.

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  2. yaj,

    You latched on to one of the big problems: the incentives are not aligned properly, which is why when the unions propose reducing class size what they really want is more teachers.

    Structural change is needed and nothing less will suffice.

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  3. john personna says:

    I’m fine with whacking education spending back to say 1990’s levels, inflation adjusted. I don’t think that will happen though, not until or unless we get that bizarre future where Americans are ready for “austerity measures.”

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  4. Dave says:

    For instance, if the department were killed and the money were divided among the states as performance-based block grants, we could see real experimentation among the states.

    Good idea, although we’ll probably need some sort of agency to administer the grants. Maybe something like the Education Department, or a Department of Education. Oh wait….

    Republicans need to drop this “crush, kill, destroy” impulse and concentrate more on reforming the existing infrastructure we already have. Don’t eliminate the Dep of Education, change the way it doles out cash to encourage classroom innovation.

    Although, on that last count, Obama’s already starting to beat them to the punch.

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  5. Yes, Dave, they’ll need a small agency in HHS of a couple hundred people to collect data and track performance, but have no input into policies. Yes, that’s exactly what we have now.

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  6. Continuing on, reforming the Department of Education is a waste of time because much of the things it already does need to stop. It dictates spending on special ed, and the like. It’s beholden to the existing institutions, such as teachers’ unions and education colleges, which have failed so totally that you can post a graph like the one above without people questioning the data, because they know it’s true.

    Killing the dept of ed is the first and necessary step for reform because it will help unseat the existing interests. Then reform can begin.

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  7. john personna says:

    Killing the dept of ed is the first and necessary step for reform because it will help unseat the existing interests. Then reform can begin.

    “first and necessary” (chuckle) wake me when that happens

    Seriously, none of this will happen until we have a structural change in our spending patterns. States and school districts are running out of money now. That is driving cuts. Maybe it will lead to a solid review of what’s needed and what is bloat. I don’t see it driving the extinction of the Department of Education as the “first and necessary” step.

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  8. John,

    Yeah, I probably overstated that, but the fact remains that as long as we have a federal department, it will be used by the existing interests (unions, ed schools) to only support reforms that work in their favor, not necessarily the students.

    At least with the block grants, the feds would be incentivizing the states to do what’s right, in spite of the unions, etc.

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  9. Dave says:

    The teachers unions don’t directly run the Department of Education. It’s a federal agency, the President sets its priorities and Congress sets its funding. The only reason the Department of Education is afraid of the teacher’s unions is because our Presidents (even GWBush) and our Congress is so afraid of the teachers unions.

    Furthermore, the teachers unions are even more powerful on the state level; eliminating the department of education isn’t going to eliminate their influence, it’ll just push it further down the federalist tree. It’ll make the problem a whole lot worse.

    Everything you want to do in education, incentivized block grants, etc., is best accomplished (and in some cases, is being accomplished) by the Department of Education. And in a way that is more electorally appealing to voters than an “eliminate the DoE” slogan that just sounds reckless (Luntz would never approve!)

    If you want to eliminate federal special ed funding, it’s an act of congress away! (But good luck trying to push that one through. I know some SPED moms and dads who’d have the pitch forks at the ready.)

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  10. steve says:

    I know of no evidence that unions make education worse or improve it. Also, AFAIK, no school has ever had significant improvement with the implementation of vouchers or charters without a significant change in demographics.

    That said, I would have no real problem with eliminating the Dept. of Education. Let states keep their money and spend as they wish. The downside is that poor areas will probably have much less to spend and we end up with a permanent underclass. When I have looked at the data, it looks as though our middle class and up white kids compete very well with students around the world. We just arent good at educating poor kids, especially minorities. I suspect this has more to do with families and early development, so it may be possible that we should not spend that much on those kids anyway.

    Steve

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    I would be really interested if this chart had more detail – specifically, pull out the increased spending due to mainstreaming physically and mentally handicapped students. Whether or not you think this is a good idea, it is incredibly expensive, with multiple students in every school having a full time aide with them all day long, plus special buses and so forth.

    Another factor is simply that in 1970 women had few choices for respectable professions that granted them work place autonomy. Nursing and Teaching were about it. So you didn’t have to pay very much to get the best people available into the profession. Now schools are competing against everyone else and finding that poor pay often correlates with poor teachers.

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  12. An Interested Party says:

    It’s beholden to the existing institutions, such as teachers’ unions and education colleges, which have failed so totally that you can post a graph like the one above without people questioning the data, because they know it’s true.

    So parental involvement (or lack thereof) doesn’t play the significant role in how well students do in school? It’s all about the teachers, eh?

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  13. superdestroyer says:

    Make the block grants dependent of “right-to=know.” Schools should have to publish on their websites, every thing from the readings level of the second to SAT/ACT scores for every student as long as the names are removed.

    When schools have to report all of their data, then they get the money and the schools will be around forever for comparison.

    Schools can then do whatever they want to increase the value added of their educational process.

    Other than forcing schools to report data, the federal government can stay out of everything else. No money should be given to colleges of education for worthless research. The data will provide the basis for the research.

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  14. AIP,

    Of course parents matter, but we have little or no control over what they do. What we can do is control spending and the structure of the schools. We can tie any additional dollars to additional performance improvements. There are any number of things we can do to control the schools and few or none to control the parents.

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  15. Steve,

    I’m not necessarily talking about vouchers or charter schools, though if they work in certain states, they should be pursued in those states.

    Also, it doesn’t follow that an underclass would be the result of getting rid of the DoE. The money would still be spent on education and all children would be required to go to school as they are now. Whether they improved or not would be measured and the block grants would be tied to that.

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  16. MarkedMan,

    Good point. The early 1970s represented a time when a lot of people were being mainstreamed and I would expect a lot of performance drops and a great deal more money to be spent to make those changes. Likewise, I would expect it to take time to see results out the back end. We’re forty years on now and have seen nothing but increased spending and absolutely no positive correlation between spending and learning.

    How long do we need to do this?

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  17. Superdestroyer,

    We largely agree, except towards the end there. The education schools suck (there was an OTB post that showed as much) but they aren’t necessarily useless. As currently configured, yes, but they could be improved.

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  18. Dave,

    I don’t want to end special ed funding, it would just be handled by the states via their own money and the money from the block grants. My concern with it is that it creates an incentive to move kids into special ed because the money is there and because the special ed kids aren’t tested. Schools can improve their “performance” simply by putting kids in special ed.

    Also, of course the unions are more powerful at the state level since that’s where the education occurs. The grants are simply to provide an incentive for the states to pursue whatever works, regardless of how it affects the unions.

    I disagree with your third paragraph because, inevitably, someone at DoE or Congress or the White House will conclude that he knows best and try to impose one-size-fits-all solutions.

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  19. An Interested Party says:

    Of course parents matter, but we have little or no control over what they do.

    But if parents are the primary indicator of how well students do in school, all this talk of abolishing the Department of Education and block grants, etc. seems meaningless, as none of that will help to make better students…

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  20. aip,

    “Primary indicator” is your phrase, not mine. If they were the primary determinant, we’d be screwed. We might as well throw our hands in the air. I think the kids matter more.

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  21. Let me expand on that a bit. Most parents aren’t abusive and trying to actively undermine their own kids. Most want their kids to do well and perhaps don’t know how to. Either way, if the parents are reasonably good (as the ones I knew growing up were) then the kids can be taught and within that range the schools matter a great deal.

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  22. But if parents are the primary indicator of how well students do in school, all this talk of abolishing the Department of Education and block grants, etc. seems meaningless, as none of that will help to make better students…

    LOL, of course, spending ludicrous sums of money also apparently does nothing to make better students either, so can we assume you are co longer in favor of it?

    The real problem is that science seemed to stop in 2001 according to the graph.

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  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    The problem is the very concept of school as it exists today. And guess what? Unions won’t be the only people standing in the way of doing something. The GOP and it’s culture cops will fight tooth and nail against relevant reform.

    Education needs a revolution. Will the unions go along? Of course not. Will the GOP go along? Of course not. So spare me the b.s. about eliminating the DoE. The DoE isn’t the problem. The problem is that the concept of school as currently imagined is outdated, wasteful and irrelevant.

    I’m on book tour visiting middle schools. You know what I see? Signs posted declaring the school a phone-free zone. Why? Because schools have not begun to adjust to the fact that they are no longer in the business of teaching facts. Facts are free and ubiquitous. Schools need to be in the business of epistemology, of analysis, of critical thinking skills. Chances that conservatives will suddenly develop a love of critical analysis? Zero.

    Both Left and Right see schools as a platform for propaganda, for pushing social agendas. Neither seems to really give a damn about actual living, breathing kids. But to attack only the Left in the person of the unions, or attack DoE, is just another brick in the wall, not a realistic contribution to solving the problem of education.

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  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    Yikes. It’s instead of its. I apologize for that.

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  25. Juneau: says:

    The GOP and it’s culture cops will fight tooth and nail against relevant reform.

    This is just purile nonsense. The “GOP” would take the NEA and the other useless education unions and make them accountable in a heartbeat (which is what should be done) if they could just gather the courage to tell the teachers unions to stick it up their wazoo.

    Chances that conservatives will suddenly develop a love of critical analysis? Zero.

    Don’t even try and put the Right in the same boat as the Left. The left has all but ruined education with its focus on sociological “diversity” over hard science. Tell me, what “critical analysis” skills are the leftist professors teaching in classes when “social justice” is even being brought into science and math classes?

    Arizona has the correct idea as a first step when it outlawed useless “ethnic-centric” studies and other “smoke dope, feel victimized, and focus on your belly-button” classes from the universities and K12 schools.

    I favor Cristie’s approach to the unions in Jersey; “Go ahead teachers, cry all you want but guess what? Nobody cares until you start teaching our kids some real hard science and reading skills.”

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  26. Michael Reynolds says:

    Juneau:

    Hard science? You mean like creationism?

    People like you are the problem, along with the unions. What we need is for both Left and Right to take their little pet theories and their grudges and their patent medicine nostrums and STFU.

    Isn’t it enough we’ve essentially bankrupted these kids with the cost of our social security and medicare and unfunded wars? Do we also have to cripple them intellectually in service to our tired-ass culture wars?

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  27. Juneau: says:

    Hard science? You mean like creationism?

    If you have an axe to grind about this subject, why don’t you reserve it for a conversation where it is actually part of the discussion?

    People like you are the problem, along with the unions. What we need is for both Left and Right to take their little pet theories and their grudges and their patent medicine nostrums and STFU.

    Yeah, like the pet theory of evolution? Sorry, man but you just left yourself wide open for that one :)

    Seriously though, it’s interesting that the only “theory” you can name from the “Right” is the whole creationism thing you obviously are very sensitive about.

    The left has dominated the direction of education since the 60s and you can lay its problems directly at their feet. Unless you sincerely are claiming that you have never heard the strident refrain coming from the right about getting back to teaching good ol’ reading, writing and arithmetic?

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  28. Grewgills says:

    Block grants going primarily to high performing schools and cutting money to underperforming schools will inevitably lead to more money going to middle class and wealthy suburban schools and money being pulled away from poor urban and rural schools. The students that already have most of the advantages get ever greater advantages and the students facing the greater obstacles get one more obstacle as their schools are stripped of money.

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  29. john personna says:

    I did think it was kind of funny that “science scores” were mentioned up at the top.

    After a decade of culture-war against science (not just creationism, but all those global warming arguments that scientists are dishonest, self-interested, bastards), how could anything else happen?

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  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    Juneau:
    Thank you for so clearly demonstrating the fact that the Right is a major contributor to the problems with education. Excellent job.

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  31. wr says:

    Juneau — Nice timing on these comments, coming on the same day the Texas school board has decided that social studies classes across the state must spend their time teaching that social security is evil and that America’s sovereignty is threatened by international institutions. Nope, right wingers never use schools to push their pet theories to the detriment of education. Thanks for pointing that out!

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  32. Juneau: says:

    Go Texas!

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  33. Grewgills,

    The purpose of the grants is to improve performance and could be designed that way. You’re misstating my argument and then disagreeing with the misstatement.

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  34. [...] an earlier post, I ended by saying I had a specific model in mind for reform and it’s based on the Chugach [...]

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