Posts Tagged ‘school funding’

By Richard Ohmann

So I’m listening to Marketplace Money (Sept. 8), and hear host Bob Moon lament that “the lousy economy is causing colleges to keep raising their prices or lowering their quality,” or both.  A “vicious, unsustainable cycle–until now.”  But here’s commentator Kim Clark with an “example of something done right.”

The something right is Clarkson University’s adaptation of Milton Friedman’s old idea to let some poor students in without tuition, and collect a surcharge on their later earnings instead.  Clarkson is admitting a few go-getters, free, “in return for a 10-percent share of their start-ups.”  It’s investing in two, this year; next year it will recruit “up to five more teen entrepreneurs”; and still more after that, if these “educational investments” work out.  “Imagine if all colleges’ revenues depended on their students’ success,” Clark continues.  “The invisible hand of the market would quickly crush diploma mills and party schools.  Colleges would realize they couldn’t afford to be soft on do-nothing professors or cheating students.”  What a great idea, as Kim Clark puts it, “to align the financial interests of colleges with those of their students.”

Right, I say.  Imagine how much better Harvard would have done, had it followed this business model.  By giving only two (2!) teen entrepreneurs free rides, in exchange for a 10% share of their startups, Harvard would have cruised through the crash of 2008 with no decline in endowment–a big increase, in fact.  Since neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg actually needed an education in order to make $billions, the University could have fired all of its do-nothing professors but a few whose jobs would have been to catch and get rid of cheating students.  The place would be rolling in dough.

Of course Harvard’s present model for aligning its interests with those of its students isn’t so bad:  select a few students (qualified or not) whose families run the world; charge them hefty tuition fees (much higher than $60,000 a year, I recommend); let them party to beat all; collect their multi-million-dollar gifts and estates over many decades; and keep the class system humming along.

Let’s call this the Cabot-Rockefeller business model, and the other one, the Tea Party business model.  RT readers:  which do you prefer?  Which would be best for community colleges?  For the University of Phoenix?  And what, me worry?


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By Donald Lazere

Dick Ohmann’s provocation on the contradictory messages being put out by politicians, corporations, and the media about the fiscal crisis of American education sent me back to a critique I’ve been drafting of conservative economist Richard Vedder on this issue. In the following, I’ve sketchily pasted together sections of that piece and modifications suggested by Dick’s notes.

Recent public debates on both the financial decline of American universities and the escalating costs and debts incurred by students have increasingly been framed by conservative scholars such as those surveyed by Jacques Steinberg in a New York Times article, “Plan B: Skip College” (May 15, 2010).  These scholars’ arguments include the following: The economic benefits of public universities to both the public and to their graduates do not repay their costs to taxpayers.  Universities are inefficiently operated, and an excess of government-funded financial aid contributes to their fiscal irresponsibility. Too many Americans go to college who are unqualified, unmotivated, and thus likely to drop out before graduation; more should settle for vocational education. Employers often fetishize college degrees that may not be necessary for the level of work they supposedly certify.  Many students falsely consider college education an entitlement rather than a privilege that must be earned by financial and academic probity.  Arguments like these have an obvious appeal for taxpayers who might not have been able to afford college themselves and cannot understand why they should be subsidizing four years or more of cushy campus life for other people’s children.


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The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation plans to spend $3 billion in the next few years on K-12 education.  It had assets of over $30 billion at the end of last year, and presumably a lot more where that came from–Bill Gates’ bank account.  Warren Buffet, his fellow trustee, is the second richest man in the US.  Maybe their visible hands can feed our struggling schools just the diet they need.

Or maybe not.  The July 10 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek (“Bill Gates’ School Crusade”) notes that the Foundation spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” starting in 2000 “to revitalize schools by making them smaller, only to discover that student body size has little effect on achievement.”  (See Picturing the Uncertain World, 2009, by Howard Wainer, a Wharton School statistician.)  With confidence undiminished by this error, the Gates Foundation now commits $290 million to a well-publicized, model program in Tampa, Memphis, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles, based on the “emerging consensus” that “quality of teaching affects student performance.”  While the veteran reader is sleepily nodding his or her head at the obvious truth, the Bloomberg sentence goes on, “and that increasing achievement is as simple as removing bad teachers, identifying good ones, and rewarding them with more money.”

It doesn’t sound simple to me.  Let’s leave aside important specific questions that research is just beginning to address, such as whether this year’s leading “good” teachers, by the measure of improvement in students’ test scores, will remain on top of the “good” pile next year (the answer seems to be no, according to a Florida study reported in this article).  Leave aside all the less-than-super teachers, down to and including the “bad” ones, who might actually learn to teach better, with a little help from their colleagues.  Leave aside the matter of whether tests exist that might tell administrators which bad art teachers to fired along with the bad math teachers.  Leave aside the uncertainty that should trouble fans of No Child Left Behind, and most other ed reformers of the last decade:  what evidence is there that test-driven schooling makes for good education?  Leave aside the even more critical question, “what is schooling for?”–to which Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, and almost all of our power brokers reply in unison:  it’s for training workers and improving US competitiveness in the global economy.  That simple?

No matter.  The Gates Foundation can bet a few hundred million here and a few hundred there on educational clichés or new ideas.  Its efforts may fail again, or they may change how US schools teach kids–but either way, without doing research, without talking to teachers, without being elected by citizens to change our society.  Where do they get this right?  From making and keeping large sums of money.  From scarfing up the social surplus and using it to mold the future of the world. This is a bad idea, whether the hand feeding us belongs to the liberal Gates or to one of the more numerous right-wing billionaires.

It’s a bad idea for there to be rich people.  It’s especially bad to let them use their wealth for what they consider the general welfare.  I wish progressive teachers were teaching, whenever possible, about the harm that private wealth does, and about how to bite the rich.
–Richard Ohmann

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At the moment of this writing, New York Governor David Paterson is playing a game of political chicken with the state legislature.  Paterson (a Democrat) is counting on the state senate to pass a budget that effectively deregulates tuition at the state and city universities, SUNY and CUNY.  At the CUNY campus where I teach, the cost of each year of college for full-time students who are residents of New York State is $5,050 ($4,600 tuition + $550 in fees).  It’s not much by today’s standards, but it’s not nothing either…which is exactly what CUNY used to cost.  Should Paterson have his way, my students could pay twice that in ten years.  Again, not a fortune compared with the privates but, again, not nothing.  But the privatization of the public universities isn’t really about how closely their tuitions approximate the privates.  This is just one component of a more fundamental effort to shift the funding from a public to a private basis, from taxpayer money to the tuition payments of working-class students who can’t afford to attend the privates.


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