Choice and Starfish

August 21, 2013

(Guest Post By Jason Bedrick)

Most people know the story of the boy who was rescuing sea stars that had washed up on a beach by throwing them back into the ocean. When a man scoffed to the boy that his efforts didn’t make a difference since he couldn’t save all of them, the boy tossed another sea star back into the ocean and replied, “It made a difference to that one.” The little-known ending to the story is that the boy was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center for violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.

 Sadly, this is only a slight exaggeration. Earlier this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit contending that Alabama’s new scholarship tax credit program violates the Equal Protection clause and harms the low-income students attending failing public schools whom the law is intended to help:

[SPLC] President Richard Cohen said the new Alabama Accountability Act will take millions away from public schools and will make the failing schools worse than they are now. He said the law was promoted by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley as giving students a way out of failing schools. 

“It’s a lie. Our clients do not have a way out of the failing schools that they are in,” he said.

The Montgomery-based law center sued on the opening day of classes for most public schools in Alabama. The suit focuses on a part of the law that allows families with children in Alabama’s 78 failing public schools to move them to a non-failing public school or to a private school that participates in the program. They can get a state tax credit of about $3,500 annually to help cover private school costs.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight plaintiffs who say that they can’t afford to go to private schools and that the non-failing public schools are not accessible. The lawsuit raises equal protection issues.

One of the eight plaintiffs, Mariah Russaw, said she couldn’t afford the transportation costs even if her 12-year-old grandson, J.R., could leave Barbour County Junior High School in Clayton. All junior highs in the Barbour County school system are on the failing list. The nearest non-failing public school is 19 miles away in Pike County. The nearest private school is about 30 miles away, but it is not participating in the program.

The 62-year-old grandmother said it wouldn’t matter if the private school were participating. “I cannot afford to transport him to another school,” she said.

In short, SPLC argues that if the law can’t rescue every child from a failing school, then it shouldn’t be allowed to rescue any child. Not only would this line of reasoning hobble almost every government effort to incrementally address any problem, but the argument also rests on a misunderstanding of the status quo and the law’s likely impact.

The SPLC lawsuit claims that the law “creates two classes of students assigned to failing schools – those who can escape because of their parents’ income or where they live and those, like the Plaintiffs here, who cannot.” In fact, those two classes of students already exist. In our existing education system, low-income families are trapped in failing schools while wealthier families can afford either to live in districts with better public schools or to send their children to private school. The scholarship tax credit program is too limited to solve all the existing inequities, but it moves more students out of the first category and into the second. In other words, by expanding opportunities to low-income families, it makes an already unequal education system more equal.

Moreover, there is no evidence the program does harm to students who remain in public schools. The SPLC claims that the failing public schools are “likely to deteriorate further as their funding is continually diminished” as a result of students fleeing from those schools. But a mere assertion that harm is “likely” doesn’t cut it. Had the SPLC consulted the research literature instead of their fevered imaginations, they would have discovered that 22 of 23 studies of school choice programs found that they have positive impact on public school performance. The last study found no visible impact.

In other words, the increased choice and competition help both the students who participate in the program and those students who remain in their assigned public schools. Striking down the program would thus make matters worse for the litigants and other families like them, not better. Expanding the program would improve outcomes even further. If the SPLC is truly motivated by a desire to help low-income families, it should drop its lawsuit and join the effort to expand educational options. There are lots of sea stars left on the beach and they could use a hand.


Jeb Bush Drops School Choice – I Wonder Why

August 19, 2013

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jeb Bush’s big speech about education reform has made it onto NRO this morning. He does not include school choice as one of the four key components of education reform. I can’t imagine why Jeb would no longer view school choice as having been an important part of the Florida formula for success. Oh, wait, yes I totally can.

I am for standards. But choice must succeed before standards can succeed. By dropping school choice from his list of must-have reforms, Jeb is undermining the necessary path to success for standards.

Granted, he does turn aside at one point, under his section on digital learning, to tangentially mention school choice. But then, weirdly, he immediately feels the need to insist that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform.” Why is he suddenly going back to the subject of accountability when he’s already discussed that in a previous section? It’s a total non sequitur for him to bring it back up here – unless, that is, he shares my view that school choice is ultimately at odds with the technocratic, “trust us, we’re experts” spirit of Common Core.

He also asserts CC won’t hurt school choice – but his own defensive rush to demand that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform” after merely mentioning school choice undermines confidence in that assertion.

If anyone wants to contest my read of this speech I would request their responses to two questions: Why isn’t school choice one of Jeb’s four must-have reforms? And why does he suddenly rush to insist that “accountability is the cornerstone of reform” right after working in an anodyne mention of school choice?

One last point: We who prioritize school choice did not pick this fight. It was the CC crowd who came out with guns blazing, demanding that all schools must be judged on their yardstick (not parents’ yardsticks) and spitting on anyone who questioned their orthodoxy. We did not pick this fight. But we will not roll over just because the CC folks have all the money and power. A decade ago, the unions had all the money and power. We survived them, and we’ll survive Common Core as well, because we’re right.


Choice First, Standards Second

August 1, 2013

cart-before-the-horse

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are now reporting that Tony Bennett is expected to resign.

As I’ve said all along, this is not about Tony Bennett. This is about whether educational standards should be formulated by politicians and their allies behind closed doors and then presented as the One Best Way to which all schools ought to conform.

Does that mean there can be no standards? Of course not! It means school choice must come first, standards second. Common Core and its allies are putting the cart before the horse.

Creating standards and accountability measures requires judgment. Judgment requires trust. What trust requires is a huge metaphysical subject we don’t have space to get into today, but let’s cut to the chase – people don’t trust the government to do this job by itself, behind closed doors and with no alternatives permitted, and they are right not to do so.

That is not because one particular person or one particular party is corrupt. It is written into nature of things, it is woven into the very fabric of the universe, that human social systems don’t work that way. Not even Denethor, the most virtuous man in Gondor, could be trusted to hold the ring without using it: “If you do not trust me to endure the test, you do not know me yet.” “‘Nonetheless I do not trust you…Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this.”

So if that’s not where standards come from, where do they come from? We obviously do have standards, for everything from technical specifications for smart phones to English grammar to the scientific method. Right now we don’t have standards for education. How do we get them?

We get them from the only place standards ever really emerge from: the open, free interaction of civil society, where people are allowed to try whatever makes sense to them and see what works.

Take the scientific method as an example. The early pioneers of modern science – Descartes and Bacon and that crowd – went down all kinds of ridiculous blind alleys. They tried things we would never bother with today. They set down rules for what you’re not allowed to do in science that we would now laugh at. Poor Bacon died from a pneumonia he caught while pursuing a cockamamie experiment, invented on the spur of the moment while travelling during the winter, to test the efficiency of snow as an agent for preserving meat.

So how did we get from there to here? Did the Royal Society convene the smartest smarties in the land and impose order on this chaos? No, we got here by giving scientists the freedom to try what made sense to them and seeing what worked.

They had endless debates. They disagreed about how to do science, about why they did science, about what science could and could not do. The debates were not a part of the chaos, the debates were the method by which order was eventually imposed on the chaos.

That’s what we need today. Instead of cooking up a One Best Way and then demonizing anyone who dissents, we need a forthright admission that we don’t have a consensus about what works, and to give people not only the freedom to experiment, but a social legitimization of their experimentation. Then we can have some really heated debates where we argue with each other over what works. This, and only this, can ultimately create consensus about what works.

I am not saying that government and political power play no role. I am saying government should play its proper role – as a servant of our civilization, not its master. I even think government has more of a job to do than simply forbidding force and fraud. That is why I favor school choice policies on their own merits, not merely as a stepping stone to “the separation of school and state,” as my libertarian friends would prefer.

A thriving marketplace of diverse options, where people are not only empowered to choose but also respected and honored for making their own choices, is the only path to standards. It is the only thing that can make standards legitimate and widely accepted. Of course this means giving up on the desire to impose them on everyone by force, but then, force is wrong and it doesn’t work anyway.

As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system. But it cannot even do that very effectively in the current environment, as we are seeing. A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance. Those standards could then be imposed on the government system much more effectively than at present.

People who think standards are everything must choose – is it your goal to have the law tell everyone they must use your standards, and have everyone ignore the law; or to get everyone actually using some standards, even if they’re not yours? You can’t have both.


Greg Runs Up More Style Points in 2013

July 25, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This one slipped past me but not the eagle-eyes at School Reform News- Missouri joins the school choice fraternity with a tax credit for special needs children. If I have the count correct the record for 2013 now looks like:

Alabama new tax credit programs

Arizona ESA expansion

Indiana voucher program expansion

Indiana tax credit program expansion

Iowa tax credit expansion

Missouri special needs tax credit program

North Carolina statewide low/middle-income voucher

North Carolina special needs voucher

Ohio new statewide low-income voucher

South Carolina new tax credit program

Utah special needs voucher program funding increase and formula funding

Wisconsin voucher program expansion

That looks like three new states: Alabama, Missouri and South Carolina along with some important program improvements/new programs and big goings on in North Carolina. Although there could be spirited debate about the best year for school choice before 2011, the top three years ever are clearly 2011, 2012 and 2013 (not necessarily in that order).

UPDATE: J. Bedrick notes in the comments that the Missouri tax credit language did not ultimately pass, but a similarily named piece did pass in a way confusing to both the newspapers and thus me. Sadly, an anti-BOOOOM.


North Carolina Lawmakers Chose Wisely to Pass School Choice

July 25, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

North Carolina legislators have passed measures to provide school choice options to low and some middle-income students and another measure for all special needs children. Data from the Census Bureau indicates that these were wise decisions and should in fact be followed by more improvements.

CensusThe Census Bureau projections show that the school age population of North Carolina is set to expand substantially over the next couple of decades, with an increase of over 800,000 people aged 18 or less by 2030. For a little perspective, this is a school aged population greater than the total K-12 enrollment of Alabama and a bit below that of Colorado. How and where will they be educated?

Mind you that the largest private school choice program in the nation, the Step Up for Students Tax Credit in Florida, will educate around 60,000 students this fall. Along with the McKay program for children with disabilities, private K-12 choice in Florida is poised to pass the 100,000 student threshold in a few years after a decade and a half of admirable and concerted effort.

North Carolina however has 800,000 new students on the way.  If these laws are going to help to make a dent in that figure, a concerted effort to refine and improve the laws will be needed. Formula funding would allow the programs to grow naturally along with the demand of parents and the supply of private schooling. Funding per pupil amounts must be generous enough to spur the supply of new private space.  Quite frankly few choice bills have been designed well enough to pull this off, North Carolina lawmakers should make certain that their laws will spur new private school supply.

If North Carolina choice advocates can achieve all of these things, they will set up an incremental process of expanding private school supply which is similar to the increase in charter school space in states with well designed laws. A state in North Carolina’s growth situation could easily accommodate a robust increase in charter and private schools and would still need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually in new district schools to accommodate student population growth.

North Carolina could also accommodate a greater number of students through their choice programs by broadening the use of their programs through an Education Savings Account model. This would allow parents to choose between a variety of education service providers including private schools, online programs, MOOCS, certified private tutors, community college and university courses to build a customized learning experience. By allowing parents to save some funds for future higher education expenses, it might be the only way to preserve a public funding mechanism for North Carolina colleges and universities in the face of nationwide pressures to decrease state funding.

State lawmakers can’t charge tuition to prisoners to keep the jails open, but undergraduates on the other hand…

North Carolina budgets, like all states, will continue to face severe strains from health care spending as we continue to fumble our policies and our population ages. A crush of new K-12 students will simply add to the burden, and the way we are approaching K-12 is serving far too many students very poorly at levels of spending which will prove unsustainable. We need to figure out ways to educate students better and more efficiently. A decentralized process allowing parents and students to figure out how to make best use of scarce funds represents the best way forward.

North Carolina lawmakers chose wisely in passing among the broadest school choice measures in the country.  Sincere congratulations are in order-North Carolina is now ahead of the pack. The hardest work however lies ahead.


Oops, Sorry, Turns Out Common Core is Anti-Choice

June 28, 2013

octopus

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, folks, I have to recant my recantation from yesterday. Turns out Common Core really does destroy parental options.

At Heritage, Brittany Corona points out that the SAT, ACT and GED are all competing to see who is most “aligned” to Common Core. As the College Board begins a major overhaul of the SAT, prompted by the ACT recently surpassing it as the most-used college exam, the Board is bragging that “in its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment that has been developed for college admission and placement.” The revisions will seek even stronger “alignment” between the SAT and Common Core. No doubt the SAT feels like it has to play catch-up because the ACT has been boasting for some time that it “pledges to work with other stakeholders to develop strategies and solutions that maximize the coverage of the Common Core State Standards to meet the needs of states, districts, schools, and students.” Meanwhile, the GED cites “the shift to the Common Core standards [that] is happening nationwide” as one reason it has to make major changes to its test.

Corona points out that private schools and homeschoolers are impacted by these changes. Private schools are already under pressure from short-sighted and/or cowardly system leaders to adopt (or pretend to adopt) Common Core, so that they won’t be stigmatized as dissenters from the One Best Way. If college entrance exams are Common-Core-ized, it will be virtually impossible for private schools and homeschoolers to maintain any kind of alternative to the One Best Way. As for the GED, Corona points out that homeschoolers often use it for external validation of their education.

Now, just like everything else associated with Common Core, there is less here than meets the eye. That’s because the claims that these tests are, or will be, “aligned” to Common Core are all meaningless BS (just like so many other claims associated with Common Core). As Jay has pointed out, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that anybody is ever really going to align anything to Common Core in a meaningful way. You can see that just from what the College Board people are saying. “In its current form, the SAT is aligned to the Common Core as well as or better than any assessment.” What the heck does that even mean? What can that mean? The federal government’s contractors haven’t finished developing their official federal-government-designed assessments “aligned” to Common Core. We don’t even have the standards themselves yet! These people are simply talking out of their bodily orifices (just like…).

Moreover, as Corona points out, the deadening hand of dictatorial control by cynical elites is a constant wellspring of opportunity for entrepreneurial innovators: “Thankfully, tests like the SAT and ACT can be changed or replaced, even though they have begun a transition to Common Core. If a significant number of states pull out of Common Core, these exams can be modified, or there could be an opening in the market for other college entrance exams to take root.”

But although Common Core is unlikely to do the kind of extensive damage to parental control and educational diversity that the bragging of the College Board, ACT and GED would imply, nonetheless it is increasingly clear that Common Core represents the technocratic spirit of the One Best Way, to which all families should (in principle) bow the knee and conform. The inability of the technocrats to achieve their dream of forcing all parents into the One Best Way should not blind us to the fact that this is, in fact, their dream. Or that is what is implied by their behavior, at any rate.

My apologies for the wrong turn yesterday, folks. I was right the first time – Common Core is bad for school choice.

HT Bill Evers and Breitbart


Greg Earns Even More Style Points Just Moments After Recanting

June 27, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mere moments after recanting his Common Core opposition, Greg ran up the score on Jay Mathews even more with news that Ohio lawmakers have passed a new statewide voucher program for low-income students.

Don’t stop now Greg! Find something else to recant quick! Tell everyone that you think Firefly was the worst show in the history of television, and maybe we would get nationwide universal school choice!

P.S. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!


I Recant! Common Core for All!

June 27, 2013

Greg loves CC cropped

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just like Jay did a little more than a year ago, I am recanting my opposition to Common Core. I’m all for it! Never mind everything we said about how there’s no one best way to teach children, and even if there were, we don’t know what it is yet; never mind everything we said about how unions would inevitably get control of the standards or how they would reignite the culture wars; never mind everything we said about how the standards are already being set too low, how they’re being put together by people with conflicts of interest, how they’re being illegally pushed from Washington.

Never mind all that. I’m all for Common Core. Why? Because Common Core is good for school choice!

Yes, I just wrote a big post about why Common Core is bad for school choice. I take it all back. Every word of it.

As Matt has just pointed out, 2013 is turning out to be the third big year in a row for school choice. Now here’s the thing. Back when 2011 was a big year for school choice, you heard about it everywhere. I mean every-frikkin-where. And don’t get me wrong, that was sweet. But 2012 and 2013 have been good years for choice, and for some reason, nobody’s noticing.

What gives? Well, for years we’ve been saying that “vouchers make the world safe for charters.” Whenever vouchers get on a roll, the unions have to train all fire on vouchers – leaving charters to slip through with less opposition. Meanwhile, mushy-middle politicians, academics and journalists can triangulate by opposing vouchers but supporting charters. It was Jay’s idea originally, but I wrote about it at some length in the Freedom and School Choice book a while back.

It would appear that just as vouchers make the world safe for charters, Common Core makes the world safe for vouchers. Everyone is so busy running around fighting over Common Core – especially the unions – that voucher supporters seem to have a freer hand. A while back, Jay wrote that one reason Common Core is a problem is “because it is a gigantic distraction from other productive reform strategies….Common Core is consuming the lion’s share of reform oxygen and resources.” But it’s also consuming the anti-reform oxygen and resources!

And when money and muscle cancel out, there’s nothing left to determine the outcome but the merits – a debate we’ve already won.

So lock the government collar around my neck and break out the Gates Foundation checkbook, because starting now I’m all for Common Core.

PS Yes, that is St. Milton watching over me in the background.


Greg goes Three-Peat on Jay Mathews

June 27, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I think Greg has three-peated on his bet with Jay Mathews regarding school choice expansion. Here is my count, with a few of these not being totally done deals yet (but close enough):

Alabama new tax credit program

Arizona ESA expansion

Indiana voucher program expansion

Indiana tax credit program expansion

Iowa tax credit expansion

South Carolina new tax credit program

Utah voucher program funding increase and formula funding

Wisconsin voucher program expansion

New program discussions are still ongoing in North Carolina and Ohio.  Even before knowing how these turn out, 2013 already represents a very solid year for the movement with two new states added to the choice family and some significant improvements to existing programs.

UPDATE: Paul Diperna wrote me to note that Alabama passed both a refundable and a scholarship credit- meaning two new programs. Extra style points for Greg.


Less Sex, Drugs and Crime. Religious Private Schools, Better Roads, and School Choice.

June 26, 2013

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

Attending a private religious school lowers the likelihood that students will use cocaine, have sex or get arrested. That, according to a new study from David Figlio and Jens Ludwig.

They find that decreased sexual activity is found primarily among females, accompanied by a decreased likelihood of “fecundity.” Decreased cocaine use and arrests were found primarily among boys, who were also less likely to smoke tobacco.

Overall, private schools had little effect on adolescent drinking and marijuana use. This might be due to the fact that while some students were led to avoid drugs and alcohol altogether, students who otherwise would have used hard drugs instead just smoked pot and drank booze – in my view.

Figlio and Ludwig’s data comes from the late 1980s and early 1990s. They find that the effects of private school were focused primarily in two-parent households. They also find that the effects were concentrated in the suburbs, though the definition of suburb in their dataset is overly broad, which unnaturally decreases the accuracy of their estimates in urban areas.

Studies of private schools are typically fraught with selection problems: students who select into private schools might have selected, in the case at hand, to avoid hard drugs and have less sex no matter where they attended school. Figlio and Ludwig eliminate this bias from their study by using a clever instrumental variables model in which transportation infrastructure differences between cities are shown to have an effect on the likelihood that parents will send their children to private religious schools.

Figlio and Ludwig point to character education in religious private schools. I can’t think of a better explanation.

Religious private schools are often organized with family life in mind. They seek to help families raise children who will be good parents and good citizens; their definitions of good parenting and citizenship are, of course, colored by their varying religious beliefs. All religions are not the same. But most religious schools share the overlapping belief that students should abstain from sex and should not use drugs. Figlio and Ludwig show that they’re doing a better job than public schools and non-religious private schools at achieving those goals; is this because religious schools have more rigorous abstinence and drug resistance programs than public schools? I doubt it. Private religious schools largely were established with a private community purpose in mind – which is very different from a public policy purpose. They are able to make broader pleas to their communities.

Perhaps most importantly, private religious schools are less afraid to discuss the consequences of bad, selfish behavior. They encourage kids to think over the long-term, the very long-term.


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