FEA: We Love Late Amendments to Omnibus K-12 Bills! No We HATE THEM, Oh, what are WE DOING?!?!?

August 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the Florida legislature adopted an $18.4 million dollar ESA program for children with severe disabilities as a late amendment to an omnibus education bill. The Florida Education Association has filed suit against the state, loudly trumpeting its desire to defend due process, the rule of law and the American way.

Joanne McCall, the Vice President of the Florida Education Association wrote the following in a newspaper column titled Lawsuit tackles Legislature’s ‘backdoor’ way of passing bills:

We’re all taught to play by the rules. In a civil society, we rely on rules and procedures and laws as we go about our daily routine. When people break the rules, they’re expected to be held accountable for their actions — whether it’s within your family, on the job or at school, or in our society as a whole. The Legislature is no exception. There are rules and procedures in the Florida Constitution, in Florida statutes and in the House and Senate chambers that set out the right way to do things — such as pass a law.

I have yet to read Rules for Radicals but I gather that it recommends a rather cut-throat ends-justify-the-means casual attitude about the truth. Practitioners should have learned from the Dan Rather implosion over “fake but accurate” however that it is awfully easy for people to check up on things these days, and thus a rather simple matter to unmask shallow, self-serving hypocrisy. Someone may want to write a Saul Alinsky for Dummies updated for the internet age, it might lead to a more honest debate and avoid needless bumbling.

Take the Florida Education Association’s current antics for example. Jon East over at RedefinED for instance found that the Florida Education Association supported a $480,000,000 teacher pay raise through almost an identical legislative process a mere two sessions ago: late amendment attached to an omnibus education bill. It does not take an overly active imagination to think that this is probably not the first such incident employed by the FEA, simply the most recent.

The Florida Education Association was strangely silent concerning procedural preferences when the last-minute amendment to an omnibus education bill netted a $480,000,000 teacher pay raise.

In fact, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford praised Governor Rick Scott for getting ‘er done:

Ford said, “FEA thanks Governor Scott for his efforts to provide an immediate across-the-board pay increase to Florida’s classroom teachers in recognition of their demonstrated performance which has brought Florida’s education system to sixth in the nation.  FEA applauds the infusion of additional resources into public education as was proposed by the Governor.

Ford could have objected to the procedure used to get this teacher pay raise, and even could have filed suit to stop it. Instead he thanked Governor Scott for pulling it off and groused over some of the details of the funding. One year later a remarkably similar legislative procedure creates a $18.4 million program for children with severe disabilities, and the FEA sends their Vice President out into the papers to wax poetic about legislative process:

These laws failed to pass the right way. They went through the legislative process and didn’t get enough votes to be enacted. So legislative leaders came up with a way to circumvent the rules. This was a backdoor way for legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed. We all have to be accountable for our actions, even the leaders of the Florida Legislature.

So the $480,000,000 question for the FEA: are you willing to give up the half a billion pay increase and everything else that you have passed over the years through late amendments to omnibus education bills to quash an $18.4 million program for children with severe disabilities?


“Pawns” can become Queens if not carelessly sacrificed

August 4, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida Education Association has filed suit in an effort to kill SB 850, that included the creation of the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, Florida’s new ESA program. The Goldwater Institute has intervened in the case on behalf of a group of parents enrolled in the new program. During the press conference, a radio reporter asked the parents the following question:

Rick Flagg: This is one for the parents in general, whoever wants to (take it). Your bill was going to pass, regardless. And then the Legislature stuck the corporate voucher provision on there, making this lawsuit inevitable. I’d like to know how you feel about the Legislature doing that to you, and in effect using your kids as pawns in the voucher fight. That’s not for you …

PLSA parent Ashli McCall: I don’t mind being exploited in this manner because I believe in it.

Rick Flagg: Does everyone pretty much agree with that? (Heads nod.) And you’re okay now with them using your kids as the face for this lawsuit? You’re okay with being used as pawns again?

Clint Bolick: I object obviously to the characterization.

Rick Flagg: How would you describe it then?

Clint Bolick: I would describe it as a program that was made part of an omnibus education reform bill. And these parents, are they in jeopardy of losing those opportunities? No question about it. How is that being made a pawn?

How indeed?

I have never met Mr. Flagg, but I assume that he’s a swell guy who loves his momma, waives the flag on the 4th of July and cheers for his favorite sports teams. Flagg may simply have his cynicism cannon pointed in the wrong direction.  Perhaps if he knew more about the travails of students with special needs and their parents, he wouldn’t second guess the decision of parents to participate in the program or to defend it in court. If Mr. Flagg had walked in the shoes of parents facing these challenges, it would not seem implausible to him that they might want to participate in a program that provides the opportunity for a truly individualized education plan for their child. It has been, after all, the unfulfilled promise of special education law from the outset.

The following is my distillation of the history of the travails of special education parents and students, as related by a joint project of the Progressive Policy Institute and the Thomas B.. Fordham Foundation. If you want to double-check me read it for yourself here. My summary is as follows:

Back in the early 1970s, a reported 1,000,000 special needs children were denied access to public schools.  As in, sorry, we don’t take your kind around here denied access to public schools. The federal government took action to put an end to this discrimination. While the legislation that evolved into today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act stands as a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, it did not fulfill the promise of an “individual education plan” for every child with a disability.  The federal government had promised to pick up 40% of the costs for special education services, but never entirely followed through. Educators complain endlessly about paperwork requirements and bureaucratic procedures. The PPI/FF tome describes the process in-school process for identifying and developing an education plan “an invitation for conflict” between schools and parents. Parents have a right to sue when districts fail to provide an appropriate education (2% of special needs children nationwide attend private schools at public expense either directly or indirectly as a result of this provision) but this is an option far more available to wealthy families due to the cost of specialized services.  What started as a system for granting access and providing individual education plans devolved into a system of CYA whereby districts wished to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit and far too many parents were left deeply disaffected. Process became the focus, not outcomes.

Despite the fact that only a tiny minority of special education students have debilitating disabilities precluding academic progress, an attitude of warehousing is not far from the surface among too many people. For instance, a school district official made the following statement to the Arizona Republic in 2011 regarding the state’s grading system and the emphasis on the gains of low-performing students:

“Our concern is that many of those in the lowest 25 percent are special-education students and . . . will probably always have a hard time.”

This prophecy is not only disgusting but falls straight into the self-fulfilling category: kids will automatically face a hard time if the adults in charge of their education don’t believe they can make academic progress. Mind you that like all other public schools, Arizona districts receive additional funds for special needs students, but bristle at the thought of being held to account for the learning progress of those students. One can only draw the inference that they see their role as warehousing special needs children, not educating them. The soft bigotry of low-expectations lives and breathes.

The PLSA parents are not pawns- they are doing what the parents of special needs children have been forced to do for decades: fighting for their children. If the FEA suit prevails, they lose the ability to take control of the education of their child. They have a direct interest in the outcome, and decided not to be a passive “collateral casualty” of the teacher’s union. The less the special education system operates as a “take it or leave it” system for those who cannot afford expensive attorneys the more children we will see reach their potential. Mr. Flagg lives in a state that has made remarkable progress for special needs children in public school while not coincidentally making them all eligible to attend a public or private school of their choice, so let’s avoid any pretense that this is going to hurt the public school system.

So my question for Mr. Flagg is as follows: if you were forced to repeat life as a special needs child, would you want your parents to have an opt-out for you if they found you in a school run by people checking off boxes on a form, unconcerned with your progress, and displaying the attitude expressed above? If not, why would you make yourself a willing pawn-a mere funding unit- of a public school ignoring your needs?  Even pawns have the potential to become a queen if not carelessly sacrificed.

If so, welcome to the parental choice movement. All is forgiven.

 

 

 

 

 


Can’t Get There from Here? Milton’s Been There He Knows the Way

July 31, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Today is the 102 anniversary of the birth of Milton Friedman. My favorite Friedman quote is one recently rediscovered by Stephanie Linn from a 1995 WaPo column Dr. Friedman penned:

The private schools that 10 percent of children now attend consist of a few elite schools serving at high cost a tiny fraction of the population, and many mostly parochial nonprofit schools able to compete with government schools by charging low fees made possible by the dedicated services of many of the teachers and subsidies from the sponsoring institutions. These private schools do provide a superior education for a small fraction of the children, but they are not in a position to make innovative changes. For that, we need a much larger and more vigorous private enterprise system.

The problem is how to get from here to there. Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system. The deterioration of our school system and the stratification arising out of the new industrial revolution have made privatization of education far more urgent and important than it was 40 years ago.

And even more important today than when Dr. Friedman typed the column. Friedman saw this clearly, and the time has come for the rest of us to catch up: today’s stock of private schools are a means to an end for an important but ultimately small group of students-even with a voucher or tax credit program in place. The stock of empty private school seats represent a vital opportunity for the students who could fill them, but in the big picture it is crucial to focus upon how to get new providers to create new opportunities for students. Voucher programs that can only be used at private schools and only provide enough funding to cover the marginal cost of adding a student to an empty seat are vitally important for the small number of students participating but ultimately represent an evolutionary dead-end.

It’s a shame that it took those of us in Milton’s intellectual debt a decade and a half to create a method to “get there from here” in the form of ESAs, but better late than never. We simply aren’t as bright as the great Milton Friedman, so we will need to work together to bring about the revolutionary improvements he saw as possible so clearly for so many decades.

Happy birthday Dr. Friedman-we are doing our best to catch up to where you got decades ago.

 

 


Milton Friedman’s case for ESAs from 1995

June 24, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Stephanie Linn from the Friedman Foundation with a great piece on ESAs noting that the great Milton Friedman foresaw the ESA design with a proposal for “partial vouchers”

“Vouchers are not an end in themselves,” Friedman wrote. “The purpose of vouchers is to enable parents to have free choice, and the purpose of having free choice is to provide competition and allow the educational industry to get out of the 17th century and get into the 21st century.” 
 
“Why not add partial vouchers?” Friedman asked. “Why not let (parents) spend part of a voucher for math in one place and English or science somewhere else.”
A longer quote from the original Milton Friedman column is well worth consideration:
No one can predict in advance the direction that a truly free market educational system would take. We know from the experience of every other industry how imaginative competitive free enterprise can be, what new products and services can be introduced, how driven it is to satisfy the customers — that is what we need in education. We know how the telephone industry has been revolutionized by opening it to competition; how fax has begun to undermine the postal monopoly in first-class mail; how UPS, Federal Express and many other private enterprises have transformed package and message delivery and, on the strictly private level, how competition from Japan has transformed the domestic automobile industry.

The private schools that 10 percent of children now attend consist of a few elite schools serving at high cost a tiny fraction of the population, and many mostly parochial nonprofit schools able to compete with government schools by charging low fees made possible by the dedicated services of many of the teachers and subsidies from the sponsoring institutions. These private schools do provide a superior education for a small fraction of the children, but they are not in a position to make innovative changes. For that, we need a much larger and more vigorous private enterprise system.

The problem is how to get from here to there. Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system. The deterioration of our school system and the stratification arising out of the new industrial revolution have made privatization of education far more urgent and important than it was 40 years ago.

In other words, it is time for the parental choice movement to include but also look beyond the stock of private schools we have today. Friedman had this figured out long ago, it is time for the rest of us to catch up (as usual).

 


Delaware Lawmakers to Debate Broad ESA measure

June 10, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Delaware lawmakers are set to debate a broad ESA measure with a sliding scale by income.  The proposal has activated the anti-bodies of the public school establishment, and the sponsors acknowledge in the article that they do not expect the measure to pass this year. NAEP indicates that Delaware has done a good job in improving the public school system in recent years, and it seems likely that parental choice is playing an unsung role in Delaware’s improving scores.

Delaware has the second highest private school attendance rate in the nation (behind only Hawaii) at 20% of students. Note that this percentage dwarfs that in states like Arizona and Florida, whose private choice programs are essentially trying to play catch-up to the old-fashioned checkbook choice widely exercised in states like Delaware. Delaware charter schools have been heading towards a 10% of the market as well, and many Delaware charter schools have waiting lists.

The question for Delaware lawmakers to consider therefore is not whether they should have parental choice.  They already have parental choice.  The question to face: who should be exercise parental choice?  Currently Delaware’s answer to that question is: the wealthy, with others getting a less-diverse form of choice in the form of charter schools or their wait lists.

People prize stability in life, and it is clear that many in Delaware feel acute discomfort from the mere advent of charter schools. Education spending ought however to be the entitlement of the child, not of any system of education. Moreover, the Census Bureau forecasts a 90% increase in Delaware’s elderly population between 2010 and 2030, foretelling a deep battle between health care and education spending in the state. It would be wise for the state to experiment in making parents the voluntary offer of less spending in return for greater control and flexibility. Simply maintaining the status-quo does not represent a viable option even in the medium term. Our experience from other private choice programs demonstrate that there will not be a mass exodus from the public school system.

The Delaware proposal is admirable in giving the most to the children starting with the least. I look forward to the conversation.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Demographic Time Bomb

May 22, 2014

Ladner Orlando

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present at the American Federation for Children conference in Orlando along with Pat “PDiddy” Wolf, Lance Izumi, refereed by our main man Ed Kirby.  Lance busted out depressing “Not as Good as You Think” evidence on suburban public schools  in California and Illinois.  PDiddy used Bud and Sissy from one of the greatest really bad movies of all time to tell us that school choice research is looking for love in all the wrong places, and even included the great Scott Glenn:

 

Make fun of my transparent muscle shirt and I will put you in the hospital…

I batted clean up with a talk on age demographics. Someone told me that you can save a power point as jpg files, so I gave it a try. Here is the first slide:

Slide1Here is the most relevant middle slide, showing that a number of states are set to get hit with a double challenge of large increases of young and old people by the year 2030 according to Census Bureau estimates, causing all kinds of health care, pension and education challenges:

Slide6

So some of you are wondering what your state looks like. Let me just tell you- it is bad. Stay tuned for a Friedman Foundation with the gory details by state. Oh by the way, the people who will be in their prime earning years in 2030 are in the public school system right now, and only a minority of them are being educated to a high level. Ergo the conclusion:

In short, everything we’ve done up to this point needs to have been baby steps towards what comes next.  What comes next needs to be a far deeper and more powerful policy interventions than incremental policies like our current charter and voucher programs. In an earlier panel, Derrell Bradford related that we used to buy our music at Tower Records, used to buy whole albums in order to get a single song, but that Napster and then iTunes had changed all of that for the better. Gisele Huff then made the point that too much of what we are doing in the school choice movement is dedicated to setting up new record stores.

Or perhaps in getting public funds to add a new wing on to the existing Tower Records.

I don’t want to pick on my friends in Indiana too much, as this idea of using public funds to add existing space onto participating private choice programs would doubtlessly have a higher ROI than much public K-12 spending in Indiana and would provide a better opportunity for thousands of disadvantaged children.  Having said that, it strikes me as a troubling idea. In my opinion the focus should clearly be on how to get many of the 2/3 of Indiana private schools who do not participate in the voucher program to change their minds (**cough**less regulation **cough**).

Next, let’s get the scholarship amount up to something decent, let the colleges and universities into the K-12 space, have blended learning make the jump into private schooling, see if you can get a private tutoring sector to flourish (it worked out really well for Alexander the Great and many of the founder fathers btw) etc.  In other words, let’s give parents control of the money and an incentive to consider opportunity costs and see what they come up with.  This could resolve a number of vexing questions.  For instance, how should technology be used to improve learning? I’m not sure, and if you are sure then you may need to work on humility. Perhaps we should let the parents figure that out through a system of voluntary exchange, let them change, customize and improve it over time.  How much should a digital course cost? I have no idea but we have these demand and supply curves that have a really strong track record in figuring questions like that out.

Right now we have an incrementally expanding charter school sector and few private choice programs capable of spurring new private school creation. Even if we improve our choice programs to spur new private school creation, it will essentially resemble a second charter school program incrementally adding new space year by year. This is both highly desirable and nowhere close to where we urgently need to go.

We need to be in this for the kids and the parents, not for a tiny preexisting stock of private schools. Don’t get me wrong private schools- I do deeply love you- but choice funding is the entitlement of the child not of any system of schools.  Private schools need to be a bigger part of the solution, but we should never mistake them for the entire solution.

“We’ve squeezed everything we can out of a system that was designed a century ago,” Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “We’ve not only put in lots more money and not gotten significantly better results, we’ve also tried every program we can think of and not gotten significantly better results at scale. This is the sign of a system that has reached its limits.”  Personally I can think of some ways to squeeze more out of the current system, but their political sustainability will always have limits and Tucker is basically right in his assessment. “I think we’ve tried to do what we can to improve American schools within the current context,” Jack Jennings told the CSM. “Now we need to think much more daringly.”

Time to change the “current context”

Here is my version of daring- let’s give parents complete control over our K-12 funding within a system of financial oversight and academic transparency and incentives to economize and sit back and marvel as they figure out solutions of how to make the best use of limited resources.  We are going to have far fewer resources to provide in the future due to the looming battle between health care and education spending. We must go faster towards increased return on investment and customization. The Economist magazine said it better than I can after it reviewed the evidence on choice and concluded:

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

Lots and lots more as fast as possible.

 

 


Governor Brewer signs two small ESA expansions

April 23, 2014

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 2014 Arizona session is winding up, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed two bills to improve the ESA program today.  Collectively these bills will keep the dependents of military children if their parents are killed in the line of duty, will make it easier for pre-school aged special needs children to enter the program without enrolling in a public school, and will make the siblings of eligible children eligible to participate in order to make it more possible for families to send their children to the same or at least nearby schools. The 2014 session marks the last rodeo for Governor Brewer, who is term limited.

Governor Brewer signed the ESA and a number of improvements into law, several tax credit program improvements into law, called for the creation of A-F school grades and fought hard for an earned promotion policy on literacy. She also vetoed a few choice measures here and there including a small tax credit measure today. She hammered through a temporary three-year sales tax ballot measure to increase to stabilize K-12 funding, but then stayed true to her word and stayed out of it while the alphabet soup groups made a complete hash of trying to create a permanent tax increase. Governor Brewer began Arizona’s first steps towards funding results rather than just seat time.  Let’s hope that further steps will materialize.

It’s been an incredibly difficult and tumultuous five years- the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” springs readily to mind. Several of the K-12 initiatives Governor Brewer supported remain a work in progress, making it feel strange to think that someone else will be exercising the duty of governor next year.  There has been a great deal of political blood spilled over some very difficult issues, but in my book, Governor Jan Brewer got far more right than wrong in K-12 reform.


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