Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017

Little-sprouts_-Grow-bean-sprouts-in-your-back-garden

(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

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(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

SHUT UP AND GIVE ME MONEY

(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.


The Importance of Being < Earnest

May 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

HT to Jon Gabriel for alerting us to an interview on Morning Joe in which Josh Earnest addressed President Obama’s hand-wringing over the non-existent crisis of kids going to private schools. See the video here. Joe basically asks Earnest why the President would be critical of people for sending their kids to private schools when, er, he is a private school graduate and sends his daughters to private schools.

EARNEST: His point is that even if you send your kids to private school, we all have an interest in making sure we have good high quality public schools available to everybody. It’s not that far from the White House that we do have some of the best public schools in the country over in Fairfax County, Virginia.

That is an example. That is also a more wealthy than average county in the country. That is an example of a society of a community that has invested in a common good for the benefit of their community and that’s the kind of thing that we need to see all across the country. Whether that is something as simple as investing in our national parks or local parks or public schools or making sure that every single American has access to quality health insurance.

Ok, so if I am following Earnest here, the President supports public funding for K-12 along with 99% of the rest of us. I have not noticed any movement out to exempt people who send their kids to private schools from paying state and local taxes for the rest of their lives. Did Guam pass a law like that while I wasn’t looking, with it poised to spread across the country like wildfire? Did I miss that somehow?

Schools can’t run without money. It however strikes me as incredible to suggest, as the President did, that the magic high-impact dollars would be on the way to save poor children if only we could overcome our “cynicism” inspired by decades of increased spending with precious little to show for it nefarious right-wingers.

People have honest and deeply felt disagreements about how much we should be spending on public education. If you want to champion the interest of poor children in the K-12 system, you must be willing to ruthlessly pursue efforts to extract the maximum possible amount of value from each dollar invested. Bill Clinton was fond of a certain Einstein quote about the definition of insanity, and it certainly applies here.

Don’t worry my skeptical friend, the dollars in your pocket are magic fireproof dollars- test it out!

 

 


President Obama is Entitled to His Own Opinion but Not His Own Facts on Poverty and Education

May 13, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

It is a shame that the only thing that seemed to draw headlines from a recent panel discussion on poverty including President Obama was a silly throw away line about Fox News. The entire discussion, which included Robert Putnam and AEI’s Arthur Brooks deeply deserves your time. The event transcript can be found here.

Go read it. Like now. All four participants had very interesting things to say, far more than can be reflected upon in a blog post.

So this quote from President Obama got my attention:

Now, part of what’s happened is that — and this is where Arthur and I would probably have some disagreements.  We don’t dispute that the free market is the greatest producer of wealth in history — it has lifted billions of people out of poverty.  We believe in property rights, rule of law, so forth.  But there has always been trends in the market in which concentrations of wealth can lead to some being left behind.  And what’s happened in our economy is that those who are doing better and better — more skilled, more educated, luckier, having greater advantages
— are withdrawing from sort of the commons — kids start going to private schools; kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks.  An anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together.  And that, in part, contributes to the fact that there’s less opportunity for our kids, all of our kids.

Now, that’s not inevitable.  A free market is perfectly compatible with also us making investment in good public schools, public universities; investments in public parks; investments in a whole bunch — public infrastructure that grows our economy and spreads it around.  But that’s, in part, what’s been under attack for the last 30 years.  And so, in some ways, rather than soften the edges of the market, we’ve turbocharged it.  And we have not been willing, I think, to make some of those common investments so that everybody can play a part in getting opportunity.

This is an interesting quote on multiple levels- the first of which being that it has factual assertions that are demonstrably false. Let’s start with the strongly implied notion that we have disinvested from public schools. Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a delightfully on point chart addressing what actually happened:

 

Now I could just as easily show a chart of inflation adjusted public school spending per pupil rising ever higher, but this chart qualifies as more interesting in my book as it shows what was done with the money. In short, we bombed districts with additional money and they used it to hire vast numbers of school employees especially non-teachers. These numbers come right out of the National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, and they demonstrate conclusively that President Obama was wildly off base when discussing the commitment of the American taxpayers to public education.

What about this idea of “kids start going to private schools” assertion? Let’s just for the sake of jovial discussion overlook the fact that President Obama himself attended private schools, and sends his daughters to one of the most exclusive private schools in the country. Again this notion is demonstrably false: private school attendance rates have been falling over time. Ironically the sort of class based segregation that all three participants acknowledge is indeed going on, but it is largely going on within the public school system itself through a system of highly economically segregated district schools- aka the leafy suburbs.

Later the President says “I think it is important for us at the outset to acknowledge if, in fact, we are going to find common ground, then we also have to acknowledge that there are certain investments we are willing to make as a society, as a whole, in public schools and public universities.” With regards to K-12 however the President has constructed an argument on a demonstrably false premise: while the ability of the country to go on making the same level of investment in public education in the future may be in doubt, there can be no doubt regarding the massive increase in resources devoted to public education in recent decades.

Bob Putnam joins with the President on the trends in public school spending:

For most of the 20th century, all Americans of all walks of life thought that part of getting a good education was getting soft skills — not just reading, writing, arithmetic, but cooperation and teamwork, and so on.  And part of that was that everybody in the country got free access to extracurricular activities — band and football, and music and so on.  But beginning about 20 years ago, the view developed — which is really, really deeply evil — that that’s just a frill. 

And so we disinvested, and we said if you want to take part in football here, or you want to take part in music, you’ve got to pay for it.  And of course, what that means is that poor people can’t pay for it.  It’s a big deal — $1,600 on average for two kids in a family.  Well, $1,600 to play football, or play in the band, or French club or whatever — it’s not a big deal if your income is $200,000; but if you income is $16,000, who in their right mind is going to be paying 10 percent of their family income?

I’ll interject here to say that the public school system has more than enough money to pay for football helmets for poor children but that in some cases they may have placed a much higher priority on other spending. Like for instance, bloating out their non-teaching employment (see Figure 1 above).  When staffing growth increased at a rate more than 10 times greater than enrollment growth, it is hard to think anything else. Are there kids priced out of extracurricular activities in American public schools? I’m confident there have been. Is it because the public has disinvested in public education? Hardly.

Later the President returns to his theme:

If, in fact, the most important thing is character and parents, then it’s okay if we don’t have band and music at school — that’s the argument that you will hear.  It’s okay.  Look, there are immigrant kids who are learning in schools that are much worse, and we’re spending huge amounts in the district and we still get poor outcomes, and so obviously money is not the issue.  And so what you hear is a logic that is used as an excuse to under-invest in those public goods.

And that’s why I think a lot of people are resistant to it and are skeptical of that conversation.  And I guess what I’m saying is that, guarding against cynicism, what we should say is we are going to argue hard for those public investments.  We’re going to argue hard for early childhood education because, by the way, if a young kid — three, four years old — is hearing a lot of words, the science tells us that they’re going to be more likely to succeed at school.  And if they’ve got trained and decently paid teachers in that preschool, then they’re actually going to get — by the time they’re in third grade, they’ll be reading at grade level. 

And those all very concrete policies.  But it requires some money.  We’re going to argue hard for that stuff.  And lo and behold, if we do those things, the values and the character that those kids are learning in a loving environment where they can succeed in school, and they’re being praised, and they can read at grade level, and they’re less likely to drop out, and it turns out that when they’re succeeding at school and they’ve got resources, they’re less likely to get pregnant as teens, and less likely to engage in drugs, and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system — that is a reinforcement of the values and character that we want. 

And that’s where we, as a society, have the capacity to make a real difference.  But it will cost us some money.  It will cost us some money.  It’s not free.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact with the blinding ubiquity of incredibly well-funded schools that are also catastrophically dysfunctional. President Obama attempts to waive this problem away while confidently assuming that the next round of public school spending will produce fantastic gains for disadvantaged students. President Obama for instance seems either blissfully or willfully unaware that random assignment studies of Head Start released by his own administration demonstrate (yet again) academic fade out before 3rd grade. The bigger point in my mind is that given the massive investment in public education the greatest opportunity for improvement by far lies in increasing the ROI for the funds we already invest in the system. Any blithe would-be technocrat that effectively wants to write off the current investment as stuck in place while making snake oil salesman style promises regarding the profound efficacy of new spending deserves our profound skepticism.

The unacknowledged elephant in the room- the inescapable fact that the poor have been the primary victims of the failure of the public school system to produce a decent return on investment for the massive increase in public K-12 spending. Several generations of Americans have attended public schools increasingly generously funded and staffed over the decades, and always at globally enviable levels. I’m at a loss to imagine how anyone can blame inter-generational poverty on under investment in public education when such investment can only be described as both substantial and increasing for many decades

If someone would like to explain why I should view this viewpoint as something other than demonstrably shallow and willfully ignorant of the real issues in public education and their equally real consequences, feel free to leave a comment. The problem in my view is not that we have put too little in to public education, but rather that our 19th Century Prussian factory model gave us far too little back in return.

Public education, in short, badly needs an update.


Enrichment Spending and Inequality

August 15, 2013

NYT(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times published the above chart last December here’s a link if you would like a better look. It basically shows that both college attendance and completion and private enrichment spending have been increasing at a much faster rate among wealthier students.

I find the enrichment spending trend particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, like Collin’s grit measure, it seems like an example of something that has been lurking in the error term of our limited understanding of K-12 trends.  I’m not sure how the authors define “enrichment spending” but $8,900 per year for well-to-do kids is striking.  How much does this matter? I’m not sure but I think it ought to be rigorously researched. It could matter quite a bit.

Four states have average family incomes for a family of four above six figures and one cannot help but wonder how much more this trend influences academic trends than in other states. Washington DC has been gentrifying strongly and has also had a large increase in the economic achievement gap despite large gains for low-income kids.  Could this trend be partially explained by this phenomenon?

What, if anything, is to be done about this? A vast increase in K-12 spending aimed at the cultural enrichment of poor children is not in the cards given the rotten state of state and federal finances, and it is just as well given the fact that the relationship between spending and outcomes is already hazy to say the least in the public school system. Just as a reminder, in the insightful words of Paul Hill:

Money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results.

The country is broke and even if we did raise taxes to punishing levels to fund this stuff no one should feel the least bit confident that enrichment spending would actually work if funnelled through the existing system. Jay’s idea about supplementing private summer camp attendance might be a better idea but again public finances are a total mess. This is currently in the private realm and it is necessary to keep it that way.

This would seem to leave us with at least few possibilities. Better use of technology may enhance the efforts of both public and private enrichment efforts. Khan Academy is doubtlessly one of the most powerful remedial education tools ever developed. It is free of charge and has branched out into the fine arts, and it is hardly alone. Sandra Day O’Connor has an online civics project for instance but I suspect that these efforts will require some concerted effort to realise their full potential. Putting them up online is a first crucial step, but one cannot help but to fear that their impact might be reminiscent of public libraries absent a sustained effort to get children to use them.

Fareed Zakaria summarizes the current debate on inequality, social mobility and schooling, but misses the crucial point.  The problem isn’t that we spend so little on the schooling of poor children but rather that we get so little for the massive amounts spent. American Black and Hispanic students score closer to the average score in Mexico (a nation that spends a fraction of what we do per pupil and which suffers from a much greater poverty problem) than to top performing scores. Using various policy mechanisms to increase ROI for K-12 spending runs you straight into reactionary resistance but it easily represents the most promising avenue for improving the prospects for disadvantaged children.

Oh, and by the way, as the New York Daily News kindly points out it does work.