Conservatives have been talking for years about how our "failing government schools" waste money, but they didn't start cutting K-12 education budgets in earnest until they had the 2008 financial crisis to blame. "It's not our fault. We can't afford to keep funding schools at the current level with our state revenues plummeting." The implicit promise was that school funding would increase when the economy turned around. But now that things are trending upward, the new message is, "We're going to keep cutting money for schools. Get used to it."
We've been getting hints from conservatives that they want to keep cutting education funding in Arizona and elsewhere, but now things are moving into a new phase: explaining why, no matter what happens to the economy, we have to continue cutting. Here's a new document that puts a pseudo-academic face on the idea: Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education
. It's another steaming pile of bad data and worse conclusions from Matthew Ladner, who had the honor of receiving the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award for shoddy educational research
from the National Education Policy Center in 2011. Ladner was the education guy at the Goldwater Institute, where he was instrumental in shaping bad education policy in Arizona, until he became Senior Advisor at Jeb Bush's conservative education reform/privatization organization, Foundation for Excellence in Education. And Ladner was one of the three privatization experts who formed Ducey's education transition team where, I'm sure, he whispered this idea in Ducey's ear more than once.
Here's Ladner's thesis in a nutshell: We have a growing number of old people and young people in our future, so face it, we're going to keep cutting funding for education—and if we're going to cut funding, we should put more of it into charter schools and private school vouchers.
For the first 25 pages of Ladner's report, he barely mentions education. It's all about the growing number of old people and young people in the country and the put-upon workers who have to shoulder the load of taking care of them. No mention, of course, of income inequality or the shrinking tax burden on corporations and the rich. It's all about how regular folks will see their taxes go up if we don't curtail our extravagant spending on all those dependent young and old people.
What we need, according to Ladner, is "a virtuous cycle of climbing [educational] outcomes and declining costs." In Ladner's form of magical thinking, we can cut costs and increase achievement at the same time. He didn't suggest we should give everyone a magic pony—because, I guess, that would be ridiculous. At one time not too long ago, Ladner suggested—I'm not making this up—that we could save money if we rounded up all the great teachers, who he called "rock stars," paid them six figure salaries, then put 40 or 50 kids in each of their classes, because Ladner, who has never taught, believed a great teacher can get great results with 40 to 50 first graders in class. I haven't heard him talking about that since he started pushing Education Savings Accounts (aka Empowerment Scholarship Accounts), so I guess he decided it was a ridiculous idea. As usual, he's sure his latest idea is a winner, proven by the studies he puts together citing facts carefully tailored to fit his conclusions.
Now, instead of rock star teachers, it's all about charters and vouchers. Charter schools, Ladner maintains, are more "productive" than school districts, meaning their students achieve more for each dollar spent. He ignores the well-respected CREDO studies comparing charter and non-charter public schools and goes to a study written by members of the Department of Education Reform
at University of Arkansas. The department is headed by Ladner's good buddy Jay Greene, on whose blog Ladner is a frequent contributor. The study is a piece of pseudo-scholarly flimflam, underestimating the amount of money spent on charter schools and overestimating the level of their students' achievement.
But that study is a model of academic research compared to the "evidence" Ladner uses to show how successful the post-Katrina Recovery School District charter schools in Louisiana have been: a context-less one page summary on the Recovery School District's website
Ladner doesn't have a study showing that students with private school vouchers are more "productive" than students going to public schools, but he says he's willing to bet the results would be even better than what his friends in Arkansas found with charters.
Ladner's study isn't worth all the attention I'm giving it. Actually, it's not worth the pixels it's printed on. What's important is, the study is the thin edge of the wedge, part of the vanguard to convince people that lower education spending is an inevitable part of our future. If anyone thinks conservatives are planning to keep funding in places like Arizona at their current low per-student level, think again. It's all about "How low can you go?"