David R. Henderson  

Good News on California Schools

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California could cut school year by several weeks

That's the headline of a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News. The article states:

While plans aren't settled or even proposed, Gov. Jerry Brown and other officials have suggested that without new revenues, California's 180-day school year could be shortened by as much as five weeks in 2011-12. That's one-seventh of the school year.

The most straightforward way to cut government's role in education is not to create a complicated voucher system that could easily morph into more government spending but to cut government spending.

Of course, there are transition problems, which the article highlights: renegotiating union contracts, for instance. Also the article mentions the fact that many parents will have trouble adjusting to the lack of what is, essentially, a baby-sitting service. But remember that this will happen if the temporary tax increases, set to expire this year, are not allowed to expire. So while people will lose baby-sitting, they'll keep more of their money than otherwise. The taxes that are set to expire are broad-based: sales taxes, vehicle taxes, and income taxes. That means that a broad swath of the population will see their taxes fall.

I loved the last two grafs of the article:

But Sam Gavenman, 16, a sophomore at Los Altos High, pointed out that the end of the school year doesn't really involve all that much learning.
"Every year since elementary school, the last two weeks have always been watching movies and hanging out in the classroom, which is great," he said. "It's that end-of-the-year mentality, I'm chilling."

For many kids, especially the counterparts of co-blogger Bryan, this could be a mini step in the direction of the last scene in the movie, "Hope and Glory."


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
David N. Welton writes:

You talk about taxes falling.

By how much, for people at what levels of income?

Enough to place their children somewhere while they work? At what levels of income?

Enough to supplement the lost education with private programs? For what income levels?

Let's see some hard numbers here.

Also, while it seems obvious to me, "the last two weeks of school" are likely to be somewhat lax even if the school year is shortened, rather than something useless that just gets lopped off, leaving children who will study hard right until that very last day (hah...).

Noah Yetter writes:

Also the article mentions the fact that many parents will have trouble adjusting to the lack of what is, essentially, a baby-sitting service.

School is a jail for children.

A simple observation but one that bears repeating until it is widely understood and acknowledged.

lark writes:

I was hoping for some good news, given the title. I am not surprised, however, that it is the cold cold heart of the true libertarian that beats in this piece. This is why your political project is doomed: you care not for the people, and we live in a (at least a semi) democracy.

That anyone could consider shortening the school year to be good news is just sinister. I hope you are happy with your political isolation, because you are going to stay there.

It will be interesting to see whether you censor this comment.

David R. Henderson writes:

@lark,
See Noah Yetter's comment prior to yours. I don't like government forcibly putting people of whatever age in buildings, keeping them there, and dictating how they spend their time. I don't see why that's cold-hearted.
Best,
David

Evan writes:

@lark

That anyone could consider shortening the school year to be good news is just sinister. I hope you are happy with your political isolation, because you are going to stay there.

If you believe in the signaling model of education, shortening the school year by a moderate degree would be good. It would waste less of the childrens' time doing pointless work, while not significantly degrading the signal that the school sends. This would allow children to have more fun, or spend more time working at a summer job, without decreasing their overall future prospects, thus increasing total utility. I think this is why Kling considers this good news.

You accuse Kling of having a cold heart, but to be truly compassionate you need to have a cold heart and a hard head, otherwise you'll focus only on things that look compassionate, and not on things that actually help people. I suppose you could say that being cold-hearted helps you be more "meta-compassionate."

Jake Russ writes:

David,

The second quote you cite seems to imply, if the proposal goes through, the last two weeks will no longer be 'wasted' with movies... because the reduced school year would cut those weeks off.

I'd bet that instead those lower productivity 'end of school weeks' will just get shifted up to the new end of the school year.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Evan,
Well put, although my name is David Henderson, not Arnold Kling. :-)

bill shoe writes:

I think of this in terms of costs and benefits. I would prefer an all-private education system, but if we pay taxes for schools then what do we get?

There is no committment from California or the teacher's union to reduce the cost. There is simply a committment to reduce the service provided.

Parents are already able (more or less) to send their kids to homeschool or private schools. Reducing the public school year just reduces the benefits to parents and kids who don't take those opt-out options.

By Henderson's logic it would be an improvement for the school year to go to zero while continuing to cost the same amount. I don't see how that would be good for libertarian parents and their kids.

Douglass Holmes writes:

My dear lark,
Which is more cold-hearted? I think that the position of teacher's unions is the most cold-hearted of all; never, no matter what the cost, yeild on pay or benefits. If the cost is a shorter school year, or teacher layoffs, then that's what they'll accept.
On the other hand, at least David sees that there is a bright side to hundreds of thousands of parents putting their minds to solving the problem of taking care of their children for a few more days of the year. That doesn't sound very cold-hearted to me.

Gabriel rossman writes:

I find it hard to have the "school's out for summer, school's out forever" reaction to this because the only thing that reliably works in education, especially for poor kids, is lengthening the school year and school day. In contrast, ed school degrees, teaching experience, and class size don't matter very much for measurable educational outcomes. There are teacher-level effects, they're just not well correlated with the observable inputs.

Of course LAUSD is handling budget cuts in the least pedagogically effective way on the table --- sticking to last-hired first-fired and cutting the school year. The contract specifies pay is based on the aforementioned useless experience and credentials, which means in practice that teachers fired under a last-hired first-fired system are also the cheapest teachers. If LAUSD were to fire its worst teachers it would not only improve the quality but also the quantity of teachers relative to the actual plans to fire only the youngest (and cheapest) teachers.

In a completely unrelated note, in our last LAUSD school board election, both of the candidates running in my precinct were creatures of the union.

In another completely unrelated note, the archdiocese of Los Angeles is increasing the parochial school calendar by two weeks.

Marcus writes:

Lark wrote, "It will be interesting to see whether you censor this comment."

Why would he censor it? Your comment says more about your heart than it does his. Apparently, your heart bleeds when you're spending other people's money.

A shorter public school year doesn't mean less education for children, it means more responsibility for parents.

Rick writes:

Economic crisis and disaster almost always begins with a philosophy of people "doing less" and "wanting more." I believe this is true of us within ourselves and in our households, as well as at the decision-making level of our school boards...and among school principals and teachers.

So, what's the easy "do less" answer when our student's performance and achievement is down and we are battering our "unfulfilled" teachers to teach more, yet our financial resources are less? Shorten the school year!

That's an answer, but not a viable, student-teacher-parent-community-society-LAUSD-WIN solution. Nobody wins. Student achievement is still down. Teacher fulfillment is still down. Parents (citizens/taxpayers) are left, again, to scramble and shoulder the responsiblity for what the honored institution of education has always done: Be the respected "village" of tradition within the community to expand and refine the "see," thoughts and thinking of students who become our future... mechanics, doctors, plumbers, scientists, repair persons, astronauts, and perhaps our next president.

Teacher "fulfillment" is the key...the solution. And it need not cost a penny. Our investment is mere "concern." Let's focus on what's going on with them as "persons" FIRST, personally...so we can unleash their peak performance professionally. We put more concern and care into our machines like copiers than our teachers.

Albert Einstein tried to tell us how life was not easy, yet it must be made simple. He spoke to us of how his Theory of Relativity was relevant to life, living, being, and doing--and especially interpersonal peak relationships and experiences. With noblesse oblige he said: "Put a hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour; Sit with someone who cares for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That's relativity!"

Today, students, teachers and parents alike are missing what most of us oldie-but-goodies truly enjoy remembering, "our school experience." Why did we learn? Why did teachers in our day enjoy teaching? Like Einstein suggests, the answer is
in simplicity: Happiness!

Happiness is the secret motive of all we do and of all we are willing to endure.

Nathan Brown writes:

The comment about how we should cut the last few weeks of school because they get wasted reminds me of when Yogi Berra said that there were too many close calls at first base so they should it back a foot.

Jeff Hallman writes:

Gee, if this is such a good idea, why not just close all the public schools and lay off everyone who works for them? And since there is no such thing as a student who actually wants to be in school every weekday, we might as well close all the private schools as well. While we're at it, lets open all the prisons and mental hospitals. Come to think of it, who wants to go to work every day? Let's outlaw work too!

ettubloge writes:

The last 2 weeks the kids "chill out" and watch movies in class? With 2 kids in the NJ school system, my experience is the Teachers chill out months before the final 2 weeks.

Bryan Sloss writes:

I am a public high school teacher. I don't know if I have any astounding insights, but I want to offer my two cents. First, I believe the best thing we do in public education is to provide opportunity. Everyone at least has a chance to improve their lives. On the other hand, I'm not totally opposed to the idea that people should be able to opt out of the system. If people are given choices for things like GATE, why not things like a job? Forcing someone to do something they don't want to do doesn't make them want to do it more. And, in California, we have a GED program and lots of community colleges for people who change their mind. I'd also like to say that I keep teaching right up to the end of the year. I would say that's true for most people most of the time on our campus. However, I understand what some people are talking about. There is so much emphasis on the state tests, like our championship game, that there seems to be an emotional letdown afterward.

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