(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.