Arizona Republic: Wet Streets Cause Rain

May 2, 2019

Image result for wet streets

The Republic’s crack team of reporters have determined that the above streets caused a major rainstorm.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Brother Matt’s takedown of the Arizona Republic’s absurdly erroneous and biased reporting reminds me of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, a concept identified by author Michael Crichton:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

The Republic had its own “wet streets cause rain” moment recently when it claimed that Arizona copied its education savings account (ESA) legislation from model legislation at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In fact, as Ladner points out, the reverse is true: ALEC’s model legislation was based on Arizona’s law.

Indeed, as Ladner details, the Republic’s “reporting” on “copycat legislation” suffered from several other flaws, including but not limited to the following:

  • The Republic portrayed the use of model legislation as unusual and nefarious when actually it’s commonplace and banal, a tool used across the political spectrum since the late 1800s.
  • The Republic portrayed the use of model legislation as a particularly right-wing plot but excluded all the model legislation from the older and larger left-of-center National Conference of State Legislatures.
  • The Republic hid the fact that only 1% of the bills they analyzed were based on model legislation.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Republic’s “reporting” is that it wasn’t really reporting. Had they any real interest in ascertaining the truth, there are any number of individuals and organizations in Arizona that could have provided them with accurate information had they asked. But they didn’t.

Indeed, their “Gaggle” podcast did not interview anyone from the pro-school choice side. They repeatedly used inferences to determine their “real” motives instead of just, well, asking.

Sadly, this is a part of a longstanding pattern. When the Goldwater Institute’s Matt Beienburg detected some serious flaws in the Republic’s award-winning “reporting” on charter schools, he brought it to their attention but they ignored him. He then wrote about it publicly and one of their most vociferous anti-choice advocates, Craig Harris, personally attacked him rather than engage in any substantive defense of their advocacy piece “reporting”:

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As I noted to Harris, if you add two green apples plus two red apples plus two oranges and get six apples, the math is right but the answer is wrong. Beienburg wanted to know if the Republic had inappropriately included certain schools in its data set when calculating graduation rates (e.g., a school that only serves students through grade 9, or another school that had been closed for two years), but Harris merely insulted him, claimed his math was wrong (without offering any proof) and then stonewalled any public debate.

For weeks afterward, Harris simply ignored any public questions about their reporting — though I know that privately, his team has admitted that they had done exactly what Beienburg had suspected. However, they have still refused to publicly correct their error, demonstrating a complete lack of intellectual honesty or journalistic integrity.

The Republic’s Gaggle podcasters also let their journalistic mask slip with numerous biased statements posing as neutral facts. For example, they claimed that Arizona lawmakers filed at least three ESA “expansions” that all “clearly went against the will of the voters” who rejected Prop 305. First, only one of those bills (making ESAs available to victims of bullying or abuse) was a clear expansion. The others were mere clarifications of existing eligibility categories that would have had a tiny effect on ESA enrollment. For example, students with disabilities are eligible for an ESA if they are entering kindergarten, but the Arizona Department of Education denied children who were age 6 (reading the law the allow only 5 year olds) so the legislation clarified that incoming kindergarteners could also be age 6. To call that an “expansion” is ludicrous, but the anti-ESA group Save Our Schools declared it such and advocates posing at journalists at the Arizona Republic and elsewhere took their side.

Moreover, it’s not at all clear what the “will of the voters” was. They rejected Prop 305, which expanded ESA eligibility to all students but also imposed a cap of about 30,000 ESA students. Some pro-school choice groups that support ESAs, like the American Federation for Children, opposed Prop 305 because it would effectively set the 30,000-student cap in legislative stone (requiring a supermajority to change it due to the Voter Protection Act). Is it the “will of the voters” that they want a universal ESA without a cap? And even if the majority of “No” votes opposed universal expansion, that does not at all imply that the majority of voters oppose, say, expanding ESAs to victims of bullying. To pretend that we can know the true “will of the voters” is sophistry at best. To make such claims as a supposedly neutral journalist is laughably absurd.

It’s time to stop treating the Republic as a neutral journalistic institution. They are openly advocating for one side, and they aren’t even letting the truth get in the way of their agenda. Let’s not let media amnesia make us forget it.


WV teachers strike to prevent choice to students with disabilities

February 27, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So yes that just happened. Florida students with disabilities got the option to attend private schools at public expense without needing to sue their school district in 1999, with the program going statewide in 2001. Usual caveats apply about always having multiple factors going on etc. but I thought I’d just whip this up and leave it here for you dear reader. Right about this same time the ABC News brought us this story about WV special education:

I know special education teachers in West Virginia and elsewhere are doing a very difficult job and I’d be willing to wager that this sort of behavior is rare. However, the kids who are experiencing this sort of treatment and/or are not being served academically, could use options. The newscaster concludes “hard to hear but hopefully change comes from this.”

Indeed.


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.


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.