Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.

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!