Tag: Education Reform

A New Year, New Session, New Opportunities

Today marks the beginning of the 2012 session of the Alabama Legislature. A new session means opportunities and for Alabama, the opportunities are abundant.  Legislators will have the opportunity to pass meaningful education reform in the form of charter schools.  Basic principles of any market tell us that more competition leads to a higher quality across the board. And no one can deny Alabama schools could use some improvement.

Legislators will also have opportunities to help create jobs.  I say “help” because the state shouldn’t create jobs, but it should get out of the way and let the private sector begin putting Alabamians to work.  Legislators should remove obstacles to job creation and provide incentives for companies looking to locate or expand in our state. Several of these job creating measures are on the slate for the first week of the session including legislation giving economic development offices and the Governor more flexibility in offering tax incentives and a measure to allow the state to offer temporary state income tax incentives to offset build-up phase costs for companies bringing jobs to the state.

Last, but certainly not least, legislators will have the opportunity to stand strong on Alabama’s new immigration law.  There are those who want to weaken the law who will use language like “tweaking” or “making it easier to enforce,” but legislators should tread carefully.  While there are some legitimate fixes that need to be made, i.e.–adding military ID’s to the list of acceptable forms of identification, by and large, the law should be left as is.  Keep an eye on our website for more information on this issue.

Alabama legislators appear poised to take advantage of some of these opportunities and they deserve our support.  We just have to make sure they keep their eye on the ball and don’t get  distracted by those who want to keep running Alabama in the same old way.  After all, if we keep doing things the same way, we’ll keep getting the same result.  They say opportunity only knocks once, so here’s to giving our legislators the fortitude to open the door.

Do We Need The Department of Education?

Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He received his B.A. in history at Harvard University and his Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has written for numerous newspapers and journals, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and National Review. His books include Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, What It Means to Be a Libertarian, and Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. His new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, will be published at the end of January.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 28, 2011, at a conference on “Markets, Government, and the Common Good,” sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Center for the Study of Monetary Systems and Free Enterprise.


Do We Need The Department of Education?

THE CASE FOR the Department of Education could rest on one or more of three legs: its constitutional appropriateness, the existence of serious problems in education that could be solved only at the federal level, and/or its track record since it came into being. Let us consider these in order.

(1) Is the Department of Education constitutional?

At the time the Constitution was written, education was not even considered a function of local government, let alone the federal government. But the shakiness of the Department of Education’s constitutionality goes beyond that. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the things over which Congress has the power to legislate. Not only does the list not include education, there is no plausible rationale for squeezing education in under the commerce clause. I’m sure the Supreme Court found a rationale, but it cannot have been plausible.

On a more philosophical level, the framers of America’s limited government had a broad allegiance to what Catholics call the principle of subsidiarity. In the secular world, the principle of subsidiarity means that local government should do only those things that individuals cannot do for themselves, state government should do only those things that local governments cannot do, and the federal government should do only those things that the individual states cannot do. Education is something that individuals acting alone and cooperatively can do, let alone something local or state governments can do.

I should be explicit about my own animus in this regard. I don’t think the Department of Education is constitutionally legitimate, let alone appropriate. I would favor abolishing it even if, on a pragmatic level, it had improved American education. But I am in a small minority on that point, so let’s move on to the pragmatic questions.

(2) Are there serious problems in education that can be solved only at the federal level?

The first major federal spending on education was triggered by the launch of the first space satellite, Sputnik, in the fall of 1957, which created a perception that the United States had fallen behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. The legislation was specifically designed to encourage more students to go into math and science, and its motivation is indicated by its title: The National Defense Education Act of 1958. But what really ensnared the federal government in education in the 1960s had its origins elsewhere—in civil rights. The Supreme Court declared segregation of the schools unconstitutional in 1954, but—notwithstanding a few highly publicized episodes such as the integration of Central High School in Little Rock and James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi—the pace of change in the next decade was glacial.

Was it necessary for the federal government to act? There is a strong argument for “yes,” especially in the case of K-12 education. Southern resistance to desegregation proved to be both stubborn and effective in the years following Brown v. Board of Education. Segregation of the schools had been declared unconstitutional, and constitutional rights were being violated on a massive scale. But the question at hand is whether we need a Department of Education now, and we have seen a typical evolution of policy. What could have been justified as a one-time, forceful effort to end violations of constitutional rights, lasting until the constitutional wrongs had been righted, was transmuted into a permanent government establishment. Subsequently, this establishment became more and more deeply involved in American education for purposes that have nothing to do with constitutional rights, but instead with a broader goal of improving education.

The reason this came about is also intimately related to the civil rights movement. Over the same years that school segregation became a national issue, the disparities between black and white educational attainment and test scores came to public attention. When the push for President Johnson’s Great Society programs began in the mid-1960s, it was inevitable that the federal government would attempt to reduce black-white disparities, and it did so in 1965 with the passage of two landmark bills—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. The Department of Education didn’t come into being until 1980, but large-scale involvement of the federal government in education dates from 1965.

(3) So what is the federal government’s track record in education?

The most obvious way to look at the track record is the long-term trend data of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Consider, for instance, the results for the math test for students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades from 1978 through 2004. The good news is that the scores for fourth graders showed significant improvement in both reading and math—although those gains diminished slightly as the children got older. The bad news is that the baseline year of 1978 represents the nadir of the test score decline from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Probably we are today about where we were in math achievement in the 1960s. For reading, the story is even bleaker. The small gains among fourth graders diminish by eighth grade and vanish by the twelfth grade. And once again, the baseline tests in the 1970s represent a nadir.

From 1942 through the 1990s, the state of Iowa administered a consistent and comprehensive test to all of its public school students in grade school, middle school, and high school—making it, to my knowledge, the only state in the union to have good longitudinal data that go back that far. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills offers not a sample, but an entire state population of students. What can we learn from a single state? Not much, if we are mainly interested in the education of minorities—Iowa from 1942 through 1970 was 97 percent white, and even in the 2010 census was 91 percent white. But, paradoxically, that racial homogeneity is also an advantage, because it sidesteps all the complications associated with changing ethnic populations.

Since retention through high school has changed greatly over the last 70 years, I will consider here only the data for ninth graders. What the data show is that when the federal government decided to get involved on a large scale in K-12 education in 1965, Iowa’s education had been improving substantially since the first test was administered in 1942. There is reason to think that the same thing had been happening throughout the country. As I documented in my book, Real Education, collateral data from other sources are not as detailed, nor do they go back to the 1940s, but they tell a consistent story. American education had been improving since World War II. Then, when the federal government began to get involved, it got worse.

I will not try to make the case that federal involvement caused the downturn. The effort that went into programs associated with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in the early years was not enough to have changed American education, and the more likely causes for the downturn are the spirit of the 1960s—do your own thing—and the rise of progressive education to dominance over American public education. But this much can certainly be said: The overall data on the performance of American K-12 students give no reason to think that federal involvement, which took the form of the Department of Education after 1979, has been an engine of improvement.

What about the education of the disadvantaged, especially minorities? After all, this was arguably the main reason that the federal government began to get involved in education—to reduce the achievement gap separating poor children and rich children, and especially the gap separating poor black children and the rest of the country.

The most famous part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was Title I, initially authorizing more than a billion dollars annually (equivalent to more than $7 billion today) to upgrade the schools attended by children from low-income families. The program has continued to grow ever since, disposing of about $19 billion in 2010 (No Child Left Behind has also been part of Title I).

Supporters of Title I confidently expected to see progress, and so formal evaluation of Title I was built into the legislation from the beginning. Over the years, the evaluations became progressively more ambitious and more methodologically sophisticated. But while the evaluations have improved, the story they tell has not changed. Despite being conducted by people who wished the program well, no evaluation of Title I from the 1970s onward has found credible evidence of a significant positive impact on student achievement. If one steps back from the formal evaluations and looks at the NAEP test score gap between high-poverty schools (the ones that qualify for Title I support) and low-poverty schools, the implications are worse. A study by the Department of Education published in 2001 revealed that the gap grew rather than diminished from 1986—the earliest year such comparisons have been made—through 1999.

That brings us to No Child Left Behind. Have you noticed that no one talks about No Child Left Behind any more? The explanation is that its one-time advocates are no longer willing to defend it. The nearly-flat NAEP trendlines since 2002 make that much-ballyhooed legislative mandate—a mandate to bring all children to proficiency in math and reading by 2014—too embarrassing to mention.

In summary: the long, intrusive, expensive role of the federal government in K-12 education does not have any credible evidence for a positive effect on American education.

* * *

I have chosen to focus on K-12 because everyone agrees that K-12 education leaves much to be desired in this country and that it is reasonable to hold the government’s feet to the fire when there is no evidence that K-12 education has improved. When we turn to post-secondary education, there is much less agreement on first principles.

The bachelor of arts degree as it has evolved over the last half-century has become the work of the devil. It is now a substantively meaningless piece of paper—genuinely meaningless, if you don’t know where the degree was obtained and what courses were taken. It is expensive, too, as documented by the College Board: Public four-year colleges average about $7,000 per year in tuition, not including transportation, housing, and food. Tuition at the average private four-year college is more than $27,000 per year. And yet the B.A. has become the minimum requirement for getting a job interview for millions of jobs, a cost-free way for employers to screen for a certain amount of IQ and perseverance. Employers seldom even bother to check grades or courses, being able to tell enough about a graduate just by knowing the institution that he or she got into as an 18-year-old.

So what happens when a paper credential is essential for securing a job interview, but that credential can be obtained by taking the easiest courses and doing the minimum amount of work? The result is hundreds of thousands of college students who go to college not to get an education, but to get a piece of paper. When the dean of one East Coast college is asked how many students are in his institution, he likes to answer, “Oh, maybe six or seven.” The situation at his college is not unusual. The degradation of American college education is not a matter of a few parents horrified at stories of silly courses, trivial study requirements, and campus binge drinking. It has been documented in detail, affects a large proportion of the students in colleges, and is a disgrace.

The Department of Education, with decades of student loans and scholarships for university education, has not just been complicit in this evolution of the B.A. It has been its enabler. The size of these programs is immense. In 2010, the federal government issued new loans totaling $125 billion. It handed out more than eight million Pell Grants totaling more than $32 billion dollars. Absent this level of intervention, the last three decades would have seen a much healthier evolution of post-secondary education that focused on concrete job credentials and courses of studies not constricted by the traditional model of the four-year residential college. The absence of this artificial subsidy would also have let market forces hold down costs. Defenders of the Department of Education can unquestionably make the case that its policies have increased the number of people going to four-year residential colleges. But I view that as part of the Department of Education’s indictment, not its defense.

* * *

What other case might be made for federal involvement in education? Its contributions to good educational practice? Think of the good things that have happened to education in the last 30 years—the growth of homeschooling and the invention and spread of charter schools. The Department of Education had nothing to do with either development. Both happened because of the initiatives taken by parents who were disgusted with standard public education and took matters into their own hands. To watch the process by which charter schools are created, against the resistance of school boards and administrators, is to watch the best of American traditions in operation. Government has had nothing to do with it, except as a drag on what citizens are trying to do for their children.

Think of the best books on educational practice, such as Howard Gardner’s many innovative writings and E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum, developed after his landmark book, Cultural Literacy, was published in 1987. None of this came out of the Department of Education. The Department of Education spends about $200 million a year on research intended to improve educational practice. No evidence exists that these expenditures have done any significant good.

As far as I can determine, the Department of Education has no track record of positive accomplishment—nothing in the national numbers on educational achievement, nothing in the improvement of educational outcomes for the disadvantaged, nothing in the advancement of educational practice. It just spends a lot of money. This brings us to the practical question: If the Department of Education disappeared from next year’s budget, would anyone notice? The only reason that anyone would notice is the money. The nation’s public schools have developed a dependence on the federal infusion of funds. As a practical matter, actually doing away with the Department of Education would involve creating block grants so that school district budgets throughout the nation wouldn’t crater.

Sadly, even that isn’t practical. The education lobby will prevent any serious inroads on the Department of Education for the foreseeable future. But the answer to the question posed in the title of this talk—“Do we need the Department of Education?”—is to me unambiguous: No.

Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College. SUBSCRIPTION FREE UPON REQUEST. ISSN 0277-8432. Imprimis trademark registered in U.S. Patent and Trade Office #1563325.

School Choice Should Be At The Top Of The Agenda For 2012 Legislative Session

It’s that time of year again.  Children across Alabama have dragged out their backpacks, sharpened their pencils and gone back to school.  The beginning of the school year gives teachers and students a fresh start and legislators a new chance to study what our state is doing right and wrong in regard to education.

During the last legislative session they addressed problems with Alabama’s teacher tenure laws passing much needed reforms.  But they shouldn’t stop there.  Alabama is one of only ten states in the nation without charter school legislation. For the past few years, bills authorizing charter schools have been introduced but failed to pass due to strong opposition from the AEA and budget constraints. But when the legislators go back to Montgomery for the 2012 session they’ll get another chance to improve education in the state by giving parents more choices.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside the traditional rules and regulations of a public school.  They are often tailored to meet the educational needs of a specific group or community.  With charters, parents are able to find the school that best meets the educational needs of their child.  Even though they operate outside the normal framework of public schools, there is still accountability.  Charter schools are judged on their ability to meet the educational goals laid out in their charter.  Those schools that don’t meet their goals are shut down.  This performance-based assessment ensures only the best schools survive.

Alabama ranked 45th in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report.  Two states that have the largest number of charter school students, New Jersey and New York, ranked 3rd and 26th respectively.  A recent study by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found a strong correlation between school choice and educational quality.  States that offer more options in education scored higher in terms of the overall quality of education.

But what about the cost? Given today’s tough economic times and serious budget shortfalls, the cost of charter schools is a valid concern.  The good news is that charters will actually save the state money.  The Center for Education Reform has found that the average charter school receives $3,468 less in state and federal funds than traditional public schools.  Charters are able to do more with less, and do it better.  One significant reason for that is the lack of bureaucracy, which allows teachers and school administrators to recognize problems and make quick adjustments to improve their effectiveness.

Charter schools have grown in popularity since movies like The Lottery and Waiting For Superman have hit the national stage.  As parents are being educated on the concept of charters and what they are able to do, support for charters increases.  There are now 5,400 charter schools serving more than 1.7 million children across the country.  465 new charter schools have opened in the last year alone.

And if the statistics aren’t persuasive for legislators, maybe the public will be. According to the Friedman Foundation, 58% of Alabama voters favor charter schools. The public support is there and legislators need to listen.

Ask Your Legislator To Put Students First

We need your calls to help pass teacher tenure reform in the Alabama House!


This week, the Alabama House will consider one of the most significant education reform proposals in the last decade–teacher tenure reform.  The AEA union bosses have prevented meaningful reform of our state tenure laws and have protected teachers at all cost, even when the price was our students’ education.  The new Republican-led legislature is working to change that with SB310 the Students First Act.  The legislation has already passed the Alabama Senate, and will be considered by the Alabama House this week.  Those who want to preserve the current system are working hard to influence legislators and putting out a great deal of misinformation on the bill.  Below, we address the issue of teacher tenure, why reform is needed, and what you can do to help ensure that we put our students first for a change.  Your action on this issue is critical.  It only takes a few minutes to call or email your representative and those few minutes can make a huge difference in Alabama’s education system (You can find your representative and get their contact information here).

The Truth About Teacher Tenure Reform


Why is it needed?

Tenure is designed to protect teachers who dissent from popular opinion, openly disagree with authorities, and/or research unpopular subjects.  Proponents of tenure say it fosters a more open academic environment where teachers are free to posit new ideas and give honest opinions.  It prevents teachers from sticking to the “safe” position for fear of reprisal from their employer.  Sounds good so far, right?  The problem is that it’s had the practical effect of protecting bad teachers who are a drag on our system.  It has led to ridiculous situations like this, where taxpayers are continuing to pay a teacher who is sitting in federal prison after being convicted of having sex with a minor student.  Alabama students deserve better.

How will SB310 address the problem?

So now that you know why we need tenure reform, the question is how to do it.  The goal is to protect good teachers while making it easier to fire bad teachers and ensure that protections don’t come at the expense of Alabama students’ educations.  Sen. Trip Pittman has introduced SB310 to accomplish that.

Under SB310:

  • Teachers and classified employees will still get tenure upon completing three years of employment with the same employer.
  • Tenured employees can only be terminated for the following reasons:  a justifiable reduction in force, insubordination, incompetency, failure to perform duties in a satisfactory matter, immorality or other good cause.
  • Tenured employees CANNOT be terminated for political or personal reasons.
  • Tenured employees will still have due process upon termination.  They will be able to appeal their termination to a hearing officer who will be a retired Alabama judge randomly chosen by the Executive Director of the Alabama State Bar.
  • The hearing officer’s decision may be appealed to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals.
  • A terminated employee will continue to get paid until the hearing officer makes the decision, or until 75 days after the employee is terminated–whichever comes first.
  • If the hearing officer reinstates the employee, the employee is eligible for back pay and benefits.
  • Employers will have the authority to reassign or transfer employees when the situation requires.  This cannot occur more than once a year and has to be on or before the 20th day of the school year.

These provisions will continue to protect good teachers and address the problems with the process of terminating those who fail to adequately perform their duties.

If you want more information on SB310, click here, here or here.

So what can you do to help?

SB310 has passed the Alabama Senate and has come out of committee in the Alabama House.  We anticipate a vote on the House floor late tomorrow.  There are several legislators who need to hear from the grassroots on this bill.  It is imperative that they get calls and emails ASAP.

Here’s a list of those who especially need to be encouraged to support SB310:


Rep. Jeremy Oden  (334) 242-7722


Rep. Elwyn Thomas (334) 242-7762 [email protected]


Rep. Todd Greeson (334) 242-7743


Rep. Arthur Payne (334) 242-7753


Rep. Steve Hurst (334) 353-9215


Rep. Joe Hubbard (334) 242-7707 [email protected]

State School Board To Vote On Common Core Standards Tomorrow

It’s the last chance for anyone who opposes turning control of Alabama’s curriculum over to the feds to have their say.  Tomorrow morning, the Alabama State Board of Education will vote on whether to adopt the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Mathematics.  While the National Governors Association supports the proposed initiative, problems with the Common Core have been cited by several leading Republican governors, most notably, Texas Governor Rick Perry.  Common Core is also opposed by the following organizations:

Alabama Federation of Republican Women

Alabama Policy Institute

Allied Women of Alabama

CATO Institute

Christian Educators International

Common Sense Patriots

Concerned Women for America of Alabama

Eagle Forum of Alabama

Family Research Council

Focus on the Family

Heartland Institute

Heritage Foundation

Home School Legal Defense Fund

Lexington Institute

National Association of Scholars

National Conference of State Legislators

Pacific Research Foundation

Pioneer Institute

Reason Foundation

Smart Girl Politics of Alabama

Tea Party Patriots of Alabama

U.S. Coalition for World Class Math

Wetumpka Tea Party

Public Schools Are Failing…Could Complete Privatization Be The Answer?

David Warren argues that privatization is precisely the answer to our epidemic of failing schools.  He points out that the concept of public education has long been engrained in the minds of Americans, but it didn’t start out that way.  In fact, the Constitution says nothing about public education…

In the case of education, we are confronting an immense prejudice, inculcated by the education system itself. There is a long history of political intervention in schools in North America, and an even longer ideological history from the Reformation; the Scottish one, especially. Books could be written, and have been: But, in a single phrase, the notion that “education is too important to be left to chance” is so universally accepted, that the public at large is capable of overlooking universal failure. Our state schools, which were (contrary to myth) never all that good, have degenerated into dysfunctional propaganda mills.

We easily accept the associated notion that “in a democracy, public schooling is necessary to assure minimum standards for citizenship.” That schools should provide the machinery for the indoctrination of the masses follows naturally from this. Think it through. The proposition actually reverses the first principle of democracy: that government should answer to citizens, and not citizens to government. And remember, that all “progressive” educational proposals require political compulsion.

The question is, “how do we get there?”  Most conservatives favor privatization of education on some level, but have different opinions on how we achieve that goal.  On one side, you have charter school advocates who believe that public schools are so engrained in the American psyche, we need charters as a middle step.  The argument is that the public will be reluctant to go from completely public education to completely private education in one step.  Authorizing charter schools will, theoretically, demonstrate to the public that privatization can improve the quality of education, and make them more willing to do away with public education all together.

On the other side, you have those that argue that because charter schools are still public schools, you will have the same indoctrination of students, and same bureaucratic nightmares in a charter.  They believe we must take the big step to complete privatization in one fell swoop.  The time wasted on the middle step with charters comes at the expense of the children who could be getting a better education.  They also point out that charters don’t give much more control to parents and students than the public school system.

Despite the differences, we all agree that education reform is necessary.  I’m glad that movies like The Lottery and Waiting For Superman have opened the debate, and brought the issue to the attention of many Americans who weren’t engaged.

‘Waiting For Superman’ Not What We’ve Been Waiting For?

Neal McCluskey points out the producers of Waiting For Superman have their own agenda, beyond charter schools.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly — to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination — than to centralize power in one place.

Heritage Morning Bell Points Out The Obama Administration’s Hypocrisy On Education Reform

President Obama has not been a friend of school choice.  One of his first acts as president was to let the D.C. voucher program lose it’s funding.  Instead of giving more control to parents and local school boards, his administration has pushed to consolidate control over curriculum to the U.S. Department of Education.  Thankfully, the Heritage Foundation took time to point this out:

How can Obama possibly call this “heartbreaking” when one of his first acts as President was to snatch winning lottery spots from Washington, D.C. school children? Specifically, Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent letters to 216 low-income families informing them that he was taking back the $7,500 in scholarship money that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program had previously awarded them. Yesterday on NBC’s TODAY Show, Obama admitted that daughters Sasha and Malia deserve better than D.C. public schools — that’s the reason he sends them to a tony private school with other Washington elites. So then why is Obama blocking other kids from the same opportunity?