Jeb!’s Time Machine

September 2, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Education Week really buried their lede in this story:

The voucher program was originally part of [former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s] most notable education reform, the A-Plus Plan, which also required schools to be held accountable using A-F letter grades, and established a new series of standardized tests to measure students’ academic performance.

But the Florida Supreme Court struck down the vouchers as unconstitutional in 2006. Then, in 2001, Bush signed into law a tax-credit scholarship program that has grown into the largest single school choice program of any state in the country as measured by the number of participating students, with about 70,000 low-income students using them in the most recent school year.

How did EdWeek not highlight the fact that Jeb! has a time machine?! I mean, how else did he do something in 2001 in response to something else that didn’t happen until 2006?

I’m generally not one to pick on mere sloppy editing, but the EdWeek piece’s framing repeats a myth peddled by opponents of the scholarship program (one that apparently even accurate chronology cannot dispel). Last month, lawyers for the teachers union that is challenging the scholarship program claimed in a legal brief: “The challenged program is the successor program to the Opportunity Scholarship Program previously invalidated by both this Court and the Florida Supreme Court.”

“Successor” is an odd way to describe something that was enacted five years before the thing it is supposedly succeeding.

The unions and their lawyers know the true chronology but they apparently do not feel bound by things like “facts” and “accuracy” (or perhaps they really do believe Jeb! has a time machine). The disinformation is a part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the legal case for the scholarship program. As Jon East of Step Up for Students explains:

The claim is similar to those made publicly over the past year by Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer, and unfortunately has seeped its way into the broader media narrative around the program. Even in recent presidential campaign stories about former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education record, outlets from The 74 to the New York Post have reported versions of the claim as fact. The Post wrote, without attribution, that: “When a state court nixed the program in 2006, Bush created a new voucher system, funded by private businesses, that withstood a court challenge from teachers.” A column in the Florida Times-Union last week also chimed in: “It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of ‘tax credits’ into a tuition-granting organization only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts.”

The teachers union is trying to sell its lawsuit as a type of police action for Bush v. Holmes, the 2006 Supreme Court decision that overturned publicly funded school vouchers for students who were assigned to district schools judged to be failing. Meyer wants judges to believe lawmakers made a fast end-around on the Holmes decision.

I share East’s amazement at “how easy it is to refute [the union’s creative chronology] and yet how prominent a role it continues to play in the FEA’s lawsuit narrative.” Media outlets like Education Week shouldn’t let them get away with it.

[h/t Patrick Gibbons for the story and the “time machine” quip, which I shamelessly stole]

ACLU v. Nevada Children

August 27, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is filing a legal challenge against Nevada’s new education savings account program. The ACLU argues that using the ESA funds at religious institutions would violate the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever…shall be used for sectarian purposes.”

What “for sectarian purposes” actually means (beyond thinly veiled code for “Catholic schools”) is a matter of dispute. Would that prohibit holding Bible studies at one’s publicly subsidized apartment? Using food stamps to purchase Passover matzah? Using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the payroll? Would it prohibit the state from issuing college vouchers akin to the Pell Grant? Or pre-school vouchers? If not, why are K-12 subsidies different?

While the legal eagles mull those questions over, let’s consider what’s at stake. Children in Nevada–particularly Las Vegas-–are trapped in overcrowded and underperforming schools. Nevada’s ESA offers families much greater freedom to customize their children’s education–-a freedom they appear to appreciate. Here is how Arizona ESA parents responded when asked about their level of satisfaction with the ESA program: Parental satisfaction with Arizona's ESA program

And here’s how those same parents rated their level of satisfaction with the public schools that their children previously attended:

Parental satisfaction among AZ ESA families with their previous public schools

Note that the lowest-income families were the least satisfied with their previous public school and most satisfied with the providers they chose with their ESA funds.

Similar results are not guaranteed in Nevada and there are important differences between the programs–when the survey was administered, eligibility for Arizona’s ESA was limited only to families of students with special needs who received significantly more funding than the average student (though still less than the state would have spent on them at a public school). By contrast, Nevada’s ESA program is open to all public school students, but payments to low-income families are capped at the average state funding per pupil ($5,700). Nevertheless, it is the low-income students who have the most to gain from the ESA–and therefore the most to lose from the ACLU’s ill-considered lawsuit.

(First posted at Cato-at-Liberty.)

North Koreans Prefer to Use their Infravision, scoff at the need of lesser nations for “light bulbs”

August 27, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The North Korean Ministry of News and Correct Thinking explained away this photo by advanced North Korean genetic engineering. Dear Leader Kim Jung Il kidnapped a Japanese Dungeon Master in the early 1980s, and forced the poor man to run the Dear Leader through every TSR module. The Dear Leader never suffered so much as a hit point of damage. The Dungeon Master once insisted otherwise, and was found to have suffocated after mysteriously deciding to swallow 3000 twenty-sided dice. Dear Leader easily bested all imaginary foes, just like real life. Inspired by the concept of “infravision” the Dear Leader ordered his scientists to give all of his followers the ability to see in the dark. This made light bulbs obsolete in the greatest of all nations.

An alternative explanation might be that this whole central planning thing just doesn’t work out well in practice. This however is an obviously absurd and implausible explanation.

Oil prices-look out below!

August 24, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So global stock markets have crashed and the price of oil has dropped below $40 a barrel. This interesting article however points out that if one conceptualize the oil glut as an attempt by the Saudis to crush American frackers it is not going to work because the frackers now represent mid-price rather than high-price producers. In other words, if the Saudis and Frackers have started a bar room brawl, it is a number of other producers who will wind up getting their proverbial jaws broken. Mid-price producers will be very likely to find the financing needed to survive while demand and supply balance. High priced producers will likely find themselves out of luck.

Alternatively you can think of it this way: $100+ per barrel oil created a massive over-investment in oil supply. Right now you don’t want to be the high cost producer or saddled with a massive welfare state financed on petrol. American frackers are neither of these things.


Ed Next Poll Shows Character is Important

August 18, 2015


Education Next is out with a set of great new poll results.  They ask a representative sample of the general public, parents, and teachers about a variety of salient education policy issues.  You can see the results in detail on this fantastic interactive site.

There are many interesting results to discuss, but the one that caught my eye is a question about how much schools do and should emphasize different topics.  The general public, parents, and teachers were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 7 (with 1 being “a little” and 7 being “a lot”) how much they thought schools were emphasizing reading, math, the arts, history, science, character, creativity, global warming, athletics, and bullying.  Respondents also described how much schools should be emphasizing those topics.  I calculated the difference between how much parents said schools should and do cover different topics to see where parents think schools are currently most falling short of their priorities.

Parents would like to see schools increase their emphasis on every topic except athletics.  But the two topics they wanted to see increased the most were character and creativity.  Parents rated the emphasis that schools give to character as a 4.10 on the 7 point scale.  When asked how much schools should emphasize character, parents gave an answer of 5.41 — an increase of 1.31.  For creativity parents rated schools’ current efforts as 4.25 but would like to see 5.63 — an increase of 1.38.

Parent demand for increased focus on character and creativity is almost double their desired increase for reading or math.  Parents say schools are emphasizing reading at 5.62 and math at 5.66 but would like to see that at 6.28 and 6.31, respectively.  They want more focus on math and reading but only an increase of .65 or .66 compared to an increase of 1.31 and 1.38 for character and creativity.

Why do parents think schools are falling much further short in their emphasis on character and creativity?  Part of the problem is that character and creativity involve questions of values on which there is much less consensus than on technical skills in math and reading.  If we assign students to public schools, we are often forcing people with diverse sets of values into the same schools.  If they try to teach character, they invite fights over what the content of that character should be.  Public school districts can’t even agree amicably on what to name their schools let alone what kinds of values to teach.  The Cato Institute has put together a useful web site documenting the endless conflicts produced by forcing everyone into the same school system.

If we really want schools to give a much greater emphasis to teaching character, we will need to expand school choice.  Choice allows families with similar values and priorities to send their children to schools that will then be free to teach those values.  Schools won’t be deterred by struggles over values since parents seeking a different type of character education can choose a different school rather than fight.

Schools also fall short of parent expectations for teaching character and creativity because those concepts are ill-defined and even more poorly measured.  What do we mean by character and creativity?  How would we know if schools are doing it?  To address these difficulties, the Department of Education Reform has launched the Character Assessment Initiative, or Charassein (sounds like kerosene), under the direction of my colleague, Gema Zamarro. I’ve written before about some of the path-breaking research coming out of Charassein, but be sure to stay tuned as more is on the way.

With better understanding of what we mean by character, better ways of measuring those outcomes, and more choice so that schools and families are free to teach desired character traits, we may see a closing of the gap between what parents want and what schools do in teaching character.

The School Choice Myth That Just Won’t Die

August 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The myth that there’s no evidence that school choice works has more lives than Dracula. Worse, it’s often repeated by people who should know better, like the education wonks at Third Way or the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate education committee. In a particularly egregious recent example, a professor of educational leadership and the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education wrote an op-ed repeating the “no evidence” canard, among others:

The committee also expands the statewide voucher program. There is no evidence privatization [sic] results in better outcomes for kids. The result will be to pay the tuition for students who currently attend private school and who will continue to attend private school—their tuition will become the taxpayers’ bill rather than a private one. Additionally, the funds for the expansion would siphon an estimated $48 million away from public schools, decreasing the amount of money available for each and every school district in the state.

It is astounding that a professor and a dean at a school of education in Wisconsin would be unfamiliar with the research on the Milwaukee voucher program, never mind the numerous gold standard studies on school choice programs elsewhere. Fortunately, friends of the Jay P. Greene Blog, Professor James Shuls of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Martin Lueken of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, set the record straight:

…the Wisconsin Legislature commissioned a comprehensive five-year study by researchers at the University of Arkansas. The research team matched and compared children at private schools in the choice program to similar students at Milwaukee Public Schools. The study concluded that children in Milwaukee who used vouchers were more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in four-year colleges and persist in college.

These findings are very similar to those of “gold-standard” studies done nationwide. Among 13 peer-reviewed studies on voucher programs that use research methods based on random assignment, all but one study concluded that vouchers benefit students (the other was unable to detect an impact). In addition, recent work by a Harvard economist demonstrates that giving low-income families better educational options can help improve social mobility for children.

Just a year and a half ago–in response to yet another school choice denier who should know better–the coauthors of the Milwaukee study clarified that their research found school choice produced “a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

First, students participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice (“voucher”) Program graduated from high school and both enrolled and persisted in four-year colleges at rates that were four to seven percentage points higher than a carefully matched set of students in Milwaukee Public Schools. Using the most conservative 4% voucher advantage from our study, that means that the 801 students in ninth grade in the voucher program in 2006 included 32 extra graduates who wouldn’t have completed high school and gone to college if they had instead been required to attend MPS.

Second, the addition of a high-stakes accountability testing requirement to the voucher program in 2010 resulted in a solid increase in voucher student test scores, leaving the voucher students with significantly higher achievement gains in reading than their matched MPS peers.

Moreover, as Shuls and Lueken note, “private schools in the choice program obtain these results when the government funding for a voucher is 60 percent less than what public schools receive.”

The final two claims by the UW-Madison faculty–that the voucher program benefits students who would attend private school anyway and siphons money from the district school system–also fail to withstand scrutiny. A conservative analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program by Prof. Robert Costrell of the University of Arkansas found that “about 10 percent of low-income voucher users would have attended private school anyway.” The 2009 study also found that the voucher program produced significant savings to the state taxpayers, as shown in the figure below:

Taxpayer Savings from Milwaukee Voucher Program

Chart by Robert M. Costrell.

A Friedman Foundation study released last year found that the Milwaukee voucher program saved the state more than $238 million since its inception in 1990. Moreover, as the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty notes in a recent report, Wisconsin gives a “school choice bonus” to district schools that lose students to the voucher program. Although a district’s total revenue decreases when a student leaves (along with the variable costs associated with that student), the “school districts will actually have more revenue per pupil because the district can continue to count students it no longer educates for equalization aid and revenue limit purposes.”

Sadly, opponents of school choice are likely to continue resurrecting the “no evidence” canard. But when they do, Van Helsings like Shuls and Lueken will be there to put a stake in its heart.

(First posted, with slight differences, at Cato-at-Liberty.)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Server

August 12, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)



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