Tag: school choice

Attorney General Tries to Silence School Choice Ad

This, finally, is too much: Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States, walked up to former DC Councilman Kevin Chavous at an event and told him to pull an ad criticizing the administration for its opposition to the DC school voucher program. The Attorney General of the United States!

This is as outrageous and shameful as it is consistent with other administration hostilities toward free speech (see also here) and freedom of the press.

There is a deep revulsion to such behavior in this country. It is not a Republican or a Democratic revulsion, it is an American one. Obama administration officials seem not to understand that, but voters will help them get the message the next time they go to the polls.

New York Mayor Opposes Closing Schools for Muslim Holidays

I have been trying for years to make people understand that a single system of government schools is fundamentally at odds with American values, especially individual liberty and equal treatment under the law. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in opposing a move to let city public schools close for Muslim holidays as they do for Christian and Jewish holidays, recently made my point in one, simple sentence:

One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.

Exactly. So which religions, and which people, will get to be more equal than others, Mr. Mayor?

With universal school choice, we wouldn’t have to grapple with such terrible questions.

Staid Speech Is Cold Comfort

After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I’ve gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:

  • No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
  • Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
  • Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
  • Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with  equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It’s a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.

    Captain Louis Renault Award: Politics in Government Schools?!*

    As Neal and Andrew have already covered extensively, President Obama is set to address the nation’s school children, and the Secretary of Education has sent out marching orders to government teachers and lesson plans for the kids.

    The administration has now backpedaled from a classic political gaffe and cleaned up the most offensive aspects; asking kids to write about how they can help, explain why its important to listen to political leaders, etc.

    But I think a couple of points deserve repeating.

    From a push for vastly expanding federal involvement in preschool and early education to home visitations in the health care bills, the government remains intent on expanding its dominion (And hot on the heels of President Bush’s massive expansion of federal involvement in schools).

    But this problem didn’t begin with Obama and won’t end with him. Politics in the schools is what we get when the government runs our schools.

    Don’t want your kids indoctrinated by government bureaucrats, special interests, or the President?

    Private school choice is the only remedy, and education tax credits are the increasingly popular and successful way to deliver it.

    When will a critical mass of the people realize that it is dangerous and destructive to allow the government to control the education of our children and finally do something about it?

    * Captain Louis Renault reference

    Evidence-based for Thee, But Not for Me

    One of the things that strikes me as curious about supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act is that they talk regularly about “evidence” and having everything be “research-based,” yet they often ignore or distort evidence in order to portray NCLB as a success. Case in point, an op-ed in today’s New York Times by the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless and the Fordham Foundation’s Michael Petrilli.

    Truth be told, the piece doesn’t lionize NCLB, criticizing the law for encouraging schools to neglect high-performing students because its primary goal is to improve the performance of low achievers. Fair enough. The problem is, Loveless and Petrilli assert with great confidence that the law is definitely doing the job it was intended to do. “It is clear,” they write, “that No Child Left Behind is helping low-achieving students.”

    As you shall see in a moment, that is an utterly unsustainable assertion according to the best available evidence we have: results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which carries no consequences for schools or states and, hence, is subject to very little gaming. Ironically, Loveless and Petrilli make their indefensible pronouncement while criticizing a study for failing to use NAEP in reaching its own conclusions about NCLB.

    So what’s wrong with stating that NCLB is clearly helping low-achieving students? Let me count the ways (as I have done before):

    1. Numerous reforms, ranging from class-size reduction, to school choice, to new nutritional standards, have been occurring at the same time as NCLB. It is impossible to isolate which achievement changes are attributable to NCLB, and which to myriad other reforms
    2. As you will see in a moment, few NAEP score intervals start cleanly at the beginning of NCLB – which is itself a difficult thing to pinpoint – making it impossible to definitively attribute trends to the law
    3. When we look at gains on NAEP in many periods before NCLB, they were greater on a per-year basis than during NCLB. That means other things going on in education before NCLB were working just as well or better than things since the law’s enactment.

    So let’s go to the scores. Below I have reproduced score trends for both the long-term and regular NAEP mathematics and reading exams. (The former is supposed to be an unchanging test and the latter subject to revision, though in practice both have been pretty consistent measures.) I have posted the per-year score increase or decreases above the segments that include NCLB (but that might also include years without NCLB). I have also posted score increases in pre-NCLB segments that saw greater improvements than segments including NCLB. (Note that on 8th-grade reading I didn’t highlight pre-NCLB segments with smaller score decreases than seen under NCLB. I didn’t want to celebrate backward movement in any era.)

    For context, NCLB was signed into law in January 2002 but it took at least a year to get all the regulations written and more than that for the law to be fully implemented. As a result, I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether 2002, 2003, or even 2004 should be the law’s starting point, noting only that this problem alone makes it impossible to say that NCLB clearly caused anything. In addition, notice that some of the biggest gains under NCLB are in periods that also include many non-NCLB years, making it impossible to confidently attribute those gains to NCLB.

    Please note that I calculated per-year changes based on having data collected in the same way from start to end. So some lines are dashed and others solid (denoting changes in how some students were counted); I calculated changes based on start and end points for the type of line used for the period. I also rounded to one decimal point to save space. Finally, I apologize if this is hard to read—I’m no computer graphics wizard—and would direct you to NAEP’s website to check out the data for yourself.

    4th Grade Regular Math

    8th Grade Regular Math

    4th Grade Regular Reading

    8th Grade Regular Reading

    Age 9 Long-term Math

    Age 13 Long-term Math

    Age 17 Long-term Math

    Age 9 Long-term Reading

    Age 13 Long-term Reading

    Age 17 Long-term Reading

    So what does the data show us? First, that there were numerous periods that didn’t include NCLB that saw greater or equal growth for low-achieving students as periods with NCLB. That means much of what we were doing before NCLB was apparently more effective than what we’ve been doing under NCLB, though it is impossible to tell from the data what any of those things are. In addition, it is notable that those periods with the greatest gains that include NCLB are typically the ones that also include non-NCLB years, such as 2000 to 2003 for 4th and 8th-grade math. That means there is inescapable doubt about what caused the gains in those periods most favorable to NCLB. And, let’s not forget, 4th -grade reading saw a downward trend from 2002 to 2003, and 8th-grade reading dropped from 2002-2005. That suggests that NCLB was actually decreasing scores for low-achievers, and one would have to acknowledge that if one were also inclined to give NCLB credit for all gains.

    And so, the evidence is absolutely clear in one regard, but in the opposite direction of what Loveless and Petrilli suggest: One thing you definitely cannot say about NCLB is that it has clearly helped low achievers. And yet, they said it anyway!

    LA School District Vote Shows Further Cracks in Education’s Berlin Wall

    America’s large urban school districts are often the lowest performing, least efficient, and most resistant to change. The poster children for this reality are perhaps Detroit and Washington, DC, but the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has long been in the running as well.

    Yesterday, there was a sign that LAUSD would like to get out of that race for the bottom: the district’s school board voted 6 to 1 in favor of a plan that would hand up to a third of its public schools over to private management. Ignoring for a moment the question of how well this policy will work, it is categorically, undeniably, a sign of change. In the past, such private contracting arrangements in large districts have usually been the result of state or mayoral takeovers. This is the first case that comes to mind in which the plan was the product of an elected school board that has just had enough with its own administrators’ unsatisfactory performance.

    Keep in mind that school board elections suffer low-turnout, and that support for candidates is dominated by public school employee unions looking out for their own members’ salaries and job security. If THAT process can produce such a clarion call for parental choice, competition, and diversity in educational provision, times ARE changing.

    Now let’s stop ignoring the question of whether or not it will work. There’s not a whole lot of research on the subject. The most recent and detailed review of a similar contracting-out arrangement in Philadelphia, by Harvard’s Paul Peterson and Matthew Chingos, finds that non-profit management organizations in the city underperformed the district somewhat in reading and math, though the reading difference was statistically insignificant. The same study found that for-profit management organizations outperformed the district in both subjects, though the reading difference was again statistically insignificant.

    Honestly, though, I don’t think anyone believes that the LAUSD plan was the result of a painstaking comparison of all the policy options and the choice of the one most supported by the empirical research. It is a cry of frustration with the status quo, and an implicit recognition of what most people already know: monopolies are bad at giving consumers what they want at a reasonable cost; choice and competition drive up quality and drive down costs in every other field, so why not bring them to bear in education? And finally, the LA school board’s action represents a desire to get something done NOW, that is actually within the board’s power to accomplish.

    My sympathies are with the board members who are trying to make a positive difference within the system we have, but the question for voters and legislators is: why stick with the status quo at all? Why not open up the field of education to all the freedoms and incentives of the free enterprise system, rather than trying to cobble together a pale, ad hoc immitation of it? Because what the massive body of international scientific evidence shows is that the freest, most market-like education systems are the ones that outshine public school systems by the greatest margins.