The top 5 underreported education stories of 2011

Joy Pullmann Managing Editor, School Reform News
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With the New Year upon us, pundits are handing out their “best and worst” awards and gossip magazines their “top whatever” lists. Well, on my list, you won’t find Occupy Wall Street or No Child Left Behind drama, but something much more significant to taxpayers, parents, and citizens: the top five underreported education stories of 2011.

5. The cost of implementing the Common Core. Forty-five states adopted Common Core education standards in 2010 and 2011, largely because the Obama administration required states to do so in order to receive the Race to the Top federal grants and waivers for No Child Left Behind.

But the latest estimates suggest that completely redoing state textbooks, retraining teachers and administrators, and adopting aligned tests will cost something like $30 billion. Keep in mind that the states are $120 billion in debt and several studies have concluded that the Common Core standards are poor.

Never fear: The U.S. Department of Education is willing to “help” by overstepping its constitutional and statutory bounds to fund and develop Common Core national curriculum and tests.

4. Indiana’s school vouchers program has more first-year participants than any other, and most participants are poor and/or minority families. This fall, 3,919 Indiana students received state vouchers to attend private schools of their parents’ choice. That’s 1,206 more than the previous first-year record-holder, Ohio (which is considering adding a fifth voucher program). Eighty-five percent of these kids are below or near the poverty line, and 53 percent are minorities — in a state where 82 percent of the school-age population is white.

Indiana’s 2011 school choice legislation garnered massive media attention, as has the lawsuit currently pending against it and a handful of isolated incidents where parents put their kids back in public school this year to qualify for a voucher next year. But few people have looked at the data demonstrating that people in the most traditionally disadvantaged groups have lunged at this program, which was not even open for applicants until a few weeks before the start of school.

Families want school choice, but the public largely doesn’t know it.

3. New York City may not deserve its reformist reputation. New York’s glitterati includes Joel Klein, the former city schools chancellor, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Both are widely credited with improving New York City’s graduation rate and reducing the white-minority achievement gap after Bloomberg nabbed mayoral control of city schools in 2002.

Manhattan Institute fellow Sol Stern recently debunked this notion. Stern notes that the city’s education spending has nearly doubled since Bloomberg took office, to $23 billion annually, and that the city’s 67 percent high school graduation rate is belied by a state department of education study marking only 22 percent of graduates “college ready.” A mere 24 percent of current New York City eighth graders, who entered kindergarten after Bloomberg and Klein took over, scored “proficient” in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and recent reports show increases in state test scores are wildly inflated.

2. Federal student loans are a government moneymaker. When Congress made the federal government the direct lender of all previously subsidized college student loans in 2010, it essentially created another federal slush fund. The feds currently lend to students at 6.8 percent interest and borrow at less than 1 percent, spending the difference not on reducing the largest national debt we’ve ever had, but on expanding entitlements likely to increase that debt, such as Pell Grants.

What about all that rhetoric you’ve heard lately from President Obama about reducing student loan payments (though his recent initiative will only do so by less than $10 per student per month, on average)? Perhaps someone should ask why he doesn’t reduce federal student loan interest rates rather than pocketing the higher charges on these overindebted kids.

1. Missouri lawmakers consider forcing kids to remain in unaccredited schools. St. Louis public schools have been unaccredited since 2007. Kansas City public schools lost accreditation in 2011. Missouri lawmakers are currently considering legislation to bar students from leaving these districts for accredited schools in adjoining areas.

Why trap kids in schools that have failed for decades? Well, because neighboring districts worry transfers would overload their classrooms. Let’s all worry about the adults who have gotten their educations, not children who will never have another chance at theirs and can’t transfer credits or apply for college with unaccredited classes and diplomas.

There’s a simple solution to overcrowding: Tie state and local per-pupil spending to each student stuck in these failure factories, and let them take it to any school they please. Local Catholic schools have lots of capacity and a decades-long record of success with inner-city kids.

Many other good stories and statistics were lost in the 2011 echo chamber. Let’s hope the New Year brings with it a longer shelf life for equally substantive topics.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.