Chag Purim Sameach

March 13, 2017

For those recovering from yesterday’s Purim celebration and for those who don’t know what they missed, here are some great Purim costumes:

Israeli school students dress up in costumes at the Hanisuii school in Jerusalem on March 10, 2017, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

אליאל הילל - העמוד הרשמי


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Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!

The All-Too-Familiar Experience of a Pundit with a Home Office

March 10, 2017

Park Savings Accounts – An idea whose time has come

March 9, 2017

(Guest post by Adam Peshek)

I saw this flyer the other day by a group called Iowans for Public Education and it just made sense. We need to create Park Savings Accounts (PSAs) in Iowa!

As you know, back in 2018 the voters of Iowa decided to make summer camp compulsory. And for good reason. Social scientists from across the state and nation told us of the summer Brain Drain – that time between May and late August when our children lose the knowledge they gained during the school year.

And all because of an outdated notion of “summer break,” which we all know was a centuries-old holdover from farming days. As parents went off to work in June, the unsupervised children they left were running amok – getting into trouble, getting hurt, running with the wrong crowds, and using their free time to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Some kids even start listening to rock and roll music.

The social costs were skyrocketing. Luckily, Iowans decided to fix this problem by amending the state constitution to create universal summer camps for all:

The safety and well-being of students is of paramount interest to all citizens of this state. Therefore, the state shall make adequate provision for summer camps for all children within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made in a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free summer camps in local parks across the state.

Instead of funding individual students to pay for summer camps of their choice, tens of thousands of Local Park Agencies (LPAs) were created to manage the program. Large maps were taken out to draw circles around parks to determine which residences were to be zoned for which parks.

Beating Brain Drain, making good citizens, and preparing children for the challenges of the future is complicated work and you need qualified adults to do it. So, we created the park ranger licensing program to ensure the best quality adults were left with our children.

Money needed to pay for all of this is raised through state and local taxes and the average student gets $3,000 in services spent on them each summer. An LPA with 3,000 students in it would have a summer budget of at least $9 million. (The cost for constructing parks is not included in this amount.)

But the goal wasn’t to just build parks that people could choose to come if and when they wanted! We all agreed that summer camps should be compulsory. But we also admitted that requiring all students to go to summer camp at one locally-zoned public park is downright Orwellian! So, parents are given two other options.

The first option is called home camping, which allows parents to provide summer camp for their children as long as they submit documentation to the LPA detailing what activities they plan to provide. This is only an option for parents who can be home during the summer – and have the patience to do it. Despite being fairly commonplace in the 20th Century, home campers soon became seen as a group of outsiders. I mean, how weird is it do to summer camp in your house?! What about socialization? What about proper standardized services approved by the experts in the state capital? It’s just plain weird.

The other option is for parents to pay for private summer camp. These used to be much more prevalent in the U.S. before states started passing laws to provide free summer camp for every student in every neighborhood across the country. Those that remain mostly fill a niche: providing religiously-oriented programming, catering to wealthy parents, or just providing an option for an unsatisfactory local park.

No one ever envisioned a need for another option. But after a few years, parents started to make decisions about buying houses near the best public parks, and home prices became correlated with the quality of a local park. Parents began paying $300,000 for a home in one part of town, even though the exact same home would be worth no more than $100,000 in another part. Young couples with small children began the trend of moving out of cities to the suburbs to be able to afford a quality local park.

But when you have to send your child to the park you live closest to, as a parent you’re going to do what it takes to get them into the best. Let’s face it – some parks are better than others. Some parks have discipline problems, disruptive children, or seem like embodiments of the summer camp movies we grew up with in the 1990s. A lot of public parks are great, but for whatever reason they were not fitting the interests or needs for each individual child zoned to attend them. And why would we expect this setup to produce this outcome?

Even if you could, local park managers don’t actually have a budget or the ability to choose their staff, they’re assigned by the LPA. Workplace rules are written by the LPA, with the help of the local park rangers union. These rules dictate everything from the structure of the day, the exact number of hours rangers are expected to work, and other prohibitions that keep managers from being able to change the structure of the day to fit what is needed. Rangers get paid based on how long they’ve worked for the park service, their level of education, and a few other variables such as cost of living.

The best park rangers have no interest being assigned to the most difficult parks. Why would they? The difficulty of the job isn’t factored into the set salary schedule. Even the most idealistic young rangers, who are dedicated to taking the tough roles out of a sense of purpose, are chewed up and spit out by the system. The institutional rangers don’t like them and the unions question their motivations.

Despite some positive benefits for the billions and billions spent, the compulsory summer camp program is still falling short on achieving the goal of keeping children safe and educated through June and July.

After a while, some of us looked around and thought, “why does it have to be this way?” Why are parents paying 200% more for a house just because of the quality of its zoned park? A lot of people actually like living in cities and don’t like the idea of having to move to ‘burbs just to give their kid a shot. Why are low-income families relegated to parks that seem antithetical to the mission of compulsory summer camp? It’s not like they can afford to move to Pleasantville. Why does the government have to be the only one involved with providing services?

People seem to recall a time when there were ways of dealing with this without the LPA. Why can’t students take the money that would have been spent on them in their local parks to one of those private summer camps? Would there be more of them if this was an option? Would they be cheaper?

I mean, there are summer camps in ritzy country clubs that provide the same services for less money!

This is why we should support lawmakers in their effort to create Park Savings Accounts. PSAs would allow you to get just the state share of what your local park would spend on your child. You could use this to pay for private summer camp and other summer enrichment alternatives. If you like your local park, nothing will change for you! In fact, since PSAs do not touch local funds, public parks will have more money per student.

Are PSAs going to fix everything wrong with our compulsory summer camp system? No, and we shouldn’t claim that it will. But it might do something very beneficial to the 4% of 5% of kids who need something different.

Ancient Social Scientists Conclude that Ending Slavery Harms Outcomes

March 7, 2017

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Archaeologists in Giza have just discovered an ancient document summarizing the social science evidence on the effects of freeing people from slavery.  Given that many people will be celebrating Passover next month, perhaps they should stop just repeating ideological talking points and consider what the evidence has to say.  Here is a translation of that ancient document:

The confirmation of Moses as leader of the Hebrews was a signal moment for the Exodus movement. For the first time, the Hebrews are being led by someone fully committed to making the end of slavery and departure from Egypt the centerpiece of the Hebrew agenda.

But even as ending slavery is poised to go global, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that freeing people from slavery may harm the people who are freed. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.

While many policy ideas have murky origins, ending slavery emerged fully formed from a single, brilliant promise Abram received from G-d, the literal godfather later to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics (check this?). G-d declared: “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.”

The freedom idea sat dormant for nearly 400 years before taking root in a few places, most notably Goshen. As people began to experiment with ending slavery researchers were able to collect data to compare freed people with similar people who remained as slaves. Many of the results were released over the last 18 months.

The first results came in late 1446 BCE. Researchers examined the initial results of departing Egypt. “In mobility” they found, “freed slaves experienced a significant increase in wandering the desert.” They also saw a marked decline in food production, with Hebrews having to rely entirely on food assistance programs.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of civic order. They found large negative results in both idol worship and lawlessness. Former slaves who started as devout followers of G-d and then were freed dropped to forming a golden calf in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve human behavior, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve human behavior having the opposite result. Thethi Neferti, a professor at the Luxor Graduate School of Social Science, calls the negative effects “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature”

In June, a third freeing-slaves study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of ending slavery (but only if it produces good outcomes and there are sufficient regulations in place). The study, which was financed by the pro-freedom Hatshepsut Family Foundation, focused on a large ending slavery program in Memphis. “Subjects freed from slavery fared worse economically compared to their closely matched peers who continued as slaves,” the researchers found. Freed slaves often became share-croppers and experienced public discrimination, leading social scientists to conclude that they would have been better off on the plantation, where food was more reliably available.

Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new freeing-slaves programs, found that ending slavery hurt people’s outcomes. Researchers and advocates began a spirited debate about what, exactly, was going on.

Meriptah Djedptahaufankh of the Brookings Institution noted that the performance gap between freed people and slaves had narrowed significantly over time. He argued that stronger incentives for masters to provide slaves with food, clothing, and shelter were proving effective. The assumed superiority of freedom may no longer hold.

Some freedom supporters observed that many farms in Memphis chose not to employ freed slaves, and those that did had recently experienced declining crop production. Perhaps the participating farms were unusually bad and eager for labor. But this is another way of saying that exposing freed slaves to the vagaries of private-sector competition is inherently risky. The free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the freed slaves — see, for instance, the lack of grocery stores and banks in many neighborhoods with former slaves.

Others have argued that the reliable supply of food is the wrong measure of whether ending slavery is desirable. It’s true that ending-slavery programs in Cairo and some others elsewhere, which produced no improvements in access to food, increased the likelihood of freed slaves experiencing dignity and autonomy. One study of freeing slaves in Giza found positive results for feelings of self-worth among freed slaves.

But research has also linked the availability of food to a host of positive outcomes later in life. And freedom advocates often cite poor food supply for slaves to justify freeing slaves in the first place.

The new studies about freeing slaves stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated indentured servitude in Heliopolis and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on the availability of food. But while freeing slaves and changing slaves to indentured servants are often grouped under the umbrella of “freedom,” the best indentured servant programs tend to be run by well-meaning aristocrats, open to all servants and accountable to public authorities. The less “free” that ending slavery programs are, the better they seem to work.

The new evidence on ending slavery does not seem to have deterred the Moses administration, which has proposed the departure of all Hebrews from conditions of slavery in Egypt. Moses’ enthusiasm for freedom, which have been the primary focus of his plague-bringing efforts and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.

Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!

Kevin Carey Flashes Back to 2009 for a Wild West tax credit tale

March 3, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Kevin Carey is at it again- this time by flashing back to eight year old allegations about the Arizona tax credit program as a dire warning about the dangers of a federal tax credit. When these stories ran in 2009, here is what I had to say about it here on the Jayblog:

When presented with this type of information, the first instinct of some will be to deny it, to hunker down, to accuse our enemies of far greater misdeeds, or to otherwise try to put lipstick on a pig. Good luck with that.  It is blindingly obvious to me that Arizona’s tax credit is system is a good program overall that suffers from specific weaknesses that can and must be addressed.  Otherwise, writing articles like this one will become the journalistic equivalent of using a shot-gun to shoot fish in a bucket.

Since then, things have improved substantially, but Kevin did not get the memo. Here are a few items that Kevin left out:

Subsequent to 2009, the state enacted new legislation to require STOs to both consider financial need in the granting of scholarships, and to report to the Arizona Department of Revenue on the family income of recipients. When you examine the Arizona Department of Revenue Reports, you find that approximately 80 to 90 scholarship funds went to middle and low-income students. This not only is a more progressive distribution than many public schools and school districts, it beats the living daylights out of another Arizona tax credit for public school kids that overwhelmingly goes to advantaged public schools. Quite frankly it is likely that a large majority of private choice funds were going to middle and low-income children before the state required reporting. It’s just nice to have an Arizona Department of Revenue report that confirms it.

Carey wrote “Some states, like Alabama and Indiana, limit tax credit vouchers to low- and middle-income families, or to students who were previously enrolled in public school. But others, including Arizona, do not, subsidizing private education for the well-off.” Two of Arizona’s credits are means tested, and two are not. One of the two that is not means tested exclusively serves children with disabilities. I’ll be for completely means-testing private choice programs the very instant that Kevin gets means-testing passed for district schools. Until such time, let’s note for the record that the Arizona private tax credit programs serve provide far fewer dollars to “well off” kids than say, Scottsdale Unified. Someone please wake me up when the Times runs a breathless expose about rich kids getting exclusive access to fancy and abundantly funded public schools.

In addition to the state taking action, donors apparently expressed their displeasure with what they read about in the East Valley Tribune as well during the next donation cycle (see page 8.) If donors don’t like the way scholarship groups run their business, they have the option of not donating, or donating to other groups. 2010 was a rough year for scholarship groups. Decentralized accountability strikes again!

Reasonable people can disagree about the degree and extent of oversight and other devilish details in a program like this. Even we in the Wild West have to make adjustments on occasion, and the democratic process is ultimately pretty good at hashing these sort of things out. I’ll be happy to make my donation this April to help a low-income parent choose a school for their child.