How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Demographic Time Bomb

May 22, 2014

Ladner Orlando

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present at the American Federation for Children conference in Orlando along with Pat “PDiddy” Wolf, Lance Izumi, refereed by our main man Ed Kirby.  Lance busted out depressing “Not as Good as You Think” evidence on suburban public schools  in California and Illinois.  PDiddy used Bud and Sissy from one of the greatest really bad movies of all time to tell us that school choice research is looking for love in all the wrong places, and even included the great Scott Glenn:


Make fun of my transparent muscle shirt and I will put you in the hospital…

I batted clean up with a talk on age demographics. Someone told me that you can save a power point as jpg files, so I gave it a try. Here is the first slide:

Slide1Here is the most relevant middle slide, showing that a number of states are set to get hit with a double challenge of large increases of young and old people by the year 2030 according to Census Bureau estimates, causing all kinds of health care, pension and education challenges:


So some of you are wondering what your state looks like. Let me just tell you- it is bad. Stay tuned for a Friedman Foundation with the gory details by state. Oh by the way, the people who will be in their prime earning years in 2030 are in the public school system right now, and only a minority of them are being educated to a high level. Ergo the conclusion:

In short, everything we’ve done up to this point needs to have been baby steps towards what comes next.  What comes next needs to be a far deeper and more powerful policy interventions than incremental policies like our current charter and voucher programs. In an earlier panel, Derrell Bradford related that we used to buy our music at Tower Records, used to buy whole albums in order to get a single song, but that Napster and then iTunes had changed all of that for the better. Gisele Huff then made the point that too much of what we are doing in the school choice movement is dedicated to setting up new record stores.

Or perhaps in getting public funds to add a new wing on to the existing Tower Records.

I don’t want to pick on my friends in Indiana too much, as this idea of using public funds to add existing space onto participating private choice programs would doubtlessly have a higher ROI than much public K-12 spending in Indiana and would provide a better opportunity for thousands of disadvantaged children.  Having said that, it strikes me as a troubling idea. In my opinion the focus should clearly be on how to get many of the 2/3 of Indiana private schools who do not participate in the voucher program to change their minds (**cough**less regulation **cough**).

Next, let’s get the scholarship amount up to something decent, let the colleges and universities into the K-12 space, have blended learning make the jump into private schooling, see if you can get a private tutoring sector to flourish (it worked out really well for Alexander the Great and many of the founder fathers btw) etc.  In other words, let’s give parents control of the money and an incentive to consider opportunity costs and see what they come up with.  This could resolve a number of vexing questions.  For instance, how should technology be used to improve learning? I’m not sure, and if you are sure then you may need to work on humility. Perhaps we should let the parents figure that out through a system of voluntary exchange, let them change, customize and improve it over time.  How much should a digital course cost? I have no idea but we have these demand and supply curves that have a really strong track record in figuring questions like that out.

Right now we have an incrementally expanding charter school sector and few private choice programs capable of spurring new private school creation. Even if we improve our choice programs to spur new private school creation, it will essentially resemble a second charter school program incrementally adding new space year by year. This is both highly desirable and nowhere close to where we urgently need to go.

We need to be in this for the kids and the parents, not for a tiny preexisting stock of private schools. Don’t get me wrong private schools- I do deeply love you– but choice funding is the entitlement of the child not of any system of schools.  Private schools need to be a bigger part of the solution, but we should never mistake them for the entire solution.

“We’ve squeezed everything we can out of a system that was designed a century ago,” Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “We’ve not only put in lots more money and not gotten significantly better results, we’ve also tried every program we can think of and not gotten significantly better results at scale. This is the sign of a system that has reached its limits.”  Personally I can think of some ways to squeeze more out of the current system, but their political sustainability will always have limits and Tucker is basically right in his assessment. “I think we’ve tried to do what we can to improve American schools within the current context,” Jack Jennings told the CSM. “Now we need to think much more daringly.”

Time to change the “current context”

Here is my version of daring- let’s give parents complete control over our K-12 funding within a system of financial oversight and academic transparency and incentives to economize and sit back and marvel as they figure out solutions of how to make the best use of limited resources.  We are going to have far fewer resources to provide in the future due to the looming battle between health care and education spending. We must go faster towards increased return on investment and customization. The Economist magazine said it better than I can after it reviewed the evidence on choice and concluded:

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

Lots and lots more as fast as possible.



Progressives for School Choice

October 3, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

There was a time when Jack Jennings posed as a nonpartisan voice of apolitical wisdom. That was then! It was always a thin disguise, but the mask is really off now:

The Republicans’ talk about giving parents the right to choose is a politically expedient strategy … Just beneath the surface of the education rhetoric are political motivations to thwart integration, weaken the Democratic coalition, and cripple the teachers’ unions.

Over on RedefineED, Doug Tuthill responds with a really amazing history of progressive support for school choice. Go take a look! Even if you think you know this history, you’ll learn something.

Actually, Tuthill leaves two major figures off his list. Thomas Paine proposed school vouchers for England, justified as a way to advance the well being of the poor, in the appendix to the second edition of The Rights of Man. And J.S. Mill supported vouchers as a blow against socially conservative cultural dominance, writing that “A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another.”

(via Bill Evers)

Speaking of Intellectual Corruption!

July 27, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We now interrupt this serialized political philosophy dissertation on how power corrupts knowledge systems to bring you something completely unrelated – the latest nonsense from the increasingly irrelevant, lifelong Democratic party hack Jack Jennings!

Talk about weasel words. Studies clearly and conclusively finding modest positive impacts from vouchers magically become studies finding that voucher outcomes are “similar” to outcomes at public schools, which then magically become studies provding no “clear” evidence that vouchers have any impact. Never mind that most studies of vouchers have been conducted at Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, the Fed, etc. – they’ve been conducted by “pro-voucher” researchers, which is technically true if you define any researcher who does a study finding positive impacts from vouchers as a pro-voucher researcher. (By the same method, you can prove that all studies finding cigarettes cause cancer were conducted by “anti-smoking researchers.”) Extremely minute scrutiny of studies by think tanks have found no scientific flaws in their work, which proves that even more minute scrutiny is obviously needed. And for some reason, a shift in the political winds away from supporting smaller voucher programs toward supporting larger voucher programs is evidence that vouchers are failing! Right, sure they are.

For the record, the empirical evidence supporting school choice is overwhelming – stronger than the evidence supporting any other reform policy. Impact sizes are sometimes large but usually modest, not surprising given that existing programs are tiny, underfunded and overregulated. But the evidence is consistent that school choice produces benefits even under these disadvantageous conditions.

Oh, and more good news: everyone’s onto Jennings’ game, so no one cares about his nonsense. Mickey Kaus:

At this point if Jack Jennings doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze in front of the NEA, would anyone notice?

I have Jennings’ professional reptuation hanging on the wall in my trophy room, right next to my Jay Mathews meal ticket.

Jack Jennings Has Questions. We Answer with More Questions.

February 15, 2011

Jack Jennings, the former Democratic staffer for the House Education and Labor Committee and current head of the Center on Education Policy, has a piece on Huffington/AOL/whatever that thing is.  In case you aren’t familiar with his oeuvre you can read Greg’s “Check the Facts” on Jennings in Education Next a few years back.

In making the case for more federal spending on education and for national standards and assessments, Jennings asks:

How can the country raise academic achievement if 14,000 local school districts are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of education?

I thought about answering with evidence on how choice and competition among school districts improves educational outcomes from people like Caroline Hoxby, Henry Levin, and yours truly.  But then I remembered that evidence is not really Jennings’ thing.

It might be better to answer Jennings’ question by slightly re-wording it to fit different contexts and see if it still seemed like a reasonable question.  Here we go:

How can the country raise gross domestic product if 29.6 million businesses are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of the economy?

Or how about this:

How can the country reduce crime if there are more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies each making their own decisions on most key aspects of crime-prevention?

This is getting easy.  Here’s another:

How can the country make good laws if 535 members of Congress are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of public policy?

Why would Jennings think that he is making a persuasive argument with a rhetorical question that is rebutted by rigorous research and seems silly when transplanted to other situations?  Sadly, Jennings rhetorical question may win some converts and it does so not by being reasonable or by being consistent with research findings.  Jennings uses this rhetorical question because it appeals to people’s desire for power, not their desire for evidence or logical consistency.  When Jennings asks how we can make schools better with so many independent school districts, he is appealing to the reader’s fantasy that they or their allies might be able to dominate the enhanced central authority that would substitute for so many independent school districts.

Inside most public policy wonks is a mini-dictator, waiting to come out.  They dream about how things ought to be organized… if only they were in charge.  The drive for Common Core national standards is built on appealing to these mini-dictator fantasies.

Of course, if the mini-dictators realize that others are striving to control the central authority, they may turn against the idea if they think they are unlikely to be the ones in charge.  That is our best hope.  It is impossible to remove the thirst for power, but it is possible to (as the Founders realized) pit ambition against ambition in the hope that it will prevent tyranny.

(edited for typos)

No Jack Jennings Is Not on Fire

July 29, 2009

No two people are not on fire

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Stop the press! How did I miss this on Eduwonk last week?

At this point if Jack Jennings doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze in front of the NEA, would anyone notice?

Hey, that’s what happens when you spend too long peddling political hackery trumped up as research. Sooner or later, people get wise to the con and stop taking you seriously.

Of course, Andy feels the need to call Jennings’ work “important.” But if all the empty, generic words of praise people rotely intone about Jennings doused themselves in gasoline and set themselves ablaze in front of the Merriam-Webster publishing comany, would anyone notice?

In other Eduwonk news, give Andy credit for not drinking too much of the yesterday’s new Race to the Top flavor Kool-Aid; he linked to this item, which helps illustrate just how deep the kabuki goes.