The Hour is Later than Osborne Thinks

January 22, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at RedefinED I make the case that David Osborne’s fears of universal education savings accounts have in fact already come to pass with universal public schooling. Osborne opposes universal ESAs because he fears that wealthy families would top-off, well, guess what has been going on since the early 1970s:

The age of multi-vendor education dawned for upper income families decades ago. John Stuart Mill made a respectable case that government should restrict education activity to providing subsidies for the poor, but the justice and political viability of such a system seems deeply suspect given that no one has ever been told they can’t attend a education institution because their parents paid too many taxes. The best solution imo is to provide broad access with a significantly higher level of subsidy, but consider this your invitation to read the piece and reveal the flaws in thinking in the below comments section.

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Educational Opportunity and the Widow’s Mite

January 2, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at Chamber Business News today I discuss the above map from the indespensible Garrett Archer showing that areas with large Native American populations alone voted yes on Proposition 305 (marked green). They did so despite the fact that they were already included in the ESA population and despite the fact that a credible case could be made that it was not in their own selfish interest to vote yes. There is a lesson for the rest of us in all of this.

Native Americans were not voting their self-interest in supporting ESA expansion. They were already included in ESA eligibility. Because “No” prevailed, the ESA program reverted to the pre-expansion program, an annual cap on the number of new participants cycles off in 2019. If “Yes” had prevailed an overall cap would have come into effect, and this could have limited Native American participation absent further action. Every tribal community residing student is eligible to participate in the ESA. Nevertheless, it was they that voted “Yes” to expand eligibility- why?

We can’t be sure, but perhaps these communities are better acquainted with the desperation that parents feel when their child is failing to flourish in a school. Perhaps it is more obvious from the tribal community areas that while open enrollment and charter schools are good things, they aren’t a solution for everyone. We parents in Maricopa County have a vast array of district, charter, magnet and private school options. We may have made the mistake of taking choice for granted. It may be the case that other communities have a better grounding in just how vital and precious a thing it is for families to have a chance to find a school that fits their child’s needs and aspirations.

Many of us are very fortunate with regards to the education of our children. We carefully purchase our homes with an eye to attendance boundaries. We use open enrollment, we consider magnet schools, and/or enroll our children in charter schools. Those of us fortunate enough to live in this world would do well to remember that the communities with the fewest of these opportunities voted to expand opportunity further at some risk to themselves.

A Navajo proverb holds “Always assume your guest is tired, cold and hungry, and act accordingly.” Like the widow and her mite, Arizona’s Native American communities offered what little that they had and revealed once again the great nobility of their spirit. This is an example to which all Arizonans should aspire. We should not hoard opportunity, even if it superficially seems to our own advantage to do so. Rather we should provide opportunity to everyone.


Miscellaneous post holiday links

November 26, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Paul Peterson interviews Justice Clint Bolick on the 2018 elections and school choice,Brett Kavanaugh and other topics. Quick note on the AZ Prop 305 vote: we have something called Voter Protection in Arizona, which means that the legislature has a severely limited ability to alter something passed at the ballot. As Clint explained, it was the ESA eligibility expansion rather than the program that was on the ballot in November. Because the expansion contained a statewide cap (30k students statewide) many pro-choice groups chose not to engage in support of the expansion as it would have voter protected a cap that would have been practically impossible to alter. We had wildly conflicting polls up until the end but Arizona voters decisively chose not to expand eligibility, which means that the program continues with the current eligibility pool (Students with Disabilities, foster care children, children attending D/F rated public schools, military dependents and orphans and siblings of eligible students) and (given this result) no participation cap starting in 2019, but with the more limited eligibilty pool described earlier. Efforts now should focus on improving the administration of the program.

Yours truly teamed up with David Lujan, former state lawmakers and Director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress in support of ASU Prep charter school., a high performing charter in downtown Phoenix threatened by a demand for a large increase in rent from the Phoenix Elementary School District. In combination the district and charter schools of the area scored at the 99th percentile of academic growth, which as both righties and lefties like Mr. Lujan and I both agree is something well worth preserving, so hopefully the grownups work something out.

Lots of interesting discussion going on about standardized testing. I remain in favor of lighter footprint testing but man oh man we’d better be coming up with ways to lower the perceived costs and increase the perceived benefits.

 

 


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.

 


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.