Best Organized Spontaneously from Below

December 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So half way through reading Matthew Ridley’s new book The Evolution of Everything I come across a perfect distillation of the background meta-narrative of the JPGB in the last paragraph of Chapter 13:

The elite gets things wrong, says Douglas Carswell in The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, ‘because they endlessly seek to govern by design in a world that is best organized spontaneously from below.’ Public policy failures stem from planners excessive faith in deliberate design. ‘They constantly underrate the merits of spontaneous, organic arrangement, and fail to recognize that the best plan is often not to have one.’

Out here in AZ- a central planner’s K-12 nightmare of Wild West chaos-since the bust of 2007 we’ve had NAEP gains between 2.5 to 7 times greater than the national average. What passes for a consensus on Newtonian mechanics back east will struggle to explain this- something is wrong with the orbit of Mercury! Best perhaps to ignore outcomes entirely- as the New York Times did in an article this summer about AZ K-12:

Arizona in particular has been crippled by several years of targeted cuts at the state level and local voters’ repeated refusals to raise property taxes to offset these shortfalls.

Thank you for your  touching concern NYT, but I’m feeling pretty handi-capable about right now. I know states with budget cuts and dysfunction in central command are not supposed to make nationally enviable academic progress during a very trying period. We alas didn’t get the memo out here in the patch so we went and did it anyway.

Oh and by the way Arizona style austerity of the 2007-2015 variety may make a nasty appearance in a state near you in the near future. Feel free to pop out and take some notes on how to thrive through it- and yes you can bring your golf clubs.






Health vs. K-12: It’s Already Started in Texas

October 27, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Health care has already been putting a squeeze on other forms of state spending. K-12 won’t be spared indefinitely. Handy pie charts from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts:

If you want to see why Texas leaders deregulated tuition back in 2003, keep an eye on the green “All Other” slice shrinking from 41.1% of the budget to a projected mere 27.7%  in 2023. Ooops- you can’t charge tuition to prisoners and well criminal justice has to fit into that green slice along with transportation, universities and a whole bunch of other stuff. Texas universities set a good example for the rest of the country more than a decade ago by planning for a post-state funding world.

Now look at the blue K-12 slice- 44.9% of the budget in 2001 moves to a projected 37.4% in 2023. That doesn’t look all that bad until you consider what will be happening in terms of student and elderly population trends:


More specifically:


So that shrinking % of the budget for K-12 will need to cover a K-12 system that has almost a million more students in 2025 than in 2015. That’s what happens when you add a 100,000 or so new students in your K-12 system per year. Oh, and by the way, the Census Bureau projects a doubling of the elderly population between 2010 and 2030 to boot.

So what does Texas have to fear from parental choice again?



The Brown and the Gray: It’s Already Started

October 7, 2015

Wonk action shot !!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to participate on a panel at the PIE Network conference in Scottsdale on a panel that used Arizona as the canvass to discuss important issues. A better look at this picture:

No special effects here this is an actual photograph of downtown Phoenix during a haboob– an Arabic word that roughly translates to “gigantic dust storm.” An haboob forms in a weather front in arid regions- thus in the picture your eyes are drawn to the beige dust cloud, note also the huge grey clouds in the background.

Fortunately you probably live in a place that won’t experience an Arizona-style haboob- at least not weather-wise. In terms of your state’s politics-get ready. It’s coming to get you.

Ronald Brownstein has written a series of articles in the National Journal about demographic change and inter-generational conflict under the theme of the Brown and the Gray. He describes the two massive generations: old and white Baby Boomers and above vs. young and brown population as two tectonic plates. The earthquakes have already started here in Arizona. Rather than dismiss Arizona as a remote backwater, you should pay close attention to what has transpired here and learn from our mistakes. Arizona’s demographics and attendant controversies lie in your state’s immediate future.

Regardless of which state you live in, over the next 15 years it will be getting much older and will have a significant increase in the Hispanic population, much of which will occur in the youth population. Paul Taylor’s book The Next America uses extensive polling data to paint a portrait of Baby Boomers as relatively wealthy but deeply miserable. Two sources of Baby Boomer anger: their Millennial kids still living in their house and a widespread view that the country has changed and no one asked for their permission. One cannot help but wonder how the inevitable grown up conversation about Uncle Sam’s $55 trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities will worsen moods further.

MIT’s James M. Poterba performed a statistical study and found that an increase in the elderly population is associated with a decrease in overall public school spending, and that the effect is all the more pronounced if the ethnicity of the old varies from that of the young. Let’s concede that the Arizona N of 1 matches this story rather perfectly, but that it should be understood in a context of:

I am not inclined to weep if my state happened to expand public school staffing at a rate slower than the national average, given that the national average expanded staffing at a rate ten times greater than enrollment growth and received precious little for it in return in terms of student learning gains.

While I have more than my share of gray hair, I don’t think this qualifies me as an old grouchy white guy. I’m painfully aware that the future of Arizona rests on providing high quality education to all students-including Hispanics. Simply throwing money at a dysfunctional system may satisfy some sort of superficial need to show that you care, but it simply won’t do in terms of a solution. We need far more than symbolism.

I’m not sure how this story ends. The elderly depend heavily on government spending for health care and the young for education. Uncle Sam has a deeply troubling balance sheet and states have become very dependent on his largess. Deep-seated policy related pathologies define both health and education. A generational conflict over scarce resources looms, and it will have a barely if at all disguised ethnic subtext.

The only (relatively) happy path out of this fix lies in innovation-we need more effective and most cost-effective education and health care delivery systems stat. 

Our work has only just begun.


Health Care Cost Inflation vs. K-12 Spending: Something Has to Give

August 19, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

What happens when you have a large and growing elderly population in your state? One answer: you spend more money on health care.  While we think of Medicare as the program for the elderly and Medicaid as a program for the poor, the reality is that the elderly often access both programs. On a per person basis, the elderly consume considerably greater Medicaid resources than either children or non-elderly adults.

Medicaid has been the biggest single program in state budgets for some time (K-12 ranks second), creeping up on a quarter of total state spending. People sometimes overlook this because Medicaid operates through a system of federal matching grants to the states, and thus much of the funding for Medicaid comes from the feds.

Of course in the end we are all local, state and federal taxpayers at the same time, meaning that federal money does not represent manna from heaven unless your only concern in life involves certifying a state budget. I’ve been examining budget data from Florida however, and even after you exclude federal funds, the trend in health vs. K-12 is clear.


Medicaid vs K-12

Despite a healthy increase in K-12 spending, state funding of Medicaid looks set to overtake state K-12 funding in the very near future, constraining other spending. Increasingly budget battles between K-12 and Medicaid will be seen as a generational battle between the interests of the young and old. Policymakers have recognized for some time that health care inflation would spell the doom of state higher education funding (Texas lawmakers deregulated tuition in 2003 in recognition of this fact for example) but we have no reason to think that matters will rest there.

You may have heard  by the way that Uncle Sam has $55 trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities, so state lawmakers should view his ability to sustain his end of the Medicaid matching funds bargain with some suspicion. America needs major policy and practice innovations in both education and health care.



Luke Reaches Retirement Age next year, Bo in 2024, What Happens Next in Georgia?

March 16, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Rolling age-demography road show is heading down the Atlanta highway over on the Ed Fly blog.

ETS: Even The Best and Brightest of American Young Adults are Dim

March 3, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Hey Mav, you got the number for that truck driving school in Oklahoma? I think we’re going to need it. ETS dives into Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) data to measure the abilities of the American millennial generation (aka our those tasked with keeping the lights on after the entire Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age circa 2030) compared to their peers around the globe. The news is not good:

One central message that emerges from this report is that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.

Link to full report here. I’ll be reading through this, I’m not convinced that this squares with other analysis of PISA data available, but I plan to look into it. If it holds up it is a damning indictment not only of K-12 but also of our six year beer soaked odysseys of self discovery sometimes resulting in degrees apparently of lower value that we suspected higher education system.

HT Kingsland



Destruction of Public Education or Pressure Release Valve? You Make the Call…

February 16, 2015

AZ enrollment trends

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This is what the “destruction of public education” looks like in extremist, wild west Arizona…oh….wait…what? The increase in district enrollment is greater than the growth in charter school students since the creation of the law charter law in 1994 and 2012-176,989 to 128,427?

Yeah, but…

What is that you say? Even if you combine all of Arizona’s private choice students with all the charter school students, the increase in district enrollment still outstrips the increase in choice enrollment 176,989 to 159,014?

Ok but if those choice programs didn’t exist, the number of students and the amount of money going to districts would be higher than it is now. So…

High demand schools surrounded by portable buildings? C’mon that would never happen! Already common in Texas? Arizona has been broke since 2007, unable to afford much new district building space eh? Well we could just raise taxes…what? Arizonans raise millions of private dollars to finance charter and private school spaces? Census Bureau projects hundreds of thousands more students over the next 15 years? Already high elderly population set to vastly expand too?

Ok, sign me up.


Road Trip Heads to Oklahoma

February 12, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over on the Ed Fly blog I have a post on the age demography challenge in Oklahoma from Turn and Face the Strain. Spoiler alert: if Oklahoma’s K-12 system has a next 15 years similar to the last 15 years they will be adding to what looks to be already looks to be a very considerable challenge in 2030.

Oklahoma strain



Politico on ESAs-“A Radical Idea is Catching Fire Across the Country”

February 6, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Two programs with 2,600 or so students in two states doesn’t feel like a wildfire yet, but it is great to see the increase in legislative interest. Our merry band of ESA warriors is having fun!

New Report-Turn and Face the Strain

February 4, 2015

Turn and Face the Strain

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Excel in Ed and the Friedman Foundation have co-released a study on state age demographics authored by yours truly.  The title reflects a couple of different things. First, I dig me some Bowie. Second, people are generally aware of the looming crisis in age demography we face, but they primarily have it framed as a federal issue. With 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age every day between now and 2030 (when they all reach retirement age) this certainly does represent a federal issue- trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, etc. The federal issue is not the only issue…

State policymakers must turn and face the strain that changing age demography will have on state government in the form of Medicaid, public pensions, a drag on economic growth and in many states an increasing K-12 population. Spoiler alert but all states have it bad with some states having it far worse than others.

The Baby Boom generation has already started retiring, and will be sending their grandchildren off to school. The United States Census Bureau projects the percentage of working age people to shrink in every state, meaning fewer people in the prime earning (and thus taxpaying) years to support a growing number of seniors and youth.  All states will be getting older, with only a handful of states projected to have a smaller elderly population than 2010 Florida by 2030. Many states also face large projected youth population increases.  With Medicaid currently constituting 23 percent of the average state budget and education approximately half, a fierce battle between the need for health and education spending looms with fewer working age people to foot the bill.

A great many of the working age population of 2030 btw sit in American classrooms right now. According to NAEP around a third of them can read proficiently. While a broad and difficult rethinking of the provision of vital public services will prove necessary including especially subjects such as health, pensions, immigration-the most urgent need is to improve both the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the K-12 system.

Most of the K-12 debate ultimately boils down to whether or not to change the status-quo. The status quo however is going to change us whether we like it or not.

More over on the EdFly blog, let me know what you think.

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