Topic: Education and Child Policy

DOJ, SPLC, You Are the ‘Baddies’

It’s natural for people to assume that whatever they are doing is right, and whatever their opponents are doing is wrong. But even the most ardent advocate of situational ethics will admit that this can’t always be true. Sometimes, people who think they are on the side of goodness and light are… are… “the baddies.”

In the past week, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the U.S. Department of Justice might as well have been going about with skull images on their caps, because they, too, have been the baddies. The SPLC is suing to prevent any poor children from escaping failing Alabama public schools because, under current policy, not every poor child is able to do so…. Yes, really. This has prompted countless commentators to observe, in the SPLC’s “defense,” that nothing in the organization’s name says that it is against southern poverty. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. DOJ has just filed suit to stop poor children in Louisiana from escaping academically failing public schools because, it claims, those failing schools are becoming less racially integrated (by, it seems, less than 1 percent). This suit is possible because of the erroneous precedent of equating incidental (“de facto”) and legally compelled (“de jure”) segregation. But its unwisdom is easy to see without legal analysis: the DOJ is telling the mostly black families who choose to use Louisiana’s school vouchers that their actions are not good for blacks. This is hubris on an epic scale.

The top people at the DOJ and the SPLC need to get together around a table, watch the video clip above, and summon the circumspection to grasp that they are, at the moment, the baddies–brutally stomping on the very goals and ideals that they presumably hold dear.

DOJ Lawsuit Would Keep Blacks in Failing Schools

In the name of civil rights, the Department of Justice is trying to prevent black families from exercising school choice.

On the heels of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ridiculous lawsuit against Alabama’s new school choice law, which contends that if a law doesn’t help everyone it can’t help anyone, the U.S. Department of Justice is suing to block the state of Louisiana’s school voucher program for low-income students and students assigned to failing public schools:

The Justice Department’s primary argument is that letting students leave for vouchered private schools can disrupt the racial balance in public school systems that desegregation orders are meant to protect. Those orders almost always set rules for student transfers with the school system.

Federal analysis found that last year’s Louisiana vouchers increased racial imbalance in 34 historically segregated public schools in 13 systems. The Justice Department goes so far as to charge that in some of those schools, “the loss of students through the voucher program reversed much of the progress made toward integration.”

Segregation! That’s a serious charge. What evidence does the Department of Justice cite?

In Tangipahoa Parish, for instance, Independence Elementary School lost five white students to voucher schools, the petition states. The consequent change in the percent of enrolled white students “reinforc(ed) the racial identity of the school as a black school.”

Five students! According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 143 white students out of 482 students at Independence Elementary School in 2010-11 (the most recent year for which data is available). Assuming that recent enrollment and racial composition is the same and that no black students received vouchers as well, that’s a 0.7 percentage point shift from 29.6 percent white to 28.9 percent white. Though the students at Independence almost certainly would not have noticed a difference, the racial bean counters at the DOJ see worsening segregation.

But the DOJ is not content merely to prevent white students from exercising school choice. The petition also cites Cecilia Primary School, which in 2012-13 “lost six black students as a result of the voucher program,” thereby “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district.” In the previous school year, the school’s racial composition was 30.1 percent black, which the DOJ notes was 16.4 percentage points lower than the black composition of the district as a whole. According to the NCES, in 2010-11 there were 205 black students out of a total enrollment of 758, so the school was 27 percent black. Assuming a constant total enrollment, the DOJ’s numbers suggest that there were 228 black students in 2011-12. The loss of six black students would mean the school’s racial composition shifted from 30.1 percent black to 29.2 percent black as a result of the voucher program. Again, imperceptible to the untrained eye but a grave threat to racial harmony according to the Obama administration’s Department of Justice.

Obama to Control the Price of Ivy?

Superabundant federal student aid has done a huge amount to get us into our bankrupting college mess. To get us out, today President Obama will propose, essentially, “soft” price controls. But they will likely leave the root problem intact while, if anything, adding new kinds of woe.

On his college bus tour, President Obama will propose that Washington start publishing ratings of schools based on such measures as average tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of a college’s students who are low-income. The ratings would also “compare colleges with similar missions.” Ultimately, the president will propose that the availability of aid be partly conditioned on the new ratings.

Let’s be clear: The price of college is almost certainly far higher than it should be, fueled largely by federal aid that essentially tells colleges “charge whatever you want – we’ll give students the money.” That’s a major reason that average, inflation-adjusted prices have more than doubled in the last 30 years. And it is good that the president, and many others, are essentially acknowledging the inflationary reality of aid. But will price controls help or hurt?

SPLC: If You Can’t Help Every Child, You Can’t Help Any Child

Most people know the story of the boy who was rescuing sea stars that had washed up on a beach by throwing them back into the ocean. When a man scoffed to the boy that his efforts didn’t make a difference since he couldn’t save all of them, the boy tossed another sea star back into the ocean and replied, “It made a difference to that one.” The little-known ending to the story is that the boy was sued by the Southern Poverty Law Center for violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.

Sadly, this is only a slight exaggeration. Earlier this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit contending that Alabama’s new scholarship tax credit program violates the Equal Protection clause and harms the low-income students attending failing public schools whom the law is intended to help:

[SPLC] President Richard Cohen said the new Alabama Accountability Act will take millions away from public schools and will make the failing schools worse than they are now. He said the law was promoted by Republican Gov. Robert Bentley as giving students a way out of failing schools. 

“It’s a lie. Our clients do not have a way out of the failing schools that they are in,” he said.

The Montgomery-based law center sued on the opening day of classes for most public schools in Alabama. The suit focuses on a part of the law that allows families with children in Alabama’s 78 failing public schools to move them to a non-failing public school or to a private school that participates in the program. They can get a state tax credit of about $3,500 annually to help cover private school costs.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of eight plaintiffs who say that they can’t afford to go to private schools and that the non-failing public schools are not accessible. The lawsuit raises equal protection issues.

One of the eight plaintiffs, Mariah Russaw, said she couldn’t afford the transportation costs even if her 12-year-old grandson, J.R., could leave Barbour County Junior High School in Clayton. All junior highs in the Barbour County school system are on the failing list. The nearest non-failing public school is 19 miles away in Pike County. The nearest private school is about 30 miles away, but it is not participating in the program.

The 62-year-old grandmother said it wouldn’t matter if the private school were participating. “I cannot afford to transport him to another school,” she said.

In short, SPLC argues that if the law can’t rescue every child from a failing school, then it shouldn’t be allowed to rescue any child. Not only would this line of reasoning hobble almost every government effort to incrementally address any problem, but the argument also rests on a misunderstanding of the status quo and the law’s likely impact.

The SPLC lawsuit claims that the law “creates two classes of students assigned to failing schools – those who can escape because of their parents’ income or where they live and those, like the Plaintiffs here, who cannot.” In fact, those two classes of students already exist. In our existing education system, low-income families are trapped in failing schools while wealthier families can afford either to live in districts with better public schools or to send their children to private school. The scholarship tax credit program is too limited to solve all the existing inequities, but it moves more students out of the first category and into the second. In other words, by expanding opportunities to low-income families, it makes an already unequal education system more equal.

Moreover, there is no evidence the program does harm to students who remain in public schools. The SPLC claims that the failing public schools are “likely to deteriorate further as their funding is continually diminished” as a result of students fleeing from those schools. But a mere assertion that harm is “likely” doesn’t cut it. Had the SPLC consulted the research literature instead of their fevered imaginations, they would have discovered that 22 of 23 studies of school choice programs found that they have positive impact on public school performance. The last study found no visible impact.

In other words, the increased choice and competition help both the students who participate in the program and those students who remain in their assigned public schools. Striking down the program would thus make matters worse for the litigants and other families like them, not better. Expanding the program would improve outcomes even further. If the SPLC is truly motivated by a desire to help low-income families, it should drop its lawsuit and join the effort to expand educational options. There are lots of sea stars left on the beach and they could use a hand.

Spinning Core

I don’t know if it is intentionally being done to promote the Common Core national curriculum standards, or they are honest but failed efforts to objectively describe what the Core is, but recent polling on the Core has been heavily slanted to get pro-Core responses.

Case in point, the newest Education Next public opinion poll, which in the past has offered terrific efforts to compensate for wording in other polls seemingly designed to elicit negative results against school choice. But on Common Core? Just read the question for yourself (#32 on the questionnaire):

As you may know, all states are currently deciding whether or not to adopt the Common Core standards in reading and math. If adopted, these standards would be used to hold the state’s schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose adoption of the Common Core standards in your state?

First and foremost, that “all states are currently deciding” whether or not to adopt the Core is just incorrect. Some states are contemplating leaving the Common Core, but almost all states decided they would adopt in 2010. Many, of course, did so in a rush to get federal Race to the Top money. Indeed, federal coercion–and the flash adoption it spurred–are two of the biggest objections to the Core, and this question acts like those hugely controversial things simply never happened.

Second, how many people, knowing little else about the Core, are going to oppose something that generically will hold “schools accountable for their performance?” Probably not many. And the fact is the Core does not hold anyone accountable for performance. That would be the role of tests coupled with sanctions, not the Core itself. Core supporters love to bash opponents for attributing to the Core things that do not directly come from it–data mining, squeezing out literature–but seem to have no trouble wrongly attributing positive things directly to it.

It’s no wonder the Education Next pollsters found big support for the Core, but faster rising opposition: Much support likely comes from respondents only knowing what the pollsters tell them, while opposition is almost certainly coming primarily from people who over the last year have become aware of the reality of Core, and don’t like it.

Just as bad as the Education Next poll is the AP-NORC “National Education Survey” that came out a few days ago, though it does furnish one very useful piece of information: more than half of respondents knew “little” or “nothing” about the Core, showing how influential a leading question could be. Unfortunately, then they provided such a question (Q30), saying that “the objective of the Common Core is to provide consistent, clear standards across all states for students in grades K-12.” Who, knowing little to nothing about the Common Core, is going to oppose “consistent, clear standards?” That there is big debate about how consistent and clear they are is in no way indicated in the question, and, not surprisingly, it gets a plurality to say they think the Core will “improve the quality of education.” Perhaps the amazing thing is that it didn’t get a majority to say that.

In the end, whether national standards are a good or bad policy doesn’t have a lot to do with public opinion polls. But wouldn’t it be nice if the polls weren’t obviously slanted toward pro-Core outcomes?

School Choice at the Polls

In a nation with a strong tradition of holding major political contests in years divisible by the number two, politicos are mostly confined to chirping about distant elections during odd-numbered years. The exceptions in the year following a presidential election are New Jersey and Virginia, which hold their gubernatorial elections. In addition, due to the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey will hold a special election to the U.S. Senate. In all three elections, one or both of the major candidates have made school choice an issue. That makes sense because school choice is increasingly popular, especially once implemented. Unfortunately, while the candidates should be commended for promoting school choice policies in general, their specifics leave much to be desired.

Last week, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, unveiled an education plan calling for an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit program (or the creation of a separate program) that would direct funds to students currently attending a failing public school. However, what Virginia’s scholarship tax credit program really needs is the policy equivalent of Extreme Home Makeover to remove unnecessary regulations on private schools, shift administration of the program to the Department of Revenue, increase the credit amount, and expand the uses of the scholarships beyond just tuition. As Andrew Coulson has demonstrated, it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. 

The Perils of Publicly Funded “Private” Schools

We support getting publicly funded schools public accountability…. No exceptions, no excuses, no special treatment.

Thus spake John Johnson, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, on the subject of a new bill his agency co-wrote with Republican legislators. Among other things, the bill would allow the DPI to kick private schools out of the state’s voucher program if it rates them perennial failures.

Here’s the thing: Way back in … August of 2013, (a.k.a., “this month”), the head of a state department of instruction was forced to resign because, while in that same post in another state, he had personally revised his department’s ranking of a school run by a major political donor. State officials and agencies, contrary to the implicit assumption of “accountability” mavens, are not all wise, objective, beneficent philosopher-kings. They are people–and organizations made up of people–who have political and personal vested interests that do not always align with those of the families they nominally serve.

Fortunately, over the course of human history, a system evolved which tends to align the interests of producers and consumers more effectively than any other. It is the free enterprise system, in which producers must compete for the privilege of serving each and every customer, and consumers have the freedom to easily choose from among many competing providers. Let schools do their best to serve families and let families choose their schools: let the chips fall where they may. Some schools will succeed, others will fail. Those that succeed, grow. Those that fail are prevented from continuing to ill-serve families. It is a system that works not simply in theory, but in practice, as I found when I surveyed the worldwide within-country research comparing alternative school systems. The least regulated, most market-like education systems most consistently outperform state school systems, such as we have in the United States.