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President’s Speech to School Children Exposes Danger of Education Monopoly

Feds in the Classroom by Neil McCluskyThis commentary was first published in the Minnesota Free Market Institute Weekly Update. For your free subscription, click here.

Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute (“Feds in the Classroom“) alerts us to a truly disturbing consequence of the federal government’s intervention in education. The U.S. Constitution provides no grant of authority for federal involvement in education. As the founders recognized, a government that has no moral authority to mandate how people worship has no moral authority to indoctrinate people as to how or what to think. The commonality of freedom of religion and freedom of education, blurred by the No Child Left Behind Act, is about to be obliterated by President Obama’s September 8 address to the nation’s school children.

The president’s speech is not simply an extended public service announcement encouraging students to work hard and stay in school, a message most of us would agree is worthwhile for any president to deliver and every student to hear. The president’s speech is the point of the spear in a concentrated campaign that exposes the dangers of a monopoly system of government-run education.

Irrespective of who controls the White House, an education system manipulated by the president and the Department of Education is not in keeping with the principles of a free society.
As a prelude to the President’s speech, the taxpayer-funded U.S. Department of Education (remember when Americans took seriously the idea that Department of Education should be abolished?) has sent detailed lesson plans for grades pre-K-6 and 7-12 to schools nationwide. The lesson plans, “developed by and for teachers,” outline ways to capitalize on the message of the president’s speech – how to support the president and his goals – not the educational opportunity to teach critical thinking and analysis.

In a letter anticipating the president’s address, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan flatters teachers by noting that their work is “critical to…our social progress.” As McCluskey notes, Duncan’s statement strongly suggests – “as many educators have held and continue to hold” – that it is the job of public schools to impose values, often collectivist, on students. The lesson plans sent out by Duncan do little to dispel that idea.
Pre-K-6 kids are encouraged to make posters setting out “community and country” goals. The lessons encourage schools to teach that it is important to listen to “the President and other elected officials.” Even more than just listen is guidance that is explicitly designed to glorify the office of the presidency and Barack Obama specifically. Teachers are encouraged to ask students how President Obama will “inspire” them in his speech before he gives it, and how they were inspired after he has spoken.

Again, let me be clear: This idea of a “cult of the presidency” is being exploited in the extreme by the Obama administration, but it is a bipartisan malady. As I wrote during the presidential campaign, both Obama and Sen. John McCain campaigned for a presidency that is nowhere to be found in the Constitution – as is constitutional authority absent for a federal role in education.

The thrust of McCluskey’s work in general points out the inherent dangers of government controlling education (again irrespective of who controls the White House). Power corrupts, and ultimately politicians will use power over education to indoctrinate children, something completely antithetical to a free society. And this is just the starkest manifestation of the inherent problem with government control of education. Every day, writes McCluskey, free people are pitted against one another in defense of their freedom and basic values because they all have to support a single system of government schools.

Evolution vs. creationism. Prayer in school. Books with offensive material in schools libraries. Decisions over whose history will be taught, and whose won’t. The curtailment of freedom goes on and on when government takes everyone’s money and provides schools with it,” writes McCluskey. “Which is why the only system of learning compatible with a truly free society is a system of school choice – public education, not schooling – in which the public assures that all people can access education, but parents are free to choose their children’s schools, and educators are free to educate how they wish.

Andrew Coulson, also of the Cato Institute, notes the irony of the president saying nice things about kids staying in school and graduating while his own actions and policies are having the opposite effect.  Although there is copious scientific research showing that private schools have higher graduation rates than public schools, and that their graduates are more likely to go on to college and complete college, and the president’s own Department of Education found that the DC voucher program is producing significantly better academic results than DC public schools (and at a quarter of the cost), the President Obama has chosen to kill the DC voucher program rather than grow it, and he opposes private school choice programs at the state level that would bring these better educational outcomes within reach of all children.

“So kids, here’s your lesson for next Tuesday,” he writes. “The guy talking at you from the television set may say a lot of nice sounding things, but he is not doing what is best for you. He is letting some combination of ideology and political self-interest trump what is best for you. That’s politics. And that’s one reason why we need limited government and educational freedom.

Amen.

Health care: Life and death and substance

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It’s unfortunate that some opponents of federal government-directed health care jumped on the ‘Death Panel’ metaphor instead of the substance of the proposed legislation. Whether the federal legislation intends it or not, a government-directed plan necessarily requires bureaucrats to make life and death decisions that are more far-reaching and more complex than the hyperbolic ‘pulling the plug on grandma.’

No matter how wealthy we are as a nation, the government will never be able to provide health care for all AND provide all of the health care everyone would want. Trade-offs are inevitable; if universal access is a given, then the amount and quality of delivered medical treatment must necessarily be negotiable.

To understand the complexity and God-like power the feds are proposing to invest in some poor civil servants, let’s allow grandma to peacefully nap and consider the other end of the life spectrum, infant mortality. Imagine yourself charged with managing the cost of care for newborn infants under the government program. Here’s the situation you would face.

The U.S. has an infant mortality rate of approximately 7 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 5 deaths in other developed countries; in Norway, infant mortality is a mere 4.1. Race, geography, income and education all factor into those numbers, but irrespective of its genesis, low birth weight is a primary factor in infant mortality.

Low birth weight occurs in about 7 percent to 8 percent of all live births, but 40 percent to 70 percent of all infant deaths can be attributed to low birth weight (depending on how one defines “low”). When compared to normal weight infants (more than 5.5 lbs), infants with “moderate” (less than 5.5 lbs), “very low” (less than 3.3 lbs) and “extremely low” (less than 2.2 lbs) birth weights have 40, 200 and 600 times greater risk than normal weight infants, respectively.

According to the journal “Pediatrics,” 8 percent of 4.6 million infant hospital stays (2001 data) included a preterm/low-birth-weight diagnosis, accounting for 47 percent of the costs for all hospitalizations ($5.8 billion) and 27 percent of all pediatric stays. The average cost of the hospital stay (12.9 days) was $15,100 compared with $600 (1.9 days) for uncomplicated births. For infants less than 2.2 lbs, the average cost of hospitalization was $65,600.

Advances in medical technology have significantly improved the survival chances of infants with extremely low birth weights (without complications), but at a high cost. Complications, however, are common in infants with low birth weights, often requiring intensive, expensive care; still, the mortality rates remain relatively high.

What do you do? Here’s more data.

A study by the Rand Corporation found that 69 percent of infants who die during their initial hospital stay did so within one day of birth. Those infants were the least expensive to treat, an average of $6,310. For infants who died during the remainder of their initial hospitalization, average treatment was $58,800. Infants at “extremely low” birth weights, in aggregate, create the most costs; technology keeps them alive past the first day, but despite the extra effort and added cost, infants born weighing less than 2.2 lbs have the lowest initial hospitalization survival rate.

More data to consider: The aggregate annual incremental costs among low-birth-weight children ages birth to 15 have been estimated at $5.4 billion per year, not including long-term care, special services and special education often correlated with low-birth-weight children. All that said, remember, those are aggregate statistics; many low-birth-weight children grow into healthy, happy adults with no unusual health problems – you just don’t know who they will be.

So, were you tasked with managing the public newborn-care option, what would you do? Should the public health plan allow spending billions of tax dollars on technology and treatment attempting to save low-birth-weight infants when that practice has a high probability of complications yielding a relatively low survival rate with a high probability of ongoing medical and other expenses associated with survival?

Access, quality and cost — you cannot reduce costs if your promise is equal effort for every low-birth-weight child using whatever technology and treatment is available. In Switzerland, a country often cited for a lower infant mortality rate than the United States, infants weighing less than 2.2 lbs. at birth who die are designated stillborn, whether measures are taken to help them survive or not. Problem solved?

Infant mortality highlights the underlying question of the health care reform debate: How can individuals deal with unpredictable, unaffordable expenses? Neither the regulated, privately managed care approach we have today nor the government-run managed care proposals being debated in Congress provide an acceptable answer. A free market system where patients control the money, health care providers set prices for services, and private insurers are free to develop policies that convert unpredictable and unaffordable events into affordable and predictable premiums, could well be the best way to optimize (not perfect) health care resources.

Unfortunately, in the progressive rush to birth a government-run solution, the free-market solution is designated “stillborn.”

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Friday August 28.

Photo Caption: Neonatalogist Jonathan Muraskas places his hand next to Rumaisa Rahman, known to be the smallest baby in the world to survive birth (8.6 ounces). Rumaisa was born at Loyola University Medical Centre in Chicago. Photo: Reuters

DFL spins tax talk away from the real issues — tradeoffs and reform

Sertich and KeliherThe headline in the Pioneer Press seemed to tell the story: ‘DFL budget plan would have cost fewer jobs, state economist says.’

Indeed, before the Legislative Advisory Commission, state economist Tom Stinson estimated Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s spending cuts will cost Minnesota 3,000 to 4,700 jobs. He also modeled the impact of a tax increase on job loss. The Pioneer Press reported “the $1 billion income tax increase that the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed and Pawlenty vetoed in May would have cost the state an estimated 1,000 jobs over the next two years.”

Unfortunately, in eagerness to report or spin Stinson’s numbers, the press, progressive think tanks and DFL legislators misunderstood the purpose of Stinson’s work and didn’t get the basic story straight. In the measured terms of a professional, Stinson confirmed to me that the coverage of his testimony was “not entirely accurate” and interpretation of his data was somewhat “simplistic.”

His job as an economist is not to make political or policy judgments, Stinson said, but to provide a common basis of information and understanding from which better political and policy judgments can be made.

I fear he misreads the motivation of the DFL-dominated commission.

When House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, declares that “Governor Pawlenty’s budget proposal is going to cause three to five times as many job losses in the state as the legislative proposal,” he is “not entirely accurate” and “simplistic.” In his eagerness to exploit Stinson’s data, he misses larger policy implications. And that is the problem.

First, Stinson’s research did not analyze the DFL bill vetoed by the governor (as reported and repeated). The vetoed bill included income tax increases and pass-through tax increases on credit card companies and on alcohol products. Stinson was asked to evaluate the governor’s unallotments in terms of job loss. A professional, he also modeled a hypothetical $1 billion income tax increase (over two years) because he was “trying to make sure people understood that there are no easy answers.”

In other words, Stinson came not to praise or bury Pawlenty. Short-term job loss is one data point among many trade-offs inherent in the budgeting process, but it is not the only trade-off. In fact, the trade-off between tax increases and spending cuts results from a higher-level trade-off — between a balanced budget and making a recession worse.

Progressive think tanks often quote Nobel laureate and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz saying that a reduction in government spending is more harmful to the economy in the short run than an increase in taxes. What they fail to note (but Stiglitz emphasizes) is the balanced-budget trade-off that puts policy-makers in a situation that is ultimately harmful to the economy.

“It is worth emphasizing,” Stiglitz writes, “that any state spending reductions or tax increases are counterproductive at this time: they restrain the economy at time when it is already slowing.”

So, let’s be honest: The debate over tax increases or spending cuts is not about improving the state’s economy. The choice is not between “good and bad” or “better and worse”; the choice is between “bad and worse.”

Stinson’s model does not make value judgments about how the loss of specific job types affects the state economy. Nor does it consider the value of freeing unproductive resources for other uses, nor does it provide any criteria for making those judgments. Those are among the political and policy questions that must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, which won’t happen while the Legislative Advisory Committee remains intent on misusing data to beat up the governor.

The legislative end game is neither “stupid” DFL tax increases nor “evil” GOP spending cuts (nor some really stupid and evil “bipartisan” combination); the end game is enabling Minnesota to be a competitive player in the global competition for the capital that creates productive jobs in the private sector. To correct that problem requires reform of the tax system and a redefinition of the role of government, and that won’t happen if the Legislative Advisory Council stubbornly continues turning data points into talking points, which makes for provocative newspaper headlines but precious little progress.

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion Page, a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute (mnfreemarketinstitute.com) and a member of the Republican Party Liberty Caucus. His e-mail address is westover4@yahoo.com.

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press July 15, 2009.

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