Tag: valerie strauss

WaPo Blogger Wrong About School Choice… Again

Once again, the Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Strauss, failed to do her due diligence before posting a hit piece on school choice. A year ago, she falsely claimed that scholarship tax credit programs benefit corporate donors and wealthy recipients. In fact, donors break even at most and the best evidence suggests that low-income families are the primary beneficiaries even in the few programs that are not means-tested. Unfortunately, Strauss has still failed to issue a correction.

Now Strauss has posted an op-ed from an anti-school choice activist in Florida that contains numerous additional errors, which the good folks at RedefinED.org have thoroughly debunked, including the following canard:  

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

Not only did the op-ed’s author fail to correctly explain the law, she failed to understand that school choice is accountability. As explained in an open letter that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others: “True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs.” 

Moreover, the claim that “private entities receive public tax dollars” is also false. The money flows from private donors to private nonprofits to private citizens to spend on their children’s tuition at private schools. That the donors receive a tax credit does not transmogrify their donation into “public” money. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this view erroneously “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” Likewise, neither tax deductions for donations to a church nor the church’s own property tax exemption mean that churches are therefore funded by “public tax dollars.”

The Washington Post has an in-house fact-checking team. They should not have to rely on RedefinED.org or others to ensure the veracity of what their bloggers post. 

Want a Disproven Belief? Government Schools Teach Good Science

Much is being made by school choice opponents of a report that a Christian school in Louisiana eligible to receive students in the state’s new voucher program uses a textbook that asserts the Loch Ness Monster is real and a dinosaur. Writes Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss:

This is where support of vouchers is leading us — to the public paying for a child to learn that the Loch Ness Monster was a dinosaur and co-existed with humans. This is important to Young Earth Creationists, who believe that Earth was created no longer than 10,000 years ago, not the 4.5 billion years estimated by science. They also believe that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark.

If people want to believe this and they want their children to learn it in school, that’s fine. The public shouldn’t have to pay for it.

I can certainly see why paying for this sort of thing would disturb a lot of people – it’s a major reason tax-credit programs, which let individuals and corporations choose to whom they will donate, are preferable to vouchers. Let’s, however, use this to confront another, extremely dubious belief that many would never challenge:  Government schooling leads to good science instruction.

First, no matter how loudly government-failure deniers might protest – the government is omnipotent, dammit! – government schooling does not overcome religious belief. The latest Gallup poll assessing views on human origins came out a few weeks ago, and found as it has since 1982: The vast majority of Americans believe that God created human beings, and a plurality believes that God created us in our “present form.” Only 15 percent hold that human beings evolved without any divine involvement. And this is with roughly 85 percent of students attending public schools.

Next, take a look at overall science achievement. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders are “proficient” in science. And private versus public schools? 43 percent of private school students are proficient, versus 31 percent for public schools. A significant part of the difference is likely that private schools tend to serve better prepared kids, but the data certainly doesn’t suggest that public schooling beats private when it comes to science instruction.

Finally, there’s the reason government schools are so inept at teaching science: All people, no matter what their beliefs, are forced to support public schools – a perfect recipe for wrenching conflict. To avoid war without end, some 60 percent of high school biology teachers gloss over the mega flash-point that is evolution. The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction.

The solution to this is obvious: Let the people go! Let them freely choose what their children will learn, eliminating the need to fight. No longer force them to pay for “free” government schools, then pay again for education they like.

Unfortunately, all too often the self-proclaimed logic-driven defenders of science reject this argument. In part this is because of their heart-felt conviction that all children must learn proper science. That, however, has shackled them to the utterly illogical belief that some way, somehow, human and government reality will be magically overcome.

That’s more than just a little ironic.

All You Have to Do Is Let Go of the Monopoly

I don’t have to prove my bona fides when it comes to opposing top-down, standards-based education reforms. I’ve been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act; very aggressive in attacking the reckless drive for national curriculum standards; and have repeatedly noted the importance of educator autonomy. So when you read the following, keep in mind that it is definitely not coming from a command-and-control aficionado: The weakest position in today’s big education war is the one opposed to both standards-based reforms and school choice. It’s the one enunciated yesterday by the Washington Post’ s Valerie Strauss, but which is most firmly staked out by historian Diane Ravitch.  It’s the position that essentially boils down to “don’t touch my local, teacher-dominated monopoly!”

Why is this so weak? Because it gives parents and taxpayers – the people who pay for public education and whom the system is supposed to serve – the fewest avenues to get what they want out of the schools.

Outraged over your neighborhood school because it is dangerous, the staff apathetic, and the building crumbling? Too bad – you get what you’re given and can’t even appeal to a higher level of government. And as we’ve seen in far too many places where the residents aren’t rich enough to exercise choice by buying expensive homes in better districts – the District of Columbia, Compton, Detroit, etc. – Ravitch’s utopian vision of school districts as places where “people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors” is just so much gauzy rhapsodizing. Reality is much harsher.

Of course, there are gigantic, fatal flaws with the standards-and-accountability movement, and people like Ravitch and Strauss have very compelling reasons for concern.

The standards movement, for one thing, is completely reliant on standardized testing. Indeed, it is heading for a single, national test, despite well-established evidence that tests are highly constrained in what they can tell us about learning.

In addition, as Ravitch and others regularly lament, the standards movement seems to be dominated by present and former business leaders who have tended to treat education as just another uniform-widget production problem. But children are not uniform; they are individual human beings with widely varied interests, rates of maturity, educational starting points, and life goals. But that never seems to enter into the standards equation, rendering it wrong from the start. Add to this that standards-based reformers tend to treat the education system as a single entity to be engineered, rather than an industry in which schools are the firms and competition is essential for sustained innovation and improvement, and standards-based reforms are as hopeless as teacher-dominated mini monopolies.

Unfortunately, top-down standardizers seem unlikely to join the fold of the one reform that includes both necessary educator autonomy and powerful accountability to parents: educational freedom. Yes, they often like school choice as long as government dictates what chosen schools teach, but they don’t embrace real freedom. Perhaps, though, the Ravitches and Strausses of the world can be brought on board. They won’t be able to keep the local monopolies they cherish, but they’ll be able to get most of what they want: much less stultifying uniformity; considerably more freedom for teachers; and the flourishing of communities, though communities based on shared norms and values, not mere physical proximity.

The flimsiest position in our great education debate is the one held by opponents of both top-down accountability and educational freedom. But if they’ll  remove the rose-tinted glasses through which they see local public schooling, there is an option that should appeal to them, one that injects essential parent power and competition into education while giving educators the professional autonomy they crave. It is school choice – educational freedom – and it is the reform that wins the great education debate.

Education and Society

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss asserted yesterday that “public education is a civic institution” and laments that it is seldom talked about as such (kindly citing our upcoming Cloning “Superman” event in the process).

Certainly the way children are educated can have a powerful impact on the kind of society they go on to build. And there are many social goals on which Americans strongly agree: that schools should prepare children for the responsibilities of citizenship as much as for success in private life; that they should encourage harmonious relations among people of different backgrounds (or at least not foment conflict); and that they should ensure that every child, regardless of background, has access to a quality education.

But does anyone seriously believe that our existing school system is doing a satisfactory job in any of these areas? I doubt that Ms. Strauss herself believes that, and suspect that she was merely expressing the view that our education system should do these things rather than claiming that it already was. Consider the hundreds of community conflicts around the country documented by my colleague Neal McCluskey as having been caused by public schools in a single year. Consider, too, the literature review performed by the University of Arkansas’ Patrick Wolf showing that the civic outcomes of freely chosen (usually private) schools are consistently superior to those of public schools, after controlling for differences in student and family background. And one needn’t have seen the documentary Waiting for Superman to realize that public schools have been failing far too many children, especially poor and minority children, for far too long.

If we are to remedy these profound shortcoming in American education, our best hope is to set aside our preconceptions about what kind of school systems should produce the social goods we seek, and instead ask which systems actually do produce them.

Having reviewed the worldwide econometric literature of the past 25 years, I’ve found that it is the most marketlike education systems that have consistently done the best job of serving disadvantaged children (indeed, all children) both here and abroad. Wolf’s literature review also favors private schools in their civic outcomes. And when people can get the sort of education they value for their own children without being compelled to impose their preferences on their neighbors, the conflicts caused by public schooling are avoided. Even with regard to meaningful integration among children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the private education sector performs as well or better than the state sector.

If Ms. Strauss or anyone else has compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll be interested to hear of it. And if she or anyone else would like to know what the social impact of decades of private school choice has been in a communitarian nation like Sweden, they’re welcome to come to Cato and ask Peje Emilsson on the 28th of this month.