Politics and Schools, Part MCCXXIII

September 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Neal notes the connection between Arne Duncan’s now-infamous embrace of Al Sharpton and the president’s continuing his new tradition of broadcasting a back-to-school message to America’s classrooms, coming up later this month.

Duncan didn’t just embrace Sharpton in his personal role as a citizen. He mobilized the U.S. Department of Education to support Sharpton by encouraging employees to attend Sharpton’s anti-Glenn-Beck rally.

Whatever you think of Glenn Beck, Sharpton cut his teeth as a professional purveyor of incitement to murder. During the Crown Heights race riots, with blood running in the streets, he said, “if the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” He had to tone it back after the Freddy’s Fashion Mart murders, when people began making connections between Sharpton and the killings that kept following in his wake. But tone it back was all he did; he’s never repented.

Duncan spoke at Sharpton’s rally and urged his employees to attend.

A department spokesperson lamely tried to evade responsibility by saying “This was a back-to-school event.” Really? Here’s a sample of Al Sharpton’s back-to-school message for America’s youth, courtesy of the Washington Examiner:

[Conservatives] think we showed up [to vote for Barack Obama] in 2008 and that we won’t show up again. But we know how to sucker-punch, and we’re coming out again in 2010!

…and do your homework!

This is obviously intimately connected with the presdient’s decision to make it an annual tradition to use America’s government school monopoly to broadcast a message to the nation’s children. Other presidents have done so before, though none has made it an annual tradition. But it was equally wrong whoever did it, and this Duncan/Sharpton rally shows why.

Neal is trying too hard when he strains to describe Obama’s message to students as “politically charged material.” Joanne Jacobs rightly notes, “Last year’s speech raised a lot of fuss, culminating in a big fizzle as Obama told students to work hard in school.” No doubt this year the president will be equally anodyne.

[Update: Neal points out below that it was the accompanying materials sent to schools, not Obama’s message itself, that he described as “politically charged.” Fair enough! I read his post too quickly. Yet it’s worth noting that even those accompanying materials were focused on anointing Obama as a role model rather than pushing an overtly political agenda.]

The connection is rather that politics can’t be hermetically sealed. The president does have some role to play as the representative of the entire nation. But he is never just that; he is also a politician with an agenda. He will always stand for things that many Americans oppose; that’s just the nature of political life. And this president in particular seems to have more of a tendency than most presidents of associating himself with criminals and race-haters.

It doesn’t matter what Obama says. In fact, the less political his message, the worse it is. If Obama’s message really were “politically charged material,” many students would recognize it as such. The more anodyne he is, the more he gets what he really wants – to be anointed as a role model. With all that entails.

It’s wrong enough to have a government monopoly on schooling. To have the government monopoly anoint the president as a role model for our children is a hundred times more wrong. It would be wrong even if the president were relatively uncontroversial, because no president can avoid having many associations to which many parents will reasonably object. With this president – well, words just fail.

Notre Dame Leaders to Duncan and Durbin: Killing DC Opportunity Scholarships “Unconscionable”

February 17, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We and others have been making the case that killing the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, despite the highest possible quality evidence showing academic gains for students, was going to raise objections from more than just those of us on the right of center side of the spectrum. Americans believe in equality of opportunity, and no one should be more upset about the actions of Congress to kill DC Opportunity Scholarships than those with a sincere commitment to the interests of the disadvantaged.

Today we have yet more evidence of the revulsion concerning the shameful actions of the Congress in slowly killing the DC opportunity Scholarship Program. Leaders from the University of Notre Dame released a letter sent to Secretary Arne Duncan and Senator Durbin today. They don’t pull their punches: 

Dear Senator Durbin and Secretary Duncan,

Warmest greetings from the University of Notre Dame.  We hope this letter finds both of you well, and that the new year has been filled with grace and blessings for you and your families.

We write today because we are all deeply disappointed by the turn of events that has led to the imminent demise of the Washington DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), and we are gravely concerned about the effects that the unprecedented gestures that have jeopardized this program will have on some of the most at-risk children in our nation’s capital.   

For the past decade, the University of Notre Dame, through its Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE), has served as the nation’s largest provider of teachers and principals for inner-city Catholic schools.  Since 1993, we have prepared more than 1,000 teachers and hundreds of principals to work in some of the poorest Catholic schools in the nation.  That experience, along with the research that we have sponsored through our Center for Research on Educational Opportunity, leads us to an unqualified conclusion: the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program provides an educational lifeline to at-risk children, standing unequivocally as one of the greatest signs of hope for K-12 educational reform.  To allow its demise, to effectively force more than 1,700 poor children from what is probably the only good school they’ve ever attended, strikes us as an unconscionable affront to the ideal of equal opportunity for all.

Three decades of research tell us that Catholic schools are often the best providers of educational opportunity to poor and minority children.  Students who attend Catholic schools are 42 percent more likely to graduate from high school and are two and a half times more likely to graduate from college than their peers in public schools.  Recent scholarship on high school graduation rates in Milwaukee confirms that programs like the OSP can, over time, create remarkable opportunities for at-risk children.  And after only three years, the research commissioned by the Department of Education is clear and strong with regard to the success of the OSP, as you both well know.  This program empowers parents to become more involved in their children’s education.  Parents of OSP students argue that their children are doing better in school, and they report that these scholarships have given their families an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.  If this program ends, these parents will be forced to send their children back to a school system that is ranked among the worst in the nation, into schools they fought desperately to leave just a few years ago. 

At Notre Dame, we have recently witnessed the painful but logical outcomes of your failure to save the OSP.  For the past three years, the University of Notre Dame has worked in close partnership with Holy Redeemer School, a preK-8 Catholic school community located just a few blocks from Senator Durbin’s office on the Hill.  In fact, Senator Durbin visited the school and expressed his deeply favorable impression.  We too have witnessed the transformative capacity of Holy Redeemer, a place where parents report feeling a sincere sense of ownership in their children’s education for the first time in their lives.  Indeed, over the past three years strong leadership, excellent academics, low teacher turnover, and committed parents have all contributed to truly outstanding gains in student achievement.  The children at Holy Redeemer were, unlike so many of their peers, on the path to college. 

So we were deeply saddened to learn that the impending termination of the OSP has put the school in an untenable situation, leading the pastor to conclude that the school must be closed.  Families are presently being notified that their children will have to find a new school next year.  The end of the OSP represents more than the demise of a relatively small federal program; it spells the end of more than a half-century of quality Catholic education for some of the most at-risk African American children in the District.  That this program is being allowed to end is both unnecessary and unjust.  

We—and many others in the Notre Dame community—are wholeheartedly committed to protecting the educational opportunity of these children.  We encourage you to reconsider protecting the OSP and the children it serves from this grave and historic injustice.  You are joined by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, by the faculty and students on Notre Dame’s campus, by tens of thousands of Notre Dame alumni nationwide, and by millions of Catholic school families across the country in a steadfast commitment to ensure that these children continue to receive the educational opportunity that is their birthright.

Please know of our deepest appreciation for your consideration of this request.  We hope and pray that we can work together with you to save this program


Yours, in Notre Dame,

Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC 

President, University of Notre Dame                          

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC

President Emeritus, University of Notre Dame                            

Rev. Timothy R. Scully, CSC

Director, Institute for Educational Initiatives

University of Notre Dame                           

Death Panels for College Kids Update

December 18, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Arne Duncan points out that it makes no sense for government to run a giant subsidy program for student loans that allows bankers to capture taxpayer dollars as intermediaries between Uncle Sam and the kids.

Obviously, the only sensible alternative is for government to completely abolish private lending and socialize the whole system, so that the only place any student of any income level will be able to go for a loan is the federal government! No other possible solution to the problem is imagineable.

The headline summarizes the administration’s bullying ambitions with admirable transparency: “Banks Don’t Belong in the Student Loan Business.”

And how did the path to socialism start? With the creation of a “public option.” After that, the rest is just math.

Ed Schools Take the FCAT

November 25, 2009

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Good gravy! Never mind the debate on using test scores to evaluate teachers. Florida is actually using test scores to evaluate teacher colleges:

It determined what percentage of graduates from each program had 50 percent or more of their students make a year’s worth of progress [on the FCAT]. USF’s College of Education — a huge pipeline for teachers in the Tampa Bay area — had 76 percent of its graduates reach that bar, putting it ninth among the 10 state university programs. Florida International University in Miami topped the field at 85 percent. The University of West Florida in Pensacola was last at 70 percent.

The only problem I can see here is that this just compares education schools to one another. All education schools are part of the problem. Still, I can see a lot of value in knowing which ones are more a part of the problem or less – not least because if they start competing with one another on the basis of results, maybe someday one of them will actually produce a radical transformative revolutionary breakthrough and actually become a value-adding rather than value-subtracting part of the education system.

62% of a hat tip goes to Flypaper’s Andy Smarick. I’m penalizing Andy by withholding 38% of the hat tip because he claims, with no justification, that Arne Duncan must somehow deserve some credit for this move. First of all, as Andy sort of sheepishly admits, a move like this must have been in the works for a while before reaching fruition.

But more important is that Florida has been the nation’s leader in this field for a long time now. Florida doesn’t follow the USDOE on this issue, the USDOE follows Florida. The only effect the USDOE has ever had on Florida’s interest in using test scores for evaluation purposes is to prevent it from going further faster.

Arne Duncan’s Doubleplusgood Doublespeak

September 30, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

ABC quoted Arne Duncan yesterday on DC vouchers:

“The children who were in school, we fought hard to keep them in their schools. Congress has made it clear they are not accepting any additional students,” Duncan told ABC News last month. “So, kids that were in schools, we wanted them to go. Kids who weren’t yet in when the program ended, according to Congress, it didn’t make sense. … I encourage them to come in and look at what’s going on with the public schools here in D.C. It’s pretty exciting.”

Duncan strongly opposes vouchers and has made clear his belief that the money is better spent investing in lasting reforms.

“Vouchers usually serve 1 to 2 percent of the children in the community. And I think we, as the federal government, we as local governments or we as school districts, we have to be more ambitious than that,” Duncan said in a speech before the National Press club last May.

“I don’t want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98 to 99 percent drown. We have to be much more ambitious than that. And we have to expect more,” he added. “This is why I would argue … rather than taking three kids out of there and putting them in a better school and feeling good and sleeping well at night, I want to turn that school around now and do that for those 400, 500, 800, 1,200 kids in that school, and give every child in that school, in that community, something better and do it with a real sense of urgency.”

Oi vey…

Duncan’s logical flaws smell so overwhelming that there isn’t really any need for me to point them out.  Duncan’s absurd claptrap does however remind me of a joke:

So one day a great flood came, and the sheriff went to the house of a man to tell him that he needed to evacuate to higher ground. “No, God will save me” replied the man.

So the storm raged on. The man’s house flooded, forcing him to flee to his roof. Rescue workers came in a canoe to save him, but the man again refused, saying “No, God will save me.”

Finally, the man stood desperately atop of his chimney. A rescue helicopter flew by and threw him a rope ladder, which he refused. “God will save me!” he screamed to the helicopter crew.

So the water rose and the man drowned.

After entering the Pearly Gates, the man asked “God why didn’t you save me from the flood?”

God replied “What do you mean? I sent you a police car, a canoe and a helicopter.”

If Duncan thinks DC schools are “exciting” then why doesn’t he enroll his own children in them? Strangely enough, they are off in the suburban Virginia schools. Admittedly, checkbook school choice does serve way more than “1 or 2 percent” of students.

“I don’t want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98 to 99 percent drown. I am however willing to let 30-40 percent buy their way out and let the other 60 to 70 percent drown, so long as my kids are among those safely sequestered in the leafy suburbs.”

What’s that?  He didn’t say that?

You forget: actions speak louder than words.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

July 17, 2009

Normally solid education reporter, Rob Tomsho, has fallen for the Arne Duncan mania by writing an article in today’s WSJ that attributes expansions of charter school laws to Duncan and the $5 billion “race to the top” stimulus money.

As a graph in the print version of the article shows, charters have been expanding steadily for the last several years — all of which was before Arne Duncan and the stimulus money.  The question is whether charters are growing faster than they otherwise would have.  I doubt it.  The progress of charters doesn’t seem any faster to me now than it has been.  After we get all of the numbers in a year or two we can check to confirm my hunch.

I’m afraid that this is just another example of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).  Duncan made some speeches and conditioned some fraction of a modest sum on policy changes.  There were some policy changes.  So people are attributing the policy changes to his speeches and tiny financial leverage.

Do You Know What Else Rises to the Top?

June 10, 2009

If Arne Duncan did half of what he talks about, we’d be making huge progress toward education reform.  It would be great if  he actually followed the evidence regardless of ideology, only funded what works, made strides to end the lifetime-guaranteed employment of ineffective teachers, provided financial rewards to the most effective teachers, etc… 

We’d be lucky if Duncan manages to do one-tenth of what he talks about.  But I’m amazed at how many people confuse words with action.  Mike Petrilli is right that we should praise this new rhetoric and Greg has persuasively argued that rhetoric is politically important, but people really get carried away in their praise of a bunch of mostly empty words

Perhaps it is natural for people to suck up to whoever is in power.  Perhaps it is the triumph of hope over experience.  But I have to say that I am deeply skeptical of what Duncan will accomplish.

Let’s take as an example the Race to the Top money.  How does anyone really believe that a one-time expenditure of less than $5 billion is going to have any significant influence on the nature of $550 billion in annual expenditures?  This isn’t the tail wagging the dog.  This is the tail of the flea on the dog wagging the dog. 

What’s more, everyone except the most politically naive understands that there is enormous political pressure on Duncan to distribute the $5 billion roughly equally so that it provides absolutely no incentive to race to the top.  Andy Rotherham has dubbed this the peanut butter meme because people are guessing “how many states the Department of Education will have to include in the ‘Race to the Top’ funds to make the initiative politically palatable without spreading the money like ‘peanut butter’ across the states”

For those who still somehow believe that the Race to the Top money is going to have a big effect (and may also believe in the tooth fairy), I’d like to make a little wager.  I’m willing to bet that every state will receive at least some money from the Race to the Top fund and that the distribution of money will be roughly proportionate. If you think I’m wrong, would you be willing to bet that fewer than 30 states get the money? 

Like with much else that Duncan says, the Race to the Top fund is just a bunch of empty words.  You can’t have 30 and certainly not 50 states at the top.  Unfortunately, cream isn’t the only thing that rises to the top.

Edited to fix the link to Greg’s post; see also Matt’s post and to clarify Andy’s quotation.

Duncan Endorses Universal Vouchers (without knowing it)

June 1, 2009

Below is a portion of the transcript from a National Press Club event last week featuring Secretary of Ed, Arne Duncan.

If I am reading Duncan right, the problem with vouchers is that they only serve 1 to 2 percent of the population.  So, the obvious solution he endorses must be universal vouchers.  Right?

MODERATOR:  OK.  What is your position on a potential national education voucher program?   

DUNCAN:  I’ve been very, very clear that I don’t think vouchers work.  They’re not the answer.  Let me explain why.      

Vouchers usually serve 1 to 2 percent of the children in a community.  And I think we as the federal government, we as local governments, or we as school districts, we have to be more ambitious than that.  That’s an absolutely worthy or noble goal.  If a nonprofit or philanthropy wants to provide scholarship money to children, that’s a great, great use of the resources.       

But I don’t want to save 1 or 2 percent of children and let 98, 99 percent drown.  We have to be much more ambitious than that.  We have to expect more.       

And this is why I would argue rather than taking one of these struggling schools, these thousands (inaudible) — rather than taking three kids out of there and putting them in a better school and feeling good and sleeping well at night, I want to turn that school around now and do that for those 400, 500, 800, 1,200 kids in that school and give every child in that school and that community something better, and do it with a real sense of urgency. 

Mike Petrilli Buys into Hope and Change

May 13, 2009


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Yesterday, Mike Petrilli posted that he has “hope” some good will come from the giant geyser of money that the federal government is blindly spewing into the government school system under the “stimulus” bill.

I would let it slide, but I owe Mike a good ribbing for this. So . . .

Mr. Sulu, you have the bridge. Mr. Spock, Mr. Checkov, you’re with me. Set phasers to snark.

Mike’s “hope” comes from the fact that he attended a meeting with some state-based reform leaders and heard some stories about how states are going to do great things in order to qualify for some of the relatively tiny portion of stimulus funding that has been set aside to reward good behavior (the so-called “race to the top” funds).

He actually calls these tales “bona fide stories of state legislatures contemplating” reform. Amazing – they’re contemplating reform!

To substantiate his point, he says that because Arne Duncan said he “may” withhold some of the tiny race-to-the-top portion of stimulus funds from states that limit charter schools, Maine is “considering” enacting a charter law. What kind of charter law we might expect to get under such conditions is a question Mike doesn’t raise. Plenty of states have charter laws that effectively block the creation of any charters that might actually produce change. The purpose of the law is for state legislators to be able to claim they have a charter law. Such laws do much more harm than good, since they siphon off political capital for reform and create a few phony, lousy charters which can then be held up and pilloried to discredit further reform efforts. You think that might happen in Maine?

“Mr. Spock, is all this . . . what I think it is?”

“Tricorder readings confirm we are witnessing the phenomenon known as ‘kabuki,’ Jim. Judging by the crudity of the performance, I would estimate that this particular specimen is at a very low stage of development.”

I’ll agree with Mike on one thing, though. The stories he heard are ceratinly “bona fide stories.” That is, they clearly are stories. What kind of stories is a question worth pondering.

Ironically, Mike wrote his post in response to an earlier post yesterday from Fordham’s Andy Smarick, which adduces with devastating clarity just some of the many reasons why we have no right to even hope for good results from the edu-stimulus:

First, although the application requires the governor to sign assurances promising to make progress in four areas, remarkably, it requires neither a plan for accomplishing those goals nor details on how these billions of dollars will be spent.  The states that have applied so far have obliged, including none of this relevant information in their packages.

Second, the Department sent a letter to states on April 1 saying that states don’t have to demonstrate progress on the assurances to get the second batch (~$16 billion) of stabilization funds.  They only have to have systems in place to collect data.

Third, governors lack the power to require districts to use these funds wisely.  From the guidance released in April:

III-D-14.  May a Governor or State education agency (SEA) limit how an LEA uses its Education Stabilization funds?

No.  Because the amount of Education Stabilization funding that an LEA receives is determined strictly on the basis of formulae and the ARRA gives LEAs considerable flexibility over the use of these funds, neither the Governor nor the SEA may mandate how an LEA will or will not use the funds. 

Finally, the only leverage the Department seems to have is threatening to make states ineligible for Race to the Top funds if this money isn’t wisely spent.  But states, not districts, are the only eligible applicants for the Race to the Top funds, and, as the guidance makes clear, states can’t force districts to behave.  So the threat is misdirected.

Game, set, match – Andy.

Looks like we’re done here. Mr. Scott, three to beam up.

The Wall Street Journal Strikes Again

May 5, 2009

The Wall Street Journal has another strong editorial today condemning Barack Obama and Arne Duncan’s hypocrisy in seeking to end the D.C. voucher program.  Here’s a highlight:

“See if you can follow this political syllogism. President Obama and his Education Secretary have repeatedly promised to support “what works,” regardless of ideology. The teachers unions adamantly oppose school vouchers, whether or not they work. Ergo, Messrs. Obama and Duncan decide to end a D.C. school voucher program that works and force poor kids back into schools where Messrs. Obama and Duncan would never send their own children. What a disgrace.”

There’s a rally of voucher families planned for this week and there will be congressional hearings on reauthorizing the program next week.  Stay tuned.

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