WILL Video Explains It All

May 22, 2015

Marty Lueken from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) and a Department of Ed Reform alum sent me this remarkably informative video on the lack of relationship between school spending and achievement globally and in Wisconsin.  Check it out.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being Barack Obama

May 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So my favorite part of the entire Georgetown poverty discussion was when the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks- alone against the President of the United States, a leading public intellectual/academic and a moderator sympathetic to their point of view- nevertheless took their best shot and then put them on the canvass.

President Obama laid out an indictment about a tax-dodge for hedge fund managers, how he had sought to close this loophole in order to tax hedge fund managers at the normal rate, and that he had planned to invest the additional revenue in high-return fashion to advantage poor children. Sounds pretty damning, unless you can think. Arthur Brooks can think:

MR. BROOKS:  Yes, sure.  Fine.  These are show issues.  Corporate jets are show issues.  Carried interest is a show issue.  The real issue?  Middle-class entitlements — 70 percent of the federal budget.  That’s where the real money is.  And the truth of the matter is until we can take that on — if we want to make progress, if the left and right want to make progress politically as they put together budgets, they’re going to have to make progress on that. 

Now, if we want to create — if we want to increase taxes on carried interest, I mean, that’s fine for me — not that I can speak for everybody, certainly not everybody on the Republican side. 

So if we want to make progress, I think let’s decide that we have a preference — I mean, let’s have a rumble over how much money we’re spending on public goods for poor people, for sure.  And Republicans should say, I want to spend money on programs for the poor, but I think these ones are counterproductive and I think these ones are ineffective, and Democrats should say, no they’re not, we’ve never done them right and they’ve always been underfunded.  I want to have that competition of ideas.  That’s really productive.

But we can’t even get to that when politicians on the left and the right are conspiring to not touch middle-class entitlements, because we’re looking at it in terms of the right saying all the money is gone on this, and the left saying all we need is a lot more money on top of these things — when most people who are looking at it realize that this is an unsustainable path.  It’s an unsustainable path for lots of things, not just programs for the poor.  We can’t adequately fund our military. 

I think you and I would have a tremendous amount of agreement about the misguided notion of the sequester, for lots of reasons, because we can’t spend money on purpose.  And that’s what we need to do.  And when we’re on an automatic path to spend tons of money in entitlements that are leading us to fiscal unsustainability, we can’t get to these progressive conversations where conservatives and liberals really disagree and can work together, potentially, to help poor people and defend our nation.

I’m forming the Arthur Brooks fan club over here by the way. Obama, Putnam and Dionne are no match for him.


Was Missouri’s Interdistrict Transfer Program Poorly Designed?

May 20, 2015

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

In the early 1970s the Ford Motor Company designed the Pinto. In addition to being extremely ugly, the Pinto was extremely dangerous. A rear-end collision could cause the gas tank to rupture and ignite. For obvious reasons, the Pinto is regarded as one of the worst cars ever.

At the very least, it was poorly designed.

Many look at Missouri’s interdistrict transfer program, which has allowed more than 2,000 students from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to transfer to higher performing suburban districts, as if it were a Pinto. It has forced the two unaccredited districts to hemorrhage and rest on the verge of bankruptcy.

Is it ugly? Yes. Is it poorly designed? It depends.

In 2013, the year before students transferred, fewer than 20 percent of students in the two unaccredited school districts were proficient in reading or math. Dropout rates were abysmal, and the prospects were slim for graduates of either district.

Now, let’s imagine that the transfer law was not in place. What would be different today? Chances are, the school districts would not be performing significantly better. What’s more, few outside of the school districts would have taken any note of the quality of education being delivered in these two north Saint Louis County districts.

Since nearly a quarter of the students walked out of these flailing districts, much has changed. No, the districts have not gotten significantly better; nor have they gotten significantly worse. The transfer program, however, has allowed 2,000-plus students to have the opportunity for a better education. Moreover, it has launched a robust conversation around the state about how to turn around struggling school districts.

But to understand if the program was “poorly designed,” we have to determine what it was designed to do.

Was it designed to be a school reform model for unaccredited school districts? If so, it failed, since it has drained these districts of necessary financial resources and could bankrupt both of them.

Was it designed as a long-term fix, a permanent interdistrict program? Again, if this is the case, it failed, since the program lacks a feasible tuition system. Currently, tuition ranges from roughly $10,000 to $20,000, depending on where a student transferred.

Is it possible, however, that the transfer program was designed for another purpose, like to create controversy or to spark change?

As I note in my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?” the transfer students were largely absorbed into 24 receiving districts with little disruption. In this regard, the transfer program functioned relatively well.

The program has told families in low-performing schools that their children do not have to be doomed to perpetual underperformance. These families took the right to an education guaranteed by Missouri’s state constitution. Angel Matthews, for instance, experienced the benefits that come from choosing your own school. Angel was one of 175 students who initially transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens to the Kirkwood School District, and she has embraced the rigors and opportunities of her new school by taking AP honors classes, cheerleading, and running track.

The transfer program has caught our attention, but it is not a permanent fix. Policymakers must now develop new policies that establish quality schools in every neighborhood. These policies must include some form of school choice, lest we fall back into our old pattern of assigning students to chronically failing schools.

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James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.  Follow on Twitter @Shulsie


The Cowboy Sons of George P. Mitchell vs. Saudi Sheik Update

May 20, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT Mark Perry. From FuelFix:

HOUSTON — Pumping a barrel of oil out of the Eagle Ford Shale could get $10 to $15 cheaper by summer 2016 as service companies cut costs and operators tune up their wells, analysts say.

The oil slump hasn’t stopped producers in the South Texas play from getting better at targeting oil-rich rock in lateral sections of their horizontal wells, speeding up their pressure pumping systems and adopting better technologies for bringing wells into production.

Those efforts could help lift wells’ initial production rates by an average 33 percent in the Eagle Ford, even as service companies cut prices for drilling tools, proppant and rigs by an average 16 percent this year, Wood Mackenzie analysts said at a meeting with journalists last week.

Those two factors could bring the Eagle Ford’s breakeven oil price down from $56 to as low as $41 a barrel by June next year, putting millions more barrels within reach for producers. Similar trends are emerging in the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and the Permian Basin in West Texas.

“The death of the unconventional business has been greatly exaggerated,” Wood Mackenzie analyst Cody Rice said. “Operators can still make money in the best portions of the best plays in the lower 48.”

Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?


Pass the Popcorn: Romantic Individualism and Technocracy 

May 16, 2015

  

[CAPTION NEEDED, something about cooks and broth]

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Only mild spoilers lie in wait for you here, but if you want compete nonspoilage, don’t read. 

The new Avengers is awesome while you watch it but doesn’t live up to the original. A certain amount of comic book schlock – magic gems and a slew of newly introduced characters and bad guys who turn into good guys in the blink of an eye and . . . a magical biotechnological AI robot/human hybrid thingy that the bad guy built to be one thing but it became something else because the program upload was interrupted and it had a magic jewel put in its forehead . . . or something . . . well, a certain amount of that is okay, but past a certain point it’s just too damn much. 

But living up to the first Avengers film is a high standard to set from someone who called it “the movie for our time.” We’ve been spoiled by too many really outstanding comic book movies. This one is a lot of fun, go see it. Just don’t try too hard to follow the plot. 

I understand the original cut of this movie was three hours and Whedon had to chop it to the 2:20 we see on the screen. That would explain not only the confusing and inadequately explained plot and the underdevelopment of the character conflicts that made the first Avengers such a triumph, but also the mismatch between the themes early web articles anticipated would be in the movie and the absence of those themes from the movie. I saw several articles written on the assumption that Ultron, programmed to establish world peace, wanted to wipe out humanity because he realized that human beings are evil and will always create war and suffering, and deserve to be wiped out. That could have made a fascinating movie, but it’s not the one we got. 

What I do think is present in this movie is the tendency of Romantic (capital R) individualism, even in its most libertarian forms, to produce a destructive and oppressive technocracy. One of the great illusions of our time is that we can escape the tyranny and dehumanization of technocracy by romanticizing the individual. That is precisely what we cannot do. It was and is the romanticization of the individual that creates technocracy. Romantic individualism consistently ends in unsustainable narcissism. As the results of the narcissism become unsustainable, the Romantics – less and less willing to give up their Romanticism as they become more and more narcissistic – seek technocratic solutions that will take care of our problems for us without any of us having to practice self-denial, which is for them the sin against the Holy Ghost. Technocracy, they hope, will maintain the necessary conditions for individual narcissism. That is what Stark is doing when he creates Ultron – solve the problem of war not by creating people who want justice but by creating machines that will eradicate [people who practice] injustice. 

The whole logic of this is laid out admirably in Tocqueville, in Eliot’s famous line about “systems so perfect,” and in Wall-E. Men who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery. 

The movie clearly understands what it is that makes Romantic individualism plausible and attractive. We see it in the fact that Stark’s hubris produces Vision as well as Ultron. We see it when Stark says “I’m not in charge, I just . . . pay for everything and make everyone look awesome.” We also see it when he says to Steve Rogers, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a dark side.” Here we really see, as we did in the first film, that the difference between them is a religious one, and it boils down to what one does with one’s dark side. Stark gives in to it, like Emerson, whose response to the doctrine of the sinfulness of man was that he did not think he was sinful, but even if he were, “if I am the devil’s child I will live then from the devil.” What is there for a man to do but be what he is? Stark, like Emerson, does not believe there is a Power who can purge the darkness and truly make men clean. 

Rogers opposes Stark’s individualism not by overt appeal to God but by appeal to human relationships. We are made to live and work with one another, to solve – or at least cope with – our problems “together.” The solution to our problems lies not in machines and systems but in people wanting to be in right relationship with one another. 

This is just as religious a claim as “there’s only one God, ma’am.” I am not sure it isn’t an even more religious claim. For it asserts that we are made not simply to be what we are and do what we want, but to overcome what we are and control what we want in order to achieve a fulfillment that lies outside ourselves. 

I am surprised to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to recognize that it is Steve Rogers’ America, not Tony Stark’s, that holds the secret to saving all that they both hold dear. 


The Importance of Being < Earnest

May 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT to Jon Gabriel for alerting us to an interview on Morning Joe in which Josh Earnest addressed President Obama’s hand-wringing over the non-existent crisis of kids going to private schools. See the video here. Joe basically asks Earnest why the President would be critical of people for sending their kids to private schools when, er, he is a private school graduate and sends his daughters to private schools.

EARNEST: His point is that even if you send your kids to private school, we all have an interest in making sure we have good high quality public schools available to everybody. It’s not that far from the White House that we do have some of the best public schools in the country over in Fairfax County, Virginia.

That is an example. That is also a more wealthy than average county in the country. That is an example of a society of a community that has invested in a common good for the benefit of their community and that’s the kind of thing that we need to see all across the country. Whether that is something as simple as investing in our national parks or local parks or public schools or making sure that every single American has access to quality health insurance.

Ok, so if I am following Earnest here, the President supports public funding for K-12 along with 99% of the rest of us. I have not noticed any movement out to exempt people who send their kids to private schools from paying state and local taxes for the rest of their lives. Did Guam pass a law like that while I wasn’t looking, with it poised to spread across the country like wildfire? Did I miss that somehow?

Schools can’t run without money. It however strikes me as incredible to suggest, as the President did, that the magic high-impact dollars would be on the way to save poor children if only we could overcome our “cynicism” inspired by decades of increased spending with precious little to show for it nefarious right-wingers.

People have honest and deeply felt disagreements about how much we should be spending on public education. If you want to champion the interest of poor children in the K-12 system, you must be willing to ruthlessly pursue efforts to extract the maximum possible amount of value from each dollar invested. Bill Clinton was fond of a certain Einstein quote about the definition of insanity, and it certainly applies here.

Don’t worry my skeptical friend, the dollars in your pocket are magic fireproof dollars- test it out!

 

 


President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

May 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It is a shame that the only thing that seemed to draw headlines from a recent panel discussion on poverty including President Obama was a silly throw away line about Fox News. The entire discussion, which included Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks deeply deserves your time. The event transcript can be found here.

Go read it. Like now. All four participants had very interesting things to say, far more than can be reflected upon in a blog post.

So this quote from President Obama got my attention:

Now, part of what’s happened is that — and this is where Arthur and I would probably have some disagreements.  We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history — it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better — more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages
— are withdrawing from sort of the commons — kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.

Now, that’s not inevitable.  A free market is perfectly compatible with also us making investment in good public schools, public universities; investments in public parks; investments in a whole bunch — public infrastructure that grows our economy and spreads it around.  But that’s, in part, what’s been under attack for the last 30 years.  And so, in some ways, rather than soften the edges of the market, we’ve turbocharged it.  And we have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity.

This is an interesting quote on multiple levels- the first of which being that it has factual assertions that are demonstrably false. Let’s start with the strongly implied notion that we have disinvested from public schools. Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a delightfully on point chart addressing what actually happened:

 

Now I could just as easily show a chart of inflation adjusted public school spending per pupil rising ever higher, but this chart qualifies as more interesting in my book as it shows what was done with the money. In short, we bombed districts with additional money and they used it to hire vast numbers of school employees especially non-teachers. These numbers come right out of the National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, and they demonstrate conclusively that President Obama was wildly off base when discussing the commitment of the American taxpayers to public education.

What about this idea of “kids start going to private schools” assertion? Let’s just for the sake of jovial discussion overlook the fact that President Obama himself attended private schools, and sends his daughters to one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Again this notion is demonstrably false: private school attendance rates have been falling over time. Ironically the sort of class based segregation that all three participants acknowledge is indeed going on, but it is largely going on within the public school system itself through a system of highly economically segregated district schools- aka the leafy suburbs.

Later the President says “I think it is important for us at the outset to acknowledge if, in fact, we are going to find common ground, then we also have to acknowledge that there are certain investments we are willing to make as a society, as a whole, in public schools and public universities.” With regards to K-12 however the President has constructed an argument on a demonstrably false premise: while the ability of the country to go on making the same level of investment in public education in the future may be in doubt, there can be no doubt regarding the massive increase in resources devoted to public education in recent decades.

Bob Putnam joins with the President on the trends in public school spending:

For most of the 20th century, all Americans of all walks of life thought that part of getting a good education was getting soft skills — not just reading, writing, arithmetic, but cooperation and teamwork, and so on.  And part of that was that everybody in the country got free access to extracurricular activities — band and football, and music and so on.  But beginning about 20 years ago, the view developed — which is really, really deeply evil — that that’s just a frill. 

And so we disinvested, and we said if you want to take part in football here, or you want to take part in music, you’ve got to pay for it.  And of course, what that means is that poor people can’t pay for it.  It’s a big deal — $1,600 on average for two kids in a family.  Well, $1,600 to play football, or play in the band, or French club or whatever — it’s not a big deal if your income is $200,000; but if you income is $16,000, who in their right mind is going to be paying 10 percent of their family income?

I’ll interject here to say that the public school system has more than enough money to pay for football helmets for poor children but that in some cases they may have placed a much higher priority on other spending. Like for instance, bloating out their non-teaching employment (see Figure 1 above).  When staffing growth increased at a rate more than 10 times greater than enrollment growth, it is hard to think anything else. Are there kids priced out of extracurricular activities in American public schools? I’m confident there have been. Is it because the public has disinvested in public education? Hardly.

Later the President returns to his theme:

If, in fact, the most important thing is character and parents, then it’s okay if we don’t have band and music at school — that’s the argument that you will hear.  It’s okay.  Look, there are immigrant kids who are learning in schools that are much worse, and we’re spending huge amounts in the district and we still get poor outcomes, and so obviously money is not the issue.  And so what you hear is a logic that is used as an excuse to under-invest in those public goods.

And that’s why I think a lot of people are resistant to it and are skeptical of that conversation.  And I guess what I’m saying is that, guarding against cynicism, what we should say is we are going to argue hard for those public investments.  We’re going to argue hard for early childhood education because, by the way, if a young kid — three, four years old — is hearing a lot of words, the science tells us that they’re going to be more likely to succeed at school.  And if they’ve got trained and decently paid teachers in that preschool, then they’re actually going to get — by the time they’re in third grade, they’ll be reading at grade level. 

And those all very concrete policies.  But it requires some money.  We’re going to argue hard for that stuff.  And lo and behold, if we do those things, the values and the character that those kids are learning in a loving environment where they can succeed in school, and they’re being praised, and they can read at grade level, and they’re less likely to drop out, and it turns out that when they’re succeeding at school and they’ve got resources, they’re less likely to get pregnant as teens, and less likely to engage in drugs, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system — that is a reinforcement of the values and character that we want. 

And that’s where we, as a society, have the capacity to make a real difference.  But it will cost us some money.  It will cost us some money.  It’s not free.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact with the blinding ubiquity of incredibly well-funded schools that are also catastrophically dysfunctional. President Obama attempts to waive this problem away while confidently assuming that the next round of public school spending will produce fantastic gains for disadvantaged students. President Obama for instance seems either blissfully or willfully unaware that random assignment studies of Head Start released by his own administration demonstrate (yet again) academic fade out before 3rd grade. The bigger point in my mind is that given the massive investment in public education the greatest opportunity for improvement by far lies in increasing the ROI for the funds we already invest in the system. Any blithe would-be technocrat that effectively wants to write off the current investment as stuck in place while making snake oil salesman style promises regarding the profound efficacy of new spending deserves our profound skepticism.

The unacknowledged elephant in the room- the inescapable fact that the poor have been the primary victims of the failure of the public school system to produce a decent return on investment for the massive increase in public K-12 spending. Several generations of Americans have attended public schools increasingly generously funded and staffed over the decades, and always at globally enviable levels. I’m at a loss to imagine how anyone can blame inter-generational poverty on under investment in public education when such investment can only be described as both substantial and increasing for many decades

If someone would like to explain why I should view this viewpoint as something other than demonstrably shallow and willfully ignorant of the real issues in public education and their equally real consequences, feel free to leave a comment. The problem in my view is not that we have put too little in to public education, but rather that our 19th Century Prussian factory model gave us far too little back in return.

Public education, in short, badly needs an update.


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