Robb: Free Your Mind

April 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb provided an insightful summary of the choice debate overall while commenting on the ESA expansion fight here in the Cactus Patch, but with broad applicability:

….the debate about vouchers isn’t really about money. The argument that vouchers drain district schools of resources has always been a diversion.

Instead, the debate is rooted in different views of the role of government in educating children.

The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.

Voucher supporters believe that the pool should be used to provide the best educational opportunity for each child as determined by their parents. A proportionate share of the common pool should be available irrespective of whether that choice is a district, charter or private school. The focus should be on what is best for each child individually.

Voucher opponents believe that some children should be used by the government as sociological chess pieces. Their access to the common pool should be limited to the schools voucher opponents believe they should be attending, even if their parents believe it is suboptimal.

As Morpheus put it “What is the Matrix? Control.”

In other words, some people view children primarily as funding units for a system that employs a large number of adults. The other side views students as human beings with a huge diversity of needs and aspirations, a large number of which will not be met in a 19th Century Prussian factory model of service provision with a monopoly on the common pool funds. We have very helpfully moved away from this in Arizona, but each new step seems to elicit a fresh burst of misguided outrage. Robb used the term chess pieces, I prefer “funding units” but “copper tops” might be the most apt term:

 

 

 


And the Higgy Goes to… Plato

April 16, 2017

Image result for plato's republic

We had a particularly strong set of Higgy nominees, mostly because things are so awful that the list of those contributing to that awfulness has grown quite long.  In a normal year Joe Biden might make for a fine recipient of the Higgy, given his wild claims, multiple incidents of plagiarism, and grossly inflated status as a respected politician. But Trump makes one pine for the days of ordinarily unimpressive politicians of which Biden may be the archetype.  Kimberlé Crenshaw would also make a worthy recipient of this dishonor for her intellectually lazy and politically disastrous idea of intersectionality.  But these days outrage at the defects of PC is so commonplace that there is little need to pile on.  TIFs are a truly horrible idea that fuel the public corruption of handing tax breaks to favored industries or friends while righteously claiming to be creating jobs.  But the Higgy cannot go to the entire city of Cerritos, California for pioneering this vehicle for Petty Little Dictators since the dishonor really needs to identify an individual.

This year’s Higgy has to go to the “ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga” — Plato — who has provided Petty Little Dictators across the generations the intellectual defense and respectability they crave to lord over others while claiming that reason and science justify their actions.  Greg may well be right that Plato’s Republic should be read as a metaphor for the well-governed soul rather than a proposal for what seems to me to be a nightmarish dystopia.  And he may be right that Plato articulated a more appealing political vision elsewhere, but the fact remains that The Republic — even if it is a common mis-interpretation — is the most horrific political dystopia ever-described.  It puts 1984, Brave New World, and the rash of recent Young Adult dystopias to shame because at least you hear villainous music in your head as you read them.  The Republic is so pernicious because it is completely awful while also being completely righteous.

It is this righteousness that makes Petty Little Dictators so insufferable.  They have complete confidence that they are guided by reason and science.  Anyone who fails to submit is anti-science or motivated by base interests, requiring re-education and denunciation.  It is incredibly painful to acknowledge, but I believe that education reform — an effort to which I have devoted the bulk of my professional life — has been almost completely captured by Petty Little Dictators, including its researchers, advocates, journalists, and practitioners.

I sometimes wonder whether we might have been better off leaving things alone.  I wish I had listened more closely to the great political scientist, Ed Banfield when he warned us of the dangers of “reform.” Instead, we Young Turks in grad school generally dismissed Banfield as the old and out-of-touch emeritus professor whose office had been moved to the basement of Littauer Hall as a sign of his declining relevance.  In fact, Banfield had something more important to teach us than all of the “science” we were learning to fix the world — wisdom.  Unfortunately, I and my ed reform peers were all young and generally lacking in wisdom.  The mystery to me is not that young people in ed reform can be so lacking in wisdom, it is that there seem to be so few grown-ups who have acquired wisdom from hard experience and are able/willing to restrain the next wave from trying to foist their brave new world on all of us.  It is as if even the older ed reformers suffer from some sort of Peter Pan syndrome where they never grow up.  Rick Hess’ new book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, is a refreshing exception to this Peter Pan syndrome but his is largely a lonely voice standing athwart history, yelling “stop.”

The damage wrought by Petty Little Dictators is not just in their faux-scientific bossiness, it is in the backlash they generate, which is the essence of Trumpism.  If PLDDers want to impose their will in the name of science, Trumpites dismiss science altogether and focus exclusively on the triumph of their will. As they see it, science, facts, truth are all just a charade to disguise one’s interests, so their interests might as well prevail.  Petty Little Dictators fuel this oddly post-modern rejection of objective evidence by the Trumpites because they behave exactly as the Trumpites think one should behave — imposing their will arbitrarily — even if the PLDDers are simply more self-deceptive than the Trumpites about what they are really doing.

There is an alternative to invoking Science as the club to beat others into submission and advance toward the perfection of human beings or rejecting science altogether — it is called Conservatism.  Unlike the Trumpites, Conservatives believe that there is such a thing as objective reality and give deference to science and reason.  But unlike PLDDers, Conservatives are keenly away of how flawed we all are and do not trust themselves (or anyone else) enough to be the True Guardians of science and run roughshod over everyone else.  They believe people can never be perfected and that it is dangerous to try given our deeply flawed nature.  The best we can do is to preserve the traditions and institutions that hold our flawed nature in check while using science and reason to improve things on the margins.  In short, Conservatives emphasize humility while PLDDers suffer from over-confidence.

It’s true that Plato (via Socrates) displayed much humility in works such as the Meno, emphasizing how little we really know.  Then again William Higinbotham also did much good by contributing to the development of video games.  But Plato is worthy of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award because the damage done by The Republic — even if it is simply by permitting a common misinterpretation — outweighs the good.  Plato joins last year’s winner, Chris Christie, and Jonathan Gruber the year before that.

(edited for typo)


Plato for the Higgy

April 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been reading a few books about Athens over the last few years, which lead to the thought that Plato would be a worthy nominee for the Higgy as the ur-Bossy Mcbossytoga in serving as the inspiration for technocrats for thousands of years.

The fact that we still read Plato would give a sane person pause in questioning a founder of western thought. No one will be reading Ladner 2300 years from now after all. Sanity is overrated however, and so too is Plato. It has been decades since I read the Republic but I recall being of the firm opinion that it was utter nonsense. Philosopher Kings? Shadows on cave walls? Guardian class? What a lot of rubbish…hey look my new copy of the Avengers arrived!

Republic..misguided…make..it…STOP!

I’ll give this much to Plato- Athens did not exactly have the democracy thing sorted out. Sure there were golden ages, but they tended to be surrounded by demagogues leading the city into catastrophic wars, plagues, periodic oligarchies etc. People who lead Athens through incredible peril- including Themistocles and Cimon- later found themselves exiled from the city through democratic ostracism. Ungrateful Brits threw Churchill out of office at the end of World War II, but at least they didn’t force him out of the country he saved for a decade. The faults of Athenian democracy were too numerous to summarize adequately. Socrates for instance was chosen randomly to preside over the trial of six victorious Athenian admirals who were prevented from recovering the remains of fallen sailors by a storm. The obvious thing to do of course would be to execute the people who just won a decisive victory due to circumstances beyond their control. Socrates was unable to prevent it. Mysteriously wealthy Athenians who had previously borne the expense of paying for warships found non-military related hobbies occupy their time. The later execution of Socrates on the basis of vague nonsense obviously did nothing to endear Athenian democracy to Plato as well.

Plato was borne into Athenian aristocracy, and in fact his father had been a member of an oligarchy that temporarily overthrew Athenian democracy. Given the pandemonium of Athenian politics, one can hardly fault Plato for attempting to dream up improvements. Having said that, the idea of philosopher kings is utterly absurd. A group of materially disinterested ascetics spend decades in study to prepare themselves to govern the rabble with little compensation other than satisfying their benevolence after earning the acceptance of a self-perpetuating ruling class.

Riiiight

Fortunately no one actually tried to run Plato’s society, but there have been some fairly close parallels from time to time. The dead hand of medieval clericalism and various communist parties for instance come to mind as self-perpetuating elites admitting members based upon decades of training in a world view. I don’t know how one gets admitted into, say, Iranian theocracy, but that might more than vaguely resemble a guardian class. If these examples sound like recipes for stagnation and corruption it is only because, well it is in fact a recipe for stagnation and corruption.

Milton Friedman happily set Phil Donahue straight on this back in the 1970s:

Where in the world are you going to find these angels indeed. Athenian democracy was too often a pig’s breakfast of mob rule chaos, but I would take my chances with it over Plato’s benevolent ruling class fantasy.

The part of American democracy that most closely resembles the Plato’s philosopher kings would be the United States Supreme Court. You may have heard of them, they have been in the news a bit lately. Ross Douhat in fact makes an interesting case laying the blame for much of American political dysfunction in recent years at the feet of…wait for it….David Souter:

Had Souter simply voted like a typical Republican appointee — not in lock step with Antonin Scalia, but as an institutionalist, incrementalist conservative, in line with the current chief justice, John Roberts — then it’s likely that Roe v. Wade would have been mostly overturned in the 1990s, returning much of abortion law to the states, and that the gay rights movement would have subsequently advanced through referendums and legislation rather than a sweeping constitutionalization of cultural debate.

This, in turn, would have dramatically lowered the stakes of judicial politics for many Republican voters, making an untimely event like Scalia’s death less of a crisis moment, a response like the Garland pocket veto less of a necessity and the candidacy of Donald Trump something more easily rejected.

Indeed, I strongly suspect that in a world without the Souter own goal — a world where the Supreme Court had sided with cultural conservatives to the extent one would have expected given the number of recent Republican appointees — a nominee like Merrick Garland could still have been confirmed with Republican votes, and the filibuster could still persist, reserved for the unqualified, corrupt and genuinely extreme. Oh, and into the bargain, Donald Trump might well not be president.

Read the whole piece and see what you think. I largely buy the argument. American democracy is designed to force compromises that no one necessarily loves but most can live with. However tempting it may seem to bypass what can be a very frustrating democratic process, it is a very bad idea. Rule by executive, administrative or judicial fiat by “our betters” that Plato longed for at this point has a storied history of backfiring in fashions ranging from the humorous to the absolutely horrific. In the case of Souter, acceptance at Georgetown cocktail parties must have been swell but things may have indeed worked out better if he had felt some sense of democratic duty to the people who elected George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis in a complete rout of an election. Why let a little thing like a mere election get in the way of acceptance into grandee society?

We must empower authorities, but keeping the ability to turn them out of office seems to work better than anything else we have come up with, even if they hadn’t quite figured it out entirely in ancient Athens. For interrupting my vitally important early 1980s activities like Robotron 2084  robot killing and Magnum PI rerun viewing with turgid and misguided baloney and worse still for inspiring would be technocratic ruling classes for well over two millennia, I nominate Plato for the Higgy, it is a shame he wasn’t James Madison.


Would School Choice Segregate Well-Off Students?

April 12, 2017

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(Guest post by Martin Lueken)

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s Secretary of Education is shining a national spotlight on educational choice. It has also drawn attention from school choice skeptics and opponents and a flurry of criticisms about choice with it.

A recent report by Halley Potter of the Century Foundation claims that educational choice increases ethnic segregation. Never mind that it misinterpreted a study on Louisiana by Anna Egalite, Jonathan Mills, and Patrick Wolf (you can find Egalite’s rejoinder here).

But ethnic segregation is not the only kind of segregation about which concerns are raised. Opponents also argue that choice policies will lead to “creaming,” in which well-off students disproportionately choose to participate in choice programs, leaving public schools worse off.

These claims are making a prediction about which students and families will respond more to the offer of an ESA or voucher. Economists use the term elasticity to describe this responsiveness. In the context of school choice, for a given change in the price of private schooling (which is what ESAs and vouchers essentially do), a higher elasticity means that a larger number of students will respond by enrolling in or leaving a given school.

The analytic challenges involved in estimating elasticities of demand for private schooling are substantial because it is difficult for researchers to obtain causal estimates. Fortunately, a team of researchers conducted a study which speaks to the issue of school choice’s probably effects on this kind of segregation, and its analysis produced some interesting findings.

Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan, Higgy winner Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Danielle Li of Harvard estimate the price elasticity of demand for private schooling. This team of researchers could observe differences in responsiveness to price among families with different backgrounds.

In a finding with huge relevance to the school choice debate, they conclude that families “with lower levels of parental education are about over four times as price elastic than other families.” In the words of the researchers:

The results indicate that vouchers would tend to increase the share of private school students who come from families with relatively low levels of parental education.

Moreover:

These results suggest that vouchers would increase the representation of low- and middle-income families at private schools.

Other model specifications “indicate that families with the highest predicted probability of private school attendance are the least sensitive to price” (p. 29).

The authors conclude:

These results suggest that a voucher program would disproportionately induce into private schools those who, along observable dimensions such as race, ethnicity, income and parental education, are dissimilar from those who currently attend private school. This is in marked contrast to the assumption made in previous studies… that the new students that vouchers would induce into private school would look demographically similar to current private school students.

…Overall, it is those families who (along observable dimensions) are least like the current population of private school customers that are most sensitive to price, suggesting that vouchers would substantially alter the socioeconomic composition of private schools.

While this study provides one useful data point for policy makers who are considering introducing or expanding educational choice in their states, policy makers should also consider information generated by studies that have already measured the impact of educational choice on segregation. The most rigorous studies available examined Louisiana’s voucher program, where researchers found that the program reduced segregation. Other studies found that school choice programs move students into less segregated schools in D.C. and Cleveland; results in Milwaukee either find no difference or suggest a positive effect. When one weighs the overall evidence about the impact of private school choice on segregation, a picture develops where findings from empirical research on school choice programs bolster the predictions suggested by Dynarski, Gruber, and Li’s findings.

These studies suggest that empowering parents to choose would change private schools. And empirical research on private school choice’s effects on segregation are largely positive. For those who value diversity and empowering parents, increasing educational options is a good thing.

Martin Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Education Finance and Policy at EdChoice.


Community Inclusiveness by State Charter Sector

April 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools dashboard has lots of cool data on state charter school sectors. I decided to take a look at the geography data by state to see how some of my favorites do on community inclusiveness. I don’t believe that we are likely to find charter sectors that precisely match the districts for a number of reasons, but large imbalances carry substantial drawbacks imo.

Bad:

 

Better:

Best:

Note that all three states over-represent in cities and there are practical (population density) and morally compelling (lower average performing district school options) reasons to do so. Texas however has focused on urban areas to such an extent that in communities that elect most of the state’s dominant political party (urban Texas is deep blue, with “urban” trumping “Texas” in voting preferences) schooling remains mostly a take it over leave it proposition from the districts. I heard from a CMO that operates charters in both Arizona and Texas that suburban demand for charters was even stronger than in Arizona in terms of generating wait-lists. In Arizona charter school competition is everywhere and even Scottsdale Unified needs and wants out of district transfers. Texas suburban districts meanwhile surround their new schools with trailers and keep increasing property taxes, and have limited interest in out of boundary transfers.

The “Size Does Matter” mantra again comes into play as the share of Arizona city children attending charter schools is likely considerably higher than the same share in Texas despite the fact that Arizona is more inclusive of towns, suburbs and rural areas (Texas has more urban charter schools than Arizona in absolute terms, but a much larger urban student population as well.) Thanks you again 9/33 NACSA scored charter law!


Brookings Institution finds that 82% of American families live within five miles of a private school

April 10, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona lawmakers passed a broad expansion of the state’s ESA program last week, meaning that we got treated to every anti-choice talking point you can imagine during the debate, some far more dubious than others. One opponent for instance asserted that the ESA program was reminiscent of a very unfortunate history decades ago when officials kidnapped Native American children from reservation lands and forced them to attend schools in Phoenix, breaking their families up.  As you might imagine, this level of overconfident paternalism bears a scar to this day. Parental choice would of course bring this history to mind if not for the fact that it is in fact the polar freaking opposite of having some idiotic government official decide where your child was going to go to school whether you like it or not.

But I digress…

Transportation lies more in the realm of worthwhile discussion- parents can only choose between schools within transport range. Private schools engage in a variety of formal and informal transportation efforts- including carpools and buses, but the lack of tightly packed attendance boundaries presents challenges as choice schools tend to draw from large areas for students. Brookings has produced a very helpful study finding that 82% of American families live within five miles of one or more private schools.

So let’s take a real world example. A few years ago I blogged on the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program having partnered with a group of South Tucson Catholic schools. South Tucson has many low-income students and a sadly large number of low-rated public schools, but it also has a number of private schools within walking distance. Transportation is not the main issue in South Tucson- the ability of families to cover the modest tuition costs remain the main obstacle.

The complexity of the ESA program eligibility requirements were another obstacle, although one that has been overcome. This is a Powerpoint slide that ACE used to explain how they went about attempting to qualify children for Arizona choice programs under the formerly Byzantine rules of AZESA:

Having said all of this, not every child will have the same proximity to private schools as the kids in South Tucson. We can hope that additional private schools will open to meet demand, and the ESA does provide options outside of attending private schools. I am also hopeful that the Nevada ESA program will be funded this year, and we can see how including transportation as an allowable account expense works out in practice.

 

 


Governor Doug Ducey signs AZ Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion

April 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the expansion of the ESA program into law, becoming the first Governor to deliver on a sizable expansion of parental choice during the 2017 legislative sessions. The torch has been passed to a new generation of governors.

The other states are invited to hop on in-the water is fine!