President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It is a shame that the only thing that seemed to draw headlines from a recent panel discussion on poverty including President Obama was a silly throw away line about Fox News. The entire discussion, which included Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks deeply deserves your time. The event transcript can be found here.

Go read it. Like now. All four participants had very interesting things to say, far more than can be reflected upon in a blog post.

So this quote from President Obama got my attention:

Now, part of what’s happened is that — and this is where Arthur and I would probably have some disagreements.  We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history — it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better — more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages
— are withdrawing from sort of the commons — kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.

Now, that’s not inevitable.  A free market is perfectly compatible with also us making investment in good public schools, public universities; investments in public parks; investments in a whole bunch — public infrastructure that grows our economy and spreads it around.  But that’s, in part, what’s been under attack for the last 30 years.  And so, in some ways, rather than soften the edges of the market, we’ve turbocharged it.  And we have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity.

This is an interesting quote on multiple levels- the first of which being that it has factual assertions that are demonstrably false. Let’s start with the strongly implied notion that we have disinvested from public schools. Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a delightfully on point chart addressing what actually happened:


Now I could just as easily show a chart of inflation adjusted public school spending per pupil rising ever higher, but this chart qualifies as more interesting in my book as it shows what was done with the money. In short, we bombed districts with additional money and they used it to hire vast numbers of school employees especially non-teachers. These numbers come right out of the National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, and they demonstrate conclusively that President Obama was wildly off base when discussing the commitment of the American taxpayers to public education.

What about this idea of “kids start going to private schools” assertion? Let’s just for the sake of jovial discussion overlook the fact that President Obama himself attended private schools, and sends his daughters to one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Again this notion is demonstrably false: private school attendance rates have been falling over time. Ironically the sort of class based segregation that all three participants acknowledge is indeed going on, but it is largely going on within the public school system itself through a system of highly economically segregated district schools- aka the leafy suburbs.

Later the President says “I think it is important for us at the outset to acknowledge if, in fact, we are going to find common ground, then we also have to acknowledge that there are certain investments we are willing to make as a society, as a whole, in public schools and public universities.” With regards to K-12 however the President has constructed an argument on a demonstrably false premise: while the ability of the country to go on making the same level of investment in public education in the future may be in doubt, there can be no doubt regarding the massive increase in resources devoted to public education in recent decades.

Bob Putnam joins with the President on the trends in public school spending:

For most of the 20th century, all Americans of all walks of life thought that part of getting a good education was getting soft skills — not just reading, writing, arithmetic, but cooperation and teamwork, and so on.  And part of that was that everybody in the country got free access to extracurricular activities — band and football, and music and so on.  But beginning about 20 years ago, the view developed — which is really, really deeply evil — that that’s just a frill. 

And so we disinvested, and we said if you want to take part in football here, or you want to take part in music, you’ve got to pay for it.  And of course, what that means is that poor people can’t pay for it.  It’s a big deal — $1,600 on average for two kids in a family.  Well, $1,600 to play football, or play in the band, or French club or whatever — it’s not a big deal if your income is $200,000; but if you income is $16,000, who in their right mind is going to be paying 10 percent of their family income?

I’ll interject here to say that the public school system has more than enough money to pay for football helmets for poor children but that in some cases they may have placed a much higher priority on other spending. Like for instance, bloating out their non-teaching employment (see Figure 1 above).  When staffing growth increased at a rate more than 10 times greater than enrollment growth, it is hard to think anything else. Are there kids priced out of extracurricular activities in American public schools? I’m confident there have been. Is it because the public has disinvested in public education? Hardly.

Later the President returns to his theme:

If, in fact, the most important thing is character and parents, then it’s okay if we don’t have band and music at school — that’s the argument that you will hear.  It’s okay.  Look, there are immigrant kids who are learning in schools that are much worse, and we’re spending huge amounts in the district and we still get poor outcomes, and so obviously money is not the issue.  And so what you hear is a logic that is used as an excuse to under-invest in those public goods.

And that’s why I think a lot of people are resistant to it and are skeptical of that conversation.  And I guess what I’m saying is that, guarding against cynicism, what we should say is we are going to argue hard for those public investments.  We’re going to argue hard for early childhood education because, by the way, if a young kid — three, four years old — is hearing a lot of words, the science tells us that they’re going to be more likely to succeed at school.  And if they’ve got trained and decently paid teachers in that preschool, then they’re actually going to get — by the time they’re in third grade, they’ll be reading at grade level. 

And those all very concrete policies.  But it requires some money.  We’re going to argue hard for that stuff.  And lo and behold, if we do those things, the values and the character that those kids are learning in a loving environment where they can succeed in school, and they’re being praised, and they can read at grade level, and they’re less likely to drop out, and it turns out that when they’re succeeding at school and they’ve got resources, they’re less likely to get pregnant as teens, and less likely to engage in drugs, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system — that is a reinforcement of the values and character that we want. 

And that’s where we, as a society, have the capacity to make a real difference.  But it will cost us some money.  It will cost us some money.  It’s not free.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact with the blinding ubiquity of incredibly well-funded schools that are also catastrophically dysfunctional. President Obama attempts to waive this problem away while confidently assuming that the next round of public school spending will produce fantastic gains for disadvantaged students. President Obama for instance seems either blissfully or willfully unaware that random assignment studies of Head Start released by his own administration demonstrate (yet again) academic fade out before 3rd grade. The bigger point in my mind is that given the massive investment in public education the greatest opportunity for improvement by far lies in increasing the ROI for the funds we already invest in the system. Any blithe would-be technocrat that effectively wants to write off the current investment as stuck in place while making snake oil salesman style promises regarding the profound efficacy of new spending deserves our profound skepticism.

The unacknowledged elephant in the room- the inescapable fact that the poor have been the primary victims of the failure of the public school system to produce a decent return on investment for the massive increase in public K-12 spending. Several generations of Americans have attended public schools increasingly generously funded and staffed over the decades, and always at globally enviable levels. I’m at a loss to imagine how anyone can blame inter-generational poverty on under investment in public education when such investment can only be described as both substantial and increasing for many decades

If someone would like to explain why I should view this viewpoint as something other than demonstrably shallow and willfully ignorant of the real issues in public education and their equally real consequences, feel free to leave a comment. The problem in my view is not that we have put too little in to public education, but rather that our 19th Century Prussian factory model gave us far too little back in return.

Public education, in short, badly needs an update.


20 Responses to President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

  1. Mike says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    Good thoughts on the cliche president and his lame “analysis” of education problems. Thankfully there are others who think rather than just burp cliches and talking points.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Burping cliches is quite a phrase- did you put it out as open source or trademark it? 🙂

  3. everyonesfacts says:

    My take is a bit different:

    The unacknowledged elephant in the room- the inescapable fact that the public school system has been the primary victim of the US to eradicate poverty (as has been done much more successfully in Europe and parts of Asia).

  4. matthewladner says:

    I’m not sure I follow you- you believe that the War on Poverty ruined public education?

    • everyonesfacts says:

      No, the failure of the war on poverty…The US is the only major industrial economy that educates a large percentage of poor students… Get rid of poverty, get rid of US’s low standing internationally.
      For more:
      And more (click on link):

      • matthewladner says:

        I fail to see how relative poverty has any relationship to education outcomes- absolute poverty obviously far more pertinent. And as President Obama notes in the talk, once transfers are taken into account, poverty has fallen by 40% since the 1960s.

        It also seems fatuous to me to blame poverty on the public school system when multiple generations have had the opportunity to attend public schools whose funding has persistently increased and has consistently ranked near the very top of global spending per pupil.

        If staffing increasing at a rate ten times greater than enrollment growth during a period when poverty properly measured fell 40% gets you roughly the same results over time, it might be time to update your system, especially if you care about the poor.

      • everyonesfacts says:

        Ummm, did you read the links?
        Willingham makes a strong case for why absolute or relative poverty counts…
        I am not blaming poverty on the public school system. I am blaming poverty on how well (or not) the public school system performs.
        Your argument would be a good one if other states have not successfully combatted poverty and borne the fruit of that success in the classroom.
        You are focusing on spending in the K-12 world. My point is poverty has predicted performance. Are there exceptions? Yes. But can we make a rule about how poverty effects performance? Absolutely.

      • matthewladner says:

        It is well known that rich kids score better than poor kids but that is entirely irrelevant. The existence of the Bill Gates children and Warren Buffet grandchildren does absolutely nothing to lower the achievement of anyone else’s children.

        So staffing surged at 10 times the rate of enrollment and poverty dropped by 40% once transfers are factored in (as they should be). Do you want to argue that if staffing had surged at 15 times the rate of enrollment growth that the scores for disadvantaged students would have surged? If so, what evidence do you have to support such a notion?

      • everyonesfacts says:

        Why are you hung up on staff levels. What is the big change in the last 40 years vis a vis staffing = special education!

        You still have not in the least combatted that the US has an exceptional level of poverty for a modern industrialized country. Get rid of that and you will see different results. Btw, this has been done in other countries.

        Not sure what their staffing levels are…

      • matthewladner says:

        Try again on special ed:

        Barack Obama says poverty is down 40% since the 1960s, spending and staffing way up, low-income kids still learning far too little. Bill Gates making billions and having children did not cause this.

      • everyonesfacts says:

        I tried again: The increased staff is largely Aides (for, special education support), a smaller percentage is for administration. In the early 1970s support staff made up under 2% of staffing, today it is over 10%. See figure 4 here:

      • everyonesfacts says:

        What does Bill Gates’s children have to do anything?

        I have repeatedly said that poverty leads to poor school performance. This has been a general truth for generations. Your staff numbers are not as important as the real elephant in the room – that the US has rates of poverty far exceeding all other modern industrialized countries…

      • matthewladner says:

        If you google the difference between relative and absolute poverty, the relevance of Bill Gates to relative poverty will become apparent, and the near irrelevance of it the performance of poor children should become apparent.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Putnam is a huge hypocrite on school choice. His own data show it works but he won’t support it because “it’s not a panacea.” That is actually his rationalization (I won’t call it an argument). Like all communitarians, his only real function is to cast cloak of spurious moral purpose over the cold, cruel selfishness of the welfare state.

    I’ll make these materialists (they think money is the only real agency in the world) a deal. As much spending on schools as they want – the sky’s the limit – if parents who don’t like the results can leave with a voucher. No? Then we know what your real priorities are.

  6. Mike Hoyt says:

    The percentage growth in non-teaching staff requires a bit more analysis. The implicit assumption in that graph is that the proportions of non-teaching staff to teaching staff to students could reasonably remain relatively constant.

    But in 1970 there were no computers in schools. So Districts have added IT staffs that didn’t exist in 1970. Districts have added school based Health Centers that require more staff than the single School Nurse in 1970. Probably other functions have been created/added. You can argue those are unnecessary, but you wouldn’t want to your kids attending a school without computers, so it’s maybe not as black and white as it might seem

    Also, be careful what you wish for. A school district can cut it’s non-teaching staff and look good on the graph by getting rid of say the Plumber. But if the district is of sufficient size to keep a plumber busy full time, it’s a false economy as the employee plumber is a lot cheaper than contracting out on a year round basis.

    School do not provide the same set of services today as they did in 1970, so it’s no surprise the composition of the staff has changed.

    Which begs the more interesting question, what services are being provided and do we value them? Only once you’ve answered that can you take on the question of how efficiently are those services being provided

    • Greg Forster says:

      So basically, schools provide tons and tons of additional services today but it’s totally unreasonable to expect these to have any impact on educational outcomes! That is not how the services were sold to us back when we started providing them.

      • Mike Hoyt says:

        Nope, I think that is the exact question we should be asking. What services are provided and do we value them? Then quickly follow-up with , are those services effective? And are we delivering them efficiently?

        Noting that staffs have grown faster than student populations is a potential tip-off that there is maybe something worth investigating. It’s not an analysis in its own right.

      • Greg Forster says:

        It establishes 1) that there’s a problem and 2) that mere lack of money, simply by itself, is not the problem (because the system has proven so bad at choosing what to spend it on) and thus throwing even more money into the same broken system won’t work. That’s a pretty fair amount of substance.

  7. matthewladner says:


    I in fact happily send all three of my children to schools with very little in the way of computers in large part because they rock academically. Two of them attend a great books school that views the eraser on the end of a pencil as advanced technology, but since my kids are all happy and learning I could not care less.

    On your broader point though I am not assuming a world of stasis, I just want a return on investment. In my admittedly addled mind, schools exist for a purpose, and that purpose is not to be some sort of social services hub:

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