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.


Usual Suspect Mark Pocan spins a Keyser Soze story on GAO Parental Choice Report

September 16, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The American film classic the Usual Suspects (spoiler alert!) features a quick thinking unreliable narrator Verbal (played by Kevin Spacey) who concocts a vivid tale based on material on a bulletin board sitting behind the police officer who is interrogating him. Representative Marc Pocan has used equivalent powers of imagination and a recent GAO report on private choice programs as his bulletin board to spin his own imaginative and deceptive tale.

First the report:

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The report is a straightforward description of the nation’s voucher and ESA programs, and deals with primarily with a state of confusion among school districts as to whether they are obligated to provide “equitable services” to special needs students who participate in private choice programs. It’s a fairly dry 49 page read if you go through the report, although it does have the occasional interesting graphic like this one:

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In any case after a number of pages of descriptive work the report concludes:

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You are welcome- I waded through this report so you wouldn’t have to!

So from this bulletin board material Rep. Marc Pocanconcocts his tale of woe and destruction visiting down upon the states like Biblical plagues from private choice programs in a piece in HuffPo titled omniously Why You Should be Worried About the Rapid Rise of Private Voucher Schools:

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In other words, private choice programs are the most vicious gangster in the history of Pocan’s imagination:

These claims have even less to do with the GAO report than Officer Kujan’s bulletin board relationship with the tale of Keyser Soze.  The only “discovery” in the GAO report-districts are confused about whether they are obligated to provide special education services to students participating in private choice programs in the same fashion they do to other private school students, which is to say, not much to begin with. Thus the report recommends USDoE guidance to districts to dispel confusion because the districts retain discretion on whom to serve.

The real discovery here is that Rep. Pocan is willing to spin long-known facts about private choice programs into a breathless but ineffectual attempt at a hit piece. In order-

  1. Teacher prep has always been different between public and private schools and there is approximately zero evidence that traditional certification produces better learning, but hey if you want state certified teachers the public school system is still there as an option.
  2. Some private choice programs require schools to change their admission policies, but many do not. Let me know when you get the GI Bill to require random admission lotteries into the Ivy League and I’ll start to take you seriously on this. No? How about random lottery admissions for open enrollment transfers between district schools, who currently get to pick and choose at will? The total number of seats available may be greater for lighter touch programs and overly meddling with private schools can and has backfired in a lack of seats in high quality private schools.
  3. Money is following the child, lamest claim in the opponent playbook.
  4. Perceived deficiencies in taxpayer-subsidized public schools to students with disabilities is why parents choose to participate in the first place. Satisfaction surveys of special needs choice programs have been off the charts. Private choice programs expand the options for special needs parents.

Sadly, rather than engage in an intellectually honest debate, Rep. Pocan has constructed a boogey-man story and attempted to claim that the GAO told it to him before he started repeating it. They did nothing of the sort, and silly efforts like this is example number 89,623 of why choice opponents willingly surrender their credibility on a regular basis.


Choice for Foster Kids

January 13, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new issue of OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on school choice for the 12,000 foster children in Oklahoma. The state is now adopting massive fixes to address its broken, abusive foster care system:

If Oklahoma is going to adopt sweeping reforms to serve these children better, it shouldn’t just think about homes. It should think about schools. Having failed to care for these 12,000 children when they needed it most, Oklahoma owes them something.

The state wouldn’t have to create a new program:

Oklahoma already has two school choice programs: a special needs voucher modeled on McKay, and a tax-credit scholarship program serving low-income students. Either or both of these programs could accommodate foster children with a slight modification – just write a line into the law saying foster children are eligible regardless of disability status or family income.

Other states have already adopted this practice. Foster children are automatically eligible for two school choice programs in Arizona. “Lexie’s Law,” which is Arizona’s answer to McKay, includes foster children alongside special education students. So does Arizona’s innovative new education savings account law, which gives parents control of their children’s education funding to direct to a school of their choice. Meanwhile, in Florida, foster children of any income level are eligible for the state’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students.

And since choice saves money, it wouldn’t cost a dime – an important consideration given that Oklahoma is on the hook for $150 million to clean up its foster care mess.

Of course, only universal choice will get us where we need to go. But it’s not a perfect world, and few people know that better than foster kids in Oklahoma. One line in a new law could give 12,000 kids access to choice on better terms than the ones that prevail in some other programs already.


MS Governor Phil Bryant makes a powerful case for Special Education Choice

March 31, 2014

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(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Down the stretch they come in Mississippi, and Governor Phil Bryant weighs in with a powerful case for reform. The bill will pass or die in the next two days, so stay tuned….


Children with Disabilities Have Much to Gain from Parental Choice in the Magnolia State

February 6, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mississippi legislators are considering a statewide choice program for children with special needs. Florida pioneered choice for special needs students in 1999, passing a pilot program that went statewide in 2001. Since 2001, all of Florida’s special needs students attending public schools have been eligible to take a McKay Scholarship to a public or private school of their choice.

More than a decade later, we find that 6 percent of special needs students use the McKay Scholarship Program directly by using it to transfer. Special needs students choosing to remain in the public school system however still benefit from the McKay program because it is there if they need it.

The charts below show that special needs students in Florida have made remarkable academic progress since McKay went into law. The first chart shows the progress for public school students with disabilities in Florida and Mississippi on 4th grade reading:

Florida vs. MS Spec 4R

Today Florida children with disabilities are now more than twice as likely to show basic reading skills as their peers in Mississippi. You find the same pattern in the 8th grade reading scores:

Florida vs. MS Spec 8R

 

Math scores show the same trend: narrow gaps opening to larger gaps over time. The point of these charts is not to brag about Florida, but to note a crucial source of improvement for special needs students in Mississippi. In the end, choice is no threat to the public schools in Mississippi but rather an opportunity. Florida’s public schools have more students (including students with disabilities), spend more and employ more people than before the onset of choice programs. That’s not the issue. The most important thing of all for special needs children is that the public school system now does a much better job in meeting their needs.

Florida enacted multiple reforms during this same period, so we cannot attribute all of these improvements to the choice program. Statistical analysis of variation in trends among special needs scores in individual Florida schools however confirmed that the McKay program contributed to the improvement.  Florida’s other reforms are also available for consideration.

Choice is not a threat to public schools in Mississippi, but rather a mechanism of the improvement of outcomes to the most disadvantaged students.  We can and should judge policies in large part with regard to how they treat the most vulnerable in our society. Look at the charts above and ask yourself the following question: if you had to be born as a child with a disability, would you want to grow up in Florida’s system of choice or Mississippi’s system of school assignment by zip code?  Would you want choice, or something much closer to “take it or leave it” in your schooling?

If you answered that question the way I expect, the next question is: what can Mississippi do to move ahead of Florida?

The answer- Mississippi should consider an even more advanced form of choice for special needs students than McKay. Choice for special needs students has the ability to empower parents to seek out the right type of education to meet the specific needs of their individual child. The Mississippi proposal draws inspiration from the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, which is a refinement of the McKay concept. This allows parents to choose to educate their child through a variety of different methods, including public and private schools, certified private tutors and therapists, online education programs and college/university courses. The idea is to give parents the maximum amount of flexibility possible so that they can deliver a customized education to meet the exact needs of their child.

When the federal government passed what became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in the 1970s, a million special education students nationwide had been denied access to public schools. That was wrong, and IDEA stands as an important pillar of civil rights legislation. The law however promised an “Individual Education Plan” for every special needs child, and it failed to deliver the substance of this promise for far too many children.  More than a decade ago, the center-left Progressive Policy Institute and the center-right Thomas B. Fordham Foundation used the analogy of a maze to describe the bog of federally mandated paperwork emphasizing process over results to the frustration of both educators and parents.

You can’t really have an individual education plan without choice over who delivers what sort of education. Today it is time for the states, not the federal government, to take the lead in truly delivering the ability for parents to deliver a really meaningful individual education plan for students. Students, parents and the public school system will all win as a result.

 


Three Things Not to Miss in Wolf’s Post

May 16, 2013

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jay has already linked to Pat Wolf’s devastating knockout of the special ed smear campaign against Milwaukee vouchers. However, it’s such a long piece (there’s so much falsehood to debunk!) that I want to make sure the most important points don’t get overlooked:

  1. Pat catches the Department of Public Instruction lying about how many disabled students are in the voucher program. “Lying” is a strong word, but that is what happened here.
  2. USDOJ faults DPI for not requiring schools to report how many voucher students are disabled, so they can monitor discrimination against disabled students – but the reason is that state law gives them no power to do so, and regulations forbid them from doing so. The purpose of the regulation is to protect against schools using the information to discriminate against disabled students!
  3. “A statistical analysis that my research team conducted during our five-year evaluation of the program confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage – not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race – was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.  Our evidence is consistent with the expectation that private schools are admitting voucher students at random during that critical transition, as the law requires.”

Pat also points out, against the USDOJ’s claim that private schools in the voucher program are covered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the U.S. Supreme Court has twice reviewed and let stand Wisconsin court rulings finding that voucher schools are not government contractors, and students in the program are “parentally placed” not “government placed” in their schools, so the schools are not within reach of laws that apply to government services. In my (non-lawyer) opinion that does not make it a slam dunk that the voucher schools aren’t covered by ADA, because the ADA is such a badly crafted law. But it’s still worth remembering.

Update: This post has been modified because the original version didn’t state point #2 quite right. My apologies!


Wolf on Milwaukee School Choice and Disabilities

May 16, 2013

Pat Wolf does a beautiful job on the Ed Next blog of dispensing with a series of false claims about school choice and disabilities in Milwaukee.  You should really read it.  It’s a work of art.


Two New Studies on How School Choice Impacts Students in Vulnerable Demographic Categories

May 15, 2013

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

At Brookings, Matthew Chingos looks at a huge swath of CCD data and finds no evidence that charter schools increase racial segregation. No surprise there, as readers of Win-Win already know. It’s been a while since I had occasion to trot out the old race card graphic – my sense is that the segregation talking point has had its day in the sun.

In Education Finance and Policy, Rajashri Chakrabarti looks at Florida school data and contributes the latest in a line of studies showing that schools act in self-interested ways, responding to structural incentives, when classifying students into special programs. Chakrabarti finds that schools threatened with vouchers due to low test scores increased the classification of students as Limited English Proficient, removing them from the pool of tested students; however, schools did not increase classification of students into special education, where they would become eligible for McKay vouchers. The obvious conclusion? All students should be eligible for vouchers – then there’s no system to game.

PS Sorry for the awkward headline – I couldn’t come up with anything snappier or any pop culture references. Uh . . . release the kraken!


Heads You Win, Tails You Still Win

March 5, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the opportunity to testify to the Senate Education committee in Texas today on the experience with parental choice programs for special needs children. One of the items of discussion was the following chart:

McKay Texas 1This phenomenon is often discussed regarding special education, but seldom quantified. In 2004 however officials from Education Service Center 20 (a regional body roughly covering school districts in the San Antonio area) provided the following chart to quantify the additional cost per special education student in a number of school districts. There were costs above and beyond those covered by state funding, and thus represented in effect a transfer from district general funds into special education funds on a per special education student basis.

 

Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby also testified to this interim committee in 2004, and she made the point that since school districts have been complaining that states don’t cover the full costs of special education for decades, that they have no cause to complain about students leaving with their (inadequate) funding. Districts can either keep these funds in the general education effort, or spend more on their remaining special education students (approximately 5% of Florida special education students directly utilize McKay but far more benefit from it) but either way they benefit.

 

 


More Reasonable Responses to My WSJ Piece

October 16, 2012

Yesterday I chronicled the unreasonable (and unfortunately predictable)  reaction of the teachers union to my WSJ op-ed suggesting that there were trade-offs between hiring more teachers and quality teachers.  I also received a number of reasonable, but still mistaken, responses attempting to explain the 50% increase in the teaching workforce without improved results by blaming special education and English Language Learners (ELL).  A letter in yesterday’s WSJ succinctly stated the argument:

In 1970 many disabled and mentally handicapped students were denied access to public education. Today these students are guaranteed a public education until the age of 22. Also in 1970, about 5% of the U.S. population was foreign born, compared with about 20% today. Many of these children enter the education system with limited English skills and are provided services to improve their mastery of English. Such services were unheard of in many parts of the country even 20 years ago.

It is obvious from these statistics that many more special-education teachers and English-language specialists are counted in the teaching profession now as compared to 1970. Mr. Greene claims that math and reading scores of 17-year-olds are unchanged since 1970. I would submit that the teaching resources devoted to students, excluding teachers of special education and limited-English speakers, is close to unchanged since 1970.

There is a plausibility to this argument, but special education and ELL can neither account for the 50% increase in teachers nor can they be ignored when considering the stagnation in student achievement.  Special education teachers constitute about 14% of the teaching work force and disabled students constitute about 13% of the student population.  So, if we imagine, as the letter writer does, that many of these disabled students were denied access to public education, then the addition of teachers was roughly commensurate with the addition of disabled students.  Excluding all disabled students and teachers, the reduction in student-teacher ratios between 1970 and 2012 would still have been roughly from 22 to 15.  If you wanted to use as the starting point 1980, 5 years after the start of federally mandated special education, the ratio still drops from 18.6 to 15.2.

But of course not all disabled students were denied access to schools before federal legislation.  Outside of the most severely disabled, the bulk of students now classified as disabled would have been present in school in 1970; they just weren’t being served very well.  So, if we added a large number of special education teachers to better educate students who were always present but who we now consider disabled, it should have resulted in much better outcomes for those students.  But overall outcomes are flat.

There is a disturbing habit among people who make the argument represented in the WSJ letter to act as if special education is a black hole from which no progress can or should be expected.  Yes, they say, we hired more teachers, but that was for more special education students and you couldn’t expect that to result in any progress.  But this is entirely wrong.  Special education can and should result in greater academic achievement, so even teachers added in that category should be contributing to better aggregate outcomes.

All of these arguments also hold true for ELL except that ELL is much smaller and involves fewer teachers than special education.  A critic could note that the world has given the US public education system more ELL students because of higher immigration, although the same cannot really be said of special education.  Other than the exclusion of severely disabled students, whose numbers are quite small, the distribution of disabilities in the public school student population should be roughly the same today as it was back then given that most disabilities are genetic in their origin.  It’s just that we didn’t serve many of those students well in the past and therefore should expect that achievement should be rising as we devote more resources to them.  More teachers should be producing more achievement.

And yes, more ELL students might require more teachers to produce the same achievement.  But in other ways our student population has become easier to educate.  Unless students have become significantly more difficult to educate across all dimensions, it’s not possible to explain away the facts that we have 50% more teachers without any meaningful improvement in outcomes.

Several years ago Greg Forster and I addressed this in our Teachability Index, in which we tracked 16 indicators of the advantages or disadvantaged that students bring to school and found that overall students are somewhat less challenging to educate now than they used to be.  And for a forthcoming book I have updated and improved upon that analysis and still find that students are somewhat easier to educate, so it should not require many more teachers to get the same results.

We can’t blame special ed and ELL to account for the lack of productivity in education as we’ve hired more teachers.  The problem is that we’ve ignored the trade-offs between teacher quantity and teacher quality.