Proposition 305 Delayed the Modernization of the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program

October 30, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Auditor General has performed an update on their review of the Arizona Department of Education’s administration of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Back in 2016, the Auditor General found a number of deficiencies in the Department’s oversight of the program. Two years later, they find…many of the same shortcomings. Given the proximity of a public vote on ESA eligibility and administrative modernization, this is basically like pouring a bucket of chum in shark infested waters. Overreaction is guaranteed, despite the fact that the funds discussed represent less than 1% of the total. The greatest irony here is that the bill that the Save Our Schools group placed on the ballot (thus either delaying or killing depending upon the will of the voters) took robust steps to improve the administration of the program.

ESAs are complex programs to administer, and bless their hearts the Arizona Department of Education volunteered to be the first to try. The Arizona Republic’s story on the Auditor General update includes push-back from the outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas on the Auditor General update:

State schools Superintendent, Diane Douglas said the misspending of the voucher money is the result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program. Douglas said lawmakers resist properly funding oversight because they want a private entity to oversee it.

“If you’re not willing to put the resources into the oversight, then it doesn’t happen appropriately,” Douglas told The Arizona Republic on Monday. 

She said her staff has “done a phenomenal job with the lack of resources.”

She criticized the audit for glossing over the Legislature’s failure to properly fund oversight.

That’s a story but not a credible one. From the outset, the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program has included fees for management companies as an allowable expense for accounts. While the Arizona Department of Education had no experience in managing multi-vendor accounts, there are in fact multiple private firms which have gone up and down the learning curve of managing (for instance) health savings accounts. Other states with ESA programs have contracted with these firms in order to build digital platforms so that both administrators and parents can view accounts and account transactions in real-time. They’ve also developed methodologies to prevent misspending of account funds from occurring. They do this for a very modest fee. These platforms also collect user reviews to help inform the decisions of other parents- which is the only plausible way to hold, for instance, an occupational therapist or online education provider accountable for performance.

What was requested of the department repeatedly and I know this because I myself personally all but begged them to do this on multiple occasions- was to have them hire one of these firms so as to radically improve the administration of the program. The parents would have received superior program that was easier to use, misuse of funds could be dramatically curtailed, and transparency improved. Everyone wins, and you can see this underway in Florida, where the main Gardiner Scholarship administrator (Step Up for Students) has contracted with SAP Ariba to create such a platform.

I interpreted the feedback I received as “Nah man- hold my beer! We’ve GOT THIS!” No wait I think what I was actually told was “the Superintendent is suspicious of outside vendors” which translated in practice to approximately the same outcome. In any case since then the Department’s administration of the program has looked something like:

Notice that this is not a bureaucratic turf issue. The avenue allowed left the Department of Education in charge of the program. Any outside vendor would have reported directly to them, and they could tell them what to do and hire/fire them at will within the normal confines of state contracting. The great advantage here is that these firms have decades of experience in navigating these waters and there are multiple players in the space that could compete if the state created an RFP.

The complaint about under funding of administration also rings hollow because as previous reporting from the Republic established the Department failed to spend the resources allocated for program administration by leaving funded FTE spots open. If you don’t spend the funds appropriated for you, then you don’t get to complain that you needed more funds. And by the way, the private firms with plentiful experience in managing account based program could have been funded for a very modest fee by the account holders, and would have not needed to subtract from the funds the department didn’t in any case fully spend.

Oh but it gets better.

Arizona SB 1431 from the 2017 session included a large number of items to improve the administration of the program and to increase transparency. You can read a list of these items here. In evident despair of the Department modernizing the program administration, the legislature (wisely imo) included these provisions:

Directs ADE to post on its website information and data that are updated monthly regarding ESAs that includes the following:

a)info on all purchases and expenditures made with ESA monies that does not violate the personal privacy of any student or family and that includes only aggregate date;

b)the number of enrolled students disaggregated by eligibility; and

c)any other information or data that may be pertinent to promoting transparency and accountability of the ESA program.

and…

Requires, rather than allows, the Treasurer to contract with private financial management firms to manage ESAs and directs ADE to cooperate with the Treasurer and the contracted firm.

The collection of signatures against SB 1431 by the Save Our Schools group at minimum delayed the modernization of the program in the form of Prop. 305. If the yes vote prevails, SB 1431 will take effect, whereas if no prevails it’s back to the drawing board. The polls on this provision have been mixed, and at the time of this writing it seems the proposition could go either way. Regardless of what happens at the ballot, it remains abundantly clear that program administration must be modernized.

Just as a reminder, this is the same Arizona Department of Education which mis-allocated $85,000,000 in federal title I and IDEA funds, giving some schools too much while short-changing other schools. The “blame the legislature” trick also doesn’t work here as the positions that allocate funding are funded by Uncle Sam (like every other state) but one doesn’t read stories about Montana, Oregon or (fill in the blank here) managing to make a mess of these sorts of things.

Note that the response to this has never been nor should it be “If the Department can’t administer Title I we should just get rid of it!!!!” but I’m fairly confident that I could go on to twitter right now to find this argument being made with hypocritical gusto. In fact I fear I could find this double standard being applied by the very people who delayed the modernization of the program. It’s a neat trick to prevent the implementation of solutions while continuing to complain about the problems. Let’s see what happens next.

 

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American Families Rebel Against K-12 Standardization with their Pocketbooks

September 27, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Research from Sabrino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg tracks enrichment spending by family decile income. The above chart tracks trends in enrichment spending by the top and bottom deciles of income over time. As you can see, upper income families are enriching with increasing gusto, while lower-income families have flat enrichment expenditures.

Enrichment- coming in various forms such as tutors, club sports, Kumon, Mathnasium etc. has become increasingly ubiquitous among the posh. It seems entirely normal, but we should recognize the significance of this trend. In addition to the equity issue staring back at you in this chart, there is also something else worth noting in the data: upper-income America continues to put their children into public schools in high numbers but they are solely relying upon those schools less and less. It’s always been the case that all American families should know better than to entirely rely upon any school to provide the totality of the education of their child. Upper income families have the ability and increasing willingness to act. Jay refers to this trend as hybrid homeschooling. I think of it as a better American version of Japanese cram schools.

In places like Japan and South Korea university admission is highly selective and competitive, and families routinely send their children to what are called “cram schools” after their regular school to prepare for admission exams. Andrew Coulson made a convincing case in Market Education that these private after school programs were more responsible for Japan and Korea’s high PISA scores than their public school systems.

To which America says “I see your obsessive preoccupation with standardized test prep mania and raise you a hackerspace for kids!”

 

If that’s not your child’s cup of tea don’t worry because there are many other options. On the academic side you can get Advanced Placement coursework and textbooks for free, and take the AP exams for a shot at college credit for approximately $85 per course. That however is just academic stuff, albeit academic stuff that can earn you college credit at an amazingly low price- how about something fun like animation camp? Or museum programs? If you go to Cottageclass.com you can find all kinds of stuff- from art, music, wood shop to ethics classes.

The trend towards enrichment may in fact be in part fueled by the overreaching of standardization in public education. Jack Coons and Stephen Sugarman for instance noted in Education by Choice:

To the extent that schools of choice must conform to state imposed curriculum requirements, the principle of family control is compromised. Each centrally imposed curriculum prescription or prohibition tends to shrink the proportion of families that can be satisfied. If the state demands too much the effect will go beyond simply adding or eliminating certain courses; entire schools will be excluded. For example some preexisting private institutions would refuse to participate if sex education were required, others would refuse if it were forbidden. It seems sensible for us for the state to impose very few restrictions or mandates. In general schools should be free to please themselves and their customers.

Coons and Sugarman go on to say that in a choice system we should allow individual public school campuses to decide upon their curriculum as well. Such freedom is far more plausible in a liberal system of choice, and in the absence of that freedom local control was largely abandoned in a largely futile effort to improve outcomes through centralization. In many ways Coons and Sugarman arrived a place similar to John Stuart Mill, who had warned presciently:

All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

American families have deep misgivings about the conduct of public schooling, especially the modern practice of standardized testing. We should aspire to a schooling system that is a good deal more than providing test-prep custodial care for the advantaged before they move on to more genuine educational experiences after school. Likewise, the equity issue in the above chart deserves to be addressed but realistically must be addressed within a context of increasingly constrained resources. The trend towards top-down standardization in K-12 has predominated in recent decades and produced too little at too great a cost despite good intentions. It’s time for a more liberal approach that gives opportunities to educators to create schools and educational experiences, and families the opportunity to select among them. The last 40 years has gone mostly wrong, some bold states should see if Mills, Coons and Sugarman had it right.

 


Arizona Props 127 and 305: a fine pair of misfits

September 7, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fall has arrived in an even-numbered year, which means that in addition to football there are also elections. Here in the Cactus Patch our political conversation has been even more boisterous than usual. Back in 2016 an individual deep in the council of left-of-center Arizona politics told me that the plan was to make the 2018 election about K-12 education and to run David Garcia for Governor. Garcia did indeed win the Democratic Party’s nomination (the Arizona Education Association announced their endorsement for Garcia at a RedforED rally last spring) and K-12 does indeed look to be the major election issue, so mission accomplished on both fronts. Ballot propositions may however have a much larger impact on school funding than the officeholder races, but not in the way commonly supposed.

Hysteria reigns supreme in the K-12 discussion. A steady stream of reports from the ACLU, the Grand Canyon Institute and the Arizona Republic’s ongoing Two-Minute Hate series on charters and choice programs appear to have been coordinated with impressive precision. Each of these things deserve to be addressed on their own merits (or lack thereof-it’s a mixed bag on substance imo with a spectrum ranging from good points to shallow propaganda) but as far as multi-organizational timed to an electoral calendar efforts go:

In the midst of all this political mosh-pit I saw something that struck me the other day- a Twitter avatar that said “No on 305/Yes on 127.” These reference two ballot propositions on the November ballot-Proposition 127 would require the state to generate half of it’s energy from renewable sources by 2030, while Prop. 305 will ask voters to either confirm or reject the expansion of the ESA program that passed in 2017.

The No on 305/Yes on 127 combo struck me because it seems extremely likely that Prop. 127 would take more money out of Arizona district classrooms than 305, and by a very wide margin. I claim no expertise on energy policy, but I found the take of the Washington Post and of Peter Zeihan in the Accidental Superpower on the subject to be compelling. So first off, some good news:

Things are headed in the right direction and it is mostly because natural gas is cheap, cleaner and is replacing the use of coal in generating electricity.

The Washington Post, not of anthropomorphic climate change denial fame, rightly celebrated this trend. Noting that natural gas reduces emissions by half the Post editorial board noted:

True, half the emissions does not mean no emissions. But the United States does not have to eliminate its carbon footprint all at once, nor should it. Doing so would cost far too much. Instead, natural gas can play a big role in transitioning to cleaner energy cheaply.

When something is far too expensive for the Washington Post editorial board’s tastes, it is a good idea to pay close attention. Peter Zeihan also addressed this topic in the Accidental Superpower. He generally buys the notion of anthropomorphic climate change, but noted that the next generation of power generation plants were being built to use natural gas due to market forces, that this was considerably cleaner than coal burning, and that the life span of these new plants would be about 30 years. Sometime in the next 30 years Zeihan reckons that one or more of the many possibilities for alternative energy will pencil out in terms of economic viability-we just don’t know which one(s) yet.

Google around a bit and you will read about experiments in everything from artificial leaves to fuel producing microbes to crystal encased nuclear waste fueled batteries to clean coal fuels. Which of these-or something else- becomes economically viable is anyone’s guess, but it is not likely to happen on a deadline adopted by Arizona voters in 2018. How much sense does it make to make a massive investment in alternative energy technologies before any of them pencil out, especially when some of them eventually will?

So back to Arizona, Prop. 127 and education. The conversion from coal to natural gas is already happening in Arizona. This is good because right now the Texas oil fields are simply flaring off natural gas as a waste product until the pipeline infrastructure is built to collect and sell it. In fact you can see the flaring from outer space:

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that there was enough natural gas being flared off to power a small state-one million dollars worth per day. I volunteer Arizona to be that state rather just have them burn it off without generating any power and having us burn coal to generate our electricity. The transition from coal to natural gas has already begun in Arizona, and happily it is being driven by market forces rather than mandates.

Prop. 127 however will force the renewable issue and the companies that generate the state’s power have detailed the enormous costs to such a move. Consumer rates are estimated to double in price. Since the initiative does not define nuclear power as “renewable” so opponents claim Prop. 127 would necessitate the closure of the nation’s largest nuclear power plant which produces **ahem** zero carbon emissions and probably (I’m guessing) cost the GDP of a small country to build.

Given what would be a mad scramble to create renewable energy, one additionally suspects that it would damage the ongoing conversion of coal burning plants to natural gas. Converting coal burning plants to natural gas can be done but it takes time and money-but there is a payoff in the form of low natural gas prices-it pencils out, and is cleaner.  Natural gas capacity would not help meet the mandate so the time and effort to convert to natural gas seems very likely to be diverted on a snipe-hunt of utility scale alternative energy sources ready for prime-time.

Between the increased cost of electricity and the foregone taxes from plant closures, the Arizona Public Service Electric Company estimates a loss of $670,000,000 to Arizona education providers in their service area by 2030. The expensive rates would not stop in 2030. That’s a big hit to education budgets and is not a statewide figure, with APS serves only part of the state.

So let’s compare Prop. 127 to Prop. 305. The ESA expansion under voter consideration contains a cap on the total number of participants of 30,000. Arizona has about 1,200,000 students and often gains 30,000 kids annually. We’ve also learned in recent years that the number of district open enrollment students is approximately twice as high as charter school students, and charter school students outnumber private choice students ~3 to 1. So from the perspective of an individual district campus with enrollment loss, other district schools are the primary competition, charter schools a secondary source of competition, and private schools a distant third. Centrist Arizona Republic columnist Joanna Allhands pointed this out in a column shortly after the ESA expansion passed. Allhands is not a fan of the ESA program but she sees through boogy-man stories:

Arizona’s voucher-expansion bill isn’t going to ruin public education as we know it.

But first, before you start trolling me on Twitter:

Yes, public schools need more resources. Senate Bill 1431 does nothing to help them find it.

And no, I wouldn’t actually call this meaningful reform. It doesn’t address student achievement gaps or fund district, charter and private schools more equitably.

But it won’t be the death knell to your neighborhood district school. In fact, I’m not sure many will even notice a difference.

Allhands went on to posit that charter schools were already scratching much of the Arizona school choice scratch itch, and that there was no reason to expect a mad rush to private schools even with broadened ESA eligibility. She could have added by the way that while there are 4,500 ESA students statewide, Scottsdale Unified has 4,000 open enrollment students from out of district, and it is only one of Arizona’s 230 school districts. “Scottsdale is DRAINING MONEY from nearby school districts-we’ve got to STOP THIS!!!!” said no one, ever, oddly enough. The ESA expansion can serve as an important tool for families looking for the right-fit education for their child, but the program is nothing near the threat to school budgets as doubling their utility costs.

So my friends on the Arizona left are actively supporting a massive drain of funding out of Arizona classrooms (what you spend on air-conditioning cannot be spent on teacher salaries). Meanwhile they have also invested a large effort in putting another ballot measure up because in large part they fear that it will have a large impact on district finances but it won’t. Churchill told us that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other ones that have been tried. I remain hopeful that voters will exercise good sense in all of this, but…

 

 


Schooling is Starting to Catch Up to Coons and Sugarman (finally)

September 6, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at RedefinED Jack Coons reflects on the 40th anniversary of the publication of the book Education by Choice with his coauthor Stephen Sugarman.  Dr. Coons in some ways too modest, saying that he and his co-author “did not anticipate” Education Savings Accounts, but in effect I believe that they did. Coons and Sugarman envisioned parents, including low-income parents, having the power to create “personally tailored education” for their children, using “divisible educational experiences.” This sounds very close to education savings accounts/multi-provider education to my ears:

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

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

If you would like to see how parents are already doing this with their own money- see here. If you want an overview of how it is being done in the context of an ESA program-see here. If you would like to see ESAs in action, see here:

Multi-vendor education has been growing in different forms for decades-with families enrolling in after-school/summer programs of various sorts on one end of the spectrum to full blown homeschooling with multiple service providers on the other. Coons and Sugarman were way ahead of their time, and this is just getting started.


The Way of the Future: Self-Reliance (with equity?)

August 1, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In a previous post I basically made the case that a majority of American states failed to show much academic progress between 2003 and 2017 and that the nation’s fiscal problems are closing in fast. While state constitutions guarantee K-12 funding, making it about as close to a permanent institution as you get in American life, the looming crunch in state budgets between K-12 and Medicaid/Pension shortfalls does not look to be pretty. For instance, consider these projections from the Texas Comptroller’s Office:

I won’t bother to dig up the likely increased size of the Texas K-12 population that they will be attempting to educate with a smaller percentage of the budget, but you get the point: austerity is a safe assumption, and there aren’t any other states that would sit as the world’s third largest oil producer if ranked as an independent country. Things may be generally bigger in Texas, but the problems may be even bigger elsewhere, making austerity a safe bet. Austerity isn’t necessarily bad for student outcomes but the same can’t be said for politics:

Nevertheless, state funding austerity seems very likely. So where does this leave the future? Jay used the phrase “hybrid homeschooling” years ago to describe practices by upper-income families to supplement the educate of their children. These parents enroll their children in schools, but then pay out of pocket for a variety of tutors, Mathnasium, Kumon, club sports and various other educational/cultural enrichment activities. The United States certainly does not have the after-school-school culture of East Asia, but the well to do have been using a multi-provider approach to education for a long time, and in fact it is ubiquitous to the point of seeming unremarkable.

Then let’s revisit the 2015 article from Wired documenting the rise of home-schooling in Silicon Valley Money quote:

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Check out Cottageclass.com. Cottage class will help you find anything from a summer camp to a nanny-share to a private tutor or a micro-school. It’s well worth some of your time to click on various options. I’ve heard it described as Airbnb for education, and it is fascinating. Crucially, it includes user reviews to help parents navigate what is a growing universe of options. If all of this sounds reminiscent of ESAs, it is only because it is. For instance, Adam Peshek wrote in a Fordham Wonkathon:

An ESA doesn’t require committee hearings to decide where funds should be sent. It doesn’t require a school board meeting to vote on whether or not to cut the music program. Feel like your child isn’t exposed to enough music education? Pay for it. Little Stevie is falling behind in math? Get a tutor. If you’re in high school, use an ESA to pay for Advanced Placement courses to get a leg up in college, or use it to earn an industry certification so that you can graduate high school with an employable skill. An education savings account allows personalized learning to move from catch-word to reality.

That’s why we cannot implement these programs with the mindset of standardization. The ESA program needs to be seen as an innovative way to bring new options to K–12 parents—one designed to allow parents to maximize each child’s unique learning abilities by offering the educational path that suits them best.

Increasing numbers of families seem to be taking the a la carte approach, and like the Silicon Valley feature, they are doing it with their own money.

North Carolina for instance is an interesting place to keep an eye on. North Carolina has adopted both large charter and private choice programs, but thus far they can’t keep up. North Carolina keeps statistics on homeschooling, and it is interesting that other choice options can’t keep up with it. In 2007 there were 71,566 home-schooling students. In 2017-18, the figure was 135,749. This increase came despite the state taking a cap off of charter schools in 2010, and a doubling of charter enrollment. North Carolina lawmakers also created a statewide voucher program and (very recently) an ESA program for special needs students in the intervening years, but homeschooling is more prevalent than either charter or private school attendance in the state. Charters and private choice programs are growing, but they alone are not scratching the itch. District enrollment meanwhile has been flat for years despite rapid population growth.

The most interesting space these days lies within the space between a home-school co-op and a micro-school private school. The rumblings about the demand for micro-schools grow increasingly audible. Justin Cohen quoted Andy Calkins of the Next Generation Learning Challenges:

“It wouldn’t surprise me if, 5 to 10 years from now, everyone looks at this and thinks, ‘That grew a whole lot faster than I thought it could,’” he said. “There is a slice of the market that is not being served by public education. They’re saying, ‘The public schools don’t work, [and] I can’t get into the charter schools.’”

Predictions are tough, especially when they are about the future. The last decade and a half has broadly disappointed in improving public school outcomes, and the next decade and a half looks tougher rather than easier. A broad trend towards self-reliance and multiple service providers rather than one stop shopping in K-12 is already underway. Parents are not waiting on policy innovation, but policy innovation will be necessary to address equity concerns. Micro-schools often cost less than traditional private schools, and offer more options, but they do cost money.

States like North Carolina, with a statewide voucher program for low-income students and two different private choice programs to help students with disabilities, are ahead of the curve on the equity front. Florida likewise has a tax-credit program for low-income children and two programs for children with disabilities. States with these policy mixes create the possibility of economically integrated private schools options. States without them, not so much.

Let’s see what happens next.

 

 


Education Reform 2003 to 2017: Modest Success/Epic Failure so What’s Next?

July 23, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Having had some time to reflect upon the 2017 NAEP, let’s take stock of things. In this we should keep in mind our broad ignorance between policy changes and state NAEP trends- and the same goes for average school quality. NAEP gives regular 4th and 8th grade scores in math and reading, and all 50 states have participated since 2003. 8th grade scores are more likely to reflect school quality than 4th grade scores in my opinion, as the students have more years of schooling. I’m not sure what to make of positive 4th grade score trends that do not result in higher 8th grade scores for instance. So this in essence a window into what we have to show for American K-12 reform 2003 to 2017 in 8th grade math and reading by state:

So what to make of the above chart? The below chart eliminates a lot of clutter by only including the states with statistically significant gains in both math and reading 2003-2017:

 

So 19 out of 50 states demonstrate statistically significant gains in both 8th grade math and reading. Notice also the absence in the second chart of mega-states Illinois, New York and Texas (although it is good to see California and Florida making it in). Texas has as many K-12 students as the 20 smallest states combined and annually adds approximately a Wyoming public school system sized number of new students. Florida has half as many students as Texas and California is still larger than Texas.

Since we don’t know the relationship between policy and academic trends, we are limited in the conclusions we can draw with confidence. Having said that, policies that have been broadly applied across all 50 states apparently suffer from severe limitations in their ability to move the needle academically. All 50 states for instance have adopted state academic standards and accountability exams, but most states have failed to move the needle on 8th grade scores. Even if we were feeling incredibly generous and made the wild assumption that none of the second chart gains would have happened in the absence of testing, a failure rate of 62% after 14 years is a far cry from leaving no child behind.

Mike Petrilli and Peter Cunningham recently offered up “where do we go from here” think pieces. I think Mike has some interesting ideas, but Peter’s call for a vast increase in spending is broadly unrealistic imo given the nation’s trillions of dollars in unfunded pension and entitlement liabilities, 10k Baby Boomers per day reaching the age of 65, etc. In normal times, Mike’s incremental adjustments might make a lot of sense, but we don’t live in either normal times, or in times that are going to allow some Great Society on Steroids increase in K-12 spending.

A much more difficult scenario may loom whereby the district system continues to resist reform, reformers continue to push reforms the public does not care for, and severe funding needs for increased health care spending leads to a broad reduction in per pupil spending.  State constitutions guarantee K-12 funding, but whether or not they will be creating schools that the vast majority of parents will continue to entrust with their children, I don’t feel as confident about. There are hopeful signs in the NAEP from state charter sectors:

…but the rate of charter growth has slowed substantially nationwide. Of particular disappointment are the last several state charter laws to pass that produce very few charter schools. Even states with relatively fast growing sectors have large wait lists. There are alas limits to what we can realistically hope for from a charter movement that has to a large degree lost its way by prioritizing cartel behavior over the interests of children on wait lists imo.

The private choice movement enjoyed a strong run earlier in the decade, but has since ran into political headwinds. Many private choice programs exist, but most remain modest in scale. The case for private choice remains as strong as ever, and the need will continue to grow, but the looming state funding crisis is coming fast. In four years, half of the Baby Boom generation will have reached the age of 65, and by 2030 all of them will be there. They have called dibs in advance on all plausible funding increases and a whole lot more.

So what is next? An increasingly likely scenario in my mind is that state district systems retain their flaws but loses a significant part of their funding and that choice systems continue to fail to meet existing much less expanded demand. In such a scenario an increasing percentage of families may decide to fend for themselves. Call them home-schools, home-school co-ops or micro-schools, my spidey-sense tells me that we should expect to see a great many more of them in the years ahead. I’ll write more about this in a follow-up post.


The Two-Minute Hate or Race to the Tap?

May 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Oceania of Orwell’s 1984 made use of a daily “two-minute hate” to whip people into a frenzy against enemies of the state. As wikipedia explains:

Within the book, the purpose of the Two Minutes Hate is said to satisfy the citizens’ subdued feelings of angst and hatred from leading such a wretched, controlled existence. By re-directing these subconscious feelings away from the Oceanian government and toward external enemies (which may not even exist), the Party minimizes subversive thought and behaviour.

So about now you are wondering to yourself “why are you flashing me back to junior year English class?” Good question- I guess it came to mind because of things like this and this.

Jonathan Haidt describes the mind as an elephant (instinct) and a rider that serves the elephant (reason). The rider serves the elephant by seeking out information that confirms pre-existing beliefs, and avoids contradictory information. Individuals are thus not trustworthy in reasoning in support of their beliefs, but are pretty good at knocking down the theories of others. If however you find yourself isolated in an ideologically homogeneous tribe no one is likely to point out glaring flaws in your thinking as they either cannot or don’t want to see them any more than you do.

The problems with the above pieces seem entirely obvious to me, but apparently were invisible to the Republic. I knew this article was heading in a bad direction when I saw a former campaign manager for David Garcia described as “former BASIS parent.” Both of these descriptions are true…but one is incomplete without the other. The reporter’s effort in establishing whether the CMO management fee was reasonable given the services provided more or less ended with an assurance from a professional charter skeptic that it wasn’t. Well, can’t much argue with that…

Now for the record I don’t know the percentage of K-12 funds typically spent on the services provided by the BASIS CMO either. Given the outputs BASIS produces, I’ll confess to being broadly indifferent as to whether districts spend more or less. The Reporter’s elephant wanted to believe it was high, and sure enough he found someone to make this claim. Neither of them produced any evidence, or a rationale as to why we should care.

The two-minute hate moves into throw your shoe territory when our intrepid reporter reveals that the founders of the CMO put down a down payment on a condo in New York City…which is near private schools they operate…which charge approximately four times the amount provided by Arizona taxpayers to provide the same education that Arizona children receive free of charge. In an organization including charter schools in Arizona, Texas and D.C. and private schools in China, Silicon Valley and NYC that the highest ROI part of the operation would be in the modestly funded but very high performing AZ charter schools. The Republic reporter’s elephant lumbered off in the opposite direction however, with his rider helping to raise a vague concern that somehow Arizona taxpayers were being short-changed er somehow. In other pieces we see assertions that BASIS gets more funding per pupil than district schools in Arizona. A quick trip to the JLBC however reveals this to be false- charter schools get less total public funding per pupil than district schools in Arizona.

It is also common to see an organization critical of charter schools, the Grand Canyon Institute, described as “non-partisan” in the pages of the Republic. Having spent a few minutes on their website, I could detect no overt attachment to any political party, but the philosophical leanings of the group are entirely obvious (left of center).

I spent a number of years at the Goldwater Institute, and we spent years in public disputes and filed lawsuits challenging both Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the memory fades, but I don’t recall the Republic referring to GI as “non-partisan.” When the GCI put out a report critical of charters, one of the paper’s columnists wrote that GCI “supports charter schools.” Things had just become soooo bad that they had no choice but to offer sharp but constructive criticism you see. GCI is run by a former official of the Janet Napolitano administration, and when I asked one of his former Napolitano colleagues about this assertion the reaction I received was “That’s absurd. George has always hated charter schools.” Again I assume that someone from GCI claimed to support charter schools, and it fit into what the columnist wanted to believe, but it isn’t terrible hard to check up on such things.

Now to be fair, the Republic does have some ideological diversity on the opinion page, which is approximately evenly split between a hard-left wing and an assortment of writers varying degrees to the right of Bernie Sanders. Center-right columnist Bob Robb has supported increased K-12 funding for years, but is an equal opportunity offender taking everyone from RedforEd to Governor Ducey to task. Centrist Joanna Allhands very helpfully noted for instance that er, guys, all schools raise money from parents, not just BASIS.

It’s not like the non-Bernie columnists challenge everything questionable put out by Team Bernie. If they did, they wouldn’t have much time to do anything else. The worst of it is that the news page seems be serving the elephant of the Bernie wing of the opinion pages: investigative pieces translate effortlessly into two-minute hate type opinion pieces.

For instance, when the Republic published a giant nothing-burger of a front page above the Sunday fold story about FOIAed emails between the Goldwater Institute and the Arizona Department of Education concerning the administration of the ESA program. Now if any of these emails were any more exciting than Jonathan Butcher writing to the Department to say “Guys there are ESA parents out here who haven’t had their accounts funded on time and they are getting very upset about it” I assume the Republic would have shared them with us. Gleefully. Instead, the Reporter’s elephant went in search of someone who would confirm that there was something very naughty going on:

“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.

“This sounds like a full-service operation; it wasn’t just writing the legislation,” he added. “You have elected officials, who are supposed to be repositories of the public’s trust, who are pushing legislation and probably building careers off of big, high-profile bills that have some potentially extremely far-reaching effects.

I won’t rehash the glaring flaws in this story here, but will ask a very basic question: if the Goldwater Institute had an “iron grip” on the administration of the program, isn’t it reasonable to think that accounts would be funded on time, proper records kept, etc?

Team Bernie on the opinion pages lapped it up. Worse still, when the Goldwater Institute asked to publish a response, the Republic chose not to publish it.  This sort of thing has led to a large number of right of center Arizonans to angrily mutter about how they cancelled their subscriptions years ago, that the Republic is hopelessly biased, they only hung on for as long as they did to read Robb, etc.

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were willing to join this line of thinking. I believe that keeping some common institutions to be of unspeakable importance. Checking out to entomb oneself in a comfortable echo chamber is a path to hopeless polarization. A few years ago the Arizona Chamber of Commerce began a “Race to the Tap” event with the hope of getting people from different K-12 silos at least occasionally talking to each other.

I’m pretty sure that Geoff Esposito pictured here with yours-truly makes Laurie Roberts look like a second coming of Barry Goldwater. I’m fairly confident that Geoff helped to draft the catastrophic mistake of a soak the rich tax initiative the Invest in Ed ballot initiative that would raise Arizona incomes taxes to New Jersey levels. Geoff and I don’t agree on much related to K-12, but we do listen to each other, which is an art that Americans are losing much to our detriment. Arizona could use a good deal more tap and less two-minute hates.