What I learned in P.E. class

July 26, 2013

(Guest post by Jonathan Butcher)

A few months ago, I grabbed my tennis shoes and went to my son’s last P.E. class of the year, which happened to be a “parent participation” day. This P.E. class is a program for homeschool students, so children of all ages and backgrounds were there to have relay races and play dodge ball.

I had the chance to run around that day with Jordan Visser, a young man I met about a year ago when his mom, Kathy, signed him up for one of Arizona’s education savings accounts. Regular readers of this blog will recognize his name and story from this post.

Jordan is a quiet kid, but he’s got a big smile and plays as hard as any of the other boys. From the video available on the link above, you will learn that Jordan has mild cerebral palsy and has a hard time with is balance—or at least, he did at one time. Since he’s been using the savings account, he’s seen specialists and used therapeutic horseback riding lessons to help his motor coordination, paid for with the education savings account. The account has also helped Jordan’s parents find individual tutors to help with subjects like math and reading.

Now, having run alongside him in a relay where we grabbed a sponge out of a bucket, squeezed it into a cup, then handed it off to the next person, let me be the first to say Jordan’s quality of life has dramatically improved. If you didn’t know Jordan’s story and were watching the PE class from the sidelines, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Jordan and the other kids who were soaking wet and laughing.

Vouchers and tax credits have helped children like Jordan, along with students in failing schools and from low-income households, all over the country for more than 20 years. Education savings accounts use a student’s funds from the state formula to give families the same great educational choices as vouchers and scholarships—and more. The flexibility that parents have to meet their child’s unique needs with an account is unprecedented. Parents can buy online classes, pay private school tuition, buy textbooks, and save for college, to name just a few possible uses.

Lindsey Burke and I wrote a special report that was released today explaining the benefits of the accounts’ flexibility. We also propose ways in which vouchers and scholarships can be enhanced by education savings accounts:

  • Creating public school education savings accounts. Parents could use a public school education savings account for traditional school classes, public charter school offerings, public virtual schools such as the Florida Virtual School, community colleges, or state universities.
  • Shifting existing school voucher or scholarship tax credit funds to an education savings account. States with existing voucher programs or scholarship tax credit programs should allow parents to deposit voucher or scholarship funds into an education savings account in order to gain more flexibility with their child’s funds.
  • Expanding the approved expenses covered by a voucher or private school scholarship. This would include expanding the uses of a school voucher or scholarship, transitioning the program into an education savings account.

Jordan’s education savings account changed his life, and it didn’t take an increase in funding, school turnaround plan, or district consolidation. Let’s keep school choice out front and give all parents the flexibility to help their children, whatever their needs are.

Jonathan Butcher debates the Arizona Education Association on ESAs

January 16, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

GI’s Butcher debated Andrew Morrill, President of the Arizona Education Association on Education Savings Accounts. Check it out.

Our Tax Dollars Paying for Penuchle

October 5, 2009

(Guest post by Jonathan Butcher)

Boy, does this sound familiar!  Apparently, the U.S. Post Service shells out $1 million every week to “pay thousands of employees to sit in empty rooms and do nothing.”  Mail volume has slid 12.6% compared to last year, and the Post Office simply can’t find enough to do to keep postal workers busy.  “So they sit — some for a few hours, others for entire shifts…They spend their days holed up in rooms — conference rooms, break rooms, occasionally 12-foot-by-8-foot storage closets…”  Funny, this reminds me of grad school (without the free food).

The employees can’t be fired due to union rules, of course.  Not only that, but workers at slower post offices can’t even be reassigned to busier locations.

Why does this sound familiar?  Because teacher union rules in New York City created something remarkably similar.  As The New Yorker pointed out recently (and noted on jaypgreene.com here) , teachers unions have some 600 teachers in the city sit in “rubber rooms,” playing cards, chatting, or fighting over folding chairs.  These teachers get their summers off and are getting paid their full salary (in some cases upwards of $100,000 a year).

Unlike the postal workers, the issue with these teachers in a holding pattern is that they are under investigation for misconduct or incompetence.  But the fact remains that unions in both cases make it virtually impossible to fire anyone, the knights of the folding chairs still get paid a full salary, and they are all doing absolutely nothing for months on end.

Our tax money, funding penuchle games for federal and state employees everywhere.

(HT: Carpe Diem)

Add a Little Salt

March 20, 2009

(Guest Post by Jonathan Butcher)

Last week, a South Carolina education blog called “The Voice for School Choice” posted links to an article on the worst schools in the U.S.  South Carolinians should be particularly irked with the article because 11 SC schools made the top 25.  All is not what it seems, though; below is a touch of salt to be added to the results of this article (“25 Worst Performing Public Schools in the U.S.”).  At issue is not the intelligence of the authors nor their ability; however, they make very strong claims as to the significance of their findings, and readers should be aware of the foundation on which the authors make these claims regarding student achievement.

“Worst Schools” was composed by a website called “Neighborhood Scout” and published on a financial blog operated by AOL called “WalletPop.”  Neighborhood Scout specializes in “nationwide relocation software, retail site selection, and real estate investment advertising.”  They are not an academic department at a university nor a policy research institution, and their founders do not have backgrounds in education or education policy research.  The founders’ specialty is geography, computer mapping and web design (there is no evidence that the authors are different from those described on Neighborhood Scout’s web page).

Neighborhood Scout created their own methodology for the “Worst Schools” article.  They subtracted the percentage of students who “passed” NAEP in a particular state (I am assuming they mean students who scored at proficient or above—though it could mean basic or above) from the “average percentage” of students in the same state who scored at the proficient or advanced level on the state’s mandatory test.  Their objective was to find schools in states where there is a large difference between the percentage of students proficient on a state test and the percent proficient on NAEP in order to make judgments about the difficulty (or lack thereof) of a state test.  The article does not compare similar student populations—as does NAEP—or at the least this methodology section does not indicate such disaggregation.

Of note is that the study gives no indication of being peer-reviewed, and peer-review is a robustness check even among research reports not submitted to journals.  In addition, the study is a snapshot of test scores.  It does not take into account improvement over time, student population changes, or compare scores to some baseline indicator.  For example, in the past three years, 6th graders at W.A. Perry (one of the SC schools in the bottom 25) have gone from 48% meeting or exceeding state standards in math to 66%.  They are still below the state average, but more students are meeting or exceeding state standards now than three years ago.  Similar results can be found in English/Language Arts. 

Admittedly, W.A. Perry’s 6th graders’ scores are below the state average; however, they are making progress.  My aim is not to defend schools that may be low-performing, but a snapshot of a school’s test scores at one point in time does not a failing school make.  NCLB agrees with me, as a school must be in need of improvement for three years before significant intervention takes place.

Additionally, no indication is given by the article as to the student populations served at these schools.  For example, Milwaukee Spectrum School (#25) has a total population of 90 at-risk students who had a record of truancy at other schools.  The school is often a last stop for students ready to drop out of high school all together.  Of course the school is struggling; it is intended to serve struggling students.

In the article, different grades are represented for each school.  For example, high schools are not compared to high schools, but to elementary, middle, and high schools.  This presents a problem because the trend in NAEP (generally) is that more elementary students score proficient than middle school students, and more middle school students score proficient than high school students (this is true across subjects).    

Further, scores are not reported for every grade in every subject.  So a high school with low-scoring 11th graders may be on the “Worst Schools” list right before a middle school who has low-scoring 8th graders but a class of 6th graders with scores closer to a state’s average. 

In the end, of course, readers will decide if this list of worst performing schools is convincing.  However, before sinking your teeth in, take the article with a grain of salt.

Tell Them about the Whales

June 9, 2008

(Guest post by Jonathan Butcher)

It is possible to meet the requirements of the much-maligned, perennially debated, and frequently mau-maued federal No Child Left Behind Act. No really, it is—in fact, last spring third and fourth grade students at Ocean City Elementary School in Ocean City, Maryland accomplished this feat. Here, let me help you pick your chin up off the floor. 

The Washington Post reports this school is the first in the state apart from some special education centers to have every student proficient in reading and math. This news is cause for celebration, of course; however, if you read the Post‘s article to the very end, you are given an almost backhanded reminder in the last full paragraph that Ocean City Elementary has to keep this up until 2014, according to the law. Ouch–six more years. 

Back to celebrating, though. Two questions come to mind whenever I read about a school’s remarkable success: First, how did they do it, and, second, how could their approach be replicated elsewhere? The Post helps us answer the first question, as reporter Daniel de Vise says the school has an “unusually structured, relentless, and consistent” approach and a skilled and motivated principal, Irene Kordick. De Vise provides the principal’s inspiring story of how she immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and was passed along in the public education system until the fifth grade before she learned to read and write in English. Kordick was determined not to let that happen to anyone else, and the rest is history. 

As to my second question, if I had the answer or if I could put Ocean City Elementary’s method in a bottle and sell it, I would have a better haircut and wear more expensive shoes. Things being what they are, though, I have to refer to larger issues regarding the federal government’s involvement in public schools.

For starters, we taxpayers spend nearly $2 million educating whales. Specifically, for years our representatives in Washington have funded the “Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners” to the tune of $2 million or more (so I guess we fund “whalers,” not whales, or “exchanges with whalers,” whatever that is—for details check out this page on OMB’s web site; why this doesn’t have Greenpeace protesting on the Capitol steps I don’t know). In addition, OMB’s handy earmarks database shows, in nine pages of small type, mind you, that in committee deliberations in January everything from the Brooklyn Public Library to the Houston Zoo to the School Board of Broward County, Florida was on the dole. 

In searching this document, I didn’t find “Ocean City,” or better yet, “doing what Ocean City does” anywhere. I did find nearly $400,000 for jazz instruction in New York City and a similar amount for a parent training program in San Diego, though. Most of the programs listed on these nine pages of small type sound wholesome and like great ideas (“homework assistance,” “mentoring programs,” “after-school programs,” etc.), but I’ll ask the same question free market, small-government types have been asking for decades: why should Ocean City care about New York City’s jazz program? 

Now, I realize it is routine for right-of-center observers to bang the drum for fiscal responsibility in government—and I realize this drum is old and worn and some are tired of it. But considering the success of folks like me who dwell on this stuff, it makes me wonder if I shouldn’t be talking about it more (because it hasn’t worked so far) or if I should just pick another issue. 

The danger in suggesting that our government is spending money on pet projects instead of on spreading successful programs is that it is another way of saying, “Gee, if we’d only spend money on the right things maybe we could get something done around here….” So I won’t suggest this. Instead, I recommend we all move to Ocean City. Or New York City, if you like jazz. Because either one seems to be about as effective at getting government spending to produce more Ocean City Elementaries as my drum. 

Take every opportunity to praise exemplary students, schools, and school leadership. Spread the word about them. Celebrate them. But when somebody says, “Let’s take this same approach here! And here!” be ready for the question of “Why isn’t Washington doing more to help spread programs like this?” And then tell them about the whales. 


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