Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.

The Mythbusting Never Ends

January 12, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest under the somewhat discouraging title “Ed Choice Mythbusting Never Ends.” At least I’ll never be out of a job:

The funniest thing in the article is where McCloud mocks the emergence of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and then complains about precisely the problem ESAs solve. After making fun of the choice movement for switching from vouchers to ESAs—because apparently it’s a bad sign if you’re willing to move from a good idea to a better one—McCloud asserts that “vouchers would inflate the cost of private education.”

Indeed, vouchers do inadvertently raise private school tuition. That is one reason the movement is switching from vouchers to ESAs, which allow parents to buy education services without creating an artificial tuition floor for schools. It’s also true that even ESAs raise economic demand for education services in general—but that’s just another way of saying they empower parents to pay for those services!

McCloud’s article provides a public service in one respect: It collects almost all the school choice myths in one place. Maybe I don’t mind so much if the defenders of the status quo make my job easy after all.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated!

The Blob’s Shameless Self-Interest

July 11, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The education blob has never been shy about demanding that we hand them money, with little to justify their demands beyond sheer bullying self-assertion. But this year has seen an especially outrageous spate of self-dealing activism in Oklahoma, as I write in my latest article for OCPA:

Perhaps there’s a rational case that Oklahoma should spend more on schools. If so, I haven’t run across it going through pages and pages of the blob’s invective. Their argument boils down to “we spend X amount and it’s too little! We need to spend more more more!”

A press corps with any self-respect or sense of professional responsibility would ask the blob questions like these: Why have previous increases in school budgets and teacher salaries failed to produce educational improvements? Why shouldn’t the new spending you demand be targeted to more specific, publicly identified needs instead of being allocated indiscriminately? How much spending—give us a dollar amount—would be enough to make you say spending is sufficient and any problems that persist are the responsibility of the schools?

Come for the fake Tocqueville quote; stay for the philosophical analysis of the role of self-interest in the American political order!

Like them, we need to be realistic about self-interest, but not cynical. Human nature is powerfully affected by self-interest, as the embarrassing spectacle of the Oklahoma blob shows. We need not be revolutionaries and try to make a brave new world where no such selfishness occurs; as Madison and Tocqueville both warned us, such utopianism is the quickest road to a pure dictatorship of the selfish. But democracy is nonetheless threatened by unrestrained selfishness, for the majority can in fact vote itself largesse.

As always, your comments – whether self-interested or not – are very welcome!

Time Vault Tuesday- Six-year checkups on 2010 Predictions

May 31, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Western Free Press unearthed an Arizona Horizon video from 2010. I was at the Goldwater Institute at the time, and we had Governor Jeb Bush and Foundation for Excellence in Education President Patricia Levesque out to the cactus patch to discuss Florida reforms in Arizona. The Arizona legislature went on to enact two of the key Florida measures-school grading and literacy based promotion, during that legislative session. The video makes for a great time vault to explore predictions at the time.  Notice that the discussion in the video between myself and John Wright, the then-President of the Arizona Education Association, mirrors the later orbit of Mercury discussion– I predicted that we could make academic progress despite our economic difficulties, Wright predicted failure and doom without more money.

Here is a key prediction from Patricia:

If Arizona does some of the policies that are floating through the legislative process right now, you won’t see immediate results. I will take time, it takes determination, it takes a comprehensive set of policies that makes sure that the focus is on student learning, but Arizona could be where Florida is in a decade.

So let’s check the tape, or rather, check the NAEP. Mind you, there are many ingredients in the complex Arizona K-12 gumbo, so I would not wish to claim a simple causal relationship between these policies and outcomes.  Nevertheless the general drift of Arizona policy has been towards greater levels of parental choice and improved academic transparency, which are things our tribe supports. This recording was made in 2010, which means the reference point at the time would have been the 2009 NAEP. Has Arizona made progress towards getting to where Florida was in 2009? It’s six years later, so Arizona has some sand left in the hour-glass, but have we made progress?

Answer- yes Arizona in fact is ahead of schedule overall.

On all four NAEP exams, Arizona has either substantially closed the gap on where Florida stood in 2009 or else (in the case of 8th grade math) already exceeded where Florida stood at the time. The largest gap remains in 4th grade reading. In 2009 a sixteen point gap yawned between Florida and Arizona. In 2015 Arizona’s scores were 11 points behind where Florida’s stood in 2009.  The gaps on the other three exams however have been substantially narrowed. On the 8th grade side, Arizona basically entirely closed the gap with their 2015 scores and where Florida stood in 2009.

Here’s another prediction, made by yours-truly when asked about increasing spending.

Right now we face a gigantic structural budget deficit and I think that whether the sales tax proposal passes or not the truth is that there is not going to be any money for any increases in public school spending any time soon. In fact there is likely to be cuts. Having said that, I think that it is absolutely still possible for us to make progress, to get better bang for the buck the way Florida has whether that new money materializes or not.

John meanwhile generally expressed skepticism regarding the Florida reforms, and described funding cuts as “pulling the rug out from under” teachers. So how does this look, six years on?

NAEP Math Cohort gain 2015

The video was from 2010, and little could we have known that Arizona students were poised to lead the nation in 4th to 8th grade NAEP gains between the 2011 4th grade NAEP and the 2015 8th grade NAEP.  The predicted funding cuts did in fact come to pass, which was very unpleasant for those running our schools, but meanwhile our students showed the rest of the country how it is done on gains. Time to CeleNAEP!


Arizona Post-Prop 123

May 20, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill and I hit NPR to discuss the Arizona school finance landscape post Prop. 123.

Sweet Reason Prevails in Arizona

May 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona voters have passed Proposition 123, wisely (if narrowly) settling a lawsuit over education funding in the process.

This will be a week long-remembered! It has seen the end of the Texas Supreme Court being used as a sock puppet and the end of a Nevada lawsuit that attempted to use KKK inspired constitutional provisions to keep kids trapped in an overcrowded and under-performing school system. It has now seen the end to a distracting lawsuit that if left to fester would have threatened Arizona’s nation-leading pace of academic improvement. We have put an end to this destructive conflict and brought order to the cactus patch!


Ok all kidding aside this was the best possible outcome- it has been a rough decade for Arizona schools since the Great Recession drop kicked our economy and I for one am happy to see our schools get some additional resources without raising taxes in what is still a less than robust recovery. Congrats to the lawmakers, school advocacy groups, business community and especially to Governor Ducey for providing the leadership to make it happen.

Texas Supreme Court Makes Room for School Finance Democracy, will Arizona Democracy (narrowly) embrace reason?

May 18, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In 2013, I was discussing a reform agenda (non-choice related) with a seasoned observer and participant in Texas education politics.  I asked this individual whether he was taking steps to advance this reform in the then ongoing legislative session. He responded “no this is a lawsuit year.” My puzzled look must have spurred him to elaborate, whereupon he told me:

Let me explain to you how the districts use the courts to manage the Texas legislature. The districts do everything they can to block reform, and then they file a lawsuit. The lawsuit takes years to wind through the Texas court system, making a ready made excuse against reform.  The lawsuit eventually gets a final ruling and they go back to blocking reform and preparing for the next lawsuit.

This is a lawsuit year.

I recall distinctly “I wish I could have learned this six months ago rather having than my brains beat out in Austin.”

Well in the latest round of this cycle of Texas school finance litigation, the Texas Supreme Court finally decided to stop being the school establishment’s puppet, making some space for the whole “democracy” thing to play out.  Much better late than never imo.

Speaking of school finance lawsuits, out here in AZ the voters took to the polls yesterday to vote on a settlement of such a suit. Back in 2000 Arizona voters enacted an inflation based spending increase for schools. During the first year of the Great Recession the state’s general revenue dived 20% in a single year and lawmakers began digging up money from the couch rather than stop payments to hospitals or close state prisons.  During the boom years lawmakers had increased funding above and beyond inflation, and an arcane dispute broke out over whether than above and beyond spending counted against the voter mandate or not, and the school groups filed a lawsuit.

The Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Education Association agreed to settle the suit in part by increasing the payout from the State Land Trust from 2.5% to 6.9% per year for 10 years.  The trust is funded by sales of state land, and has grown to a multi-billion dollar fund not because the state sells much land, but rather because you can fall out of bed and beat such a low payout rate over time. Federal law requires private charities to pay out 5% per year and you may have noticed that most of them are functionally immortal. There is nothing either sacred or even reasonable about a 2.5% payout.

Some have worried about a “fiscal cliff” in 10 years, but this seems to have a fairly simple solution to me- sell a bit more state land (the state retains an estimated $70 billion worth while the Land Trust is worth less than $6 billion) and permanently put the payout at 5% to match private charities a decade hence.  In addition to state land, Arizona has a ton of open space in the form of national parks, federal land, tribal lands, state parks etc. so the great outdoors is not in any danger.

Well the election was held last night and it is a cliffhanger with the Yes holding a slight lead.  The Arizona Republic’s Bob Robb has been at pains to explain the incoherence of the arguments made against the settlement but there is no need to let mere reason get in the way in a year like 2016.  There are different flavors of opposition, but my personal favorite are the armchair strategists who believe they have a keener grasp on the risks of continuing the lawsuit than those who brought the suit. Ah well <<Insert Churchill quote about democracy about here>>

We should have a final result by Friday- stay tuned.