Arizona Republic: Wet Streets Cause Rain

May 2, 2019

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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.


Arkansas Prodigy “Bored Silly” in Junior High Builds a Fusion Reactor to Challenge Himself

April 6, 2019

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This is a nifty example of why we need specialized schools and a system flexible enough to meet individual needs.

 


Yes, School Choice *Is* Local Control

March 21, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Even Homer nods.

AEI’s Rick Hess and Andy Smarick both have well-earned reputations as thoughtful, insightful, and fair-minded scholars of education policy. However, in a recent piece for National Review highlighting the tension between local control and educational choice, I believe they missed the mark.

Before I get to where we disagree, I should note that I agree with most of what they wrote. Indeed, I think reformers would do well to heed the advice (and warnings) they offer at the end of their article. Choice is not a panacea, nor the be all and end all of education reform (though I do think it’s the most important element). Moreover, all policies, including educational choice, have tradeoffs. The benefits may far outweigh the costs, but there are costs, and advocates should acknowledge them.

However, Hess and Smarick are a bit too quick to dismiss the argument that the “most local of local control” is educational choice, and their description of the premises of the supposedly competing principles of choice and local control muddies more than it illuminates.

After noting the popularity of both district schooling and educational choice, the authors write:

Given its appeal, [choice] advocates have dismissed any potential conflict between choice and local control by blandly observing that parental choice is the “most local of local control.” As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has put it, “the answer is local control. It’s listening to parents, and it’s giving more choices.” But this belies real tensions. After all, the local-district system is premised on tradition, continuity, and geography; choice on innovation, markets, and voluntary associations.

Bland or not, choice advocates are right to argue that the “most local of local control” is when the locus of control is parents, not elected officials and bureaucrats. Granted, as Hess and Smarick note, “local control” has “historically meant that an elected board oversees all public schools in a community,” and choice is in tension with the monopolistic system of local edu-bureaucracies. But choice advocates aren’t denying that. Rather, they’re exposing the reality that district schooling offers only the illusion of local control.

As Neal McCluskey has meticulously documented, our zero-sum political schooling system pits parents against each other. At best, majorities impose their will on minorities. But the reality is often even worse than that. As Terry Moe and others have shown, special interests have captured the public education system via low-turnout, off-cycle elections, collective bargaining, state and federal agency directives, and myriads of other means. The ability of parents to actually influence education policy is quite limited in this system.

Properly understood, as James Shuls has argued, local control means parents are in control of their children’s education:

De Tocqueville wrote long ago, “local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations.”  Unfortunately, our local institutions governing education have been weakening in recent decades.  On the other side of the Show-Me State, the recent school board elections in the Kansas City School District didn’t have a single name on the ballot. Only one candidate got the necessary number of signatures to run in the election and was thus automatically elected, and the three other seats had to be filled entirely by write-in candidates.

To turn a phrase of left wing activists around, is this what democracy looks like? Or, more pointedly for conservatives, what does local control mean in education today?

Local control is not simply a tyranny of the majority on a small scale. Local control, properly understood, means empowering families, those “little platoons” that another lover of local control, Edmund Burke, so valorized, to make the best educational decisions for their children. It means allowing local community organizations like nonprofits and churches to operate schools where students are free to use their state support to finance their education.  It means interpersonal networks within communities coming together to share information about what schools are doing, which ones are better than others, and where children might thrive.

In short, is has nothing to do with having a school board.

Hess and Smarick also go awry when they claim that “the local-district system is premised on tradition, continuity, and geography; choice on innovation, markets, and voluntary associations.” The reality is far more complex — so much so that their attempt at a such a clean distinction is more misleading than clarifying.

The district system is certainly about geography, and it’s also true that adults have a great deal of nostalgia about their childhood schools (and especially their sports teams), but when so many district schools are embracing the latest social justice fads (thanks in large part to ed schools),  it’s hard to claim that they’re premised on tradition and continuity.

And while choice advocates may talk too much about innovation and markets (mea culpa), the reality is that most parents participating in choice programs are choosing religious schools rooted in tradition, continuity, and community (my family included). Indeed, some of these schools predate our district school system — and even the nation itself.

Again, I think Hess and Smarick get a lot more right than they get wrong. Their thought-provoking article is definitely worth reading in full, especially by advocates of school choice. And even though I think their “tradition versus innovation” distinction doesn’t neatly align with the distinction between district schooling and school choice, it serves as a welcome reminder that choice advocates should also emphasize the ways in which choice can strengthen local communities, and how private and (perhaps especially) religious schools are already vital parts of the communal fabric.


The Rise of Indiana Open Enrollment

February 26, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Choice’s Drew Catt created this open enrollment map of Indiana. For those squinting at their iPhones, bright yellow signifies a district taking in 0-25 open enrollment students, while dark green denotes a district bringing in 501 to 1,680 open enrollment students.

So let’s contrast this with the Fordham Ohio open enrollment map:

The Fordham map denotes participation/non-participation by districts in open enrollment. Suburban non-participation jumps off the page of the Fordham map, so let’s contrast Indianapolis with Columbus. The Indiana map has a lot of green around Indianapolis, signifying open-enrollment participation by the suburbs.

Now let’s compare Indiana to the open enrollment data available from Arizona.

Much larger numbers in these Arizona districts, but also a broader definition of open-enrollment being utilized for the Arizona data that includes students transferring within district boundaries. Nevertheless, we know from a separate source that Scottsdale Unified has 4,000 students from outside of district boundaries, which is more than twice the number of any of the Indiana districts in the Ed Choice map.

So here is my provisional take, subject to your challenge in the comments: Indiana’s combined choice programs have coaxed the state out of the Ohio-like geographic segregation. Private choice program design may have contributed to this- Ohio’s voucher programs focus almost exclusively on urban students, while Indiana’s are more inclusive. Indiana has had the nation’s fastest growing voucher program in recent years. Although means-tested, Indiana’s private choice programs create empty seats in suburban districts more than is the case in the Ohio programs, which reach only suburban special education students.

The open enrollment boulder has been rolling down hill for a longer period of time in Arizona. Open-enrollment students outnumber charter students 2-1, and charter students outnumber private choice participants by 3-1. In other words, in Arizona school choice is being done primarily by school districts themselves. This of course did not happen exclusively through a process of spontaneous enlightenment whereby Arizona school districts threw down the drawbridge over the moat to welcome in thousands of out of district transfers out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather it was the product of incentives- hundreds of charter schools opening in suburbs and towns and a couple of decades of geographically inclusive private choice programs.

Charters and private choice do not deserve all the credit, as some suburban districts relatively unaffected nevertheless chose to participate in open enrollment. Chandler Unified for instance watched their enrollment grow by a third despite a large increase in charter schools and has been rocking academic growth to boot. I’m told that there is not a non-district charter in the Vail Unified district south of Tucson, but there are a many students from Tucson Unified. I doubt they are sweating choice much, but they have nevertheless chosen to participate, and Arizona’s students are the richer for it. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that a main reason that Scottsdale Unified took in 4,000 students is due to the 9,000 students that live in the district boundaries and do not attend school in the district.

It may be no accident that the state with the highest access has also been leading in NAEP gains…

The defection of early open-enrollment adopters increases the pressure on other districts to participate, creating a virtuous cycle. I’m thrilled to see evidence of this in Indiana. The School Choice 1.0 failed urban students insomuch as it failed to unlock the suburbs. It’s time for the movement to embrace an inclusive “Social Justice Plus” strategy that aims to give urban students access to private, charter and suburban schools.


Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)

January 25, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As a part of Education Week’s recent series on 10 BIG Ideas, businessman Mark Barnes made the case for eliminating grades:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Imagine! It’s easy if you try!

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

It’s no secret that I have libertarian sensibilities, so I certainly don’t want the state mandating that schools give grades (or not give grades, for that matter). Schools and educators should be free to pursue what they believe is the best system of assessment, and parents should be free to choose the learning environments they think best for their children.

That said, while I’m all in favor of abolishing grade levels (a.k.a., Carnegie units), the drive to abolish objective assessments of students’ work that makes it relatively easy to compare their level of proficiency to other students gives me great pause. It’s not just that competition be a great motivator for students, or that grades help students and their teachers and parents identify and correct their deficiencies, although those are crucial functions. As champion educator Doug Lemov recently explained, grades are essential for social mobility:

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

The role grades and standardized assessments have played in social mobility in America, particularly for people of color, is an area where some libertarian educator reformers have sometimes had a blind spot (mea culpa). Much of the anger among black education reformers toward the opt-out movement stems from the fact that it was those very standardized tests that helped shine a spotlight on just how badly America’s district school system was failing students of color.

I still firmly believe that the unintended consequences of mandating a single test outweigh the benefits, but that’s only because I am also confident that there are less onerous means of objectively assessing students and schools (e.g., a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests) that would still reveal unjust racial gaps without the downsides of a single test. Eliminate testing altogether, however, and those racial gaps won’t disappear — they’ll just be rendered invisible again. As Lemov explains, that wouldn’t be so bad for the elites, but it would be terrible for low-income minorities:

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste — you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.


The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!

July 25, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Will Flanders is right that school choice is not welfare (you heard it here first) and more broadly that school choice has not benefitted from appropriating the Rawlsian language of fairness (ditto). But he is wrong to think we would be better off making big investments in the free market movement’s language of markets and competition. I’m as big a fan of Milton as anyone (proof) but that language has all the wrong non-cognitive associations for the present moment. Flanders cites Jonathan Haidt but doesn’t seem to have learned the biggest lesson Haidt has to teach, which is that the non-cognitive content of language is more politically important than its cognitive content.

What we need is a new language of justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom that both Rawlsianism and the free-market movement used to have, say, fifty years ago, but that neither currently has in a very robust form. Much, much more about that here.


The Beginning of the End for Blaine?

June 27, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from excluding otherwise eligible religious organizations from benefitting from publicly funded programs merely because they are a religious organization. (I discussed the implications here.) However, Footnote 3 said:

This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.

So, does the case have broader implications beyond playgrounds? Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts “delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to footnote 3,” and two additional justices, Gorsuch and Thomas, concurred in the opinion but not in the footnote, explaining:

Of course the footnote is entirely correct, but I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only “playground resurfacing” cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion. Such a reading would be unreasonable for our cases are “governed by general principles, rather than ad hoc improvisations.” […] And the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.

Today, SCOTUS has indicated that its ruling in Trinity indeed does have implications beyond the playground. The Court has vacated the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision that struck down the Douglas County voucher program based on the state’s Blaine Amendment, and ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider the case “in light of [the] Trinity Lutheran” decision.

If Trinity Lutheran indeed does apply to school vouchers (Footnote 3 notwithstanding), then it could spell the beginning of the end for the odious Blaine Amendments.