Massachusetts versus Arizona (?!?) in the World Series of Schools

March 23, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ok so you need distraction from this global pandemic business, so I’ll share some stuff I’ve been up to at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. Pop quiz hot-shot! Based on the Stanford Opportunity Project data who has the higher quality education system-Arizona or Massachusetts? Sean F. Reardon linked state tests across the country and gave proficiency and growth scores for most of the public schools in the country. Each dot in the above chart is an individual public school.

On paper this is no contest- Massachusetts lead the nation in NAEP scores for many years, AZ has below average 4th grade scores and kind of average 8th grade NAEP scores. This is reflected on the horizontal axis- the vast majority of MA schools land on the right side of the zero line meaning they are above average grade level proficiency. Keep in mind however that proficiency is highly correlated with student demographics, and Massachusetts is a socio-economically advantaged state. Growth on the other hand is much less correlated with student demographics and Arizona students show more of it than any other state during this period (2008-2016). And by the way, you don’t need to squint to see blue in what Keith Jackson called “hallelujah-land” (Keith of course referred to the end zone, where as I am referencing the upper right quadrant- high growth and high proficiency) and that disappointing quadrant below it (high proficiency low growth) is looking pretty bright orange. Those two super high growth schools at the top of the chart are charter schools in South Phoenix and Nogales-Ruiz Leadership Academy and Mexicayotl Academy, respectively.

Massachusetts is the highest proficiency state and Arizona the highest growth state, so beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Second pop quiz hot shot!

Which state does the best on a productivity basis? Here’s a hint:



In Which Greg Loses It

March 7, 2020

339ED27B-D0B6-4047-A189-61A804B67B33(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I thought JPGBers following the saga of Higgy winner Kosoko Jackson might be interested to see my new post over on HT, on the latest controversy over an author’s book being cancelled.

In which I lose it.

An excerpt:

(Wisconsinites, vote Dan Kelly on April 7!)

Wait, sorry, wrong part of the post. Here we go:

He can even self-publish his book! Publish it under the label Woody Allen Is Totally Innocent and Also All the Teen Girls Love Him Books and Industrial Waste, Inc.!

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “aren’t you the same Greg Forster recently seen driving donuts in Kosoko Jackson’s front yard?”

Yes, so for the slower students, I shall hereby Break If Down (stand back):

For the record, yes, this does constitute an amendment to my earlier statement here on JPGB that “At bare minimum, if the publisher initially judged the book publishable, it should come out so we can all evaluate it based on what’s actually in it. Publishers aren’t obligated to publish anything and everything, but they do need to show some spine once they’ve made a judgement – especially given that they’ve actually read the book and the critics who are Angry Online almost never have.”

That statement neglected to include a caveat to the effect that in some cases, the initial publication decision was so foolish that it’s right to reverse it. I had in mind potentially hard cases, open to interpretation, where mob rule threatened to make informed judgment impossible – not colossal errors of prudence on the publisher’s part, where informed judgment unambiguously supports cancellation. Judging each case on the merits is the overall principle here.

Speaking of judges: Vote Dan Kelly on April 7!

The New “Causal” Research on School Spending is Not Causal

February 25, 2020


Some researchers and journalists have become very excited about a new set of studies that claim to find a causal relationship between increasing school spending and improving student outcomes.  These folks acknowledge that the vast majority of earlier research found no relationship between additional resources and stronger results, but that research was purely observational.  Perhaps school systems with weaker outcomes tend to get a larger share of increased spending, creating the false impression that more money doesn’t help.  That is, perhaps bad outcomes often cause more money, not the other way around.

There is a new wave of research that claims to find the causal relationship between school spending and student outcomes and those new results are much more positive.  The problem is that the new research pretty clearly falls short of having strong causal research designs.  Instead, the new research just seems to be substituting different non-causal methods with a different potential direction of bias for the old ones.

The new “causal” studies generally come in two types — regression discontinuity (RD) studies of bond referenda and instrumental variable (IV) analyses of court-ordered spending increases.  While RD and IV designs can produce results that approximate a randomized experiment and can be thought of as causal, the RD and IV studies in this new literature generally fail to meet the requirements for those designs to effectively approximate randomized experiments.  That is, the new “causal” research on school spending is not really causal.

To illustrate the problem with the use of RD to study bond referenda, let’s look at the study that was just published in the Journal of Public Economics (JPE), a very high-status journal. A working paper version of this study that is not behind a pay wall can also be found here. The idea of this RD, like others in the new school spending literature, is that bond referenda that barely pass and those that barely fail can be treated as approximating a randomized experiment.  That is, there is a large element of luck in whether a bond barely passes or not, so by chance some schools get extra money and others do not.  If those that get that extra money by luck produce better student outcomes over time than those that don’t get the extra money by chance, then we can say that money — and not other factors — caused the change in outcomes.

The JPE study, like most of the other RD studies in this new literature, falls short of approximating a randomized experiment in two ways.  First, we can only view RD results as causal if the set of observations examined is sufficiently narrow that we can plausibly think that it is effectively chance whether the treatment is received or not.  But the JPE study defines bond referenda as “near the threshold” for passing if they are withing 20 percentage points of the percent required for passage of the referendum.  That is, if 50% is needed to pass a referendum, the JPE study would define the election as “near the threshold” if the bond received between 30% and 70% of the vote.  This bandwidth is so wide that it includes almost two-thirds of all bond referenda in the states they examine.  To call this “near the threshold” is misleading.  And it is simply implausible to think of any outcome between receiving 30% and 70% of the vote as a matter of luck.

Second, we can only view RD results as causal if actors have no control over whether they fall on one side or another of the threshold.  In the case of bond referenda that requirement is clearly violated.  Districts choose whether and when to hold a referendum and they do so based on their estimated likelihood of prevailing.  In addition, districts try to have a finger on the pulse of the campaign and can alter the effort by them and their allies to improve the chances of victory.  In sum, whether districts win or lose referenda is partially a function of their political competence and resources, which are qualities that the researchers cannot observe or control and yet are likely to be associated with changes in student outcomes over time.

The IV studies in this new literature are no better at approximating randomized experiments.  For IV research designs to produce causal results, they need to have an exogenous instrument — something that predicts whether schools get more money or not, but which is uncorrelated theoretically and empirically with later student outcomes.  While the details vary across study, the general approach of the IV studies in this literature is to treat court-ordered spending increases as exogneous.  That is, they have to believe that legislatively adopted spending increases, which past studies primarily relied upon, risk reverse causation, but court-ordered spending increases are fundamentally different.  Court-ordered spending has to be thought of as manna from heaven, dropping on schools as if at random.  At the very least we have to believe that court-ordered spending differs from the regularly legislative kind in that it has nothing to do with factors that contribute to improved student outcomes.

It is clear that court-ordered spending increases are not exogneous and are not fundamentally different from the regular legislative kind.  Courts are political actors, just like legislatures, and whether and when the courts order spending increases is at least partially a function of a broader political conviction in a state that more resources are available and should be devoted to schools.  That conviction is just as likely to be associated with future improvement in student outcomes if it is expressed by the courts as if it is expressed by the legislature.

Both RD and IV studies in this new literature attempt to justify that their efforts are causal with empirical claims about the similarity of treatment and control groups before spending is increased.  But they can only compare on observable qualities, which is precisely the same thing that prior observational studies do.  These studies need to be able to justify theoretically that their approaches approximate random assignment, but they cannot do so persuasively.  Whether bond referenda pass or fail, especially by large margins, is not random.  And whether and when courts order spending increases is also not random — at least no more or less so than when legislatures do it.

If these new RD and IV studies cannot persuasively argue that their approach approximates randomization, then their results are not more causal than the prior observational literature that showed no relationship between spending increases and improved student outcomes.  The promoters of this new school spending research are right to note the flaws of earlier studies, but they are insufficiently aware of flaws in the new research as well.

Given the causal weakness of both literatures, we should probably take a step back and see if either better conforms with our non-rigorous observation of the world.  As Rick Hanushek has noted, if the new research is right in its causal claims about more money improving outcomes, why have huge spending increases over decades not been associated with the kinds of improvements the “causal” research claims to find?

Foreign Funding of Universities Scandal Curiously Avoids Involving Education Policy Research

February 13, 2020

Image result for the americans

The U.S. Department of Education recently announced that it was investigating Harvard and Yale Universities for receiving at least $6.5 billion from foreign governments without properly disclosing and receiving approvals.  This follows on the heels of several arrests of prestigious academics, including the chair of the chemistry department at Harvard, for receiving payments from foreign governments even as the U.S. government funded their research and prohibited these foreign ties.  U.S. authorities are attempting to block efforts by China, Iran, Russia, and others to steal U.S. research secrets or otherwise obtain the benefits of U.S. funded research on the cheap.

It dawned on me that I hadn’t heard anything about the Chinese, Iranians, or Russians attempting to steal our education policy secrets.  I checked with my sources (of whom I have none) deep within the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to find out why investigations were being announced involving chemistry and computer science, but not education policy research.  The highly classified plot I discovered was that DOE was declining to investigate the stealing of education policy secrets because those secrets were being slipped to foreign governments by our own double-agents.  The plan was to bring down China, Iran, and Russia by tricking them into adopting our latest education policy ideas.

As it turns out, the education reform movement is actually an elaborate front organization designed to lure foreign governments into seeking our education policy insights and adopting them.  “It’s not as if we can get education reform successfully implemented in the U.S.,” the head of the Common Core Coalition confided to me.  “Common Core was a ruse to see if we could fool the Chinese, Iranians, and Russians into imitating it.  And given their penchant for centralized control, it just might work!”

Everything is now beginning to make sense.  It’s as if the scales have fallen from my eyes.  “Portfolio management!” the Chief Learning Officer of the Metro Fund laughed. ‘Haven’t you wondered why we can’t manage to get the idea to stick just about anywhere?  It’s because we’re not trying. Denver? We had to make it look real, but thank goodness we lost the election and pulled the plug on it.  We’ve let things go on a bit too long in New Orleans, but transferring control back to the district should fix that soon enough.  But those Chinese, Iranian, and Russian agents have no idea.  They think we’re serious when we say that all schools sectors should be managed by a single authority.”

“All of those papers and professional trainings on regulating school discipline, bathroom use, and unconscious bias have been part of an elaborate hoax,” admitted the director of Harvard’s Center for Equitable Education for Everybody (CE3).  “If my chemistry colleagues hadn’t blown it, the Chinese, Iranians, and Russians would have never suspected what we’ve been up to.  But now they have to wonder why other departments at the university are being investigated when we are not.”

A statement from the Chinese education authorities, suggests that they have discovered the plot. It reads: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on China the mediocre educational performance that reforms promote today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”

More on these shocking revelations as they develop…

How Much Money Does a School System Need?

February 11, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit dousing piles of cash with gasoline and lighting them on fire. OCPA carries my second new article of the week, this one on a theme all too familiar to JPGBers:

This January, the Tulsa World suggested a new year’s resolution for Oklahoma’s state legislature: “fund public schools adequately.” The paper declares that “we’ve never actually tried it, or at least not for long enough to make a difference.” So “let’s make 2020 the year.”…

From 1970 to 2016, current spending per student in Oklahoma public schools shot up from $3,637 to $8,426, in today’s dollars (adjusted for inflation). Are the schools twice as effective? Or let’s make this even easier. As spending doubled, did educational outcomes improve at all—by any amount? No. And the Tulsa World would seem to agree, since it asserts that the spending increase from $3,637 to $8,426 was not “enough to make a difference.”

How much money would be enough for the schools to finally provide the quality of education we have a right to expect of them? Curiously, The Blob always talks as if there were an objectively correct answer to that question (if what we spend now is “not enough,” they must know how much “enough” is), yet we never learn that answer.

Could it be that they themselves don’t know the answer? If not, why not?

Since my previous OCPA article this week had a Russia connection, I thought I’d find one for this article, too. And this time, I decided to class up the joint with some highfalutin literature:

Leo Tolstoy once wrote a short story called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Pahom, a peasant, is convinced that he would be completely happy and content with his life—and thus immune to temptations from the devil—if he only had enough land. But each time he acquires more land, he discovers that it isn’t enough; he always needs more. His quest for “enough” land destroys him.

Something like that has happened to the government school monopoly. Generations of demanding more and still more funding, promising to deliver results as soon as they have “enough” money, have slowly eroded the system’s cultural prestige and middle-class political support. The rising star of school choice can be traced, ultimately, to the monopoly’s stubborn refusal to ask itself Tolstoy’s question. How much money does a school system need?

How much feedback does an edu-pundit need? Let me know what you think!

Even Seemingly-Harmless Choice Regulations . . . Aren’t

February 9, 2020

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA carries my article on an illegal data breach of private data on choice families in Arizona…

The Arizona Department of Education handed over a spreadsheet containing private data on participating families to Save Our Schools Arizona, a group that wants to shut down choice programs and restore the government’s monopoly on education.

The sheet gave the names and email addresses of more than 7,000 parents, the grades their children are in, and the children’s disabilities (if any). As the parent of a special-needs student, I’m not interested in hearing from anybody that this was not a grave violation of the privacy of these families. And we’ll be lucky if ideological fanatics, whipped up by the monopoly system’s generations of irresponsible rhetoric demonizing school choice, don’t use this information to target the families for harassment—or worse.

…that has implications for seemingly harmless regulations on choice programs.

Oklahoma is not obligated to wait for the arousal of a slumbering federal law enforcement to take the hint Arizona is giving it. The more private, personal data the state collects—or requires schools to collect and send it—the less privacy we all have. While the data that were illegally released in Arizona might be data that we can’t prevent the government from having if a choice program is going to exist, the lesson for Oklahoma is that there’s more danger in handing over more data.

No need to keep your opinion private; let me know what you think!

Pass the Popcorn: Into the Unknown

January 22, 2020

Elsa & Anna in the mist

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m delighted to report that Frozen II is every bit as ambitious as the original, and almost (not quite) as successful in its ambitions. It is well worth your attention, both as entertainment and as a profound reflection on the human condition, and repays multiple viewings – the only big-franchise movie in years of which I think all that can be said.

This review contains only mild spoilers – I mention a few specific things, but you will not lose any of the experience of the film from reading this. And some of the things below that seem to be spoilers are actually written to avoid revealing the real nature of the things they discuss. You’ll just have to trust me! (That, or go see the movie and come back here when you’ve seen it, either way.)

Elsa determined

As I first began to understand what the original Frozen was up to, what really impressed me was not just the sheer audacity of it – making a Disney movie that would permanently destroy the influence of Walt Disney’s poisonous romantic individualism in American cinema – but the absolute ruthlessness of the filmmakers in pursuit of their goal. Comparing Frozen to Enchanted, an earlier Disney film (and a princess film to boot) that had also taken liberties with traditional Disney romanticism, I summarized the difference Frozen would make: “Frozen is not subverting the Disney view…for fun. Frozen is playing to win.”

Frozen II is also playing to win, but against a different opponent. Like the first Frozen, it succeeds by making you really feel why the opponent that it is setting out to destroy is so attractive – making you commit yourself emotionally to the target – and then pulling out the rug. Your spirit soars with Elsa as she casts off the bonds of her oppression, repudiating her painful abuse at the hands of an unjust culture, and sings a paean to the liberation of unlimited individuality. (If your spirit does not soar, I regret to inform you that you are spiritually dead.) When Frozen has made you leap for joy that Elsa has embraced unlimited individuality, then – and only then – does it force you to see why unlimited individuality does not work, even on its own terms, and is in the long run an agent of death.

That is what I meant when I said “Frozen is playing to win.”

Flag of Arendelle

The target in Frozen II is not romantic individualism but romantic collectivism – traditionalism and nationalism as organizing principles of human life. The rousing opening number, “Some Things Never Change,” expresses the main characters’ deep and abiding love for Arendelle and its way of life. The uncertainties and anxieties of individual life find reassurance in the continuity and stability provided by community. That the individual is made to find their place in a community of love is, from one angle, the whole point of the first Frozen.

The desire for justice, in particular, can only be fully expressed socially; debates about what is right and wrong in interpersonal affairs are always carried out in particular communities, not in some abstract global seminar of the world’s philosophers. Justice is ultimately not an answer to the question “how shall I live?” but an answer to the question ” how shall we order our lives together?”

Hence the citizens of Arendelle sing: “We’ll always live in a kingdom of plenty/that stands for the good of the many.” And Elsa replies: “And I promise you, the flag of Arendelle will always fly!”

And the health and well being of the community is interdependent in even deeper ways than that with the individual happiness of its members. One section of “Some Things Never Change” is devoted to Kristoff’s anxiety as he prepares to propose marriage to Anna. This may seem out of place in a song about the nation’s way of life, but it is not. As an individual, Kristoff is well aware that he faces potential failure in his longing to marry Anna, and is of course preoccupied with his own uncertain fate. But the long-term telos of human erotic desire is the formation of families, which are themselves the primal community, and are also the soil out of which the larger community grows.

Frozen II would have been an even better film if the directors had not cut Anna’s song “Home,” which is not in the movie but can be heard on the deluxe soundtrack. I understand why they felt they had to cut it, because thematically it overlaps somewhat with “Some Things Never Change.” But there were other things that could have been cut (more on that below). And “Home” accomplishes several things that “Some Things” by itself does not. It completes the connection between individual happiness and the community; it emphasizes that a healthy love of one’s homeland is a great moral good, generating in us a sense of calling to do good for our neighbors and contribute to the flourishing of others; and (without spoiling anything) it sets up Anna in a really beautiful way for what happens to her at the very end of the movie.

Elsa into the Unknown

Frozen II is not going to debunk the need for community – which was, again, the point of the first movie. But it is going to debunk the idea that “some things never change.” On the contrary, all things corrupt and decay. Our communities are 1) always in a process of falling apart just under the surface, and 2) implicated in historic injustices that we are responsible to right, even if it means a risk of social chaos. Community simply as such is good, but the near-universal human tendency to romanticize community is as deadly to the real health of the community as the tendency to romanticize individualism is to the real health of the individual.

The reason we have a universal tendency to romanticize community is precisely because our desire to imagine a safe and stable future is at war with the real fact of our vulnerability and anxiety as individuals. We want to look forward into the future and see safety, but the prospect of personal failure cannot be eliminated from human life. To imagine a safe future, we look at our national ways of life and tell ourselves that “some things never change.”

Delightfully, there are subtle clues on screen during “Some Things Never Change” that telegraph the falsehood of the romantic view of community. Anna and Olaf sing of the people of Arendelle that “we get along just fine,” exactly as two people in the background get into a nasty argument. The permanence of Arendelle is “like an old stone wall that will never fall,” they sing, as stones fall out of the wall that Olaf is walking along.

Which suggests something about the lines later in the song asserting that “we’ll always live in a kingdom of plenty/that stands for the good of the many” and “the flag of Arendelle will always fly!”

Not to mention this lyric, which flies by the first time you hear it, but when you see the movie a second time it stands out like a tower:

May our good luck last!

May our past be past!

“Our past?” What on earth is that referring to? Best not to ask! Quick, let’s move on to the part of the song where we sing about how we’ll always have plenty, and stand for the good of the many!

We are summoned, by the voices of the spirit world, to abandon this romantic illusion of our nation’s future. We must hear those voices and step, as Elsa puts it in the first of her two showstoppers, “Into the Unknown.”

(By the way . . . two showstoppers! Whatever they’re paying Idina Menzel, it’s not enough. I hope she’s making enough money to build a real ice palace of her own, in downtown LA, maintained by the world’s most expensive array of outdoor air conditioners.)

Anna in the cave

We can always choose not to hear the voices of the spirits, if we are stubborn. But when Elsa finally chooses to hear the song, she discovers that an old wrong must be put right.

Putting old wrongs right is something you can’t stop doing once you start. And you can’t specify in advance how much damage you’re going to do to the existing social order. Like I said, the world being what it is, all our communities are implicated in legacies of injustice.

Everything Elsa and Anna love is ultimately put in jeopardy by the unrelenting demand of the spirit world that old wrongs must be put right.

On the edge of death itself, they reach the realization that there is really only one thing that never changes. (No, not “change,” that would be dreadful.) The one thing that never changes is a thing that is both human and divine at the same time, immanent and transcendent. It is a thing that builds up our communities, and at the same time tears them down.

You can’t have a love of justice that builds community without a love of justice that constantly threatens to destroy it, because they are the same love. The divine and human wrath that comes down upon our communities for their sins is only a form (a terrible one) of the same divine and human love that summoned our communities into being. It is only our stubborn refusal to listen to the song of the divine that allows us to avoid seeing this painful fact.

As Anna sings, echoing the words of the wise troll: When we can no longer envision a safe future, when even hope itself has died, we can only “Do the Next Right Thing.” And that is enough.

Matthias & Anna

The person who has the answer to it all is Lieutenant Mattias. The son of an immigrant who came to Arendelle and made good, Mattias learned at an early age both to love Arendelle and not to romanticize it – to value the preservation of the good, but also be ready for any amount of change should justice require it.

The original Frozen was attacked for not having characters of color, which was the dumbest sort of anti-creative tokenism, given that a small and isolated kingdom in the far north of Europe in the early 19th century (the timeline is established more clearly in Frozen II than in the first movie) need not have had a single resident of color. So naturally I was nervous that artistic integrity had been sacrificed – in ways that might do more damage to marginalized communities than to anyone – when I saw that Frozen II had a major character of color. Mea culpa!

It is a testimony to the genius of the filmmakers that Mattias is not only not a token, but he manages to simultaneously satisfy both and neither of the two sides of our culture wars. Right-wingers may cheer him as “assimilated,” and in a sense he is, but not so assimilated as to have forgotten the lessons of life on the margins where he came from, or to make Arendelle the foundation of his mental universe. Left-wingers may cheer him as a “prophetic” marginalized figure, and in a sense he is, but his love and his gratitude for Arendelle are profound, and he unhesitatingly serves the royal family of Arendelle to the last full measure of devotion.

Frozen II is playing to win.



There is, in the end, no salvation. The love that builds community will always destroy it. And so on, forever.

Unless, of course, there is a supernatural savior who can bridge the gap between the world of the spirits and the world of humanity, uniting a human nature and a divine nature into a bridge with two sides. In that case, all bets are off!

(When my coreligionists rushed to claim the original Frozen as a product of Christian theology, I thought they were erroneously reading into the story a specifically Christian significance that need not be there. I still think that was the case. But Frozen II removes the ambiguity.)

If Frozen II has not landed with the same massive sensation of overwhelming cultural force as the original, I think that is partly because Frozen is now an established mega-franchise, and partly because the message is less radical to audiences that have already assimilated the first Frozen (as well as Inside Out, etc.). But it is also partly because Frozen II makes some missteps. The original Frozen was a hugely ambitious movie that accomplished its ambitions, but also a flawed movie in some respects. So is Frozen II.

The first time you see it, things feel rushed, because the movie is trying to do just a bit too much for its runtime. In mid-production, Josh Gad, who plays Olaf, brought the filmmakers a really attractive idea for a theme to work into the movie, based on an adorable exchange with his daughter (on whom Gad based the Olaf character’s personality). I’m glad they saw what a bright idea it was, and how it dovetailed with what they were already doing, but I think they did end up biting off more than they could chew. They’d have done better to save most of that stuff for Frozen III. The same goes for Kristoff’s big musical number, which is a funny gag, but not funny enough to justify the screen time it eats up. I assume they did this because Jonathan Groff was the only original cast member who was a professional singer, but he got to do virtually no singing in the first movie. So why not give him a huge, overproduced musical number this time, as an inside joke? (Or, for all I know, the actor may even have demanded it.) The worst flaw, though, is that the lyrics to “The Next Right Thing,” which is the big emotional hinge of the whole movie and sets up the climax, are poorly done. There’s just no easier way to say it; they needed several more iterations on the drawing board with that one.

All these flaws, except the last one, fade away on second viewing. Once you know what’s going on, it doesn’t feel rushed. And the depth of the story unfolds more as you take it in again.

Go see Frozen II. Then see it again.

Our past is never past. But the time is always right to do the next right thing.

Harvard Prof Fails to Do His Homework on School Choice Laws and It Shows

January 22, 2020

Video of fact-checkers responding to Harvard Prof. Mark Tushnet’s egregiously false statements about school choice laws.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is holding oral arguments on Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue regarding the constitutionality of excluding religious schools from a school choice program. To inform its readers about the implications of the case, Harvard Law Today interviewed Harvard Prof. Mark Tushnet, who clearly hadn’t done his homework:

HLT: What do you think the possible impact of this case might be?

Tushnet: The political viability of voucher programs has always been sort of tenuous; they’re hard to enact. One of the things that has been built in to the political compromises that allow them to be enacted—to get sort of over the threshold— is the exclusion of religiously-affiliated schools. [emphasis added]

It’s mistaken to think that voucher programs in the abstract are popular. They’re not terribly popular. They can get enacted. But supporters have to engage in compromises. And one of the compromises routinely has been exclusion of religiously-affiliated schools. […]

And so, if the Court says, “If you create a voucher program, you must include religiously-affiliated schools,” that might lead to the defeat of voucher statutes in places where voters don’t want to fund religiously-affiliated schools. The political compromise that allows them to get majority support won’t be available.

So the image of this case leading to the disappearance of the voucher programs, that image is not mistaken. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s not a mistake to think that if the Court rules in favor of the churches or the schools, in the end, church-related schools will not benefit from the decision.

It is simply false that most school choice programs exclude religious schools. Indeed, of all the 62 voucher, tax-credit scholarship, and ESA programs nationwide, only Montana’s program excludes religious schools, and that was a unilateral administrative decision, not the legislature’s.

The Montana legislation permitted religious schools to receive tax-credit scholarships, but the Department of Revenue decided on its own that they thought doing so would be unconstitutional, so they excluded them. The Montana Supreme Court then held that the Montana Department of Revenue had no authority to make such determinations, but then struck down the law as unconstitutional anyway. Not only was their exclusion not a political compromise, but the Montana legislature objected strongly to the department’s actions.

The three town tuitioning programs in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont also exclude religious schools, but Maine’s is also the subject of a court battle over this question.

In any case, school choice programs that exclude religious schools are–contra Tushnet–the rare exception, not the rule.

As for the popularity of such programs, the 2019 survey by the Harvard-affiliated journal Education Next found that 58 percent of Americans support tax-credit scholarship programs like the one in Montana, while only 26 percent opposed them.

Tushnet also misstates the fundamental question in Espinoza:

Now we have the Trinity Lutheran case saying it’s discriminatory to exclude religious institutions from a generally available program. And Zelman saying it’s not a violation of the Establishment Clause to include them if it’s indirect. The question in Espinoza v. Montana is whether it is a violation of the Establishment Clause to exclude religious institutions from direct financial support. And that was the question that was reserved in that footnote in Trinity Lutheran.

No, that’s not right at all. As in Zelman, Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program only indirectly aids schools because the primary beneficiaries are the families who receive the scholarships. Direct financial support of a religious school is not at issue here. Indeed, the state aid in the Trinity Lutheran case was directly to the religious school. Direct or indirect is not the question, neither here nor in the Trinity Lutheran footnote Tushnet references. The question the footnote reserved was whether there is a constitutionally meaningful distinction between religious status and religious use. In his stirring dissent from footnote 3 (concurring in the judgment), Justice Gorsuch argued that there is not:

[T]he Court leaves open the possibility a useful distinction might be drawn between laws that discriminate on the basis of religious status and religious use. See ante, at 12. Respectfully, I harbor doubts about the stability of such a line. Does a religious man say grace before dinner? Or does a man begin his meal in a religious manner? Is it a religious group that built the playground? Or did a group build the playground so it might be used to advance a religious mission? The distinction blurs in much the same way the line between acts and omissions can blur when stared at too long, leaving us to ask (for example) whether the man who drowns by awaiting the incoming tide does so by act (coming upon the sea) or omission (allowing the sea to come upon him).

Tushnet may disagree with Gorsuch on the answer to this question, but it doesn’t appear that Tushnet even understands what question is being asked.

Next time, Professor Tushnet should do his homework before opining.

Whole Leech-uage Instruction

January 14, 2020


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the past I’ve stayed out of the Reading Wars, but no longer. OCPA carries my latest, in which I compare whole language to leechcraft:

Whole language is based on a fundamentally wrong understanding of what reading is. It’s not a self-contained skill like throwing a baseball or riding a bike. I feel confident in asserting that nobody in the whole history of the world has ever read anything for any reason other than to access the content of what they’re reading. It’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit that our children somehow manage to learn to read in spite of the methods we use to teach them.

For 17 years, since I got into the education reform business, I’ve been trying to convince people that there is no educational “one best way” that works for all children, and that goes for reading, too. But just because there is no one approach that works for everyone doesn’t mean there aren’t some approaches that don’t work at all. There’s no “one best medicine” that cures all patients, but leeches don’t work for any patients.

When it comes to getting public schools to use phonics instruction, I counsel despair:

There is nothing—I mean it, nothing—we can do to get teachers in public schools to drop whole language. They believe it works. And when the classroom door closes, they’re going to do what they believe works….

The bottom line is that teaching is not a science, it’s an art. There is such a thing as a science of education, such as when we conduct empirical studies and find out that phonics produces better results when the teachers actually do it, but that big programs designed to bribe them to do it don’t cause them to do it. However, the act of teaching itself is not something that can be engineered like a machine. Those classroom doors, which the technocratic reformers who want central control hate so much, simply have to close.

And despair leads to . . . school choice.

Use your mastery of phonics to read it and let me know what you think!

Who Governs the School System?

December 27, 2019

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The best school accountability is parental choice, of course, but reforms to the public school system’s governance structure can also help. OCPA carries my latest, in which I explain why putting mayors and governors in charge of appointing schools chiefs is modestly helpful but not the cure-all it’s usually sold as:

Jurisdictions that have experimented with letting their chief executives appoint their schools chiefs have generally not regretted doing so. New York City’s experiment with mayoral control of schools, for example, is generally viewed as a modest success.

However, even positive results can be disappointing, if they don’t live up to expectations. And that’s what we’ve seen in New York and elsewhere.

More effective alternatives are a heavy political lift, but worth the heft:

Two simple (if politically difficult) reforms would greatly strengthen the accountability of public school systems to the voters who are its ultimate boss. One is to hold educational elections at the same time as normal elections. Typically, educational elections are held in the spring and/or in odd years. This ensures that few voters participate other than those connected to educational special interests. The people who ride the school system as a gravy train show up to vote in educational elections no matter when they are; everyone else misses out, and often people aren’t even aware the election is happening…

A second reform would be to shrink school districts. A century ago, there were over 100,000 school districts in the United States. Today, there are under 15,000. Meanwhile, the U.S. population has exploded.

This makes a huge difference to school governance. The smaller the district, the closer the school board is to the people it’s supposed to serve. Believe it or not, people used to actually know the members of their local school board. They saw them in the supermarket. Do you think that might have contributed to better school governance?

Let me know what you think!