Archives: 04/2007

School Choice and Government Education Realities

Blog-fight!  Very stimulating.  My thanks to Sara Mead at The Quick and the Ed, who responds to my response to her post about how advocates of educational freedom are hawking snake-oil. 

First, I’d like to happily and wholly agree with one of Mead’s points:  “[School choice programs that target students with disabilities] create perverse incentives for parents and schools that could exacerbate one of the biggest problems in special education: overidentification of students with disabilities.”  No argument there at all, and I would simply add that there are perverse incentives for disability over-ID in the public system right now.  Getting your kid classified as ADHD, or Asperger’s, etc. allows your child to receive extra consideration and a more individualized education.  If your child is difficult to control and only responds well in a particular educational environment, your only recourse may be a special classification.  Wouldn’t it be great if parents could just choose a school that works for their child in the first place, without the need to label them?

Now, on to the good stuff. 

Mead admits that these special programs “seem to be working okay,” but that “they don’t seem to be solving the problem they ostensibly were intended to solve–parent difficulties getting needed services or out-of-district placements for their children.”  I’m sorry, but I fail to see how giving parents another choice isn’t a general step forward.  No one ever claimed that vouchers would make the government system perfect, only that it would allow parents easily to look elsewhere for the services their child needs.  The program does that, and there’s nothing disingenuous about saying choice solves a lot of problems for thousands of families.  The report Mead cites claims only that children with less severe disabilities are the ones helped most by the program, not that it doesn’t help children with disabilities. 

I’d also like to point out that although political support is difficult to come by for any school choice program, the public actually supports universal over targeted programs by huge margins, often with two or three times the support.  This is a very consistent finding (I’ve found the same thing in my own recent opinion research).  And I think the school choice movement’s myopic obsession with hyper-targeted programs is both a tactical and a strategic mistake.

Mead concludes by conceding “there’s a compelling case that building an education system more premised on choice will have significant benefits, in terms of efficiency but more so in terms of customization and parent and student satisfaction and engagement.”  But then she insists “it’s also likely that educational policies that improve student achievement on average will end up leaving some [presumably low-income] children behind.”  I don’t know where this prediction comes from, other than from a general distrust of markets, but the relevant question here isn’t whether or not some children will be “left behind.”  The question is how many, and compared to what else?  How’s our current system doing in that department?  Pretty swell, eh?  And why, if the market is so likely to leave poor kids behind, are low-income families so desperate to get scholarships?  And why is a free market already serving the poor children in poor countries well?

And while we’re comparing school choice reform to present realities in the government system … school choice program problems with fraud and theft are nothing compared with the rampant corruption commonplace in the educational industrial complex.  Never mind the legal travesty of paying incompetent teachers large sums to malpractice because they are tenured and senior.

Finally, this sex-ed thing seems trivial, I know, but Mead shows a blind spot here that’s interesting. 

The conservatives she cites as supporting abstinence-only sex ed support it because they think it’s the best policy.  These conservatives also support a system of school choice in which liberals could send their kids to a free-range school where sex ed starts early and includes cucumber demonstrations of condom use.  In the absence of such a system, many of these conservatives support making abstinence-only sex ed the standard in sex-ed because without educational freedom, curriculum decisions are a zero-sum game.  You win, I lose.  I win, you lose.  This is a recipe for social strife, and we have it aplenty in our schools.

You see, there’s the system of education we have, and the one school choice supporters want.  The system we have forces diverse communities and families to decide, through a corrupt political process dominated by the educational industrial complex, on what every child will be taught. 

If you want your kid to have abstinence-only sex ed and can’t afford a choice, then you’d better throw your support behind those who want it in the curriculum.  The same goes for everything else under the curriculum sun. This doesn’t bear at all on the issue of support for educational freedom.

Ok, I think that’s all …

Link Analysis and 9/11

In our paper Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining, Jeff Jonas and I pointed out the uselessness of data mining for finding terrorists. The paper was featured in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year, and a data mining disclosure bill discussed in that hearing was recently marked up in that Committee.

On his blog, Jeff has posted some further thinking about 9/11 and searching for terrorists. He attacks a widespread presumption about that task forthrightly:

The whole point of my 9/11 analysis was that the government did not need mounds of data, did not need new technology, and in fact did not need any new laws to unravel this event!

He links to a presentation about finding the 9/11 terrorists and how it could have been done by simply following one lead to another.

Jeff feels strongly that Monday morning quarterbacking is unfair, and I agree with him. Nobody in our national security infrastructure knew the full scope of what would happen on 9/11, and so they aren’t blameworthy. Yet we should not shrink from the point that diligent seeking after the 9/11 terrorists, using traditional methods and the legal authorities existing at the time, would have found them.

IRS Chief Will Make Ideal Vampire

The American Red Cross is known for its blood drives, so there is something appropriate about the selection of an IRS Commissioner as its new chief. Mark W. Everson compiled a dismal record at the IRS, expanding the power and size of the tax agency, so he has ample experiencing extracting blood from unwilling victims. The Washington Post reports:

One day after taxpayers filed their annual returns, the American Red Cross picked the head of the Internal Revenue Service to take over the disaster-relief agency as it struggles to restore a reputation damaged by its responses to Hurricane Katrina and other recent catastrophes. The Red Cross Board of Governors voted yesterday to name IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson, the nation’s top tax man since 2003, as the new president and chief executive of the $6 billion organization.

Paulson Commits Faux Pas, Tells Truth About Tax Gap

Democrats on Capitol Hill are upset because the Treasury Secretary told the truth about the tax gap. Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, Henry Paulson explained that there was very little chance of substantially closing the tax gap without resorting to onerous measures that would diminish freedom and penalize millions of compliant taxpayers. Paulson’s testimony is particularly refreshing since the IRS has been using the issue to seek a bigger budget and more power. The Washington Post has the story:

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson said yesterday that the Internal Revenue Service would have a tough time wringing money out of the nation’s tax cheats without imposing “draconian” new burdens on honest taxpayers. Speaking to a Senate committee led by Democrats eager to raise cash without raising tax rates, Paulson said it was “unrealistic” for them to expect to collect hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal tax gap, the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid. …Democrats bristled at Paulson’s remarks and accused the administration of failing to take seriously its duty to enforce the nation’s tax laws. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) demanded that Paulson return in July with a strategy for increasing the voluntary compliance rate to 90 percent by 2017 from 84 percent, a change he said would increase tax collections by $150 billion a year. …Paulson said other tax-gap ideas floating around Washington “would be unnecessarily painful, expensive and time-consuming for taxpayers.” Politicians haven’t endorsed the more extreme notions, but Paulson cited some anyway – steps such as eliminating most cash transactions or tripling the number of IRS audits. “In theory, each of these measures could bring in some additional revenue,” Paulson said. “But the cost of compliance for individuals and businesses – most of whom already pay what they owe – would far outweigh the gains.”

From the “When Will They Learn” File

The more wailing I hear from big-government conservatives about public education being monopolized by teachers unions, or progressive theorists, or a political system that just won’t see the light, the more amazed I am that these people obsess over conquering the hopeless system rather than letting parents and children out of it. When will they finally feel the mammoth weight of their own, huge complaints and realize that “more government, only with us in control” is a doomed reform strategy?

This morning, after reading a National Review Online piece by Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a leading neo-con education outfit, I found myself asking that same question again.

In his article, Petrilli discusses a House Education and Labor committee hearing scheduled for Friday that will focus on U.S. Department of Education staffers steering schools to specific, preferred curricula under the Reading First program. Reading First works, Petrilli declares, and he’s sickened that House Democrats will be playing politics with it by holding a hearing designed mainly to embarrass the Bush administration:

Whatever was done, it evidently worked for kids….The Office of Management and Budget recently declared [Reading First] the only “effective” No Child Left Behind program. A new report from the Government Accountability Office…is filled with plaudits from state officials, who have seen their reading scores skyrocket. This creates a bit of a conundrum for committee chairman George Miller, one of the architects of No Child Left Behind and thus of Reading First. His commitment to closing the achievement gap is well known….But so is his fealty to Speaker…Nancy Pelosi. And this supposed “scandal” gives the Democrats a shot at another Bush-administration scalp.

So what does Petrilli think our representatives ought to be doing instead of indulging in what he calls “political theater of the absurd”? Tackling questions like:

Should the federal government be in the business of prescribing and proscribing curricula for the nation’s schools, and if so how? What are the pros and cons?

Of course! Instead of wasting all their time on the political opportunism, grandstanding, and show-hearings to which they are addicted, federal politicians should be figuring out if they should exert even more control over American education.

Unfortunately, we know what Petrilli would like them to decide were they able to leave stupid and destructive politics aside for even just a moment and actually get down to business. As he and the Fordham Foundation have made clear many times before, he’d want these hopeless political opportunists to authorize the creation of national curricular standards, which in the end - though Petrilli and Fordham won’t admit it - would give the politicians even more control over American education.

Now THAT is absurd. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the neo-con course.

Bon Voyage, Politicians

Senator McCain and Speaker Pelosi have been criticized for their visits to the Middle East, but at least they can claim that their trips were relevant to issues of national importance. Most members of Congress, by contrast, create excuses for junkets to Europe and the Caribbean. Taxpayers pick up the tab for these quasi-vacations - and the price tag is staggering since politicians travel on private jets operated by the military and generally stay in plush hotels. The Examiner explains:

Congress is keeping Andrews Air Force base plenty busy this year ferrying lawmakers all over the globe at taxpayers’ expense. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi took his wife, nine Democrats and two Republicans - Reps. Dan Lungren of California and Mike Rogers of Alabama - on a whirlwind tour of the Caribbean last week. After stops in Honduras and Mexico, they stopped in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the delegation stayed at the five-star Caneel Bay resort. In a separate trip to the Caribbean last week, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York squired his wife and four Democratic members to Grenada and Trinidad. All told, the military flew at least 13 congressional delegations to various destinations during the Easter recess – at an estimated rate of $10,000 or more per flying hour. …At the Caneel Bay resort, where room rates reach $1,100 per night, the spokeswoman said Thompson and his wife paid the “government rate.” But, according to the reservations department, Caneel Bay doesn’t “offer any government rates.” …Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., also led a trip to Belgium over the two-week Easter recess. In February, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, took a delegation there. “We’re at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, but apparently our members see Belgium as our most urgent international destination,” scoffed one Republican member of Congress.

Another “Piggybacking” Story

CNN reports on another example of police hysteria over “wireless theft.” Stories like this seem to pop up every few months: somebody parks their car on a residential street, opens up his laptop, and uses it to access a wireless network that’s not protected by a password. Then the police come along and arrest the guy. In the two cases reported in this story, both of which occurred in the UK, the police let them off with a warning. But in 2005, a guy was fined 500 pounds and placed on probation for a year for “stealing” Internet access.

As I argued in an op-ed last year, this is silly. Accessing someone else’s wireless network, especially for casual activities like checking your email, is the very definition of a victimless crime. I’ve done the same thing on numerous occasions, and I deliberately leave my wireless network open in the hopes that it will prove useful to my neighbors.

The only concrete harm opponents of “piggy-backing” can come up with is that the piggy-backer might commit a crime, such as downloading pirated content or child pornography, with your connection. But remember that there are now thousands of coffee shops, hotels, and other commercial locations that offer free WiFi access, and most of them don’t make any effort to verify identities or monitor usage. So someone who wants to get untraceable Internet access can go to any one of those establishments just as well as they can park outside your house.

Which isn’t to say that there are no reasons people might not want to share their network connections with the world. If sharing your Internet access creeps you out, by all means set a password. And there’s almost certainly work to be done educating users so that people are fully informed of the risks and know how to close their network if they want to do so.

But arresting people for logging into an open network is completely counterproductive. Ubiquitous Internet access is socially useful, and the vast majority of “piggy-backers” aren’t doing anything wrong. If you see someone parked on the street outside your home using your wireless network, you shouldn’t pick up the phone and call the cops. Instead, call your geeky nephew and ask him to set a password for your network. Or, even better, do nothing and consider it your good deed for the day.