Topic: Education and Child Policy

Facebook Opens Takedown Hotline for Public School Officials

was critical earlier this year when lawmakers in my home state of Maryland enacted “Grace’s Law,” purporting to ban so-called cyberbullying — in this case, the use of hurtful online language as part of a course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress or harassment on a Maryland juvenile, apparently whether or not the speaker knows that the person distressed by the speech is a Maryland juvenile. I predicted that the law would run into trouble in the courts for infringing on much speech protected by the First Amendment.

On Tuesday, the new law took effect, and this morning Maryland attorney general Douglas Gansler unveiled a joint initiative with Facebook and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) in which Facebook will create a new program for school officials, the Educator Escalation Channel — initially limited to use in the state of Maryland, presumably pending similar enactments elsewhere — allowing the officials to object to Facebook users’ content. Per local radio station WTOP, Maryland school officials will be offered the chance to flag “questionable or prohibited” language. That is to say, they will flag speech that isn’t prohibited by the new law but which they deem “questionable.”

The targets of the new program, according to Gansler as quoted by WTOP, include persons who are “not committing a crime… We’re not going to go after you, but we are going to take down the language off of Facebook, because there’s no redeeming societal value and it’s clearly hurting somebody.” That is to say, Gansler believes he has negotiated power for school officials to go after speech that is not unlawful even under the decidedly speech-unfriendly definitions of the new Maryland law, but which they consider hurtful and lacking in “redeeming societal value.”

Already, defenders of the new program are arguing that there’s no problem here, because Facebook as a private entity is free voluntarily to put whatever terms it wants to into its user agreement and enforce them however it likes. Of course, private companies deal voluntarily with a group of state enforcers like the NAAG only in the sense that you or I deal voluntarily with the Internal Revenue Service.

Can we now finally start taking the First Amendment implications of these laws seriously?

School Choice Lawsuit Roundup

School choice advocates have been winning in the halls of state legislatures and in the court of public opinion, so opponents have taken to the courts of law. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that school vouchers are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, opponents of choice have been scrambling to find novel reasons to challenge school choice programs. Here’s a brief summary of school choice lawsuits around the nation:

1) In Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to halt the state’s school voucher program, arguing that it hurts the desegregation effort. The DOJ’s already weak case was further undermined by a new study released today showing that school choice actually improves integration. Since 90 percent of the voucher recipients are black, the DOJ’s lawsuit would have the effect of keeping low-income blacks from attending the schools of their choice.

Earlier this year, Louisiana’s state supreme court ruled that the voucher program was unconstitutionally funded, but otherwise left the program intact. The governor and state legislators adjusted the funding mechanism in response.

2) Two days ago, a group of activists in Oklahoma sued the state over its special needs voucher program, arguing that it violates the state constitution’s ban on using public funds at religious schools. Last year, the state supreme court tossed out a challenge to the program by public school districts, ruling that they did not have standing since they are not taxpayers.

3) On the same day, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the state’s education savings account program, the first in the nation, is constitutional. Anti-school choice activists had argued that it violates the state constitution’s ban on publicly funding religious schools. The court held that students are the primary beneficiaries and that any “aid to religious schools would be a result of the genuine and independent private choices of the parents.” The decision will likely be appealed to the state supreme court.

Obama Administration Ignores Supreme Court, Encourages Racial Preferences

Two months ago I wrote about the University of Texas’s attempts to delay the final reckoning from the Supreme Court’s near-unanimous ruling in the Fisher case that public institutions must overcome a high constitutional bar when they use race in admissions decisions. Courts must make “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.”

“The university must prove,” Justice Kennedy wrote for the 7-justice majority, “that the means chosen by the university to attain diversity are narrowly tailored.” Far from attempting to prove that, however, UT-Austin is playing lawyer games and trying to re-litigate previously decided procedural issues.

But at least UT-Austin recognizes that its back is against the wall. The Obama administration, for its part, is pretending that nothing has changed, that colleges can continue discriminating based on skin color to achieve their elusive “diversity.”

On Friday, the federal Justice and Education Departments issued a joint “guidance” on the meaning of Fisher v. UT-Austin. This advice, consisting of a platitudinal cover letter and a superficial Q & A. The government’s position, remarkably, is that Fisher simply reaffirmed 2003’s ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that educational diversity could be a compelling interest that justified racial preferences at the University of Michigan. “Run along, nothing to see here,” the various civil-rights-division bureaucrats seem to say, “the Supreme Court just vacated the lower court’s decision because it didn’t check all the procedural boxes.

To say that the government is being disingenuous here would be like saying that Ted Cruz has a mild distaste for Obamacare. As Richard Kahlenberg comments at the blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

This reading of the two Supreme Court cases as essentially identical would presumably be surprising to the justices of the court. Five Supreme Court justices participated in both Grutter and Fisher, yet four of them switched sides in the two cases. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented in Grutter, in part because universities were not made to demonstrate that race-neutral strategies were insufficient to produce racial diversity, yet those justices were in the majority in Fisher.

Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg switched in the other direction, from the majority in Grutter to the dissent in Fisher. Her dissent complained that the majority would push universities to adopt race-neutral strategies like Texas’ top 10-percent plan, which she viewed as disingenuous. (Justice Stephen G. Breyer, alone, was in the majority in both cases.)

Moreover, the government is green-lighting any and all diversity initiatives rather than giving actual guidance about how to survive the legal minefield that administrators now inhabit. As Roger Clegg put it at National Review Online:

The fact is that this guidance is designed not to help schools follow the law, but to push them to adopt dubious race-based policies that the Supreme Court has warned against, and that have prompted lawsuits in the past, but that the Obama administration and its political allies stubbornly support. The whole tone of the new guidance is to offer encouragement to schools that want to engage in racial and ethnic discrimination: The administration promises that it “will continue to be a resource” for such schools.

It is as if the FBI offered eager encouragement to state and local police that wanted to engage in racial profiling without violating the law. Whether such discrimination may sometimes be legally permissible or not, why should the federal government issue a document the tone of which is not a stern warning about the many legal pitfalls, but cheerful encouragement to the police to do as much of it as they can get away with? Why urge schools to get as close to the legal line as they can, when it is unnecessary and bad policy for them to approach it at all?

In short, the government not only pretends that the Supreme Court didn’t mean what it said, but is encouraging college officials in their massive resistance to yet another Supreme Court ruling on civil rights. These actions enable the type of “holistic” racial balancing that results in greater racial-achievement gaps than illegal quotas ever did. Racial preferences today, racial preferences tomorrow, racial preferences forever.

It would be comical if it weren’t so sad – and if it weren’t backed by the full force of the nation’s chief law enforcement officers.

Wheels Coming Off Common Core? Let’s Debate!

Not long ago I thought the Common Core couldn’t be stopped, or really even slowed down.

Oops.

A couple of days ago Florida governor Rick Scott declared that he wanted to reexamine state implementation of the Core and withdraw from the PARCC assessment consortium, one of two national groups the federal government funded to create Core-aligned tests. Though hardly a complete withdrawal from the Core, the move is huge. Why? Because arguably the biggest, most influential backer of the Common Core is former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and his own state, and a governor of his own party, bucked him. Florida is also, well, a pretty big state. Not surprisingly, now two more GOP governors – Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – are signaling desires to unbuckle their states from the Core.

What happened that caused this suddenly powerful – and at least to me, unexpected – revolt? It is almost certainly that the Core is now reaching the district and school level, and parents and citizens are becoming fully aware of standards most of their states adopted lightning fast in 2010 to get federal Race to the Top money. They’re becoming aware, and either don’t like what they see in the standards, or don’t like federal imposition. They may also be getting increasingly sick of being told that the federal government wasn’t a driving force behind Core adoption when it absolutely was, and being called ignorant or unhinged for pointing out reality.

Case in point for calling opponents misinformed, alas, is Jeb Bush, who just last week said that Common Core resistance “is political,” and implied that anyone against the Core is “comfortable with mediocrity.” He also suggested once again that the Core is fully voluntary for states, implying that opponents are either misinformed or lying when they fear “a national takeover.” Of course, there are numerous reasons to oppose the Core that are all about what’s best for kids.

DOJ Backpedals on School Choice Lawsuit

In response to withering criticism and political pressure, the U.S. Department of Justice is backpedaling on its lawsuit against Louisiana’s school choice program, which provides school vouchers to low-income students assigned to government-run schools receiving a D or F rating for performance. The lawsuit sought to “permanently enjoin the State of Louisiana from awarding any school vouchers to students attending schools in districts operating under federal desegregation orders” unless the state receives permission from the federal government. Now the DOJ is claiming in a carefully-worded letter to Congress that they were just looking for information:

To be clear, we are neither opposing Louisiana’s school voucher program nor seeking to revoke vouchers from any student. […] Our goal in filing a motion for further relief […] was straightforward: The United States is seeking the court’s assistance in ensuring that the information Louisiana collects in connection with its school voucher program is provided to the United States in a timely fashion and that Louisiana implements its program in full compliance with federal law, including the desegregation order in this case.

Unfortunately, the DOJ is being disingenuous. While their lawsuit would not have revoked vouchers that the state had already distributed, it would have blocked all future vouchers to students in districts under desegregation orders without federal permission. In other words, rather than leaving the choice of school in the hands of parents, parents would have to beg the federal government to allow their children to escape from failing government schools. This is problematic since the DOJ’s absurd definition of segregation would prevent black students from leaving a school that the DOJ deems “insufficiently black” because there are a greater percentage of black students than black people living in the district. For example:

Philly Schools—Is Money Really the Problem?

House majority leader Eric Cantor is in Philadelphia today to pick up Attorney General Eric Holder’s gauntlet. Holder’s DOJ has filed suit to shut down a Louisiana school voucher program that serves an overwhelmingly African American population, on the grounds that… it’s bad for African Americans. Cantor vows to fight the DOJ if Holder doesn’t drop the suit, and he’s delivering his message at a Philly charter school serving mostly African American kids—one that has about six times as many applicants as it has places.

Apart from its proximity to DC, Philly might seem an odd location for Cantor’s presser, but the city of brotherly love is going through an educational drama of its own. The Philadelphia School District has had budget problems for years. It’s seen horrendous violence, plummeting enrollment, and commensurate staff layoffs and school closures. Most media accounts bewail lack of funding as the key problem. Salon.com recently ran a story with the subhead: “Pennsylvania’s right-wing governor drains public schools of basic funds.” CBSNews laments “the same old problem: not enough money.”

What those and all other Philly school district stories I’ve seen have in common is that they fail to say how much the district actually spends per pupil. Not having attended journalism school, I missed whatever class teaches education reporters to omit the single most important fact in their stories, so allow me try to fill in the blank.

A quick Google search reveals that Philly’s 2013-14 budget is $3.03 billion (p. 50), of which $862 million is for charter schools. The district serves 136,000 students in its regular public schools and another 63,000 in charter schools. So the regular public schools, the ones that are being “systematically murdered” by budget cuts, spend $15,941 per pupil. That’s about $3,000 more than the national average. It’s also $1,600 more than the day tuition at Temple University. The city’s charter schools receive about $2,300 less than the regular public schools.

That’s not to say that the district’s classrooms are fully stocked with supplies or that the city’s best teachers are paid what they’re worth. What it does suggest is that the cause of those problems may have less to do with the amount of funding available than with the way it is allocated. After all, Washington, DC spends around $29,000 per pupildouble what Philly does—and it performs worse in both reading and math by the 8th grade.

Should America’s CEOs Listen to Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan?

Politico reports that U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan will address the Business Roundtable today, calling on the nation’s CEOs to “step up and promote the Obama administration’s education agenda.” That agenda is essentially a doubling-down on the policies of the past 50 years—further increases in federal pre-K spending, further centralization of school standards and testing, etc.

Before agreeing to go along, America’s business leaders should ask themselves: who should be learning from whom? Over the past half-century, which record is more worthy of emulation: that of federal government K-12 policy or that of the free enterprise system?

As an aid to their deliberations, I offer the graphics below:

Versus what economist Mark J. Perry calls “The Magic and Miracle of the Marketplace.” The image on the left is from the 1964 Sears Christmas catalogue. The goods on the right show what you can buy today for the inflation-adjusted cost of one of those vintage TVs (images courtsey of Mark J. Perry).

Discuss.