Odds and Ends

March 23, 2011

WordPress was down most of yesterday, preventing me from posting.  Here are some of the topics I was considering for a post:

  • I finally saw The Social Network.  As always, I enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s clever, rapid-fire dialog, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how creepy it was to write a fictionalized and unflattering account of real, living people.  There is no evidence that Mark Zuckerberg is the status and girl-craving jerk that Sorkin made him out to be, but there is plenty of evidence that Sorkin behaves that way.  I guess the film is really a fictionalized autobiography of Aaron Sorkin, except that Sorkin didn’t create a multi-billion dollar enterprise that tens of millions enjoy using and that has helped topple despots in the Middle East.
  • I saw that my fellow Manhattan Institute-refugee, Walter Olson, has a new book out on how law schools perpetuate a political ideology that gives more power to lawyers and government. Schools of Misrule sounds like it has a fascinating thesis except I suspect that the same argument could be made about almost every department at universities.  I can assure you that the social sciences are filled with people who sit around in their offices dreaming about how the rest of the world should be structured if only the world would listen to them.  I guess the difference is that law school grads are actually more likely to have to power to put their dreams into action.
  • Jim Stergios has a great post over at Pioneer comparing Bill Gates and Steve Jobs on their visions for education.  He writes:

So Bill Gates lets us all know what he really has in mind on standards and the liberal arts. In a speech to the National Governors Association in late February, he suggests that higher education spending be devoted largely to job-producing disciplines.

In his view we should drop funding at the higher ed level for the liberal arts, because there is not much economic impact/job creation impact from the liberal arts.

Compare that to Steve Jobs, who during his release of the iPad 2 (admittedly not the most successful launch I’ve seen of an Apple product), trumpeted the liberal arts.

Be sure to read the full thing because the quotations from Gates and Jobs are illuminating.

Reaction To SC Decision on Special Ed

June 29, 2009

Reactions are beginning to pour in on the Forest Grove School District v. T.A. Supreme Court decision, which Greg and I wrote about last week.  Predictably and unfortunately, those reactions are informed by concerns for the financial burdens of the decision that are lacking in both facts and perspective. 

Even the dissenting opinion, written by Souter and joined by Scalia and Thomas, made a point of worrying about the costs:

The majority’s suggestion overlooks the terms of the IDEA process, the substantial procedures protecting a child’s substantive rights under the IDEA, and the significant costs of its rule. To start with the costs, special education can be immensely expensive, amounting to tens of billions of dollars annually and as much as 20% of public schools’ general operating budgets. See Brief for Council of the Great City Schools as Amicus Curiae 22–23. The more private placement there is, the higher the special education bill, a fact that lends urgency to the IDEA’s mandate of a collaborative process in which an IEP is “developed jointly by a school official qualified in special education, the child’s teacher, the parents or guardian, and, where appropriate,the child.”Burlington, supra, at 368.

Just how much private placement is there?  How much does it really cost?  How big is this relative to total enrollment and expenditure in public schools?

As of 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students in private school at public expense who were there at the initiative of their parents.  That is 1.1% of the 5,978,081 students in special education and 0.14% of the 49,610,000 students in public education.  Theses percentages were not significantly different before 1997 when Congress amended the special education law in a way that the dissent believed would constrain burdensome private placements.  And Marcus Winters and I estimated that the total financial cost of private placement is less than a billion dollars and amounts to less than one-quarter of one percent of total public school spending

I understand that a billion dollars is a lot of money, but in a public education system spending more than $500 billion it is almost rounding error.  Souter, Scalia, and Thomas violate the Denominator Law, where it is required that all claims of “big” problems have to be put in perspective by including a denominator to show how large the problem really is given the full context.  As officers of the Court they should know that ignorance of the law is no excuse!

It’s also strange that Scalia and Thomas would join in a dissent that is based at least partially on concerns for the financial implications of their decisions.  I thought Scalia and Thomas believed in finding the original intent of the law.  A court ruling based on (false) fears of financial burdens of the law sounds like policymaking from the bench.

However, Debra Saunders, in a column on the decision at the San Francisco Chronicle, seems confused about what constitutes policymaking from the bench.  She writes: “the court arguably engages in policy-making when it tells districts how they must spend valuable education dollars.”  There is a federal law, IDEA, that tells schools how they must spend their money (along with the money they receive from the feds).  It says that all disabled students are entitled to a free appropriate public education.  It isn’t policymaking from the bench to say that students unreasonably denied appropriate services shouldn’t have to wait 2-3 years for the Courts to order the schools to provide those services.  The Courts can’t also provide a time machine, so we have to have a mechanism that handles what happens to kids while their parents fight with schools in the courts. 

In Forest Grove the Supreme Court said that parents should be able to take the risk of placing their children in private school and seeking reimbursement.  If the courts agree that the schools unreasonably denied services, then they can get reimbursed for their costs while they were waiting.  If the public schools were reasonable, then the parents are out the money. 

I agree with Debra Saunders that the facts in this specific case make it hard to understand how a lower court found that the public schools behaved unreasonably.  But the law isn’t about one set of facts; it applies to all instances.  If we pretend that the lower courts find that public schools denied a special education classification unreasonably, then obviously students would be denied their rights under IDEA if they had to wait 2-3 years for those services.

Debra goes on to violate the Denominator Law, writing: “It’s one of those nice people things. The government has expanded the notion of disability to the point of absurdity. But nice people refuse to look at the impending drain on public school budgets, or how one child’s boarding school tuition can mean that much less funding for all the other students’ educational needs.”  This was especially frustrating because I pleaded with her to report claims of financial burdens in context.  Besides quoting me, she chose to ignore my point and repeat her claims of burden with no basis to support it.

My colleague, Walter Olson, also has a post on Forest Groveon his blog, Overlawyerd.com.  While I disagree with Wally on this issue, I am sympathetic with his concerns.  Specifically, he notes that private placement is a remedy much more available to wealthy families than poor ones.  And he doubts the justice of disabled students having federally protected rights to an appropriate education while no one else does. 

I agree that rich kids have better access to this remedy than poor kids. That’s why I favor vouchers for special education, both to democratize this remedy and to better control costs. Vouchers control costs because the voucher is worth no more than would have been spent in public schools or private school tuition, whichever is less. Special ed vouchers also discourage over-identification of disabilities because schools would risk losing students when they classify students as disabled.

And I also agree that it is unclear why non-disabled students should have to wait in schools that fail to serve them appropriately while disabled students are entitled to find an appropriate education. But the solution is not to strip disabled students of that right.  The solution is to extend it to all students. Give vouchers to all students worth the amount that would be spent on them in public school (the amount would vary based on the cost of educating different kinds of students). If any student is unable to find what his family believes is an appropriate education, give them the resources to find it somewhere else.

Is CPSIA the New Fahrenheit 451?

February 15, 2009

Walter Olson over at City Journal and his blog, Overlawyered.com, has uncovered a frightening and probably unintended effect of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  Children’s books made before 1985 are essentially being removed from the market.  Olson writes:

“under a law Congress passed last year aimed at regulating hazards in children’s products, the federal government has now advised that children’s books published before 1985 should not be considered safe and may in many cases be unlawful to sell or distribute. Merchants, thrift stores, and booksellers may be at risk if they sell older volumes, or even give them away, without first subjecting them to testing—at prohibitive expense. Many used-book sellers, consignment stores, Goodwill outlets, and the like have accordingly begun to refuse new donations of pre-1985 volumes, yank existing ones off their shelves, and in some cases discard them en masse.”

He continues:

“CPSIA imposed tough new limits on lead in any products intended for use by children aged 12 or under, and made those limits retroactive: that is, goods manufactured before the law passed cannot be sold on the used market (even in garage sales or on eBay) if they don’t conform…. Not until 1985 did it become unlawful to use lead pigments in the inks, dyes, and paints used in children’s books. Before then—and perhaps particularly in the great age of children’s-book illustration that lasted through the early twentieth century—the use of such pigments was not uncommon, and testing can still detect lead residues in books today. This doesn’t mean that the books pose any hazard to children. While lead poisoning from other sources, such as paint in old houses, remains a serious public health problem in some communities, no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations—not surprisingly, since unlike poorly maintained wall paint, book pigments do not tend to flake off in large lead-laden chips for toddlers to put into their mouths.”

This doesn’t just hit used book-sellers hard, it also applies to any individual trying to sell a book on Ebay and even to public libraries.  We will have to discard countless classic children’s books, many of which are no longer in print, to avoid something that has never been shown to be harmful.

But don’t worry.  I’m sure we won’t actually burn the books.  It might produce harmful toxins!  Instead, I bet we are preparing a facility near Yuca Mountain to safely dispose of Make Way for Ducklings and Anne of Green Gables so those books will no longer harm our children.  Better that they should sit in front of the TV.

(edited to change photo)