Quinnipiac Poll Finds that Parental Choice is the most popular element of Andrew Cuomo’s K-12 Agenda

September 22, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Very interesting poll results– the unions seem to have convinced New York that Cuomo is wrong on K-12 reform- except on choice. On charters and tax credits New Yorkers seem to be resisting,

Choice First, Standards Second, Part 8,364

September 21, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Rick Hess has an interesting article on NRO comparing two Common Core surveys. The first of his key takeaways:

Depending on which of the above questions one selects, it’s possible to argue that the public supports the Common Core by more than two to one or that it opposes it by more than two to one.

As I read the responses to the varying questions, the surveys are finding that parents want states to set high standards, but more than that, they want teachers to have autonomy.

Is that a juvenile have-your-cake-and-eat-it contradiction, like demanding high spending and low taxes with a balanced budget? Well, to some extent, no doubt. But there is another sense in which this circle can be squared.

“High standards” arbitrarily imposed by technocrats aren’t credible, and rightly so. School choice would create the necessary environment within which high standards could emerge with credibility.

New Arizona Board of Regents Report on AZ High Schools

September 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Board of Regents has released a new study utilizing the National Clearinghouse to track the college success by high school for the public school Class of 2008. Specifically they rank district and charter schools by the percentage of kids earning a BA in six years.

The statewide numbers did not improve much from the analysis of the Class of 2006- 19.4% finished a BA instead of 18.6%. University High- a magnet program in Tucson-comes out on top. As mentioned previously their program utilizes entrance exams, minimum grade point averages, etc. so while it is swell it does not qualify as a general enrollment school. Tempe Prep- the ur-Great Hearts prototype- ranked first among general enrollment schools, followed by Veritas Prep- the first of the Great Hearts schools to get a 12th grade cohort into the analysis. Among general enrollment schools, charter schools took 7 out of the top 10 spots, but let’s just say they could a spot more competition from the districts.

The Pew Center’s book The Next America presented polling data showing that the Baby Boom generation was wealthy but miserable. One of the two main reasons for their misery related to their twenty something year old children living in their basement. Er…welcome to the education reform movement!





The Age of (Relative) Efficiency and/or Austerity: It’s Already Started

September 16, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The early 1980s punk rock band Fear famously destroyed the set of Saturday Night Live (the gif above is from their SNL performance-SNL’s invitation to Fear to perform and bring some fans having been one of the greatest really terrible decisions of all time). In any case, Fear had a song called Let’s Have a War. Like most punk bands of the era Fear was out to frighten the parents of 15 year olds and draw attention to themselves with outrageous antics. The lyrics of Let’s Have a War (not to be confused with another Fear classic Bomb the Russians) as I recall went something along the lines of:

Let’s Have a War!

Jack up the Dow Jones!

Let’s Have a War!

It can start in New Jersey!

Ok Ladner where are you going with this? Right, so a refrain in the song:

It’s Already Started!

So out here in the Arizona cactus patch, the looming age of (relative) financial austerity and efficiency has already started. The people who work in the school system feel very grouchy about it, but where things stand today is much better than the recent past.


So let’s go back to the world of 1992 Arizona (blue columns). Arizona operated as a high-tax state in those days and the school districts were almost the only game in town (Arizona has always had a low rate of private school attendance).  The state had a majority Anglo K-12 population in those days, but unfortunately those Arizona Anglo students weren’t terribly skilled on average at reading English. Now mind you, they had proficiency rates 2.8 times higher than Arizona’s Hispanic student population at the time, but that provides little comfort.

What does this translate to today, in 2015, now that the class of 2000 have aged into the prime working years of their mid 30s? Let’s just say that many firms find it necessary to recruit nationally when searching for job candidates. No one was hoping for an overall reading proficiency rate in the low 20s in 1992, but we got it anyway.

Now let’s look at the 4th grade reading scores for the Class of 2021 (red columns). While these results leave a great deal to be desired, they are profoundly improved over the 1992 4th grade results. Arizona closed the gap for Anglo students with the national average, but failed to do so with Hispanic students.

Hispanics now constitute a plurality of Arizona K-12 students. A 17% reading proficiency rate constitutes a looming catastrophe for the Arizona of 2030 and beyond. Thus while we should recognize the fact that Arizona’s academic outcomes have improved greatly, we should also recognize that the state has a desperate need for still greater gains. Note however that all of those nasty policies that Diane Ravitch hates: standardized testing, charter schools, private school choice, etc. all started phasing in around 1994 in Arizona, and that the 2013 NAEP had the highest average scores in state history despite funding cuts and a large transition in student demographics. This does not constitute final glorious victory, but certainly progress.

Arizona is a relatively poor state with an unusually small working age population (lots of old retirees and young kids). Rapidly growing states tend to rank towards the bottom of state rankings of per pupil funding, and will do all the more so if lots of the state has either retired or is still in school. Arizona does have a large number of wealthy retirees, but let’s just say that many of them have other residences in addition to their get out of the cold spot, and this means they have the opportunity to avoid paying Arizona income tax.

The Great Recession was an elbow in the face to Arizona’s housing dependent economy followed by a swift kick to the head. (To you non-Gen X readers this is mosh-pit imagery consistent with the punk rock theme of this blog post). Once the federal stimulus money ran out real declines in per-pupil spending commenced. This document from JLBC shows that the inflation adjusted spending per pupil in the Arizona public school system dropped from $9,438 in 2007 to $7828 in 2014. 

Outrageous! Horrible! Get a rope!

Slow down on the lynch mob. The 2007 number basically represented the height of the property bubble and all of the funny money that it brought flowing into state coffers. Arizona had spent far less than that per pupil in the past, and the height of a bubble does not make for a good mental entitlement point. When the state had money, it increased K-12 spending. There has been joy before, there may be joy again, but the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have.

Of course we could raise taxes. This however is governed by a little thing called democracy. We had a governor’s election in 2014. One candidate promised to balance the state’s spending and revenues without raising taxes. The other claimed that he would not raise taxes but also campaigned on increasing K-12 spending. Arizona elected candidate A (Doug Ducey) by an overwhelming margin. A few years earlier, the school district industrial lobbying complex put a painfully convoluted ballot proposition to increase taxes for education spending on the ballot. The public rejected it by a huge margin. We have regular elections for state legislature. The voters have continued to elect a pretty conservative bunch and well, they had other options available to them.

Arizona voters did endorse a sales tax increase almost a decade and a half ago to increase the state’s base funding amount to inflation. The interpretation of this provision is currently a matter of legal dispute between the legislature and the industrial complex, but the resolution seems unlikely to result in a game changing amount of funding regardless of the outcome. Arizona doesn’t have a game changing amount of money to give to schools within the tax structure that voters have both explicitly and implicitly endorsed.

More importantly, Arizona’s 2013 NAEP scores were not only higher than 1992- they were higher than 2007. Between 2007 and 2013 Arizona NAEP trends: 8 point gain in 4th grade math, four point gain in 8th grade math, three-point gain in 4th grade reading, five point gain in 8th grade reading.  The proper term to describe an increase in outputs with decreased inputs: efficiency gain.

The folks working in the schools feel very grouchy. Unlike the risible bellyaching before the onset of the Great Recession (when spending increased and everyone had enrollment growth) they have a much more serious case to make in the current context. Running a school district in Arizona right about now is not an easy task- your per pupil funding has declined and your student count is more likely than not to be dropping. Tough decisions lie ahead on a worryingly large number of half-empty district facilities. You are having a tough time finding teachers as your Baby Boomers retire.

It’s already started in Arizona. Currently we are in year 5 of what you can either view as an age of austerity, or an era of improving efficiency depending on whether you view matters through a provider or a taxpayer lens. The Census Bureau projects large increases in Arizona’s youth and elderly populations over the next 15 years.

It’s not likely to get any easier. Arizona’s need for more effective and cost effective education delivery will continue to grow over time regardless of how much we choose to lament the need for change.




Choice 60, Default 0 in Southern Arizona National Merit Semifinalist Bowl

September 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Tucson AZ based Arizona Daily Star put out a story on 60 Southern Arizona students being names National Merit Semifinalists.  The author didn’t seem to notice what I found most interesting about the story.

For a little perspective, Arizona has five or so percent of students attending private schools, around 18% in charters. So about 70-75% of students attend districts.

A quick run down of the list of students and their students however reveals that about 49 out of the 60 National Merit Semifinalists attend choice schools: charters, magnet, private and home schools. Suburban districts and magnets earned all of the district semifinalists. No one attended a non-magnet Tucson Unified high-school, which is the by far the largest school district in the region.

This is usually the part of the conversation where my enthusiastic union affiliated Tucson friends will dust off their talking points about evil charters creaming students, etc. Note however that Arizona law requires random admission lotteries, a law that does not apply to magnet schools. Thus the school most obviously creaming students (read all about it here on their admission page) is University High, a magnet school run by Tucson Unified. University High had more National Merit Semifinalists than any other school, but you know that minimum GPA, admission test and other criteria just might have something to do with that.

Personally I don’t have a huge problem with an occasional magnet school with exclusive admission policies as long as parents keep the place afloat, but I certainly respect the views of those who do. I do however have a huge problem with people running the most blatantly exclusionary school in the state accusing others of doing covertly what they are doing openly without so much as a teaspoon of evidence.

Just as a thought experiment let’s assume for the moment that all of these charter, suburban district, magnet, private and home schools all represent some sort of student creaming conspiracy and this entirely explains their monopoly on National Merit Semifinalists. I don’t for a moment believe this to be the case, but if it were, er, why did the parents of these bright children choose to enroll them in choice schools? After all if you put these same kids in TUSD they would have done just as well right?

I’m guessing no, not so much. Parents know these kids best and have voted with their feet. If you take the position that a house in a well to do suburban district represents a form of parental choice (I do), the final score is Choice 60, Assigned 0 in the Southern Arizona PSAT Bowl. That goose egg represents a looming catastrophe for Arizona’s future btw- as the number of potential National Merit Semifinalists attending TUSD stood vastly larger than either zero or sixty. I have met some incredibly dedicated TUSD educators who practically kill themselves to effectively extend the school year for disadvantaged students. I don’t think that anyone wakes up in the morning, stretches, yawns and enthusiastically drives to work so that they can make sure that kids fail to reach their potential- that’s not how this works imo.

Every system however is perfectly designed to achieve the results it produces. This system needs a reboot.





NYT on Education and the Sharing Economy

September 11, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Words like “market” and “competition” or — worst of all — “profit” are considered dirty words in some circles, particularly in education. Perhaps that’s why some people prefer the more anodyne (if less accurate) term “sharing economy” to describe how online platforms and apps are enabling people to monetize resources they own by connecting them directly with potential buyers.

Uber and Lyft empower people to earn money from driving their own car. Airbnb enables people to rent out their spare bedroom. And as the New York Times explains, the website TeachersPayTeachers is a virtual marketplace where teachers can buy and sell lesson plans:

…[W]hen Ms. Randazzo heard about TeachersPayTeachers.com… she was curious to find out whether the materials she had created for her own students would appeal to other educators.

A couple of years ago, she started posting items, priced at around $1, on the site. Her “Whose Cell Phone Is This?” fictional character work sheet has now sold more than 4,000 copies.

“For a buck, a teacher has a really good tool that she can use with any work of literature,” Ms. Randazzo said in a phone interview last week. “Kids love it because it’s fun. But it’s also rigorous because they have to support their characterizations with evidence.”

She clearly has a knack for understanding the kinds of classroom aids that other teachers are looking for. One of her best-selling items is a full-year collection of high school grammar, vocabulary and literature exercises. It has generated sales on TeachersPayTeachers of about $100,000.


Teachers often spend hours preparing classroom lesson plans to reinforce the material students are required to learn, and many share their best materials with colleagues. Founded in 2006, TeachersPayTeachers speeds up this lesson-plan prep work by monetizing exchanges between teachers and enabling them to make faster connections with farther-flung colleagues.

As some on the site develop sizable and devoted audiences, TeachersPayTeachers.com is fostering the growth of a hybrid profession: teacher-entrepreneur. The phenomenon has even spawned its own neologism: teacherpreneur.

To date, Teacher Synergy, the company behind the site, has paid about $175 million to its teacher-authors, says Adam Freed, the company’s chief executive. The site takes a 15 percent commission on most sales.

TeachersPayTeachers rewards creative teachers with more income and gives them a financial incentive to produce more. It also reduces the amount of time and effort other teachers must expend to create or acquire great lesson plans. And with better lesson plans proliferating, children benefit the most.

Teachers tend to be less enthusiastic about market-based reforms to education, but perhaps some experience with the “sharing economy” will show them how the best teachers stand to benefit greatly from Uber-ized education.

Coons and Sugarman called for ESAs-in 1978!!

September 9, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Okay so yes it took us 33 years to figure out how to create ESAs after someone first proposed them, and yes we had to stumble into it. Don’t blame me- I was battling my Luke Skywalker action figure against my Stretch Armstrong, and well, er, better late than never! Ron Matus with a great post on Berkeley law professors Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman’s call for what we now call ESAs- in 1978. Here is a taste:

John E. “Jack” Coons and Stephen Sugarman didn’t use the term “education savings accounts” in their book, “Education by Choice.” But they described a sweeping plan for publicly funded scholarships in terms familiar to those keeping tabs on ESAs. They envisioned parents, including low-income parents, having the power to create “personally tailored education” for their children, using “divisible educational experiences.”

To us, a more attractive idea is matching up a child and a series of individual instructors who operate independently from one another. Studying reading in the morning at Ms. Kay’s house, spending two afternoons a week learning a foreign language in Mr. Buxbaum’s electronic laboratory, and going on nature walks and playing tennis the other afternoons under the direction of Mr. Phillips could be a rich package for a ten-year-old. Aside from the educational broker or clearing house which, for a small fee (payable out of the grant to the family), would link these teachers and children, Kay, Buxbaum, and Phillips need have no organizational ties with one another. Nor would all children studying with Kay need to spend time with Buxbaum and Phillips; instead some would do math with Mr. Feller or animal care with Mr. Vetter.

Coons and Sugarman were talking about education, not just schools, in a way that makes more sense every day. They wanted parents in the driver’s seat. They expected a less restricted market to spawn new models. In “Education by Choice,” they suggest “living-room schools,” “minischools” and “schools without buildings at all.” They describe “educational parks” where small providers could congregate and “have the advantage of some economies of scale without the disadvantages of organizational hierarchy.” They even float the idea of a “mobile school.” Their prescience is remarkable, given that these are among the models ESA supporters envision today.

Sounds very, very familiar eh?





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