Wednesday, July 13, 2016

We Can't Spend Our Way To Smarterer Kids

Every political season brings us a bevy of empty slogans and no topic gathers more vague and meaningless blathering than "education". A politician can be against abortion or against guns or against strict immigration laws or against higher taxes but no one who wants to hold public officer can be against "education". I intentionally put the word "education" in quotes because, like "national defense" spending, very little of the money spent on "education" is used to educate kids. I made a few comments on my main blog about this, that we use words in clumsy and often intentionally deceptive ways to confuse a conversation and no one more so than in government.

In our political discourse, "caring about kids" and "improving education" is always, 100% of the time, code for "more spending, especially Federal spending, on the educational bureaucracy". For example, Hillary Clinton has a number of entries on the topic of "education" on her campaign website, from obvious ones like "Early Childhood Education" where she pledges to pour more cash down a proven waste of money like Head Start, increasing the number of kids in "high-quality preschool" and providing "child care" and scholarships for "student parents". Of course "high-quality preschool" equals more kids in government run programs rather than more kids home with their mother or father because there is no place more dangerous or inappropriate for a child before they are shipped off to government schools quite like their own home. Then there is her K-12 education stance promising to provide "A world-class education for every child in every community". In case you weren't sure, that means lots and lots of new and expanded Federal "education" spending. In a concession to Bernie Sanders, who showed with his lukewarm endorsement of Clinton that he is nothing like the messianic crusader he and his legion of star struck followers believed, Hillary proposes "The New College Compact" which magically makes college free for 80% of all families:

Every student should have the option to graduate from a public college or university in their state without taking on any student debt. Under Hillary’s plan, by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities—covering more than 80 percent of all families. And from the start of the plan, every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less will be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university without paying tuition. Students at community college will also pay no tuition.

Absolutely! If there is anything that we have learned about human nature it is this, when you make something completely "free" and remove any personal investment in something, it becomes super valuable to the people who have it handed to them. I am sure that making college "free" will not encourage young people who have little interest in a college education nevertheless hanging out for four years on the tax payer dime before they take their X-box and bong and move back into mom's basement. As an added bous:

Hillary will also restore year-round Pell Grant funding, so low- and middle-income students have the support they need to take the classes that will put them on the path to graduation throughout the year.

None of those pesky summer jobs for our children! The last thing we want are kids graduating from college with some sort of real work experience that would interfere with their social justice training. Free college has to include year round free college. But lest you think colleges get off for free (emphasis mine)....

Colleges and universities will be accountable for improving outcomes and controlling costs to ensure that tuition is affordable and that students who invest in college leave with a degree.

I am sure that if your access as a college or university to unlimited Federal "education" money is dependent on students getting a degree, then every student is going to get a degree. If you are a sucker like me and actually put in some effort and personal investment into getting a degree you can thank Hillary because if she becomes President having a college degree will be worth about what getting a high school diploma means now, basically nothing.

Of course what would a super expensive proposal be without a promised hit to the "rich": Fully paid for: This plan will be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers. Weird that somehow every single new proposal she throws out there is going to be paid for by hitting "the rich" or "corporations". At some point you might think that we can only take so much away from people and businesses without having a negative impact on the people they employ or having them run out of money. Also what seems weird is that she pledges to be "a small business president", that is kinda weird because a lot of the owners of successful small businesses end up being the same "high-income taxpayers" that Hilary is going to soak to pay for her college affordability plan. It almost sort of sounds like her "small business" plan is just another way of funneling money to preferred groups whether they are really involved in a sensible business plan at all. Part of the underwriting process banks use before giving business loans is looking at the projections for the business to see if it will actually make money so that business can pay back the loan because banks, large and small and contrary to what the rhetoric from the Left would suggest, really want people to pay back their loans. If you guarantee the loan from the government though, all of a sudden it doesn't matter if the business makes sense and like the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac disaster we find banks with an incentive to make loans regardless of credit worthiness because they have little risk. I am sure that will be a splendid plan.

But Hillary says it will work and really we have never had a more honest and trustworthy politician in this country.

What is my point behind all of that? Just a little inconvenient fact check. Cato put out a post What Do We Know About Education? and what we know about education without a shadow of a doubt is captured in this chart:

The "so what?" of this chart is pretty simple. Since 1970 our spending on "education" has skyrocketed. In terms of inflation adjusted dollars we went from spending $57,602 to get a kid from K through 12 versus now when we spend $166,773 to do the same thing. In return for almost tripling our spending we have gotten essentially the same results. Educational output has not got better as demonstrated by the chart and confirmed anecdotally from anyone paying attention. Think about that number for a second. $166,773 for one child, kindergarten through 12th grade, or thirteen years of schooling. That works out to $12,828 per year. That is a lot of moolah. For contrast, our largest evangelical Christian private school in Fort Wayne, Blackhawk, charges tuition of $6,680 or about half the cost of a public school "education" per year. Our large Catholic school, Bishop Dwenger, is about $7000 for parishioners, or $8500 for non-parishioners. These schools are highly sought after for academic excellence and yet they somehow manage to get a child through school for half the cost of a public school. 

The guy who did the above chart, Andrew Coulson, has a documentary coming out that will be (shockingly) on PBS. The CATO piece quotes an essay from George Will, which is unfortunate, even though Will has some important points:

The consensus then was that the best predictor of a school’s performance was the amount of money spent on it: Increase financial inputs, and cognitive outputs would increase proportionately. As the postwar baby boom moved through public schools like a pig through a python, almost everything improved — school buildings, teachers’ salaries, class sizes, per-pupil expenditures — except outcomes measured by standardized tests. 

Enter Coleman, and the colleagues he directed, to puncture complacency with the dagger of evidence — data from more than 3,000 schools and 600,000 primary and secondary school students. His report vindicated the axiom that social science cannot tell us what to do, it can tell us the results of what we are doing. He found that the best predictor of a school’s outcomes was the quality of the children’s families. And students’ achievements are influenced by the social capital (habits, mores, educational ambitions) their classmates bring to school: 

“One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.”

This is at the heart of the entire education problem in America. Our problem is not a lack of funding. It is a lack of family. We can never spend enough money on "education", much of which goes to pay for staff and bureaucrats instead of teachers, to replace the hard reality that kids are going to school in ever increasing numbers without a solid family at home. Will goes on (emphasis mine):

Coleman’s report came exactly one year after — and as an explosive coda to — what is known as the Moynihan Report, which was leaked in July 1965. Moynihan, then a 37-year-old social scientist in Johnson’s Labor Department, presented in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” what then counted as shocking news: 23.6 percent of African American births were to unmarried women.

Today 71 percent are. Almost 47 percent of all first births are to unmarried women, and a majority of all mothers under 30 are not living with the fathers of their children.

What does our political system offer to respond to this? What will this look like in 10 years? 20 years? Will 75% of kids live in homes without their fathers? 80%? 90%?

How much can Hillary offer to single moms who are overwhelmed because they have been told by Uncle Sam that they don't need no man when in facts it turns out that they in fact do and even more so, so do their children who are being sent to failing, overpriced schools with two strikes already against them and a 102 mile per hour fastball coming right down the plate? We have given them more and more, money, health care, food, phones and still year after year an ever larger percentage of our population is falling behind. No amount of money, no new litany of Federal programs, no well-meaning empty rhetoric can replace a stable family with a mother and father. I know there are stable families with one or the other or both gone and lots of unstable families with the mother and father present but the undisputed best predictor of future success and stability for a kid is an intact family.

As long as we treat education as a problem that can be solved simply by throwing more money at it, we will end up with these same results. Kids from intact families with engaged parents will continue to outperform at a significant rate. Kids without that stable family setting will continue to struggle and those struggling kids turn into struggling adults, essentially turning our public schools into an assembly line producing future inmates.
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