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Picking Statistics to Push for More Taxpayer Funding of Higher Ed

Budget season has arrived in Rhode Island, which means it’s time for credulous journalists to pass along spin from powerful insiders preaching the need for more taxpayer funding.  Here’s Linda Borg, in the Providence Journal:

Rhode Island ranked 41st in the nation on state spending per student in public higher education during the 2015-16 school year.

Among the six New England states, only Vermont and New Hampshire spent less on their public colleges, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.

The latest data also show that Rhode Island’s support for higher education declined 23 percent from 2008 to 2016. By contrast, the national average dropped 15 percent.

Two factors make this line of argument highly misleading, to the point of spinning things around backwards from how we ought to look at them.  First, as I’ve written before, a business model is absolutely bizarre if an increase in customers creates a shortfall in revenue.  To the extent that each additional student’s tuition exceeds the marginal increase in costs per student, higher enrollment should mean more money.  And to the extent that the student’s tuition falls short of the marginal increase, the increased enrollment indicates room to increase tuition.

The CBPP’s “drop” in funding is calculated per student.  That means that states with big increases in enrollment will show a “drop” in funding, even if funding goes up substantially.

Second, as I’ve also written before, Rhode Island has a high percentage of out-of-state students.  Here again, success would show as failure by CBPP’s measuring stick.  Out-of-state students should be a source of additional revenue helping the public colleges and universities fulfill their primary role of providing educational opportunities for the people of the state.  Yet, the more we attract, the lower our funding will appear to be per student.

In summary, if our colleges and university are being successful, attracting more students from in state and out of state, they will appear to be losing public funding.  If it weren’t government, these arguments would be a scam.

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The Cheese Sandwich Lesson for Socialism in Schools

It’s difficult to believe that Bob Plain isn’t trying his hand at parody with an interesting article on RI Future today about “lunch shaming”:

It’s known as lunch shaming. Students are subjected to special, sometimes embarrassing, treatment because their parents didn’t pay the school lunch bill. “Some provide kids an alternative lunch, like a cold cheese sandwich,” according to a recent NPR story. “Other schools sometimes will provide hot lunch, but require students do chores, have their hand stamped or wear a wristband showing they’re behind in payment. And, some schools will deny students lunch all together.”

The so-called cheese sandwich policy seems popular in suburban Rhode Island: Bristol/Warren, South Kingstown, and East Greenwich all use it.

From Bob’s article it appears that we’re talking debts in the amounts of $5 or $10, which seems like a paltry amount that districts could find some way to accommodate.  I’m trying to imagine a working-to-middle-class private school taking such steps.  In a transaction in which one side actually has the option to leave, other approaches have to be considered, whether a mandatory up-front fee, a deposit of some kind, a credit card on file, mandatory use of a payment processor that handles the collection, or a slight increase to all lunches in order to generate a reserve fund that provides a buffer for this sort of “debt.”

Putting aside the “what would the private sector do” comparison, though, think of what this little story says about the relationship of government to the people.  Adults in position of authority over school districts with budgets in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are agonizing over ways to embarrass children so as to extract a few owed dollars from their parents.  That doesn’t indicate a mindset of provider-client or public-servant–beneficiary.  Rather, it indicates the dynamic of ruler-subject similar to a Dickensian orphanage.

Suffice to say it takes a series of monumentally bad social and public policy decisions to get us to the point at which the proverbial lunch lady is scornfully handing a child some bread and cheese over $5 owed.  We should start unraveling those decisions.

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 5: Branding Raimondo & Free Tuition

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, the topics were my column on the “free tuition” plan, Raimondo’s free branding help from the Providence Journal, and more on the PawSox scheme.
Click full post link for audio.

I’ll be on again Tuesday, April 18, at 2:00 p.m.

(Note: Graphic parody of the Providence Journal‘s free promotional work for Governor Raimondo.)

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A State Without Children

Way down in his weekly roundup column, Ted Nesi highlights another point from the recent RI Kids Count report:

One statistic that stood out: Rhode Island now has the fifth-lowest birth rate in the country, following a 15% slide in the number of babies born here over the last decade. What does that mean for the state’s future? It’s already having an effect on the economy, with Care New England saying the decline in births is hurting revenue at Women & Infants.

That’s an understated example of the effect of this dynamic.  Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the effects of an increasingly sterile population.

To touch on one narrow political matter: As I’ve pointed out in Tiverton and for the state as a whole, our public schools have generally lost about two full grade-levels worth of students in the last decade.  Picture no fourth and no fifth grade students in the entire state; that’s how much enrollment has decreased.  This leaves a bureaucratic, unionized, and expensive education establishment demanding increased budgets to educate fewer children, which its partisans do against a taxpaying public that has less and less actual use of the schools.  That battle alone will be huge in Rhode Island.

But even an issue of that magnitude is as nothing to the reorientation of a society with fewer children.  The way people think and interact with the world will change on that basis.  Indeed, not having children (or not having multiple children) takes pressure off of people to become full adults, making them more susceptible to the pitch of the “government plantation” advocates to look to central planners as parents to us all.  It also makes us vulnerable to people from other cultures in which Peter Pan has been held at bay.

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Rich Senators Target Poor Children’s Scholarships

Yes, of course we should be interested in having government-driven programs be free of waste, fraud, and abuse, but this sure does seem like a political attack on a policy that helps disadvantaged students escape failing government schools and secure real opportunities through private schools.  According to Emma Brown, in the Washington Post, three Democrat Senators are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate states’ tax-credit scholarships, which allow businesses to donate money for scholarships in exchange for some percentage back as a tax credit.

Naturally, Rhode Island’s upper crust U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the three signatories.  The emphasis of the letter on whether such programs “pose a risk of waste, fraud, abuse, misconduct, or mismanagement” indicates that the objective is to attack the programs, not simply to learn from them.  Note, especially, that the letter doesn’t ask the GAO to look into the positive results of the programs.

One wonders where Whitehouse sent his own children to school.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Republican state representative Robert Lancia (Cranston) has submitted legislation that would increase the cap on Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program and implement a feature that would allow it to grow according to demand.  His bill (for which I offered feedback based on a review of other such programs) would also make scholarships more predictable, by prioritizing continued funding of scholarships for students already receiving them.

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Twiddling Thumbs in Education

Stop the presses!  Rhode Island is switching standardized tests… again… this time to Massachusetts’s MCAS.  Now we’ll have another half decade during which Rhode Islanders have no way to measure the progress of students, overall, or schools.  This seems to be a suspiciously regular problem.  Every time we have a test for a few years and begin to be able to draw conclusions that aren’t favorable to our government school system, well then, it must be time to change tests.

With this switch, though, at least there’s this benefit:

“I think it’s long overdue,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. “We can now measure our performance against Massachusetts communities.”

What we allow government insiders and labor unions to do to our state’s children remains a travesty.

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Is Providence College a Place Where Catholic Views Are Welcome?

I can’t find the quotation on that horrible online monstrosity called “Facebook” that people like to use, for some reason, so the caveat “if true” applies here, but John Leo reports some disturbing news regarding Providence College and one of its professors, Anthony Esolen:

Support for Esolen by the college president, Father Brian Shanley, has been tepid, of the sort sometimes issued by Catholic administrators embarrassed to be interrupted while converting a Catholic college into a formerly Catholic one. Over the weekend, in a Facebook post, Esolen said of his scheduled speech, “Christ and the Meaning of Cultural Diversity,” that if he tried to give it, he had been told that activist students would shut it down. He said on Facebook: “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

Colleges must make it clear that students who are incapable of considering ideas to which they object or (worse) unwilling to allow others to do so are not fit for the campus.  Students who disrupt speeches should be expelled, and non-students who do the same should be arrested for trespassing.  Any ostensible institution of higher education that does not take such steps to ensure the free and vigorous exchange of ideas certainly does not qualify as “worth attending.”

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“Free Tuition” Makes Suckers of Us All

I’ve got the “con” side of a Providence Journal commentary-page presentation of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s college tuition proposal, today:

The typical transition of students to adulthood goes something like this: Children begin attending public school in kindergarten (or earlier) and graduate with diplomas at the end of the 12th grade. Depending on their interests, aptitude and resources, they will either begin working, pursue vocational training or enter college. These decisions are all highly personal and represent only the beginning of a long life in the productive labor force.

In general, where is Rhode Island going wrong for its young folks in this story?

Hint: It isn’t the lack of opportunities for insiders to buy votes or take more money from taxpayers.

On the “pro” side is Deval Patrick who (as one might expect of a politician) tries to take credit for his state’s long slog toward health, proclaiming that “in many ways, from the perspective of a shifting economy, Rhode Island today looks like Massachusetts did 10 years ago.”  Umm.  Massachusetts’s Prop 2 1/2 tax reform went into effect in the early ’80s.  The Bay State’s education reforms were implemented in the early ’90s.  On that count, as I’ve written before, Patrick’s capitulation to the teachers’ unions placed a political ceiling on Massachusetts’s progress, and its standardized scores haven’t improved.

Raimondo’s got the front-page plastered with her face under the headline, “The Raimondo Brand: Nation’s top Democrats tout R.I. governor as icon of party’s ideals.”  If that’s true, the national party is gambling a great deal on the governor’s phony self promotion.  I end my op-ed quoting from Crimetown and suggesting that “free tuition” both compromises its beneficiaries morally and makes us all suckers.  One suspects a national audience won’t be as inclined to ignore the utter failures of Rhode Island government, nor be impressed with the numbers games of its “reforms,” nor desire to emulate the policies of a governor under whom employment growth has almost entirely stopped.

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When a College Degree Does You No Good

Bloomberg article by Steve Matthews, printed in the Providence Journal, is worth a close read.  It’s about the plight of young college graduates who wind up with jobs that didn’t actually require a degree:

About 44 percent of recent college grads were employed in jobs not requiring degrees in the final quarter of 2016, not far from the 2013 peak of 46 percent, and the share of that group in low-wage positions has held steady, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed Wednesday.

That’s a sign that the nation’s labor market isn’t at full health, despite an unemployment rate forecast to remain at 4.7 percent in March, close to the lowest in almost a decade. In fact, the elevated level of college grads in non-college jobs could mean there’s still slack and that the Fed can go slow in raising interest rates, betting that more high-wage jobs will materialize. It could also mark a more permanent shift in employment that the Fed can’t fix and be a tough challenge for President Donald Trump and Congress.

As the formula goes with such articles, Matthews opens with an anecdote to humanize the story: a hotel desk worker with a degree in something related to forest resources.  Perhaps, one might suspect, not all degrees are created equal when it comes to their job-finding capacity.

Even if we put aside entirely useless, luxury majors, our approach of broadly encouraging college degrees, period, could be predicted first to max out occupations with limited openings.  Forestry may be a highly valuable, highly technical degree (I don’t know), but the relevant jobs may be limited.

Another point worth drawing from Matthews’s article is that degrees shouldn’t come first, as an economic development plan, but last.  Filling an economy that has insufficient job opportunities with new graduates will not create new jobs.  It will just mean that somebody, somewhere is paying for an underutilized education and that the young adult has wasted time only to be sent back to the entry level of the career ladder.

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When Mixing People, What We Value Matters

I talked about this in my Last Impressions podcast last week, but Megan McArdle’s article about Utah’s success with income equality and other social markers deserves additional attention.  One thesis is Utah succeeds by mixing people of different socio-economic backgrounds:

Sims has looked at what happens to kids from schools in pairs of counties located along state borders, which provides something close to a natural experiment. Adjacent counties can be assumed to have broad overlap in the kind of people and businesses that locate there but will, because of their different state governments, have different levels of school funding and institutional practices. Sims found this made “almost no difference.”

So he asked, in his words, “What are schools doing?” Answer: exposing students to social networks that aren’t like theirs.

I’d suggest that McArdle pulls up short on this count, especially with regard to comparing Utah to other parts of the country.  She segues into a discussion of racial homogeneity and the state’s racial past, but a different focus might be more relevant.

The prominent Mormonism in Utah introduces a strong influence to celebrate middle-class values.  When schools and the broader society mix children of diverse backgrounds and encourage the disadvantaged ones to emulate those with stronger family backgrounds, that’s helpful.  In more-socially-liberal areas, the mixing can go the other way if adversity or victimhood status bring the social value.

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Building in a Structural Surplus

Over in Tiverton, the school department is considering campaigning for an alternate budget that would add to its structural surplus.  I look at the history over on Tiverton Fact Check:

The prospect of that campaign reminds me of spring 2015.  That year, a budget petition that I put forward reduced the school’s increase by about $126,000.  (The school budget still went up more than that, but not with local taxes.)  The school committee voted to cancel plans for all-day kindergarten.

Ultimately, they reversed that decision after weeks of advocacy on my part and that of affected parents.  How much would you guess their budget came up short at the end of the year?  It didn’t.  In fact, the school department had $1,130,867 left over, a surplus, bringing its reserves to $3,454,163.  If my budget petition had lost (or if all-day kindergarten had actually been cancelled), the surplus would have been around $1,257,208 for a total of about $3,580,504.

The most important phrase in Rhode Island public school budgeting is “maintenance of effort.”

Continue reading on Tiverton Fact Check.

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How Might Education Be Doing If Government Hadn’t Made It So Backwards and Bureaucratic

Well, this is a curious finding, articulated by Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit:

The takeaway here is that people who didn’t go to school at all did as well as or better than people who did. Considering the huge amounts of money, and other social resources, that we invest in K-12 education, that’s kind of a big deal. Of course, you’d want to do a bigger study before taking this too seriously on a policy level, but it ought to spark at least a bit of rethinking.

Of course, an important caveat is that “unschoolers,” as they’re called, are bound to be a self-selecting group, the last paragraph of Reynolds’s source article puts well:

In sum: “The findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.”

Education is so dependent on individual circumstances that a changing world will inevitably require freedom to adapt.  Unfortunately, we’ve built a massive, self-interested education establishment that may be among the most resistant-to-change institutions in our society.

One wonders how we’d be doing, right now, if the progressive sentiments of the last century didn’t put education into such a backwards, bureaucratic model.  Parents would have sought the best opportunities for their children — because, if you haven’t noticed, parents tend to love their children and want what’s best for them more reliably than anybody else in the world — and communities would have figured out ways to guide families along, helping where needed — because that’s what communities tend to do.

Sadly, there are always those who think they know better and care more (conspicuously benefiting themselves through the process of dictating to others).

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The Economics of Giving Stuff Away

As is typical, Kevin Williamson is worth reading on the practical economics of government policy:

We are a very, very rich country. We can afford all sorts of things: food for the hungry, health care for the indigent, education for children, and hearing aids for families that for whatever reason cannot manage to scrape together $1,000 a year to invest in the well-being of their own children. (Those $5,000 hearing aids last for about five years, meaning that their real cost over time is less than the $1,200 a year typical American family spends on cable television.) I myself am all for doing many of those things, though I do not think that government very often is the best instrument for getting them done. But if we are going to use government, then, by all means, let’s use government in the most honest, transparent, and straightforward way we can. Forget the insurance mandate and just write the check.

In that regard, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s free tuition would be preferable to some other policy that tried to force somebody else to pay for it — homeowners insurance or something like that.  Of course, other basic economic lessons come into play, which struck me when WPRI’s Dan McGowan tweeted:

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“Affordability” is a measure of price against value.  Following Williamson’s price estimate for hearing aids, in-state tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) is less than the average family cable bill.  Rhode Island College (RIC) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) are substantially more, but both saving and borrowing spread out the payments.

Considering that the average monthly student loan payment for all years of all colleges is somewhere around $280, two years of in-state tuition in Rhode Island would be much less.  That means young adults are valuing a large number of other things — cable, cell phones, video games, weekly dinners out, and so on — more than they’re valuing education.

Pushing the price down for them doesn’t make them value the education any more.  What it will do, though, drive up tuition and hurt taxpayers.

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One Side Wants Both Public and Private Schools; the Other Wants a Monopoly

Denisha Merriweather has a powerful school choice story, as told by Alexandra DeSantis on National Review Online.  And it has made an advocate of her:

In her view, education policy ought to be a bipartisan issue, and she thinks the strength of the school-choice movement lies in its inclusive mindset. “I do feel like the public-school advocates or the teachers’ unions always want an ‘us or them’ mentality. In their minds, you can’t have both,” she explains.

“And we on the school-choice side are not saying that at all. We’re saying, ‘Let’s all be productive, and let’s all serve our children.’ That’s one thing that really sets us apart from those who are pushing for the public-school system,” Denisha continues. “Why can’t we have more choices, and all the choices? [The unions] can’t understand that we do want to keep the public schools. We just want all of these other choices, too.”

In some respects, she’s incorrect about that.  The unions, and the rest of the education establishment, have a different vision of what government schools should be — namely, the monopolistic control of all education, with only the exceptions that the very wealthy can carve out with their own money.  That’s what “both” means to them.

Where poor performance and high cost become so outrageous that a somnolent public begins to wake up to the problem, the establishment will concede very limited reforms, perhaps to the degree of setting up a private school system within government itself (that is, charter schools).  To rephrase Merriweather, it’s not that the establishment doesn’t believe that we can have both a public school sector and a healthy private school sector;  it’s that the establishment doesn’t want both to exist.

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Different Understandings of Civic Education

State Representative Brian Newberry (R, North Smithfield, Burrillville) has submitted legislation to require Rhode Island schools to teach students about the founding documents of the United States, and I’m not sure Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg quite understands the difference between that proposal and this:

Generation Citizen goes into the classroom and provides students with a hands-on civics project. Last semester, a group of Providence students studied community-police relations and lobbied for the community safety act, meeting with the City Council and others.

“Our young people don’t see politics and government as a path to real change,” [Generation Citizen Providence lead Tom] Kerr-Vanderslice said. “If we provide local, project-based civics education, they start to see politics as a pathway to making an impact.”

Newberry’s objective (I infer) is to educate students on the structure and boundaries of government.  Understanding our founding documents is understanding the agreement we have made with each other about what we can and can’t use the force of government to do.  Generation Citizen is teaching students how to be activists (generally left-wing activists, by the looks of it).

Those are very different lessons — in some ways opposing and in some ways complementary.  Borg’s article, however, tells the reader almost nothing about Newberry’s perspective with his legislation.  Rather, his bill is mainly a framework in which to present Kerr-Vanderslice’s perspective.

In that regard, the article presents an excellent illustration of the dangers of the progressive mentality.  What is important, under its sway, is for people to learn how to leverage government (implicitly serving the interests of people who deify it), not for them to understand people’s right to live independently from government.  The message being taught is: If you want something, go get government to force people to give it to you at the point of a gun.

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The “Good Combination” of Religiously Grounded Schools

As one constitutionally disposed (so to speak) to resist the temptations of Donald Trump, I have to say that it’s great to hear sentiments like this from the President of the United States:

President Donald Trump visited a Florida Catholic school on Friday, praising the Catholic education system and touting his support for school choice programs.

“You understand how much your students benefit from full education, one that enriches both the mind and the soul. That’s a good combination,” the president told Bishop John Noonan of Orlando at St. Andrew Catholic School March 3.

Among the most compelling testimonies for school choice that I heard in Rhode Island came from a native American woman who told legislators about rebounding from childhood of abuse and a young adulthood addicted on drugs.  She emphasized that, although not Catholic herself, she valued the moral norms and religious foundation that her daughter’s Catholic school provided.

Looking at data, earlier, that suggests that public schools are keeping kids not only from dropping out, but also from transferring to schools outside of the state’s government system until senior year makes me wonder how many of those students needed what that woman thought her daughter needed.  Whether the problem is (a) the local economy — affecting both parents’ ability to afford tuition and donors’ ability to finance the education of others’ children — or (b) the government’s move into the private school market with charter schools or (c) the expanding perks that taxpayers subsidize exclusively for government-school students, if children aren’t finding the schools that are right for them, then we’re all worse off for it.

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Digging in on Graduation Data

The data for dropouts and graduation from Rhode Island public schools adds to the impression that government education is increasingly about keeping enrollment up as long as possible.

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Governor Pitches Free College to More Kids Who Can’t Do Math or Read at Grade Level

Last week, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo and Democrat Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed visited Rogers High School in Newport to promote the governor’s plan to buy votes by giving families taxpayer dollars for two years of public college:

“When I talk to people around the state like your parents, they tell me that they are kept up at night thinking about your future,” Governor Raimondo told the students. “I want you and Rhode Islanders like you to get the jobs companies are creating here. The number one barrier to a college degree is cost. Our Free College proposal is affordable and an investment we need to make in your future. I am so thankful for Senate President Paiva Weed’s leadership and partnership. Working with her, I’m confident that all of you will have a shot at a good job here in Rhode Island.”

The women didn’t mention that 96% of students at Rogers High School are not proficient in math, and only 21% are proficient in reading.  A more honest message would be:

In cooperation with your teachers’ union, we have ensured that most of you are not receiving the education that you deserve.  You’ll be excited to hear that rather than fix the problems that we’ve created for selfish reasons, we’re going to take tens of millions of dollars from your parents and neighbors and cut two to four years out of your adult life in order to try to get you to where you ought to be right now.

The reception that these politicians get when they abuse their power like this — using school time to campaign to children — ought to be more like a Tea Party town hall than a pep rally.  It would seem that keeping students under-educated has its benefits.

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