Kansas Lawmakers Create Scholarship Tax Credit Program

April 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HB 2506 made it through the Kansas House and Senate last night and contains some significant education reforms, including a scholarship tax credit program, curbs on teacher tenure abuse and alternative teacher certification.  Congratulations to Kansas lawmakers and education reformers.  The “never say die” crew at the Kansas Policy Institute Dave Trabert and James Franko have earned a:


for their dedicated, determinedly fact-based efforts to improve Kansas education outcomes.

Paul Ehrlich for The Higgy

April 6, 2014

Paul Ehrlich is a Stanford University biologist most famous for his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, and subsequent dire predictions about how human population growth would exhaust food and other natural resource supplies, leading to cataclysmic destruction of the human race and all of earth’s creatures.  Ehrlich was not the first to predict that population growth would outstrip food production (the idea goes back at least to the 18th century’s Thomas Robert Malthus), and he certainly won’t be the last.  People love doomsday predictions no matter how often they turn out false.

And Ehrlich’s predictions have turned out to be remarkably false.  Wikipedia provides some examples:

On the first Earth Day in 1970, he warned that “[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish.” In a 1971 speech, he predicted that: “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

The fact that nearly half a century after warning of  the imminent collapse of civilization and mass starvation Ehrlich’s predictions have not come to pass has done nothing to shake Ehrlich or his most ardent supporters’ confidence in his analysis.  Disaster has merely been deferred, in their view.  Like the members of the cult profiled in Leon Festinger‘s When Prophesy Fails, Ehrlich and his supporters have doubled-down with an increased conviction that human action is about to destroy the planet.

Of course, it is always possible that humans will eventually destroy themselves, but this does not appear to be imminent.  Ehrlich’s analysis has been and is likely to continue to be flawed because he grossly under-estimates the ability of human ingenuity to innovate and adapt, avoiding resource shortage catastrophes.

The economist, Julian Simon, articulated this argument in his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource.  Simon explains that price is the most efficient mechanism for avoiding shortage catastrophes.  When rising demand begins to make a resource more scarce, the price rises.  Rising prices provide strong incentives for people to find substitutes for the scarce resource or to innovate and develop techniques for producing more of that resource.  Catastrophic shortages tend not to sneak up on us.  Prices anticipate future shortages and give us time to innovate or adapt.

To prove his point, Simon actually made a wager with Ehrlich about how innovation and adaptation would make shortages less severe over time, causing resource prices to tend to decline in real terms.  Here’s how Wikipedia describes the wager:

In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which argued that mankind was facing a demographic catastrophe with the rate of population growth quickly outstripping growth in the supply of food and resources. Simon was highly skeptical of such claims, so proposed a wager, telling Ehrlich to select any raw material he wanted and select “any date more than a year away,” and Simon would bet that the commodity’s price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.

Ehrlich and his colleagues (including John Holdren, later an advisor to President Barack Obama for Science and Technology) picked five metals that they thought would undergo big price increases: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Then, on paper, they bought $200 worth of each, for a total bet of $1,000, using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index. They designated September 29, 1990, 10 years hence, as the payoff date. If the inflation-adjusted prices of the various metals rose in the interim, Simon would pay Ehrlich the combined difference. If the prices fell, Ehrlich et al. would pay Simon.

Between 1980 and 1990, the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, the price of each of Ehrlich’s selected metals had fallen…. As a result, in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07 to settle the wager in Simon’s favor.

I am not nominating Paul Ehrlich for The Higgy because he’s been wrong.  A lot of scientists have been wrong about a lot of things and there is no harm in advancing an argument that turns out to be mistaken.  Nor am I nominating Ehrlich because he has stubbornly adhered to his theories despite considerable evidence to contradict them.  This is a remarkably common flaw among scientists when they are proved wrong and also does relatively little harm.

Instead, I am nominating Ehrlich because his arguments have provided intellectual support for oppressive government policies to reduce population growth.  As Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb:

“We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.”

As it turned out, resource shortages have not produced the catastrophes Ehrlich expected, but government-orchestrated population control efforts have almost certainly been far more destructive, let alone oppressive.

China’s One Child Policy is the most glaring example of the devastation produced by this mistaken, authoritarian approach.  Since 1979 China has imposed fines on families that have what the government considers to be too many children.  This “system of incentives and penalties,” as Ehrlich suggested, was effective at reducing population growth in China… but at what cost and for what benefit?

Because families are pushed to have only one child and because there is a strong preference for boys, girls have become an endangered species in China.  Between 2000 and 2013 there were 117 male babies born for every 100 girl babies, likely the result of selective-sex abortions.  In addition, neglect, abandonment, and outright infanticide are skewing China even more towards boys after birth.  According to a Chinese government commission, there will be 30 million more men than women in 2020.  In short, there has been a female genocide in China with hardly a peep from American feminists pre-occupied with what they consider more important matters, like whether they need to Lean In to avoid being called “bossy.”

The gender imbalance produced by China’s One Child Policy is also far more likely to lead to social instability and war than the imaginary resource crisis it was meant to prevent.  Having tens of millions of young men unable to find wives is likely to create a violent mob whose untamed aggression Chinese leaders may wish to divert toward conquest and war rather than against their own rule.

The severe decline in birth rates is also creating a demographic disaster of enormous proportions.  Elderly Chinese are dependent on a shrinking number of younger Chinese to support them in old age.  If young Chinese men are not driven toward violence by an inability to find marriageable women, they may well be by the crushing burden of having to work harder and longer to support a much larger number of older Chinese.

And of course, it is hard to imagine a more severe intrusion on personal liberty, including women’s reproductive rights, than to have the government coerce people to have only one child.  Again, where are the developed world’s feminists on this issue?

The Chinese government has begun to notice the disaster they’ve created and are starting to relax the One Child Policy in a variety of ways.  Unfortunately, government technocracy is not nearly as efficient at anticipating and adjusting to the future as price mechanisms are.  There is a government-induced shortage of young people, particularly young women, that cannot be as quickly corrected by tinkering with China’s family policy as other resource constraints could be handled by allowing price to encourage adaptation and innovation.

Ehrlich is worthy of The Higgy because he advanced the catastrophically wrong notion that central planning could more efficiently manage resources than could price mechanisms.  And he is further worthy because his views rationalize the enormous infringements on human liberty that central planning produces.

Kingsland News and a Quick Thought Experiment

April 4, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I read this morning that Neerav Kingsland is stepping down as CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and will be taking on a new role of helping to spread the Recovery School District model.  New Orleans’ loss is the nation’s gain- RSD is an incredibly exciting model which ought to be emulated widely.

The basic idea of the RSD is that school buildings are a crucial educational asset and that we ought to be getting them into the hands of people who will run quality based choice schools.  When done well, as in New Orleans, you are constantly chopping off the left end of the bell curve in terms of academic outcomes.  Charter operators get a certain agreed to period to operate, their outcomes are assessed, and if they don’t do well their charter is not renewed and the RSD puts out an RFP so other CMO can compete for the right to educate the students and use the school building.

Accountability is no illusion here- if you stink, you are gone baby gone.  I mean its not Kathy Visser accountability where parents can hire and fire their own teachers, tutors and therapists but in terms of accountability for providers it is probably the next best thing. The attraction of the RSD model is obvious, at least for the period where the RSD is run by people who are going to do the tough and emotionally draining work of shutting down low performing schools.

Now as a little thought experiment, ask yourself the following question: if the New Orleans RSD were using, say, Stanford 10 rather than the Louisiana state test to measure achievement and academic progress in order to perform their functions, would there be any less accountability in the system?

I don’t think so either.  And when you are dealing with private schools, national norm reference tests are already widely administered and have a much lighter touch on the curricular choices of schools.


Brilliant Health Care Solution Discovered!

April 3, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Shorter Yuval Levin: The Feds couldn’t make the Obamacare website in three years, then they outsourced the job to the private sector, which did it in six weeks, and are now bragging this proves Big Government can do the big jobs after all. So the obvious thing to do is outsource the actual provision of the health care to the private sector, declare victory and go home. The Gordian Knot of Big Government, cut at last!

Mississippi House Kills Special Ed ESA at Last Minute

April 3, 2014


Yesterday the Mississippi House killed a very promising special ed ESA bill that was extremely close to adoption.  Were it not for a few Republican legislators switching their votes at the last minute, the ESA would be law.  The Clarion Ledger has the blow by blow, including reaction from incredibly disappointed parents. For me, this quote from the story takes the cake:

Rep. Tom Weathersby, R-Florence, was one of the Republicans voting against the measure despite the support of the GOP House leadership.

“I want to do everything I can to help students with special needs,” Weathersby said. “But I feel like in our school districts we are capable of handling most of those needs. Some of our people in the public school system saw it more as a voucher bill than a special needs bill. Maybe at some point in the future that bill can be amended in a way that we can get some positive effects out of it.”

I live in Arkansas, so I speak a bit of southern and can attempt a translation. In southern-ese when someone begins a statement with “I am not saying X, Y and Z…” whatever comes out after the statement in fact reveals their true attitude.  Similar to understanding the vagaries of the Japanese use of the word “hi” this is a very important source of cultural confusion for those not fortunate enough to have lived in the south.  A similar phenomenon may be at play with this quote.

I want to do everything I can to help students with special needs translates to “I don’t want to be seen as throwing special needs kids under the bus but sometimes ‘everything I can’ has a variable rather than an absolute meaning.  In this case it means ‘everything but this.’”

But I feel like in our school districts we are capable of handling most of those needs translates to “I am going to ignore the 23% graduation rate for special needs children that the Clarion Ledger identified as an unaddressed problem for decades.  Maybe it will get better on its own. Look- squirrel!!!!”

Some of our people in the public school system saw it more as a voucher bill than a special needs bill translates to “I allow public school interests to frame K-12 issues for me. They were afraid of this and I am afraid of them.”

Maybe at some point in the future that bill can be amended in a way that we can get some positive effects out of it.  This one is tricky because it mixes in some legislator-ese with southern-ese. A decent translation might be “perhaps we can pass some watered down something next session that the public school interests don’t feel threatened by so we can sing kumbaya and at least pretend that we have addressed a sickening problem.”

Barney Frank for the Higgy

April 3, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I will never forget where I was when I heard him say it: I was driving through a high-desert forest near Prescott Arizona.  The nation was in the midst of a full financial meltdown. I had the radio on, and one of the Sunday Morning Talk shows playing, Face the Nation if I recall correctly.  That’s when I heard Representative Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services committee state without the slightest hint of shame:

The private sector got us into this mess. The government has to get us out of it.

I nearly ran my vehicle into a tree.

I could pain you dear readers with a blow by blow of just how completely culpable federal policy in general and Mr. Franks in particular were in the meltdown. Others however have performed that task. A delightfully short summary however was to be found in the comments section of a Vanity Fair article by Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. Stiglitz had written a long article for the magazine whose purpose was to absolve Freddie and Fannie and other elements of federal housing policy from blame for the financial crisis.  One comment put the matter succinctly:

Let me get this straight: the creation of the sub-prime mortgage market had nothing to do with the sub-prime mortgage financial meltdown?

Now don’t get me wrong- there are private sector villains in this sordid tale (did for instance the credit rating agencies sign a pact with the Devil to survive what ought to have surely been a death-blow to their credibility?) but these private actors respond predictably to bad incentives created by federal policy.  A few decades of nudging banks in the direction of making dodgy loans coupled with creating entities dedicated to buying them up eventually turned ya-hoo mortgage brokers into funny money printers.  Can anyone truly be shocked that people making huge fees off absurd loans that they could quickly offload onto someone else’s balance sheet failed to resist the temptation to do so?

It would be delightful if the federal government could distort the mortgage market for decades in the interest of creating a more just society without creating unintended consequences.  It would also be delightful if we could bottle the tears of unicorns as a cure for cancer, depression and baldness.  The law of unintended consequences is a terribly powerful force. The beginning of policy wisdom is to fear its awful power.  Central planners tend to assume rational technocratic adjustments being made to policies and seem shocked, shocked when they wake up and find that pesky politics has taken over.

The “Break in Case of Emergency” glass box in Congressman Franks mind contained a piece of paper that read “If it hits the fan, pretend the government had nothing to do with it and call for more government.”  That makes him worthy of a Higgy in my estimation.


Teacher Tenure on Trial

April 1, 2014

(Guest post by James Shuls)

What would it look like if Hollywood put teacher tenure on trial on the silver screen? I imagine the closing arguments would look something like this, although probably condensed to 3 minutes. This is video of the closing argument of Marcellus McRae, lead co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California. It is just shy of an hour, but is well worth a watch.

I’ve taken the liberty to pull out some of my favorite quotes.

McRae notes that the teacher credentialing period can actually be longer than the period provided to determine tenure decisions. He says:

“Teachers can actually receive notice that they are being reelected for a tenure teaching position and then subsequently fail to successfully complete the induction program necessary to obtain a clear credential. That’s like telling somebody, we’re going to go ahead and let you get out on the highway and endanger everybody else’ lives for two months and then we’re going to tell you that you failed your driver’s test.”

He goes on to refute the idea that principals can gather enough information in the 16 month period allowed to make tenure decisions.

“There’s not enough time. There’s not enough data. There’s not enough processing time to get an informed view about who can achieve learning gains. So, that you’re deluding yourself if you think you actually have visibility into whether or not this is an informed decision. What you’re doing with your drive by observations in the classroom, what you’re doing in this 16 month, unduly compressed period is making tenure decisions based on impressionism rather than realism. And that is not good enough for the children in the state of California.

How long does it take to remove a tenured teacher who is grossly ineffective? Too long.

“LAUSD has never completed a performance based teacher dismissal hearing in less than two years. Your honor, think about that. We have litigated this case, and we have brought it from the filing of the complaint trough demurs, through discovery, through summary judgment in less time than it takes to dismiss a teacher for unsatisfactory performance in California. That is insane.

But there are ways of getting around tenure laws, there is a ‘workaround.’

“How many times does someone devise a workaround for something that isn’t broken? You can’t make sense out of nonsense.”

He points out the insanity of the “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) layoff policies, which resulted in a teacher of the year being laid off.

“What kind of system do we have, where your prize, your reward, for being teacher of the year is to receive a layoff notice?”

The defendants argued that LIFO was good because it was objective. He points out how the absurdity of this claim.

“…touting something as objective as if that’s virtuous, well height is objective. I mean, alphabetical order is objective. You could have a layoff system based on who can dunk a basketball. I don’t think we want that either, just because its objective doesn’t mean that it has any merit to it and it points out that it is an absurd untenable argument.”

But, but, tenure just gives teachers due process.

“This is not an effort to attack due process. What the teachers under the dismissal code have is not due process. They have excessive, bloated, unnecessary statutory protections. What California state employees have, including teachers, like classified employees, that’s due process.”

And last, but not least:

We have Serrano which acknowledges that funding is an essential component to educational equality. We have the Buck case that acknowledges that time in school is an essential component to educational equality. Let’s place Vergara in that same vain and acknowledge the obvious, that teachers are an essential component to educational equality.


James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie


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