Monthly Archives: June 2014

Math – Traditional Vs Integrated

One of my favorite moments in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series occurs in book two, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Peter and Susan, the older Pevensie children, are confused and troubled by Lucy (the youngest sibling, though very honest)’s insistence of a seemingly impossible tale of entering another world, and the contrary account of malicious and mean-spirited Edmund.

Peter and Susan take their concerns to the eccentric Professor Kirk, in whose house they are staying.  The exchange in the story is revealing.  “How do you know,” the Professor asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”  They continue back and forth for a few moments, contrasting the general reliability of Lucy over Edmund.

The story notes the Professor’s telling conclusion:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

Sounding much like the chair of the math education department of the University of Georgia when I was in their graduate program in the mid-1990s (I’ve forgotten his name), mathematician John Wesley Young declared, “It is clear that the chief end of mathematical study must be to make the students think.”  I would add, not only to “think,” but to think logically — both deductively and inductively.

“The study of mathematics cannot be replaced by any other activity that will train and develop man’s purely logical faculties to the same level of rationality,” said mathematician and textbook author C.O. Oakley.  Einstein beautifully declared, “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

In my 20 years in the high school classroom in Georgia, I’ve often told my students that studying mathematics is not so much (or at least not only) about mastering some specific “objective” or “standard” (as we now call them), nor is it about making some future use of every little concept that they learn.  I point out that these are good things, but the study of mathematics is more.  It is also about growing and developing that logical part of their brains that mathematics, in particular, serves.

What’s more, “mathematical training,” as the math department of the University of Arizona puts it, “is training in general problem solving.”  Or, as Thomas Aquinas College declares, mathematics “prepares the mind to think clearly and cogently, expanding the ability to know.”

It is a widely held belief that the most influential and successful textbook ever written was Euclid’s Elements.  Written by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria around 300 B.C., Elements is actually a collection of 13 books.  The work deals mainly with what today is typically deemed Euclidean geometry, along with the ancient Greek version of elementary number theory.  Euclid’s work was so complete and superior to anything before it that all Greek writings on mathematics prior to Elements virtually disappeared.

Also, as a modern translator has noted, Elements has been instrumental in the development of logic and modern science.  According to Howard Eves’s An Introduction to the History of Mathematics (one of my graduate texts), “[n]o work, save the Bible, has been more widely used, edited or studied, and probably no work has exercised a greater influence on scientific thinking.”

The beauty of Elements lies in Euclid’s axiomatic approach, which, according to Eves, is “the prototype of modern mathematical form.”  In this form of thinking, one must show (prove) that a particular conclusion is a necessary logical consequence of some previously established conclusion.  These, in turn, must be established from some still more previously established conclusions, and so on.

Since one cannot continue in this way indefinitely, one must, initially, establish and accept some finite set of statements (axioms) without proof.  All other conclusions are logically deduced from these initially accepted axioms (or postulates).

Sadly, this approach is almost completely abandoned with the integrated mathematics (previously Math I, II, III, and IV; now coordinate algebra, analytic geometry, and so on) curriculum adopted by the state of Georgia five years ago.  Although Georgia recently gave systems the option of returning to a more traditional (Euclidean) approach to mathematics, most stayed with the integrated math.

As most in Georgia well know, this type of curriculum integrates several different topics (namely algebra, geometry, and statistics/probability) throughout each year of high school math.

For example, currently, most freshmen in Georgia take coordinate algebra.  This course consists of six units.  The first three units are algebraic.  They involve things like writing and solving linear equations and inequalities, solving systems of linear equations, graphing linear and exponential functions, using function notation and language, calculating rate of change (slope), and working with arithmetic and geometric sequences.

Unit four is a statistic unit which involves representing data in a variety of ways.  Unit 5 involves transforming (rotate, reflect, translate) polygons in the coordinate plane.  In Unit 6, students “prove” (a vague, and as far as I’m concerned, inaccurately used term) geometric theorems algebraically.

Note the jump from algebra to stats and then to geometry.  The course has little logical flow.  For the most part, new topics are not arrived at from previous ones.  In other words, the axiomatic approach is almost completely ignored.

I returned to the public schools from several years in a private school just as Georgia made the switch to this integrated approach.  I knew there was going to be trouble when, during a professional development opportunity to help prepare us to teach the new math, a visiting college professor noted that, with this new curriculum, we were “not going to be able to do much axiomatic development.”

Also, a good deal of the time is spent reviewing concepts “learned” in middle school.  For example, at the beginning of the stats unit, many teachers have to review things like measures of central tendency (mean, median, and mode).  In the geometry units, students often have to be reminded about angles with parallel lines and the sum of the angles of a triangle.

Much of the decision to go to an integrated math was based on the fact that most countries outside the U.S. use such an integrated approach.  (This point is also made in the Appendix of the mathematics standards in Common Core.)  Georgia modeled its integrated math after the Japanese mathematics curriculum.

It is noteworthy that, of the four mathematics “Pathways” that Common Core provides (see the Appendix), two are for the integrated math approach.  This is the case even though Georgia is the only state in the U.S. that has an integrated mathematics curriculum.  (New York has, for the most part, abandoned its integrated math.)

Why would Common Core provide curriculum direction for an approach to mathematics that is almost never used in the U.S.?  I believe that it is because of the international appeal of the integrated approach and the desire by many on the left to make us more like other nations.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that every mathematics course in Georgia (or other states) high schools should be replete with rigorous proofs, but I think it benefits all concerned when the curriculum is laid out in a manner such that, for the most part, one topic logically flows (and proof could be incorporated) from the previous topic. This should be the case at least for college prep courses.

And certainly all students do not belong in such courses — which presents another flaw in Georgia’s curriculum that many across the country, including President Obama, seems to have bought into: virtually every high school student must take college prep mathematics.

Lastly, if the integrated approach is best, why don’t our highest institutions of learning use it? I know of not one college or university that does so.  With few exceptions, and whether the course is online or traditional, it is time that Georgia’s (or any other state considering such a change) secondary schools abandon integrated mathematics.

By Trevor Grant Thomas

Thomas is a Conservative Christian commentator on everything from politics to science to faith.


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Education Excellence Can’t Be Achieved From Above

Education Excellence Can’t Be Achieved From Above

By Jason Bedrick

Education in America in the 21st century is moving away from the standardization of the Industrial Era and toward greater customization. As parents increasingly tailor their children’s education through course choice, scholarship tax credits, education savings accounts, homeschooling, online and blending learning, and so on, top-down accountability schemes will become increasingly untenable. As our education system becomes more decentralized and complex, the locus of accountability should shift from government to parents.

The best form of accountability is directly to parents who are empowered to choose the education providers that meet their children’s needs—and leave those that do not. Since low-income families often cannot afford anything besides their assigned district school, the government school system has had to impose top-down accountability measures to ensure quality in the absence of choice.

However, such centralized accountability measures are ill suited to handle complexity and tend to stifle diversity and innovation. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene noted recently:

“With top-down reforms the people selecting the standards, designing the tests, setting the cut-scores, devising consequences for performance, writing the curriculum, and picking the instructional methods have to get it just right … for many different kinds of kids who may need different approaches. And they have to be right over and over again as circumstances and information change.”

That’s a nearly impossible task even before special interests attempt to block, dilute, or co-opt such measures. Moreover, a parent seeking to change the system is, at best, merely one out of tens of thousands of voters at the local level or one out of tens of millions at the state level. With the advent of Common Core’s national standards, a parent’s ability to affect systemic change is practically nil.

By contrast, educational choice programs foster innovation and diversity by putting parents in charge. They give space to providers to develop new ways of educating diverse children that might not fit the pre-existing mold. Parents can then evaluate which approaches work best for their children and which do not. Over time, this market process weeds out ineffective approaches and encourages the proliferation of more effective approaches.

Some advocate combining the two forms of accountability, attempting to harness the dynamism of market-based education reforms while tethering it to a single standardized test that allows for apples-to-apples comparisons. This may sound tempting in theory, but in practice the imposed uniformity undermines the very diversity and innovation that educational choice provides.

Testing drives what is taught, when it is taught, and how it is taught. That drives away education providers, thereby reducing the choices available to families, while creating a powerful incentive for participating providers to conform.

Quality information is crucial, but as a study by the Friedman Foundation revealed, parents want more than scores. Parents seek out schools that are safe, provide individual attention, instill discipline, and cultivate a sense of community. They also desire a wide variety of information about potential education providers and they are willing to take multiple steps to acquire it. Parents want to know about college acceptance rates, curriculum and course descriptions, school accreditation, the student-teacher ratio, and more. Barely 10 percent of families in the study listed standardized test scores among their top five reasons why they chose a particular school.

There is no reason to expect that all students who happened to be born in the same year should proceed at the same pace in every subject. Moreover, there is no single best way to educate a child or to measure educational progress. However, a lack of government-imposed standards does not imply a lack of any standards at all. Rather, it would create space for competing standards.

As the market for education expands, demand for services that rate or certify education providers will increase. While it would be presumptuous to claim to know exactly how the market would develop to meet this demand, it is likely that both formal and informal methods of gathering and disseminating information will emerge.

Formal methods rely on experts to provide consumers with analysis, rankings, or even private certification. Examples in other fields include Consumer Reports, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, or Underwriters Laboratories. Education providers will have an incentive to grant access and information to such raters and certifiers in order to demonstrate their quality, thereby conferring a competitive advantage.

As ratings are subject to the biases of the raters, informal methods of determining quality that rely on the experience of users offer a complementary approach. This can take the form of conversations with friends and family or testimonials on web-based platforms similar to or

Scholarship organizations like Step Up for Students are particularly well-positioned to help guide parents to the information they desire. They already have personal relationships with both scholarship families and private schools. Some scholarship organizations may take a more formal approach, perhaps even restricting scholarships to schools they certify. Others might take a more informal approach, providing a forum for parents to share their experiences with one another. Additionally, donors are free to support the scholarship organizations which adopt the accountability strategy they believe is most effective

A decade from now, our education system is likely to be more customized and complex. Truly empowering parents to choose what’s best for their children will require phasing out archaic, top-down accountability measures that crowd out both private education providers and private accountability systems. The educational excellence that we all seek cannot be engineered from above. Rather, we must give it the space to grow organically out of the innumerable choices of individual families among myriad education providers.

Freedom might be messy, but it works.

This commentary by Jason Bedrick, a policy analyst for Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, first appeared in the RedefinED blog and is published with permission by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.)

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 20, 2014). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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What is the Georgia GOP’s Platform on Education?

By: Nancy Jester
Nancy Jester blogs at and is a tireless advocate for children and taxpayers in Georgia.

There are some very specific and fixable reasons that education in Georgia is not performing better when compared to metrics from other states. Georgia still spends more on education per pupil, yet has a lower graduation than every state that borders us. Ditto when you compare us to Mississippi and Texas. We are spending more and getting less.

Georgia is missing basic financial and managerial accountability at the top levels of the state Department of Education and districts around the state. Whenever I hear someone from the education establishment in Georgia speak, I wonder why more boards, elected officials and parents aren’t having a Paul Ryan reaction. Who is responsible for the architecture of failure that has brought us to our current relative status, if not those “experts” at the top of our DOE and districts? (I exempt Dr. Avossa of Fulton and Will Schofield of Hall from my criticism at this point. Avossa is relatively new to Georgia and has been a critic of the way Georgia teaches math. Schofield seems to understand the necessity of pushing down governance to the schoolhouse level and embraces school choice. It’s worth noting that much of his experience in education came from western states.)

Where is the Republican Party on the fiasco that is public education in our state? What is our platform? K-12 education is the single largest expenditure in the state budget. Why don’t we have some way to measure, rate, disclose and hold high level officials accountable for the quality of their financial and academic management? Shouldn’t the Georgia GOP have something to say about this? Some goals? A study committee?

I’m not talking about Common Core (CC) here. CC is a ridiculous idea that will increase costs and will not drive improvements in student achievement. If Georgia’s Republican Party had a vision and strategy for education, then we could have probably avoided the CC debacle, much like Texas.

I tried to find a GA GOP statement about our party’s vision for education. I tried to find a position paper, outlining a consensus view of what Republican reforms to education would look like. I found nothing. Zip.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Other states have policies and systems in place that we could adapt to work for Georgia. One example is the FIRST from Texas.

From the Texas Education Agency’s website:
The state’s school financial accountability rating system, known as the School Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST), ensures that Texas public schools are held accountable for the quality of their financial management practices and that they improve those practices. The system is designed to encourage Texas public schools to better manage their financial resources to provide the maximum allocation possible for direct instructional purposes.

How refreshing is that!

And, of course, what good is any policy without consequences for failure? Many other statesaccredit their own schools and have consequences within their accreditation for poor financial and academic performance management. Tennessee is moving its lowest performing schools out of the hands of their local district and into a state run “Achievement District”. They are not alone. But, here in Georgia, our tacit policy is, “We subsidize failure.”

It is an economic certainty that if you spend more money on failure, you’ll just purchase more of it. We do so at alarming rates in Georgia and it hurts kids and taxpayers around the state. Why aren’t we rewarding those innovative districts that are doing right by kids and taxpayers with more autonomy and funding? If a district is continuing to bloat its administrative costs, why don’t we hold back on some of their state allocation? I mean, if they have so much money that they can hire excessive amounts of administrators, why should taxpayers around the state subsidize that? Isn’t that a sign that they are not economizing their budget? Would not their cutback be better spent on other endeavors, poorer districts or rebated to taxpayers?

While states around the nation have improved their financial stewardship and outcomes, we have fiddled. And the Republican Party is not engaged on this issue. While many observers glibly talk of disorganized Democrats, we should contemplate if we’re not as organized as we think. Are we winning by accident?

The Georgia GOP is focusing on minority outreach. That’s necessary and wise but what are we doing to keep those voters who are already with us? If we’re going to go down the path of identity politics, it might behoove the GOP in Georgia to recognize the obvious gender problem in the room. The majority of voters are women and the largest subset is white women.

Conveniently, education is a big issue for women voters of all colors and socioeconomic backgrounds. Just look at the 2012 vote on Amendment One. Despite the opposition of most Democrat politicians, the amendment passed in majority Democratic areas. School choice resonated with moms. The promise of school choice was as powerful for the mother of a child with learning challenges in North Fulton and the mom whose child is trapped in a failing school in South DeKalb.

The Republican Party could drastically improve the educational lives of Georgia’s children, provide better fiscal accountability, and capture the ladies’ vote, if it took affirmative steps to develop and advocate for proven, effective methods that deliver value to kids and taxpayers alike. Imagine if the Republican Party were seen by moms across the state as their ally in educating their child. Imagine if the GOP was responsible for bringing the best practices from other states to deliver results for kids. Imagine if the GOP was the taxpayers guardian; refusing to accept poor financial management. Moms of all colors across this state vote for candidates that help their children. Fiscal hawks could celebrate the sanity that this would bring to the state budget. Liberty types should be happy to see a heavy-handed, autocratic agency reform in favor of individual choices.

The Georgia GOP website says “Choose Freedom”. It’s time the Georgia GOP embraces its own tagline. There is little freedom in education in Georgia right now. Despite Amendment One, there are few school choice options for most families. The system is rigged to favor bureaucracy at every turn. Common Core is about centralization and uniformity. And remember what Milton Friedman said about that:

“The situation has changed drastically in the past half century. The number of school districts declined from 130,000 to 16,000; classroom teachers, from 96 percent of the total instructional staff to 86 percent; the fraction of school funds coming from local government, from 83 percent to 43 percent. During the same period, population nearly doubled, cost per student multiplied more than five-fold, even after allowing for inflation, and the quality of education plummeted. Schools are now run by professional bureaucrats. Monopoly and uniformity have replaced competition and diversity. Consumers of schooling have little to say. Control by producers has replaced control by consumers.” –Newsweek 1983

Parents have few choices and no real authority over how their schools function. Taxpayers are forced to contribute to a system with subpar results. Too many children leave school ill-equipped for their future. The Georgia GOP should take a stand on education that is congruent with the “Choose Freedom” motto. That’s a path to solid majority.

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Free College For All: Dream, Promise Or Fantasy?

NPR Education

“Free” is a word with a powerful appeal. And right now it’s being tossed around a lot, followed by another word: “college.”

A new nonprofit, Redeeming America’s Promise, announced this week that it will seek federal support to make public colleges tuition-free.

Starbucks announced a tuition benefit for its employees that will cover classes taken online from Arizona State University. That effort is inspired by “Hope” and “Promise” programs like the one in Kalamazoo, Mich., which pays up to 100 percent of college tuition at state colleges and universities for graduates of the city’s public high schools.

And we wrote last week about a Tulsa, Okla., program that pays for two years of community college for county residents.

In reality there’s no free college, just as there’s no free lunch. The real policy discussion is about how to best distribute the burden of paying for it — between individual families and the public at large — and, secondly, how to hold down the cost of providing it. All while leveraging the power of “free” responsibly.

Fueling A Bubble

For many conservatives, the answer is simple. An education makes individuals richer, and individuals should bear the cost. “The state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity,” said Ronald Reagan, back when he was running for governor of California. In recent times, the conservative position is perhaps best expressed by economist Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

In his books, articles and public appearances, Vedder argues that federal student aid is creating a bubble that allows colleges to raise prices indefinitely, and the only way to stop the cycle is to cut off public funding.

Kevin Carey, now the director of the higher education policy program at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, made pretty much the same argument in the New Republic in 2012. He compared public universities to apple vendors:

You, the apple vendor, look at the situation and say, “Hey, the market price of an apple is still $1. Wouldn’t it be great if I could charge $1 for apples, but still get 40 cents from the government for every apple I sell?” … So you start raising prices by 3, 4, or 5 percent above inflation annually.

In a world with no public subsidy at all for education, the only option left for free tuition would be something like the Starbucks plan — large corporations or wealthy donors footing the bill. And that kind of “free” comes, generally, with a significant catch — like requiring students to work for a certain employer.

The Public Piggy Bank

At the other end of the political spectrum are those who see a large public obligation to pay for the education of citizens, to promote democracy, meritocracy and equal rights, among other things. They just can’t agree on how.

Once upon a time, public university in this country actually was free, for the most part. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, from New York to California, states opted to charge no tuition or nominal fees.

Here’s the catch. Until World War II, college was also pretty sparsely attended. In 1940, only about 5 percent of the population, most of them white men, had a bachelor’s degree. And the U.S. was the most educated nation in the world! The small numbers made tuition relatively cheap to subsidize.

But starting with the GI Bill, the United States moved to a new model of “mass” higher education. The expansion continued through the 1960s, with the 1965 Higher Education Act establishing federal student-aid programs.

Suddenly, most high school graduates — men, women, black, white, new immigrants — aspired to a college degree. In defiance of the laws of economics, as the supply of college graduates went up, so did the demand for them, year after year. A college degree pretty much always meant you made more money.

Graduates also paid more taxes, so the government got its money back in the long term — $6 for every dollar spent on the GI Bill, by some estimates.

No Such Thing

Starting in the 1970s, there was a backlash to all this free money. In the economic slump, federal and state subsidies to higher education tightened. Enrollments declined. Loans, which were cheaper for the government, began to replace grants.

Public universities responded to the decreased state subsidies by raising tuition. They responded to the increased availability of loan financing by raising tuition. They responded to the continued robust demand for higher education by raising tuition. They responded to the pressure to expand, adding new programs and majors and building bigger campuses, by raising tuition. Since 1978, public university tuition has climbed every single year, two or three times faster than inflation. Average student loan debt for a bachelor’s degree: $29,400.

Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin, Madison sums up the results of all this in a paper she wrote last year for the Lumina Foundation:

Talented students are forgoing college because of the costs, students who start college are unable to complete because they cannot afford to continue, and even students who finish degrees may not realize all of the expected returns because of sizable debt burdens.

The United States is no longer the most educated nation in the world — it’s the unlucky 13th. Most of the countries ahead of it have lower-cost public university options than the U.S. Perhaps most damning, the high cost of college in this country helps ensure that in too many cases, wealth trumps merit.

The success rate in college for the lowest-achieving but highest-income students is slightly better than the success rate for the highest-achieving, lowest-income students.

Found Money

Out-of-control college costs are hurting the most vulnerable. There are many different efforts to pacify the giant octopus.

The new proposals bank on the fact that the federal government already spends lots of money on student aid: $47 billion in grants a year, $101 billion in loans (which are repaid), and another $20 billion in tax credits. The total of state, federal and private money going to defray the cost of tuition — that’s distinct from state appropriations directly to institutions — is $247 billion per year.

Seems like with that kind of dough, there ought to be ways of buying better access and more equity.

There’s substantial evidence that low-income students are less likely to even aspire to college because they think it’s too expensive. It affects things like their choice of math classes as early as sixth grade.

That’s why so many of these programs have the word “promise” or “hope” in the name. The student-aid bureaucracy is complicated to navigate. “Free college” is a promise everyone can understand.

  • Redeeming America’s Promise calls for offering a full scholarship to a public two- or four-year college to every academically qualified student from families making no more than $160,000 a year. Part of the money, they say, could come from Pell Grants and tax credits, which would no longer be needed. (This math has been challenged).
  • Goldrick-Rab, a scholar who studies access to higher education, argued in her paper last year for the Lumina Foundation that the federal student-aid budget would and should go to pay for two years of universal free public college for all comers, including books, supplies, even a living stipend for those who need it.

The Fine Print

Unfortunately, most attempts to defray the cost of college come with unintended consequences.

For a good example, look no further than Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship. This statewide program, dating from 1993, offers high school graduates who meet certain requirements scholarships at a state university. At one time, about a dozen states had created similar models.

According to this early look at the impact of the HOPE program, “Georgia’s program has likely increased the college attendance rate of all 18- to 19-year-olds by 7.0 to 7.9 percentage points.”

Not too shabby. However, “the evidence suggests that Georgia’s program has widened the gap in college attendance between blacks and whites and between those from low- and high-income families.”

Wait a minute. So a free tuition plan, instead of helping low-income and minority students, actually left them farther behind? Yes, and that result has been seen in other states. It happens because these state programs require certain high school GPAs and test scores, and require that students maintain a certain GPA in college. And proportionately more middle-class white kids meet those bars.

Nothing Left To Lose

Most of the conversations about free college, as we’ve seen, are really about moving around piles of government money and other funds.

Some folks are starting to talk about whether we can meaningfully lower the cost of delivering a college education, instead of or in addition to paying for it differently. Most of those conversations have something to do with technology.

Some thought Massive Open Online Courses would be the holy grail: free, high-quality college for everyone! But in that case, “free” led to lower commitment. Completion rates for MOOCs hover around 5 to 7 percent.

Blended programs, which are self-paced and combine online learning with assistance from real people by phone or in person, seem to be able to hold down costs and get good results at the same time. Like Western Governors University, a nonprofit whose teacher-prep program was the National Council of Teacher Quality’s first-ranked program in the country this week. It manages to charge less than the average public university without taking any public subsidy.

The unique thing about education, and what makes it so hard to control the price, is that it’s not just a service or a good. It’s a process, and the learner takes an active role in creating its value. A college education may never be free, but it will remain priceless.

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Would Shutting Down Tax-Credit Scholarships In Georgia Help Public Schools Financially?

Lyrics from Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” perhaps best summarize what will happen if the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) succeeds in overturning Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship program to “return” $58 million to public schools: They’ll “(find) out the hard way that dreams don’t always come true.”

For those unfamiliar with tax-credit scholarships, the state-authorized school choice programs offer direct tax relief in exchange for donations to nonprofits that provide tuition assistance to kids enrolling in private schools. In Georgia, the tax credit is worth 100 percent of the donation, with limits on the amount of credit any individual taxpayer may earn ($1,000) and an overall limit on the number of tax credits the state will grant (currently set at $58 million annually).

Although the plaintiffs argue the program is unconstitutional in that it provides public funds to private, religious entities, the SEF’s expressed interest in the case is that the tax-credit scholarship program harms public schools by diverting funds away from public education.

The SEF’s position is that the public schools would be better off if the $58 million in tax credits were repealed and those tax collections were instead appropriated to K-12 public education.

But, critically, that argument fails to account for the additional cost of educating the kids that would have to return to public schools once their tax-credit scholarships were revoked.

The Georgia program’s design requires that students had been previously attending a public school to be eligible for a scholarship (with only a few narrow exceptions allowed). Therefore, it’s a pretty safe bet that if their scholarships are taken away, most of these kids will re-enroll in public schools.

With that in mind, more than 13,000 Georgia students are using tax-credit scholarships to attend private school. Let’s say—and this is being cautiously optimistic—one-fourth of these parents come up with a back-up plan to continue to pay tuition absent the tax-credit scholarship program. That means about 10,000 students would flow back into the public schools upon the program’s repeal.

Georgia public schools currently spend about $10,000 per student, on average, even when costs for maintaining buildings and paying off debt are excluded. At that rate, 10,000 new students in the public school system would cost $100 million.

In fairness, some of a school’s non-capital costs don’t vary much with enrollment, such as administrative overhead, grounds maintenance, and even utilities to a degree. But many other school costs are tightly aligned with enrollment—looking only at those costs, for instruction and other direct support services for students, Georgia public schools spend about $7,000 per student.

If only those variable costs rise as students flow back into the public schools, repealing the tax-credit scholarship program will cause Georgia public schools to spend $70 million on such things as additional teachers, teachers’ aides, classroom supplies, testing materials, student clubs/activities, guidance counseling, and the like.

So even if repealing the tax-credit scholarship program freed up $58 million for public schools, which is far from certain, I wouldn’t want to be the public school business official that got stuck with this deal! If I truly need $10,000 to educate a student in public school, I’m out some $42 million for all those returning students; if the number is closer to $7,000, I still need a good $12 million.

But let’s even suspend reality momentarily and look at the “best case scenario” for Georgia’s public schools: The tax-credit scholarship program is repealed and, miraculously, all of the donations to tuition-providing nonprofits continued allowing all the kids currently enrolled in private schools to stay. Only difference is, those donors no longer get a tax credit from the state.

Because those donors still would qualify for a tax deduction, they’d avoid paying Georgia’s 6 percent state income tax on the amounts donated. That’s $3.5 million. In this scenario, repealing the tax credit would yield $54.5 million in additional income tax collections for the state (which the SEF wants to go to public schools).

Unfortunately for the SEF, because the public schools would see no enrollment growth—remember, we’re assuming all the kids using the tax-credit scholarship program will stay put in private school—public schools will not automatically get any funding increase through the state school funding formula. Thus, public school advocates would have to convince the Georgia legislature to appropriate more money from the $54.5 million in freed up income tax collections. Easier said than done!

If we look at how the Georgia legislature distributes state income tax revenue, 43 percent now goes to fund K-12 education. Being generous, let’s assume the legislature gives 43 percent of that $54.5 million in additional revenue to the public schools—about $23.4 million—even though the public schools would not be serving any more students. With about 1.6 million students enrolled in Georgia’s public schools, even this best case scenario yields less than $15 per student in additional funding statewide. It would be pretty hard to make a noticeable dent in the educational services offered to students with that extra money (but it certainly would provide schools with a little more cash for pay raises).

After examining the numbers, either the SEF didn’t do its arithmetic or its real motivations are not the financial concerns they’ve cited publicly.

Should the plaintiffs in this case be successful, and the Georgia tax-credit scholarship program is repealed, then one of two outcomes would have to occur: Either A) Georgia’s public schools would have to get more cost efficient very quickly to accommodate all the new students they’d be receiving; or B) they’ll be back in front of the legislature asking for even more money.

If the latter, and the state legislature comes calling for more tax dollars, Georgia residents might also be singing another line from Glady’s Knight’s number-one hit: “I got to go!”

By Jeff Spalding

serves as the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The purpose of this fiscal analysis work is to clarify and elevate the understanding of the financial impacts of school choice initiatives on state and local governments, public school corporations, taxpayers, and families of school-age children. Prior to joining the Foundation, Spalding served as Controller/Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the City of Indianapolis.

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Filed under School Choice, Vouchers

Elizabeth Warren Is Wrong. Big Government Programs Will Just Increase College Costs.

The Foundry

Congress has long tried to help students afford a college education. It has cut interest rates on federal student loans, vastly expanded federal lending and lifted caps on borrowing. In the 1980s, it even let parents borrow directly from the feds — through the Parent PLUS program — to pay for their children’s college.

None of this has reduced college costs. Indeed, some argue this open spigot of federal funds has enabled universities to increase tuition and fees.

Enter Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts Democrat is proposing that the U.S. Department of Education’s Direct Loan Program be expanded to refinance both public and private student loans. The feds would pay off private lenders and issue low-interest government loans to take their place.

It sounds appealing. Yet the policy is problematic for private lenders, students and taxpayers — the ones who foot the bill for all this federal largesse.

Private lenders must already compete with artificially low (i.e., taxpayer-subsidized) interest rates on federal loans. And as Jordan Weissmann noted in Slate: “Since pre-payments equal a loss to the [private] lender, Washington would essentially be seizing their profits.”

The Congressional Budget Office also predicts that the Warren bill would “lead more individuals to opt for the longer repayment terms and the possibility of eventual loan forgiveness that are features of the income-based repayment plans offered under current law.”

The Obama administration issued regulations last November capping what students can be required to pay at just 10 percent of discretionary income, and offering loan forgiveness after just 20 years (just 10 years for those in public service jobs).

And on Monday, President Obama issued an executive order extending the “Pay As You Earn” option to 5 million previously ineligible borrowers who took out student loans prior to 2007.

And then there are the taxpayers, who stand to take it on the chin in several ways. First, Ms. Warren would finance her loan expansion through the ever-popular “millionaire’s tax” — in this case, a levy on individuals earning between $1 million and $2 million. Eventually, those thresholds would be indexed to inflation.

How much will the loan refinancing cost taxpayers? We don’t really know. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that refinancing — along with the millionaire’s tax — would actually increase federal revenues by $72.5 billion over the first 10 years. But — and this is a huge “but” — that estimate does not take into account actual market risk.

As the budget office has explained in previous analyses, “The government is exposed to market risk when the economy is weak because borrowers default on their debt obligations more frequently and recoveries from borrowers are lower.” A fair-value estimate of Ms. Warren’s proposal would account for that risk, producing a more accurate reflection of the true cost of her proposal. But the budget office has yet to issue a fair-value analysis of the refinancing proposal.

Ultimately, simply refinancing student loans and increasing federal subsidies can do nothing to solve the college cost problem. And it certainly won’t encourage colleges to keep costs in check.

Federal higher education subsidies shift the responsibility of paying for college from the student, who directly benefits from attending college, to the taxpayer. Moreover, transferring the burden of student loan financing from university graduates to taxpayers — three-quarters of whom do not hold bachelor’s degrees — is inequitable. After all, college grads on average will earn significantly more over the course of a lifetime than those without a college degree.

If Congress is interested in reining in college costs, increasing federal loans and grants will never achieve that goal. Thankfully, there are innovative proposals on the table that would.

Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, has introduced a proposal that would fundamentally restructure accreditation — a reform that holds the prospect of dramatically reducing college costs, while increasing access to higher education for aspiring students.

By contrast, Ms. Warren’s refinancing proposal does nothing for current and future students. It only serves to further burden taxpayers, and to give universities license to hike tuition and fees even higher.

By Lindsey Burke

Lindsey M. Burke researches and writes on federal and state education issues as the Will Skillman fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation.

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Filed under College, College Tuition

Why Are College Tuition Costs Rising So Much?

The Foundry

Quick quiz: What two industries have seen the steepest rate of inflation in the economy over the past decade? If you said energy or housing, you’re wrong. The correct answer is education and health care.

The first of these isn’t too surprising to anyone with a son or daughter enrolled in college. One of my sons goes to Northwestern University, and the cost is stratospheric: $62,000 a year. Can the college degree he will be handed soon really be worth nearly $250,000? Across the country, tuition costs have basically tripled in 20 years.

The same is true in public grade schools and high schools. Per-student spending has roughly doubled in just the past 15 years. Yet test scores have been flat or have drifted down.

What are we as Americans really getting for our health care and education dollar? At least in health care, new treatments and drugs have reduced death rates and the incidence of crippling diseases. But still-stampeding health insurance costs are threatening to bankrupt families and, maybe, our economy.

Now the question I always ask my students is this: What do these two industries – medical care and education – have in common? The answer is: government. The public sector basically runs these two sectors of the economy. Our health care system is about 52 percent public and 48 percent private. In education, about 70 percent of the dollars flow to public schools.

It’s no secret why these industries are such failures at curtailing costs. The answer is the people who get the service don’t pay for it. This is called the third-party payment problem, and it’s systemic in medicine and education.

Obamacare treats health care like a human right, and so we’ve moved aggressively to socializing the cost of paying for it. When you don’t pay the bill yourself, you aren’t cost-conscious. As my old friend Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator, used to say, if we paid for our groceries the way we pay for health care, every night my dog would eat filet mignon.

It’s not just the government. Private health insurance, encouraged through the federal tax deduction for health coverage, picks up more and more costs and patients less and less. So almost no one asks how much expensive medical procedures cost. The National Center for Policy Analysis once completed a study showing that, the larger the share of a medical procedure covered by government or private insurance, the faster the rate of inflated costs. I once had a surgery and asked the doctor how much it would cost. He said no one had ever asked. He didn’t know the cost.

Imagine for a moment that there were no public subsidies for education, and parents paid for their kid’s schooling the way we pay for everything else – by shopping around and finding the best quality at the best price. What if there were no government-guaranteed student loans for college or other federal aid to underwrite tuition. Does anyone believe that colleges would cost $30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000? No way.

What if we eliminated all health insurance for everything but expenses over, say, $5,000. Under that amount, patients had to pay all costs themselves or get private donations to pay for medical services. Would the cost of health care fall or rise? It’s a good bet that thrifty consumers would demand a better bargain for health services.

It used to be said that patients lack the knowledge to shop around for health care, but the Internet is making it easier to compare performance records and prices all the time.

When we think of the most important industries in America, education, arguably, is at or near the very top. Health care may be the second-most important product we buy in our lifetime. Yet these two industries have short-circuited the normal pricing system that allocates resources so efficiently. Then we have turned the government into the major provider.

This is a model that doesn’t work to promote quality or cost effectiveness. Just one example is the recent report that Medicaid patients who have surgery are almost twice as likely to die from their procedures than those with private insurance. Meanwhile medical insurance and college education costs are putting American families under intense financial stress. The movements to expand the government’s role by doling out even more dollars in student loans and by ramping up Obamacare subsidies are supposed to be godsends to the middle class.

This is exactly the way we got into this spiral of ever-escalating costs in the first place. But we never seem to learn that when government gives things away for free – it is oh, so expensive.

By Stephen Moore

Stephen Moore, who formerly wrote on the economy and public policy for The Wall Street Journal, is chief economist at The Heritage Foundation.

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Filed under College Tuition, Healthcare