Topic: Education and Child Policy

Voucher Use in Washington Wins Praise of Parents

 The headline for the New York Times article on the first review of the D.C. voucher program (summary, full report) is the headline I use here for this post. I’m pleasantly surprised, I have to say.

The NYT lead paragraph was almost correct as well, losing marks for lack of context. It mentions that parents who can choose a school for their children are much more satisfied, and that the choice students did not have consistently statistically significant academic gains. 

The vital context for this is that treatment effects from major education changes just aren’t expected in the first year. The NYT unfortunately also repeats the false claim that the evidence on voucher effects is not consistent. 

All scientific assessments of choice programs show positive gains, and nearly all of those studies show statistically significant gains. But it takes some time to get results, especially after a switch in schools that can be disruptive in various ways in the short-term. We have plenty of evidence that school choice improves student performance, and improves government schools as well.

The real news here is the immediate and very significant improvement in parental satisfaction across the board. The Washington Post, of course, buries the real news 14 paragraphs into the story.

In the one effect that should be expected in the first year, the voucher program has been a wild success. But that’s not the line the Post is helping school choice opponents push.

The Post prints a headline today that’s a lesson in how to slant the news while appearing on the surface to remain neutral. Here’s their headline: “Voucher Students Show Few Gains in First Year.” No one expected them to! Again, studies show choice has an effect, but it’s not magic fairy dust that makes students savants after the average of seven months they spent at a new school. And the numbers involved in this tiny program are, well, tiny. 

But the subtitle is the kicker, and combined it’s a despicable exercise in political activism masquerading as journalism; “D.C. Results Typical, Federal Study Says.” Here’s the trick; suggest, falsely, that it’s newsworthy that vouchers don’t immediately and massively increase student achievement, then suggest that choice programs typically don’t lead to improvements.

Chairman of the House education committee, George Miller (D-Calif.), echoed the Post and the NYT in a statement: “This report offers even more proof that private school vouchers won’t improve student achievement and are nothing more than a tired political gimmick.”

Miller should be ashamed of himself. And so should the education reporters who fail to give their readers context and crucial facts.

The D.C. voucher program is a life-line for low-income children. It’s sad to see their hometown paper helping handmaidens for the education-industrial complex in Congress try to cut that line to a better future. 

The Folly of Mann

Colleen Wilcox, Superintendent of Schools for Santa Clara County, has an op-ed in today’s San Jose Mercury News critiquing vouchers. There is a great deal wrong with what she has to say. Referring to Horace Mann, the godfather of American state schooling, she writes:

It’s true that the history of our public schools has seen its share of disappointments. At certain times, in certain places, the system undeniably failed the students. But on the whole, Horace Mann’s model has served us well.

At certain times? In certain places? American students perform worse relative to their international peers the longer they stay in school (see the “Global Context” section of that .pdf). When compared across subjects and grades to other industrialized countries by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, the Program on International Student Assessment, and the International Adult Literacy Survey, our performance is about average at the 4th grade, below average by the 8th grade, and at or near the bottom among high-school seniors and recent graduates.

And these patterns hold not only for the overall averages, but for our top-scorers as well. Not just at certain times. Not just in certain places. 

Wilcox objects to vouchers on two grounds. First, that they are ostensibly “contrary to our fundamental belief in the separation of church and state.” Not so. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, a universally available school voucher that treats parents’ religious and non-religious school choices neutrally is entirely consistent with the First Amendment and the principle it is meant to uphold. Anyone worried about compelled support issues under vouchers can simply opt for tax credits instead, as I recommend here.

Her second objection is that allowing families to chose “private schools would drain precious dollars away from public schools.” But, the thing is, if the children aren’t in the public schools anymore, there is no point in paying them for those children is there? Then we’d be paying them, literally, for doing nothing.

Now, you might counter that, given the number of functionally illiterate and unprepared students graduated by public schools every year, we are already paying public schools for nothing. But this, please note, is entirely by accident. A system of deliberately paying public schools for nothing would not be an improvement.

Educational freedom, and market competition, beat government monopoly provision. The sooner we realize that, the better off our children and our nation will be.

And as for Horace Mann, he predicted 160 years ago that if we “let the Common [a.k.a. “public”] School be expanded to its capabilities, let it be worked with the efficiency of which it is susceptible, and nine tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged.”

Eight generations and trillions of dollars later, color me a little skeptical about the merits of state schooling.

If You Like Goodness, You Should Love NCLB!

Yesterday, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) – which brings you the GRE, SAT, AP, and numerous other dreaded exams – released results of a survey supposedly showing that “Americans say ‘yes’” to reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The ETS pollsters reached this conclusion despite finding that more respondents opposed NCLB than supported it. How’s that possible? It takes a little prodding.

The survey’s first major finding is actually that most people – more than half – report knowing very little about the massive No Child Left Behind Act. It also finds that a plurality dislikes the law, with 43 percent opposing it and only 41 percent backing NCLB. But an accurate snapshot of public knowledge and opinion apparently wasn’t what ETS was after. No, what they wanted to know was what people thought about the law after they were offered a brief – and very positive – description of NCLB:

The No Child Left Behind Act provides federal funds for school districts with poor children in order to close achievement gaps. It also requires states to set standards for education and to test students each year to determine whether the standards are being met by all students. In addition, No Child Left Behind provides funding to help teachers become highly qualified. It also provides additional funding and prescribes consequences to schools that fail to achieve academic targets set by their state.

What a shock! After respondents got that description, support for the law rose to 56 percent. Sort of like if the description were “NCLB fulfills champagne wishes and caviar dreams for every student in America.” I mean, who is going to oppose “highly qualified” teachers, closing achievement gaps, and helping poor children? If anything, it’s a testament to how disliked NCLB truly is that the description only boosted support by 15 points. And imagine how low support might have dropped had ETS offered a little balance by, say, noting that NCLB has caused many states to lower their standards, and has produced no discernable increase in academic achievement despite boosting federal education spending by billions of dollars. Yet one more example of why you should never trust public opinion polls.

School Choice Movement Needs to Broaden the Coalition

A must-read article by Howard Rich*, chairman of the Parents in Charge Foundation, ran this weekend in the Wall Street Journal.  It explains why pursuing targeted voucher plans is a bad long-term strategy:

Broader choice plans equal broader support. You don’t have to take
Grassroots 101 to know that successful coalitions are based on
addition, not subtraction. Yet in many instances school choice
supporters have been conditioned to believe that confining the
parameters of parental choice will lead to a broader base of public
support. The opposite is true. As employee stock options and personal
savings accounts have shown, nothing motivates individuals quite like
becoming personally invested in an issue.

Supporters of school choice cannot afford to leave a single ally on
the sidelines – for Christian school parents, home school parents,
parents with special-needs children or parents who for whatever reason
aren’t satisfied with the public school they are zoned for, universal
choice plans offer a much broader base of grassroots support than more
narrowly-drawn proposals.

Rich should be commended for spearheading a new strategy in South Carolina that expands the school choice coalition and makes long-term success more likely.

Educational freedom for all is good policy and good politics.

* Howard Rich is also a Cato Institute Board member.

It Starts with a Hug and Ends with Chaos

Just when you thought solutions to what should be minor problems couldn’t get any more absurd, Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, Virginia, has decided to institute an absolute ban on physical contact.

Why, one might ask? Well, because of overcrowding and behavior problems, of course!

Deborah Hernandez, Kilmer’s principal, said the rule makes sense in a school that was built for 850 students but houses 1,100. She said that students should have their personal space protected and that many lack the maturity to understand what is acceptable or welcome.

“You get into shades of gray,” Hernandez said. “The kids say, ‘If he can high-five, then I can do this.’ “

Right. And it’s the job of adults to use discretion and good sense to stop the “this” that’s disruptive and allow the “high-five” that’s not instead of instituting absurd absolutes to make it easier on incompetent teachers and administrators who want to cover their derrieres.

A hug may be a handshake from the heart, but neither form of platonic affection is allowed at Kilmer. Seventh-grader Hal Beaulieu found that out after getting busted for briefly hugging his girlfriend during lunch. Big no-no.

A review of the policy might be on the way, but here’s an idea: how about parents get to choose the school that works for their child? That way we could have schools without physical contact for the Puritanical or law-and-order types, and hug-fest schools for the “visualize world peace” folks.

Education tax credits are a great way to expand that choice for parents in Virginia. And they would also solve the overcrowding problem that Principal Hernandez mentions … I’m sure at least 250 students would happily transfer to a hugging-allowed school if they had a tax credit program to help them make that choice.

Good News for School Choice in AZ

The Arizona Superior Court handed the anti-school-choice crowd yet another in a long string of legal defeats by upholding the recently passed voucher program for foster children.  They still have cases pending, but if they couldn’t get the courts to overturn a voucher, they have no chance with the tax credit. 

I can’t say it any better than the Institute for Justice, the public-interest law firm that’s defending this and many other school choice programs:

Relying on U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona Supreme Court precedent, including 1999’s Kotterman v. Killian case upholding Arizona’s first tax credit scholarships program, Judge Hicks rejected opponents’ claims that the new scholarship programs violate the state Constitution’s Blaine Amendments and its education guarantee.

“This is the fifth lawsuit that school choice opponents have filed against educational aid programs designed to help Arizona schoolchildren most in need, and it is the fifth time that courts have sided with kids,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter.  “It is time for opponents of genuine education reform to get the message and stop these frivolous legal battles.  All our clients want is a good education that meets their children’s unique needs.”

I suppose we all should be happy that they’re continuing to waste so many resources fighting a lost cause in AZ.  Hopefully Big Ed remains clueless and doesn’t move on.

Teachers Win (a little) at the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled, in Davenport v. Washington Education Association (WEA), that states can require public school employee unions to obtain non-member teachers’ explicit consent before using their compulsory dues for political activities.

Hurray! Sort of.

This ruling is great as far as it goes, and Washington State’s Evergreen Freedom Foundation should be commended for all the hard (and smart) work it put in fighting this case on behalf of the state’s teachers.

This, however, is just a baby step in the right direction. It is still legal for unions to forcibly collect dues from non-members in states all across the country. This is a patent violation of the 13th Amendment’s injunction against involuntary servitude. To work in a public school, teachers MUST pay union dues in “agency shop” states, whether they want to or not. They must work for the financial benefit of others against their will. That is involuntary servitude.

The rationale for this practice is that anyone who benefits from the union’s actions should be compelled to pay for them. By the same argument, anyone who invests money and time landscaping their front yard, and thus raising their own and their neighbors’ property values, would be entitled to accost those neighbors, reach into their wallets, and pull out their “fair” share. Such a practice would be unthinkable, and yet the analogous practice of levying compulsory union dues is the law of the land in many states.

Which presidential candidates, I wonder, will be most likely to appoint justices who can see that simple fact?