Thursday, May 22, 2008

Shall we grow bananas in America?

"The principal purpose of agriculture policy in the United States is to guarantee we're not as dependent on other countries for our food as we are for our fuel," declared House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (Fla.). He broke not only with Bush but also with House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who opposes a bill he has called wasteful.

"If I was a farm-belt guy, I would be all over my district now, saying, 'I stood with you, not the party of the president,' " said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who wrote to GOP leaders last week, urging them to defy Bush or at least allow rank-and-file members to save themselves. "Anytime you can separate yourself from someone with a 28 percent favorability rating, that's a good thing."

The five-year measure continues and in some cases expands traditional farm subsidies, and it is stuffed with billions of dollars of new money for anti-hunger programs, conservation programs, fruit and vegetable growers, and the biofuels industry. Dairy farmers will get as much as $410 million more over 10 years to cover higher feed costs. House and Senate negotiators tucked in an annual authorization of $15 million to help "geographically disadvantaged farmers" in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

The bill assures growers of basic crops such as wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans $5 billion a year in automatic payments, even if farm and food prices stay at record levels. And subsidies for the ethanol industry will decline only slightly, leaving largely intact support for the biofuel industry, which has been blamed for contributing to higher food prices.

An unusual coalition of urban liberals and Republican fiscal conservatives tried to sustain Bush's veto. "Merely because the president is not the most popular person in the country today doesn't mean he's always wrong," said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), who pushed for sweeping changes to the farm-support system.

But that coalition was overwhelmed by the larger bipartisan coalition committed to defending rural constituents, food stamp and school nutrition programs, and new benefits for African American farmers. Nutrition programs will consume about two-thirds of the spending.

"This is a bill about feeding the hungry," pleaded Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). "This president is turning his back on the people of America."

Hundreds of grass-roots organizations, including food banks, supported the legislation. The National Farmers Union rallied more than 1,000 organizations in favor of the override.

"Although it's pork to most of the country, it's prime rib to the farm belt," Davis said.

This is the essence of pork. Read the rest of it here. By the way, this week I started teaching principles of microeconomics, which I believe should include an introduction to public choice. This article will provide a good illustration of the special interest theory of politics.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Education roundup

1) Alex Tabarrok and the New York Times on New Orleans' new schools.

2) Paul Peterson on the eduction industrial complex.

3) Marion Barry comes out in support of school choice.

4) Juliet Williams on teachers unions busting the budget in California.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Obama's dilemma

A) This survey indicates that 80% of African-Americans favor school choice, and 70% of African-American Democrats would be more likely to vote for a candidate supporting school choice.

B) 41% of the National Education Associations' rank and file likes McCain, while the 1% in charge do not.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Education reform in DC looking ever more likely

Mayor Fentry has named Rick Hess and Kenneth Wong as independent evaluators of the city's school reforms. That is yet more good news for DC's kids, maybe not so good for the adult interest groups which stand in the way of reform. Here is Hess on the need to focus on labor market reform:

For two decades, choice-based reform has been unwisely and deceptively offered by its proponents as something akin to a miracle cure that will boost student achievement, unleash competition, and advance core democratic values.

Along the way, little attention has been paid to the design of these efforts to deregulate a $500 billion a year industry, fostering a vibrant supply of effective providers, nurturing effective mechanisms for quality control, or understanding the multiplicity of arrangements and practices that stifle even nontraditional schools and service providers. For instance, the choice community has had next to nothing to say about the need for venture capital in education, about the ways in which personnel policies and benefit systems stifle new ventures, or about how consumer choices should impact the compensation and job security of educators and school leaders.

One result is that some who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

For decades, we have poured money into schooling while seeing few obvious benefits. Current per-pupil spending in constant dollars more than tripled between 1961-62 and 2003-04, from $2,603 to $8,886. Pupil-to-teacher ratios plunged, from 25.1 students per teacher in 1965 to 15.3 per teacher in 2007. Meanwhile, educational progress has been disappointing, at best, over the past quarter-century. This is the epitome of pushing on a string. In an economy marked by new technologies, labor-saving devices, steady growth in productivity, and an evolving labor pool, we are hiring and deploying educators just the way we did a half-century ago. The result is that new investments have not delivered the hoped-for results.

In other words, we need to do what is difficult, we need to fire people, and overcome the special interests which protect them. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee is doing just that. God bless her.

Addendum: Good to see the DCist is in agreement.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Wondering why education reform is so hard?

Largely because the teachers unions have an inside track on pulling down money for themselves, money that could have been used to educate kids. For example:
New York City is paying $81 million over two years in salaries and benefits for teachers without permanent teaching jobs, according to a report being released on Tuesday.

The teachers are part of the so-called reserve pool, which holds teachers whose positions have been eliminated, but who have yet to secure a new permanent teaching position at another school.

The reserve is an outgrowth of the city’s contract with the teachers’ union, which ended seniority rights in staffing decisions as well as the automatic transfer of teachers who had been cut because of shrinking enrollment, the closing of large schools or the elimination of particular programs. At the time, Chancellor Joel I. Klein said he would rather absorb the cost of the teachers in the reserve pool than saddle principals with teachers they did not want.

Under the contract, teachers whose positions have been eliminated from one school and cannot find another to hire them, or who simply do not look for a new job, are assigned to schools to fill in as substitute teachers or temporary replacements. They collect full teacher salary and benefits.

Teachers at those schools are required to show up every day at regular school hours and are available for principals to use as substitutes, but the principals are not required to do so. Officials at the Education Department said they did not track how often the principals used the assigned substitutes, or whether they did at all.

It's not just New York, or the U.S., it's anywhere special interest politics is allowed to prosper. New Zealand in the 1990s came closest to a complete overhaul of education, and yet one institution remained: the teachers unions lobbied to prevent any real changes to the labor market, effectively preventing schools, principles and parents, from choosing their personnel.

As for which candidate is most likely to fight these interests, it's looking like it might be McCain, though Obama may be better suited to negotiate the increasing gap between teachers unions and black voters.