‘Opposite Day’ Logic on Mandatory Union Dues

January 13, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Don’t miss Dmitri Mehlhorn’s wickedly funny and brilliant takedown of Rich Kahlenberg’s “opposite day” logic on mandatory union dues:

Although Richard Kahlenberg is an acclaimed progressive scholar, I had no idea of his wicked brilliance until I read his recent 5000-word opinion piece on the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. CTA. At first, I thought he was defending the respondents, the California Teachers Association. But as I read his column, I realized that every single point he made was the opposite of reality — often in ways that would be obvious to a well-read high-school student, let alone a Century Foundation Senior Fellow.

Suddenly, it dawned on me that Kahlenberg was engaging in devilishly clever satire.

By setting forth the criteria by which the Friedrichs case should be judged, and then using “opposite day” logic, he was subversively making the strongest possible case for Rebecca Friedrichs. Since his prose is so sincere and subtle, I almost missed it. This column is a public service for those of us who are literal-minded enough to want the actual facts associated with each element of Kahlenberg’s framework.

Here’s a taste of one of the many claims Mehlhorn eviscerates:

“Schools for Democracy”

Another Kahlenberg headline, that public unions are “Schools for Democracy,” is doubly satirical. The teachers unions are well known to be antidemocratic as both models and actors.

  • Only a small percentage of teachers, roughly 20% and often less, actually vote in internal union elections;
  • Teachers use their political power to push for school board elections to be off-cycle from high-turnout elections, depressing voter engagement so as to ensure their members’ influence over school boards;
  • The unions promulgate codes of conduct, pushing their members not to criticize union stances and often bullying pro-reform teachers;
  • The California Teachers Association, in particular, is known as the 800-pound gorilla of Sacramento, bullying legislators and other interest groups.

See what Kahlenberg did there, by calling them “Schools for Democracy,” when the unions produce terrible results for democracy? They are bad schools! Get it? This guy is a genius.

This guy is a genius indeed — Mehlhorn, that is. Check out the rest of his post over at Citizen Stewart’s “Citizen Ed” blog.

And on a related note, over at The Seventy-Four, Mehlhorn provides a very thoughtful and thorough analysis of the Friedrichs v. CTA oral arguments earlier this week. In short: the unions were dejected and for good reason. The strongest argument that the pro-mandatory union dues side could marshal to peel Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Kennedy away from a pro-Friedrichs majority was that it would overturn a precedent set 40 years ago (Abood) and upon which tens or even hundreds of thousands of contracts rely. However, the Friedrichs petitioners responded convincingly that there is also a mountain of First Amendment jurisprudence that conflicts with Abood, and that siding with the unions would also entail overturning longstanding precedent.

Moreover, as Mehlhorn points out, even a pro-union lawyer conceded during oral arguments that there may be a “need to adjust” where the line is drawn between what counts as political or non-political activities (under Abood, the unions can charge non-members for the latter but not the former), and the need for such judicial tinkering further erodes the case for stare decisis.

Of course, the justices could change their minds between now and when they issue a decision, so the Friedrichs petitioners shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet, but the unions might want to start thinking seriously about how to persuade workers to financially support them in the absence of government compulsion.


Nevada Judge Issues Injunction Against ESA Program

January 11, 2016

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Terrible news today for families that had been hoping to start using education savings accounts to customize their children’s education:

CARSON CITY — A state judge Monday put the brakes on Nevada’s education savings accounts, granting an injunction sought by opponents who said it would drain critical funding resources from Nevada’s public schools and is unconstitutional.

District Judge James Wilson, in a 16-page ruling, said the state constitution requires “the legislature to set apart or assign money to be used to fund the operation of the public schools, to the exclusion of all other purposes.”

Wilson said because Senate Bill 302 diverts some general funds appropriated for public schools to fund private school tuition, it violates sections of the constitution.

“Plaintiff parents have met their burden of clearly proving that there is no set of circumstances under which the statute would be valid …” Wilson wrote.

An appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court is anticipated.

Let’s hope the case reaches the state supreme court speedily and that the justices act justly.

The Folly of Overregulating School Choice: A Response to Critics

January 8, 2016


[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Earlier this week, NBER released the first random-assignment study ever to find a negative impact from a school voucher program. Previous gold standard studies had almost unanimously found modest positive effects from school choice, which raises the obvious question: what makes the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP) so different?

In an article for Education Next, I argued that, “although not conclusive, there is considerable evidence that the problem stemmed from poor program design.” The LSP is one of the most heavily regulated school choice programs in the nation, and that burden has led to a very low rate of private school participation.  Only about one-third of Louisiana private schools accept voucher students, a considerably lower rate than in most other states. From a survey of private school leaders conducted by Brian Kisida, Patrick J. Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith for the American Enterprise Institute, we know that the primary reason private schools opted out of the voucher program was their concerns over the regulatory burden, particularly those regulations that threatened their character and identity. For example, voucher-accepting schools in Louisiana may not set their own admissions criteria, cannot charge families more than the value of the voucher (a meager $5,311 on average in 2012), and must administer the state test.

We also know from the NBER study that the participating and non-participating private schools differ in at least one important respect. Whereas the non-participating schools experienced modest growth over the decade before the voucher program was expanded statewide (about 3 percent, on average), the participating schools had been experiencing a significant decline in enrollment (about 13 percent, on average). In other words, schools that were able to attract students tended to reject the vouchers while voucher schools tended to be those where enrollment had been dropping.*

The difference in enrollment trends suggests that the LSP’s regulatory burden had the opposite of its intended effect: discouraging higher-performing schools from participating, leaving only the lower-performing schools that were so desperate to reverse their declining enrollment and increase their funding that they were willing to do whatever the voucher program required.

Several other researchers and education reform advocates reached similar conclusions, including Matthew Ladner, Adam Peshek, Michael McShane, Lindsey Burke, and Jonathan Butcher. However, others expressed skepticism about what I shall call the Overregulation Theory, and proposed alternative explanations for the LSP’s poor results.

Writing at Education Week, Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans concedes that “regulation probably does reduce the number of private schools, especially the number of higher-performing private schools,” but he still believes the Overregulation Theory is “premature.” Harris instead offers two potential alternatives: 1) the improved public/charter school performance in New Orleans made the performance of the private sector look relatively worse; and 2) the curriculum at most private schools may not have been aligned to the state test, so the poor performance merely reflects that lack of alignment rather than poor performance.

Harris’s first theory is explicitly rejected by the NBER study. On the third page of the study, the authors write: “Negative voucher effects are not explained by the quality of public fallback options for LSP applicants: achievement levels at public schools attended by students lotteried out of the program are below the Louisiana average and comparable to scores in low- performing districts like New Orleans.” In other words, the public school alternatives are not so great and the performance of the participating private schools is considerably worse.

That said, Harris’s second theory, which Jason Richwine also suggested, is plausible as a contributing factor. However, it is no more plausible than the Overregulation Theory. Indeed, whereas the differences in enrollment trends between voucher and non-voucher private schools provide some suggestive evidence for the Overregulation Theory, Harris provides no evidence to support the Nonaligned Test Theory. How many voucher schools were already aligned with the state curriculum and/or administered the state test? At this point, we do not know. Moreover, to the extent that testing nonalignment explains some of the very large 0.4 standard deviation difference in math scores, it is unlikely that it explains all or even most of that difference. Then again, Harris stated that he will be releasing the results of his own research on the LSP, so it’s likely he knows something that I do not.

Harris also notes that the NBER study only examined the results of one year of one program. He is certainly correct that we need more data over time to draw firmer conclusions, which is one reason I presented my interpretation as “not conclusive” and wrote that “the regulationsmay have had the opposite of their intended effect” (emphasis added). And, indeed, there is some evidence that voucher schools improved slightly in the third year since the statewide expansion (although if the voucher schools were their own district, they’d still be the fifth-worst of 76 in the state).

Nevertheless, such strongly negative results should give reform advocates great pause about the regulatory strategies employed in Louisiana. We know the regulatory burden chased away most private schools, and we have evidence that the voucher-accepting schools had been struggling with declining enrollment. If we want to better understand the LSP’s atypically disastrous performance, its program design is the logical place to start.

*UPDATE: Prof. Josh Goodman of Harvard University points out that the NBER study’s “estimates show consistent negative impacts irrespective of previous enrollment trends.” If there had been wide variation in enrollment trends among the participating schools, that would count as evidence against the Overregulation Theory. However, if the enrollment trends among participating schools were consistently negative, with the variation mostly limited to how fast the participating schools had been losing students, then it would still be consistent with the Overregulation Theory.

[Originally posted at Cato-at-Liberty.]

What Else Could Explain Negative Result from Louisiana?

January 7, 2016

(Guest Post by Jason Richwine)

The new experimental evaluation of the Louisiana voucher program poses a challenge to school-choice advocates such as myself. How do we explain the voucher students’ negative test outcomes – including a massive 0.4 SD drop in math scores – when evaluations in other cities showed neutral to mildly positive effects? Supporters have quickly coalesced around the explanation that Louisiana imposed regulations so suffocating that only the worst private schools participated in the voucher program.

I find that explanation unsatisfactory for a few reasons. First, it feels like a post-hoc excuse. Yes, choice advocates have been warning about burdensome regulation for years, including in Louisiana, but how many predicted that the state’s voucher system would go down in flames because of it? The magnitude of the score declines must surprise even the most vociferous critics of regulation.

More importantly, if the participating private schools are so bad – and other people apparently knew they were bad, given the declining enrollments – then why did the voucher recipients choose them? Did the parents fail to research their options? Do they not value academics much at all? Blaming the results on an unusually bad set of private schools is tempting, but it creates the new problem of having to explain why parents made such dubious choices.

Personally, I do not find it plausible that school quality alone could have so much impact, especially in one year. The traits that students bring with them to school – natural abilities, resilience, family support networks  – generally explain much more of the variance in student achievement than school quality. Only the absolute worst schools could have such deleterious effects, but there is no indication that the Louisiana voucher schools were the bottom of the barrel. Even if the one third of private schools that participated really were the worst third in the state, we are still talking about schools that are below average – not uniformly awful.

In trying to reconcile Louisiana with the successful experiments in DC, Milwaukee, Charlotte, etc., I suggest exploring other explanations. In particular, how well did the private schools align their curricula with the demands of the state tests? Maybe the private schools were simply teaching different material rather than teaching the state’s curriculum badly. Also worth examining is whether the randomization process, which was done within a complicated set of priority levels for admission, was conducted appropriately. Another issue is how schools adapt after the first year of statewide implementation. And, remember, it is not uncommon for studies to change significantly from the working paper phase to publication. So let’s be patient. Explaining this anomalous study will require more research.

Say it with me now: Justice Clint Bolick

January 6, 2016


[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Yes, you read that headline correctly. This morning, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced that he was appointing famed school choice litigator and champion of liberty, justice, and the American way, Clint Bolick, to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Clint was one of the lawyers involved in defending Ohio’s school choice law before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case, which the good guys won. His impact on the school choice movement cannot be overstated. He co-founded the Institute for Justice, which continues to defend school choice laws around the country, he was president of the Alliance for School Choice, and he has served for the last eight years as the head of litigation at the Goldwater Institute (where he is known for repeatedly suing the pants off the government), among many other important positions and accomplishments. Just a little over a year ago, he successfully defended Florida’s education savings account law.

You can get a taste of Clint’s style from this NYT profile:

 Clint Bolick looks like any other high-powered lawyer, for the most part. But glance down at his index finger, which sports a scorpion tattoo, for first-hand evidence of his unconventional streak.

Mr. Bolick has fought for the right of Arizonans to have their toes nibbled. After successfully defending a tattoo artist, he celebrated by having himself inked. From his perch here at the Goldwater Institute, a high-powered libertarian think tank, Mr. Bolick has even picked a fight with an entire professional hockey team.

From a conservative point of view, there is no end to the government interference in individual liberties going on around the country. Some emanates from Washington, but much of it, in the opinion of Mr. Bolick, bubbles up from the bottom, whether from a small-town school board or the Arizona Board of Cosmetology, which Mr. Bolick has sued twice. […]

“There are lots of cozy deals in Arizona, just like everywhere else,” Mr. Bolick said. “The last thing you want is for us to find out. It’s like a skunk coming to a picnic. We ruin everything.” […]

Local governments in Arizona now consult experts at Goldwater before embarking on financing schemes. Their goal is to avoid receiving a legal brief in the mail typed out with Mr. Bolick’s fierce right finger.

The only question is this: Is this a great appointment or the greatest appointment?

UPDATE: It’s only been a few hours since the announcement and statists are already wetting their pants.

The Folly of Technocracy

January 5, 2016


[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Yesterday, Matt addressed the “very bitter lesson” of the recent NBER study’s first-ever finding of a negative impact from school choice. I concurred with Matt over at Education Next today. It’s also worth noting that the results should not have been surprising. Jay, Matt, Greg, Andrew Coulson, Robert Enlow, Rick Hess, and others warned that a rigid test-based accountability system could have serious unintended consequences. Indeed, here is a recap of this very debate two years ago:

For years, factions within the school choice movement have argued over the effectiveness and wisdom of numerous regulations. For example, when the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” praising Louisiana for mandating the state test, among other regulations, it launched a vigorous debate. Andrew Coulson and I argued that, while well-intentioned, uniform testing mandates would stifle diversity and innovation. Matt Ladner warned that Fordham failed to recognize the “natural limitations of technocrats” in their overconfidence about the ability of policymakers to guard against the “risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available.” Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice cautioned that governments are “prone to politicial decisions and special interests,” and that accountability should be primarily to parents, not bureaucrats. Jay Greene noted that “testing requirements hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools,” and that “highlighting a measure that severely under-states performance puts those programs in jeopardy.” AEI’s Rick Hess expressed skepticism that “policymakers have a Goldilocks-like ability to find the ‘just right’ solution” and called the Fordham report “surprisingly naïve about the realities of the legislative process and regulatory creep.”

Ultimately, the Fordhamites dismissed these concerns. Future Fordham president Michael Petrilli waved them away as mere “hypotheticals” whereas his concerns—such as parents making bad decisions and the long-term impact of crummy schools on kids—were “all playing out, right now, in the real world.” Noting that “we have to work hard to get the policy design right,” Petrilli “applaud[ed] Louisiana and Indiana policymakers for doing a darn good job on this front with their statewide voucher programs.” Then-president of Fordham Chester Finn, went further, arguing that “it’s insane to expect [the] marketplace to yield quality control, efficiency, and accountability for educational outcomes.”

(Ironically, Petrilli also expressed his fear that “bad private schools will get lots of media attention, which will drive down public support for school choice and strengthen the hand of those who opposed such programs in the first place.” Sadly, the negative findings in the NBER study stemming from Petrilli’s preferred policies are likely to do more damage to the public support for school choice than any one bad school could ever do.)

Petrilli’s concerns about crummy schools are perfectly reasonable. Indeed, all his interlocutors share them. In this debate among friends, everyone wants what is best for children. Where they differ is over the best means to improve educational quality. Given that there is no perfect system, the question is what sort of system is most likely to produce the best outcomes.


Pass the Popcorn: The Belonging We Seek

January 5, 2016

Han Leia

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My spoiler-laden meditations on Star Wars are fully armed and operational over on Hang Together:

Millennials are destroying the world because narcissistic Boomers broke up the family. That’s The Force Awakens in a nutshell.

Shockingly, I approve of this message! Would love to hear your thoughts, whatever they are, as always.


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