Tag: school 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.

Waiting for Realityman

The edu-documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ continues to generate lots of noise about fixing American education. Unfortunately, like the film itself, most of the noisemakers ultimately ignore reality: The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents – the customers – to get their money. And that can mean only one thing:  transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

You would think that would be clear to members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Think again: In a new report, the Chamber demonstrates that what’s really needed is not a visit from Superman, but for Realityman to give it a superpowered kick to the rear so that it will demand universal school choice, not the milquetoast tweaks of the government monopoly it meekly champions.

What follows are just a few examples of where the Realityman Signal shines brightly in the report – where the Chamber clearly sees the diabolical work of government monopoly, but ultimately fails to identify the culprit – calling out for our hero to save the Chamber.

First, the paper notes that “successful businesses use well-documented management and leadership practices that result in lean, accountable, flexible, high-achieving organizations.” Meanwhile, “these practices are often absent in school management. State [sic] and districts are not held accountable for their academic outcomes relative to their expenditures….”

No kidding: Businesses have to become ever-more efficient and effective or they’ll lose customers to better, cheaper competitors.  Public schools, in contrast, have no real competition and get paid no matter what.

Next, if you aren’t happy with the state of your schools, the Chamber advises getting “tough with candidates and elected officials…. Call candidates, conduct town hall forums and invite the press, write op-eds, and call your local newspaper reporters who work on education issues.”

Now, is this how most businesses work? If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Finally, the Chamber laments that “other industries are changing, adapting, and harnessing the power of new technologies, but our education system resists change.”

There’s a simple explanation for this: Public schooling isn’t an “industry.” WordNet defines “industry” as “the organized action of making of goods and services for sale [italics added].” But public schools don’t sell anything. They simply take, and because they don’t have to earn any business they have little incentive to adapt new technologies.

Surely most businessmen recognize the forces that push them to do their best. Why can’t they see the desperate need for the same forces in education?

Save us, Realityman!

Why is Waiting for “Superman” Pushing Kryptonite?

You’ve probably heard it already, but if not, you should know that on Friday the documentary Waiting for “Superman” – from An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim – will be opening in select theaters around the country. The film, about how hard it is to access good education in America thanks to adults putting their interests first, follows several children as they hope beyond hope to get into oversubscribed charter schools. It is said by those who’ve seen it to be a tear-jerker and call to arms to substantially reform American education.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t promote real, essential reform: Taking money away from special-interest dominated government schools and letting parents control it.

The movie does flirt – from what I know, that is, without having yet seen it – with school choice, lionizing charter schools. But let’s not forget that while many charter schools and their founders have tremendous vision and drive, charters are still public schools, and as such are easily smothered by politically potent special interests like teacher unions. Moreover, while charter schools are chosen, charter schooling still keeps money – and therefore power – out of the hands of parents. Together, these things  explain why there are so many heartbreaking charter lotteries to film: there is almost no ability or incentive to scale up good schooling models to meet all the desperate demand.  

But isn’t the goal for no child to have to wait for Superman? If so, then why not give parents the power to choose good schools (and leave bad ones) right now by instituting widespread school choice? Indeed, we’re quickly losing room in good institutions because parochial schools – which have to charge tuition to stay in business – simply can’t compete with “free” alternatives. If we were to let parents control education funds immediately, however, they could get their kids into those disappearing seats while the seats are  still around, and we would finally have the freedom and consumer-driven demand necessary to see good schools widely replicated.

Unfortunately, Waiting for “Superman” doesn’t just seem to want to make people wait for good schools by promoting charter schools and not full choice. On its “take action” website, it prominently promotes the very opposite of parent empowerment: Uniform, government-imposed, national standards for every public school in America.

Rather than let parents access the best curriculum for their unique children, the Waiting for “Superman” folks want to give the federal government power. Of course, the website doesn’t say that Washington will control “common” standards, but make no mistake: Federal money has been driving the national standards train, and what Washington funds, it ultimately controls. And there is no better way to complete the public schooling monopoly – to let the teacher unions, administrator associations, and other adult interests do one-stop shopping for domination – than to centralize power in one place.

The people behind Waiting for “Superman” are no doubt well intentioned, and their film worth seeing. But pushing kryptonite is pushing kryptonite, and it has to be stopped.

Rhee-buffeted?

We don’t know for certain that controversial DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will depart DC when her boss’s term ends – and it will end soon – but it seems very likely. Assuming she does leave, there is a big education lesson to be learned from Adrian Fenty’s re-election loss: Relying on crusading politicians to successfully and permanently reform a government schooling monopoly is a recipe for crushed hopes. Politics is simply too volatile – and enacting tough reforms too politically risky – for even good reforms to be sustained. It’s just another reason that the key to truly sustainable reform is school choice, in which parents control education funds, educators have to compete and perform for business, and children are no longer buffeted back and forth by the ever-changing winds of politics.

Would the Schools Work Better If They Outlawed All Competitors?

In the Washington Post, columnist Courtland Milloy praises the “profound egalitarian insights” and “radical oneness” of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (and billionaire Warren Buffett):

“I believe we can solve the problems of urban education in our lifetimes and actualize education’s power to reverse generational poverty,” Rhee wrote. “But I am learning that it is a radical concept to even suggest this. Warren Buffett [the billionaire investor] framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education. ‘Make private schools illegal,’ he said, ‘and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.’ “

Milloy’s not satisfied that Rhee is taking on entrenched interests, firing principals and teachers who aren’t doing a good job, and apparently actually improving the schools in the District of Columbia. No, he’s attracted to the “radical concept” of outlawing private schools and forcing everyone in the District into the same schools, with no hope of escape. There would be one method of escape, of course: moving to the suburbs.  And you can bet that lots more people would do that if Milloy and Rhee got their way.

I wonder what a total government monopoly on education would look like. Are Buffett and Rhee right that a government monopoly forced on every citizen would work well? Would work so well that it would “solve the problems of urban education … and reverse generational poverty”?

Well, one answer might be glimpsed on the same page B3 where part of Milloy’s column appeared. In an adjacent column, columnist John Kelly discussed his “Kafkaesque” five-hour visit to the state of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration:

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don’t care. You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time….

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn’t every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn’t management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

The MVA, of course, is a monopoly government bureaucracy. Everyone must go there – CEOs, diplomats, even Washington Post columnists. And yet, somehow, that has not led to the MVA equivalent of solving problems and reversing poverty. Five hours to get a drivers’ license just might be worse performance than that of the public schools.

It’s the system, Mr. Milloy and Ms. Rhee. Monopolies don’t have much incentive to improve. Give everyone the chance to go to a different supplier, and then you’ll see improvement. Giant Food wouldn’t last long if it took five hours to buy your groceries – because it has competitors. But as long as the schools are a near-monopoly, and the MVA or DMV is a total monopoly, don’t expect real improvement.