Tag: Neal McCluskey

Pretty Sure It’s Already Divisive

When you’ve been fighting over the same thing for well-nigh 90 years, there’s a good chance some new policy won’t suddenly make it divisive. Nonetheless, that’s what an L.A. Times article, citing critics, suggests about a new law in Tennessee allowing in-class discussions critical of evolutionary theory and other scientific topics:

The measure will allow classroom debates over evolution, permitting discussions of creationism alongside evolutionary teachings about the origins of life. Critics say the law, disparagingly called “The Monkey Bill,” will plunge Tennessee back to the divisive days of the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial’’ in Dayton, Tenn., in 1925.

You don’t have to be Charles Darwin—or God—to figure this one out: the law was passed because the topic is already divisive. Government-schooling defenders might not want to acknowledge that, and they have been able to keep it slightly hidden by having discussion of creationism de jure  forbidden in public schools, but hard evidence reveals that Americans are mightily torn.

Time after time, surveys expose the deep split. Most recently, a 2010 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe that “God created humans in present form”; 38 percent accept that ”humans evolved, with God guiding”; and 16 percent believe that “humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.” Those numbers have stayed pretty consistent since 1982, the first year for which Gallup has data.

Clearly, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Americans are already very divided on evolution, and have been for quite some time.

How has what peace we’ve had been kept? Generally, by avoiding evolution in the schools. As Berkman and Plutzer have found, about 60 percent of high school biology teachers either completely avoid or soft-pedal evolution so as not to stir up controversy.

Public schools haven’t been happily chugging along, teaching rigorous evolutionary theory and eschewing any alternative explanations for human origins. A large number have been either teaching evolutionary pap, or nothing.

One of the major arguments government schooling defenders employ against school choice is that choice would lead to a balkanized, divided America. To make that argument, they have to ignore the history of American education—it was largely government-free for about two centuries, and public schools were long grounded in homogeneous communities—and assume that if you force diverse people together they will give up their conflicting values and ultimately engage in a gigantic, society-wide group hug.

Our endless battling over evolution—not to mention incessant fighting over countless other matters—reveals that that just doesn’t happen. You cannot force conscience uniformity, and you can’t have peace or rigor without educational freedom. Tennessee is just helping to make that clear.

Bush or Obama: Can We Tell Who Shuffles the Edu-Chairs Better?

I’m a Paul Peterson fan, and I sure don’t think President Obama’s education grade should be very high, but I’m afraid Peterson is offering some pretty weak stuff in this op-ed hoisting President George W. Bush above the current POTUS in education policy.

The main problem is that Peterson is using broad National Assessment of Educational Progress data as his main evidence of Bush’s success and Obama’s failure. But not only are these data far too blunt to tell us much about a single administration’s policies—myriad forces are at work in education beyond federal rules and regulations—it’s a serious stretch to suggest that we should expect to see big testing gains from any policy within a year or two of its enactment. Peterson even hints as much late in his treatment of Obama, noting that “NAEP data are available for just the first two years of his administration, [but] the early returns are not pretty.”

“Early returns” is right, considering that President Obama only took office in 2009, the first winners of Race to the Top—Obama’s main “reform” driver—weren’t declared until late August 2010, and the NAEP exams were administered between January and March of 2011.

More troubling, though, is the praise Peterson heaps on President Bush and No Child Left Behind. I’ve broken down NAEP scores six ways from Sunday and won’t rehash it all again, but based on improvement rates the NCLB era hasn’t been all that special. More important for this discussion, again considering policy implementation lags, it is a big leap to look at NAEP scores and crown Bush the edu-winner.

Let’s break down Peterson’s biggest advantage-Bush claim: “Overall, the annual growth rate in fourth- and eighth-grade math was twice as rapid under the Bush administration as under his successor’s.” (Actually, his biggest claim is that Bush’s fourth-grade reading performance is “infinitely” better than Obama’s, but that’s because there’s been no gain under Obama, not because under Bush scores were numerically much better.)

By far the biggest increase in 4th grade math scores that included Bush presidency years occurred between 2000 and 2003, when the average score rose three points per year. Pretty impressive, but Bush didn’t become President until 2001, and NCLB wasn’t enacted until January 2002. With NAEP administered between January and March 2003, NCLB was only law for about a year in that time span, and it took much of that year for people just to figure out what NCLB was all about. In other words, it is unlikely—though, granted, not impossible—that the improvement in that period was due primarily to NCLB.  Pull that span out of the Bush years, though, and growth was just 0.83 points (out of 500) per year. Years 2009 to 2011 saw a 0.50 point uptick—so neither president saw growth that was too impressive.

For eighth grade math, again excluding 2000-2003, the Bush years registered another 0.83 point growth rate, and 2009-2011 was again at 0.50.

The Bush years are a bit better than Obama’s just looking at NAEP—which alone tells us little—but neither president’s tenure is all that great, especially considering, as noted, several pre-NCLB periods saw faster growth. And then there’s the big picture: When you get to 17-year-olds—our schools’ “final products”—NAEP scores have been utterly stagnant for decades despite per-pupil expenditures roughly tripling and Washington getting ever-more involved.

Even if you could tell who nudged an Adirondack chair a millimeter farther from the abyss, arguing about which president is the better chair-shuffler is really missing the sinking ship.

Introducing the ‘Obama Rule’

In his latest weekly radio address, President Obama featured what will no doubt be a mainstay of his reelection campaign: the “Buffett Rule,” which says that rich people should pay at least the same tax rate as middle-class folks. It’s named after mega-investor Warren Buffett, who famously declared that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. President Obama and his supporters have run with that, and are employing it to convince the public that such is the norm for the despised “rich.”

Of course that’s not the norm: Buffett is the rare taxpayer who makes almost all his income through investments, and top earners have much higher tax rates than people earning $200,000 and below. So this is clearly not about fairness – it’s about politics.

Two, though, can play at this game. If the President can engage in class warfare he’s also a fair target of it. So why not implement something called the “Obama Rule,” which demands that lower-income people get at least the same educational options as the President? That only seems fair, right, like the Buffett Rule? Indeed, the President himself noted in his weekly address that “ we…have to pay for investments that will help our economy grow and keep our country safe [such as] education.” So why, then, does the President’s 2013 budget zero-out funding for the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program while his daughters go to Sidwell Friends? Shouldn’t other kids in Washington have access to the same excellent private schools as the President’s daughters?

Class envy is hardly the right reason to demand school choice – the right reasons are freedom, competition, innovation, and specialization – but of course all kids should have the same options as President Obama’s daughters! As the President concluded in his weekly address (though, obviously, he wasn’t talking about school choice): “That’s how we’ll make this country a little fairer, a little more just, and a whole lot stronger.” So let’s invoke the Obama Rule, and give lower-income families the same educational choices as the President! It’s simply the fair thing to do.

The Other Federal Takeover

Right now the nation is fixated on the Supreme Court and health care, as well it should be. If the Court rules the wrong way and the individual mandate is upheld, seemingly the last limit to federal power—Washington can’t make you buy stuff—will be gone. So yes, please, let’s focus on ObamaCare.

When the arguments end and the health fight abates for a while, however, let’s pay some much needed attention to another federal takeover, one that is constantly being overshadowed by bigger things like wars, ObamaCare, and budget blowouts: looming federal domination of education.

There’s actually an immediate ObamaCare connection to education, though few will likely recall it. To make the CBO cost estimates come out right, Democrats attached the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) to the already immense legislation. SAFRA eliminated guaranteed college loans—loans originated through private lenders but completely backed by taxpayer money—and made almost all lending direct from the Treasury. It wasn’t a sudden takeover as many Republicans framed it—the guaranteed program already represented massive federal control—but it did push the private sector even farther to the student-lending fringes.

Much more insidious is what Washington has been doing in K-12 schooling.

The real sea change was No Child Left Behind, when the Feds went from primarily doling out money, to dictating that every state have standards and tests in math, reading, and science, and schools and districts make yearly “proficiency” progress. It was a huge ramping-up of already unconstitutional federal involvement.

At least NCLB, though, was enacted through the proper legislative process: Congress debated the law, voted on it, and the president signed it. These days, that’s just too much of a bother.

The Obama administration started unilaterally making education policy with the “Race to the Top,” a contest in which states competed for $4 billion in “stimulus” money. Among the administration-specified things states essentially had to adopt to win? National curriculum standards, better known as the “Common Core,” which we are told repeatedly are voluntary for states to adopt.

But wait. Didn’t I used to write that Race to the Top was $4.35 billion? What happened to the other $350 million?

It wasn’t part of the purse states competed for. Instead, the administration is using it to pay for the development of national (read: “federal”) tests to go with the Common Core.

In case all that weren’t enough, the Obama Administration has decided it’s tired of waiting for Congress to rework NCLB and is issuing waivers to states that promise to implement administration-approved reforms. Included in those is adopting “college- and career-ready” standards, a euphemism for the Common Core. In other words, the federal government is on the precipice of dictating the basic curriculum for every public school in America, and doing so without even the semblance of following the constitutional, legislative process. It’s not just a federal takeover, but an executive branch takeover.

Why hasn’t this gotten the sort of attention that’s been showered on health care?

Unfortunately, a large part of the problem is that people are simply accustomed to a government education monopoly. Historically such a monopoly hasn’t been the norm, but in our lifetimes it has, and government schooling advocates would have us believe that it is the cornerstone of our society. Not so with health care: lots of people want others to pay for their care, but the default has never been government assigning you a doctor and hospital based exclusively on your home address.

The other part of the problem is people simply don’t know about the federal edu-coup. This is especially the case with national standards, which advocates have purposely soft pedaled to avoid the fate of open and honest—but disastrous—federal standards efforts in the 1990s. And when the topic has come up in public discussion, classic propaganda techniques have been employed: repeat enough that the effort is completely “state-led and voluntary,” and people will believe you.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to reverse this. There’s no historic Supreme Court showdown on the horizon, but some states have started to resist federal control, and groups like the Pioneer Institute and Pacific Research Institute have undertaken concerted efforts to expose the Common Core. The biggest problem is that the public is largely oblivious to what’s going on. Which is why, after the ObamaCare Supreme Court arguments are over, we need to turn our attention to the other, almost complete, federal takeover: education.

Power Yes, Trigger No

There is little question that parents have too little power in elementary and secondary education. In fact, they have almost no power: they can vote, but are otherwise usually relegated to being class moms, or holding bake sales, or some other fluffy “involvement” that gives them no real say over how their children are educated. Adding insult to injury, that doesn’t often stop professional educators from blaming parents when students don’t do so well.

To remedy the problem, the trendy thing seems to be “parent trigger” laws that would, generally speaking, allow a majority of parents at a school declare that they want to fire the staff, or bring in a private management company, or some other transformation. It’s been the spark behind some especially heated conflicts in California, as unions and parents of different stripes have been doing battle with each other. It is also the subject of a New York TimesRoom for Debate” exchange today.

While I sympathize—obviously—with those who advocate giving parents more power, I cannot help but conclude that the parent trigger is a very poor way to do this. For one thing, it is inherently divisive: what about the 49 percent, or 30 percent, or whatever percent of parents who don’t want the changes the majority demands? They’ve got no choice but to fight it out with their neighbors. It is also inefficient: individual children need all sorts of options to best meet their unique needs and abilities, but the trigger would just exchange one monolithic school model for another.

The trigger, quite simply, is no substitute for real educational freedom: giving parents control of education funds, giving educators freedom to establish myriad options, and letting freedom, competition and specialization rein.

There is, however, one gratifying thing about the parent trigger: it has made historian Diane Ravitch—who constantly decries the destruction of “democracy” were we to have educational freedom—express outrage about ”51 percent of people using a public service hav[ing] the power to privatize it.”

Um, isn’t majority rule what democracy is all about? Or do government schooling defenders really just invoke the term because it sounds so nice and is such a potent rhetorical club?

The answer, it seems, is getting more clear.

Common Core Supporter: Maybe Opposition Not Paranoia

Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, “paranoid.” Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption “voluntary,” he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren’t really all that crazy:

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

When what someone predicted actually occurs, it’s a lot harder to assume him delusional. It’s more accurate to call him “right.” And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.

‘Say I Threatened You Again, And You’ll Really Be Sorry!’

Apparently, if you try to undo something the feds want you to do, they’ll slap you around until you confess they’ve never threatened you. At least, that’s how Education Secretary Arne Duncan rolls when it comes to national curriculum standards:

Following is a statement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a legislative proposal in South Carolina to block implementation of the Common Core academic standards:

“The idea that the Common Core standards are nationally-imposed is a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy. The Common Core academic standards were both developed and adopted by the states, and they have widespread bipartisan support. GOP leaders like Jeb Bush and governors Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, and Bill Haslam have supported the Common Core standards because they realize states must stop dummying down academic standards and lying about the performance of children and schools. In fact, South Carolina lowered the bar for proficiency in English and mathematics faster than any state in the country from 2005 to 2009, according to research by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“That’s not good for children, parents, or teachers. I hope South Carolina lawmakers will heed the voices of teachers who supported South Carolina’s decision to stop lowering academic standards and set a higher bar for success. And I hope lawmakers will continue to support the state’s decision to raise standards, with the goal of making every child college- and career-ready in today’s knowledge economy.”

I don’t really need to go any further than the statement itself to prove that, contrary to “Fat Tony” Duncan’s protestations, it is not a “conspiracy theory” to say that the Common Core is “nationally imposed.” But let’s rehearse the litany one more time:

  • In 2008 the National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc.—the main Common Core architects—called for federal “incentives” to get states to adopt “a common core of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts.”
  • President Obama’s $4.35-billion Race to the Top required that states, to be fully competitive for grants, adopt national standards.
  • Race to the Top contained $330 million that Washington is using to fund development of two national tests to go with the Common Core.
  • The President’s “blueprint” to reauthorize No Child Left Behind would make national standards the backbone of federal accountability.
  • To get waivers from No Child Left Behind’s most onerous provisions, a state has to either adopt the Common Core or have a state college system declare that the state’s standards are “college- and career-ready.” Of course, this came after almost every state had already adopted the Common Core.

Why is Duncan lashing out? Quite possibly, he’s reacting to a recent spate of research and commentary attacking the Common Core based on its highly dubious legality, quality, and odds of success. That South Carolina is considering backing out—though the Palmetto State effort fell short in a Senate subcommittee—might have pushed Duncan over the edge. I mean, how dare those people try to buck what Duncan and his boss were not in any way trying to get them to do!

Unfortunately, as failure in the South Carolina committee reinforces—and I warned last week—it is unlikely that many states will formally boot what they’ve already adopted. The time to fight to keep the Common Core out of states was before Race to the Top decisions were made, as we at the Center for Educational Freedom did. Of course, it was off most people’s radars during that crucial time because that was exactly what national-standards supporters wanted. And it’s what their ongoing dissembling about Washington’s heavy hand is intended to continue.

Thankfully, that strategy seems to not be working so well anymore.