Pass the Popcorn: If You Need to Blink

August 25, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

If you need to blink, do it now. If you miss a single word of the blog post below, our hero will perish.

Do yourself the biggest favor you’ve done yourself in a long time and go see Kubo and the Two Strings while it’s still in theaters. This masterpiece demands to be seen on the big screen, so you can appreciate not only its oustanding story but its gorgeous visuals.

If you know Coraline, you know what greatness the offbeat animation studio LAIKA is capable of. LAIKA’s last few offerings haven’t been as well recieved, but let me assure you Kubo not only matches but actually surpasses the storytelling and artistic accomplishments of Coraline.

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It would be criminal to reveal the plot of Kubo. Indeed, one of the many ways in which this movie shines is the perfect craftsmanship of its progressive plot revelations. These people know how to tell a truly epic story.

I will say this much, though, to motivate you to see it. Kubo is the son of a great samurai warrior who fought a duel with the moon. The plot is driven by this question:

Is it better to be a man, to live a life marred by suffering and then die, leaving behind deeds well done and the memories held by those who loved you?

Or is it better to be the moon, floating high above the world and immune to death and suffering, and have no story?

Don’t miss this gem. I’ll be going back as soon as I can to see it again.

Update: Saw it again, loved it more the second time. “It amazes me that creatures down here will fight so hard, just to die another day.” “Down here there are days worth fighting for.” Don’t miss your chance to see it on the big screen!


The Next Accountability – Teachers and Schools

August 25, 2016

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EdChoice has posted Part 2 of my new series on The Next Accountability. In Part 1 I outlined what we most want from a good education; now I outline the most important qualities teachers and schools should have to deliver these results:

All this can be summed up by saying that teachers need to be wise and professional. Wisdom means teachers possess themselves the capacities of head, hands and heart that we want students to develop. Professionalism means that teachers’ primary motivation is not to check boxes on a curricular chart or maximize formal outcomes such as test scores, or even to please parents, but to help students develop those capacities of head, hands and heart that the teachers possess and the students need.

The great challenge we face is that in our society, where we are free to disagree about what is good, true and beautiful, we lack consensus about what constitutes a good education. Good schools are therefore those that manage to overcome legal and bureaucratic obstacles to operate as free communities, with a shared commitment both to freedom of disagreement about the highest things and also to bonds of interdependence and reciprocity:

Freedom and community tend to lose their meaning when separated from one another. Real community means people freely choose to be in community. And real freedom can only be protected by a community that loves freedom and institutionalizes it as a shared, public moral commitment.

Next, in Part 3: how the two great camps in the debate over accountability – advocates of technocracy and choice – are, in different ways, trying unsuccessfully to sidestep the core problem of building consensus in a pluralistic society.

Stay tuned! Your thoughts are very welcome as always.


Study Shows Louisiana Voucher Cuts Are Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

August 19, 2016

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

ICYMI, Corey DeAngelis of the University of Arkansas wrote a blog post at Education Next today summarizing the results of a study he conducted with Julie Trivitt on the fiscal effects of the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP). The post is worth reading in full, but the main point is this: their study found that the LSP saves taxpayers money.

Governor John Bel Edwards recently cut the voucher program, supposedly in order to save money. However, the new study finds that the cuts actually increase state expenditures. DeAngelis concludes that if Louisianan officials wish to save money, instead of cutting it, they should expand it.

[Note: I initially omitted the “e” in Corey’s name. This is in keeping with the Law of Conservation of Es known to fans of Drs. Green and Wolfe.]


Lawsuit Losers’ Ostrich Act

August 17, 2016
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Anti-school choice plaintiffs pretending that the court didn’t reject their arguments on the merits.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As I reported on Tuesday, a Florida appellate court threw out a challenge to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. In response, one of the plaintiff groups, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), published a disingenuous and factually challenged blog post whining about the case being dismissed and pretending that the court didn’t actually address the merits of the case. I’ll address their assertions in order:

A Florida court just threw out an appeal brought by Americans United and its allies challenging a school-voucher-like program that provides taxpayer support for religious organizations. As disappointing as that outcome is, it’s doubly frustrating to see a second Sunshine State court fail to even consider the merits of the case.

The program provides tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations that help students attend any private school, religious or secular, so that’s not quite an accurate description of the program.

Moreover, as I will explain below, the court did consider the merits of the case. Although courts often avoid addressing the merits of a case when rejecting the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the case, here the court directly addressed the central issues in the process of dismissing the case on standing.

In case you’re not familiar with tuition tax credits, they are a type of voucher scheme that allows individuals or corporations to donate money to a middle-man “scholarship” organization in exchange for a generous tax credit. The “scholarship” group then writes a check for tuition at a private school. It’s essentially a way to launder government funds through a private entity.

What an odd use of scare quotes. Are these somehow not scholarships? Let’s consult the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines a “scholarship” as “an amount of money that is given by a school, an organization, etc., to a student to help pay for the student’s education.” So yes, AU scare quotes notwithstanding, these are bona fide scholarships.

But are they “laundered government funds”? According to the unanimous Florida appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court, and every state supreme court to address the question, the answer is a resounding “No.” The courts all held that a private individual or corporation’s money is their own, and not the government’s, until the government has actually collected it. When people keep their own money through tax deductions, tax credits, or tax exemptions, it remains exactly that: their own money.

Does the AU believe that all churches run on “laundered government money” because their donors receive tax deductions or because they receive 100% property tax exemptions? No? Interesting.

The overwhelming majority of private schools participating in the tax credit program are religious, which goes against the Florida Constitution’s “no-aid” clause, which says: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

Again, as the court ruled, it’s not government money, so the historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment (“no-aid” clause) is not implicated. Moreover, the percentage of schools that are religious versus secular is constitutionally irrelevant. The law is religiously neutral. What matters is only that families may choose either religious or secular schools. It makes no constitutional difference whether the majority select one type or the other, or whether the market (responding to demand) supplies more of one type or another.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected AU’s religious bean counting, including in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision more than a decade ago:

Respondents and Justice Souter claim that even if we do not focus on the number of participating schools that are religious schools, we should attach constitutional significance to the fact that 96% of scholarship recipients have enrolled in religious schools. They claim that this alone proves parents lack genuine choice, even if no parent has ever said so. We need not consider this argument in detail, since it was flatly rejected in Mueller, where we found it irrelevant that 96% of parents taking deductions for tuition expenses paid tuition at religious schools. Indeed, we have recently found it irrelevant even to the constitutionality of a direct aid program that a vast majority of program benefits went to religious schools. See Agostini, 521 U.S., at 229 (“Nor are we willing to conclude that the constitutionality of an aid program depends on the number of sectarian school students who happen to receive the otherwise neutral aid” (citing Mueller, 463 U.S., at 401)); see also Mitchell, 530 U.S., at 812, n. 6 (plurality opinion) (“[Agostini] held that the proportion of aid benefiting students at religious schools pursuant to a neutral program involving private choices was irrelevant to the constitutional inquiry”); id., at 848 (O’Connor, J., concurring in judgment) (same) (quoting Agostini, supra, at 229). The constitutionality of a neutral educational aid program simply does not turn on whether and why, in a particular area, at a particular time, most private schools are run by religious organizations, or most recipients choose to use the aid at a religious school. As we said in Mueller, “[s]uch an approach would scarcely provide the certainty that this field stands in need of, nor can we perceive principled standards by which such statistical evidence might be evaluated.” 463 U.S., at 401. [emphasis added]

The SCOTUS majority goes on to note that the other side’s obsession over how many private schools have a religious affiliation ignores that they are but a tiny slice of all the available school choices, including the secular district schools that the vast majority of students attend. Students do not lack secular options.

Returning to the AU blog post, the author claims:

The program also violates the state constitution by taking money away from public schools.

No, the appellate court specifically and repeatedly rejected this argument, noting that any reduction in aid to the district schools is entirely speculative. As the appellate court detailed at length, the AU and their allies proved unable time and time again to demonstrate any harm that the district schools incur from the scholarship program.

Despite those problems, two Florida courts have now kicked the case on standing – that is, the right to sue – saying that the plaintiffs, which include interfaith religious leaders as well as educators, don’t even have the right to bring this case. As a result, neither court weighed in on the actual facts of the case.

Incorrect. As noted above, like the district court before it, the appellate court addressed the main issues that plaintiffs raised:

  1. Does the scholarship program violate the Blaine Amendment? A: No, it relies on private funds so the Blaine Amendment is not implicated.
  2. Does the scholarship program unconstitutionally create a parallel system of public schools? A: No, this is a privately funded and privately administered program, not a separate government school system.
  3. Does the scholarship program harm the district school system? A: No, there is no evidence of any harm to the district schools.

The AU and their union allies don’t like the answers that the appellate and district court gave, so they simply pretend that they didn’t give them.

Since the court didn’t weigh in on the facts, here are some other things to consider: Sometimes “school choice” advocates claim low-income students need government assistance to escape “failing” schools. But here, some parents openly admitted that the public school options available to them are actually good.

Here we have a straw man argument. The question isn’t whether the district schools are “good” but rather whether they’re the best fit for all the kids who happen to live nearby. Even a school that performs very well on average can’t be all things to all students, which is why the system should empower parents to choose the schools that align with their values and work best for their children.

So why do they want help paying private school tuition? The short answer is that many of them want education infused with their faith. […] That’s perfectly fine. But Florida taxpayers should not be forced to contribute to the religious education of any child.

Again, as the court ruled, these are private funds. No taxpayer is forced to contribute to a scholarship organization. If a taxpayer doesn’t want to support religious education, they need only refrain from donating to the scholarship organizations, which is certainly their right.

By contrast, all taxpayers are forced to pay into the district school system, even if they have moral objections to what is taught there. If the AU really cared so much about coercion, they should support entirely privatizing education so that no one is forced to subsidize an education with which they disagree.


Case Dismissed Again: Another Victory for School Choice in Florida

August 16, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

It seems Friday’s update on pending school choice lawsuits came a few days too soon. Today, a three-judge panel of appellate court judges in Florida has unanimously dismissed the teachers’ union’s lawsuit against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing because they were unable to prove that they were harmed by the program and because the program is privately (not publicly) funded.

No doubt the thousands of parents and students who rallied earlier this year, calling on the union to #dropthesuit, are smiling today.

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Three out of three appellate judges agree with these scholarship kids: #dropthesuit.

I expanded upon the decision at Cato-at-Liberty, but I’ll leave you with the the judges’ conclusion:

Appellants failed to allege that they suffered any special injury as a result of the operation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and failed to establish that the Legislature exceeded any constitutional limitation on its taxing and spending authority when it authorized the program. At most, Appellants quarrel with the Legislature’s policy judgments regarding school choice and funding of Florida’s public schools. This is precisely the type of dispute into which the courts must decline to intervene under the separation of powers doctrine.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!

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[h/t Travis Pillow at RedefinED.]

UPDATE (Aug. 17, 2016): See here for my discussion of one plaintiff group’s response to the ruling.

 


School Choice Lawsuits Update: Summer 2016 Edition

August 12, 2016
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Some of the 10,000 protesters who rallied earlier this year to support Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program and ask the teachers union and their allies to #dropthesuit.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As school choice wins in the court of public opinion, opponents have resorted to fighting it in the courts of law. Here are a few brief updates regarding pending lawsuits against school choice programs around the country.

Colorado: Douglas County’s School Choice Grant Program

Last summer, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down Douglas County’s school voucher program with a plurality ruling that it violates the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which forbids public money from being used at religious schools. District officials responded to the ruling by creating a new voucher program that excludes religious schools, which drew lawsuits from both opponents and supporters of school choice.

The Institute for Justice, which had previously defended the school voucher program, sued the county for unconstitutionally discriminating against religious groups. According to IJ, the “exclusion of religious options from the program violates the Free Exercise, Establishment, Equal Protection, and Free Speech Clauses of the United States Constitution, as well as the Due Process Clause, which guarantees the fundamental right of parents to control and direct the education and upbringing of their children.” IJ contends–correctly, in my view–that the First Amendment requires the government to be neutral both among religions and between religion and non-religion, but it may not actively favor nor discriminate against either religious or non-religious groups or institutions. This case is still pending.

In a separate lawsuit, opponents of school choice contended that the new voucher program was not materially different than the old one. Earlier this month, a district court agreed, striking down the program yet again. Although by excluding religious schools, the new program appears to be in compliance with the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling, the district court explained that the state supreme court did not rule on the merits of several other alleged violations of state constitutional provisions under which the district court had previously invalidated the program. This case is likely going to return to the state supreme court for resolution.

Florida: Tax-Credit Scholarships

There are currently two lawsuits pending against Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. As RedefinED reports, a judge recently denied an attempt to fast-track one of the two suits, which primarily concerns the adequacy of the state’s funding of district schools. A judge dismissed the portion of the suit related to the tax-credit program but plaintiffs filed an appeal and asked for the case to skip the appellate court and go straight to the state supreme court. That request has been denied, so the case will go before the appellate court first. That means the program is likely to serve more than 100,000 students by the time it comes before the state supreme court.

Nevada: Education Savings Account

As I noted a few weeks ago, the Nevada Supreme Court held oral arguments in two lawsuits against the state’s education savings account (ESA) program. RedefinED provides a nice summary of the arguments from each side.

Meanwhile, a new poll finds that nearly half of Nevada voters (48%) support the ESA program compared to 37% who oppose it. Some are making hay of the fact that wealthier families are more likely to support the program, but the law’s legislative sponsor explains that the poor are likely to benefit the most in the long run:

Support rose to 69 percent for voters with an income above $200,000, compared to just 40 percent for those earning less than $30,000.

“That might be true right now,” [state senator Scott] Hammond said. “But like anything else, when new technologies and innovations come down, it does seem like the rich take advantage of those.”

He compared the favorability of ESAs to the adoption of smartphones and other electronics: Wealthy individuals can afford to pay for the cost of research and development for a new product before the price drops for everyone else.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of ESAs, Hammond predicted the cost of private school tuition and other services will fall and build support for the program.

“The price point will decrease. The knowledge also will increase among groups of people who may not even know what an ESA is,” he said. “And then you’ll start to see more participation.”

Exactly so. As I noted last year, the iPhone was initially something that only wealthier folks could afford, but now Walmart carries a smartphone that has better specs than the original iPhone that costs just $10. Likewise, a market for education will require the participation of higher income families to bring needed capital, but over time the greatest benefit will redound to the poor. As we’ve seen in Arizona, it is the lowest-income families who were the least satisfied at their district schools and who were the most satisfied with the ESA.

New Hampshire: Croydon’s Town Tuitioning Program

The village of Croydon, New Hampshire (population 651) is too small to run its own K-12 school system, so it has long contracted with a neighboring town to educate its students. However, a few years ago, village officials decided to cover the tuition costs of students attending any school their parents chose, up to the amount they had been paying in their previous agreements. Unfortunately, state officials didn’t like the town bucking the government education monopoly:

Croydon had been spending about $12,000 per pupil to place them in Newport’s district school. The town would cover tuition at a family’s chosen school up to the amount Newport charged, and the parents would make up any difference. On the other hand, if a school charged less than that, then the town would reap the savings. This year, Croydon paid for four students to attend Newport Montessori School, a private school where tuition is $8,200 a year.

Although the taxpayers save money and, most importantly, the students’ parents believe that school is the best fit for their children, the New Hampshire Department of Education ordered Croydon to immediately cease paying for students attending private schools.

The DOE argues that Croydon does not have the statutory authority to pay for students to attend private schools. The Croydon School Board’s attorney, former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Charles Douglas III, disagrees, pointing to a statute authorizing districts to contract with other public or non-public educational institutions, which, in fact, some other districts already do.

Sadly, a district court recently ruled against Croydon, which is now considering an appeal. Because the town is so small, raising the funds necessary to mount a successful legal appeal is challenging, so some village officials have created a GoFundMe page for a legal defense fund. (Yes, my libertarian friends, they do take Bitcoin!) For more information on the case, see the School Choice for New Hampshire blog.


Online Courses May Not Be the Way of the Future

August 12, 2016

Ed reformers, including path-breaking scholars Terry Moe and Paul Peterson, championed digital instruction as the way of the future.  Teaching courses online has enormous potential appeal.  Instruction could be better customized to match student needs, abilities, and learning-speed.  Online courses could achieve greater economies of scale, producing desperately needed efficiencies.  Online instruction could address critical shortages in quality teachers, substituting capital for labor.  And online instruction could politically circumvent and undermine the teacher unions and their allies by opening the door to multiple, competing education providers for each student.

Some of these benefits may hold true, at least for some students, but the dream of revolutionizing education with online instruction appears to have over-stated its prospects.  The edtechnophiles may have missed the central task in education: motivating students to learn by creating social communities in which failure to learn would disappoint people with whom students have authentic relationships.  The problem of learning is not how to provide information to students.  Almost all of human knowledge is available to students at virtually no cost — it’s called the internet.  Students could look up and learn anything they want right now.  The trick is motivating students to acquire that knowledge.

Online courses appear to be less effective in getting the average student to learn and I suspect the problem is that teaching online is less able to create social communities and authentic relationships that are necessary to motivate students.  Having a human being in front of students who would be disappointed if students did not learn the material seems important and something that online instruction has not been able to simulate.  Students appear to be better motivated to learn when they have an in-person, authentic relationship with a teacher and when they try to please that teacher by working hard to learn.  Digital instruction or a human being on the other side of the internet may not be able to create that same relationship and motivation.

There has been a fairly consistent string of studies with disappointing results from online instruction.  The most of these studies, which also contains a useful literature review of past research, is by   Cassandra M.D. Hart, Elizabeth Friedmann, and Michael Hill at the University of California, Davis. They examine the effects of online course-taking in California’s Community College system. Rather than summarize, I’ll let them describe their results:

Using a series of fixed effects techniques, we find patterns that are strikingly similar to those found in past literature. We find that online course-taking is negatively associated with contemporaneous course performance in terms of course completion, course passing, and the likelihood of receiving an A or a B. We subject our analyses to several novel tests to determine whether selection into online courses biases these fixed effect estimates, and find that the results are likely not biased….

We find that contemporaneous student performance in online courses is generally weaker than in [Face to Face] FtF classes. The results hold whether we use college-course fixed effects, student fixed effects, or instructor fixed effects. Our results are consistent across multiple ways of measuring student performance, for students with different characteristics, and across different subject Online Course-taking and Student Outcomes 29 areas. The consistency of these results across different methods of specification and for different groups adds credence to our findings. Our results are close in magnitude to results from similar studies conducted in multiple states (Xu & Jaggars, 2011; Xu & Jaggars, 2013; Johnson & Cuellar Mejia, 2014). In addition, the coefficients’ stability and the fact that the coefficients become more negative as we add controls suggests that the degree of selection on unobservables (Altonji, Elder, Taber, 2005; Oster, 2013) would have to be substantial and in the opposite direction from selection on observables to invalidate the fixed-effect results for our contemporaneous course-taking outcomes….

We find more modest evidence that online course-taking is associated with some negative downstream outcomes as well. Our findings that online course-taking is positively associated with course repetition and negatively associated with subject persistence are stable across a number of estimation techniques; like the contemporaneous course performance results, these are consistent whether we use student, college-course, or instructor fixed effects. The subject persistence results are largely stable across student subtypes, but are non-significant for AfricanAmerican students. There is more heterogeneity across subject types; while subject persistence gaps are negative for math, humanities, and social science classes, the gap is non-significant for business classes and is actually positive for information technology courses. In all cases, however, the subject persistence gaps are much smaller in magnitude than the estimates for the contemporaneous outcomes.


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