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State of Education

by Nan Swift / /

President Obama covered a lot of ground in his annual State of the Union (SOTU) address last week. Very little was anything we haven’t heard before, not only from the current administration but also from administrations before. This was particularly true when it came to his remarks on education. Sadly, for taxpayers, families, and perhaps most of all – children – these barely reheated ideas are both extremely costly and ineffective. When Washington continues to insist on adhering to expensive myths to set policy it exacts a high price from our economy for the sake of a fallacy, making it ever harder to set a new course for the future. This is all the more difficult when it comes to anything “for the children,” who, unfortunately, end up paying the most for these populist ideas both now and when our debts come due.

Here are two big myths regarding the State of Education as told by President Obama (full speech text here):

Education Myth #1:  Preschool for All

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.  But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool.  And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. 

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.   – President Obama, SOTU 2013

America already has such a program, it’s called Head Start. Founded in 1965, it targets low-income children, ages 3-5, and their families. This sounds like a great thing, but there’s one big, big catch best summed up by Time’s Joe Klein in 2011:

We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program's effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.

The 2010 study Klein references was comprised of nearly 5,000 new, entering 3 and 4 year olds spread across 84 random Head Start agencies and followed their progress through the end of their first grade year. The study found that across a broad range of measures, though students did grow in many areas during their time in Head Start those positive effects all but disappeared by the first grade spring.  A follow-up study with the same children was released later in 2012 and found that not only did students no longer have any advantages over their peers, many were falling behind.  For those who started the study as 3 year olds who participated in Head Start a year longer than their 4 year old friends, the study reports:

At the end of 3rd grade, there was suggestive evidence of an unfavorable impact – the parents of the Head Start group children reported a significantly lower child grade promotion than the parents of the non-Head Start group children.

In addition to these disappointing facts, in 2010 the Government Accountability Office unearthed repeated instances of fraud and testified that, “The system is vulnerable to fraud.”

All this isn’t to say that there aren’t profound and widespread educational challenges especially amongst students coming from low-income families. There are a wide variety of legitimate hurdles facing children who come from extremely difficult family backgrounds and areas where access to a good education is lacking. Still, there is no justification for perpetuating programs that simply don’t work and add billions of dollars to our growing deficit.  Even worse, leftist think tank and Obama favorite the Center for American Progress wants to boost Head Start funding from roughly $7,000 per student to a whopping $10,000 per student!

Education Myth #2: More Help From Big Gov’t Will Bring Down Higher Ed Costs

But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years.  But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education.  Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.  Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.  And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck. – President Obama, SOTU 2013

Over the past ten-plus years, the average cost of a year of undergraduate tuition, room, and board at a public university rose 42 percent and the same costs at a private college or university rose 31 percent.  Around the same time, federal aid tripled from $10 billion in FY 2000 to $30 billion in FY 2008! Taxpayer-funded subsidies that keep student loan rates artificially low have had the extremely negative impact of both inflating the cost of college degrees and opening the floodgates to a host of students with a higher  risk of default or who are ill-prepared for the academic rigors of higher education. These students would have avoided taking on the enormous debt increasingly associated with a college degree where it not for the abundance of cheap credit at taxpayer expense.

Also, increased meddling by Big Brother in the affairs of the Ivory Tower is not a recipe for success. Some schools like Hillsdale and Grove City colleges have bowed out of the gravy train in order to evade the many strings that come attached to government funds. In doing so they have had the freedom to develop their own rigorous brand of education whilst simultaneously keeping costs low and attracting an extremely high caliber of student.

For an example of how misguided attempts to incentivize institutions of higher education to bend to Washington’s will with the promise of taxpayer funds look no further than the Title IX boondoggle that has seen colleges and universities cut one sport after another in an effort to comply with the onerous and often indecipherable demands of Title IX compliance. In a June 2010 study here, Title IX expert Allison Kasic explains that, “While well intentioned, Title IX in the realm of athletics has unfortunately been a case study of perverse incentives and unintended consequences.”

Given the damaging track record of past big government education schemes, there’s little reason to expect better results from the President’s new initiatives.

In his GOP response (full speech text here), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) didn’t provide the bold contrast many conservatives were hoping for when comes to education. Instead of focusing on free-market education reforms, his calls for incentivizing “local school districts to offer more advanced placement course and more vocation and career training” sounded like more of the same federal intrusion taxpayers have decried under “No Child Left Behind.” Rubio’s vocal support for federal financial aid both perpetuates a broken system and offers no real solution for change. Instead, his calls for expanding federal financial aid to more students could result in the same increase in costs for nontraditional and for-profit schools that we’ve seen in other branches of higher education.

With National School Choice Week only a few short weeks ago, it was disappointing that Sen. Rubio dedicated barely one sentence of his rebuttal to this important free-market education reform.  On the other hand, Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) Tea Party response (full text here) was a refreshingly bold endorsement of school choice:

For those striving to climb the ladder of success we must fix our schools. America’s educational system is leaving behind anyone who starts with disadvantages. We have cut classroom size in half and tripled spending on education and still we lag behind much of the world. A great education needs to be available for everyone, whether you live on country club lane or in government housing. This will only happen when we allow school choice for everyone, rich or poor, white, brown, or black. Let the taxes you pay for education follow each and every student to the school of your choice. Competition has made America the richest nation in history. Competition can make our educational system the envy of the world. The status quo traps poor children in a crumbling system of hopelessness. When every child can, like the President’s kids, go to the school of their choice, then will the dreams of our children come true!

As these three elected officials move ahead with their education plans NTU will be watching closely to ensure taxpayers aren’t footing the bill for the same failed policies and will be pushing for less, not more government, in education  - not just because that’s better for the bottom line, but because it has been demonstrated that school choice works for kids.