Tag: school choice

Cloning “Superman”

We all know there are too few good schools and too many lousy ones. The trouble is, we lack a mechanism for reliably scaling up the former and crowding out the latter. Competitive markets perform this service in other fields, from coffee-shops to cell phones. Can the same thing work in education?

To find out, we’ve invited experts from both hemispheres to tell us what their nations have learned from decades of experience with private-school choice. Peje Emilsson founded the largest chain of for-profit private schools in Sweden’s nationwide voucher program. Humberto Santos has studied the academic performance of public schools, independent private schools, and chains of private schools in Chile’s voucher program. Responding to their findings and asking challenging questions will be Education Week journalist Sarah Sparks.

I hope you can join us for this fascinating discussion, and lunch, at noon on January 28th. Click here to register. The sooner we can stop “Waiting for Superman,” the better.

Remarkable Interest in School Choice in Colorado?

In Douglas County, CO, a jurisdiction with 240,000 residents south of Denver, there is strong public interest in the possible implementation of a sweeping school choice program.  Here’s a blurb from the Denver Post:

Douglas County School District officials say an unexpected level of interest in a retreat exploring school choice today and Saturday is forcing them to add an overflow room and a video feed to allow the public to watch the discussion. The school board is investigating a voucher program that would allow students to use public money to help with tuition at approved religious schools and other private ones. The two-day retreat will discuss the findings of a school-choice task force that has been mulling several issues, including vouchers.

…The board will officially discuss the school-choice recommendations at a meeting Tuesday night, during which the public will be allowed to comment. No Colorado school district has a voucher program.

Here’s a link to the full proposal. I’m told that parents will have a voucher for about $4,500 per child that can be used to finance tuition at any qualifying school. This is more than enough money to cover costs at most non-government schools, and the population is sufficiently large to make this program a dramatic test case.

Keep your fingers crossed that Douglas County officials resist special-interest groups that are seeking to thwart this reform. The teacher unions have been vicious in their efforts to stop this kind of development. If Douglas County succeeds in putting kids first, this could break the logjam and lead to better education policy across the nation.

‘Chicken Smackers with Biscuit or School Choice’

My inbox this morning contained the following Google News Alert for “school choice” from the Evansville Courier & Press:

School menu
Evansville Courier & Press
The middle school menu is chicken smackers with biscuit or school choice, peas, mashed potatoes with gravy and pineapple. Monday’s elementary and K-8 school
See all stories on this topic »

My colleagues and I have been asking for school choice for some time — folks have even made movies about it — so it’s nice to finally see it on the menu. [Just for middle school, though; I really think it should run the gamut.]

In case the Courier Press decides to tweak that menu after the fact (you know, seasonal ingredients and all), here is a screen cap.

Demonstrating the Cheap-shot Defense

When I first started arguing that now is the time to press the case for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, I noted that the biggest obstacle to scaling down fed ed has long been the cheap-shot smearing of would-be downsizers. Today, I want to thank Kevin Carey, Policy Director at the think tank Education Sector, for brilliantly illustrating that very unsightly strategy.

Writing on Education Sector’s blog yesterday, Carey ripped into a post I put up that morning, a post that primarily linked to a call to abolish ED from a left-leaning educator. Carey’s rejoinder: Basically, Cato hates public education, and there’s a whole lotta crazy goin’ on:

The Cato Institute is dedicated to creating “a future where government-run schools give way to a dynamic, independent system of schools competing to meet the needs of American children,” i.e. destroying public education as we know it.  As such, Cato wants to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. This fringe notion was first advanced by Ronald Reagan, until A Nation at Risk was published and the Great Communicator abruptly made an about-face and became very interested in an expanded federal role in K-12 policy as way to appeal to moderate voters in the 1984 election. The idea come up again a decade later during the brief rise of Gingrichism before fading into deserved obscurity for the next 15 years.

Then Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle revived the kill Education platform, based on a general antipathy toward the federal government combined with not knowing anything about education….

So now reporters are calling me all the time asking me whether to take this stuff seriously. The answer is: No. Do not take it seriously. Nobody is shutting down the U.S. Department of Education. If one thing is sure in this life, one certainty that can be clung to like a rock in a storm, it’s that Congressional Republicans don’t actually want to shrink the size of the federal government, reduce the deficit, or cut federal programs in any meaningful way, particularly programs that enjoy broad public support as education programs do.

That plain fact, however, hasn’t prevented Cato’s education analysts from excitedly suggesting that the Department of Education abolition movement is on the rise. Few have joined their cause, because few people want to destroy public education as we know it. However, today Cato’s Neal McCluskey identified an ally in the reactionary anti-reform left….

[Long quote from my post]

There you have it: if you were wondering who besides the Cato Institute, an organization dedicated to applying principles of extreme privatization to all walks of public life, is out there enough to abolish the Department of Education — well, now you know.

That said, beyond the “There will always be strange bedfellows in Crazy Town” aspect of this, it does raise the interesting question of whether the NEA and other hardcore anti-accountability / anti-charter / anti-testing / anti-merit pay / anti-TBD people would be willing to join forces with Congressional Republicans to visit some kind of serious harm on the federal education framework of standards, testing, and accountability.

Where to begin…

Let’s start with what’s not in Carey’s big bag o’ belittling: substance. At the root of my argument for eliminating ED is the reality that federal intervention in education has produced little by way of educational improvement while costing significant amounts of money. It is also of highly questionable constitutional validity. So my argument isn’t driven by blind ideology, or just plain wackiness, but serious policy concerns, foremost of which is that ED isn’t actually good for education – which is our main concern, right? – or the country. But those concerns are nowhere mentioned in Carey’s post, and he implies that if you share my opinion, as Sharron Angle does, you probably know nothing about education.

Carey’s dismissal of George Wood, whose blog post is the heart of the entry I wrote that sent Carey over the edge, is similar. Wood makes very logical arguments for why ED is a net loss and should be absorbed into a department like Health and Human Services. I don’t agree with all of his reasoning, but it clearly shows logical thinking about why ED should go. Carey’s response: Forget your arguments, you belong in “Crazy Town” with McCluskey.

How about the stuff that is in Carey’s post?

First, there’s the usual attack that Cato-types are nutty fringers who want to destroy “public education.” As I have (obviously ineffectually) tried to explain to Carey before, I am not against public education, in which government ensures that everyone can access education. I am against public schooling, in which government runs the schools. This gets directly to the bedrock question of how best to operate education in a free society, as well as make schooling work primarily for parents and kids. And contrary to the connotation of phrases like “destroying public education as we know it,” government run schooling with a huge federal presence has hardly been the standard for most of American history.

Here’s another bit of history Carey misrepresents. He suggests that Ronald Reagan’s efforts to abolish ED in the early 1980s were part of a “fringe notion” that there shouldn’t be an ED. That’s a little hard to take, considering that ED was created by legislation signed in 1979, and didn’t start functioning until 1980. Oh, and the final House vote on the Department? It won by a scant 4 votes, 210 to 206. And heck, even American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker opposed the new Department. So yeah, very fringy.

Where Carey does make sense is in his argument that for political reasons it is not very likely that the Department of Education will be abolished.  “If one thing is sure in this life,” he writes, “it’s that Congressional Republicans don’t actually want to shrink the size of the federal government, reduce the deficit, or cut federal programs in any meaningful way, particularly programs that enjoy broad public support as education programs do.”

Carey is far too certain about what’s in Congressional Republicans’ hearts – I bet many really do want to shrink government and reduce the deficit – but based on recent history it’s certainly reasonable to be dubious that as a group they’ll do those things. But I have never said anything different – indeed, I fully acknowledged the political obstacles:

Yesterday, Tad DeHaven wrote about an interview with Rep. John Kline (R-MN), likely chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee should the GOP take the House majority. Tad lamented that Kline seemed to declare any potential effort to kill the U.S. Department of Education (ED) already dead in the water. Unfortunately, Kline is certainly right: Any effort to kill ED in the next couple of years would not only have to get through a (presumably) GOP-held House, but (also presumably) a Dem-controlled Senate and Obama-occupied White House. There just aint no way ED will be dismantled — and more importantly, it’s profligate programs eliminated — in that environment.

That said, if many Tea Party-type candidates win today, it will be precisely the time to start pushing the immensely powerful case for ending fed ed.

I have been very clear in stating that now is the time to start pushing in earnest to end ED, not that success is almost here. But that just doesn’t fit in the “Crazy Town” narrative, I guess.

Anyway, thanks to Kevin Carey for furnishing a terrific example of this most crucial of points: The federal education war is rarely fought with reason and evidence. No, cheap shots and demonization, sadly, are the weapons of choice.

Education Policy Meets Whac-a-Mole®

K-12 school choice programs based on education tax credits are receiving a lot of attention after last week’s Supreme Court oral arguments in the Winn case. SCOTUS is likely to overturn a lower court ruling in Winn that would have hobbled or killed Arizona’s education tax credit program, and that has some folks consternated.

Among the ranks of the tetchy is Kevin Carey of the Quick and the Ed. Jay Greene responds here, and concludes, in essence, that Carey is inconsistently alternating between two criticisms of tax credits whenever one is whacked with a compelling counterargument. Worth a read.

Election Results in School Choice States

While most of the election punditry to date has been focused at the national level, major gains by Republicans in states that already have k-12 education tax credits or school vouchers could lead to the expansion of such programs or the passage of new ones. To see where the action might lie, I offer the chart below, showing post-election party control of the legislative and executive branches of government in school choice states (the height of each bar represents degree of control, with the height of the executive branch = 100%). The states are sorted by the number of branches of government that changed hands (represented on the chart by the yellow circles, which correspond to the axis on the right).

There might be gridlock at the national level, but at the state level we may see some interesting school choice developments over the next 2+ years.

So Long, Wonder Woman

Today is Michelle Rhee’s last day heading up DC’s public schools, and her departure should serve as a stern reminder: We’ve been forcing children to wait for Superman — or Wonder Woman — for far too long. There are no superheroes, and even when we think we’ve found one, they are almost always defeated by teachers unions, or internecine politics, or just plain burnout.

Rhee is a classic case of the first two, with her bold reforms raising the ire of the local union and eventually bringing the might of the American Federation of Teachers to bear in the mayoral election. But unions aren’t the only powers that ended Rhee’s crusade. Long-simmering divisions over the perceived aloofness of Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, also landed huge political punches that eventually knocked Rhee out.

Rhee certainly isn’t alone in the Hall of Defeated Heroes. Alan Bersin stormed into San Diego’s superintendency in 1998, but his hard-charging style eventually divided the city and created an intense political backlash. He was gone in 2005.  Carl Cohn, Bersin’s replacement, quit just two years into the job. “I don’t have the energy, heart and passion that I did when I first took the job,” he said. And then there’s Rudy Crew, who was ousted in Miami-Dade after four years. In that time the district was thrice named a finalist for the Broad Prize, which recognizes urban districts for major achievement gains. But Crew became embroiled in racial and ethnic tensions, as well as caught in a budgeting morass, and was booted.  

But if there is no super-being to save the children, who can? Sadly, no one in a government monopoly, which is what public schooling is. In such a system only political power matters — after all, politicians make all the rules — and most of that power resides with teachers, administrators, and other public school employees. Because their very livelihoods come from the government system, they are the most motivated to engage in political combat, and through unions and other associations they are best able to organize. And because they are human, their natural proclivity is to fight for the most generous compensation, and least accountability to others, possible.

Parents and children — the people for whom the public schools are supposed to work — simply can’t counter that politicking force. They can’t constantly run political ads, work for campaigns, lobby, and take to the streets the way unions and other organized interests can. And that means polticians who side with parents against unions and administrators are taking a politically perilous — and often fatal — risk. 

So the problem is not a lack of heroes. It’s that public schooling inherently crushes not just heroes, but the very people our educators are supposed to serve — parents and children. 

Thankfully, knowing that makes the solution clear: We must take education money away from politicians, give it to parents, and in so doing take away the death ray, or robot army, or whatever you want to call the incredible power that government monopolies bestow on special interests. We must give parents school choice not so that they can become superheroes, but so that superpowers are no longer required to get their kids the education they need.