Topic: Education and Child Policy

Administration’s Good Intentions Could Hurt Black Students’ Achievement

Today the Department of Education and Justice Department released new discipline guidelines intended to reduce racial disparities in punishment in the nation’s schools. The move stems from a combination of factors: African-American students are disciplined more harshly, on average, by public schools; and suspensions and expulsions are associated with negative long-term educational outcomes for the disciplined students. The guidelines are technically voluntary, but as the Associated Press reports, “the federal government is telling school districts around the country that they should adhere to the principles of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don’t.” Unfortunately, this federal pressure may end up hurting black students far more than it helps them.

The problem is that while expelling disruptive students may be associated with negative educational outcomes for the disruptor, it is associated with positive educational outcomes for the rest of his classmates. That is the finding of a uniquely sophisticated study conducted by Joshua Kinsler and published last year in the prestigious International Economic Review (a draft is available here). Kinsler found that cutting out-of-school suspensions in schools with many disruptive students lowers overall student achievement.

In that and earlier work, Kinsler also discovered that the disparity in punishments handed out to students of different races is almost entirely explained by the schools the students attend, and not by racism. Black students, Kinsler found, are more likely to attend schools that have harsh discipline policies, and hence are more likely to receive harsh discipline. But, within a given school, the punishments accorded to white and black students are generally the same. Majority black schools with severe discipline policies apply those policies in the same way to their white students, and majority white schools with more lenient policies also apply those policies in the same way to their black students (see Kinsler’s 2011 study in the Economics of Education Review, a draft of which can be found here).

There are much better approaches to school discipline than those practiced in most public schools today, but until such time as those policies become widely adopted, simply pressuring districts to mete out less severe punishments seems likely to drive down the academic achievement of the very students it is meant to help.

What are those better discipline policies and how can we encourage their widespread adoption? I offered some suggestions in my Senate testimony on the subject a little over a year ago.

2013: Yet Another ‘Year of School Choice’

In 1980, frustrated by the attention given to Paul Ehrlich’s Malthusian doomsaying, economist Julian Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. They agreed on a basket of five commodity metals that Simon predicted would fall in price over 10 years (indicating growing supply relative to demand, contrary to the Malthusian worldview) and Ehrlich predicted would rise. In 1990, all five metals had decreased relative to their 1980 prices and Ehrlich cut Simon a check.

In 2011, two education policy analysts made a similar wager. After Jay Mathews of the Washington Post predicted that voters would “continue to resist” private school choice programs, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenged Matthews to a wager, which Mathews accepted: Forster would win if at least seven new or expanded private school choice programs (i.e., vouchers or scholarship tax credits, but not including charter schools) were signed into law by the end of the year. That July, the Wall Street Journal declared 2011 to be the “Year of School Choice” after 13 states enacted 19 new or expanded private school choice programs, nearly triple the number Forster needed to win the bet.

Undeterred, the following year Mathews proclaimed that school choice programs “have no chance of ever expanding very far,” prompting another challenge from Forster. Mathews did not take the bet, which was fortunate for him because in 2012 10 states enacted 12 new or expanded private school choice programs.

Now, for the third year in a row, Forster’s prediction has proved true, with 10 states enacting 14 new or expanded private school choice programs, including:

Most of these laws are overly limited and several carry unnecessary and even counterproductive regulations like mandatory standardized testing. Nevertheless, they are a step in the right direction, away from a government monopoly and toward a true system of education choice.

Of course, that’s why defenders of the status quo have made 2013 the Year of the Anti-School Choice Lawsuit.

UPDATE: OH Legislator Drops Anti-Homeschool Bill

In the wake of a “grassroots tsunami,” the Ohio legislator who had proposed the worst anti-homeschooling bill to date has now withdrawn the controversial and misguided legislation:

On Thursday, [Democrat State Senator Capri] Cafaro released the following statement in regard to Senate Bill 248 [a.k.a. “Teddy’s Law”]:

“SB 248 was never meant to be a policy debate about educating children in the home. It was meant to address weaknesses in the law pertaining to child protection. Unfortunately, the true intent of the bill to curtail child abuse has been eclipsed the by the issue of homeschooling.”

In fact, the bill was entirely about homeschooling. The bill would have forced all would-be homeschoolers to seek permission from the government to educate their own children at home. Homeschooling parents would have had to submit to background checks and social services would interview each member of the family separately, then the government would decide whether homeschooling was in the children’s “best interest.” In other words, the government would treat all homeschooling parents as child abusers until proven innocent.

 It is said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. This episode demonstrates that vigilance pays off.

“Power 5” Power Play: Just Higher Ed Being What It Is

Though the NCAA still runs ads suggesting that college sports is all about students who happen to be athletes, big-time college football and basketball programs have basically given up the pretense of being about anything other than big bucks and big wins. See, for instance, the latest power play by the “BCS” football conferences.

That’s fine – better they be open about what drives them. Unfortunately, as I write in this SeeThruEdu post, the rest of higher ed is similarly self-interested. Problem is, it won’t admit it, and uses the notion that it’s all about the “common good” to get taxpayer money, often without producing any real benefit for the people paying the bills. 

Ohio Legislator: Your Kids Belong to the State

In the wake of a tragedy, there is a natural and understandable desire to prevent something similar from ever happening again. Unfortunately, legislators too often respond hastily to the passionate demands that they “do something” without thinking through the consequences of their actions. This phenomenon gave rise to the morbid truism that “dead kids make bad laws,” such as “Kyleigh’s Law” in New Jersey. In the wake of a fatal car accident involving a teenage driver, the state legislature passed a law requiring teens to drive vehicles with special decals to make it easier for police to enforce an 11:00pm curfew. When irate parents raised concerns that the decals put their children at risk of being followed by pedophiles, 13 legislators who had initially voted for the law filed a bill to repeal it.

The story that gave rise to “Teddy’s Law” (Senate Bill 248) in Ohio is similarly heartbreaking and the legislative response has been similarly misguided. After teachers reported their suspicions about abuse to Children’s Services, Teddy Foltz-Tedesco’s mother pulled him out of school under the pretense that she would homeschool him. Instead, her boyfriend, Zaryl Bush, tortured and killed the 14-year-old Teddy. Bush is now serving life in prison.

Teddy’s story is a tragic failure of the system to protect him after years of warning signs and reports from neighbors. However, the legislators’ response goes in the wrong direction. Rather than address why social services failed to act on repeated reports of abuse, “Teddy’s Law” treats all would-be homeschooler parents as child abusers until proven innocent. The legislation further assumes that all children belong to the state, as it requires families to seek permission from the government to homeschool their own children. They would have to submit to background checks and a social services investigation in which parents and children are interviewed separately. The law grants the agency the authority to deny the right to homeschool if it “determines it is not in the best interest of the child,” without providing any guidelines as to how that determination should be made.

And while it unconstititionally treats all parents as possible criminals, the Home School Legal Defense Association argues that “Teddy’s Law” likely would not have even saved Teddy:

Even if, as SB 248 would require, his mother had sought social service’s approval to homeschool and was denied, he still would have been at home subject to abuse after school. Regardless of where he went to school, Teddy was left by authorities in a home where they knew abuse was occurring.

Clearly, SB 248 would not have saved Teddy.

SB 248 turns fundamental American values upside down. Parents have been deemed by the United States Supreme Court in Parham v. JR to act in their children’s best interests. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court ruled that parents have a fundamental right to direct the education of their children. This law replaces parents with unqualified social workers to make educational decisions for children.

Moreover, as HSLDA notes, by treating all parents as child abusers, “Teddy’s Law” diverts scarce resources away from focusing on parents actually suspected of child abuse. Instead of protecting children like Teddy, the misguided law would make it more likely that future Teddys would fall through the cracks.

The Constitution Still Applies on College Campuses

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari. A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari didn’t take kindly to that criticism and vowed to retaliate.

Ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators, Zaccari ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office. The federal district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions, but also interpreted Barnes’s First Amendment claim narrowly and sharply reduced his award of attorney’s fees.

In the first appeal of this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (decided in 2012), Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity was inappropriate given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another.

Now again before the Eleventh Circuit on the question of damages, Barnes is appealing the district court’s narrow interpretation of his First Amendment claim and the way it handled attorney’s fees. Cato has again joined with FIRE and numerous other groups on a brief supporting the full vindication of Barnes’s freedom of speech.

In this latest brief, we argue that the district court’s ruling threatens to encourage further First Amendment violations by inexplicably letting the defendants off on lesser claims (which weren’t even pled)—even though Barnes’s complaint clearly set forth detailed allegations of First Amendment-violating retaliation. We also argue that the district court erroneously applied a severe across-the-board reduction of its attorney’s fees award, even though that amount was supposed to address costs already deducted from the total. The court even granted reverse attorney’s fees for some of the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit should rework the attorney’s fees award, especially given the incalculable public benefit derived from such suits. Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer, and friend of Cato, Robert Corn-Revere.) While the district court did acknowledge that Hayden Barnes’s First Amendment rights were violated, its remedy consisted of half-hearted half-measures  We hope that the Eleventh Circuit corrects that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.

Michelle Rhee’s Common Core Crud

I don’t dislike the oft-attacked Michelle Rhee. I don’t even know her. But I do dislike disingenuous or empirically anemic arguments about the Common Core, and she offers too many of both in a new Politico op-ed.

Let’s start with the most aggravating thing she does in her piece: imply that anyone who opposes the Core based on concerns about Washington’s role in it is proffering a “false narrative of a federal takeover” and making “wild claims.” As Core apologists have done repeatedly, Rhee utterly ignores the $4.35-billion Race to the Top program that de facto required Core adoption to compete, and No Child Left Behind waiver rules that locked most states into the Core. She also turns a blind eye to the overall trajectory of federal education policy, which went from decades of mainly providing money, to requirements that states have standards and tests, to now pushing specific standards and tests—and let’s be honest, that ultimately means curricula—on schools.

If Rhee wants to have a substantive debate on the Common Core, great! But we can’t have that if she and other Core supporters refuse to acknowledge basic reality about the federal role, and they essentially smear people who do acknowledge reality as purveyors of “wild claims.”

There is much more that’s dubious about Rhee’s piece, though not as infuriating as the ol’ smear-and-deny.

Rhee, for instance, ignores the wise counsel delivered last week not to simplistically cherry-pick results on the recent PISA exam to press for national standards. Rigorous analysis needs to be done, controlling for lots of factors ranging from income levels to national culture, to determine the effect of national standards on test results. The problem for Core supporters is that when that is done, national standards appear to make essentially no difference. Rhee also ignores the well-reported research of Brookings’ Tom Loveless, who found that the quality or rigor of state standards has had no correlation with state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

Indeed, Rhee’s own piece contradicts itself. Rhee applauds Massachusetts for its relatively high performance on PISA, but laments that in the Bay State “student performance continues to vary greatly” from district to district and “between white students and children of color.” But fear not: “Correcting for that inequity among schoolchildren is exactly what Common Core  seeks to do.” The thing is, the Bay State has had uniform state standards for roughly two decades, meaning uniformity did not end disparities, and national standardization will not change the fact that standards within all states have been uniform for more than a decade under No Child Left Behind.

So no, I don’t dislike Michelle Rhee. But I very much dislike her denial of facts, and ignoring of evidence, on the Common Core.