Tag: public schools

Scientology in the Public School Classroom

Are charter schools uniquely susceptible bad ideas?

Yesterday, NPR reported that a group of charter schools in Arizona are employing a teaching method called “Applied Scholastics,” which is based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the eccentric science fiction author and founder of Scientology. A teacher at one of the schools described the training sessions as “very weird.” Last year, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a charter school in Clearwater, Florida was also using the Scientology-influenced teaching method. 

Some charter school critics leapt on these stories to discredit the entire charter school movement. Responding to the Clearwater revelation last year, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post argued that the use of Applied Scholastics “underscores continuing oversight problems with some charter schools across the country.” Apparently Strauss would prefer students to attend traditional government schools that have lots of oversight, like Prescott Middle School in Baton Rouge:

Inside the industrial looking brick walls of one of Louisiana’s poorest performing middle schools, Scientologists finally have achieved a longtime goal.

A study skills curriculum written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is being taught as mainstream public education.

All the eighth-graders at Prescott Middle School are being taught learning techniques Hubbard devised four decades ago when he set out to remedy what he viewed as barriers to learning.

The state eventually took over Prescott and now a charter school organization is seeking to make it a charter school.

The reality is that no entire group of schools – public, private, or charter – are immune from adopting silly education fads or outright quackery. We should hold schools accountable for their performance, but using such examples to smear large swaths of unconnected schools without even attempting to demonstrate a systemic problem is intellectually dishonest.

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

86ing the Arguments for California Props 30, 38

Californians are being asked to raise their taxes by between $7 billion (Prop 30) and $10 billion (Prop 38) to prop-up public school budgets. If they don’t, backers warn, public schools will face “devastating cuts.” That’s the fear mongering. This is the reality:

Over the past four decades, real per pupil spending in California has roughly doubled. In dollar terms, Californians are spending $27 billion more today on K-12 education than they did in 1974, when Gov. Jerry Brown was first elected to office—and that is after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation.

The last dashed spike on the spending line is the increase if Prop 30 passes, as Governor Jerry Brown has been assuming. If it doesn’t pass, per pupil spending will still be up more than 80 percent over this period, after controlling for inflation. What’s more, there is no evidence that the fantastic spending increases of the past have done anything to improve student achievement.

The only state-level achievement data we have that go back this far are the SATs, and, taking into account the renorming that occurred in the mid 1990s, they have actually declined by five percent. None of the customary excuses can explain away this dismal record. A larger share of students participated in 1972 than do so today, so if a shrinking test-taking pool is the sign of a more elite subset of students taking the test, then scores should be higher today, not lower. And while state-level breakdowns by race and ethnicity are not available that far back, the national trend is similar and it shows stagnation in the scores of majority white students—which excludes changing demographics as an explanation.

As I wrote earlier this year:

It is true that a $7 billion tax increase would at least preserve a certain number of public sector jobs, even if those jobs have not, and likely will not, improve educational outcomes. But if that $7 billion is not taxed out of the free-enterprise sector of California’s economy, it will preserve or create private-sector jobs when it is spent or invested. And, contrary to the pattern shown in the accompanying chart, jobs in the free-enterprise sector do produce things that people value: from movies and music to citrus fruits and cellphones—thus generating new revenue. Tax away that money and you take away those private-sector jobs and revenue.

The final question boils down to this: Can Californians afford to tax $7 billion out of the productive sector of the economy and get nothing in return for the damage it would do?

That’s the question California voters must ask themselves on November 6th.

Would Romney Be Good for American Education?

Without picking a winner in last night’s debate, it’s fair to say that Mitt Romney avoided the sort of conspicuous gaffs that can sink a campaign. He may well become the next president of the United States. Would that be a good thing for American schoolchildren?

Yesterday, I faulted an op-ed the Governor wrote for consisting chiefly of vagaries—but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Given that the federal government has spent roughly $2 trillion on k-12 education since 1965 and achieved none of its objectives, a president who talks much but does less would be a decided improvement.

But there are a few specifics in Romney’s education white paper… and some of them are deeply disconcerting. Immediately after stressing that “states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems” the document reverses course and declares that “the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education,” and “is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing.”

Certainly the federal government should not ignore America’s educational woes, having contributed to many of them for over half a century. But the subsequent claims are untrue and do not follow from the first. It is simply false that federal government funding is “uniquely positioned” to improve the education of the neediest students. In fact, one of the flagship federal programs for helping these students, Head Start, has been proven to have no lasting benefits by the federal government’s own research. More broadly, there appears to be no link between federal K-12 spending patterns and the student achievement gaps by socio-economic status or race. Nor is there any evidence that the federal oversight introduced by the No Child Left Behind law (the “telling the truth” referred to above) improved achievement overall or narrowed the gaps.

To be fair, the document acknowledges the ineffectiveness of past and current federal programs, and so the claim that federal funding is “uniquely positioned” to help disadvantaged students could be read to apply only to the Romney campaign proposal of “attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support rather than dispersing it to districts.” The idea is essentially to voucherize federal funds, allowing them to be used even at private schools, where permitted by state law.

The benefits of increasing parental choice and competition between schools are well supported by the evidence, but here again, the federal “uniqueness” claim is simply false. Federal funding is not unique or necessary to ensuring universal school choice. The states are fully capable of doing this themselves because private schooling is, on average, about two thirds the per-pupil cost of public schooling, and so even without the roughly ten percent of education funding that comes from the federal government, state-level private choice programs could serve everyone.

Even though federal involvement in state school choice programs is not necessary it could still be a good idea. But it isn’t. As I argued when a similar idea was floated by President G. W. Bush, federal regulations would almost certainly follow federal funding of the nation’s private schools, homogenizing them from coast to coast and thereby eliminating the educational diversity upon which any choice program must rely. Since writing that piece, I have conducted a statistical study of the regulations imposed by state-level private school choice programs and found that vouchers already impose a large and highly statistically significant extra burden of regulation on participating schools. This is a grave enough problem when the regulations affect just the private schools in a single state, but that pales in comparison to the damage that would be done by such regulations at the national level.

Universal private school choice can also be achieved via personal and “scholarship donation” tax credits, and these programs do not seem to carry with them the same regulatory pall. But there is no reason to run the risk of enacting such a program at the federal level. On the contrary, the growing diversity of school choice programs at the state level is an asset, allowing us to see which state policies do the most to expand educational freedom and improve quality and efficiency. The best can then be replicated and the worst reformed.

Governor Romney says that he understands the free enterprise system, and knows that trickle-down government doesn’t work. He says that he wants to uphold our nation’s founding principles. Well, the evidence is clear that there is no need for or benefit to federal government intervention in state education policy and that there are in fact very grave risks to such intervention. And though it is unfashionable to draw attention to this fact, neither the word education nor the word school is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. So if Governor Romney becomes President Romney, American schoolchildren will be very lucky if he remembers these facts, and uses the presidential bully pulpit to promote more and better state-level school choice programs rather than opening the Pandora’s Box of federal funding and regulation of private schools.

The Latest Nobel Prize in Economics… Why It Should Make Us Sad

The latest Nobel Prize in economics has been awarded to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley. They’ve done brilliant work on algorithms for optimally matching pairs of things (such as job vacancies and job seekers), but at least one prominent application of their work should produce a deafening roar of foreheads hitting desktops: public school choice.

As the Nobel organization’s website explains, the original algorithm was developed by Shapley and David Gale to optimally match pairs of individuals who could only each be matched with one other person. For instance, optimally marrying-off 10 men and 10 women based on their relative levels of interest in one another. Over the past decade, it has come to be used to match students to places in local public schools (by Roth).

The problem is that this approach to “school choice” correctly assumes that the better public schools have a fixed number of places and cannot expand to meet increased demand. So it’s about finding the least-awful allocation of students to a static set of schools—a process that does nothing to improve school quality.

Meanwhile, there is something called a “market” which not only allows consumers and producers to connect, it creates the freedoms and incentives necessary for the best providers to grow in response to rising demand and crowd-out the inferior ones. It also provides incentives for innovation and efficiency. But instead of advocating the use of market freedoms and incentives to improve education, some of our top economists are spending their skill and energy tinkering with the increasingly inefficient, pedagogically stagnant status quo.

Forehead… meet desk.

Public School Spending. There’s a Chart for That!

What better time than back-to-school season to revisit the trends in U.S. student achievement and public school spending? With that thought in mind, I present a newly updated version of my chart showing the total amount spent over the course of a single student’s k-12 career, along with student achievement trends for 17-year-olds. The achievement data come from the Department of Education’s own National Assessment of Educational Progress “Long Term Trends” series, which regularly tests nationally representative samples of U.S. students, drawing from the same pool of questions in use since the tests were first administered around 1970. These are the best data we have on what our kids know by the end of high school and how much it has cost to get them there.

In the past, some readers have wondered if the use of two separate scales ($ on the left and % on the right) might skew the way we perceive these numbers, making the public school productivity collapse look worse than it really is. To allay that concern, I present an alternate version of the chart that places all the data on the same percentage scale. Alas, the second picture is no less bleak than the first.

If music players had suffered the same cost/performance trends we’d all still be lugging around cassette boom boxes, but they’d now cost almost $1,800…. Aren’t you glad we didn’t give tax-funded state monopolies to 19th century Victrola manufacturers?

Is It Good to Have More Kids in the Inefficient and Less-Effective Government School System?

The Los Angeles Times editorializes today on our new research demonstrating the high cost of charter schools in terms of tax dollars and an impoverished private sector in education.

The editors still “see a lot to celebrate” in charter schools and I would heartily agree. Charter schools often provide a safe, better alternative to the existing public schools for many kids who desperately need one.

Oddly, the editors at the LAT seem most celebratory not about choice, empowerment, and competition-driven improvements in education, but about the prospect of “more enrollment and resources,” “more money,” and “more funding” that the formerly private school students will likely bring to the government school system.

But money isn’t the problem with government schools, otherwise the LA school district would be tops. LAUSD spent nearly $30,000 per student in 2008, over $20,000 excluding local bond revenue (they claimed just $10,000 that year).

Government schools, even government charter schools, are inefficient and a poor reflection of the educational diversity possible in the private sector. A Ball State University study estimated that charters received over $9,000 per student in 2007. The average tuition in Catholic schools, where most of the private charter students come from, was just $6,000 in 2008 according to the government’s NCES.

In other words, charter schools cost over 50 percent more than the average tuition at a Catholic school. And the charter school might well be worse for the kid who switches on average. After all, the private school would be that family’s first choice if money weren’t an issue. And because private schools have to charge tuition, they need to provide enough value to compete with taxpayer-funded schools. That means a private school needs to provide a value worth more than $15,000 while charging just $6,000 (the $9,000 parents could get in the charter school plus the $6,000 they have to pay out of pocket for tuition).

Because of financial hardships and a high tax burden to support government schools, many families are choosing to move their child out of the private school that’s best for their child to a newly acceptable, “free” charter school.

If we want the best education for the largest number of kids while lowering the tax burden at the same time, expanding government charter schools isn’t the way to do it. Private school choice through education tax credits is the route to sustainable, continuous improvements in educational achievement and efficiency.