Commentary Magazine


Topic: Education

School Punishment According to Race, not Behavior

Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

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Sometimes the mind just boggles. The Department of Justice has issued a letter informing schools about federal laws against racial discrimination. Consider this paragraph:

Schools also violate Federal law when they evenhandedly implement facially neutral policies and practices that, although not adopted with the intent to discriminate, nonetheless have an unjustified effect of discriminating against students on the basis of race. Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense — such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform.

In other words, punishment for bad behavior must be meted out according to racial quotas. If the school is one-third black, one-third white, and one-third Asian, then each racial group must receive one-third of the punishments. If two-thirds of the infractions are committed by one racial group, then so what? That’s discrimination and discrimination violates federal law.

It is highly unlikely that each group is going to misbehave equally, for exactly the same reason that it is highly unlikely that the boys named John, the boys named David, and the boys named Robert will misbehave equally: the world doesn’t work that way. If actually enforced, this edict would require schools to do one of two things. Either they will have to let some miscreant students in one racial group go unpunished, because that group has reached its quota of punishments, or will have to hand out punishments to innocent students in other racial groups to keep the punishments racially balanced. The first alternative almost guarantees disruption and a poor learning environment, the second is simply grotesque. Should the schools bring back the Roman practice of decimation, and use lots to pick the innocent students to be expelled?

Where does such nonsense (in the literal as well as figurative meaning of that word) come from? It comes from the left’s obsession both with race and with groups. There are no individuals on the left. It is not little Johnny Jones who brings a frog to school and puts it in a girl’s desk, it is just a white boy who does so.

How dehumanizing can you get?

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Obama’s Inequality Prescription: Cronyism, Generational Theft, and Massive Debt

President Obama’s speech yesterday on inequality was a combination of the cynicism and panic that have governed his actions lately. Panic, because the speech was an obvious populist pep rally to distract from the massive economic disruptions his failing and flailing policies–at the moment, chiefly ObamaCare–are causing. And cynicism, because his opinion of his audience is low enough that he thinks the transparent ploy will work on them.

The pointlessness of the speech was clear when he said this:

Now, you’ll be pleased to know this is not a State of the Union Address.  (Laughter.)  And many of the ideas that can make the biggest difference in expanding opportunity I’ve presented before.  But let me offer a few key principles, just a roadmap that I believe should guide us in both our legislative agenda and our administrative efforts.

He’s giving them fair warning that he’s got nothing new to offer and his prescriptions will mostly consist of sloganeering–another chapter, in other words, of the bumper-sticker presidency. And that is indeed what followed. But there was also a noteworthy element to the speech: after five years of running the country, the president has developed no creative ideas and shown no willingness to think outside the conventional liberal box, even when those ideas are clearly failing.

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President Obama’s speech yesterday on inequality was a combination of the cynicism and panic that have governed his actions lately. Panic, because the speech was an obvious populist pep rally to distract from the massive economic disruptions his failing and flailing policies–at the moment, chiefly ObamaCare–are causing. And cynicism, because his opinion of his audience is low enough that he thinks the transparent ploy will work on them.

The pointlessness of the speech was clear when he said this:

Now, you’ll be pleased to know this is not a State of the Union Address.  (Laughter.)  And many of the ideas that can make the biggest difference in expanding opportunity I’ve presented before.  But let me offer a few key principles, just a roadmap that I believe should guide us in both our legislative agenda and our administrative efforts.

He’s giving them fair warning that he’s got nothing new to offer and his prescriptions will mostly consist of sloganeering–another chapter, in other words, of the bumper-sticker presidency. And that is indeed what followed. But there was also a noteworthy element to the speech: after five years of running the country, the president has developed no creative ideas and shown no willingness to think outside the conventional liberal box, even when those ideas are clearly failing.

For example, the president noted the importance of education, which is true, and then said this: “We know it’s harder to find a job today without some higher education, so we’ve helped more students go to college with grants and loans that go farther than before.” What the federal government’s loan program has done, as we know, is raise tuition prices even more and further inflate a bubble that puts the economy in more danger:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke dismissed these concerns by saying that most of the money in the student-loan sector is federal money, which just means taxpayers – rather than lending institutions – will take the initial hit. But the board of governors makes a salient point as student loan debt soars to $1 trillion and exceeds the nation’s level of credit-card debt.

“The bankers said student lending shares features of the housing crisis including ‘significant growth of subsidized lending in pursuit of a social good,’ in this case higher education instead of expanded home ownership,” according to that Bloomberg report. “The lending has put upward pressure on tuition, just as the mortgage lending boom led to rising home prices, they said, calling both examples of a ‘lack of underwriting discipline.’”

For my entire life, I’ve heard policy makers insist that there is insufficient funding for education and that getting a college degree is the pathway to a better life. But as the bankers noted, the sea of student-loan money artificially boosts the cost of tuition, which creates a new cycle of indebtedness by students. Higher tuition makes “pay-as-you-go” a less-likely option.

The president also returned to a recent hobbyhorse, the minimum wage. Here, he unintentionally hurts two of his main targets of relief, students and workers, in one shot. Obama said:

And as we empower our young people for future success, the third part of this middle-class economics is empowering our workers.  It’s time to ensure our collective bargaining laws function as they’re supposed to — (applause) — so unions have a level playing field to organize for a better deal for workers and better wages for the middle class. …

And even though we’re bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, we’re creating more good-paying jobs in education and health care and business services; we know that we’re going to have a greater and greater portion of our people in the service sector.  And we know that there are airport workers, and fast-food workers, and nurse assistants, and retail salespeople who work their tails off and are still living at or barely above poverty.  (Applause.)  And that’s why it’s well past the time to raise a minimum wage that in real terms right now is below where it was when Harry Truman was in office.

But empowering union members isn’t the same as empowering workers. In many cases, it’s the opposite. Raising the minimum wage prices certain workers out of some industries, further cementing employed union workers’ job security at the expense of those on the lower rungs of the workforce. In other words, the president will reduce employment to reward his campaign allies. This is cronyism dressed up as moral governance, and it’s both shameful and par for the course for elected Democrats.

And it gets worse. Unions whose workers don’t make minimum wage support the president’s minimum wage hike for another reason. As Richard Berman explained in the Wall Street Journal when Obama last floated a push for a minimum wage hike: “The labor contracts that we examined used a variety of methods to trigger the increases. The two most popular formulas were setting baseline union wages as a percentage above the state or federal minimum wage or mandating a flat wage premium above the minimum wage.”

So hiking the minimum wage can automatically reward Obama’s union allies in a number of ways. And of course empowering unions, especially through some of the prevailing collective bargaining frameworks, can also harm students. State-negotiated union education contracts aim for a degree of wage and benefit parity, which can be affordable (though often still unnecessary) for some school districts but plainly outrageous for others. The wages and benefits can’t be cut when budgets fail, so students lose out on books, computers, after-school activities, tutors–anything that doesn’t impact the unions but quite obviously detracts from the students.

Cronyism, generational theft, and massive debt are what the president has to offer on the economic front. He should be glad the speech flew under the radar.

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Education Revolution? Don’t Believe the Hype or the Counter-Hype

Only two years ago, in fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig opened their Stanford University class in artificial intelligence to anyone who cared to take it online. About 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Their class was not the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). But Thrun was no rumpled academic; he was a Silicon Valley visionary, associated with Google, and known for his work on self-driving cars. When Thrun founded Udacity to make and deliver MOOCs, and declared that MOOCs would drive nearly all universities out of business, many believed he would change education forever. David Brooks issued an educational tsunami warning. Tom Friedman declared a revolution; nothing had more potential to lift people out of poverty; nothing had more potential to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Today, not so much. According to a recent New Yorker essay on the self-driving car, Google people not only work in jeans and sit on exercise balls but also like to say “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So perhaps people should listen to Thrun’s most recent declaration, reported in Max Chafkin’s Fast Company profile of Thrun: “I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea. … We have a lousy product.”

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Only two years ago, in fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig opened their Stanford University class in artificial intelligence to anyone who cared to take it online. About 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up. Their class was not the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). But Thrun was no rumpled academic; he was a Silicon Valley visionary, associated with Google, and known for his work on self-driving cars. When Thrun founded Udacity to make and deliver MOOCs, and declared that MOOCs would drive nearly all universities out of business, many believed he would change education forever. David Brooks issued an educational tsunami warning. Tom Friedman declared a revolution; nothing had more potential to lift people out of poverty; nothing had more potential to “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Today, not so much. According to a recent New Yorker essay on the self-driving car, Google people not only work in jeans and sit on exercise balls but also like to say “In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data.” So perhaps people should listen to Thrun’s most recent declaration, reported in Max Chafkin’s Fast Company profile of Thrun: “I’d aspired to give people a profound education–to teach them something substantial. But the data was at odds with this idea. … We have a lousy product.”

Two disappointments stick out. First, Thrun, like Friedman, thought that MOOCs, because of their low cost per student, would serve the poor and underserved. But the data we have so far indicate that the people who sign up for them already have degrees. According to Steve Kolowich’s account of a recent University of Pennsylvania survey of 34,779 MOOC students, more than 80 percent of respondents had a two- or four-year degree and 44 percent had some graduate education. In countries like Brazil, India, and China, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population.” Presumably, those who complete MOOCs successfully are still more elite.

Second, Thrun thought that MOOCs would offer at least as good a product as traditional education does at a tiny fraction of the cost. But a partnership between Udacity and San Jose State University has produced “disastrous” results. “Among those pupils who took remedial math during the pilot program, just 25% passed. And when the online class was compared with the in-person variety, the numbers were even more discouraging. A student taking college algebra in person was 52% more likely to pass than one taking a Udacity class.”

All this is no surprise. The kinds of students Thrun and others asserted MOOCs would reach, the poor and underserved, are most likely to require the kind of guidance and support that a massive lecture-based platform is least likely to provide. As Thrun says of the San Jose students, it’s “a group for which this medium is not a good fit.”

Thrun has concluded that the future of Udacity is in professional development, providing courses, like one for saleforce.com on “how to best use its application programming interface.” Predictably, those who were (justifiably) skeptical of MOOCs all along are saying I told you so.

But to declare the end of MOOCs is to place as much blind trust in Sebastian Thrun as those who declared the revolution did. In an inadvertently comic part of the Fast Company profile, we learn that Thrun concluded that MOOC problems are irremediable based on one important experiment, a statistics class taught by “the master himself.” Although Thrun deployed such sophisticated pedagogical techniques as trying to convey “his enthusiasm for the subject,” completion rates remained low. If Thrun can’t solve the MOOC problem singlehandedly, we are asked to conclude, then MOOCs are doomed.

But the high cost of higher education hasn’t gone away, it is still far from clear that MOOCs are much, if any, worse than big lecture classes routinely taught at universities, and MOOCs can still offer advantages, including scheduling flexibility, self-paced learning, and instant feedback, that brick and mortar colleges are not in a good position to offer. Udacity has rivals, including EdX and Coursera, who have no intention of abandoning the field. I do not think that MOOCs are as transformative as Thrun once did, but there is no good reason to dismiss them either.

Toward the end of the Thrun profile, we are taken to a soundproof studio, where an instructor “with wavy shoulder-length hair, wearing a baggy T-shirt and cargo shorts” struggles to convey a difficult concept. “Lounging,” (but of course) “on a beanbag chair,” one of Udacity’s course developers works to help the instructor, whose “only formal teaching credential is as an assistant scuba-diving instructor” get through a take. Perhaps the lesson of the hyped rise of MOOCS, and what is likely to be their hyped fall, is that we shouldn’t be so quick to think that Silicon Valley knows what is good for us, just because they are more clever and casually dressed than we are.

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To Fight Assimilation, Stop Dumbing Down Judaism

A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

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A major topic of this year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America is how to combat assimilation. At the conference, which is being held in Jerusalem this week, JFNA leaders have unveiled various ambitious ideas, including free universal Jewish preschool. I’d like to offer a much simpler proposal: Just stop dumbing down Judaism. American Jews overwhelmingly receive excellent secular educations; they are exposed to the most challenging, rigorous, thought-provoking material available in science, philosophy, history, and literature. Yet they rarely encounter Judaism at a level more intellectually challenging than a kindergarten class. And as long as that’s true, Judaism will never be able to compete with the secular world for their attention.

Ironically, the Orthodox were way ahead of the non-Orthodox in grasping this, and it’s one reason why Orthodox retention rates are currently much higher than non-Orthodox ones. As far back as 1917, one of Poland’s leading Orthodox rabbis, the Chofetz Chaim, approved the opening of Bais Yaakov, the first school to teach Torah to girls. His reasoning was simple: It had become normal for girls to attend secular schools, and if they didn’t obtain a comparable Jewish education, they wouldn’t stay Jewish. The same understanding fueled the opening of numerous high-level women’s yeshivas in recent decades: Today, girls routinely attend not just secondary school, but college and graduate school; hence their Jewish learning must also be on a higher level. 

But in the non-Orthodox community, Jewish education never comes close to the intellectual rigor of secular studies. Almost every American Jew who has attended a non-Orthodox Hebrew school can attest to this; just last week, the Forward ran a piece by an associate professor, Michah Gottlieb, deploring the lack of opportunities for serious Torah study at his childhood synagogue. My own experience is equally typical: During 12 years of Hebrew school, the numbing boredom was punctured by only two classes that offered comparable intellectual stimulation to my secular public schools–and both were taught by Orthodox rabbis. The difference was that they took classic Jewish texts seriously, insisting that we read, analyze, and debate them with the same rigor I encountered in secular history or literature classes.

The good news is that, given a chance, Judaism can easily compete with the best secular thought has to offer. There’s a reason why Jewish sources have inspired some of the greatest non-Jewish writers and thinkers throughout the ages–including many of the 17th-century political theorists who laid the foundations of modern democracy. As Herzl Institute President Yoram Hazony noted in a 2005 essay, “Hobbes was learned in Hebrew, and his magnum opus Leviathan devotes over three hundred pages to the political teachings of Scripture. Locke knew Hebrew as well, and the first of his Two Treatises on Government is devoted to biblical interpretation … [John Selden’s] 1635 treatise on the law of the sea, Mare Clausum—one of the founding texts of international law—argued for the concept of national sovereignty on both land and sea on the basis of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.”

In Israel, serious study of classic Jewish sources has exploded in recent years–not because secular Jews are becoming Orthodox, but because they’ve understood that these texts are their heritage, too. American Jews need to offer their children similar opportunities. For without being exposed to Judaism’s intellectual riches, they will never consider it worth a lifetime’s commitment.

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The Enduring Value of Enduring Questions

In an October 22 letter to Carole Watson, Acting Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, questions grants the agency has issued to consider questions like “What is the good life and how do I live it?” Sessions “[affirms] the value of the humanities” but insists that “care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor some projects over others.”

I am surprised and disappointed that a conservative who “[affirms] the value of the humanities” would target the Enduring Questions program, which supports the development of courses that enable “undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.” In my own Enduring Questions course–“What is Love?”–which I offer at Ursinus College, students and faculty read, in their entirety, among other things, Plato’s Symposium, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. The grant, of a little less than $25,000, freed me up to develop, assess, and improve the course, not a part of my regular offerings as a professor in our politics department, over a two-year period.

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In an October 22 letter to Carole Watson, Acting Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, questions grants the agency has issued to consider questions like “What is the good life and how do I live it?” Sessions “[affirms] the value of the humanities” but insists that “care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor some projects over others.”

I am surprised and disappointed that a conservative who “[affirms] the value of the humanities” would target the Enduring Questions program, which supports the development of courses that enable “undergraduates and teachers to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.” In my own Enduring Questions course–“What is Love?”–which I offer at Ursinus College, students and faculty read, in their entirety, among other things, Plato’s Symposium, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet. The grant, of a little less than $25,000, freed me up to develop, assess, and improve the course, not a part of my regular offerings as a professor in our politics department, over a two-year period.

My course is not an anomaly. The Enduring Questions grant program exists, as the description shows, to put students in touch with fundamental human questions and those who offer help in pursuing them. As the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization founded to “confront the rise of campus political correctness” has recognized, the Enduring Questions program is the opposite of politically correct because it engages students in a struggle “over the core issues of the human condition,” in “debating, weighing evidence, and conversing with others” about those issues. And as NAS President Peter Woods reminds us, the NAS journal Academic Questions includes the question how “do we recenter liberal education on the enduring questions of the human condition?” in its statement of editorial purpose. Enduring Questions is the very program critics of the politicization of higher education have been looking for.

Of course, some classes recommended by faculty review committees will fulfill the purpose of the program much better than others. But there is no question that over the history of the Enduring Questions program, more undergraduates than would otherwise have been reached have been engaged in challenging courses, asked to reflect on important, timeless questions, and encouraged to take seriously what great books have to say about them.

So when Senator Sessions asks whether $25,000 should be spent so that students can ask “what is the good life, and how do I live it?” the NEH and conservatives should, for once, be of one mind in answering “Hell yes.”

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Teacher Unions and Sexual Misconduct

I highly recommend an op-ed by Campbell Brown, a former anchor for NBC and CNN who is now the founder of the Parents Transparency Project. She documents several cases in which arbitrators are effectively undermining what teacher unions claim is a “zero tolerance” when it comes to sexual misconduct cases. In instance after instance they find conduct that should be a firing offense to be permissible. Many arbitrators, in Brown’s words, “normalize sexual behavior or invent standards to arrive at decisions that flout zero tolerance.”

To Ms. Brown’s observations I’d add these three.

The first is that it’s not exactly a state secret that teacher unions have set up the system in a way that leads to arbitrators handing out light sentences. Which is just more evidence (though none was really needed) that teacher unions are not interested in the well being of children as much as they are in protecting teachers, including predatory teachers. When William Bennett was Secretary of Education, he said (and I’m paraphrasing now) that teacher unions were perhaps the most pernicious legal organizations in America. Nothing has changed. The damage teachers unions have done – by what they have done and by what they have kept from being done – is extraordinary.

Second, the attitude of arbitrators is a fairly common one, and it goes like this: There are certain things that qualify as genuine misconduct; predatory sexual behavior really isn’t one of them. In truth it is, and (to take just one example) referring to a teacher’s secret agreement to be sent nude photos of a student as “a lapse in judgment … [that] does not justify upholding her termination” is a sign of moral debasement. Read More

I highly recommend an op-ed by Campbell Brown, a former anchor for NBC and CNN who is now the founder of the Parents Transparency Project. She documents several cases in which arbitrators are effectively undermining what teacher unions claim is a “zero tolerance” when it comes to sexual misconduct cases. In instance after instance they find conduct that should be a firing offense to be permissible. Many arbitrators, in Brown’s words, “normalize sexual behavior or invent standards to arrive at decisions that flout zero tolerance.”

To Ms. Brown’s observations I’d add these three.

The first is that it’s not exactly a state secret that teacher unions have set up the system in a way that leads to arbitrators handing out light sentences. Which is just more evidence (though none was really needed) that teacher unions are not interested in the well being of children as much as they are in protecting teachers, including predatory teachers. When William Bennett was Secretary of Education, he said (and I’m paraphrasing now) that teacher unions were perhaps the most pernicious legal organizations in America. Nothing has changed. The damage teachers unions have done – by what they have done and by what they have kept from being done – is extraordinary.

Second, the attitude of arbitrators is a fairly common one, and it goes like this: There are certain things that qualify as genuine misconduct; predatory sexual behavior really isn’t one of them. In truth it is, and (to take just one example) referring to a teacher’s secret agreement to be sent nude photos of a student as “a lapse in judgment … [that] does not justify upholding her termination” is a sign of moral debasement.

The harm that can be done to young people who are sexually mistreated, physically and emotionally, can be grave and long lasting. We live in a society where many people consider virtually anything that’s related to sex and sexual misconduct places it in a value-free zone. It’s quite the opposite; and when this reality is denied by our culture our children – and not only our children – suffer.

A final word about schools. They once took seriously the motto in loco parentis (“in the place of a parent”). Parents could count on schools, and those who represented schools and teachers, to protect children from physical and moral harm and nurture their character. They had confidence that their children would be in the presence of morally mature and even exemplary adults.

Don’t get me wrong; most teachers in America are very fine people and many of them are outstanding: trustworthy, honorable, dedicated, people of integrity. My point is a different one: the organizations that say they represent teachers are in fact harming their profession by acting as a shield that protects the worst among them. There is a cost to such things.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Justice Louis Brandeis said. What Campbell Brown has done is to cast much needed sunlight on practices that need to be stopped and people who need to be held accountable. Because if they’re not, it’s our kids who will pay the price.

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Egypt’s Prognosis Goes from Bad to Worse

Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

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Every year, the World Economic Forum releases The Global Competitiveness Report. The report shows just how desperate the situation has become in Egypt. In quality of primary education, for example, Egypt now ranks 148th out of 148 countries surveyed. That puts it behind such countries as Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sierra Leone. Its higher education system is 145th, beating out only South Africa, Libya, and Yemen. And it comes in 143rd in women in the labor force as a ratio to men, ahead of only Pakistan, Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

The tsunami over the horizon is Egypt’s poor economic performance; no politician, whether Islamist or pro-military, appears ready to end Egypt’s subsidies of food and fuel, and so Egypt continues to hemorrhage whatever money allies grant it. In the category “Government Budget Balance, as percent of GDP,” Egypt again comes in dead last.

Other Arab Spring countries do not do much better. Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen hug the bottom rung throughout. Tunisia is supposed to be the shining star of the Arab Spring—but with a female labor participation ranking of 136 out of 146, that’s like saying we should celebrate Jersey City because it’s not Newark.

Part of the problem might be the chicken-and-egg conundrum: Perhaps the Arab Spring has turned out so badly (and Islamists have been so successful exploiting popular ignorance) because the education system has long been abysmal and the financial system so poor. Regardless, the question of how Egypt and other states can break out of such a cycle is unclear, but their inability to rise in the ranking has long-term security implications for the region. What an indictment it is of decades of poor leadership that these states cannot even beat a place like Zimbabwe where it counts.

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Obama Turns Graduates Into Suckers

President Obama’s approval ratings haven’t been north of the 50-percent mark since March of this year, according to the Real Clear Politics’ average. A solid base of support for the president since the early days of his campaign in 2008 has been voters 30 years of age and under: the youth vote. Obama T-shirts, posters, and stickers have been ubiquitous on college campuses since his first election. It’s not surprising that the president has chosen to promote policy changes close to the hearts of college students and young voters in an attempt to win back hearts and minds recently jaded by the president’s failure to adhere to sufficiently liberal policy positions on the NSA and privacy. 

As Richard Vedder explained in Bloomberg today, some of the president’s proposals are good in principal, and some are very bad. Vedder outlines the negative aspects of the president’s plans:

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President Obama’s approval ratings haven’t been north of the 50-percent mark since March of this year, according to the Real Clear Politics’ average. A solid base of support for the president since the early days of his campaign in 2008 has been voters 30 years of age and under: the youth vote. Obama T-shirts, posters, and stickers have been ubiquitous on college campuses since his first election. It’s not surprising that the president has chosen to promote policy changes close to the hearts of college students and young voters in an attempt to win back hearts and minds recently jaded by the president’s failure to adhere to sufficiently liberal policy positions on the NSA and privacy. 

As Richard Vedder explained in Bloomberg today, some of the president’s proposals are good in principal, and some are very bad. Vedder outlines the negative aspects of the president’s plans:

The president’s proposal has one very bad idea: a forgiveness boon for those paying off loans right now. The proposal, limiting loan payments to 10 percent of income, potentially relieves millions of students from repaying part of their obligation. So why not major in fields the economy values least — anthropology or drama instead of engineering or math — if you don’t have to worry about earning enough to pay off your student loans over a certain period?

The idea simply raises incentives for future students to borrow more money, if they know their obligation to pay it back is capped. That, in turn, allows colleges to keep raising costs.

Obama proposes to ignore or worsen the root cause of much of the explosion in student costs: the federal financial assistance programs that encourage schools to raise costs and that haven’t achieved their goals of providing college access to low-income Americans.

President Obama chose an interesting audience to outline these proposals: SUNY Buffalo. The school, a member of the State University of New York system, is an affordable option for New York State residents who pay a fraction of what their (somewhat) nearby neighbors at Ithaca College pay. Without counting room and board, SUNY Buffalo students owe less than $8,500 a year, versus over $38,000 two and a half hours down the road at Ithaca College. For students on the hook for the majority or all of their college costs, SUNY Buffalo is clearly the logical choice. One would imagine that many of the students who chose to enroll at SUNY Buffalo made some tough, but wise, decisions while deciding on where to pursue a college education. The city of Buffalo may not be the most exciting place to spend four years, but at the end of their college career, students walk away with a valuable diploma for $120,000 less than if they had chosen to attend Ithaca. 

How would a SUNY Buffalo student, who perhaps turned down an offer of admission at a more expensive school due to financial considerations, feel about this forgiveness policy? Speaking as a graduate of a state school, it’s likely that most of the audience would have felt cheated out of a more preferable college experience due to their making a financially responsible choice. If President Obama’s plan goes into effect graduates of Ithaca College and SUNY Buffalo would be paying the same amount–ten percent of their income post-graduation–regardless of the cost of their education. Such a plan would incentivize reckless spending, furthering the rise of skyrocketing college costs. Even if the plan only extends to graduates currently, one would expect that students making enrollment decisions could anticipate loan forgiveness plans of their own one day. 

For an administration that has done nothing but limit the choices of students, most notably inner-city residents of Washington D.C. who benefit from the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which makes private schools affordable for students who would otherwise be trapped in failing schools, it’s a fascinating and illogical position. Until they graduate high school, the Obama administration would like students to be forced to attend a school based solely on their location, not based on their (or their parents’) needs or desires regarding their education. Upon graduation, these students could then choose from any college or university in the country, ignoring sticker prices.

This would, in turn, drive students who can meet admission standards to attend private schools with state-of-the-art dorms and gyms over more modestly priced and modestly equipped public schools. With this loan forgiveness program, President Obama, champion of public education, would eliminate the biggest incentive for students choosing public universities around the country, and with it, any sense of financial responsibility a teenager might have once possessed. 

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Education Reform and the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which seeks to set consistent educational standards nationwide (by having the states join voluntarily), has been the subject of intensifying debate. Some see it as a roundabout way to remove states’ discretion on their own educational programs. Others worry it ignores important research on child education, or that centering a program of learning on standardized tests repeats the mistakes of past such efforts. The criticism is bipartisan, and it covers even more ground than that.

There are educators who support it and educators who oppose it. And there are even some who once supported it but are having second thoughts. Meanwhile, support for Common Core is also bipartisan, including claims that the core brings accountability to teachers and schools and levels the educational playing field. The question of how to educate a vast country in a changing economy and with costs rising and competition increasing is a complex one, fraught with emotion, tradition, and the consequences of letting a new generation fall behind.

But you wouldn’t know all that from the New York Times’s Bill Keller. According to Keller, opposition to the core is based in the same fever swamps that produced birtherism and other anti-Obama conspiracy theories. That opposition is gaining steam because, he says, “today’s Republican Party lives in terror of its so-called base, the very loud, often paranoid, if-that-Kenyan-socialist-in-the-White-House-is-for-it-I’m-against-it crowd.”

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The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which seeks to set consistent educational standards nationwide (by having the states join voluntarily), has been the subject of intensifying debate. Some see it as a roundabout way to remove states’ discretion on their own educational programs. Others worry it ignores important research on child education, or that centering a program of learning on standardized tests repeats the mistakes of past such efforts. The criticism is bipartisan, and it covers even more ground than that.

There are educators who support it and educators who oppose it. And there are even some who once supported it but are having second thoughts. Meanwhile, support for Common Core is also bipartisan, including claims that the core brings accountability to teachers and schools and levels the educational playing field. The question of how to educate a vast country in a changing economy and with costs rising and competition increasing is a complex one, fraught with emotion, tradition, and the consequences of letting a new generation fall behind.

But you wouldn’t know all that from the New York Times’s Bill Keller. According to Keller, opposition to the core is based in the same fever swamps that produced birtherism and other anti-Obama conspiracy theories. That opposition is gaining steam because, he says, “today’s Republican Party lives in terror of its so-called base, the very loud, often paranoid, if-that-Kenyan-socialist-in-the-White-House-is-for-it-I’m-against-it crowd.”

There are thoughtful, interesting arguments both for and against Common Core, but such thoughtfulness is not on Keller’s agenda. What he has in spades is anger, as he rages against deep discussion and balanced consideration of educational strategies. Conservatives, he says, are stupid:

I respect, really I do, the efforts by political scientists and pundits to make sense of the current Republican Party. There is intellectual virtue in the search for historical antecedents and philosophical underpinnings.

I understand the urge to take what looks to a layman like nothing more than a mean spirit or a mess of contradictions and brand it. (The New Libertarianism! Burkean Revivalists!) But more and more, I think Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s Republican rising star, had it right when he said his party was in danger of becoming simply “the stupid party.”

Now, there is one scenario worth contemplating. It’s possible, I suppose, that Keller’s inability to argue the point without schoolyard insults and name-calling is meant as political satire to demonstrate the necessity of reforming the American education system. But if this is all written in earnest, then it’s no wonder the momentum has begun swinging back against Common Core.

As Keller’s anger rises, he manages to get out a reference to the Koch brothers (which, in fairness, he may just be contractually obligated to do) and then makes an unintentionally revealing accusation:

Local control of public schools, including the sacred right to keep them impoverished and ineffectual, is a fundamental tenet of the conservative canon.

It would be easy to miss the real value of that sentence, distracted by the parade of straw men and the bilious contempt Keller has for his fellow Americans who might vote for different candidates than he does and are therefore, in Keller’s mind, morally repugnant monsters. But if the public schools are already “impoverished and ineffectual,” it surely isn’t the fault of the birthers and the Koch brothers. Public-union dominance has ravaged the educational landscape (as Keller’s own paper has explained), and the government using its monopoly to turn over control of the schools to reliable Democratic Party special interests and donor networks hasn’t worked out so well for the students.

It is, in fact, an argument for breaking up the government’s monopoly on public education and makes it easier to understand why some would be skeptical that the government could be trusted to reform the system it keeps reforming unsuccessfully.

In any case, here is how the Washington Post’s education writer Valerie Strauss describes the well-intentioned sides of the argument, excluding from her analysis any discussion of a Koch-funded birther revolt:

Many Democratic critics say that while they don’t oppose the idea of national standards, the Common Core is not based on research and that parts of it ignore what is known about how students learn, especially in the area of early childhood education. They also say that despite promises to the contrary, the core-aligned standardized tests won’t be dramatically better in assessing student achievement than the older tests. Some former core supporters, such as award-winning New York Principal Carol Burris, changed their minds after learning more about the standards and the core-aligned tests. (You can read some of her critiques here and here).

Supporters of the core — which include educators who are implementing the standards — are somewhat incredulous at the opposition, saying that the old system of each state having its own set of standards proved to be untenable because student achievement was uneven across the country. (This line of thinking presumes that standards themselves are real drivers of quality.)

And there is much more to the discussion on both sides. The point here isn’t to endorse either side in the Common Core debate, but instead to recognize that there is a debate at all. Rather than caricaturing opposition to it, Keller would do well to ask why educators have changed their minds–presumably without funding from the Koch brothers–on Common Core.

More fundamentally, Keller and others on the left might ask why public schools are so desperately in need of thorough reform, and whether, beyond a curriculum centered on different standardized tests, they might be willing to entertain solutions that would really challenge both their own assumptions and proclaimed blamelessness about the problems plaguing education in America.

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On Competency-Based Transcripts

Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.

Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.

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Increasingly frustrated at the high cost and uncertain returns of traditional higher education, the federal government and some states, like Wisconsin, are taking a hard look at competency-based education. Competency-based education focuses on the attainment of skills rather than hours spent sitting in a classroom seat. The attainment of skills can be measured by performance on exams, papers, and other assignments, as in a traditional course, but once students have demonstrated competency in an area, they can receive credit and move on, rather than waiting for the end of an artificial semester. The competency-based model promises drastically to reduce cost and time to degree for students, and to help employers identify skilled employees.

Northern Arizona University, an early adopter of competency-based education, has just put out a sample competency-based transcript to demonstrate the latter’s benefit. By naming the skills that students have learned in their courses, NAU hopes to provide useful information to employers, who probably do not care whether a student earned a B+ in the Sociology of Religion but probably do care whether students can write. Unfortunately, NAU’s sample transcript is at best a marketing tool, and suggests that competency-based education has a way to go if it is to fulfill its promise of rendering the connection between education and job skills more transparent.

Imagine you are an employer looking at such a transcript. You see the heading “Works in a Team Structure.” This sounds promising. You need people who know how to work in a team structure.

But read on, if you have time to analyze this verbose transcript while sifting through 400 other applications. “Works in a Team Structure” means that the student knows how to “identify key concepts and theories in Group Dynamics, identify key concepts and theories in intercultural communication and engage in intelligent, rational discussion about contemporary issues concerning work.” Why can you be confident the student knows all that? Because he or she has mastered two of the three lessons available that cover those competencies.

What does mastery mean? That the student has elected to show “high level comprehension of the material” through an “additional test, presentation, paper, case study, or other form of assessment.” So you know that the student has performed satisfactorily on one test or another of the ability to identify and discuss ideas about group dynamics and intercultural communication. What do you know about the student’s ability to work “in a team structure”? Apparently nothing.

But perhaps the transcript can tell you something about whether the student has learned to “Analyze Complicated Materials.” Can you make sense of, and do you even care about, what it means for the student to have mastered two of five available lessons in analyzing “paintings and literature, along with major themes in Marx, Spenser, Durkheim, and Simmel,” in discussing “emerging narrative and ideological components of postwar film and world literature,” and in demonstrating an “understanding and knowledge of Film Noir,” “Nations at War in the Middle East,” and of “the Cold War and its aftermath”?

It is as if a competency-based transcript differs from a traditional one because it omits the grade a student received in Film Noir, or the Cold War and its Aftermath, and inserts a sentence or two from the catalog descriptions of those courses. Certainly, it gives an employer no more, and perhaps rather less, confidence that a student can analyze complicated materials, than a traditional transcript that says a student earned an A in Shakespeare.

There is real promise in competency-based education, especially for adult students who already have most of the knowledge and skill a degree holder is expected to have. But it is important to distinguish between the rigorous evaluation of competence, and the mere appearance of such an evaluation.

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Low Student Loan Rates Not the Point

Republicans, candidates and the party alike, have a serious problem with young voters. The national party has conducted extensive research into how to solve the problem and it has already taken some promising steps in the right direction on several fronts, including digital strategy. The latest messaging meant for young donors coming from the RNC and Republicans in congressional leadership positions on student loan rates, however, is not only antithetical to the principles of conservatism, but will also prove ineffective in appealing to young voters.

Senate Republicans are justifiably frustrated at their Democratic colleagues’ inability to come to an agreement on student loan rates, which are poised to double on July 1 if a deal isn’t reached. Inexplicably, Senate Democrats have even rejected a proposal that President Obama set forth in his budget earlier this year.

Today the RNC gathered a small well-dressed group of young people that consisted of what their own official Twitter account described as interns, with handmade signs that appeared made with the same posterboard and markers, to protest the likely scenario of student loan rates doubling this summer. The protest may have been designed to appear organic, but the picture that emerged instead came across as quite staged. It seems Republicans believe that messaging on this Democratic failure will somehow endear them to young voters struggling under the weight of ballooning student debt.

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Republicans, candidates and the party alike, have a serious problem with young voters. The national party has conducted extensive research into how to solve the problem and it has already taken some promising steps in the right direction on several fronts, including digital strategy. The latest messaging meant for young donors coming from the RNC and Republicans in congressional leadership positions on student loan rates, however, is not only antithetical to the principles of conservatism, but will also prove ineffective in appealing to young voters.

Senate Republicans are justifiably frustrated at their Democratic colleagues’ inability to come to an agreement on student loan rates, which are poised to double on July 1 if a deal isn’t reached. Inexplicably, Senate Democrats have even rejected a proposal that President Obama set forth in his budget earlier this year.

Today the RNC gathered a small well-dressed group of young people that consisted of what their own official Twitter account described as interns, with handmade signs that appeared made with the same posterboard and markers, to protest the likely scenario of student loan rates doubling this summer. The protest may have been designed to appear organic, but the picture that emerged instead came across as quite staged. It seems Republicans believe that messaging on this Democratic failure will somehow endear them to young voters struggling under the weight of ballooning student debt.

Unfortunately for both the RNC and students, stopping a raise in rates wouldn’t solve the problem for the majority of students struggling not with the interest payments on their loans, but the principal. The ease with which students have taken out more loans than they can conceivably pay back after graduation is at the heart of the crisis. Making more money available at less cost would actually make the crisis worse for students and for an already bankrupt federal government, which has no business in the student loan business in the first place. Today the Wall Street Journal explained

The skyrocketing cost of a college education is a classic unintended consequence of government intervention. Colleges have responded to the availability of easy federal money by doing what subsidized industries generally do: Raising prices to capture the subsidy. Sold as a tool to help students cope with rising college costs, student loans have instead been a major contributor to the problem

In truth, America’s student loan problem won’t be solved by low interest rates—for many students, the debt would be crippling even if the interest rate were zero.

If we want to solve the very real problem of excessive student-loan debt, college costs need to be brought under control. A 2010 study by the Goldwater Institute identified “administrative bloat” as a leading reason for higher costs. The study found that many American universities now have more salaried administrators than teaching faculty.

The RNC’s populist message, which would do nothing to solve the student loan crisis, is unlikely to even register with most young voters. Few are even aware of the rates on their student loans, both when they take them out and when they graduate. The information isn’t even that easy to obtain: I spent over half an hour myself today figuring out the rates on each of my four federal loans to see how they compared to the rates currently being discussed.

The Republican Party has the right idea in trying to craft a message that appeals to young voters. What would not only resonate more, but also actually help them would be a plan to bring down costs, much like what Texas Governor Rick Perry has proposed with a $10,000 degree. Innovative solutions to bring down costs like Perry’s, not partisan demagoguery, is the future of the GOP’s outreach to younger voters. 

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Kagan on the Future of Liberal Education

This April, the historian Donald Kagan gave a farewell lecture on liberal education, after 44 years of service at Yale. Kagan is the author of a marvelous four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and a National Humanities Medal recipient. The New Criterion has published a revised version of the lecture. People who care about the future of liberal education should read it.

Calls for liberal education can sound hollow when institutions that profess it offer a “chaotic cafeteria” to students, rather than a curriculum informed by an account of what liberal education is and what it is for. But it is hard to give such an account. The idea of liberal education has “suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction.”

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This April, the historian Donald Kagan gave a farewell lecture on liberal education, after 44 years of service at Yale. Kagan is the author of a marvelous four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War and a National Humanities Medal recipient. The New Criterion has published a revised version of the lecture. People who care about the future of liberal education should read it.

Calls for liberal education can sound hollow when institutions that profess it offer a “chaotic cafeteria” to students, rather than a curriculum informed by an account of what liberal education is and what it is for. But it is hard to give such an account. The idea of liberal education has “suffered from vagueness, confusion, and contradiction.”

Liberal education is education for freedom. For Italian humanists that meant the study of grammar, rhetoric, and “a canon of classical authors,” with a view to  “public service.” Freedom “meant putting aside concern for gain . . . for the sake of higher things.” But in 18th century England, liberal education was more easygoing. The well-born and well-to-do should also be well-rounded. A gentleman’s education required no “fixed canon of authors,” and “prized sociability above . . . study.” The goal of liberal education was not “active public service” but rather acceptance into the best circles.

After the rise of the research university, liberal education consists less in mastering an existing body of knowledge than in preparing to generate new knowledge. The liberally educated person is an adherent of the scientific method, trained to contribute to or at least accept the truths that method produces. Because scientific research demands specialization, and every field produces “new knowledge and truth,” there is no strong reason to insist that every student experience a common core. The “distinction between a liberal and a professional education becomes ever more vague.”

Kagan’s capsule history shows that what we mean by liberal education depends in part on what we mean by freedom. Here is one liberal democratic possibility: if the “special character” of our society is “to encourage doubt and questioning of its own values and assumptions,” then liberal education can mean education for reflective citizenship. While American civilization, like other civilizations, depends on certain “basic values,” those values, like the ones embodied in the Declaration, are in fruitful tension with “our tradition of free critical inquiry,” which prevents “received moral and civil teachings from becoming ethnocentric complacency.”

Kagan fears, however, that another possibility has won out. Here, he channels my teacher, Allan Bloom, in Closing of the American Mind. Our love of equality and freedom, which can attach us to “natural rights” and interest us in “the historical origins of our regime,” can cause us to deny even the “special claim of reason,” let alone the special claims of received moral and civic teachings. Kagan thinks that “today’s liberal arts students come to college . . . bearing a kind of relativism.” Their unexamined belief that reason cannot judge different claims concerning the best life “extinguishes,” in Bloom’s words, “the true motive of education.” Moreover, Kagan says, it immunizes students against rational scrutiny. If no one view is better than any other, their own beliefs are “entirely valid.”

Kagan argues that what’s left of liberal education resembles the 18th century English model. Elite students are expected to become well rounded, and the function of residential colleges is otherwise to ease a student’s way into adult elite society, to teach students the “style, manner, political opinions and prejudices” that will “make them comfortable in a similarly educated society.” Liberal education is a mere “social distinction.”

What can we do? Kagan thinks that liberal education in our time needs to “include a common core of studies for all its students,” thereby affirming that “some questions are of fundamental importance to everyone.” Kagan’s core would include “the study of the literature, philosophy, and history . . . of our culture from its origins.”

Interesting students in such a core requires superb teachers. Bloom half-joked in Closing that he tried to “teach [his] students prejudices.” I think he meant that when students come to school convinced that no belief can be true, the first step is to draw them, even at the cost of exaggeration, to powerful visions of the way things are or should be, the kinds of visions articulated in Kagan’s core.

The prospects for a robust common core are in many ways poor. But they are also better than they have been in some time. Colleges today are under great pressure to prove their worth amid doubts, pressed in books like Academically Adrift, that their students are learning anything. In this atmosphere, the demands of branding and the demands of liberal education may meet.

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Could Weiner Win on Education? Maybe if He Tried.

With the introduction of Anthony Weiner into the New York City mayoral race, things in the Big Apple have definitely become more interesting (and that’s not just in the form of suggestive New York Post headlines). As Jonathan mentioned last week, the race for Gracie Mansion, as far as Weiner is concerned, is dependent upon the middle class. With that in mind, Weiner came out swinging (albeit wildly) at his debate debut on an issue on the minds of many middle-class voters in New York: education.

The New York Daily News reported on Weiner’s controversy-sparking comments on education, which were directly addressed to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Weiner and Cuomo had a public spat last week when it was widely reported that Cuomo told the editorial board of the the Post-Standard and Syracuse Media Group “Shame on us” if Weiner is elected mayor. By couching his comments on education within the spat with Cuomo, Weiner guaranteed that his comments would make the papers. 

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With the introduction of Anthony Weiner into the New York City mayoral race, things in the Big Apple have definitely become more interesting (and that’s not just in the form of suggestive New York Post headlines). As Jonathan mentioned last week, the race for Gracie Mansion, as far as Weiner is concerned, is dependent upon the middle class. With that in mind, Weiner came out swinging (albeit wildly) at his debate debut on an issue on the minds of many middle-class voters in New York: education.

The New York Daily News reported on Weiner’s controversy-sparking comments on education, which were directly addressed to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo. Weiner and Cuomo had a public spat last week when it was widely reported that Cuomo told the editorial board of the the Post-Standard and Syracuse Media Group “Shame on us” if Weiner is elected mayor. By couching his comments on education within the spat with Cuomo, Weiner guaranteed that his comments would make the papers. 

During the debate Weiner took what would be considered a somewhat conservative approach to education by promising to take on local teachers’ unions in order to reward top performing teachers. Weiner blasted high-stakes testing originating in Albany but did not join his fellow Democratic candidates in criticizing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s focus on the expansion of charter schools. Many of these education stances have support from middle-class parents who are increasingly overwhelmed by struggling schools and admissions processes that rival that of most Ivy League universities. Recently, the city’s parents have become obsessed by two scandals involving testing for students wishing to enter the coveted gifted and talented program. Access to quality and affordable education is an important issue to parents and students across the country, but for those in New York City, it is one fraught with an incredible amount of confusion, anxiety and cost.

If Weiner had come off during the debate as well-informed and passionate about the issue, it could have been a game changing debate for his young and highly mocked campaign. However, according to the New York Times roundup of the debate, Weiner came off incredibly flippant and ill-informed on a crucial issue to a constituency his campaign has hinged its success on. Late in the debate, the candidates were all asked about an influential founder of a charter-school network in the city and whether she received special treatment from city hall, as her detractors allege, and Weiner didn’t seem to have any idea who she was. There are few issues more important to middle-class voters in New York City right now than education. Weiner’s disregard for voters and their concerns doesn’t bode well for his chances. 

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Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Higher Education

On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

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On my Twitter feed one morning last week, this story made the rounds. One-third of Millennials (aged 22-32) regret having gone to college. We can expect this finding to become a part of the “higher education bubble” story, which goes like this. Thanks to increasing worries about student loan debt, high tuition, and the difficulty even college graduates have on the job market, students and parents are seeing more and more that college isn’t worth it. As a result, we can expect to see a radical transformation of the higher education sector, which will be conquered by nimbler, cheaper, online alternatives. I have written about the bubble argument here.

The pressures on brick-and-mortar colleges that bubble enthusiasts identify are real. But they have been sensationalized. It is simply not true that one-third of Millennial graduates regret having gone to college.

That number comes from a survey, commissioned by Wells Fargo, and conducted by Market Pro, Inc., comparing the views of Millennials and Baby Boomers (aged 48-66). Alas, the survey is not available online, but I was able to obtain a copy from Wells Fargo.

Millennial college graduates were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off financially in the long run if instead of going to college and paying tuition, I had spent those years working and starting my career.” Eleven percent strongly agreed with that statement, and 19 percent somewhat agreed with it. While agreeing “somewhat” that one would probably have been financially better off skipping college is hardly the same as regretting you have gone to college, one can, allowing for the loose way in which journalists often report surveys, accept that one-third of Millennials at least doubt that college was worth it from a financial perspective. But there are two other survey findings that have gone unreported.

There is no excuse for not reporting the first, because the Wells Fargo report blares it: “Virtually all Millennials and Boomers believe their college education to be a good value.” “Thinking about the cost of a college education and the opportunities it provides, would you rate the value of your education a great value, somewhat of a value, not much of a value, or no value at all?” Eighty-eight percent of Millennials and 90 percent of Boomers selected one of the first two options. I think the Wells Fargo report exaggerates this finding; thinking that your college education is “somewhat of a value” does not mean that you think your college education is a good value. Still, Wells Fargo’s exaggeration is no worse that “one-third of Millennials regret having gone to college.”

Only 43 percent of Millennials, compared to 53 percent of Boomers, say that their college education was a great financial value. But if you had asked me, even in a good economy, even in a period when graduates carried less loan debt, whether older people would appreciate their college educations more than younger ones, I would have answered “yes” and expected a difference of at least the magnitude Wells Fargo found. What is surprising is that there is no significant difference when the “somewhat of a value” and “great value” categories are put together. Given the growing popularity of the story that more and more young people think that college isn’t worth it, that finding is arguably the real headline news.

Also left out is that Millennials without college degrees were asked to respond to this statement: “I would probably be better off in the long run if I had attended/received a college education, even considering the cost of education.” Notice that this statement, the flip side of the one about working instead of going to college, is, unlike that one, worded to put the respondent in mind of costs, while saying nothing about “opportunities.” Nonetheless, 75 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that they would probably have been better off going to college.

I do not mean to suggest that everything, or much of anything, is rosy for colleges and universities at the moment, nor do I mean to suggest that every graduate or potential student should consider higher education a great value. But people who are concerned about the future of higher education, whatever they think that future may bring, should be able to agree that our reflections on it need to be founded in careful interpretations of the data we have.

Everyone needs to calm down.

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Another Question for Education Reformers

In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

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In a 2010 essay for National Affairs, Frederick Hess tackled a very difficult question: does school choice work? It’s not so easy to answer, for a few reasons: long-term studies are fewer and farther between; there are different kinds of “school choice” and different ways to offer and administer such opportunities; and most considerations of school choice effects don’t really measure, say, the difference in safety and security for students who may be performing about average in their new environment but do not fear for their lives going to and from school each day.

But the simple fact that we’re still asking the question–or using alternative methods to grade progress–suggests at the very least that the fledgling school choice movement has not met its expectations. Those in favor of school choice respond, correctly, that the evidence shows plenty of encouraging signs for properly designed school choice programs, and that efforts by school choice opponents to limit and obstruct the process plays its own part in obscuring the efficacy of school choice. There is also the simple element of fairness and equality of opportunity: why should poor Americans have fewer educational opportunities than others? But the mixed results on school choice also shine a light on one very important–and often overlooked–aspect of education reform: curriculum matters a great deal. Conservatives worried about the state of American education have to be prepared to tackle the question of not only where the students should learn, but what they should learn.

Though it wasn’t intended as such, an intriguing idea comes today from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s review of a posthumously published memoir of Earl Shorris, a different kind of education reformer. Shorris, Riley writes, wanted to tackle the problem of poverty, and figured out a unique approach while interviewing inmates at a prison. Riley recounts the conversation:

He asked one of the women at New York’s Bedford Hills maximum-security prison why she thought the poor were poor. “Because they don’t have the moral life of downtown,” she replied. “What do you mean by the moral life?” Shorris asked. “You got to begin with the children . . . ,” she said. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures.” He asked whether she meant the humanities. Looking at him as if he were, as he puts it, “the stupidest man on earth,” she replied: “Yes, Earl, the humanities.”

That provided the spark that eventually became the Clemente Course in the Humanities, which Shorris designed and which is available to the poor in many cities in the U.S. as well as a few countries abroad. Riley continues:

The Clemente Course differs from life at universities in other ways—for instance, by taking the Western classics seriously. How many college graduates have read Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and Mill? It also differs in its sense of what the texts can do. Much of the liberal-arts curriculum in universities today is devoted to learning about oppression of one sort or another, but Shorris argued that the study of the humanities is a fundamentally optimistic endeavor. Not that Clemente texts are routinely cheery or anodyne. Shorris himself taught Dostoevsky, “the brilliant archeologist who dared to make us look deep into our dark sides.” But Shorris did feel that, by reading and discussing classic texts, life was better or richer in some fundamental sense: more valued, more hopeful, more free.

Though Riley specifically mentions universities, there’s no reason this idea couldn’t be integrated into high school curriculum too. In the culmination of his life’s work, a 1,200-page history of political thought, Alan Ryan discusses the fact that political theorists must grapple with the thoughts and ideas of their long-dead predecessors. “There is no way to do this,” Ryan admits, “without running the risk of foisting our own views on the unresisting dead. It is the obvious danger of attempting to have a conversation with great, but absent, thinkers who cannot tell us we are talking nonsense.”

Yet as students who study the classics could attest, it matters less that they cannot tell us we are talking nonsense than that we are attempting the conversation. When students grapple with the great thinkers and writers, they permit themselves to elevate their own intellectual stature in order to “get in the ring” in the first place.

When Shorris says that studying the classics can make a life more hopeful, more free, he knew what he was talking about. One of the last chapters in Shorris’s book, The Art of Freedom, describes a reunion of sorts in Salt Lake City of graduates of the course. They describe it alternately as “life-altering,” a rebirth, a way to tap into hidden strengths and talents. “They read the Allegory of the Cave as if it were the story of their own experience before they came to the course,” he writes. But you get the feeling that although he was pleased, he wasn’t surprised. Unlike real estate, when it comes to education it isn’t only about location, location, location. Education reformers would do well to keep that in mind.

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It’s Not Only the Colleges that Weren’t Honest with Suzy Weiss

Michael Rubin is probably right that the schools that rejected Suzy Lee Weiss made the wrong call, though it says something about the admissions process on the whole that the esteemed colleges are only finding out about her poise, sharp wit and independent mind after having rejected her applications. I was also struck by one sentence early on in the op-ed in which she writes: “For years, they—we—were lied to” by the college administrators who told applicants to just be themselves.

Years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter, we did a story series on getting into college. We covered every aspect of the process, and that included talking to admissions officers and college guidance counselors. University deans may not be honest about what it takes to get admitted to their school, but guidance counselors were certainly honest–at least with us. I don’t know what high school juniors and seniors are being told today, but the guidance counselors and admissions officers were crystal clear: if the school needs a goalie for its lacrosse team, that goalie is getting in instead of hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants with better grades and test scores. We were told the schools keep track of everything, right down to the opening at tuba player on the marching band. You didn’t just need extracurriculars, in other words–you needed to match your extracurriculars with the schools’ needs. That introduces a great deal of luck into a process already low on meritocratic prioritization, and breeds even more frustration on the part of some high-schoolers.

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Michael Rubin is probably right that the schools that rejected Suzy Lee Weiss made the wrong call, though it says something about the admissions process on the whole that the esteemed colleges are only finding out about her poise, sharp wit and independent mind after having rejected her applications. I was also struck by one sentence early on in the op-ed in which she writes: “For years, they—we—were lied to” by the college administrators who told applicants to just be themselves.

Years ago, when I was a local newspaper reporter, we did a story series on getting into college. We covered every aspect of the process, and that included talking to admissions officers and college guidance counselors. University deans may not be honest about what it takes to get admitted to their school, but guidance counselors were certainly honest–at least with us. I don’t know what high school juniors and seniors are being told today, but the guidance counselors and admissions officers were crystal clear: if the school needs a goalie for its lacrosse team, that goalie is getting in instead of hundreds, maybe thousands, of applicants with better grades and test scores. We were told the schools keep track of everything, right down to the opening at tuba player on the marching band. You didn’t just need extracurriculars, in other words–you needed to match your extracurriculars with the schools’ needs. That introduces a great deal of luck into a process already low on meritocratic prioritization, and breeds even more frustration on the part of some high-schoolers.

It isn’t just the high-profile sports, in other words, that receive colleges’ targeted recruitment, though they get most of the scholarships. (I was captain of my high school chess team and received chess-related mailings from schools. I was also captain of our basketball team, but somehow eluded the scouts on that one.) Again, speaking to reporters on the record, guidance counselors and other officials were very clear about all this–and it was infuriating to some parents who quite understandably didn’t relish the suggestion that their burden wasn’t enough, and they had to add to it a reverse-recruitment microtargeting campaign to find a suitable college for their child.

If Weiss wasn’t told any of this, she has reason to feel aggrieved. What were her school’s college guidance counselors telling the kids? That their winning smile and the right attitude were sure to get them into Stanford?

The best part of Weiss’s appearance on the “Today Show,” by far, was when host Savannah Guthrie reads back the diversity part of Weiss’s op-ed to her and waits for a reaction that isn’t coming. Weiss wrote:

had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it….

I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life.

Guthrie then looks at Weiss and says: “I mean, for one thing, some people read this and they say you are being very cavalier about the importance of diversity.” Weiss dismisses the attempted shaming by saying the piece was satire. But here Weiss isn’t giving herself enough credit. The problem with the section of Weiss’s op-ed about diversity was that it wasn’t an exaggeration: had Weiss followed her joking suggestions, she very well might have been accepted by any number of universities whose admissions officers probably cringed at the op-ed because Weiss was describing actual applicants they happily accepted over Weiss.

Guthrie may have seen Weiss’s words as cartoonish, but here’s the point: they accurately describe the attitudes of the deans at America’s top universities. Weiss didn’t lampoon them so much as expose them to a wider audience.

As Michael notes, there is a lack of intellectual diversity at these universities–but not only intellectual diversity. When we did that story series, it became quite clear that schools’ desire to accept more minorities did not result in nearly enough increased opportunity. The schools merely accepted suburban, middle-class high-achieving minority teenagers from decent schools and stable homes instead of white teenagers that fit the exact same profile. Minorities from crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods and broken homes and failing schools had the door shut on them just as quickly as the door shut on Weiss.

Liberals talk a lot about inequality. It’s a shame they do so much to perpetuate it.

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Danger Sign on the Student Loan Bubble

Who could have possibly predicted that extending a practically unlimited line of credit to 18-year-old college students could have turned out so poorly? Yesterday, student debt levels reached a new milestone: “The proportion of U.S. student loan balances that are in delinquency — that is, unpaid for 90 days or more — surpassed that of credit-card balances in the third quarter for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” 

The student loan bubble, largely financed by federal tax dollars, is an entirely predictable and avoidable financial catastrophe. Students, in spite of their estimated future earning potential, are given the ability to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend any institution of higher education in the country, regardless of that institution’s ability to produce degrees of equal or higher value. According to CBS Moneywatch, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.” That’s an incredible statistic when you consider that two-thirds of students currently pursuing a bachelors degree are borrowing in order to do so — over 6 percent of students attending college right now will walk away with more than $54,000 in loans. The average amount of debt for a bachelors degree is $23,300; for students that went on to obtain medical, law or other specialized degrees, that average skyrockets.

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Who could have possibly predicted that extending a practically unlimited line of credit to 18-year-old college students could have turned out so poorly? Yesterday, student debt levels reached a new milestone: “The proportion of U.S. student loan balances that are in delinquency — that is, unpaid for 90 days or more — surpassed that of credit-card balances in the third quarter for the first time, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.” 

The student loan bubble, largely financed by federal tax dollars, is an entirely predictable and avoidable financial catastrophe. Students, in spite of their estimated future earning potential, are given the ability to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend any institution of higher education in the country, regardless of that institution’s ability to produce degrees of equal or higher value. According to CBS Moneywatch, “for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000.” That’s an incredible statistic when you consider that two-thirds of students currently pursuing a bachelors degree are borrowing in order to do so — over 6 percent of students attending college right now will walk away with more than $54,000 in loans. The average amount of debt for a bachelors degree is $23,300; for students that went on to obtain medical, law or other specialized degrees, that average skyrockets.

The average graduating law school student at the California Western School of Law owes more than $153,000 and over 89 percent of students graduate with debt of some kind. Students graduating from Columbia University and Georgetown University graduate with an average of more than $132,000 in debt. The average amount of debt of all graduating medical students is more than $160,000 and students graduating from seven schools in the U.S. walk away with at least $200,000 in debt on average. 

There is no easy fix to the student debt crisis. American students already owe over $950 billion and the president’s solution only limits how much students are required to pay back according to their income levels without limiting how much they are able to borrow or how much schools are reimbursed. The president’s plan would make it possible, starting in 2014, for payments to be capped at 10 percent of a borrower’s “disposable” income for 20 years, at which point the debt will be forgiven (10 years for public-service employees). Under this plan, schools can continue raising tuition far beyond inflation rates with no consequences to their bottom lines and students can continue to borrow knowing they have the option of a governmental safety net down the line. This leaves taxpayers on the hook for the remainder, an amount that is increasing at a remarkable rate (student borrowing increased 20 percent from the third quarter of this fiscal year to the fourth).

These reforms will do nothing but grow the student loan bubble to an even more unmanageable size and force students to pay up to 10 percent of their income for up to 20 years of their lives, hampering their ability to obtain financial independence from their parents, buy homes and have children. Instead of changing how students pay back their loans, why not change the way they take them out? Given that there are estimated income projections for college majors, why not limit the amount of federal loans given to students based on their projected ability to pay them back in ten years’ time? If colleges and universities produce students unable to find employment sufficient enough to stop their graduates from going into default, why not give the government the ability to obtain a refund for the cost of degrees of those who go into default?

For the sake of the American economy and a generation of students graduating college in the last 10 years, the student loan bubble cannot be ignored for much longer. If Obama were serious about solving the problem and earning the votes of the 67 percent of young people who voted for him, these reforms would only be step one. Yesterday’s news of soaring and record-setting delinquency rates is just one sign of many that the student loan bubble isn’t going anywhere. 

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Obama’s Education Fear-Mongering

The Obama campaign’s theme this week is education. President Obama wants voters to believe that as president, Mitt Romney would be bad for education in every context: in public schools, in colleges, and for teachers.

So far, he’s not having nearly as easy a time convincing voters he’s the better candidate as he had in 2008. The Huffington Post tries to explain why:

Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they “were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools.” Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters’ support, compared with Obama’s 41 percent.

The findings make sense because Romney “was governor of an educationally successful state” that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Chester Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which “suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue.”

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The Obama campaign’s theme this week is education. President Obama wants voters to believe that as president, Mitt Romney would be bad for education in every context: in public schools, in colleges, and for teachers.

So far, he’s not having nearly as easy a time convincing voters he’s the better candidate as he had in 2008. The Huffington Post tries to explain why:

Despite the attacks, a new poll finds Romney trails Obama by a small margin on education and holds a slight edge on the issue among independents.

The annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the “public’s attitudes toward the public schools” asked registered independents to choose a candidate if they “were voting solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools.” Overall, 49 percent supported Obama, compared with 44 percent for Romney. But Romney had 46 percent of independent voters’ support, compared with Obama’s 41 percent.

The findings make sense because Romney “was governor of an educationally successful state” that transitioned from mediocre performance to star status, said Chester Finn, who presides over the right-leaning Washington think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and who worked in President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Finn noted that in 2008, Obama led John McCain in education by 17 percentage points, which “suggests that Romney is far better positioned on this issue.”

While HuffPo may be onto something with Romney’s previous success in Massachusetts, I suspect that the vast majority of Americans are unaware of any successes (or failures) Romney may have faced during his time as governor. Romney’s campaign has been playing on a theme in its opposition to ObamaCare that may be resonating with Americans outside of the debate over healthcare policy.

This morning Conn Carroll discussed the war on “free stuff” that the Romney campaign has been waging, with Romney explaining to Americans,

When I mentioned I am going to get rid of Obamacare [at the NAACP] they weren’t happy… That’s OK, I want people to know what I stand for and if I don’t stand for what they want, go vote for someone else, that’s just fine. But I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more free stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy. But don’t forget nothing is really free.

The Romney campaign is out with a new ad on the topic that is sure to resonate with anyone whose parents told them that money doesn’t grow on trees (that was one of my mother’s favorite lines). The Obama campaign is trying to stir outrage against Romney following these remarks made March 5 in Youngstown, Ohio during a question-and-answer portion of his appearance:

QUESTION: I’m a senior in high school right now. I’m going to be going to college next year and it’s not very cheap. I was curious, if elected, what would you do to, um, with regards to college tuition, whether making it easier for me and my classmates, in regards to that?

GOV. ROMNEY: The best thing I can do for you, is to tell you to shop around. And to compare tuitions in different places and make sure you are getting the education you want for the cost you want.  Make sure you can get your degree in four years. Or less…. Recognize that college is expensive; you don’t want to have huge debts. And I’m not, and I know that it would be popular for me to stand here and tell you that I’m going to give you government money, to make sure to pay for your college but I’m not going to promise that. What I’m going to tell you is to shop around, get a good price and I do feel this, if you’re willing to serve your country in the military, for instance, that’s a place where we’re going to say “yeah were going to give you help.” In my state, the legislator and I came together, in my state, to say that anyone who has served in the national guard, we will provide for tuition and fees for four years of college to make sure that you will get that start. So if you’re willing to serve we can be of more help. But my best advice is; find a great institution of higher learning, find one that has the right price, shop around. In America this idea of competition, it works and don’t just go to the one that has the highest price, go to the one that has a little lower price where you can get an education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt you take on. And, I want to make sure that every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the change to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available, shop around for loans, make sure that you go to a place that’s reasonably priced and if you can, think about serving the country because that’s away to get all the education for free. Thank you.

From that speech, President Obama tweeted this last night:

I wonder what President Obama finds so offensive about “shopping around.” Americans never pay full sticker price for comparably sized purchases like cars or homes. Why would students take out on average over $20,000 in loans before first making sure they are getting the best price a school can offer with the most financial aid possible? Governor Romney’s advice, even when taken out of context by the Obama campaign, is sound financial counsel.

Obama added a dose of fear-mongering, by telling young voters about the possibility that they will pay more on their loans and receive less in Pell Grants. With his rhetoric on college education costs, it seems Obama is attempting to shore up youth support that, while all but guaranteed last election, seems very much more precarious this time around. What President Obama seems to misunderstand is what young people in the beginning stages of their careers need from his administration. Most Americans don’t need free bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts. They want a way to pay back their student loans; they want jobs. They want an economy that is ready, willing and able to absorb them post-graduation so that they can become independent adults in need of no governmental or parental handouts. They’ll take a job as a fisherman before settling for a free fish.

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Obama’s Weak on the Real Civil Rights Issue

President Obama may be planning to run for re-election in part by touting his schemes to create more “fairness” by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but his Republican opponent is wisely choosing to try to trump him by focusing on the most important factor behind inequality in America: education. Mitt Romney used his appearance yesterday before the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to not just pay lip service to the issue of education but to announce his support for a step that could actually be the beginning of a sea change in governmental thinking about funding. Romney stated that if elected he would ensure that federal education funds will follow the students rather than merely being poured into the public schools in the areas where they live. If he follows through on this promise he would take the United States a significant way down the road toward a genuine system of school choice that would enable all parents, and not just the wealthy, to choose the best schools for their children rather than being stuck in what Romney rightly called failing institutions.

In an account of the speech that seemed cribbed from the Democratic campaign talking points, the New York Times tried to portray Romney’s stance as just a faint echo of Obama’s efforts on education that they claim have co-opted some traditional Republican positions. That is a gross exaggeration, because the president remains firmly in the pocket of the teacher unions and other supporters of the educational status quo. But whatever common ground may exist between the two on charter schools, Romney’s pledge on choice provides a stark contrast to the Democrat’s and one that can work to his advantage as a campaign issue. For all of his talk about equality, Obama is vulnerable here because of his ideological opposition to empowering parents rather than the government educational monopoly.

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President Obama may be planning to run for re-election in part by touting his schemes to create more “fairness” by raising the taxes of the wealthy, but his Republican opponent is wisely choosing to try to trump him by focusing on the most important factor behind inequality in America: education. Mitt Romney used his appearance yesterday before the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to not just pay lip service to the issue of education but to announce his support for a step that could actually be the beginning of a sea change in governmental thinking about funding. Romney stated that if elected he would ensure that federal education funds will follow the students rather than merely being poured into the public schools in the areas where they live. If he follows through on this promise he would take the United States a significant way down the road toward a genuine system of school choice that would enable all parents, and not just the wealthy, to choose the best schools for their children rather than being stuck in what Romney rightly called failing institutions.

In an account of the speech that seemed cribbed from the Democratic campaign talking points, the New York Times tried to portray Romney’s stance as just a faint echo of Obama’s efforts on education that they claim have co-opted some traditional Republican positions. That is a gross exaggeration, because the president remains firmly in the pocket of the teacher unions and other supporters of the educational status quo. But whatever common ground may exist between the two on charter schools, Romney’s pledge on choice provides a stark contrast to the Democrat’s and one that can work to his advantage as a campaign issue. For all of his talk about equality, Obama is vulnerable here because of his ideological opposition to empowering parents rather than the government educational monopoly.

By treating federal education funds as the equivalent of vouchers that would be transferred to any school a child attends — be it public, charter or private — Romney is opening the door to a national re-examination of school choice measures that could revolutionize the educational system. Many states currently allow education funds to follow students, especially on items that are required by all schools, such as standard text books or busing. But the rigid opposition of both the unions and liberal ideologues has served as an impassable obstacle to changing the system so as to recognize the principle that all schools that serve the children of the nation, including those that are private or religious, are in effect public schools. That would mean the local as well as federal education funding should be distributed to all accredited schools rather than just those with the public label.

Doing so would advance the cause of education. It would create the competitive pressure for excellence that has often been lacking in the public system.

This is a critical issue for all Americans but even more so for minorities and the poor. While the wealthy have the ability to choose the best schools for their kids, those without the same resources are stuck in failed public schools where children don’t have much of a chance. The president played a prominent role in ending a successful experiment in school choice in the District of Columbia that allowed poor children to attend the elite Sidwell Friends School (where his own two daughters go) rather than a Washington public school. The glaring hypocrisy of his position that effectively closes out a quality option for the people he claims to represent is one that ought not to be forgotten.

Though the movement of federal education funds is more of a symbolic move than anything else, Romney has still thrown down the gauntlet to Obama on an issue where it is the Republican and not the president who is defending the interests of minorities and the poor. If this is to be an election fought on the question of equality, Romney has found a good place to stand his ground.

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