Debunking a Brazen Lie about Education Savings Accounts

July 24, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

An article in the Texas Tribune regarding the push for education savings accounts contained an incredible whopper from the state teachers’ union lobbyist:

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on “a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack,” he said.

“Who’s to say that a laptop isn’t an educational expenditure, but who’s to say that it is? Who is going to police that?” he said. “Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?”

Frankly, he should be embarrassed to be peddling a lie that is so easily debunked.

*All* of the existing ESA laws in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee contain financial accountability provisions to ensure that parents are spending the ESA funds only on approved educational expenses, which are clearly defined in law.

Like any government program (e.g., district schools), there is bound to be some amount of fraud. Fortunately, due to the tight financial controls, Arizona (the first state to enact an ESA law) has been able to recover misspent ESA funds. Moreover, an independent auditor recently determined than less than one percent of Arizona’s ESA funds were misspent, as the Goldwater Institute reports:

Last year, the state deposited nearly $26 million in families’ education savings accounts. The auditor uncovered misspending that totaled less than 0.8 percent of the distributed funds—an unacceptable amount, because any fraud involving taxpayer money and children is unacceptable. But it’s a manageable amount. The department of education should follow through on the auditor’s recommendations, as the agency stated it would in its response letter, and continue to improve the ways parents and students find quality learning opportunities with education savings accounts.

Arizona parents have spent more than 99% of ESA funds on approved educational products and services, and 100% of ESA parents surveyed in 2013 reported being satisfied with their child’s education.

The Texas teachers’ union needs a new talking point.


Mississippi ESA Update: The Magnolias Are Blooming

July 21, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Back in February, opponents of educational choice criticized Mississippi’s new ESA program for attracting fewer than half the number of students with special needs as there were slots available, claiming that this showed that the program was a “failure.”

Well, surely they will now issue a press release declaring the ESA program a success now that it is oversubscribed for next year. Empower Mississippi has the details:

Yesterday the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) conducted a lottery to award the remaining 175 scholarships for the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program. This year a total of 425 scholarships will be awarded to students in Mississippi.

The lottery drawing, held at MDE’s temporary headquarters at the South Pointe Business Park in Clinton, utilized a random number generator to determine the 175 recipients. There were 304 approved applications in the lottery competing for the available slots. Those that did not receive a scholarship, along with those that continue to apply, will have their name put on a waiting list for future openings.

Last year, in the first year of the program, 251 of the 434 available scholarships had been awarded by the beginning of the school year. Because of the rolling application process, and the available slots, that number increased each quarter last year. This year the program will be at maximum capacity of 425 students at the beginning of the year.

Enrollment in the program has grown by 70 percent over a one-year period and the number of approved applications has increased by more than 120 percent during the same time period.

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Source: Empower Mississippi

Next step: raise the cap on participation!


American Jewish Committee Endorses Abolishing Public Schools?

July 21, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In response to calls at the Republican National Convention for more school choice, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesperson announced that not only do they oppose the taxpayer subsidy of private schools, but they even oppose public schools. See for yourself:

For more than 50 years, school choice has been a contentious issue for American Jews. Decades ago, mainstream Jewish organizations were vociferous in defending the separation of church-and-state, worried that if the government got involved in funding religious schools in any way, it could lead to infringement on Jewish religious freedom. Those fears, according to American Jewish Committee associate general counsel Marc Stern, remain today.

“The Jewish community has long been concerned that government not be in the business of supporting private education,” Stern said. “Communities that want to maintain religious schools should pay for them on their own without government support. People shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with.”

Okay, so he didn’t say it explicitly, but Mr. Stern is intelligent and knowledgeable enough to know that lots of Americans object to what is taught in public schools, so this was a clear endorsement by the AJC for the complete abolition of public schooling.

Heck, this “people shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with” principle is something that my colleagues at the Cato Institute could really get behind. I’m sure that by the time the sun sets today, we could assemble a very long list of government programs to which many Americans object and we welcome the AJC’s support in abolishing them as well.

Then again, it’s always possible that the AJC’s attorney misspoke. Perhaps they’re not really in favor of abolishing the public school system and hundreds of other government programs, and the attorney just didn’t think through the logic of what he was saying. But if the AJC isn’t embracing anarcho-capitalism, then their “people shouldn’t be taxed to support things they don’t agree with” objection has no force or consistency. What they really mean is “we don’t think people should be taxed to pay for things we don’t like, but they should be taxed to pay for things that we do like,” which is not really a principle so much as an expression of political will — a political will that is fundamentally anti-pluralist, as I’ve explained previously:

Let’s consider an imaginary “public” school district where there are three groups of people: Hobbits, Ewoks, and Terrans. Each groups has very different and passionately held views about what should be taught in school and how it should be taught. All three groups are required to pay taxes to support the district school, which is ostensibly nonpartisan, nondenominational, and open to all. However, the majority of the district is Terran so the school reflects the Terran preferences. When the Hobbits and Ewoks open their own schools and seek equal per-pupil support from the local government, the indignant Terrans respond that the district school is meant for everyone. “It’s your right to open your own schools,” explain the Terrans, “but it’s your responsibility to pay for them.” Thus the majority brazenly forces minority groups either to abandon their values or to pay for two school systems. And lower-income minorities may have no choice at all.

Fortunately, other Jewish groups understand this and are willing to advocate for the greater freedom and pluralism that school choice programs deliver:

The Orthodox Union and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America have both successfully lobbied for New York City and New York State to fund programs like security and special education for private schools. According to Maury Litwack, the OU Advocacy Center’s director of state political affairs, more than 100,000 students attend Jewish day school in New York City.

“For parents who send their kids to Jewish day school, tuition is prohibitively high,” Litwack said. “They pay property taxes and a variety of other taxes. In American education there’s too often a one-size-fits-all approach to education. There should be more options.”

Republicans agree. A section of the party’s 2015 platform, titled “Choice in Education,” says, “Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status.”

The AJC is an organization that claims to be committed to the principle of pluralism. I look forward to a day when they fully embrace the ideal of pluralism in education.

[H/t David Benkof. Cross-posted at Ricochet.]


Checker Finn: Ed Reform as the Faber College Pan-Hellenic Disciplinary Council

July 18, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Checker Finn wrote a read-worthy lament for the state of ed reform for Hoover. Read the whole thing but this paragraph in particular caught my attention:

Exacerbating the disagreements on those questions is the self-righteousness that seems to have swamped this field in recent years. Education has never been a mirth-filled realm, but when I first got into it a lot of participants could still smile, occasionally giggle, even tell the odd joke—and the chuckles were, often as not, bipartisan. Today, however, practically nobody seems to have a sense of humor, at least not about anything bearing on ed reform. Is it because of our unfunny national politics? Because social media and 24/7 news mean that even a short chortle can be turned by one’s foes into evidence that one is making light of something? I’m not sure about the cause, but I can attest that it’s hard to make common cause with people who can never share a spoof or jest.

Practically nobody?!? It is alas a lonely task, but we continue to hold this last, best outpost of making light of things in ed reform-especially the deeply misguided and doomed to fail yet uhhh-gain sorts of things. We have been spoofing and jesting here at JPGB non-stop since 2008 and ed reform continues to provide plenty of material.

Checker makes an important point-social justice warriors make for poor dinner guests. It reminds me of this Charlie Rose debate about the 1960s when Barbara Ehrenreich droned on sternly while PJ O’Rourke’s related that his fondest 1960s memories involved LSD and picking up hippie women at protests.

Lighten up, Francis-we may as well keep a good sense of humor during what constitutes a protracted process of figuring things out.


The Greene-Polikoff Wager: An Update

July 12, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In 2014, Jay made a wager with education policy wonk Morgan Polikoff regarding how many states would, after 10 years, still be a part of Common Core (defined as having “shared standards with shared high stakes tests-even if split between two tests”). The loser owes the winner a cold beer.

At the time the wager was made, the states had almost unanimously adopted Common Core so Morgan was confident but Jay thought political support for CCSS was a mile wide but an inch deep.

Morgan noted that “At last count, 1 state out of 45 has repealed the standards.”  I responded: “I’m sure gay marriage opponents felt similarly triumphant in 2004. How many states have effectively implemented Common Core?” […]

According to Heritage’s count, 15 states have already refused to join Common Core, paused implementation, or downgraded or withdrawn from participation in national tests.  I just need all of these states to continue toward withdrawal from Common Core and 11 more to join them over the next ten years.  I like my chances.

Just a few months later, Jay posted an update:

With the withdrawal of Iowa this week from the Smarter Balanced testing group, there are only 26 states that plan to use one of the two national tests to assess their students during the 2014-15 school year.  It’s true that 35 states remain part of the two testing consortia and some of the 9 states that have delayed implementation of the common tests may begin using one of them in the next few years.  But it’s safe to say that several of those 9 delayed start states will never follow through.  And some of the 26 states actually using a common test in 2015 are already making noises about withdrawing.  See for example reports coming out of Wisconsin and South Carolina.
If one more state that is currently using one of the common tests drops it than decides to follow through on implementation, I will have won the wager.  And we have more than 9 years to see that happen.

So how is the bet looking two years later? Well put it this way: Jay can probably already taste that beer. From Education Next:

State participation in the consortia declined just as implementation of the new standards and tests was set to begin. The pace of withdrawals quickened over time, particularly for PARCC, which five or six states left every year between 2013 and 2015 (see Figure 1). As of May 2016, just six states planned to implement the PARCC-designed assessment in the 2016-17 academic year. SBAC also faced attrition but fared better and still retains 14 states that plan to use the full test. (That figure includes Iowa, where a legislative task force has overwhelmingly recommended the SBAC assessment, though as of early 2016 state officials had yet to formally accept the recommendation.) By early 2016, 38 states had left one or both consortia, short-circuiting the state-by-state comparability that the tests were designed to deliver (see Figure 2).

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“Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”

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Common Core in retreat.

Note that these charts do not reflect the fact that Illinois has just replaced PARCC with a “revamped” version of the SAT for its high school students. Students in grades 3-8 will still take the PARCC, so perhaps Illinois should count as half a state for purposes of the Greene-Polikoff Wager.

Of course, it’s always possible that the remaining CCSS states will work out the kinks, opposition will fade as people get used to the testing regime, and then the political winds will shift again and states will re-enter one of the CCSS testing consortia. A lot can happen in eight years. But there is no denying that Jay was prescient in his read of the situation.


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!


Grasping at Straws Over Detroit’s Charter Schools

July 1, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Following the exposure of all the errors, distortions, and key omissions in the recent NYT hatchet job on charter schools, the new line from the reporter and her teacher union allies is that the CREDO data is current only through 2011-12, but the charter cap was lifted starting in the 2012-13 school year. So sure, charters may have been outperforming district schools before “opening the floodgates,” but now the supposed “free market” (which, for the record, has no price mechanism, no free entry and exit, and lots of regulations regarding school mission, admission standards, testing, etc.) is letting in all sorts of bad actors.

But is there any hard evidence for this? Charter critics point to several anecdotes, but as Jay noted earlier, the plural of anecdote is not data. They’re simply grasping at straws.

Until CREDO updates their report or some other group tries to replicate it, we won’t have accurate apples-to-apples comparisons. Until then, we can’t conclusively reject or accept that hypothesis. But what data we do have cast doubt on it.

According to the Mackinac Center’s “2014 Michigan Public High School Context and Performance Report Card,” which used data through 2013, Michigan’s charter schools are punching above their weight: “Though charter schools make up just 11 percent of the schools ranked on this report card, they represent 35 percent of the top 20 ranked schools.” Two of the top 10 high schools in the state were charter schools in Detroit. The study awarded an “A” or “B” to four of the 14 Detroit charter high schools, while only two received an “F.” By contrast, 12 of 14 non-selective Detroit district schools received an “F.”

Results from their 2015 Elementary & Middle School Report Card are more mixed, but charters still come out slightly better.

The Great Lakes Education Project also broke down the 2015 M-STEP proficiency and found that Detroit’s charter schools–which must have open enrollment–outperformed Detroit’s open-enrollment district schools, although they lagged behind Detroit’s selective-enrollment district schools (and, frankly, none of the sectors have particularly stellar performance). Again, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, so we should be cautious in interpreting these data, but they certainly don’t lend support to the notion that the charter sector is particularly troubled.

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Detroit’s open-enrollment charters outperform open-enrollment district schools.

Moreover, as shown in this infographic that GLEP put together, Detroit’s charters are over-represented among the top-performing schools and outperform Detroit’s district schools on average:

18 of the Top 25 schools in Detroit are Charter schools

22 of the Bottom 25 schools in Detroit are DPS schools

 Charter average: 14.6%

 DPS average: 9.0%

 Charters are 62% more proficient than DPS

 71 charters (79%) perform ABOVE the DPS average and 19 charters schools (21%) perform BELOW the DPS average.

 20 DPS schools (30%) perform ABOVE the DPS average and 46 DPS schools (70%) perform BELOW the DPS average.

 12 DPS schools (18%) perform ABOVE the charter average and 54 DPS schools (82%) perform BELOW the charter average.

 40 charter schools (44%) perform ABOVE the charter average and 50 charter schools (56%) perform BELOW the charter average.

To reiterate yet again, these are not apples-to-apples comparisons. For that we will need another carefully matched comparison, like the CREDO studies, or (better yet) a random-assignment study. But until then, charter critics should be more circumspect in their allegations. Certainly there is plenty of room for improvement in both Detroit’s charter and district schools. But the charter critics have not presented any hard evidence that Detroit’s charter sector is particularly troubled, or that the increased choice and competition is at fault for the poor performance in either sector (especially since Detroit’s district schools have been seriously troubled for decades).

Neither Detroit’s charter schools nor their district schools are above criticism. But critics should put their criticism in its proper context — and be sure to bring evidence.


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