Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The War Against Children, Educaton Spending, and Speech Therapy for Your Drunk Uncle

One of the more depressing aspects of the most recent presidential election was the success of the “war on women” meme, which improbably worked in convincing a bunch of 20-something women that Mitt Romney had a deep and abiding interest in taking away their birth control (or, perhaps more precisely, simply refusing to pay for it). The success of this campaign was probably bolstered by the fact that few of these women could get a job in the Obama economy (women’s employment and workforce participation rates are down significantly under this President), and therefore spent much of their time getting their freak on and worrying about the potential consequences therefrom. (The alleged desire to take away birth control was the only new aspect to “women’s issues” – the dividing lines on abortion were no different in 2012 than they were in 1980. It was only after the election that we’d find out about the butcher Gosnell’s murderous abortion clinic, and the complete indifference to women’s safety displayed by the agencies responsible for regulating Gosnell’s house of horrors.)

And so a national election literally turned on a non-issue invented by George Stephanopolous with one question in a Republican primary debate, and the petulant whining of a law student whose contribution to the proud history of women’s liberation was to convince her cohort that it was grave injustice that they themselves, or in combination with their partner, would actually have to foot the bill for knocking the boots. It’s a sad testament to the power the media has to “frame” the issues that become important in an election. There is no doubting that this had a discernible effect on the election, and it is hard to imagine a more frivolous election issue, but such frivolity was necessary to distract people from the failure of the Obama administration to make any headway with the economy, let alone in its foreign policy, which is something of a joke, at least to our enemies. If future historians ever wish to point to a turning point that displayed the utter lack of seriousness in our political culture, they need not look further than the 2012 war on women.

A more serious issue that will be increasingly part of the media “frame” for current and future elections is income inequality. There is no doubt that the degree of income inequality is rising, both in the U.S. and in most developed countries. The fact of income inequality is likely to redound to the favor of those who seek to rectify the inequality by simply moving dollars from one hand to another. Obama famously told Joe the Plumber it’s time to spread the good fortune around in 2008, and followed that in 2012 by telling successful business owners your success is owed to someone else who built your fortune, and by extension now has a claim on your income through the coercive power of government to redistribute as it sees fit. More recently, the newly-elected Communist mayor of New York city lectured that it is only fair that the richest among New Yorkers (many of whom will soon be New Jerseyans) give a little more (a quaint euphemism for having more taken from them in taxes at the penalty of prison) to create more equal opportunity.

Income inequality and equality of opportunity are not one and the same. Greater redistribution presumably has two mechanisms to address income inequality: 1) the direct way is by simply thinning out the rich and giving directly to the poor, which may or may not have an ancillary effect on equality of opportunity; and 2) alternatively, the higher tax revenues can be used to improve educational opportunities for impoverished youth, which may directly provide more equality of opportunity, and indirectly might improve income inequality. And this is where the never-ending demands of the public education establishment come to the fore. Who can deny a kid an equal opportunity? Someone who opposes the latest increase in school spending, no matter the lack of evidence that higher spending improves educational outcomes – that’s who.

Are we shorting poor kids in education spending? In 1970–1971, the per-pupil expenditures were $5,593, and in 2006–2007, those same expenditures are measured at $12,463. In contrast to the spending, test scores haven’t risen since the early 1970s (Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation).

Of course, this is only average per pupil spending, and there may be significant and growing differences in spending per pupil in rich versus poor school systems. But while this may be true in some states, at the national level Washington D.C. is second only to the state of New York in per pupil spending, at close to $16,500 per kid. Here’s a little secret about Washington D.C. – there are a lot of very rich white people who live in Northwest D.C., who being card-carrying liberals dutifully pay their taxes and don’t complain about the schools. There is a reason they don’t complain about the schools – they wouldn’t be caught dead sending their kids to any of the public schools, because the schools are a disaster. They exist to serve the middle class administrators and teachers, and more importantly the union that represents them, and educational outcomes are a non-factor.

Compare the DC figure to the Leander school district in Texas, a state that ranked 43rd out of 50 in education spending in 2010, when the per pupil spending in 2010-11 was approximately $7,300. (This appears to be roughly in line with the average in Texas). My kids attend Leander schools. Prior to attending Leander schools, they were all enrolled in Arlington County schools in Virginia, which boasted per pupil spending of over $18,000 in 2012. At that time, my first and fourth graders were in classes with 25 other kids; that equates to an astounding $450,000 per classroom, but don’t expect a fifth grader in D.C. to be able to make that calculation. Hands down, the Leander schools we attend are superior to the Arlington schools we attended. My kids are challenged in every class here – they do far more writing, have much higher study demands, and have more inspirational teachers with more energy (it helps, I think, that the schools they attend here are less than 8 years old, and there is little deadweight in the form of tenured teachers who are total slackers, which we definitely saw in the older more established Arlington Middle School my kids attended).

How is it that the Leander schools with half the budget are so superior to the nationally recognized Arlington schools we attended? How is it that the D.C. schools, despite spending that is roughly in-line with the nationally recognized Arlington schools, are such a disaster? There is a simple reason, and it relates to the overall investment in the education of kids in these different districts. In my neighborhood in Texas, there are very few single parent families – I know of none personally, and I am a pretty social guy; moreover, the norm here is the more traditional single income family, typically with mothers staying at home to care for the kids. In Arlington, within our school district, there was more economic diversity, and a non-negligible portion of single family homes; additionally, many of the more well-off in the neighborhood were dual-income families, where both parents had significant work demands. And finally, in D.C., there is a very high proportion of single parent households left with no other option than the D.C. public schools.

If there were a way to measure the overall investment in the education of kids in my current neighborhood versus Arlington and D.C., I think you’d find we are spending more per-pupil by a wide margin. (Or, alternatively, if the direct parental investment is small in actual dollars, it is nevertheless necessary for the school spending portion to yield any success.) This means that not only are our kids coming in prepared for class, their classmates are as well because their parents, like us, are cracking the whip at home, helping with homework when needed, encouraging and rewarding their childrens’ efforts, and seeking opportunities outside of the traditional school environment to enhance their childrens’ education. With classmates prepared and motivated to do well, the peer group effect kicks in to reinforce the parents’ efforts at home. A motivated and prepared student body attracts better teachers. Maybe the parental investment is small relative to the per-pupil spending, but it appears to be necessary for educational success, and can clearly more than overcome any shortfall in per pupil spending.

I’m not sure if the inferiority of the Arlington schools we attended is due to the dual-income households, or the relatively higher proportion of single-parent households. Maybe it’s a little of both. Many of the dual-income households I knew personally were very vested in their kids’ education, but honestly having seen the work required of parents in our Texas schools to keep their kids on track with the higher homework demands I see here, I am not sure that increasing the workload for kids in Arlington would be met with much fanfare, especially since everyone in Arlington is already convinced that their schools are top notch.

Take my anecdotal comparison for what it’s worth, but I think there is a simple underlying truth – you can throw as much money as you want at educating kids in single-parent households, but these kids are generally more prone to lacking any corresponding investment in their education from home. And even if their single mom (the typical case) is making Herculean efforts to stay vested in their education, the likelihood is that she lives in a school district surrounded by other single-parents not so invested, and so her kid is still surrounded in school by a peer group that thinks doing well in school is not so cool. It’s hard to learn if the kids surrounding you are throwing paper airplanes past your nose, while your teacher pops another anti-anxiety pill.

If these observations aren’t self-evident to you based on your own experience of parenting, wanna trade kids? And if they are self-evident, isn’t it time to acknowledge that the source of inequality of opportunity is not a failure to support public school spending? I don’t doubt the earnestness of many public school teachers in these beleaguered school districts, but I’d be surprised if many of them believe that the educational outcomes of their students could be significantly improved by increased spending. Who believes, for example, that a doubling of per pupil spending in DC would change anything? Democratic politicians always beat the drum of increasing public school spending, which serves them directly through support of the very powerful teachers’ unions. But the increased spending is usually so disconnected from educational outcomes as to be laughable.

If you want to increase equality of opportunity, a worthy goal indeed, you have to address the fact that 40 percent of children born today in America are born to a single-parent household. For these kids, there is no over-coming the deficit they face relative to their more fortunate peers who go home to Mom and Dad. This is not the fault first and foremost of “society”, and it certainly isn’t the fault of capitalism; it is most directly the fault of one or both of two parents who purposefully screw over their kids.

So here is a little “framing” for ya – there is no war being waged in our culture, political or otherwise, against women. This is a fiction of the liberal imagination. In contrast, there is a war against children being waged primarily by their own parents, and the opposition to children in that war has the full support of a popular culture that is wedded to the notion of sexual freedom without judgment, and a political culture that is wedded to the welfare state as a means of spreading the cost of the cultural capitulation. The war pits parents against their kids, and there is no doubt which side the cultural and political left sides with.

Fifty years ago, if you were unlucky enough to be born to a single-parent home, you were one of 25 in that position, and so you were surrounded in your classroom by kids much like those who surround my kids in their current schools. But as that number grew to 4 in 10, very naturally the other 6 in 10 gravitated to separate neighborhoods, so that now the 4 in 10 have little experience, even indirectly, of successful marriages. One in twenty five can be chalked up to accidents will happen; four in ten is a sign of deep cultural crisis. For those four in ten, their first lesson in life, fully supported by the popular culture, is a duty to making yourself happy – if marriage and parenthood is an obstacle to that duty, no one blames you for walking away from both. They are damned to repeat that lesson for their own kids. And yet, when election time rolls around, we are asked to ignore the elephant in the room, as if the stork has just randomly ramped up delivering babies to unsuspecting single woman.

Chances are that if you are reading this, or if you are involved or interested in the debate over equality of opportunity or income inequality, you were raised in a stable two-parent family. The President himself is a notable exception, but I think we can all safely agree that the odds of most kids abandoned by their father parlaying a memoir replete with composite white girlfriends into leadership of the free world are exceedingly small. And yet one side to this debate doesn’t notice the key factor that distinguished who is engaged in the debate versus who the debate concerns. It is as if a completely sober nephew is going to great lengths to get speech therapy for his uncle who slurs his speech because he’s drunk all the time. It’s called enabling.


Anonymous pbb said...

I'll admit that I'm not familiar with the social science literature on the topic, but are you saying that, in general, parents should stay in loveless and unhappy marriages for the sake of the kids, and if they did, outcomes would be different? I've had long discussions with friends of mine about this, and always came down on the side that it wasn't healthy for children to see parents that didn't kiss, didn't hug, slept in separate beds, etc. That being in a "business arrangement" marriage had the potential to be just as harmful as being shuttled between two single parent households. Maybe I'm wrong. I often hear that its noble for parents to stay in it for the sake of the kids, but I don't know if science has proven it or not.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Pbb, I think the 40% stat refers to kids born to parents out of wedlock, so it doesn't even capture those left in single parent households as a result of divorce. I think the definition of "unhappy" has loosened in the last 50 years, so that people pick up and leave for frivolous and selfish reasons. They can do this now because of the backlash against being judgmental. No doubt there are untenable relationships, but they didn't used to be the majority - why are they now?

12:48 PM  

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