What’s Up with U.S. Public Education?

*I wrote this a while ago, but didn’t publish. I was on vacation–sue me. I know the internet has the attention span of a five-year-old, and people aren’t really talking about DeVos anymore, but I’m hoping this is still interesting to someone.

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education was perhaps the hardest-won victory of President Trump’s nascent administration. Opposition to the DeVos ran deep enough to require Vice President Pence to cast a historic tie-breaking vote.

To hear it from those on the Left, DeVos is uniquely unqualified for the position. Her lack of personal experience with the public school system, coupled with her one-sided approach to education and purported ignorance of education policy make her unsuited to the position, they argue.

On the Right, the response has been to call into question the political motivations behind opposition to DeVos. Teachers’ unions, after all, are some of the biggest spenders in U.S. politics and their economic interests are threatened by the kind of reforms DeVos’ appointment might foreshadow.

It’s hard to know if either or both sides are being overly cynical. I don’t pretend to have any deep knowledge of DeVos or her new mantle. But one thing seems empirically true: the status quo of public education isn’t above reproach.

More Money, Same (Math, Science, Literacy) Problems

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), per pupil spending on public education has increased roughly 1.7% annually since 1980. Student performance, however, has largely stagnated over the same period by various metrics. To somewhat immodestly quote myself:

The statistics are damning: Literacy rates among 17-year-old Americans peaked in 1971. Standardized testing reveals that math scores peaked in 1986. Test scores show a lack of improvement in math, science, and reading, in which respectively 25%, 22%, and 37% of American students are proficient.

This kind of stagnation isn’t typical among other nations; the United States showed much smaller levels of inter-generational improvement than other OECD nations. Up until about 1975, Americans were scoring significantly higher in math and literacy than Americans born before them. Since 1975, scores have plateaued, even adjusting for race and foreign-born status of students. As [Gallup’s] study states, this implicates the entire US school system.

Test scores aren’t the only indicators of educational dysfunction. Fully 60% of first-year college students need to take remedial courses in either math or English (to be fair, you might attribute this in part to college admission policies). Companies are also reporting longer vacancies for STEM positions and increasingly are forced to delay projects or look outside the U.S. for workers.

To be clear, it’s not that US public schools are producing particularly terrible outcomes (though they’re admittedly middling among the developed world). The real problem is spending on public education is becoming increasingly inefficient; we’re putting more and more resources into it and receiving little or no additional benefit. This is a long-term trend that should be addressed immediately to avoid throwing good money after bad.

In fairness, I have to point out that speaking of public schools in national terms risks obscuring that some public schools–usually found in high-income neighborhoods–perform incredibly well. However, unequal educational outcomes are often considered a bug, rather than a feature, of the public school system, which charter schools have in some cases been able to address with varying degrees of success (though there are charges that this is only possible because charters are given greater latitude in selecting their students).

The Status Quo Is Hard on Teachers, Too

There is a perception among some that public school teachers are profiting hand over fist as a result of teachers’ unions, to the expense of students. But the truth is a little more complicated.

On one hand, strong teachers’ unions have engendered some policies that arguably favor educators over students. Teacher firing rates, for example, are extremely low. This is especially true for tenured teachers, of which an average of 0.2 are dismissed per district for poor performance annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

This is made possible (at least in part) by what effectively amounts to state-sanctioned local monopolies on education. Constraints on demand impede normal market mechanisms from weeding out inefficient suppliers (at least, that’s the theory embraced by school choice advocates). This isn’t illogical, and it explains the somewhat rare rift between black parents and the Democratic party line on school choice.

Consider a thought experiment: Imagine families were forced to shop for food only in their own neighborhoods. What might we expect to happen to the quality of food consumed by people in poor areas? What if we put limits on the amount of new stores that could open?

In this light, it might be accurate to say that policies that require students to attend schools in their district prioritize the school system over the scholars.

On the other hand, a lot of teachers are being harmed by the current system–particularly the young and good ones.

Under current agreements, teacher compensation rates are in large part determined by longevity, both within the profession and teaching district. Young teachers–especially women teaching young children–are often underpaid relative to other professions.

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Source: No Recovery, Gallup 2016

Additionally, collective bargaining agreements have led to pay compression (a narrowing of the pay gap between high and low performers) among teachers, which penalizes high performing teachers and benefits low performing teachers. Correspondingly, there has been a detectable decline in standardized test scores of new teachers since the 1960s.¹

The combination of longevity-driven pay and salary compression has made teaching a less attractive profession for the best candidates, who can earn more in other comparable fields. A 2014 survey by the American Federation of Teachers revealed merely 15% of teachers report high levels of enthusiasm about their profession, despite 89% feeling highly enthusiastic at the beginning of their careers.

*

What might we say about an education system that grows increasingly expensive without improvement for students or teachers? We might say that it needs work and we should be open to new ideas, in whatever form they might come. It might also be wise to proceed with caution; for better or worse, this is the system we have right now.

I don’t know if Mrs. DeVos’ agenda will result in improvements. The divergent problems of climbing spending and poor teacher incentive could prove difficult to address simultaneously, especially in the current political climate. But we should all remember the true goal of an education system–public, private, or somewhere in between–is to efficiently increase human capital. How that happens should be of secondary concern.

  1. The study I cited found these results to be true only among female teachers. For some reason, scores of incoming male teachers improved slightly over this period. If anyone has any theories as to why this might be, I’d love to hear them.

“Free” College Would be a Terrible Idea

The free college crusade represents a perfect collision of ignorance and entitlement. The movement is popular with self-interested students seeking debt forgiveness or a free ride and contributes heavily to the appeal of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy among them. While he is the most extreme in his rhetoric and supposed intentions, the venerable senator is only one among many high-profile Democrats to opine that higher education should be at least partially subsidized by federal money (or more accurately that federal subsidies should be expanded, since they already exist).

Their argument is predicated on the idea that there is a moral or economic obligation to protect students from the rising costs of college education. The underlying assumption is that the federal government is actually capable of containing such inflation by throwing money at it. However you dice it—morally or financially—it’s a bunk policy move that, if implemented, would certainly do more harm than good.

There is no free lunch…or sociology class

Let’s start off with the obvious; professors, administrators, and other faculty aren’t going to work for free. Nor can universities maintain, power, and supply themselves free of charge. It will still cost a lot to keep a college operating, so free college is a misnomer. It will still be paid for, but we would change the payer.

A basic tenet of economics is that costs should be borne by the consumer. There’s good reason for this. When consumers have skin in the game, they ration much more effectively because they’re confronted with the opportunity costs of their decisions (any money or time spent on education can’t be spent on something else) as well as the reality of paying that money back some day.

By contrast, having prospective students make unobligated investments with other people’s money would almost guarantee that more bad investments are made. That means too many people earning degrees in areas that aren’t in high demand and are unlikely to pay for themselves. It’s not that I don’t want anyone to major in art history or theology, but if you’re going to you should pay for it yourself.

Funneling more money into education will inflate costs further

Think about it: if a stranger gave $10,000 to a pizza place so that other people could eat for free, customers would probably order more than the efficient amount of pizza. Why not? There’s no risk involved, at least not to the guy taking the pizzas home.

Let’s say this generous stranger kept funding the restaurant so consumers could continue to enjoy “free” pizza. What might we expect to happen to the cost of pizza? You might be tempted to think that it will stay the same, but the truth is that it would probably rise as overhead and total cost increase. Of course, customers wouldn’t feel the burden of rising prices, and would keep eating away happily.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the shop has had to hire more cooks and cleaning staff; order more ingredients; use more electricity etc. because they have to produce ever more pizza. Where does that money come from, if not the customers? It comes from the generous stranger, our allegorical taxpayer, who is analogous in all but one crucial aspect: her funding is given by choice and can be halted when the cost becomes prohibitive.

In real life, taxpayers would be on the hook for an increasing amount as constraints on demand are removed and overhead costs increase. A cheaper and more effective method of reducing the cost of college might be easing the accreditation process. Costs might (and probably will) also be driven down by innovations such as online learning and other challenges to the traditional college process.

Free college wouldn’t help the right people

A tuition subsidy would directly benefit the education industry and students who have, are, or will go to college. None of these groups is so destitute as to warrant burdening taxpayers, 68% of which don’t hold a diploma, with the cost of their voluntary, secondary education. On the contrary, 81% of college graduates in 2012 came from families with above-average incomes while merely 7% came from families in the bottom quintile.

Free tuition would fall in with subsidies for electric cars and solar panels: well-meaning policies that essentially transfer wealth up the income ladder to those who are much more likely to take advantage of such incentives. This makes it a very bizarre choice for a candidate, and indeed an entire party, that spends so much time perseverating on the onerous effects of economic inequality.

A major point of college is to accrue human capital: to improve your skills and come out more valuable and employable than you were when you went in. Secondary education is an investment: the benefits of which are enjoyed by the recipient in the form of higher future earnings. Making the taxpayer foot the bill for wealthy kids to invest in their futures is pretty cynical, even by modern standards.

How can you decry tax cuts on the rich and then turn around and hand them a blank check for college? More importantly, how can any of us get behind this? Campuses all over America are full of kids condemning social and economic privilege. And yet they want to vote themselves, the most fortunate echelon of the richest generation ever, out of debt with other people’s money. Let the petulance of that sink in.

What it boils down to is a notable dearth of understanding of basic economics among our generation. Even very smart people that I know are simply unable to reckon with the most fundamental principles of supply and demand and basic price theory.

A better way to help

Even if fully subsidized tuition did make it more likely that low-income people attended college, that wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing and certainly wouldn’t be the best way to improve their lot. It’s pretty unlikely that someone from a poor community who has been forced to attend an underfunded school in their neighborhood is going to be adequately prepared for a college curriculum.

We see this play out again and again. We saw it with affirmative action and we see it in community colleges, where a measly 20% of students seeking a degree receive one within 3 years. It seems a large part of succeeding in college is being prepared to attend it—who could have guessed?

The most frustrating thing about this is that there is a very clear method by which we might compensate for this–it’s just wretchedly unpopular with Democrats[1]…and teachers unions.

What if instead of waiting for someone to turn 18 and encouraging them to enter a college they’re not ready for, we allowed them the ability to choose better schools as children? Instead of sequestering children from poor areas in underfunded and overcrowded schools, we should help parents send their young kids to better schools.

Make no mistake; school choice isn’t a magic bullet or a catch-all solution to educational inequality. But it would greatly improve on some of our current policies, in my opinion.

Tying kids down to public schools (44% of whose funding is procured locally) in their district is a recipe for disaster. Financing public schools through property taxes might work well in affluent communities, but it perpetuates a lack of access to education in poorer areas. Allowing people to choose where to send their kids and giving poor families vouchers for primary education would make a lot more sense than shelling out money to send unprepared students to universities. The only trouble is getting the politics to align.

If the Democratic Party really cared about improving access to education, increasing social mobility for the poor, or cultivating a competent workforce, they would give parents more choice in the schooling of their children. They might also acknowledge that there are other paths to success that don’t involve credentialism and a rigid bureaucratic structure.

Instead, they propose a plan that would pump $70 billion of public money annually into dubious investments and subsidies for the wealthy. It might not make any economic sense, but it’s great for courting votes.

 

[1] To her credit, Hillary Clinton isn’t totally against school choice. She would be fine with allowing for choice among public schools, but not private. Oddly, she cited a fear of parochial schools training terrorists to support her decision. She also thought that a voucher system would be unconstitutional. Sanders stated that he was “strongly against” any program that might redirect funding from public to private schools, including doing so in the form of tax credits.