Don’t Accuse Me of Doing What I am Obviously Doing!

October 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)

Robert Enlow of EdChoice and David Osborne of the Progressive Policy Institute have engaged in a titanic battle of words over at The74.  Enlow claims that Osborne is opposed to universal school vouchers because of his political ideology, even though vouchers would fit well with Osborne’s theory of action that decentralized, choice-driven education policies produce better outcomes than the traditional, bureaucratized system of public schools.  Osborne responds that the argument he made in his book is not political and Enlow is ignoring its substance.  Let’s have a look.

Osborne’s main argument is that his opposition to universal school vouchers is driven by objective, scientific reason, not political ideology.  He makes that claim from his perch at the highly political Progressive Policy Institute in that most political of cities, Washington, DC.  We like to avoid “guilt-by-association” arguments here on the JPG Blog, so let’s just assume that Osborne’s employment by an explicitly political organization has nothing to do with his position on school vouchers.  Generosity rules our hearts.

Osborne begins his argument that he is not being political by quoting a passage from his recent book, Reinventing America’s Schools.  Osborne’s “non-political” argument begins:  “Our Republican leaders, from President Trump down through Congress and state legislatures, have turned to vouchers as the answer.”  Whoooaaa there Hoss!  Nothing like defending the non-partisan nature of your thinking by falsely ascribing support for vouchers solely to Republicans.  Osborne is arguing that the explicitly political nature of his anti-voucher argument proves that he is being non-political.  Clever.

We are social scientists here on the JPG Blog so let’s look at the truth or falsity of Osborne’s claim associating the push for school vouchers singularly with Republicans.  Private school choice, in the form of vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, and Education Savings Accounts, has been a bipartisan issue from its germination through the present day.  The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program was launched in 1990 only because Democrat legislator Polly Williams joined with Republican Governor Tommy Thompson to steer the proposal through the law-making process.  The Cleveland Scholarship and Tutoring Program similarly was established by a bi-partisan legislative coalition.  Washington, DC, has a private school choice program largely due to the efforts of Senator Joe Lieberman, Former Mayor Anthony Williams, Former City Councilman Kevin Chavous, and Senator Diane Feinstein.  Last time I checked, none of them were Republicans.  Osborne would have been more correct to say, “Our bipartisan policymakers, in Washington and the states, have turned to vouchers as the answer.” Because they have.

Osborne begins the next paragraph of his response with this indictment: “First, vouchers offer no guarantee of academic success…”  Well, the same charge can be leveled at every education policy.  Osborne’s preferred policy is heavily regulated charter schools.  “David Osborne is foolish to advocate for heavily regulated charter schools,” David Osborne might charge, “Because heavily regulated charter schools offer no guarantee of academic success.”  The only two guarantees in this world are death and taxes.  Osborne makes a silly argument by declaring that school vouchers are bad policy because they don’t produce perfection.  Nothing does.

Osborne proceeds to lament: “Experience teaches that some parents will stick with a school if it is safe and nurturing, even if test scores are abysmal, so we cannot rely on parents to abandon all failing schools.” He is correct that urban parents tend to value safety and the nurturing of their children at school above test scores, as Thomas Stewart and I established in our book, The School Choice Journey.  Abraham Maslow, quite properly, would applaud them for being so rational in their decision-making.  David Osborne, instead, is irrational and paternalistic by insinuating that parents are choosing badly when they prioritize the protection and nurturance of their children above their score on a standardized test.

His next charge is that universal vouchers will lead to the hyper-stratification of private schools by family income. This is a red herring.  Schools are hyper-stratified by income in the traditional public school system because the primary feature that distinguishes the otherwise standardized government-run schools is family income.  When family background is the only condition that varies across schools of choice, then family income becomes the single criterion of school choice, exercised indirectly in the case of public schools through residential choice.  Private school choice programs allow schools to differentiate themselves based on religious identity, underlying child development theory, curriculum, use of technology, and, yes, that dreaded safety and nurturance that David Osborne disdains.  With so many criteria to choose schools, families rely less on peer-group features like family income and race when choosing private schools, which is why private school choice often leads to less stratification of schools. Besides, policy makers have a range of tools to limit stratification in a universal school voucher program including weighting the voucher value by student need or requiring that participating schools accept the full voucher as the cost of educating the child. The increased stratification that Osborne fears is unlikely under private school choice and, even if possible, is preventable.

Osborne further claims that due to the increased stratification through private school choice, “Children would also lose the chance to rub elbows with those from different social classes, races, and ethnic groups.  That experience creates a more tolerant society…” Exactly.  And you know where that mixing of diverse groups more frequently takes place?  In private schools of choice!  As a result, private school choice programs promote levels of tolerance that are equal to or better than public schools.  You can find evidence of this reality here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, oh heck just read the systematic reviews here and here!

So, my final question to David Osborne is, if the research evidence isn’t behind your opposition to private school vouchers, what is?  Could it be…


Stanislav Petrov for the Al

October 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago I watched a documentary about just how close life as we know it nearly ended in 1983. If not for the fact that Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Barack Obama had not been interviewed in the piece, I would have had a very hard time believing the story (Gates worked in the CIA during the Reagan administration).

So humanity had a problem back in 1983. Many problems actually, but most acutely was the presence a heavily armed totalitarian communist empire with a vast nuclear arsenal and an ancient and insular leadership that more or less had lost touch with reality. During the first Reagan administration, the Soviet Union’s “intelligence community” and top leadership convinced themselves that President Reagan intended to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. It was an amazing and chilling example of group-think as even minor incidents were interpreted fully through the lens of confirmation bias. When for instance the United States increased security at embassies following the Beruit bombing it was seen, among many other things, as an “a-ha!” moment among the Soviets that the dastardly Americans planned to launch a nuclear strike. Mind you, it also shows that the ancient and insular Soviet leadership failed to grasp Reagan’s true and ultimately successful plan to spend their sclerotic economy into bankruptcy.

The Soviet intelligence community felt absolutely certain of this intent to attack despite the fact that it made no sense and despite the fact they had a spy at the highest levels of NATO insisting that there was zero sign of such an attack. The fact that their spy at the highest possible levels of NATO repeatedly insisted that there was no sign of an attack must have simply served of further proof of sinister imperialist intentions. Likewise, a highly placed western spy eventually reported back to NATO that the Soviets were convinced such a strike was coming, and people like Robert Gates had a very difficult time imagining such a thing to be possible. Have the Soviets lost their minds? Sadly they had.

On Sept. 26, 1983, during this hysteria, Lt. Colonel Stanislav Petrov was monitoring the satellite systems at Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces when an alarm sounded announcing the launch of five American nuclear missiles. Protocol required Petrov to alert his superiors to the launch. The flight time of missles from the United States last only 20 minutes, and the ugly logic of “use it or lose it” in a scenario of Mutual Assured Destruction predominated Soviet military doctrine. “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” Petrov related to the BBC in 2013. “There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike, but we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Instead of following established protocol and risking global thermonuclear destruction, Petrov utilized his own judgement. Why would the United States launch five missiles? If the United States were going to launch a preemptive strike, five missiles made no sense. He suspected some sort of error- which in fact it was in the form of a unusual cloud formation that the Soviet system had mistaken for an apocalyptic launch. Fortunately for all of us, Petrov decided to turn the alarm off, not to notify his superiors, and to simply wait a few minutes to see whether or not an attack occurred.

Petrov’s reward for saving the planet-an official reprimand from his “superiors.” A badge of honor to be sure, and it beat the living daylights out of the alternative. The Soviets btw kept their insane theory about a preemptive American attack until the completion of a NATO training exercise known as Operation Able Archer.

The conclusion of the NATO training exercise made it abundantly clear, even to the dimmest Soviet bulbs, that they had deluded themselves into a very dangerous hysteria. A few years later a younger Soviet leader began negotiating an end to the Cold War. The world survives a near brush with nuclear apocalypse: roll credits! This however was no Hollywood fable, it actually happened.

Petrov lived in obscurity for most of the remainder of his life, until news of just how close the Soviets were to going full 99 luftballoons came to light, whereupon he became known as “the man who saved the world.” The single sane man managed to thwart the insanity of a totalitarian bureaucracy died earlier this year in a Moscow suburb. Well done Stanislav and thank you. For choosing not to reach for that phone in what may have been the most crucial exercise of grace under pressure in history, I nominate Stanislav Petrov for a posthumous Al.



Apply to our PhD Program

October 16, 2017

The Department of Education Reform, which I chair at the University of Arkansas, is looking for qualified applicants for our doctoral program.  If you are looking to make a difference in education reform, we offer excellent training in a wonderful environment with generous support.  Qualified students can make over $36,000 plus have their tuition paid, which allows one to live pretty well in Fayetteville, AR.  The program is designed to have students graduate in 4 years, after which our alumni have gone on to some very influential and well-paying jobs.

Our program tends to emphasize quantitative methods, but we do not demand that students enter with any specific prior math training.  We’re just looking for smart folks who are willing to work hard and are eager to learn.  We provide a lot of support to help students.  In addition to generous financial packages and readily available funds for travel, equipment, and research, we also lavish a lot of attention on our students.  We only have 15-20 students at any given time for a faculty of 7.  And much of our training occurs by having students join research teams right away and begin working on projects.  Our program has a strong apprenticeship model, encouraging students to learn by doing.

We only enroll 4-5 students each year and do not admit anyone who does not qualify for a fellowship.  So, the standards are high, but the opportunities are great for those who are admitted.  We encourage prospective applicants to check out details about our program on our web site.  Also feel free to contact us directly if you have any questions.  Applications are due January 10.

Kids as School Funding Units

October 16, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

A new documentary narrated by private school dad  Matt Damon derides school choice advocates as seeing kids as merely “backpacks full of cash.” The term comes from school choice advocate Jeanne Allen, who was actually making the opposite point, that empowering families with choice means that schools have a powerful incentive to meet their individual needs. Indeed, there is a greater temptation to treat students as mere funding units when the system is used to having a captive audience. Case in point:

A father who pulled his son out of school for three days to see the total solar eclipse. But now his son’s school is threatening his ten-year-old with suspension and prosecution.

“I’d been planning to go to this eclipse ever since I was twelve-years-old and we couldn’t go the one in 1979,” said Richard Wilson.

This summer, Richard Wilson had another chance to see that special solar eclipse with his son.

“So we took my son out of school the first three days to travel to Oregon,” he said.

It’s been a few weeks since they got back. But that eclipse experience just took a dark turn.

Wilson received a letter from his son’s school saying those three absences to see the eclipse won’t be excused.

It warns if his son is absent again, he could be prosecuted and suspended, his driving privileges delayed, and he may be transferred to another school for juvenile delinquents.

Why would the school take such punitive measures against a family that wanted to provide their child with an extracurricular educational experience? And why are the school officials acting as though the child belongs to them, not the child’s parents?

They claim that they just have the child’s best interests in mind, but the family’s attorney has another theory:

“We want to make sure we remind families they are accountable for getting their kids to school,” said Kathy Pon.

Rocklin Unified Deputy Superintendent Kathy Pon says the school is in line with state education law, which says parents or children can be criminally prosecuted for chronic truancy.

But attorneys say the school is using that law to intimidate because it comes down to money.

“School districts get money for every day a child is sitting in their seat, and it goes to show the real interest isn’t the education of their children,” said Attorney Brad Dacus President of the Pacific Justice Institute, “but rather the money they get in their pockets by having children sitting in their seat.” 

Per pupil funding is how schools get funded. But Wilson is concerned that this case is overreach. [emphasis added]

This isn’t to say that all district schools overreach as in this case. And certainly the vast majority of teachers — whether in district, charter, or private schools — have their students’ best interests at heart. But at a systemic level, students are much more likely to be treated as individuals — rather than mere funding units — when their families have other options.

Nominated for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award: Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon

October 16, 2017

Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon are the creators of the animated TV show, Rick and Morty, which appears during Adult Swim on Cartoon Network but is also available on Hulu and Netflix.  Rick is Morty’s grandfather as well as an inebriated and self-absorbed genius scientist.  Morty, a very anxious and not too swift kid, regularly accompanies Rick on adventures across different dimensions, visiting ridiculous planets, during which they alternatively endanger and save the entire universe.  They live with Rick’s daughter (Morty’s mother) who is a horse surgeon, and her unemployed and chronically insecure husband, along with Morty’s older sister, Summer, who was born as the result of a prom night tryst, which resulted in the unhappy and unstable marriage of Morty and Summer’s parents.  Got all that?

None of these details matter.  In fact, the entire show is built on the idea that nothing really matters.  It is an absurdist comedy reacting to our nihilistic times.  Much of current popular culture is built on a nihilistic foundation, but unlike most of that other entertainment, Rick and Morty affirms love and compassion despite occupying a world in which nothing really matters.  Rick and Morty offer a moral (and hilarious) nihilism in contrast to the amoral and dreary nihilism commonly found in current popular entertainment.

HBO, Netflix, and AMC, in particular, feed us a steady diet of anti-hero shows set in nihilistic universes — think of House of Cards, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, etc…  In all of them we are invited to root for awful people, doing awful things because nothing matters.  If there is no purpose to anything, these shows suggest, you might as well just impose your will and do whatever you want.  The acquisition of power is an end in itself, so you might as well lie, cheat, kill, or engage in incest.  The anti-heroes in these series will occasionally claim that they are acquiring power for some greater purpose, but they usually candidly concede that they were just doing horrible things because they like it.  These shows also regularly feature people who attempt to stand for something good, but they almost always suffer a horrible fate just to prove to us that believing in anything other than the power to impose one’s will is for suckers.  Very occasionally these shows will have a character who is genuinely attempting to do good and succeeds, but they almost always have to advance that good by doing something else horrible.  If there is any good in these shows, it is the result of a cruel utilitarian calculus.

Popular entertainment is littered with these bleak, nihilistic shows and dystopian nightmares because they are a dark reflection of how many people perceive our modern era.  Despite our incredible wealth and technological advancement, people feel adrift in a world without well-functioning social institutions or government and without the traditional values and religion that help give people purpose and meaning.  Our entertainment is nihilistic because people feel nihilistic.

It might be nice if a show like Rick and Morty could directly challenge people’s nihilism and argue that people have wrongly fallen into despair, but that may be asking too much.  Instead, Rick and Morty accepts the nihilistic premise audiences seem to expect, but nevertheless makes the case for love and compassion even when nothing seems to matter.

The best example of this in Rick and Morty is the “Rixty Minutes” episode.  In that episode Rick has installed inter-dimensional cable on the TV so that the family can watch shows from any parallel universe.  The parents, Beth and Jerry, discover that in some parallel universes they are movie stars and are eager to learn more about what their lives are like in those other universes.  They are fascinated by how they achieved great success in those alternative realities because the accident of their prom-night conception of Summer never happened and they never get married.  Summer also looks for herself in these alternative realities but she doesn’t exist because her conception was a fluke that didn’t happen in most universes.  She despairs that her life is nothing more than an unhappy accident that prevented her parents from having more successful and happy lives.

As Summer prepares to run away, Morty tries to comfort her.  As shown in the video clip at the top of this post, Morty points out her bedroom window to two graves in the back yard.  He explains that in a previous adventure (which was in a previous episode) he and Rick had destroyed the universe in which they lived and had to find another one where they happened to have died at the same point in the timeline but where the world was not irretrievably messed up.  He and Rick buried their own bodies in the back yard and just took the place of their dead selves to keep living in an alternative universe.  He explains that he eats breakfast every morning 20 yards from his own rotting corpse.  He then tells her: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”

This is the essence of Rick and Morty.  It embraces the nihilism that is common in popular entertainment but it does not lose love and compassion.  Morty tells Summer his story to help her realize that there can be joy, goodness, and love even when nobody exists on purpose.  He loves her even knowing that he could be dead and she is an accident.  In our dark age, this is a happy, sweet, and hilarious story.

Meanwhile in the same episode, the parents come to realize that they belong together and were right to have gotten and stayed married despite how their lives might have turned out better had they not.  They accept the reality of their lives and understand that one needs to behave decently given the circumstances.  If this were one of the HBO/Netflix/AMC nihilistic shows, they would be suckers for accepting circumstances and making the best of it rather than attempting to impose their own will on circumstances regardless of the costs — in this case Summer wouldn’t exist.

Other shows praise The Triumph of the Will, as their ideological cousins put it, while Rick and Morty embrace a humanistic type of existentialism.  Like Kurt Vonnegut or Albert Camus, Rick and Morty struggle to find purpose and order in the world, but they can’t help but care about people and strive to behave decently anyway.

For trying to turn our nihilistic age in a moral direction while being highly entertaining and funny, the creators of Rick and MortyJustin Roiland and Dan Harmon, have done much to improve the human condition.  This makes them very worthy nominees for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

And so that you can enjoy inter-dimensional TV, here are some clips of what you could find on TV in alternative universes:

Nominations Solicited for the 2017 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 15, 2017

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It is time once again for us to solicit nominations for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.  The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

Last year’s winner of “The Al” was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie LeagueRemy Munasifi, and Yair Rosenberg.  Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners.  It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.

The 2015 winner of “The Al” was the internet humorist, Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough).  His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.  Given how much time ed reformers waste on social media, especially Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona.  Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLeanGary Gygax, and John Lasseter.

The previous year’s winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System.  To save a life DeComo had to trick border control officials to bring a model of his artificial lung machine into the US from Canada because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA.  DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,”  Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of “The Al” was Weird Al Yankovic.  Weird Al beat an impressive set of nominees, including Penn and TellerKickstarter, and Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of “The Al” was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheap and clean natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees:  BanksyRansom E. OldsStan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes.

In 2011 “The Al” went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon.  Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates.  Haas beat his fellow nominees:  Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010  winner of  “The Al” was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist.  He beat out  The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

And the 2009 winner of “The Al” was  Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag.  She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing,  Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban,  Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee.  If I like it, I will post it with your name attached.  Remember that the basic criteria is that we are looking for someone who significantly improved the human condition even if they made a profit in doing so.  Helping yourself does not nullify helping others.  And, like Al Copeland, nominees need not be perfect or widely recognized people.

Connecticut Did Less with More

October 13, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A faction of folks in Arizona’s K-12 debate yearns to be Connecticut, but be careful what you wish for-you just might get it. In 2009 CT 4th graders scored a whopping 15 points ahead of Arizona 4th graders in NAEP math. By 2013 that had narrowed to a five point advantage on 8th grade math.

In 2015 only a single point separated AZ and CT on 8th grade math. CT literally spent more than twice as much per pupil as AZ in 2013-14. The 8th grade NAEP shows the two states pretty evenly matched across subgroups in math and reading. Call me crazy but I think it is Connecticut who should envy Arizona on K-12 rather than the other way around.