Tag: school choice

Curricula with an Agenda? It Ain’t Just Big Coal

Today the Washington Post has a big story on efforts by the coal industry to get public schools to teach positive things about — you guessed it — coal. The impetus for the article is no doubt a recent kerfuffle over education mega-publisher Scholastic sending schools free copies of the industry-funded lesson plan “The United States of Energy.” Many parents and environmentalists were upset over businesses putting stealthy moves on kids, and Scholastic eventually promised to cease publication of the plan.

Loaded curricula designed to coerce specific sympathies from children, however, hardly come just from industry, as the Post story notes. Indeed, as I write in the new Cato book Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, much of the curricular material put out at least on climate change is decidedly alarmist in nature, and is funded by you, the taxpayer. In other words, lots of people are trying to use the schools to push their biases on your kids, which is an especially dangerous thing considering how unsettled, uncertain, and multi-sided so many issues are.

In light of the huge question marks that exist in almost all subjects that schools address, the best education system is the one that is most decentralized, in which ideas can compete rather than having one (very likely flawed) conclusion imposed as orthodoxy. And it would be a system in which no level of government — either district, state, or federal — would decide what view is correct, or what should be taught based on the existence of some supposed consensus, as if “consensus” were synonymous with “absolute truth.” What is truth should not be decided by who has the best lobbyists or most political weight, nor should children be forced to learn what government simply deems to be best.

Of course, there are some people who will decide that they are so correct about something that it would be abusive not to have government force children to learn it. If their conclusion is so compelling and obvious, however, no coercion should be necessary to get people to teach it to their children — it should be overwhelmingly clear. More importantly, if there is controversy, efforts to impose a singular view are likely to fail not just with the children of unbelievers, but for many of the children whose parents share the view. As significant anecdotal evidence over the teaching of human origins has stongly suggested — and new empirical work has substantiated — when public schools are confronted with controversial issues, they tend to avoid them altogether rather than teach any side. In other words, efforts at compulsion don’t just fail, they hurt everyone.

Educational freedom, then, is the only solution to the curricular problem. If you want full power to avoid the imposition of unwanted materials on your children, you must be able to choose schools. And if you want to ensure that your kids get the instruction you think every child should have, everyone else must have that ability, too.

Don’t Let the Aphorism Be the Enemy of Thought

I am often told that pointing out the serious shortcomings of government-funded school vouchers and the relative superiority of education tax credits is a case of “making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

It’s isn’t.

That is a misapplication of Voltaire’s famous aphorism. What the aphorism exhorts is that we not pursue an unattainable perfection when a good alternative is within reach. Education tax credits are not only attainable, they are usually easier to obtain than vouchers. Consider a recent example: Pennsylvania’s state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand its existing EITC tax credit program while the state Senate has been deadlocked for weeks looking for the bare minimum of votes to pass a voucher bill.

On top of that, it is dubious to cast vouchers as “the good” when they will expand the scope of compulsion of taxpayers to funding many new types of schooling to which they might well object, impose heavy new regulations on private schools (homogenizing the available “choices”), and more pervasively curtail direct payment by consumers in favor of third party government payment.

Even those who may not be fully convinced that vouchers are inferior should pause before trying to enact them in states that already have education tax credit programs with good growth prospects. Why make the dubious the enemy of the pretty darned good?

Turns out State Schooling Isn’t Communist after all…

Albert Shanker, long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers union, said back in 1989 that:

It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: it more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.

But hang on a minute! Doesn’t the following description sound a lot like the work rules in our public schools:

Promotion was determined by the Table of Ranks…. An official could hold only those posts at or below his own personal rank…. [S]tandard intervals were set for promotion: one rank every three years from ranks 14 to 8; and one every four years from ranks 8 to 5…. This meant that, barring some heinous sin, even the most average bureaucrat could expect to rise automatically with age…. The system encouraged … time-serving mediocrity

That, ladies and gentleman, is not a description of the work rules of the communist-era Russian bureaucracy. It describes the rules in the Tsarist Russian bureaucracy (see Orlando Figes, “A People’s Tragedy,” p. 36).

The funny thing is, according to Figes, “By the end of the [19th] century, however, this system of automatic advancement was falling into disuse as merit became more important than age.”

So the modern U.S. system for promoting public school teachers was discarded as inefficient and unworkable… by the Tsars.

Michelle Rhee Endorses Private School Choice…Sort of

Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee declares in a new op-ed that she endorses private school choice for low-income families, but adds: “I’m not for school choice for its own sake. I am for choice because it can, directly and indirectly, provide better opportunities for low-income children—not simply more opportunities.”

I’m not sure I understand her. Is Rhee saying that given two alternatives: one in which parents have many different educational choices and one in which they don’t, she inherently prefers the option that gives parents no choice if test scores are not impacted either way? Why not prefer choice for its own sake, as well as for its academic benefits?

Rhee then goes on to say that private schools receiving government funding should be under government oversight, and be required to do such things as administer standardized tests in order to ensure “accountability.” But isn’t this precisely the sort of “accountability” to which state-run schools are already subjected in minute detail, and which has coincided with stagnation or decline in academic achievement for two generations (depending on the subject) and a catastrophic productivity collapse? It’s worth noting that it is the freest, least regulated, most market-like education systems that consistently produce the most effective, efficient schools.

It’s a short op-ed, providing little room for Rhee to explain how she came to hold the particular policy views she espouses regarding private school choice. It will be interesting to learn more.

Indiana Voucher Law a Defeat for Educational Freedom

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an expansive new voucher law today. It’s a disaster for educational freedom. Read the full explanation here.

The voucher program has been widely praised as a momentous victory for school choice and Gov. Mitch Daniels on the brink of his long-awaited presidential campaign announcement. In reality, the voucher program is a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom. This program will greatly expand state regulation of and authority over participating private schools.

In our efforts to expand educational choice across the country, we can’t lose sight of what makes that choice valuable: educational freedom and the diversity of choices it allows to develop. School choice is meaningless if all the choices are the same.

Just a teaser … ever heard of Chief Seattle? Private schools in Indiana will know him well if they take a voucher.

Read the piece for these and other shocking details!

Nearly Half of Detroiters Illiterate. Cause Apparently a Mystery.

A study funded by 10 major foundations reported yesterday that 47 percent of Detroiters are functionally illiterate–unable to read a bus schedule, fill out a resume, or make sense of the directions on an aspirin bottle.

When I checked back in 2008, Detroit public schools were spending $13,000 / pupil, which was then above the national average.

The report notes that half of the illiterate population has either a high school diploma or a GED. That’s beside the point. Virtually the entire illiterate  population has completed elementary school, the level at which reading is theoretically taught. That’s seven years of schooling (k-6), at a cost of roughly $100,000, for… nothing.

The study mainly calls for adult education services to remediate the problem after it has occurred. Perhaps when the city’s illiteracy rate reaches 100 percent the recommendations will suggest replacing the failed k-12 monopoly with something more effective. Of course, by then who’ll be able to read them?

Will Indiana School Choice Infringe Upon Liberty?

There’s more bad news about the school choice bill awaiting Gov. Mitch Daniels’ signature in Indiana. Yesterday, Adam Schaeffer wrote about its possible negative fiscal impact if coupled with the state’s tax credit program. Perhaps just as concerning is the law’s requirement that private schools prove that they are sufficiently “American” to participate in the program. This interview with State Sen. Carlin Yoder (R), one of the bill’s sponsors, captures the sentiment behind the requirement:

Perhaps the problem here is that, in all of the education policy community’s obsession with test scores and dollars, we’ve lost sight of what school choice should ultimately be about: freedom. It should be about creating an education system that allows people to choose for themselves what values they will embrace and how they will live, not one that allows the state to dictate — either through hard compulsion or soft bribery — those things. Giving the state that power, though the state might employ it only rarely or gently, is still ultimately giving the state authority over our thoughts and expressions, and that is the basis for, potentially, a most thorough of tyrannies.

There is great irony in this aspect of Indiana’s soon-to-be law, which would curb the ability of educators to freely teach as they please, and of parents and students to freely seek out the education they want.  As Sen. Yoder says, to “make sure the students appreciate our great history in the U.S.,”  the law would curb that thing that has made it great: individual liberty.

Of course, the very understandable fear animating this is that unless taught the importance of freedom as children, adults will sacrifice liberty. But government coercion to prevent that, even if well intentioned, doesn’t appear to produce the desired results — liberty is sacrificed without even getting the hoped for ends.

According to a recent summary of research compiled by University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf on the transmission of “civic values” such as political tolerance, civic knowledge, and even proclivity to perform community service, private-school students come out on top. Why? Most likely because in public schooling people holding lots of different opinions on what constitutes proper “American” values are forced to pay for a single system of government schools, and hence to fight over what the system teaches. All too often the road to peace is to teach, well, nothing, or close to it, in order to anger as few people as possible. Private schools, in contrast, tend to hold set, coherent values parents agree to when choosing them, and it appears that if uncoerced, people will choose to have their children educated to be good citizens.

School choice must be about freedom — the ultimate American value — not, as Indiana is on the verge of doing, undermining liberty in the name of protecting it.