Ep. 175: Big Ideas – “The Not-So-Great-Society” with Lindsey Burke

April 30, 2020

In this episode of the Big Ideas series, we chat with Lindsey Burke of the Center for Education Policy about the book, The Not-So-Great-Society. The book, co-edited by Burke, contains 23 chapters on various aspects of education policy from preschool through college over the last 60 years.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m excited to be joined by Dr. Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation. She is co-editor with Jonathan Butcher of the book, The Not-So-Great-Society, which is the subject of our conversation today. Lindsey, welcome to the podcast.

Lindsey Burke: Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: My pleasure. Now, your book contains 23 different chapters on various aspects of education policy from preschool through college over the last 60 years so we can’t possibly cover all of that in one podcast, but I’d like to hone in on several of the chapters on K-12 education policy. So, before we do a deep dive, can you give our listeners a broad overview of the book’s overarching themes?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. I would encourage, if your listeners are interested, to pick it up. You can get a copy free at the moment, still, through heritage.org, and I would encourage it because we really had a pretty wide array of education policy scholars contribute to this volume and we produced it because I think we’re at a moment in time where we have so much information now on the impact of the Great Society 60 years later that it deserved to have a few people look back and say, “What have these outcomes looked like? What did proponents promise when these Great Society programs were launched in 1965 by President Johnson? And has this, on balance, been a net good or a net negative for education policy and for families broadly?”

One thing that really catalyzed our writing of this book was we looked at Lyndon Johnson’s initial Great Society speech. When he came into office and gave his very first State of the Union Address in 1965, he said that one-third of the war on poverty would be fought in the classrooms of America. And he went on to say, “There your children’s lives will be shaped.” That’s a pretty stunning statement and we lead the book off with that, that most people recognize that the war on poverty, the Great Society, it was a comprehensive program of Medicaid and Medicare and food stamps and welfare, broadly.

But I don’t think a lot of people realize the extent to which it impacted education policy. The fact that Johnson said, “A third of that war on poverty would be fought in the classrooms of America,” really did indicate the extent to which the federal government would now be intrinsically involved in what and how education is delivered in K-12 schools and higher ed and preschools across the country. That really catalyzed it. And so, as you point out, we hit everything from early childhood education through K-12 education all the way through higher education, so hopefully something for everybody.

Jason Bedrick: And, of course, since the Great Society, we’ve seen a massive increase in the growth of government, particularly starting in the Carter years with the introduction of the Federal Department of Education. But under every successive president, whether Republican or Democrat, we have seen growth in the federal government, including in the area of education. Now, ostensibly the purpose of greater government involvement in education, particularly at the federal level, was to improve academic performance and, especially in the last few decades, to close the black/white achievement gap. So, how successful has the government been at achieving these goals?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. Unfortunately, not successful. To your point, we have seen dramatic increases in education spending and just general government intervention and education since the Great Society kicked off. And yet, and despite, to your point, all of these promises that were made by proponents that this new federal intervention would help improve the quality of educational outcomes, we have seen that NAEP scores, so the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, that those scores for 17-year-old students, so for high school seniors, have been essentially flat since the 1970s when they first started administering the long-term trend assessment. If you look at other international measures like the OECD’s PISA, we see that math scores have also been flat, the achievement gap and other measures.

Jason Bedrick: And just on OECD, on the PISA, not just flat but below the average for the OEC nations.

Lindsey Burke: That’s exactly right and then just back here at home on the domestic achievement gap front that, as we point out in the book, it’s as wide today as it was in 1971. One thing that really struck me in a few of our chapters was that two in particular, Eric Hanushek at Stanford has a chapter in our book, as does Paul Peterson at Harvard, and they both sort of reiterate their newer work looking at that achievement gap in more detail, and they point out that the achievement gap, the socioeconomic achievement gap four decades ago was the equivalent of four grade levels-worth of learning and that today, after all of this federal spending and all of this federal involvement in the wake of the Great Society, it remains the equivalent of four grade levels-worth of learning. We have just not moved the needle at all on narrowing that achievement gap, which was, again, ostensibly one of the major rationale for the Great Society intervention in the first place.

Jason Bedrick: All right. Some people will say, “Well, the problem is just that maybe we’re not spending enough.” We’ve seen these Red For Ed marches all over across the country saying that we’re just not putting enough money into the classroom. So, what do you say to that? Are we not spending enough?

Lindsey Burke: Look, we spend more than almost every other wealthy nation in the world and we know, broadly, that spending is simply not correlated with academic achievement and improved test scores. We can see evidence of that here at home when you compare state spending and academic outcomes. But then, if we just look at some of the, I don’t know, more blunt measures, if you will, if we look back to increases in spending over time, inflation-adjusted, real education spending has increased nearly fourfold since the Great Society launched. That’s a breathtaking increase in the amount of money that we are spending. Again, inflation-adjusted real dollars. So, you have to ask yourself, we’ve spent… If any private business increased its spending fourfold and had flat output it would have been shuttered long ago or at the very least reformed significantly.

But we haven’t done that in education. In fact, too often we see the opposite where under performance is rewarded with additional spending. So, where’s the money gone? I think that that’s one of the big questions that is starting to get some of the daylight that it deserves. Ben Scafidi at Kennesaw State has a great chapter in our book on this and has done a lot of great work for EdChoice on the staffing surge issue and that explains much of the capture.

If you look back to 1960 prior to the launch of the Great Society and you fast forward to 2016, we’ve seen a 40 percent increase in the number of students in public schools across the country, yet a 137 percent increase in administrators and schools across the country. That’s a huge strain on state and local budgets and explains a lot of the sort of money capture that has taken place over the past four to five decades. And I know Jason, you and Mike McShane point this out in your recent Wall Street Journal article, as well, and the impact that that’s had on teacher salaries.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. I should say that your book is full of data, but it’s very digestible. So it’s not just for wonks, though the wonks will get a lot out of it, but it’s written in layman’s terms. But I would point to a chart that you have on page 29 where you show in actual dollars, and real inflation-adjusted dollars, the growth in spending. And this is just current spending, I should point out. In so in other words, this is operational, this doesn’t even include things like buildings and whatnot.

But in 1960 they were spending about $2,800 per child in 2016 dollars. By 2016, they were spending more than $13,000 per pupil. So, again, from less than $3,000 to more than $13,000 and yet test scores are flat and that’s inflation-adjusted dollars. But, like you said, maybe the money is just not making it into the classroom. So, if Red For Ed does have a point, it’s that so many of these dollars are actually being diverted from the classroom and going into other areas. But, if we are spending so much, that can’t explain everything so, if we’re spending so much, why aren’t we seeing any improvement?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. And just to put a finer point on what you just said, if we think about the amount of spending in terms of the overall time it takes to get a student from kindergarten through graduation, what does it cost us in 1960? Again, this is inflation-adjusted spending so real dollars. What did it cost us in 1960 to do that? It costs us about $36,000 to get a kid from kindergarten through graduation. What does it cost us today? It costs us nearly $170,000 to accomplish the same goal. When we put it in those terms, to me, it really does, I think, put a finer point on the inefficiency of the current model, which gets to your next question, why we’re seeing a nearly fourfold increase in spending over this time period. Why aren’t we seeing any improvement despite this massive increase in education spending?

And you addressed this actually in your chapter, Jason, in our book, which is fantastic. But the bottom line, and this is something you and I have talked about for a long time, is that it’s just a fundamental misalignment of power and incentives. This is what the Great Society ultimately yielded. In addition to everything that we talked about on administrative bloat, it is also just simply shifted so much of the focus on education policy from the state and local level to the federal level.

And when you make such a significant shift, you are disempowering the people that these policies affect day after day. You’re disempowering parents. And, look, we can follow this all the way through the Obama years with the Common Core State Standards Initiative where families, at one point, if they had qualms with what their local school was teaching or the standards and content they could knock on their local school health store, the more we shift power to Washington, as the Great Society did, the more that means that a family, if they want answers, are going to have to go to the Department of Ed and knock on the door and good luck achieving much of that.

So, there’s this fundamental misalignment where we see more and more growth at the federal level, at the expense of local control and ultimately family control. And, until we start to think about how we reform education financing to actually empower parents with control over those dollars, we’re not going to see that dynamic change at all. We can spend all the money in the world that we want. We’re not going to see the types of improvements we all want to see until we change who controls how those dollars are spent.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And I should have said, full disclosure, I do have a chapter in this book, but I drew very heavily on the work of Yuval Levin who himself drew on Nobel Prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek. If you want to see innovation, then you need to have the freedom to experiment. You need education providers to be able to try new ways of doing things and then you also have to have some sort of a feedback mechanism, right? You need to have the people that actually are experiencing these products and services or, in this case, the parents evaluating the providers—evaluating the teachers and the schools—and then selecting into the institutions or selecting the providers that work best for their kids.

That’s how you have a system that is dynamic and constantly improving, but when people are assigned to a school based solely on the location of their home and you have a system that wants lots of standards, everything has to be standardized, then you don’t have a great deal of freedom to experiment. You don’t have parents choosing from a variety of different providers. You have some that do, obviously, but a very small number, and then that means you’re not going to have this dynamic system.

Plus, this is especially true for the lowest income families, if you want them to have voice and this, drawing on the work of Albert O. Hirschman, they need to have an opportunity for exit because, when they are essentially held captive, if they can’t afford to either pay private school tuition or afford a house in an area that has a better public school system, then they’re essentially stuck and that means their voice ends up being devalued. No exit, no voice.

So, you end up with a system that is not, especially for the lowest income, most vulnerable, most disadvantaged families, you have a system that is not particularly high quality and certainly not particularly dynamic or innovative. That’s essentially what we’ve seen for the last 40 to 50 years. Now, as a solution, though, to all these problems, your book proposes implementing education savings accounts, something we’ve talked about quite a bit on this podcast, but if you could briefly just go over how they work and how they address the issues that you’ve described or that we’ve described.

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. We’ve talked about education savings accounts a lot. It is, at this moment at least, still the forefront of education choice models in my opinion. Who knows what the future will look like and what new innovative options we’ll ultimately see in K-12 education financing. But right now when we think about opportunities for student-driven and parent-controlled, flexible innovation and education, ESAs really are the financing that get us there. And we’re at the point now where we have five states where ESAs are operational and in place—Arizona, Mississippi, Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina. Families in those States get a portion of what would have been spent on their child and their child’s public school. In Arizona, for example, it’s 90 percent of the state per-pupil funding. So, there’s no federal money, there’s not local money implicated in this. It’s the state per-pupil.

It goes into a restricted-use account, and at that point parents can use that account to pay for any education-related service, product or provider of choice. And it allows for high levels of customization. You and I have looked at customization rates in places like Florida and Arizona and families really are taking the opportunity to craft an à la carte education that fits the exact unique needs of their child.

So, while they might use it to pay for some private school tuition, they’re also hiring private tutors, they’re purchasing online courses, they’re leveraging it for special education services and therapies, everything that they need to make sure that their child is successful and on a path to achieve whatever it is they envision is the best educational path for them, long term.

Jason Bedrick: Now, do we have any evidence, though, that school choice policies work?

Lindsey Burke: Yes. And That is something that we cover at length in the book. We have a great chapter from Corey DeAngelis at Reason and Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, and they review all of the most rigorous evidence that exists on private school choice programs in the U.S. and this is the first time it’s really all been put together in one comprehensive place. They look at all the rigorous evidence on private school choices’ impact on test scores, on student attainment—so things like high school graduation and college enrollment and college persistence. They look at school safety, the impact of private school choice on school safety, student character development. They look at things like tolerance of others and political participation and volunteerism and charitable activity and crime and even paternity suits. What’s the impact of school choice on things like paternity suits?

They look at all of the rigorous evidence and they find that, on net, school choice, private school choice is a huge positive for these areas. Just a couple of examples they look at, there have been to date 16 random assignment studies of private school choice programs’ impact on academic achievement. So, operationalized through test scores, and they find 10 of those studies are statistically significantly positive on student test scores. And a couple of those evaluations were null. And then we had two negative evaluations, both of which have come out of the uniquely highly-regulated of Louisiana.

So, school choice is certainly a winner when it comes to academic achievement. They look at academic attainment—so high school graduation rates and they find positive effects on academic attainments, on college enrollment, on degree attainment, particularly for disadvantaged students. And then, as I said, they look at other studies that have asked questions about parents’ perceptions and students’ perceptions of school safety. There aren’t a ton of rigorous evaluations on that particular question, but the non-experimental studies find that school choice improves parental and student perceptions of school safety.

And then, finally, and this is just so interesting, Pat Wolf had reviewed 21 quantitative studies previously, so they include that in this chapter, but those 21 quantitative studies that examine the effect of private and charter schools on political tolerance, volunteerism, political knowledge, political participation, social capital, civic skills and patriotism, and he found that private school choice and school choice, generally, had mostly null to positive effects on these civic outcomes. And that’s really important. Civics is a huge education policy discussion right now, really a discussion beyond even education policy. So, to see the effect of private school choice and charter schools on that improvement and civic outcomes is really coming at a critical time.

Jason Bedrick: And I give you a lot of credit for often when people ask, “Does school choice work,” they look narrowly at that question of whether or not it boosts test scores or sometimes they throw in graduation rates. But your book does look much more comprehensively at different outcomes including, like you said, character development, civic knowledge and civic participation, and even things like crime and teen pregnancy rates. But educational choice is obviously about even more than the things that can be measured, right? It’s about different conceptions about the purpose of education. You have a fascinating chapter by our good friend and mentor, Dr. Jay Greene, about that. How have perceptions about the public purpose of education changed over time?

Lindsey Burke: We wanted a chapter in this book that was, I guess, for lack of a better word, really asking the big question, “What is the purpose of education?” That is a huge question and a difficult one to answer. And you know somebody is absolute best expert in the top of their field when, not only can they answer that question, but can do it extremely succinctly. And that’s exactly what Jay Greene did in his chapter. It’s a straight-forward, short chapter that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. How have perceptions about public education changed over time, and what is the purpose of education?

Dr. Greene’s answer in that is that the purpose of education is no less than preparation for adult life. And, at first, honestly, when he turned in that chapter, I thought, well that seems pretty straight forward, but the more that I sat there and thought about it, it is the best, most succinct answer that you could possibly give that really does encompass exactly what we mean by the purpose of education. Preparation for adult life. It includes everything that you would want, every, I think, hope and aspiration you would have for your child, what you would hope education would deliver to them long term.

How do you just live as a productive member of a free society? How do you fulfill your own personal goals and potential? It is by accessing education that prepares you for adult life. So, I just think that he so hit the nail on the head with that answer and that it was a deep and really thoughtful answer that is exactly right. And I say it’s exactly right because, if you went out on the street and you ask 10 different random people what the purpose of education is, you would probably get 10 different answers. But I think those answers could all, for the most part, roughly fit under that broad umbrella of preparation for adult life.

Now, they’re always going to be debates about exactly what we mean. You and I have talked a lot about the common schools movement and we’re about to come up on a Blaine Amendment case and Espinoza that the Supreme Court is going to consider. People have always had very different conceptions of exactly what education should deliver. So, I think the way that he really articulated that provides us a good framework for thinking about it. And he says in his chapter, Jay Greene says that Americans concern for liberties should incline them toward respecting different approaches to education.

And that’s exactly right because, back to that preparation for adult life, we’re all going to have different answers about exactly what we want our adult lives to look like, which should incline us toward that sort of pluralistic approach to the provision of K-12 education leading to that preparation, long term.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. I like, as well, how he covered the development in arguments for public education. So, early on you had people like Benjamin Rush saying… Well, actually you can go before Benjamin Rush where he doesn’t start here, but if you go even back to the colonial era and the pilgrims, they were in favor of public subsidy for education because they wanted to ensure that children could read the Bible. You’re familiar, of course, with the old Deluder Satan Act. This was the first public school law that was intended to make sure that children could read the Bible so that they wouldn’t be tricked by Satan. That’s at least the reason given for it.

But then it changed in the era of the founders. You had Benjamin Rush and others saying, “Well, this has to be about civics. It has to be about loyalty to the nation and to the government.” Later, especially with the waves of Catholic immigration, you had the Progressive Movement and the common schools movement saying, “Well, really, this needs to be about assimilating immigrants.” There was some effort to homogenize religious differences, essentially to Protestantize students. Later it was preparing kids for factory work. And then by the time of the Great Society, we’re talking more and more about curing social ills, about eradicating inequality and a focus on reducing achievement gaps.

And Jay points out none of these are necessarily bad goals. The question ultimately becomes how these goals are interpreted, how they’re prioritized and then how they’re implemented, and reasonable people can differ even if they share the same abstract goals, which is yet another reason why you want to, as he puts it, to defer to freedom. Different people answer these questions differently and therefore they should be, reasonable people, they should be allowed to exercise the freedom to choose the type of schooling environment that they want for their children. Now, as we know, though, not all educational choice programs are created equal. So, before we close, do you have any recommendations for policymakers who might consider sponsoring ESA legislation of how they should design these programs?

Lindsey Burke: Yeah. And before answering that, just to piggyback off of what you just said, it’s so interesting because Jay’s point about how this should incline us toward respecting different approaches to education, we all agree with. I am confident saying we all agree with that. It’s really interesting, though, reading the book, we have an excellent chapter from Robert Pondiscio on what he calls, I think his chapter title is, “The Conservative Conundrum on Curriculum.” So, it’s really, really interesting because he points out, look, conservatives have long said, “Well, yes, school choice in the market is going to lead to improvements in curriculum, overall, and that’s that.”

And one could argue that it has, to some extent. We have really excellent curricular models and charter schools like the Great Hearts Network, for example. But Robert Pondiscio points out pretty articulately in his chapter that, look, we’ve got 45 million students and public schools across the country and 130,000 some odd public schools. He points to back in the ‘80s when Bill Bennett was thinking through some of this work that Bennett had written that, if we don’t engage parents, whoever it might be, on things like civics, for example, that there’s a vacuum that’s created and that, honestly, it seeds the field to the other side, Bennett said.

And, to quote Bennett, he said, “Who knows very well what it intends to do.” And yet, folks who are inclined toward liberty and pluralism and education—this idea that there would be some sort of top-down approach or any sort of standardized approach to delivering civics—is really anathema to that desire to advance pluralism in education, so what do you do? Hence the conservative conundrum that Pondiscio points out in his chapter. I think it all comes back to, really, Robert Jackson, who was the CEO of Academics at Great Hearts, his chapter in our book, which does highlight the classical model.

He talks about how, over the past century, that progressives in education have replaced the great books in classical education with contemporary studies like social studies, for example, and political activism. He highlights how that classical approach to education… He talks about it in terms of teaching the best recorded thoughts in history in depth can encourage greater civic duty and participation. I bring all of that up to say I think at the end of the day we have to do everything that we possibly can.

And this answer gets to your question about fights for policymakers. We have to do everything that we can to make sure we have open educational environments that are free of onerous regulations and allow a multitude of providers to flourish. It is because we had some of these open educational free-market environments that we ended up with options like Great Hearts that are doing phenomenal work on values-based education and education that we know empirically leads to phenomenal later life outcomes for students.

So, my advice, a long story short, would be to policymakers that, as you’re thinking about how you move toward more freedom in education and empowering families and advancing education choice, to make sure that you are not inadvertently, through good-intended regulations, replicating the existing traditional system that is not serving students and families well.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Dr. Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation. She is co-editor with Jonathan Butcher of The Not-So-Great-Society. Lindsey, thank you for coming on the podcast.

Lindsey Burke: Thank you for having me.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.