We’ve Got the Time Machine Under Control, So Post Your 2020 Al Copeland Humanitarian Nominations

October 9, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was announced this morning, so you know what time it is – time once again to post your nominations for the only prize anyone anywhere really covets, the Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year Award.

The Al Committee would like to extend its thanks to the Nobel Committee for upholding the cherished tradition of making a silly award – giving the prize to a titanic UN anti-hunger bureaucracy – so the authentic value of The Al will stand out by comparison. We look forward to many future years, and generations, of continued cooperation in the shared work of building up more and more PLDDers through the Nobel, so that the absurdity of the PLDDers can be exposed through The Al.

(No more of that nonsense like in 1970 when the award went to the real enemy of hunger. But that was before The Al.)

The Al Committee would also like to apologize for the glitch in our secret time machine that caused one of the nomination posts to go up before the nominations were open. We’ve got our totally nonexistent time machine under control now, and are going to fix the timeline quickly so that post appears at the correct time and becomes eligible.

Hopefully it will also stop raining.

Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee. If Jay likes it, he will post it with your name attached. A winner will be announced after Halloween.

The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

The 2019 winner of The Al was Mildred Day, inventor of the Rice Krispie Treat. In the fine tradition of Al Copeland himself, Day made the human condition better by bringing us great food. Her treats are not only delicious, they’re easy to make, so they are often among the first cooking projects that parents do with their children. Parents connecting with their children over something yummy is just about the best thing there could be. Day was favored over political pranksters Chad Kroeger and JT Parr, and Bob Fletcher, who helped three Japanese-American families in California keep their farms after WWII-era internment.

The 2018 winner of The Al was Joy Morton. Like Al Copeland, Morton promoted the good by doing well. It was known that small amounts of iodine could prevent goiters, but no one was doing anything about this until Morton saw a way to gain a competitive advantage for his salt company: adding iodine to salt, and advertising its health benefits. The bumper crop of nominees in 2018 also included Great Course lecturer Elizabeth Vandiver, musical disintermediator Leo MoracchiloliMagic: The Gathering inventor Richard Garfield, scofflaw tech recycler Eric Lundgren, lemonade-stand paladins Adam Butler and Autumn Thomasson, and George Henry Thomas, a Virginian general in the Union army.

The 2017 winner of The Al was Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world from nuclear destruction by refusing to follow Soviet orders to retaliate against what he suspected (as was later confirmed) was a false warning of a US strike. It’s not quite spicy chicken, but it’s close! Petrov was selected from an excellent set of nominees, including Whittaker Chambers, witness against communism, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, creators of Rick and Morty, and Russ Roberts, author and host of EconTalk.

The 2016 winner of The Al was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie League, founders of Alamo Drafthouse movie theaters, political humorist Remy Munasifi, and humorous political journalist Yair Rosenberg. Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews, to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners. It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.

The 2015 winner of The Al was internet humorist Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough). His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet. Given how much time education reformers waste on social media, especially Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona. Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLean, inventor of shipping containers, Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, and John Lasseter, founder of Pixar.

The 2014 winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System. To save a life, DeComo drove all night to retrieve a lung machine from Canada, then thought quickly when border control officials at first denied him permission to bring it home because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA. DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,” Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of The Al was musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al brings joy to people of all ages, while puncturing the pretensions of puffed-up celebrity entertainers. He beat an impressive set of nominees, including performer/skeptics Penn and Teller, crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and WWII industrialist Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of The Al was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees: artist Banksy, car creator Ransom E. Olds, first-down-line inventor and two-time Al nominee Stan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, the inventors of bubble wrap.

In 2011, The Al went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon. Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates. Haas beat his fellow nominees: Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010 winner of The Al was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist. He beat out The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

The 2009 winner of The Al – in the first year the award bore that name – was Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag. She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing, Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban, Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Also noteworthy from 2009: History’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham, was declared permanently ineligible to receive The Al. He remains the only individual thus disqualified. In (dis)honor of Higinbotham, The Higgy award has been bestowed on (un)worthy candidates annually since 2012.

Al Copeland himself was honored in 2008 as the official humanitarian of the year of Jay P. Greene’s Blog. The award was renamed in his honor the following year.

Happy nominating, watch out for time bandits, and whatever you do, don’t touch the pure evil!

On Violence and Education

October 7, 2020
Photo of what was done to my community from the Kenosha News

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Not gonna beat around the bush, folks, my latest column at OCPA is personal:

I live about five miles from the area of Kenosha, Wisconsin, that was recently devastated by rioting. The human cost of unjust and unlawful violence in our community, which has come from radical rioters and from abusive police and vigilantes, simply won’t go into words. What will go into words is the long-term educational problem represented by a society that has failed for generations to reproduce in its young people a commitment to even its most basic civilizational ideals: equality under the law, and respect for other people’s rights.

Functionally, the deepest roots of the culture war that has crowded out community and moral imagination are in educational failure:

What the two sides have in common is not simply that they fail to apply our shared moral rules to their own side, but that they do not speak in terms of shared moral rules at all. That is, unless you count the law of the jungle as a moral rule. The moral patrimony is no longer a patrimony, for we have failed to pass it on.

We employ millions of people and spend many billions of dollars a year on K-12 schools and higher education, but the most important lessons aren’t being learned. They haven’t been for generations.

But right-wing assaults on left-wing agitprop in schools could not solve the problem – not merely because they will continue to fail, for the same reasons they have failed consistently for fifty years, although it would profit us to think about that as well – but because they would only deal with the symptom, not the cause, of the problem:

Our schools were ripe for capture by ideology because they were first civilizationally bankrupted by a great narrowing of their purpose. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we stopped thinking of schools as extensions of the family, cultivating human beings for a life that would be whole and meaningful. Instead, we began thinking of schools primarily as extensions of the economy, training workers, and of the state, indoctrinating citizens into values chosen for them by their rulers. Quackery and claptrap rushed in to fill the educational vacuum created by this impoverished notion of what education is.

At the K-12 level, the great narrowing came when a big left/right coalition came together for government monopolization of schooling…

Reforms like school choice are a step in the direction of restoring the older, family-centered model of education, which is a necessary precondition of any moral restoration in education, which is in turn a necessary precondition of sustaining any alternative to the Nietzschean nightmare of mobs and vigilantes stamping on each other forever.

Happy reading!

Universal Choice or Bust!

September 23, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my column on why the school choice movement should make a clear commitment to universal choice:

The choice movement has gained a great deal. A supermajority of U.S. states—30 of them—have school choice programs, plus two territories as well (the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). Eighteen states, including Oklahoma, have two or more programs! As a result, over half a million students attend private schools using public funds. That’s a long way from the tiny voucher program in Milwaukee that launched the modern school choice movement in 1990.

The question is, what is the choice movement going to do with that success? Keep racking up programs that are limited in the number of students they can serve, and in the schools those students are allowed to choose? Or think about what it would mean to take things to the next level? There are almost 51 million K-12 students in public schools; while I have no doubt that a lot of them are in the right place, and wouldn’t exercise choice if they had it, it seems like the time has come to aim higher.

Universal choice isn’t just the right thing on the merits. It’s also politically expedient:

One of the great ironies of life is that the least pragmatic thing to be is a pure pragmatist. “Forget about high ideals and just do what works” may get you by in the short run. In the long run, however, the only thing that actually “works” is high ideals. Without them, cynicism and distrust erode social cooperation, and there is no basis on which to settle disputes about what is permitted.

We see that principle illustrated in the history of the modern choice movement. The more we’ve compromised the ideal of universal choice, the more headaches we’ve ended up with. Bigger and broader programs are more stable and thrive better.

Exercise your universal choice of free speech to let me know what you think!

CC Broke the Law, So Does Defunding Schools Using 1619

September 6, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

When some Republicans pushed a federal school choice law recently, I wrote that I was “looking forward to the retractions and apologies from all the right-wingers who opposed Common Core on federalism grounds. Including – gosh, will you look at that! – one of this bill’s primary sponsors.“

Now the president has announced he will have the DOE withhold funds from schools that use the 1619 Project. Which is different from Common Core how, exactly?

Federal law unambiguously forbids the DOE from attempting to influence curriculum. The text of the law does not empower the department to make exceptions in cases where the curriculum in question is [insert the various defects of the 1619 Project here].

We’re either a nation of laws or we ain’t, folks.

Want to clean up curricula? Get your lazy asses out and hustle the issues in those school boards and state legislatures. If you come crying to Momma Fed instead, what you’re asking Momma to do is spelled C-O-M-M-O-N C-O-R-E.

School Choice Could Resolve the Reopening Crisis

September 2, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my column on why school choice is the way to handle the school reopening crisis. My school board decided to give me the perfect hook for the piece by . . . well, just read:

In my community, our public school board reversed itself twice, in August, on the question of whether schools would reopen for in-person learning in September. The start date was also delayed by two weeks, throwing parents’ plans into further confusion. And as I write these words, the board has planned an emergency meeting to consider whether or not to reverse itself a third time.

Who knows how many more positions they’ll have staked out by the time you read this article? Perhaps we’ll turn over management of our public schools to Erwin Schrödinger. Then they can be both open and closed at the same time.

Got to admit, I’m proud of that line. 🙂

This isn’t such a tough problem because school boards are stupid and evil, it’s because the government school monopoly forces us into a one-policy-fits-all nightmare:

If everyone has to go the same way on every issue, you will have constant battles over which way everyone should go. Sometimes you can resolve those battles with a compromise that people can live with (although no one will be very satisfied with it). But sometimes you just can’t. Life doesn’t always offer you splittable differences; sometimes it offers you hard choices.

And it’s important to notice how the monopoly makes education hostage to an adversarial system. The immediate problem on any given day is the crisis over how to resolve issue X (whatever “issue X” happens to be today—the pandemic, reading pedagogy, race and American history, etc.). But the ongoing problem is that every day is a crisis because all big decisions about all important issues are made through conflict. They have to be, when you’re trapped in a monopoly.

Let me know what you think!


July 22, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Bad idea, hoss. Baaaaaad idea.

Feds unconstitutionally shoving school choice down the states’ throats three years ago, permanently associating choice with a racist, misogynist, illiberal reprobate game-show host president, would have be ruinous for the long-term legitimacy of choice. Doing it in the middle of a pandemic and a national reckoning with the legacy of slavery and segregation? Words fail me.

Lots of other arguments against this folly here and here.

Looking forward to the retractions and apologies from all the right-wingers who opposed Common Core on federalism grounds.

Including – gosh, will you look at that! – one of this bill’s primary sponsors.

Federal Choice Folly

July 10, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The arguments against a school choice program imposed on the states by the federal government, including by indirect means, remain as strong as they ever were, and we now stand to lose more from such a move than we would have three years ago, when it would have been merely a disaster rather than a catastrophe.

When the president decided to make the reopening of schools a culture-war football, no doubt with his own reelection in mind and obviously caring nothing about what will serve students well – or even what would be a tactically smart way to increase the chances that schools do reopen – a more skilled politician than Betsy DeVos might have been able to find a way to keep her job without beclowning herself. The threat to withhold federal funds from districts that didn’t reopen was obviously empty. Congress has appropriated the funds, and in spite of Arne Duncan’s best efforts, the secretary of education is not the dictator of U.S. schools. Look how much trouble the administration got into by attempting very briefly to hold up congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, and in that case you had far fewer people watching (at least in the U.S.!), and you didn’t have one of the nation’s largest and strongest special-interest coalitions on the other side.

I don’t apportion DeVos a huge share of blame for having stumbled in this regard – she’s kept her head down and done good work for much longer than most high officials in this administration. That she has been demonized by all the right people for doing good policy work far outweighs this misstep.

But the new gesture in the direction of turning this flub into the springboard for a federal school choice program, if taken seriously, would be a significant danger to the school choice movement. Let’s hope this is just an inartful way of confusing the headline-writers long enough to make the story go away and not a serious initiative.

Imposing choice on states that don’t want it, including by the constitutional equivalent of crawling in through the air ducts, is a bad idea any time. To do it in the middle of an explosive culture-war meltdown involving everything from how much risk of disease we’re willing to tolerate for our children to how we handle the legacy of our greatest national sins . . . well, words fail me to describe the catastrophic loss of legitimacy the movement would suffer.

Legitimacy matters more than short-term power. Much more. One might even say that legitimacy is just another word for long-term power.

The arrogant child-progressives who have taken over the big ed-reform foundations are not the only people who need a copy of Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies.

Huge Win for Kids and Religious Liberty

June 30, 2020

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The legacy of James G. Blaine, “Continental Liar from the State of Maine,” is finally dead. Good riddance!

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today in Espinoza v. Montana finally puts a stake in the heart of the ugly and bigoted legacy of the Blaine Amendments (the history of which Justice Alito details at length in a concurring opinion). It represents a decisive win for families seeking to exercise school choice and for religious liberty.

No doubt this will be a case that launches a thousand op-eds and analyses, but for now I’d like to highlight a few excerpts that get to the core of the issue. If the decision were to be boiled down to its essence, it is this:

“A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

That’s the whole game. As Chief Justice John Roberts explains at greater length in the majority opinion:

Here too Montana’s no-aid provision bars religious schools from public benefits solely because of the religious character of the schools. The provision also bars parents who wish to send their children to a religious school from those same benefits, again solely because of the religious character of the school. This is apparent from the plain text. The provision bars aid to any school “controlled in whole or in part by any church, sect, or denomination.” […] The provision’s title—“Aid prohibited to sectarian schools”—confirms that the provision singles out schools based on their religious character. […] And the Montana Supreme Court explained that the provision forbids aid to any school that is “sectarian,” “religiously affiliated,” or “controlled in whole or in part by churches.” […] The provision plainly excludes schools from government aid solely be- cause of religious status. [citations omitted]

The chief justice was at pains to explain that the case hinged on discrimination on the basis of “religious status”:

This case also turns expressly on religious status and not religious use. The Montana Supreme Court applied the no-aid provision solely by reference to religious status. The Court repeatedly explained that the no-aid provision bars aid to “schools controlled in whole or in part by churches,” “sectarian schools,” and “religiously-affiliated schools.” […] Applying this provision to the scholarship program, the Montana Supreme Court noted that most of the private schools that would benefit from the program were “religiously affiliated” and “controlled by churches,” and the Court ultimately concluded that the scholarship program ran afoul of the Montana Constitution by aiding “schools controlled by churches.” […] The Montana Constitution discriminates based on religious status just like the Missouri policy in Trinity Lutheran, which excluded organizations “owned or controlled by a church, sect, or other religious entity.” […]

To be eligible for government aid under the Montana Constitution, a school must divorce itself from any religious control or affiliation. Placing such a condition on benefits or privileges “inevitably deters or discourages the exercise of First Amendment rights.” […] The Free Exercise Clause protects against even “indirect coercion,” and a State “punishe[s] the free exercise of religion” by disqualifying the religious from government aid as Montana did here. [citations omitted]

While joining the majority opinion in full, Justice Gorsuch casts a gimlet eye on the “religious status” versus “religious use” distinction (as he did previously in Trinity Lutheran), noting that:

In its very first decision applying the Free Exercise Clause to the States, the Court explained that the First Amendment protects the “freedom to act” as well as the “freedom to believe.”

As Justice Gorsuch explains, the distinction between “religious status” and “religious use” is constitutionally meaningless:

Most importantly, though, it is not as if the First Amendment cares. The Constitution forbids laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion. That guarantee protects not just the right to be a religious person, holding beliefs inwardly and secretly; it also protects the right to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly.

Bingo. Justice Gorsuch continues:

At the time of the First Amendment’s adoption, the word “exercise” meant (much as it means today) some “[l]abour of the body,” a “[u]se,” as in the “actual application of any thing,” or a “[p]ractice,” as in some “outward performance.” […] By speaking of a right to “free exercise,” rather than a right “of conscience,” an alternative the framers considered and rejected, our Constitution “extended the broader freedom of action to all believers.” […] So whether the Montana Constitution is better described as discriminating against religious status or use makes no difference: It is a violation of the right to free exercise either way, unless the State can show its law serves some compelling and narrowly tailored governmental interest, conditions absent here for reasons the Court thoroughly explains. […]

The First Amendment protects religious uses and actions for good reason. What point is it to tell a person that he is free to be Muslim but he may be subject to discrimination for doing what his religion commands, attending Friday prayers, living his daily life in harmony with the teaching of his faith, and educating his children in its ways? What does it mean to tell an Orthodox Jew that she may have her religion but may be targeted for observing her religious calendar? Often, governments lack effective ways to control what lies in a person’s heart or mind. But they can bring to bear enormous power over what people say and do. The right to be religious without the right to do religious things would hardly amount to a right at all. [citations omitted]

In what really should have been the majority decision, Justice Gorsuch concludes:

Montana’s Supreme Court disregarded these foundational principles. Effectively, the court told the state legislature and parents of Montana like Ms. Espinoza: You can have school choice, but if anyone dares to choose to send a child to an accredited religious school, the program will be shuttered. That condition on a public benefit discriminates against the free exercise of religion. Calling it discrimination on the basis of religious status or religious activity makes no difference: It is unconstitutional all the same.

That, it seems, is a fight for another day.

Regardless, this is a huge win. Advocates for children and religious liberty should be very pleased. Bravo to Dick Komer, Erica Smith, Tim Keller, Michael Bindas, David Hodges, Gretchen Embrey, and all the legal eagles at the Institute for Justice for their landmark victory!

The ugly legacy of Blaine is dead. Long live religious liberty and educational choice!

Happy 90th Birthday, Dr. Sowell!

June 30, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-06-29 at 11.49.16 PM

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Dr. Thomas Sowell–economist, public intellectual, author of more than 50 books, and living legend–turns 90 today, just days after releasing his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Schools of choice like charter schools are, in Sowell’s view, the best way to wipe out educational disparity.

As he notes in his new book, Sowell’s research into what makes schools successful, particularly for minorities, began decades ago. In 1974, The Public Interest published Sowell’s article, “Black Excellence: The Case of Dunbar High School,” on how a school run by members of the black community for children of the black community attained great success.

Sowell experienced such schools firsthand: he grew up in Harlem but got, in his view, a great education. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard followed by a graduate degree at Columbia and a doctorate in economics at the University of Chicago, where he studied under the great Nobel laureate economist, Milton Friedman. (Although a Marxist at the time, Sowell’s views evolved and he eventually came to support free markets. He and Friedman became friends and Sowell is currently the Rose & Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.) Although relatively poor and persecuted, Sowell’s research found that the black community was able to provide a high-quality education for their young when given the opportunity.

Sowell returned to this theme in a 1981 debate about education on Firing Line with William F. Buckley. Nearly four decades later, it’s amazing how little the objections to school choice have changed. After Sowell proposed empowering families with school choice via any of several mechanisms (vouchers, open enrollment, tuition tax credits), his interlocutor immediately objected that “uneducated” parents would be unable to choose wisely for their children–an objection recently echoed by elitist politicians and professors alike. Sowell punctured this paternalism with a history lesson (how freed slaves who had been forbidden to learn to read ensured that the next generation was educated) and his own personal history. “I think you’d have very few blacks who finished college, including myself,” he explained, “if they had to have college-educated parents to send them there.”

In a 1986 debate (alongside Friedman and Buckley), Sowell addressed an assertion by Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers that what the education system needed was basically more of the same just with more money–essentially the same tune AFT has been singing ever since (even though the racial achievement gap that Shanker claimed would narrow has actually widened despite a massive increase in per-pupil spending). Sowell wasn’t buying it, pointing to the narrower racial achievement gap in the private schools. Debater Bill Honig retorted that a study had found that when private and public schools employed the same methodologies, the results were the same. Sowell immediately countered that this proved his point:

I don’t think there’s any magic about the institutional nature, I think the magic is about competition… If you’re saying to me that the private schools and public schools get the same result when they do the same thing, and you’re saying to me that the private schools close the gap between blacks and whites more, then you’re saying to me that the public schools aren’t doing what they should be doing.

In other words: incentives matter. On net, schools that do the same things with similarly situated students will have similar results no matter the sector. What matters is what schools do, and what they do is a function of who decides. As Sowell wrote in Intellectuals and Society, “The most important decision is who makes the decision.” When parents get to decide where their children attend school, their priorities will be reflected in the school system. When politicians and distant bureaucrats decide, the system will reflect their priorities instead. When parents get to decide, change can happen immediately if they decide to switch schools. When politicians and bureaucrats decide, change happens on their timeline.

Then as now, opponents of parental choice want parents to be patient. “Just give us more time and more money and we’ll get this fixed for you right away!” At the end of this exchange, Sowell channeled the frustration and righteous anger of parents with this “wait and see” approach:

You mention these various horrible things that are going to happen… if we have privatization, and that we should never resort to that until we have exhausted all forms of change in the public schools — how many thousands of years will it take to exhaust all possible forms of change in the public schools?

More than three decades later, most families are still waiting.

There are many more choices available today than in the 1980s, but options still remain elusive for too many families, especially low-income families of color. Untold numbers of children are on waitlists for charter schools or scholarships, options that should and would be available but for political opposition.

Fortunately, there are signs of progress. Even with state legislatures being shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, Utah passed a new tax-credit scholarship for students with special needs and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just signed into law the largest expansion of a school voucher program in the nation’s history.

Let us hope that by Dr. Sowell’s 100th birthday, all families will have access to the learning environments that work best for their children.

The Ravitches of Libel

June 19, 2020

Ravitch in the Schoolhouse Door

Diane Ravitch stands in the schoolhouse door to block children of color from accessing a charter school their parents chose.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

I’ve generally avoided engaging with Diane Ravitch over the last several years as her writing and followers often seem more like a form of primal-scream therapy than substantive discourse. However, her recent smear of Robert Pondiscio and Eva Moskowitz demands rebuttal.

For those who don’t know Pondiscio, he’s one of the most decent men you could meet. Many moons ago, he left a prestigious and lucrative career in media (TIMEBusinessWeek) to teach fifth grade at a public school in the South Bronx serving a very low-income population, mostly people of color. Since then, he has dedicated his life to improving the lot of the less fortunate by advocating for reforms he believes will improve the quality of education and expand opportunities. He still splits his time between his think tank work (he’s a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute) and teaching high school civics at Democracy Prep, a charter school network based in Harlem.

Recently, Pondiscio wrote a book, How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, for which he embedded himself in Success Academy, a charter network run by Eva Moskowitz that has not only closed the racial achievement gap, it has reversed it. As Thomas Sowell notes in today’s Wall Street Journal, Success Academy’s “predominantly black and Hispanic students already pass tests in mathematics and English at a higher rate than any school district in the entire state, [including the] predominantly white and Asian school districts where parental income is some multiple of what it is among Success Academy students.”

Success’s successes have rankled defenders of the traditional district school system, which looks pretty terrible by comparison. They’ve leveled a host of critiques of varying merit, and Pondiscio himself was not shy about illuminating Success Academy’s warts in his very thoughtful and nuanced book. (You can listen to interviews Pondiscio gave about the book here and here.)

Thoughtfulness and nuance, however, are not Ravitch’s jam. Piling on a recent controversy in which Moskowitz was accused of racism for merely Tweeting about the “horrific, senseless deaths of innocent black men and women” like “George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others who have died for no other reason than the color of their skin” using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter rather than issuing a press release, Ravitch decided to crank the unhinged libel up a notch on her blog:

The exchange between Moskowitz and a first-year teacher set off a debate about institutional racism in Success Academy and its harsh no-excuses methods. Those draconian disciplinary methods were defended by Robert Pondiscio of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who is white, and by Moskowitz, who is also white. Black children need harsh discipline, they argued. [emphasis added]

Pondiscio, naturally, took umbrage at this blatant mischaracterization of his views:

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In response, Ravitch pointed to a Chalkbeat article in which Pondiscio said the following:

But Moskowitz has vigorously defended her network’s strict approach arguing that exacting behavior expectations that are consistently enforced provide a necessary condition for student learning. And network leaders argue it works: Success’ students, the vast majority of whom are Black or Latino, typically outperform much whiter and more affluent districts on state tests. Parents of color continue flocking to Success, and network leaders are honest about what will be expected of them and their children.

“There is no doubt in my mind that there is a significant appetite among low-income parents for exactly the flavor of education that Eva Moskowitz offers,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the conservative-learning Fordham Institute who spent a year observing a Success elementary school in the South Bronx and wrote a book about it. “It just does violence to reality to pretend that this is some kind of pedagogy that’s being imposed on families of color.”

If you’re puzzled as to how anything in that quote can be construed as arguing that “black children need harsh discipline,” that’s because you don’t have access to the Ravitch’O’Matic Meaning Translator™. Fortunately, I have an older model that still works which I have dusted off. I’ve entered the quoted text above and we’re off the races!

  1. “the flavor of education that Eva Moskowitz offers” = “harsh discipline”
  2. “a significant appetite among low-income parents” = “black children are in need of”

If you’re still confused, that’s because you’re sane.

Whether the disciplinary practices at Success Academy and other “No Excuses”-style charter schools are “harsh discipline” or not is a matter of debate, but Ravitch only operates within an ideological echo chamber so she cannot fathom that there are people (like, for example, Pondiscio and most of the families who choose those schools) who disagree with that characterization. But even if the characterization is fair, it’s not fair to portray it as though it were Pondiscio’s characterization. It is not.

Even more inflammatory and unfair is the second of Ravitch’s rhetorical leaps. “Some parents of color choose X” simply cannot be translated as “all children of color must be subject to X” under any sane understanding of the rules of language. This charge is simply insane.

Daniel Willingham tried to gently and patiently explain this to Ravitch in the comments section, but she replied with circular and obtuse nonsense: “I relied on the words in the Chalkbeat article” and whined that Pondiscio took to Twitter to defend himself against her public calumny instead of emailing her. She continued:

I am unsure what Robert objects to. He has my personal email. Why doesn’t he write and tell me what he finds objectionable? Does he oppose “no-excuses” disciplinary policy? Does he think it is not “harsh”? Did he object to my describing it as harsh? I am totally confused about what he wants me to change.

Is she really that obtuse?

Perhaps. She even doubled down with a subsequent blog post. Senior scholars are generally owed some amount of deference and respect, but Ravitch is sacrificing any claims to such deference by her abhorrent behavior. There are at least three possible explanations for her mischaracterization of Pondiscio’s views:

  1. She lacks the basic faculty of language comprehension. If we take her at her word, she honestly cannot decipher statements in plain English and is left absolutely befuddled when people try to explain it to her using small words. Indeed, as has been documented extensively at this blog, her recent “scholarship” ranges from sloppy to shoddy, she is prone to make outlandish and self-aggrandizing statements, and she has even engaged in conspiracy theorizing that’s downright hillbilly nuts. If so, then people shouldn’t take her seriously.
  2. She knows what’s she’s doing and she’s mendacious. If she does actually possess the mental faculties to comprehend basic English, then she is intentionally twisting Pondiscio’s words in a particularly mendacious way. She knows how damaging a charge of “racism” (merited or not) is, especially in this climate, and has no compunction smearing someone simply because they hold different policy views (or, perhaps, because he criticized her book). If so, then people shouldn’t take her seriously.
  3. She is a racist and she is projecting. Pondiscio spends his time trying to empower black families with the ability to choose a high-quality education for their children. Ravitch spends her time, like George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door trying to block black families from accessing the schools they want to choose. To deflect attention from her own racism, she points at someone else who holds different policy views and hopes no one will notice. If so, then people shouldn’t take her seriously — and, indeed, she should be run out of polite society.

Ravitch might reasonably object that these three characterizations of her motives are unfair, but all three are infinitely more fair and supported by evidence than Diane’s Ravitchian reading of Pondiscio’s views.

She owes him an apology.