It's still good! It's still good! Part 1: Education

Those of you who are Simpsons fans probably remember the episode where Lisa becomes a vegetarian. There's a scene where Lisa has sent Homer's barbecue pig hurtling down the street through a bunch of obstacles including hedges, a river, and finally going airborne. The whole time, Homer's bent on keeping that pig. "It's just a little dirty. It's still good! It's still good!" "It's just a little slimy. It's still good! It's still good!" "It's just a little airborne. It's still good! It's still good!" He comes to the final realization that it's gone and he has to just let it go.

The left has its own pigs: public education, government assistance, and environmental policy among others. Despite these programs failing to achieve their stated goals, they just can't acknowledge that they are failures. "It's still good! It's still good!" is the rallying cry. The solution to the failures has always been the same: more money, more taxes, and more regulations. This prescribed solution hasn't been working for the better part of my parents' lives and the entirety of my own, yet the course never deviates. This will be a 3-part series starting with education.

Supporters of the public school system will tell you that our schools are failing because of inadequate funding and more specifically low teacher pay. This is despite Utah's performance being better than the national average even when our per-pupil funding consistently places us in the bottom 10. If funding is the answer, then why aren't we doing worse? Could it be there is more to education performance than the raw dollars being shelled out? New York proves this by having the highest per-pupil funding of any state yet consistently placing in the bottom 1/3 for education performance. Clearly there is more to it than just money.

Students participating in education alternatives also fly in the face of convention. Home schooled children often greatly outperform their public school peers and, when it's done right, have little trouble with social interactions. Home schooling, however, is often much less expensive than other schooling methods. The support network has also grown so that there are home schooling groups where parents will pool their knowledge to help each other out.

Here's were we find the key to academic excellence: parental involvement. Despite claims to the contrary, public schools actively discourage parents from participating. I hear many anecdotes that parents who tried to change the accepted order of things have been soundly rejected by teachers and administrators in public schools. This will most often happen when a child isn't well suited to the highly-structured learning environment in our Prussian-modeled school system.

There's really no incentive to change either. At worst, the parent will be a constant annoyance until their child graduates or moves to the next level. If the child is withdrawn, no big loss: they keep the money without having the associated cost. It's also very difficult to get ineffective administrators or teachers fired or disciplined. The entire public school system is built around protecting the status quo.

All this said, I believe in publicly-funded education. I do not believe in a "one size fits all" approach to education as we currently have. We need to start giving parents more options so that they can find the way to best education their children. I'm in favor of a voucher system, but creating specialized schools for different learning styles and disciplines would also be a great idea. Perhaps we need to start cutting out administrative staff and eliminate bureaucracy that keeps teachers from teaching while increasing the funding available to them. Eliminate most bussing and start getting parents to sign up for carpools to school or pay for students to have a bus pass and take the existing public transit into class. We need to start innovating instead of throwing money at the problem. If schools and school districts have the autonomy to try experiments, some of them are bound to work and improve things for us all.

There are a lot of groups dead set against trying to fix things, however, and the teachers' unions lead the charge. This isn't because making large changes to the education system will be a net negative to their members, but because the union would suffer a loss in members if more parents grabbed a hold of vouchers and went to non-union schools. The teachers would still have jobs, but they would be shifting to private schools where the pay is better and they no longer have union dues. This would be a death knell for the union and they know it.

As further proof that the unions are looking out for themselves and not their members, let's take a close look at what happened in Clark County, Nevada in 2003. The legislature was debating a record tax increase, and the teachers' union was at the forefront pushing to approve it. As a part of the tax deal, they negotiated a 1% raise for teachers while agreeing to pay slightly more in benefits. Because of the work of the union, its members lobbied hard and got the tax increase. The union then promptly raised their dues to eat up the 1% raise, leaving teachers with a net cut in compensation. It wasn't about paying teachers more: it was about teachers paying the union more.

As I mentioned earlier, my ideal system is to move to using vouchers. Currently if a parent wants their child to enroll at a private school or do home schooling, they have to pay twice: once for the public school, another for the private school. This is the equivalent of going to Burger King and being charged for a Whopper no matter what you order. There is something fundamentally flawed with a system that will do that. Even if a voucher retained a significant amount of the per-pupil funding for the state, that voucher can still mean the difference between affording or not affording education alternatives for middle-class families.

The voucher system put forth in the Utah Legislature was a perfect compromise. The highest amount a voucher could be for was only 70% of the per-pupil spending, the amount of the voucher was inversely proportional to the income of the family, and it only applied for new enrollees, not existing ones. For every student that opted for a voucher, the public school system would have none of the cost but still retain 30% of the benefit. The graduated amounts and restrictions on participation kept it from benefiting the wealthy, something lefties bemoaned repeatedly.

Since it accomplished their goals of increasing per-pupil funding while providing the most benefit to lower income brackets, you would think it would have been an acceptable compromise to the more liberal members of our legislature. Not so. The UEA managed to spread enough fear, uncertainty, and doubt to cause it to fail by the slimmest of margins. It preyed upon the fear of changing the status quo. It preyed upon the uncertainty of how many children would enroll. It preyed on the doubt that we can innovate our education system to new heights of excellence.

Lefties, wake up to the reality that it's not still good. It's a terminal patient and we need to try experimental medications to bring it back from the brink. 

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17 Responses to It's still good! It's still good! Part 1: Education

  1. Kris says:

    I’m really not a lefty am I? Hooray for charter schools!!! Hooray for homeschooling!
    I firmly believe that children are not meant to sit still for 7 hours/day with 15 minute recess breaks. Anyone whose studied a smidgen of child development should know that. I also think for a lot of parents, public schools have become public day care and they don’t want more responsibility.

  2. Jesse says:

    You’ve got that right. So many parents are eager for school to start so that they get the free daycare. With that kind of attitude, is it any wonder that they aren’t more involved in their child’s educational choices?

  3. Curt says:

    Many of your points are well taken but you have some logic flaws that need work. For example, you say

    “If funding is the answer, then why aren’t we doing worse? Could it be there is more to education performance than the raw dollars being shelled out? New York proves this by having the highest per-pupil funding of any state yet consistently placing in the bottom 1/3 for education performance.”

    Actually, New York only proves it for New York. The waste and abuse of a miserable system like the one in New York has nothing to do with the lean, mean education machine of Utah. You can’t compare the bottom of the education funding ladder with the top. Our state system is starved for money and there is little hope in sight for a change from our leadership. Nonetheless, we have thousands of hard working teachers who spin straw into gold on a daily basis and need more help.

    You then go on to say

    “For every student that opted for a voucher, the public school system would have none of the cost but still retain 30% of the benefit.”

    I’m not sure why you say NONE of the cost. In a system designed around economies of scale, it cost almost exactly the same to teach 1000 kids as it does 990. Why do you think the heating bill of the school will go down if a couple kids leave? You still have to pay the teacher but now she has 1 or 2 fewer kids. The smaller class is better but the COST is the same. This is the minivan state, after all. It costs the same to drive to the grocery store with 5 of our kids as it does to drive there with all 8 of them. Some costs will be less (supplies etc…) but many will not change.

    Keep working on your ideas, they are good ones.

  4. Jesse says:

    Thanks Curt! I don’t have all of the answers, and every opinion can stand the refiner’s fire. I’m hoping that maybe all sides can come to the table and start looking at more than “more money” or “vouchers only” as solutions.

  5. David says:

    Actually Curt, there’s no logic flaw. The New York example is perfectly logical and proves “there is more to education performance than raw dollars being shelled out.” In other words, more money does not necessarily mean better education performance. Curt provides no real argument or even attempt at argument to the main points of the editorial.

    The fact is that there are more components to quality education than the UEA and others are willing to admit or realize. Parental involvement and competition and choice are components that are frequently overlooked, and at worst not welcome. But, we’ll never obtain a world-class education system without them, no matter how much money we have to spend.

  6. Tom says:

    I agree with Curt–you have some good points, but you have some that need work too.

    Utah does have test scores above the national average, but the clearer picture is this: we have a majority of white, middle-class students; white middle-class students generally perform better than low-income or ethnic minority students. This higher percentage of white, middle-class students skews our averages high. If you drill into the numbers you’ll find that in most socioeconomic and racial categories, our students do not perform as well as their national peers in similar categories. The aggregate is higher, but most sub-categories (including our white, middle-class students) are lower.

    For further comments on unions, you can look closer to home. Ask new teachers in the Jordan School District how well they were served this past year by union negotiations. (Veteran teachers saw raises, newer teachers got a cut in their take-home salary.)

    Despite what you (and Curt) may believe, there *are* those in education more concerned with success than with protecting the status quo. It’s that there are so many competing interests (you’re right there!) that change is slow and difficult.

    Your argument for vouchers is not uncommon (I’ve used the same one), but I’ve come to understand that it’s slightly flawed. Utah spends about $5K per student from all sources, although only about 68% of that comes from state money (less in some districts, more in others), which equals about $3.4K per student.

    If you think that’s what the district spends on *your* student, however, you’re mistaken. Low income students, English language learners, and special education students are significantly more expensive to provide adequate services for than the average student. I don’t know what the actual number is, but it is certainly less than $3K of state dollars per “average” student… In the 2006 proposed voucher bill (HB 184), a family of five (that’s me: two parents, three kids) making less than $60K/yr would be eligible for a $3K voucher per child. The “means testing” in that bill didn’t scale very quickly, so the same family of five making $97.4K/yr would be eligible for a $2.25K voucher per child. The “means testing” was so incredibly broad nearly every Utahn would get a full-tuition voucher, but the cost of the voucher would, in many cases, exceed what the state was already paying for the child. (The local district would see some savings, though Curt does a good job of addressing this.) The egress of “average” students could leave the most expensive students in public schools, with fewer “cheaper” students to offset the costs, essentially creating a tiered, or “separate, and unequal” system of education.

    A weighted voucher system could succeed, but first we would need a better weighted pupil unit in the state that appropriately accounts for english language learners (a separate line item), special education (which is already in the WPU, I believe, but I think has separate line items too), low-income (not separately funded from the state), etc. Once districts were being paid by a better weighted formula, it would be easier to apply a weighted voucher.

    Lastly, (this is already longer than I intended), regarding your statement, “We need to start innovating instead of throwing money at the problem. If schools and school districts have the autonomy to try experiments, some of them are bound to work and improve things for us all.”

    Schools, districts, and charter schools *do* have the autonomy to try experiments. Some districts have exceptional teacher mentoring models that provide good success. Some middle schools are moving away from seat-time requirements to a stronger competency-based model. Rich school district is in it’s first year of a four-day school week. Yes, there are other experiments you (and I) wish they would try, but change–even in business–costs money. There may be a long-term savings, but there is usually an upfront investment in change. Resources are scarce enough that such experiments are a huge gamble, and the stakes are our children. Like you, I’d like to see more experiments, and there is growing support nationally for new models. You can’t ask for sweeping changes and then suggest funding wouldn’t need to change (at least temporarily).

    Finally, using the phrase “throw money at the problem” may have some credence in New York or Washington, D.C. school districts, but in Utah it disenfranchises those who care deeply about education and makes discussion and compromise more difficult. There is truly a desperate need. This year districts have been forced to hire teachers they would otherwise not have considered at all, because of a dearth of qualified applicants, especially in math, science, and special education. Economic principles tell us that at the rates we’re paying starting teachers, there are not enough professionals willing to enter teaching in those subject. Differentiated pay can help, but it will certainly cost more than the low entry-level salaries districts are offering now. Without prompt change, this problem will only worsen as more of our teachers near retirement.

  7. Steve says:

    A great article touching on many of the areas of concern. It does take more than just money. True, Utah has been fortunate because of its demographics. However, that observation and the other criticisms only prove the points in the article. Culture and family environment play at least as large a role as does funding.

    While we are all looking at how to fix the existing system, I believe a unique opportunity has presented itself – small school districts. The current activities to split several of our largest school districts may allow us to ‘fix’ some of these problems as the new districts are created. It seems to me from reading the pending legislation that much could be done to free up the new districts from existing bureaucracy, allow them the freedom to solicit and integrate parental involvement and configure themselves in a way that more effictively meets the educational needs of our children.

  8. Reach Upward says:

    Thank you all for the astute observations and opinions expressed here. I have been enlightened. I particularly appreciate Tom’s discussions of the diversity of per-student costs and the demographics of outcomes. While Tom makes a good point about the startup expense of innovation, Jesse also makes a good point about forces that stifle innovation. Some groups are obviously opposed to any kind of innovation, and have regularly opposed even smaller trials of different models.

    I’m afraid that Utah schools will always be starved for money. We have the largest student-to-taxpayer ratio in the nation by a long shot, and that’s not going to change any time soon. Go back to Econ 101 and you’ll discover that there is a magic point at which increasing taxes reduces revenue. We can only extract so much from taxpayers to fund education before we kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That being the case, innovation is really our only way out.

    As for parents using schools for daycare, part of that is due to the economic structure of our state. Many families find it necessary for both parents to be employed full-time. And the situation is much worse for single-parent families. The state rushes in to provide what families fail to provide. That increases expense in the system and forces the system to do things that are not in the students’ best educational interests. But these cultural issues far exceed the educational system itself. They require solutions both within and beyond the school system.

    Our teacher pay structure encourages career teaching, but highly discourages new teachers. Once again, economics tells us that a dearth of math, science, and special ed teachers means that the supply-demand ratio demands higher pay for these specialties, and that higher pay for beginning teachers will produce different outcomes than we have at present.

    And where should that money come from? Perhaps we should look at our bloated middle management structures. In the past 45 years we have expanded middle management in our education system over 1000%. These positions often pay better than classroom instructor positions. Are these positions worth what they cost? How many of them create more bureaucracy simply to validate themselves? And don’t give me that junk about how Utah is better than the national average on this. We’re not in this business to keep up with other states on management structures; we’re in this business to educate our children. It makes not one bit of difference how big our management structures are in relation to other states, just whether the stucture we have is best for our situation.

    Besides raising taxes and spending more money there are things we can do to improve education in our state. And we should do them.

  9. Jesse says:

    Tom: Thanks for your comments. You seem to have studied this issue out in depth. I do have a few responses.

    It would seem that the data you cite is that socio-economic class is a strong determining factor on how well students perform. This would certainly explain how bad public schools in DC are. Perhaps this means that we need to focus on bringing underperforming classes of students into the classes of students that are performing well. I’m sure an increase in their economic conditions would probably increase parental involvement and bring up student acheivement.

    I don’t doubt that there are those who honestly want to make the education system better. The problem that I see is that powerful interests are controlling the entire debate (including the UEA and Parents for Choice in Education PAC) and most of the information. Depending on which pole you’re closer to, you might be getting an entirely different set of facts and partial-truths.

    I place most of the blame for protecting the status quo on the unions because, hey, their interest is increased memberships and dues. Most of the popular proposed changes to education would weaken their contracts and lower their membership including vouchers, performance-based pay increases, and loss of some firing protections. Even if these programs would improve education, the union is going to oppose them to protect itself. In the process, they spread a lot of mis-information to teachers and suck them in with the fear of losing their jobs.

    A lot of the blame can still be placed squarely on outmoded ways of running school districts. They tend to focus on having lots of administration, policies, and support staff. In very large districts (Clark County, Nevada comes to mind), these administrative costs account for over 50% of the total budget. Small districts solve some of this so long as you don’t sacrifice some of the benefits of an economy of scale, but administrators need to not be afraid to make cuts. I think there are significant cost savings to be made by replacing high school busing with bus passes, moving reception duties to a centralized switchboard to cut staff, and eliminate expensive administration positions. The problem is that, again, someone has to lose their job to make the whole thing work.

    The question I’m left with is this: do the UEA and administrators have the stomach to take losses in employment and receipts to enjoy gains in educational quality? I somehow doubt it.

  10. David says:

    Jesse,

    You are right on target.

    Voucher’s are essentially what has been created in the College & University “system” in our country. With State and Federal Loans & Grants, our government creates vouchers. Then the various schools, both public & private, compete for students with a very WIDE range of school choice. I can attend BYU or Berkeley.

    The results are the best universities in the world and anyone who wants to go to college can. No other country is even close

    Thanks,

    David

  11. Tom says:

    @David, … yet somehow only about 30% of our (9th grade) students attend college, and only about 18% go on to graduate from college within six years of leaving high school. (I’m doing it from memory, so the numbers may be a little off, but they’re close.)

    @Jesse, to clarify, socioeconomic status is not a determiner, it is a predictor. It can be overcome–especially with a series of exceptional teachers at an early age–but it is difficult to affect a sizable portion of these students as they get older.

    Underperforming students are integrated into “mainstream” classrooms. Data shows us that this solution alone isn’t enough–this is the achievement gap that you hear so much about in the news.

    It doesn’t help that the educational attainment of parents is also a predictor, and the percent of adults with college degrees is slipping.

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness and concern for education.

  12. Tom says:

    btw, the college graduation numbers I cited were national numbers, not Utah numbers. Ours are slightly higher (we don’t have as many high school drop-outs, and send a few more to college).

  13. Adam says:

    For me. the bottom line is this…who knows their child best? Who should we be empowering to decide whether or not a school is serving the needs of a particular student? Parents or trained professionals?

    I think in the debate on school choice, this really is the core of the argument. You will find that ultimately, those who oppose school choice reforms, and in particular, vouchers and tuition tax credits, don’t think that the average parent should be trusted to decide that a Catholic school might serve his child’s needs better than a school that is supposedly “accountable” to our unaccountable bureaucracies.

    Now we can argue back and forth about how much a voucher should be worth or whether a voucher will hurt some districts more than others based on student growth, etc. But in the end, these arguments cannot escape their core framework, which is do we trust parents or do we trust bureaucracy? And frankly, that’s why our current system is failing. It sided with the bureaucracy (and then it wonders why parents aren’t more involved.)

    And before I go, I have to stick up for my friends at Parents for Choice in Education. Go to their website at http://www.choiceineducation.org. Are they bias? Sure, they have an opinion on this issue, and they’re trying to win hearts and minds to their side. But notice their research section. Notice how many studies are posted that favor school choice reforms. Now go to the UEA’s website http://www.utea.org. Where are the studies by Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. that support their no excuses campaign and their archaic pay structure? You won’t find them. Now ask yourself, which organization is spreading half-truths.

    Facts are facts and in this debate, they overwhelmingly fall on the side of the voucher/school choice proponents.

    Oh, and one more thing. I agree with Curt way up at the top that you can’t just compare one state’s spending to another state’s spending like Jesse did and say that spending doesn’t affect performance. However, there are proper ways to study the effects of spending on student performance. Dr. Jay Greene did it in his book, Education Myths, and unfortunately for the UEA, Dr. Greene’s research confirms what Jesse asserted, funding doesn’t affect performance. Of course you have to spend a certain amount, but after that, it’s how you spend it not how much. And if you think that Utah isn’t spending enough, well, explain how we were getting by in 1990 spending half of what we spend today per student. The biggest problem is that the added money hasn’t gone to use where it will be most effective. And that’s the number one reason why conservatives are reluctant to give our current system more money. There’s no way to know that it will improve the system.

  14. Reach Upward says:

    This is a great discussion. I have learned much. Tom hits it dead on when he says that the central nature of the debate is whether we trust parents or the trained professionals in the bureaucracy more.

    Interestingly, this is not a new debate. It was at the very heart of the convention that brought us our nation’s constitution. Our founders came up with a plan that tries to give the individual maximum rights and responsibilities, while attempting to balance this with the needs of society at large.

    A balance is required to make society function best, and, as Tom notes, our educational policy is out of balance at present. In fact, I would argue that the balance is likewise out of whack in many areas of government involvement.

  15. Daniel says:

    Jesse,

    As a lefty, I would like to just add that most teachers in this country are very professional and doing the best they can. As one married to a teacher, I can attest that qualitatively she is one of the best teachers and a bright example to students who have benefited from her immensely. Quantitatively, most teachers are actually quite good. It is not the teachers’s fault that our public education system is in such shambles, nor even the school administration’s fault. The fault lies with the parents, always has and always will.

    If the students get no educational support from home, why would they listen to a stranger? There is a reason why public schooling has worked greatly in the past, and that is in the past the family was not as in danger of such falling apart as it is today.

    In our ward here in Pennsylvania, there is a family, a mother and two teenage sons that is indicative of the problem. The mother just recently took her youngest son out of public school, fearing the moment that he might get in trouble. However, she does not do anything at home to further his education. He sits at home most of the time doing…well, I really don’t know what, but certainly not learning about the world around him. His older brother should be graduated by now, but is nowhere close, because he too is out of school. Their mother does not spend the time required at home (being single) to develop her two sons into men. Thankfully these two young men are active in the church and have not yet fallen into the traps most young men fall into, smoking, drinking, drugs, etc. I fear though that they are not going to go far in life, because their mother hasn’t put in the time required for their growth, and then taken them out of the only possibility they even have of something, anything, that can give them a break: public schools.

    I want to hear those who criticize public schools talk more about what to do about parents. They are at the heart of children today not doing their work. They are responsible—not educators. What do you do about parents, Jesse?

  16. Jesse says:

    There’s a very limited amount of blame that can be laid directly on teachers. I can remember having a lot of very good teachers throughout junior high and high school. I had a few things going for me: I went to junior high school in an upper-class neighborhood, and I went to a magnet school for high school. (When both students and teachers have to compete to get in and meet certain minimums to stay in, it makes a world of difference in the student body and the quality of educators.)

    The rest of the school district, however, was being crushed under the weight of more and more layers of administration gobbling up all of the available funding. Last I checked, that district was spending over 50% of the budget just on administrators and building maintenance. The teaching experience became frustrating enough that many good teachers (ones that I personally had) have jumped ship on teaching to become administrators.

    A lot of the problem is a lack of motivators. Most teachers don’t get a pay raise if they outperform their peers. Rather, it’s tied to how long you can stick it out. While I can understand some of the pay increase being based on seniority, most of it needs to be tied to performance. Only a dysfunctional organization gives the same pay raise to a mediocre employee as it does to an excellent one. Those organizations have significant problems with employee retention and turnover, productivity, and a culture of “not my job” apathy. It’s just like Office Space: do just enough to not get fired.

    I think that top-heavy districts cause these problems within the schools. If we demand a more streamlined structure and they don’t respond, we’re left with little recourse but to pursue alternatives.

    Parental involvement goes a long way towards educational quality. Home-schooled kids often out-perform both public and private school children by large margins because of the intense involvement of parents in their child’s learning. These parents are overwhelmingly single-income families leaving them with the free time to participate. I think putting options on the table and forcing parents to make a choice automatically gets them more involved. Vouchers can force that option as can a variety of magnet schools or learning tracks within the public school system. When you make it easy to go with a default option, don’t be surprised when parents do it. (Believe me, I know. I swear that if computer software came with a big red button that said “click here” in big letters and “to be shot in the face” in tiny print, most users would be in the emergency room getting lead pulled from their jaw.)

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