This is not going to go the way you think

December 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Spoiler free review: I loved it, want to see it again. One subplot too many, but still very good. If “there is always a way to blow it up” sums up The Force Awakens, the title of this post summarizes this film. New ranking:


Last Jedi

New Hope

Rogue One

Return of the Jedi


Christmas Special




TUDA districts versus states

December 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So…Chicago…? Anyone?

The Option to Escape Bullying

December 11, 2017

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

By now you’ve probably seen the heartbreaking video of Keaton Jones detailing the torments he suffers in the lunchroom. As Dr. Kevin Currie-Knight and I explained recently in Education Next, educational choice policies can give kids like Keaton a much-needed escape hatch — and provide schools with a stronger incentive to address bullying.

A Florida mom, Elsi Greciano, explains how school choice saved her daughter:

When my daughter [Maria] finished fifth grade, she begged me not to send her to the neighborhood middle school, because her tormenters would be there. So we enrolled her in an arts magnet. Maria loved the classes and was excited to start over.

But bad things kept happening. One boy groped her. Another humiliated her when she wouldn’t give him her phone number. When a teacher saw a group of boys taunting her in the cafeteria, she sent them to the principal, who suspended them. But then Maria heard the boys were going to beat her up because they got in trouble. She was so upset that she couldn’t sleep.

Sometimes the school tried to help. Sometimes it didn’t. After the cafeteria incident, I emailed the principal, but never heard back. That was the last straw.

We searched for private schools that would be good for Maria, and found One School of the Arts. It had a curriculum like the school we left, but a safe, family atmosphere. We fell in love with it.

We cut all our expenses so we could enroll Maria right away, then got a tax-credit scholarship. Four years later, Maria is in 10th grade and a totally different girl.

She’s confident. She speaks beautifully. She loves to debate in class. At the moment, she’s not sure whether she wants to be a missionary when she grows up, or a fashion designer, or president of the United States.

Fortunately, the Florida legislature is taking steps to ensure that bullied students like Maria and Keaton have other options. Florida already has a tax-credit scholarship program and an education savings account program, but not all students are eligible. The proposed Hope Scholarships would empower families of students who had been bullied or victims of abuse.

Hopefully other states will follow Florida’s lead.

Real Victories + Imaginary Defeats = “Unsettled Law”

December 9, 2017

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The constitutionality of tax-credit scholarships is in the news again, as Montana’s state supreme court will soon consider the issue. What makes Montana’s case unique is that the roles of the petitioners and respondents is reversed. Usually it’s school choice opponents who sue a state over its choice program. In Montana, the Department of Revenue decided — against the wishes of the legislature — to block tax-credit scholarship recipients from using them at religious schools based on its own squirrelly interpretation of the state constitution. That drew the ire of choice proponents, including the heroes at the Institute for Justice, who sued.

A district court judge ruled in favor of the Institute for Justice, but the state has appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

Based on the track record, tax-credit scholarships are very likely to win. But Kevin Welner, a long-time critic of tax-credit scholarships (he calls them “neovouchers,” but no one serious has followed his lead), disagrees:

“If you’re asking if this is an area of unsettled law, the answer is yes,” Welner said. “Generally, the differences that you see are reflective of the blue-red differences we have in this country.”

Is that so? Let’s see what the scorecard shows. First, the victories:

Tax-Credit Scholarship Legal Victories

  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • New Hampshire

It should be noted that the unanimous decision in Georgia was written by a justice appointed by a Democrat. In Florida and Illinois (not a red state, last I checked), the state supreme courts refused to hear appeals of lower-court victories. Also, before anyone objects “some of these were decided on standing, not the merits!” — there’s very little difference. First, all the decisions but New Hampshire’s explicitly state that tax credits do not constitute public expenditures in their decisions ruling against the plaintiffs’ standing, which is essentially ruling on the merits. Even New Hampshire’s state supreme court (which had a liberal majority) unanimously ruled against standing because the plaintiffs could not demonstrate any harm. Second, there’s functionally no difference between “constitutional” and “may or may not be constitutional on the merits but no one has standing to sue so the program may legally continue.”

Anyway, let’s now look at the losing side of the ledger to see how truly “unsettled” this area of law is:

Tax-Credit Scholarship Legal Defeats

  • None

This looks less like a “red state vs. blue state” divide than a “real state vs. imaginary state” divide.

My question for Welner is: how many states have to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s lead before he believes the law is “settled”?

Also, a closing word of advice:

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Oklahoma’s Doubleminded ESSA Plan

December 8, 2017

(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

In OCPA’s Perspective I review Oklahoma’s ESSA plan, and the story will be of interest to those outside Oklahoma. The basic problem with imposing reform on school systems that don’t want it is that the “reforms” become two-faced – they say what they need to say to please the reformers, but the substance of reform is another story:

Throughout the document, the bright, photogenic images and superficial, focus-group-tested buzzwords favored by the professional education reformers who run the ESSA regime collide over and over again with dense, esoteric clouds of opaque legalese, emitted—like ink from an octopus—by education special interests protecting their budgetary turf from scrutiny.

The document even has two title pages. The first is slick and professionally designed: a gorgeous, full-page image of a little girl with her hand over her heart is juxtaposed with the title under which the plan is being marketed—Oklahoma EDGE—in the form of a branded logo, like Pepsi or Google. The second title page is plain white with nothing on it but a little bit of text and the state education department’s logo. This page delivers the plan’s legal (i.e., actual) title, which is: “Revised State Template for the Consolidated State Plan: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act.” Try making a branded logo out of that.

The report’s visual and verbal doublemindedness is reflected in the structure of the underlying plan, which dumps tons of money (the plan is always careful to set minimum goals for spending levels) into programs that don’t tend to improve educational outcomes. This makes both the system and the reformers look bad:

All this indictment of the Old Guard, for putting their own voracious desire for money and power ahead of real educational reform, is also an indictment of the New Guard. The professional education reformers, frustrated by decades of limited results from state activism, got impatient and decided to take a shortcut to power through Washington, D.C. But the Constitution’s federalist system, and the striking Left/Right political coalition suspicious of federal meddling in schools, really will not allow Washington to exercise the level of control the reformers want.

The end result is this ridiculous dance where Oklahoma has to submit a 218-page “eight-year strategic plan” for change and reform … under which it will continue to do the same thing it has done for decades: dump truckloads of money into expensive programs with no proven or even probable relationship to education outcomes. Which is exactly what the professional reformers have spent decades trying to stop the system from doing. Welcome to Wonderland.

Let me know what you think – and dont’ worry, your comments do not have to be accompanied by glossy graphics or popular buzzwords.

The Republic is shocked SHOCKED to learn that there is PLURALISM in this democracy!

December 8, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic requested a FOIA for emails between the Arizona Department of Education and the Goldwater Institute concerning the ESA program. In those emails they found…a giant nothing-burger. I am a Goldwater alumnus and participated fully in the creation of the original ESA program. This opens me to charges of bias, but it certainly makes me familiar with the subject at hand. I don’t believe there is any bias in the case I will lay out below. That case is as follows: it is utterly routine for agencies to interact with stakeholder groups from all sides on all issues-including (dun! Dun! DUN!!!!!) the Goldwater Institute. Requesting the emails of a single group hardly begins to paint a remotely full picture of what goes on, and this article fails to make a case even within the confines of a narrow perspective provided by the emails of the single group.

You’ll have to read the article and navigate a great many assurances that there is something coming in the nothing-burger before you get to the end and are left with basically nothing. But along the way you get treated to gems like:

Special interests often write concepts for legislation or offer drafted bills and then lobby lawmakers to pass them. But Goldwater’s attempts to exert control over the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, from idea to implementation, was highly unusual if not unprecedented, experts say.

“This is almost an iron grip-level of influence from the beginning of the process on,” said Thomas Holyoke, an associate professor of political science at California State University-Fresno, who studies interest groups and lobbying.

Dr. Holyoke might need to go outside a bit more often. Let’s start with some basic facts. Arizona is a pluralistic democracy. Anyone and everyone in Arizona is completely free at any time to write emails to elected officials or agency officials. This happens non-stop and will continue to do so (God willing) for as long as Arizona exists. It is in fact one of the reasons agencies have email systems, but they also receive letters, phone calls, and various other forms of communication. They often meet with people in person. It is the gambling that goes on in the casino of American democracy, and everyone is invited to play.

I can assure you that ESA opponents have also been in frequent communication with the Arizona Department of Education officials as well, as have lots of other groups and people on this and lots of other issues. If one is inclined to create conspiracy stories, you don’t need to request emails.

Here I’ll do it now just for fun and to show how easy it is to do: one of the officials who helped oversee the administration of the ESA program was the son of a former President of the Arizona Education Association and currently lobbies for the Arizona School Boards Association. Another left the Arizona Department of Education to lobby for the Arizona Education Association. Perhaps all of those administrative problems that the Republic has documented over the years are like on purpose man! Maybe the Goldwater Institute was emailing the department because THE MAN doesn’t like kids having the ability to control their own education!!!

It’s like a CONSPIRACY!!!!

Just to be clear I don’t have a problem with either of these individuals- happy to have a drink with one or both of them on occasion when they are tolerant enough to hang out with Dr. Evil at a social event. And for the record, I don’t think that the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program has been the victim of conspiratorial administrative sand-bagging. The administration of the program has challenges to be sure. This however is true of many things in a Department that, for instance, sends Title I and IDEA funds to the wrong schools, and has had the state’s student data system in years past crash for months at a time. It’s true that there have been issues with ESA program administration, deeply infuriating ones in fact, but this is basically true of a great many things and is unfortunately par for the course.

Previous reporting from the Republic has shown that the Arizona Department of Education has not spent even close to the full amount appropriated for program administration in prior years. The Republic has documented administrative shortcomings, and recounts some of this in the current article. If the Goldwater Institute wielded all-powerful “iron grip” influence, do we imagine that the Department would leave resources lying around and serious problems with program administration unaddressed? After all, what they want is for the program to work smoothly. Parents who sign an agreement with the state only to find the state fails to fund their accounts on time for instance tend to get angry. Bully for Jonathan Butcher for trying to go to bat for them.

In short I’m having a hard time spotting a conspiracy in this, either in motive, methods or outcomes.







New Stanford Study of Academic Gains in School Districts

December 6, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fascinating new study from Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis using standardized test scores from 45 million students to track academic growth in over 11,000 school districts. The study tracks progress from grades 3 through 8. The money graph comes on page 33 and is included above. Just to save your eyes from squinting, let me provide a play by play: the top map shows average 3rd grade scores by district. Purple is low, green is high.

The second map shows academic progress over time between grades 3 and 8 between 2009 and 2015. Again purple is low, green is high.

Ok so just to (once again) brag on the Cactus Patch, you’ll notice that everything and anything on the top map bordering Canada looks green, anything and everything bordering Mexico from the Rio Grande Valley to So-Cal looks purple on the top map. Many decades after Senator Moynihan noted that the average performance on state tests is highly correlated with proximity to Canada, it remains the case today.

Cast your gaze down to the second map and you’ll see some signs for hope-most prominently in my book Arizona flipping from almost entirely purple to mostly green in growth. BOOOM!

Now before I get comment section bricks thrown my way from the Dr. Eponymous, let me hasten to add that these results while relying upon state test scores, are entirely consistent with Arizona’s NAEP results in Arizona’s case. Given that there is no ability or incentive to teach to the NAEP, I feel reasonably confident that either the academic knowledge or the testing “give a darn” of Arizona students (or some combination thereof) is on the rise. I interpret either of these things as very welcome developments and I’m not overly concerned about the mixture.

It is also worth noting that since these results focus only on school districts with the highest statewide percentage of Arizona students attending charter schools, and Arizona charter schools exceeding districts in academic growth on NAEP (see below), that the above charts underestimate Arizona’s total progress between 2009 and 2015. Arizona is does the purple to green flip with only the yellow columns in the below NAEP graph (same period as the Sanford study): * see correction below

Tennessee also does the purple to green flip so bully for them. Notice that most of the Northeast starts out very green and ends pretty purple, but er, they aren’t alone in this. Cool graphic features in this NYT write up where you can plug in a school district and watch it move between 3rd and 8th grade here.

It’s too much…it’s too much winning! No Arizona we’ve got to win MOARRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!


CORRECTION : The author included charter school scores in the districts in which they operate.