Topic: Education and Child Policy

New Lawsuit against School Choice Program

A North Carolina teachers union and fellow defenders of the government’s near-monopoly over education filed a lawsuit against the state’s school voucher program for low-income students, joining half a dozen other lawsuits against educational choice programs around the country. Plaintiffs made the same, tired, factually-inaccurate arguments against letting low-income parents choose where to send their children to school that we’ve come to expect. For example:

“Vouchers are bad public policy,” said Mike Ward, former state school superintendent and one of the plaintiffs. “They tear away millions of dollars that are badly needed by the public schools.”

Apparently no one told Mr. Ward that 22 of 23 studies found that public schools improved their performance in response to the competition that school choice programs generate. The last study found no statistically significant impact. NC’s government-run school system is in dire need of competition. As Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina point out, the latest report card from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction reveals that “nearly 70 percent of low income students in North Carolina failed to meet proficiency standards.”

The lawsuit argues that the voucher program violates Article IX, Section 6 of the North Carolina Constitution, which requires that “all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education…and not otherwise appropriated by the State… shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.

When “Zero Tolerance” Is Deadly

In his testimony before Congress advocating for the legalization of medicinal marijuana, National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser argued that “the law disgraces itself when it harasses the sick.” How much more so when a school’s absurd “zero tolerance” drugs policy prevents a child with asthma from reaching his life-saving inhaler in time:

Ryan Gibbons was only 12 years old when he died from a severe asthma attack during recess at school. He would have simply reached for the prescription inhaler that he always carried with him, but his school took it away and locked it in the principal’s office.

As Ryan gasped for air, his friends picked him up and carried him to the office where his inhaler was held. But they couldn’t get there in time. Ryan passed out before they reached his potentially life-saving medicine. He never recovered. The date was Oct. 9, 2012.

The tragedy took place at Elgin County School in Straffordville, Ontario, Canada. Now Ryan’s grieving mom, Sarah Gibbons, is leading a campaign to get schools to change their senseless policy of keeping essential inhalers away from asthmatic children — by law.

The bill that she wants lawmakers to pass is dubbed “Ryan’s Law,” in honor of her son’s memory. The proposed law would force schools to let kids who have a doctor’s okay carry inhalers in school, in a pocket or backpack.

It’s too often the case that would-be laws named after deceased children are hastily conceived with little thought given to unintended consequences, but here it is the policy that the law seeks to overturn that was implemented without enough forethought. Schools certainly have a legitimate interest in keeping even legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco off its premises and preventing potentially-harmful prescription drugs from falling into the wrong hands. But inhalers are different than antibiotics or other prescription drugs that are taken at regularly scheduled intervals. The risk that some non-asthmatic students might abuse the inhalers is dwarfed by the risk of blocking access to inhalers. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, nearly 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, including over 9 percent of children, and there are about 3,300 deaths resulting from asthma each year, “many of which are avoidable with proper treatment and care.”

This isn’t the first time a school policy came between a student with asthma and his inhaler. Last year, a student with asthma experiencing breathing difficulties passed out when a school nurse and school dean refused to allow him to use his inhaler – which was “still in its original packaging, complete with his name and directions for its use” – because his mother hadn’t filled out the proper form. The school did not call 911 and insisted even after the fact that it had done the right thing by following its policy to the letter.

The Influence of Policy Advocacy — Findings and Caveats

A new Brookings study looks at the influence of different education advocacy groups on the passage of Louisiana’s state-wide school voucher bill. In a clever twist, Russ Whitehurst and his co-authors added a fictitious advocacy group to the survey form as a placebo, to calibrate the rankings. After acknowledging that Governor Bobby Jindal was far more responsible for the enactment of the voucher program than any advocacy group, the paper concludes that the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry was the next most influential player. That’s not surprising given that its political contributions topped three quarters of a million dollars in the last state election cycle. Second and third places went, respectively, to the Black Alliance for Educational Options and the Louisiana Federation for Children.

This is useful information but it should be digested with two important caveats in mind. First, enacting a particular bill is an imperfect measure of long-term impact on policy, as the case of Utah illustrates. In February 2007, Utah enacted a universal voucher program. Less than a month later, teachers’ union opponents began a petition to put the voucher bill to a referendum vote and campaigned aggressively against it. By November, before a single child had ever received a voucher, voters struck the program down by a 3 to 2 margin. The lesson? If reform advocates don’t win over the public, their influence with state legislators can’t protect a program from ultimately being hobbled or overturned.

The second point is that, to the extent advocacy organizations do exert a lasting impact, they have a responsibility to ensure that their recommendations can deliver on their promises. “School choice” is a catchall phrase, encompassing reforms as disparate as public school open enrollment, charter schools, vouchers, and education tax credits. Even within each of these policy categories, details between programs vary substantially. But expertise in advocacy does not automatically confer expertise in policy (or vice versa). Will a particular policy perpetuate social conflicts over what is taught, or help to end them? Will it ultimately suffocate educators with regulatory red tape and limit parental choices, or preserve freedom in the long term? Will it allow brilliant educators to reach masses of students while limiting the growth of inferior schools? There are already at least tentative answers to these questions, though much remains to be learned. The more deeply advocacy organizations explore these questions before pushing through legislation, the more successful they will ultimately be.

10-Year-Old Faces Expulsion Over Imaginary Weapon

We’ve already noted that zero tolerance means zero logic, but this story ranks among the most asinine. The Rutherford Institute is representing the parents of a 10-year-old child who was threatened with expulsion and eventually suspended for playfully firing an imaginary “arrow” from an imaginary “bow” at another student “armed” with an imaginary “gun”:

As we understand the facts of Johnny’s case, during the week of October 14th, Johnny asked his teacher for a pencil during class. He walked to the front of the classroom to retrieve the pencil, and during his walk back to his seat, a classmate and friend of Johnny’s held his folder like an imaginary gun and “shot” at Johnny. Johnny playfully used his hands to draw the bowstrings on a completely imaginary “bow” and “shot” an arrow back at the friend. The two children laughed.

Seeing this, another girl in the class reported to the teacher that the boys were shooting at each other. The teacher took both Johnny and the other boy into the hall and lectured them about disruption. This is exactly where the story should end.

Instead, however, the teacher sent an email to Johnny’s mother, Beverly Jones, alerting her to the seriousness of the violation because the children were using “firearms” in their horseplay, noting that Johnny was issued a referral to the Principal.

Principal John Horton contacted Ms. Jones soon thereafter and asserted that Johnny’s behavior was a serious offense that could result in expulsion, although Mr. Horton offered to “merely” require that Johnny serve a one-day in-office suspension.

When Ms. Jones asked Mr. Horton what policy Johnny had violated, Mr. Horton replied that Johnny had “made a threat” to another student using a “replica or representation of a firearm,” through his use of an imaginary bow and arrow…

Shouldn’t school officials just be glad that, instead of using play swords, these kids are safely “killing” each other from across the room?

(Hat tip: Michael Graham.)

 

The Core of Big Brother

Over at SeeThruEdu I’ve got a post responding – sort of – to a recent article on the Common Core by National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru. It’s only “sort of” because for the most part Ponnuru is right on the money: Some of the allegations against the Core are highly dubious, but so are many of the arguments proffered for it. My only quibble is that Ponnuru says that the Core doesn’t represent “Big Brother in the classroom.” Narrowly that’s right – the Core itself is just the standards – but when you look at the data collection and overall federal policy of which the Core is an integral part, fears about Big Brother – or maybe Big Micromanager – coming to a school near you are reasonable.

Check it out!

PISA School Test Results

New international student test results called PISA have been released. See here and here. Once again, U.S. high-school kids did poorly. American kids ranked 36th in math, 24th in reading, and 28th in science among 65 countries and jurisdictions. The U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.

A number of Asian countries scored the highest on all three tests. But Canadian kids also did very well, scoring toward the top on all the tests. On math, for example, Canadian kids ranked 13th, compared to U.S. kids at 36th.   

American policymakers often react to such dismal U.S. results by calling for more central planning of education through federal subsidies and mandates. But note that Canada has no federal education department and no federal subsidies for its K-12 schools. Canadian education is entirely controlled at the provincial and local levels.  

The Canadian test score advantage over the United States doesn’t prove that decentralization alone leads to higher scores, but it does prove that the United States does not need any federal involvement in order to become a top-ranked schooling nation. Indeed, Cato scholars have long argued that we would better off abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and ending all federal subsidies

My colleagues have opined on the PISA results here and here.

More on Canada’s decentralized government here and here.

Highlights of the New PISA International Test Results

The latest (2012) PISA results are out! PISA is a test of fairly basic, practical skills given to 15-year-olds around the world. Here are some of the highlights:

  • U.S. performance is essentially flat across subjects since 2003
  • Finland’s performance has declined substantially since 2003
  • Korea is continuing to improve, solidifiying its position as one of the highest performing nations
  • Already the highest-performing Latin American country, Chile has continued to improve, leaving the regional average further behind.

The U.S. story needs little elaboration. Neither the structure nor the content of American schooling has changed in educationally meaningful ways since 2003. We still have 50 state education monopolies, with a growing but still realtively small homogenizing federal presence.

The “Replicate Finland!” bandwagon was always misguided. It is simply not sensible to take a nation’s performance on a single test, in isolation, as evidence for the merits (or demerits) of its national education policies. There are too many other factors that affect outcomes, and there are too many important outcomes for a single test to measure. For those who nevertheless championed Finland as a model, the latest PISA results are a bit awkward (see, for instance, the book: The Smartest Kids in the World).

Though the Chilean student protests of 2011 and 2012 focused on the desire for free, universal college, the leaders of that movement also harshly criticized that nation’s universal K-12 private school choice program. About 60 percent of children in Chile attend private schools, most of them fully or substantially funded by the national government. One of the most famous protest leaders, Camila Vallejo, was recently elected to the Chilean congress as a member of the Communist party. The influence of Vallejo and her compatriots has shifted public sentiment against crucial aspects of the nation’s private school choice program, despite the fact that private schools themselves remain extremely popular with parents. It is quite possible that, in the coming years, Chile will unravel the very policies that have made it one of the fastest improving countries in the world and the top performer in Latin America.

The NEA has called for higher U.S. teachers’ salaries based on the PISA results, arguing that some of the top performing countries pay their teachers more relative to people in other careers. This is self-serving and scientifically dubious. The NEA presents no evidence for a causal link between overall teacher salaries and student performance, just a bit of random cherry picking that ignores countless confounding factors. To find the real link between average salaries and performance, we can look at domestic U.S. research on the subject. Hanushek and Rivkin, for instance, find that “overall salary increases for teachers would be both expensive and ineffective.” Not surprisingly, a recent review of Ohio’s data on teacher “value-added” and teacher pay finds an inverse relationship:

in Cleveland… teachers deemed “Least Effective” by the new state evaluation system earned, on average, about $3,000 more than the teachers deemed “Most Effective.”

There’s some evidence that tying teacher pay to student performance helps to improve learning, but that’s about it.

Finally, it’s important to remember that PISA is a test of everyday “literacy” in the three subjects it covers (math, reading, and science). If you want to know how well students are learning the specific academic content needed for continuing study at the college level, PISA isn’t your best choice. For that, take a look at TIMSS.