Tag Archives: Education

On ‘Free’ Community Colleges

Over on Facebook, my friends and I have had an interesting discussion on the elusive details of the President’s budget/SOTU proposal for ‘free’ community college education.

Because of a New Year’s resolution a few years ago, I rarely delve into long, drawn-out debates on Facebook. It’s usually not worth your time. But I made an exception here, in part because of the thoughtful insights from my friends (and a friend/former teacher!) and partly because I wanted to weigh in further.

Here’s my (lightly edited) rant:

Edward and Shawn, I agree with points you both make. The cost of ignorance is high and not everyone has the opportunity to attend a Jesuit school with great science teachers like Mr. Nolan. (Though the Jesuits are trying as hard as they can with the Cristo Rey model, which is phenomenal.)
I love community colleges. My grandfather was a professor at one, and my mother attended there before going to tOSU. I’m just opposed because I don’t think this level of involvement by the government is appropriate. It’s my libertarian side coming out.
Realistically, this has ~0% chance of passing Congress. The “Pay Go” rules don’t help because anyone who proposes it on the Democratic side will “pay for it” with a tax increase and not a cut, which is how the game is played in Congress these days.
If Obama / Congressional Democrats wanted to be clever, here’s how they’d structure it:
1.) You apply for this program and by doing so, you agree to forfeit your Pell Grants entirely.
2.) Under Pell Grants, you get up to 12 semesters (six years) worth of grants, which, under maximum level at max time before exhaustion represents a little under $35,000. Of course, not everyone qualifies for Pell Grants, or gets the full amount. But you could argue savings by doing this.
3.) Cynically, if you wanted to obtain a 4-year degree, then you’d likely go to the student loan market (effectively nationalized since 2010!) where the government could make the money back. (Though, they’ve already used the “profits” from that to defray the cost of Obamacare and it would be hard to count that twice.)
A friend of mine, an analyst type, observed that this would be among the cheaper proposals Obama has proposed, even though the costs would be in the tens of billions, according to some estimates.
Two states (and others I am sure) have tried “free college programs.” Their examples are instructive. (I still am weary about government involvement in this, but at the state level it is at least appropriate from a federalism perspective.)
Arizona, when I worked for Senator Kyl, had something called an AIMS scholarship. If you met certain requirements under their AIMS program — you got a full tuition waiver at in-state schools, provided you were accepted. Of course, the test was not terribly hard and lots of people qualified. Now, it covers 25%, and is renewable — subject to college-specific requirements — over the remaining three years.
It was poorly planned. And it was done by Republicans!
Tennessee has the “Tennessee Promise” program, a brainchild of their Republican governor, gives free community and technical college tuition (for 2 years) to high school graduates in the state. The program is funded by the lottery. The program, which I also think was poorly implemented as such measures often are, has seen 58k applicants. Double what they expected. They’re learning Freidman’s adage of “no such thing as a free lunch” despite being well-intentioned.
Details on Obama’s plan are still forthcoming, but right now we know you have to have a C+ average, these CC’s have to agree to certain stipulations about their programs and credit transferability, and some vague notions of “student outcomes.” The feds expect states to pick up 25% of the cost.
While I agree with Mr. Nolan about college/knowledge having an effect on real-world life outcomes, Shawn’s point about high school and those outcomes is also worth delving into. To paint with my partisan broad brush, Democrats only seem to be interested in spending more money, not reforming public education in meaningful ways. (Thanks, teachers’ unions!)
So, rather than improve the K-12 system, I think there is room to criticize this proposal as keeping the bad and just inflating the bar.
White House director Cecilia Muñoz told Politico that “Obama aims to make college ‘the norm in the same way high school is the norm now.'”
Depending on your partisan lens, this statement will be interpreted differently. I see this as what I alluded to earlier — education inflation rather than education reform.
Granted, we’re all wasting our time in a thought exercise because this has about the same chance of happening as anything in President Obama’s budgets. Budgets these days are a thought exercise in “how I’d like things to be, but obviously won’t be.”
This started the last two years of the Bush presidency, when Congress was controlled by Democrats. They became “Hope Documents” or “Wish Lists.” Even after Obama was elected, his budgets were never taken seriously by Congress because Congress was not serious about budgeting.
They quickly abandoned regular order and the normal appropriations process in favor of continuing resolutions and omnibus packages. A power grab by the leadership, disenfranchising moderate and oddball Democrats and castrating Republicans in the minority.
Presidential budgets have always been blueprints. Congress is under no obligation to consider them, but Presidents are still obligated by the law to churn them out. It used to make sense, but now it’s sort of a pointless partisan exercise.
Boehner tried to restore regular order when I went from the Senate to the House as a staffer. In that, he failed. McConnell has signaled he wants to try his hand at that, too.
I wish them luck and hope it succeeds, but I’m not optimistic.
Prospects for reforming K-12 education are equally dire, but then again, while I agree with conservatives on their reforms, I’m of the view that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in the first place on education, a position many conservatives share. Hard to argue that when you’re voting to essentially maintain some semblance of federal control over it, even if it is diminished.


How much would it cost to put security guards in schools?

In the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many people are focusing their efforts on discussing how such a tragedy could have been prevented.

I’ll leave the mental health and gun control debates to others, since those areas of discussion are often occupied by the shrill and/or uninformed — and that applies to both sides.

Which is not to say there aren’t practical folks discussing those topics. There are. It’s just that all I seem to see and hear on social media and in the news is just, well, often not those people.

So, I’ll focus on another aspect of the debate that people have suggested: Security guards in schools. How practical is it for each to have them? How much would it cost?

As you can imagine, it would cost a pretty penny:

By my back of the napkin estimate, it would cost about $9 billion a year. Or $8,893,530,000 if you want to get more precise, but that’s a low end estimate.

How did I figure this? By last estimate, there are 98,817 public educational institutions in the United States. I assume an average of three guards per school, at a level of payment of $30,000 a year each.

It’s a low end estimate because of a few reasons. Hiring costs. Insurance & benefits. Oversight. Vehicles and equipment. Unionization. There’s more, but you get the point — in reality, my estimate is likely to be off by a few billion dollars.

The Department of Education’s budget is about $68 billion, so for some perspective, that would represent about 13 percent of it.

Now the Department of Education’s budget is not what funds the majority of school-related spending. Most of that comes from state and local funding sources.

Many school districts already employ security guards. Some outsource that to local police, which supplants their normal duties and is essentially transferring the cost from the school to the police department.

Putting security guards in schools is often popular, but not everywhere. One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t come without very real costs.PageLines- bsig.png

Washington D.C.’s Education Problem

With my free time these days, I have been watching some education documentaries. Mary and I watched Waiting for Superman, which wasn’t as good as I had been told, but still a decent watch. An even better flick I watched was The Cartel a documentary by former Bloomberg report Bob Bowdon. If you are from New Jersey, you must watch that one.

Because of this, in recent days I have thought a lot about education policy. When flipping the channels this morning, I ended up watching “It’s Academic” on NBC 4. Three teams were competing. In alphabetical order, Anacostia, Wash. DC, Chantilly, Virginia, and Washington-Lee, Virginia.

Who do you suppose won? Who do you suppose did the worst? We’ll get back to that later.

But in the audience was Vince Gray, whom I think is a horrible mayor. Quietly campaigning against former Mayor Adrian Fenty, using the teachers’ unions and stirring up racial resentment against as lighter skinned mayor and a visionary school reformer who happens to be Asian.  Everyone in the metro area knows what Vince Gray did. And there he is in the audience, stirring up a visceral reaction in me. Unfortunately, D.C. will continue to kowtow to the teachers’ unions in Rhee’s absence, slowly undoing the good she did during her time there.

Education takes time, so I am going to tell you the results now with this caveat: I don’t blame Anacostia’s third place finish on Mayor Gray. But 10 years from now, I will likely see those D.C. schools not just placing third, but placing dead last with few points, blowout style.

Final Score:

1.) Chantilly -535

2. Washington Lee — 510

3.) Anacostia –455

The real point of this is that it’s sad that this will likely happen, but we know it could have been prevented. School reform is a lot more than “just give them more money.” D.C. is ground zero of doing that. So is New Jersey. If you look at their results, you’ll see that school funding is but a very small cog in the results of performing schools. Most places get more for significantly lower spending levels, except, well, in New Jersey and D.C.


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What could possibly go wrong?

Now, in the realm of local politics, I happen to like our local Delegate, David Englin. As a liberal Democrat, he’s not my ideal choice, me being a conservative Republican and all, but I think his office is run well, he is communicative, and pretty much the best I could hope for being not of my political stripes.

Every question I ask (and no, I am not an asshole) gets a considered response that answers my question.

I tend to disagree more than agree with his votes, but now, he’s introduced a bill that I am not a big fan of.

I’ll explain.

Last year, a number of parents complained when they read their children’s text book on state history. The book, “Our Virginia: Past and Present”, alleged that blacks fought for the Confederacy. Something I remember being taught in ultra liberal Shaker Heights.

As far as I can tell, the book claims that “thousands” of blacks fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy, and some were even promoted under Stonewall Jackson’s leadership.

Scholars doubt that “thousands” of blacks fought for the Confederacy, and other scholars doubt that blacks were promoted. Being no Civil War scholar, I must admit that I agree that it’s doubtful Confederate black soldiers were promoted, but  it’s not outside the realm of possibility that many blacks fought for the Confederacy, be they forcibly or voluntarily serving. It’s much likelier blacks fought for the north. I’m northern because God loves a winner and we won (sorry southerners). Others disagree.

So what happened? This book somehow got through the approval process. Now people are offended that kids might learn that some black soldiers forcibly (or by choice, however doubtful) fought for the Confederacy? I recall learning the same thing, though, I learned more blacks fought for the North and not all Southern blacks fought by choice.

I’m not a Civil War scholar, and what I learned may not jive with the majority of Civil War historians, but I still realize slavery was wrong, and the Civil War wasn’t about states’ rights, as much as I support the concept.

According to The Virginia Gazzette, Williamsburg-James City County Schools uses the book in question and it was:

…selected through the division’s standard textbook approval procedure. A committee of staff and community members recommended the text, and the public had the opportunity to inspect the textbook. Finally, the book was approved by the School Board.

Alright. So, the Virginia Board of Education, school boards, parents, and the public dropped the ball. The publisher dropped the ball. The author dropped the ball. So it’s the publisher’s fault alone, right?

What do Delegate Englin and Councilman Krupicka propose we do to remedy the situation? According to the Washington Post:

To receive state certification under the proposed bill, publishers would be forced to pledge, and later prove, that their books are reviewed by subject-area specialists whose expertise would be approved by the Board of Education. Publishers would also assume responsibility for correcting mistakes subsequently discovered by the board.

The Education Department has acknowledged flaws in the textbook approval process, saying that it is hamstrung in part by a lack of resources. By shifting the onus to publishers, Englin hopes to reduce the number of errors in textbooks without using public dollars to hire a team of subject-area experts.

I cherry picked these two quotes from the article to illustrate a few points and ask a few questions.

  1. Why can’t Virginia, given its size, have its best teachers, publicly paid college professors, and scholarly volunteers review potential text books? Surely, publishers would be willing to lend or give 100 copies of a textbook to a big state that could lead to probably 100,000+ copies sold.
  2. If publishers were required to get outside factual verification of every sentence in their textbooks, would people do it for them for free?
  3. If people are less likely to volunteer for a for-profit company rather than their home state, would the cost of outside fact-checking be passed along to all consumers of the text book? Or just states that require it?
  4. Some publishers might not want their textbook costs to go up for states that don’t have government mandated outsider fact-checking and fines for errors. Would they be less likely to offer their texts for consideration in Virginia, even if their books might be by better scholars than others?
  5. Since publishers would most certainly pass along the costs of mandated outsider fact checking and insuring themselves against potential fines, would higher costs for textbooks leave Virginia with less money for education? Teacher salaries? School activities?
  6. Would less money for education, because of this bill, require more money to be allocated from other programs?
  7. Would supporters of that other program refrain from complaining about the cuts, for the greater good?
  8. Do you think the state would allow that to happen, cutting that other program, or would they restore it and raise taxes?

I take it you see my thought process, whether or not you agree with my conclusion that the bill is a bad idea.

We have nearly 40 public colleges in Virginia, and I am sure we can get the texts vetted without alienating publishers or raising the cost of textbooks.

With such a well intentioned idea my Delegate proposes, what could possibly go wrong?

If this post didn’t sit well with you, click here, it’s the least I can offer.

Update: What’s next? Deleting words that certain groups find offensive from classic literature?