Tag: education reform

It’s a Little Late to Be Discussing National Standards Governance

What do you do when you’re asked your opinion about how to implement something you don’t like? Do you use the opportunity to say why you think implementation will fail, and how to minimize the damage, even if doing so might make you look like a collaborator? Or do you say nothing and just let bad stuff happen?

A couple of months ago, I was presented with that dilemma by the people at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – you might have seen me discuss them once or twice – who were putting together a report on how to govern national standards and tests. They asked me, along with several other people who’d thought long and hard about national standards, to send them answers to several questions to help inform their thinking. Today, Fordham is releasing that report, and I have just a few notes about it.

First, you will see me quoted twice in the paper, and from those quotes you could get the impression that I’ve gone all Vichy on national standards. I don’t think Fordham authors Chester Finn and Michael Petrilli intended to do that, nor do the context of the quotes necessarily support that conclusion, but one could get that impression nonetheless. Fortunately, Fordham kindly posted my entire questionnaire – as well as those of several other respondents – on the report’s Web page, and you can go there for my complete thoughts. If you don’t want to do that, though, I’ll summarize (stop me if you’ve heard this before): As long as government runs and funds schools rather than giving parents control of education money and educators full freedom, standards-and-accountability regimes, no matter how strong they start off, will ultimately be rendered meaningless by politics.

My second note is that the overall report is aggravating because it is impossible to concretely discuss the governance of standards that almost no one knows about, and accountability systems that don’t exist. The Fordham authors acknowledge this problem, but acknowledging it doesn’t make it any less enervating. It also highlights that we’ve skipped a critical, much more fundamental debate: Even if you think centralized standards are a good idea – and almost everything we know about markets, competition, and innovation says they aren’t – how do you, really,  keep politics from gutting standards and accountability? It’s a debate we needed to have long before states started to adopt national standards, largely in the pursuit of federal dough.

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

We Have Too Many Teachers Already!

A story yesterday on CNNMoney.com describes the plight of Jenny Frank, who is young and eager to begin a career in teaching but hasn’t been able to land a job. It’s always sad to hear of people failing to find work in their chosen field, but the article in question completely misses a staggeringly important national story. As I mentioned this morning on Fox ‘n’ Friends: we have about 1.5 million too many teachers already!

Since 1970, public school enrollment has barely budged–up just 9 percent. Over the same period, employment has doubled. We’ve added 3 million new government school jobs. Half of those are teachers, another quarter are teachers’ aides, and the rest are service personnel and bureaucrats. This hiring binge has contributed to a quadrupling in the real, inflation-adjusted cost of a k-12 education: from $38,000 to $150,000 (constant 2009 dollars). It has not contributed to improved student achievement which, at best, has been flat at the end of high-school over that entire period.

If we went back to the staff-to-pupil ratio of 1970, we’d save something like $200 billion annually. And since achievement didn’t go up with the hiring boom, there’s no reason to expect it would fall if we pared back the government school rolls. And if staff reductions were focused on the lowest-performers, we would likely see student learning gains as kids were pulled out of the classes of bad teachers and placed into the classes of better ones. Our classes are currently much smaller than those of other nations that outperform us anyway (about 22 to 24 students per class in the US, versus an international average of 29).

Alas, none of that is going to happen while the education of American children remains focused on serving the adults employed by the system rather than kids. But imagine if education were part of the free enterprise system, in which quality and efficiency are handsomely rewarded and failure is penalized. The right-sizing of America’s education labor force would happen automatically, as parents shunned inneffective, expensive, overstaffed schools in favor of those that hired and retained only competent teachers–and only as many as are actually required to effectively reach children.

Isn’t education important enough to do what actually works?

Taxpayer Choice + Parental Choice = Good, Constitutional Education Reform

Arizona grants income tax credits for contributions made to school tuition organizations (“STOs”).  STOs must use these donations for scholarships that allow students to attend private schools.  This statutory scheme broadens the educational opportunities for thousands of students by enabling them to attend schools they would otherwise lack the means to attend.  Still, several taxpayers filed a lawsuit challenging the program as creating a state establishment of religion.

Although the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that increasing educational opportunities is a valid secular purpose for a legislative act, it found that the tax credit program nonetheless violates the Establishment Clause because many of the STOs—as it happens, a decreasing majority—provide scholarships for students to attend parochial schools.  Earlier this year, Cato filed a brief supporting the request for Supreme Court review filed by the various parties defending the program.  The Court granted cert.

Now Cato (led by Andrew Coulson and myself) has filed another brief, joined by four education reform groups, urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision because it was based on faulty reasoning:  It equated the private and voluntary choices of individuals who donate to religious STOs with state sponsorship of religion.  The lower court also made the dubious assertion that Arizona parents feel pressured to accept scholarships to religious schools, in spite of the fact that the share of STO scholarships available for use at secular schools is almost twice as large as the share of families actually choosing secular schools. Moreover, the tax credit scheme is indistinguishable from similar charitable tax deduction programs that the Court has previously held to pass constitutional muster.

We urge the Court to reaffirm its longstanding jurisprudence—especially the 2002 school-choice case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris—whereby instances of “genuine and independent choice” are insulated from Establishment Clause challenge. Far from being an impediment to parental freedom, the autonomy Arizona grants to taxpayers and STOs is ultimately essential to it.  More generally, should the lower court’s opinion be allowed to stand, the progress made to broaden the educational opportunities of students across the country will be stifled.

The case of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn will be heard by the Court this fall, probably in November.

Charters Kill Private Schools and Add to Taxpayer Burden

Tradeoffs are an incurable part of reality. Unfortunately, many school choice supporters like to believe that there are no tradeoffs between school choice policies; public and private school choice, targeted or restricted, big or small, voucher or tax credits, it’s all choice and it’s all good. But some good things are better than others. And most things have some mix of positive and negative effects.

Charter schools often provide a safer, better alternative to traditional public schools. That’s good. Charter schools also destroy private schools, decrease educational options, pull private-school students into the government education system and thereby add significant new costs to taxpayers. These are all very bad things. And they are not at all balanced by theories of long-term shifts in how citizens conceive of choice in education.

Here’s the latest on how government charter schools are killing what’s left of the private sector in education:

The number of students enrolled in these public, independently run schools has risen dramatically in this decade. Philadelphia school district officials estimate that 73 percent of the children now in charters came from district schools and 27 percent from other schools. That 27 percent amounts to about 9,000 students, and Catholic-school educators believe that most of them came from Catholic schools.

Charter schools have one distinct advantage over Catholic schools. They do not charge tuition.

Charters are NO substitute for private school choice. In fact, by destroying private schools, they seriously erode the total range of educational options.

We need to be clear-headed about this; charter school laws, in the absence of robust private school choice programs, destroy educational freedom and choice.

Absent private choice, charters are a long-term setback for education reform.

First to the “Top”

Congratulations Delaware and Tennessee – you’ve won the Race to the Top beauty contest! Of course, the grading was subjective and will be disputed by lots of states that haven’t won. Well, haven’t won yet – there’s a second round to this, remember.

So what do the victories for Delaware and Tennessee mean? The edu-pundits will no doubt be reading deep into the results over the coming days, trying to determine what they portend for the future of RttT, federal education policy generally, and politicians across the country.  And there are some juicy political leads worth following, including the possibility that the winning states were chosen because they have Republican congress members who could be pivotal in getting bipartisan support for the administration’s No Child Left Behind reauthorization plans.  

All of this, though, will ultimately miss by far the biggest point about RttT: The most beautiful promises and laws mean nothing unless they are implemented, and history offers little reason to believe that even the finest parts of the RttT winners’ applications will be brought to bear.

Despite over forty years of federal education interventions, and nearly two decades of state-level standards-and-accountability reforms, academic achievement has stagnated. Long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in mathematics and reading for our schools’ “final products” – high-school seniors – have been almost completely flat since the early 1970s, and fourth and eighth-grade “main NAEP” reading scores released just last week demonstrate the same awful trend since the early 1990s. This despite a 123-percent increase in real, per-pupil funding since 1970.  

Quite simply, no degree of legislative tinkering within the system has produced lasting improvements because those who would be held to high standards – teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats – have by far the most political clout in education, and they’ve hollowed out anything “tough” that’s been tried. The only thing that will move us powerfully forward – as extensive research on educational freedom demonstrates – is empowering parents to bypass education politics by freely choosing schools that have the autonomy needed to compete and innovate.

Unfortunately, that kind of reform wouldn’t gain a state so much as a point in the Race to the Top. And the limited choice – charter schools – that could get a state some points? According to the Center for Education Reform, Delaware only gets a B for its charter school law – a grade based generally on how free and competitive charter schools can be – while Tennessee gets an atrocious mark of D.

There’s nothing beautiful about that.