Archives: July, 2008

Education Journalists: Free Markets Demand an Apology

What do you need to have a free market in education? Price change? Low barriers to entry? Product differentiation? Other good stuff? Nah! All you need is something slightly less restrictive than traditional, absolute command-and-control public schooling, and you’ve got and yourself a free market, Bub!

OK, obviously that’s not the case, but you wouldn’t know it from education stories you read in some of the nation’s biggest newspapers. A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article that called the hiring of private management firms to run some public schools in Philadelphia a test of whether the “free market could educate children more efficiently than the government.” Andrew Coulson took the Post to task for that, pointing out that “Philadelphia did not create a ‘free market’ in education. What it did was to subcontract aspects of its monopoly to providers of its own choosing.”

Today, the Houston Chronicle offers an arguably even more egregious abuse of the term “free market,” declaring that allowing some kids from outside of the Houston Independent School District to go to Houston schools free of charge—but carrying state dollars—“would employ a free market approach to increase revenue while addressing the needs of students just beyond the HISD boundary.” No new providers—not even new managers, like in Philly—no pricing, no product differentiation, just a few kids able to attend government schools in Houston rather than in their home districts.

It’s hard to tell whether this regular sullying of the free market’s good name is done to make free markets look bad, or out of ignorance. If it’s the former, then Houston (I can’t help myself!) we have a problem! If it’s the latter, thankfully we have a solution: Education journalists, give this kid a call!

Pre-K Pusher Pans Preschool Pessimist

Sara Mead of the New America Foundation, one of the growing number of pre-K pushers, takes issue with my pointing out that Oklahoma’s NAEP scores suggest no return on their massive and celebrated investment in preschool over the past 18 years.

This is just one small item in a box full of evidence that suggests preschool has at best a negligible impact on long-term student outcomes. There are a lot of problems with the edifice of misinformation and misunderstanding that the preschool activists have built. So, this will be an epic four-part series of posts. It will test my resolve and yours, but we must sacrifice for the greater good. Can you handle this much pre-k?

Sara correctly points out that the fact that Oklahoma’s performance has fallen and then stagnated compared to the national average is not definitive proof that pre-k failed to have a massive positive impact on student performance; many things could have happened to cancel out improvements from preschool … like a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants, or any number of changes in the educational system. (Considering the sloth-like speed of the government school system in executing any substantive change, I propose that this last concern be dismissed outright.)

So let’s take a look at some of the big factors that could have wiped out the huge academic boost preschool activists claim pre-k provides; income levels, poverty rates, and Hispanic population.

The percentage of students of Hispanic origin in Oklahoma is still very low – at eight percent, it’s less than half the national average of 19 percent. So let’s turn to the most important factors correlated with student performance, income and poverty:

We can see here that in Sara’s favorite pre-k impact subject, reading, Oklahoma has not improved at all compared to the national average despite a massive and acclaimed investment in government pre-k (and the nation as a whole has actually declined in its performance on international tests relative to other wealthy nations).

Oklahoma’s poverty rate has bounced up and down around an average of 16 percent higher than the national average, with no trend at all. Per-capita income has stayed at least ten percent lower than the national average but has trended ever so slightly higher.

So I challenge you, Sara, and any other preschool activist out there, to find the nefarious factor that has destroyed all the gains from pre-k. By all means, take this data and run it through statistical software with whatever controls you’d like related to documented demographic and education changes (as long as you include the national averages as a control). I’d do it myself, but I’m sufficiently convinced already that the null hypothesis won’t be rejected.

I offer a gentleman’s bet that you’ll find no significant positive correlation between the number of children attending pre-k and NAEP scores in 4th or 8th grades.

More on the poverty of preschool claims soon …

Rep. Wexler: “Don’t Vote for My Iran Bill, Please!”

A few weeks ago, I puzzled over what the heck Congress was doing on Iran. Turns out I wasn’t the only one puzzled.

We now have one of the co-sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.), posting on the Huffington Post begging his colleagues not to vote for his own bill. Why? Because:

It is clear that despite carefully worded language in H. Con. Res. 362 that “nothing in this resolution should be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran” that many Americans across the country continue to express real concerns that sections of this resolution will be interpreted by President Bush as “a green light” to use force against Iran.

The language that is most disconcerting in the resolution is the third resolved clause, which demands that the president initiate among several things an “international effort to impose stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.”

I firmly believe it was not the intention of the authors of this resolution to open the door to a US blockade or armed conflict with Iran. However, I fully understand and share the American public’s mistrust of President Bush and his administration, which has abused its executive powers, willfully misled this nation into a disastrous war in Iraq and disturbingly continues to beat the Iran war drum.

Now, it takes a big person to say “I made a mistake,” and if that’s what Rep. Wexler believes, he should be commended for magnanimity. But it isn’t such a long bill. The wording isn’t complicated. And presumably if he holds this skeptical view of the Bush administration, it didn’t emerge in the time since he signed on to the bill. Which raises the question, “Why did you co-sponsor the bill, then?”

Yet another puzzle for the civics teacher attempting to teach America’s youth “how bills become law.”

Dumbing Down Trade to Make it Saleable

There is no doubt that Americans have soured on trade. And I’m willing to concede that trade’s opponents have made good use of anecdotes and symbols and catchphrases to compensate for the scarcity of facts and logic in support of their views. But this report in The Hill is really disappointing to me, and presumably would be to all others who understand trade and its benefits without the efforts to candy coat them.

Reportedly, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a survey to gauge attitudes and reactions to certain terminology and arguments for and against trade. Surveys were conducted in six cities earlier this year by a company called Presentation Testing. The purpose was, ultimately, to come up with a refined message to improve the appeal of trade advocacy and to determine which words to emphasize and which to avoid. I sincerely hope the Chamber didn’t break the bank on this project because the recommendations are feeble, if not downright laughable. Here are some of the findings.

Instead of referring to “globalization,” it is better to use the term “international trade” because of the pernicious connotations of exploitation and cheap goods associated with the former. (This may be the most useful point from the survey, although I’m not convinced we should just concede the false impressions).

Trade advocates should stress how trade deals “level the playing field.” (Why does that phrase sound familiar, you ask? Because protectionists have already trademarked it. Nary a politician speaks of his support for trade without the disclaimer that it be fair trade and that the playing field be level. When Americans hear “level playing field,” they think lousy, cheating foreigners. This is very bad advice.)

Whoops, I shouldn’t have used the term “protectionists,” above. The survey found that “protecting something sounds positive,” and therefore one should never speak ill of “protectionists.”

“Our trading partners should treat us as fairly as we treat them” was deemed a “home run statement” by the company that took the Chamber’s money. Again, this statement resides on page one of the modern “isolationists’” handbook. (Apparently, isolation is not as warm and fuzzy as protection, according to the survey results.)

“With fears of losing health insurance paramount in workers’ minds, it’s critical that you mention you have a plan for them to hold on to it if they lose their jobs,” the document suggests. What plan? Is there a plan? Should we just lie? Would reassurances that workers can keep their health coverage – while reinforcing fears that they’ll lose their jobs – suddenly attract their support for trade? How about reminding them that trade is way down the list of reasons why people lose jobs, for starters?

Here’s one of my favorite pieces of advice (justifying the price tag of the study all by itself, no doubt): When advocating the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, “You must distinguish South Korea from North Korea.” Yet, making the argument to a Democrat that a trade agreement with Colombia would show support for a crucial ally in a region prone to anti-Americanism would be ill-advised because Democrats “just don’t believe it – and most people know nothing about [Hugo] Chavez (and therefore don’t care about Venezuela.)” Are the survey consultants pretty sure, then, that Democrats know that South Korea is the good guy and North Korea the bad guy?

Look, my trade center colleagues and I have noted the many occasions in which we marshal the facts, make the arguments, and hope to convince the audience of the propriety of free trade only to have our opponents battle back by telling a emotional story about a worker who lost his job, then his wife got sick, and his dog ran away.

People seem to prefer stories to the facts. As trade advocates, we need to have better anecdotes, pithy catchphrases and resonant symbols to complement our winning facts and logic. Suffice it to say this latest consulting survey won’t end the search.

Supply Response to School Choice

Some people writing about education reform and school choice worry about how to supply good schools for kids to choose even if there’s a decent market in education.

Of course, the supply side is just a factor of how free the educational system is. Free enough money, children, and schools and the rest will follow.

It’s already happening in response to Georgia’s new special-needs voucher program:

Johnson led the push for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship program, which state lawmakers narrowly passed in 2007.

The program uses taxpayer money to provide vouchers so special education students who attend public schools can go to private schools instead. Modeled after a similar voucher program in Florida, it is designed to give families more schooling options.

Johnson said last week that he expects more private schools to open and existing campuses to expand to meet demand.

Some of the new schools may come from out of state, like the Center Academy opening in Smyrna.

The Florida-based company runs 13 private schools for students with disabilities and is opening its first school in Georgia. The company plans to open six more schools in metro Atlanta the next five to 10 years, said Steven Hicks, vice president of operations.

Hicks and others say Center Academy is the first private school to come to Georgia because of the voucher program.

“I assume others will follow,” Hicks said. “There is a demand for more private schools.”

Hostages Returned to a Less-Free U.S.A.

Couldn’t help noting that Keith Stansell, one of the U.S. hostages recently rescued from Colombia, had this to say:

To the government and armed forces of Colombia, their heroic actions, those of those soldiers that day, brought me home safe, and for this I thank them.

To my country who never forgot me, never, and especially to the U.S. embassy in Bogota, my heartfelt thanks.

And to you, the men and women of the media, thank you for respecting our privacy in these last few days. Thank you. I ask you please to continue to do so, please, as we proceed with our transition process back to a normal life as a family. Thank you very much.

And to Governor Crist of the great state of Florida, sir, I don’t have a driver’s license. How am I going to get home?

Without a government-issued ID to show at the airport, it appears that Stansell will have to undergo a deep background check, which may include his political party. (Having been “off the grid” the last three years, he may not have much background to check.) The Department of Homeland Security welcomes you home, Mr. Stansell.