Topic: Education and Child Policy

Record Grad Rates, Subprime Diplomas?

Today the White House is touting record-level high school graduation rates, and taking a bit of credit for them. But is this really good news, or are we maybe looking at artificially inflated, “subprime” diplomas?

Certainly, on its face, it is welcome news that the percentage of students who entered high school four years earlier and graduated on time rose from 79 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 83.2 percent in 2014-15. (2010-11 was the first year that states were required to use a standardized graduation rate.) We definitely wouldn’t want to see that rate going down. But it does not necessarily indicate that students are better educated.

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a federal test given to a representative sample of students, without high stakes attached—suggest that greater completion does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with greater learning. Both math and reading scores for 12th graders have dropped a tad during the Obama years, not risen. In addition, there is at least anecdotal evidence that districts have increasingly moved kids to completion with dubious “credit recovery” programs that sometimes involve very thin demonstrations of subject mastery. In other words, as seemingly happens so often, districts may be gaming the system, and many diplomas could be hollow.

This is not to say that the rising graduation rate is necessarily deceptive, and it is crucial to note that standardized test scores that seem so concrete may actually tell us little about whether we are getting what we want out of education. But we shouldn’t celebrate too lustily over the latest graduation news.

A Common Core Buyer’s Too Late Remorse

E.D. Hirsch—author of the lightning rod Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and a tireless advocate of content-heavy education—has just spoken truth about the Common Core. An Education Week article heralding his latest book reports that:

He calls the reading standards “empty” and “deeply flawed” because they teach all-purpose reading-comprehension strategies rather than facts and information. An entire chapter of his new book is devoted to what he refers to as “the tribulations of the common core.”

“The people who developed the common core had a choice. Either [the standards] were going to be educationally correct or they were going to be politically viable,” he said. “They chose the second.” Forty-six states agreed to adopt the standards right away, which he argues “could only be accomplished if you didn’t specify the content of the curriculum.”

The Core is indeed very light on content in English language arts, Hirsch’s primary concern. But it hasn’t changed between 2010 and today, yet Hirsch endorsed it—emphatically!—in 2013.

As I have pointed out, Hirsch’s endorsement is one of many pieces of Core support that have sewn major confusion about the Core, befuddlement that supporters have loved to pin on opponents. But the reality is that Core supporters, seemingly obsessed with getting standards nationalized, have tried to make the Core sound like all things to all people: national and comprehensive, locally controlled and minimalist. Couple that with federal coercion, and the Core has thrown schools nationwide into utterly avoidable disarray.

But there is a deeper reality illustrated here: It is very difficult, short of a dictatorship, to impose content both deep and broad on diverse people. Why? Because diverse people will not agree on what that content should be. Just evolution, or also intelligent design? The Bible, or I Am Jazz? Ethnic studies, or commonality? And the list goes on…and on. This is precisely why for the Core to be “politically viable” it had to be largely bereft of what Hirsch has spent decades crusading for: rich content.

If you want deep, robust content, the way to get it is the opposite of nationalization: educational freedom.

Carpe Diem: Fix the Nevada ESA Funding Issue

In 2015, Nevada lawmakers passed the most ambitious educational choice law in the nation: a nearly universal education savings account (ESA) program. The program was scheduled to launch this year, but it immediately drew two separate lawsuits from opponents of educational choice. Last week, the Supreme Court of Nevada upheld the constitutionality of the ESAs, but ruled that the program was improperly funded. Choice opponents were quick to declare that the ESA program is dead, but as Tim Keller of the Institute for Justice noted, the program is only mostly dead, which means it is slightly alive.

Whether the program is fully revived depends entirely on the lawmakers who won plaudits for enacting it in the first place. On Monday, the legislature will meet in a special session to consider whether to subsidize the construction of a football stadium for the Raiders. Fixing the ESA funding would be a much more productive and beneficial use of their time. Sadly, Governor Brian Sandoval announced this week that ESAs would not be on the agenda:

Passage of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) set a national precedent for school choice and symbolized a significant step toward education equality for every student. I recognize the magnitude of this sweeping policy measure and consider it a major component of the reform package ushered in during the last legislative session. Protecting this program is a top priority for me. There is simply not enough time to add it to next week’s Special Session with full confidence that a rushed outcome will pass constitutional muster.

American Federation of Teachers: How Dare You Defy This Corrupt Government!

Freedom House simply categorizes Uganda as “not free.” Transparency International ranks it among the 30 worst countries for perceived public sector corruption. And the American Federation of Teachers—the second largest teachers union in the United States—is outraged a for-profit company is daring to provide low-cost education to Ugandan children against the wishes of the government.

From the AFT press release hailing a new study attacking Bridge International Academies (BIA) by an outfit the AFT helps bankroll:

The report…documents in distressing detail BIA’s disregard for legal and educational standards established by the Ugandan government….

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, an EI member organization, said: “This report serves as a warning about what happens when private education providers put profits above people. BIA’s shameful abuses, cookie-cutter curriculum and cost cutting make for distressing reading but sadly aren’t in the least bit surprising.”

That’s right: The AFT will apparently side with even one of the world’s worst governments if, it seems, doing so could hobble for-profit schooling.

But what about those horrible abuses Weingarten bemoans? If you read the report, you’ll get the sense that the most egregious is that BIA schools use a scripted curriculum delivered electronically, which is apparently excruciating torture for teachers and children. How they have any employees, and over 100,000 students, is a mystery.

The schools also don’t seem to follow rules and regulations set forth by Uganda’s education ministry, such as building and curriculum standards. But if you have ever read James Tooley’s revelatory writing on education in countries like Uganda, you’d understand why people who want to get education to poor children don’t comply with rules and regs: complying would make delivering affordable education at scale extremely difficult, and the regulations often exist to protect the public sector, including government inspectors who expect to get paid in both salaries and bribes.

Nevada Supreme Court: Education Savings Accounts Are Constitutional, Funding Mechanism Isn’t

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Nevada today upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s most expansive educational choice law. However, the court ruled that the funding mechanism the legislature adopted is unconstitutional. If the legislature creates a new funding mechanism–as it could and should in a special session–then the ESA program could be implemented right away.

Enacted in 2015, Nevada’s education savings account (ESA) policy was originally scheduled to launch at the beginning of this year, but it immediately drew two separate legal challenges from the government schooling establishment and the ACLU and its allies. Nevada’s ESA provides students with $5,100 per year (plus an additional $600 for low-income students or students with special needs) to use for a wide variety of approved educational expenditures, including private school tuition, tutoring, text books, online courses, homeschool curricula, and more. Families can also roll over unspent funds from year to year. As the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and I have explained, the ability to customize a child’s education and save funds for later are significant improvements over school vouchers:

ESAs offer several key advantages over traditional school-choice programs. Because families can spend ESA funds at multiple providers and can save unspent funds for later, ESAs incentivize families to economize and maximize the value of each dollar spent, in a manner similar to the way they would spend their own money. ESAs also create incentives for education providers to unbundle services and products to better meet students’ individual learning needs. 

Of the five existing ESA programs, Nevada’s is the most expansive. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee restrict their ESAs to students with special needs. Arizona originally restricted ESA eligibility to students with special needs, but has since included foster children, children of active-duty military personnel, students assigned to district schools rated D or F, and children living in Native American reservations. In Nevada, all students who attended a public school for at least 100 days in the previous academic year are eligible. 

In two separate lawsuits, opponents of educational choice alleged that Nevada’s ESA violated the state constitution’s mandate that the state provide a “uniform system of common schools” (Article 11, Section 2), its prohibition against using public funds for sectarian purposes (Article 11, Section 6), and a clause requiring the state to appropriate funds to operate the district schools before any other appropriation is enacted for the biennium (Article 11, Section 10). The court found that the ESA was constitutional under the first two constitutional provisions, but the way it was funded violated the third.

Turn “Banned Books Week” into “Educational Freedom Week”

We are in the midst of “Banned Books Week,” a time dedicated not so much to shining light on books that have actually been banned—that no one may legally read—but that parents object to their children being forced or encouraged to read by the public schools for which they must pay and, de facto, use. Such parents are frequently accused of “banning,” but are often really objecting to a public school—a government school—pushing their children to read material they think violates their religious convictions, is offensive, or is just age-inappropriate. They aren’t trying to ban books, they are trying to escape government-privileged reading they do not think is right for their kids. It is parents doing what school boards, librarians, and teachers do whenever they assign or purchase one book, and reject another.

The more basic violation is not parents objecting to books—a free society lets people freely choose what they read, and parents are the guardians of their children—but government placing some people’s speech above others. Indeed, public schools are supposedly democratically controlled, so in theory every parent is supposed to be able to raise objections to any book, and if they can convince a majority to remove it that is supposed to be just fine. But the country is not supposed to be a democracy. Rather, it is built on individual liberty that is to be defended even against—perhaps especially against—the majority will.

But how do you protect liberty with a public schooling system? How can one elementary school, or district, to which people are assigned based on their home address, tailor instruction and readings to each individual family and child?

The answer is it can’t, and one consequence is wrenching, divisive conflict. You can get a sense for this with Cato’s interactive Public Schooling Battle Map, which contains summaries of more than 220 book battles in public schools. And the map only contains conflicts that have made headlines or been reported to the American Library Association. Likely many others have occurred that did not make the news, and no doubt many parents object to readings but do not feel they can fight.

Clinton back to Debt-Free—Not Tuition-Free—College?

Education didn’t come up much in last night’s debate, but Hillary Clinton regularly uses “college” with some form of “free” after it to illustrate how she would help middle-class families, and she did so again last night. Whenever she did, she referred to “debt-free” college, not “tuition-free.”

This sounds like a reversion to her old college proposal before she adopted more of the Bernie Sanders model—some suggest to clinch his support at the Democratic convention—which would spend federal money to induce states to spend their own money to make public college tuition-free for all but roughly the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans. It’s a plan that would presumably have greater appeal for people planning to go to college—why settle for no debt if you could have no tuition at all?—though the devil is in the details. Depending on how you structure it, “debt-free” could be even more generous than “tuition-free” if you promise to make sure no one has to take on debt not just for tuition but also fees and living expenses. Still, “tuition-free” probably sounds better intuitively, and Clinton’s campaign website talks about being both debt- and tuition-free. Maybe the idea is to sound more or less fiscally responsible, depending on the audience.

No matter what the plan, nothing with “free” in it is a good idea for higher education. None of this would be free to taxpayers, of course: the Clinton tuition-free plan has been estimated to cost the feds $500 billion over 10 years, and would cost state taxpayers billions more if states matched the spending increases to get federal bucks. The debt-free plan was estimated to cost the feds $350 billion over 10 years, also with state matching. Of course the “wealthy” would pay for all this, likely removing money from more productive uses.

Wait. More productive than education? Yes, because the evidence—to borrow from Donald Trump—is YUGE that current subsidies already fuel massively wasteful, counterproductive demand for college. Greater subsidies would likely exacerbate the giant non-completion problem from which we already suffer—barely half of students finish a two- or four-year program within six years—and driving even worse credential inflation. Already about a third of bachelor’s degree holders are underemployed, while earnings for degree holders have been largely stagnant for about two decades. Maybe most important, it doesn’t seem people actually learn all that much in college, with dropping literacy rates for degree holders and only tiny gains in critical thinking while in school. And isn’t learning kinda the point?

Hillary Clinton may be pivoting back to her old college plan. But it’s still a move in the wrong direction.