Topic: Education and Child Policy

School Choice? But Everyone Would Leave!

Here’s a classic reaction to school choice from an article in today’s Hartford Courant:

“What troubles me about this voucher stuff,” said former Hartford Councilman Steven Harris, “if parents are given the option, they’re going to leap at that, but what does that do for the rest of the kids left behind?”

I have a solution for the former Councilman: Give all parents choice and there won’t be any kids left behind.

Why the States — Not Congress — Should Keep the President’s “Promise”

In his State of the Union address, the president will propose that “persistently underperforming” public schools, as defined by the No Child Left Behind act, be required offer their students ”promise scholarships” that could be used to transfer to private schools or to out-of-district public schools, or be applied to after-school tutoring.

Promoting educational choice is an excellent idea, but attempting to do it from the Oval Office is not. Even if the U.S. Constitution did not leave power over education in the hands of the states and the people (which in fact it does), a national school choice program would still be undesirable.

When states are left to create their own education policies, it is easy to see how their decisions affect students and communities. We can compare what happens in states that adopt a given policy to what happens in states that don’t. That’s how California’s disastrous side-lining of phonics instruction in the late 1980s was caught and reversed.

But when you create programs at the federal level, any unintended effects occur all across the country at the same time, eliminating the ability to make comparisons across states.

Countries that have adopted school choice programs at the national level (e.g., Chile, the Netherlands, Sweden, etc.) have either imposed extensive regulations on participating private schools right from the start, or have added them gradually over time. Some kinds of school choice policies are likely to generate less of this regulatory encroachment than others, so it would behoove the president to encourage states to develop their own policies rather than impose one from Washington.

When the president floated a similar proposal last year I responded in more detail, and that comment can be found here.

How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict

For many Americans, it is an article of faith that public schooling is the key the nation’s unity. However, in a new study, “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict,” Cato scholar Neal McCluskey demonstrates that far from uniting diverse peoples, public schooling forces them into constant conflict over schools for which they all must pay, but only the most politically powerful can control. “To end the fighting caused by state-run schooling, we should transform our system from one in which government establishes and controls schools, to one in which individual parents are empowered to select schools that share their moral values and educational goals for their children,” says McCluskey.

A Great Moment for the Nanny State or Legislative Satire?

A bill has been introduced in Texas that makes missing a parent-teacher conference a criminal offense.

Now, before everyone gets all upset, having a good excuse is an acceptable defense for parental misbehavior in being absent from the classroom.  And it’s only Class C Misdemeanor.  And the fines will be used strictly for educational purposes.  Of course, there is no provision outlining what exactly constitutes a reasonable excuse, or whether a parent needs to get a signed note from his/her respective parents/doctor/boss, etc.  But I’m sure all of these details will work themselves out in due time.

I applaud the civic-minded Wayne Smith (R- Harris County) for addressing the problems that a lack of parental involvement in education can cause, but it seems to me that this might run afoul of personal liberty and violate the integrity of the family.

In fact, this law seems to directly conflict with a quote Mr. Smith has prominently displayed on his website:

“Let’s continue the fight to lower our taxes, reduce government bureaucracy and waste, and return to traditional family values.”

Now, I might be wrong, but Mr. Smith’s proposal looks like it will cost more money, increase government bureaucracy and waste, and undermine the sovereignty of the family that is the center-piece of traditional family values!  His bill would make parents as well as children a ward of the state.  I guess Mr. Smith thinks it takes a government-mandated village to raise a child and discipline a family.

Hold on!  Perhaps Mr. Smith is presenting a “modest proposal” in order to demonstrate the absurdity of our government-run school system.  Surely Mr. Smith knows that the best way to get parents involved in their child’s education is to allow them to control their child’s education!  Everyone should be on the lookout for a universal education tax credit bill on sales and property taxes to follow this intriguing foray into the new art of legislative satire. 

But Tell Us What You Really Think of the NCLB, Matt

Matt Ladner, VP for research at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, has some harsh words for the No Child Left Behind Act:

The latest incarnation, in fact, represents yet another step in the long sad history of ineffectually throwing money at public schools. NCLB is headed for the ash-heap of failed education reforms. The only question at this point is how expensive of a failure it will become.

Is Charles Murray’s Ceiling Their Fate?

Writing in this week’s Wall Street Journal, IQ expert Charles Murray argues that “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited.”

In one sense, he is almost certainly correct. No matter how much we improve the quality of schooling, there will always be intellectual pursuits that are beyond the reach of not just half the population, but beyond the overwhelming majority of us. He gives the example that he himself cannot follow proofs in the American Journal of Mathematics — not because he knows too little, but because he is not smart enough. Charles, I’m with you. After perusing this paper on “The Equivalence Problem and Rigidity for Hypersurfaces Embedded into Hyperquadrics,” I am prepared to agree with the now-discontinued Teen-Talk Barbie: ”[Abstract] math is hard.”

But in another sense, I suggest that Charles is mistaken. It is likely that a significantly improved education system could raise the academic achievement of all students substantially above their current levels. There are numerous examples of this happening, both anecdotally and in the research literature.

On the anecdotal front, recall star calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, and how he put LA’s Garfield High School on the map in the 1980s by constructing a math department that was truly top notch. So many of Escalante’s low-income Hispanic students started taking and passing AP calculus courses (more, at one point, than at Beverly Hills High School) that the program’s overseers insisted on a re-test (his students did remarkably well once again).

Are we to believe that the only children whose grasp of mathematics was greatly improved by Escalante’s instruction were those with above-average IQs? That seems unlikely. It would be hard to argue that calculus is as prohibitively difficult, when well taught, as “hypersurfaces embedded into hyperquadrics.”

On the empirical research front, consider the wealth of international studies comparing student achievement in parent-driven, competitive market schools with the achievement of similar students in bureaucratically-run, non-competitive schools. Are these academic advantages, which are sometimes substantial, concentrated only among those with 100+ IQs? Again, there is no reason to think so.

The problem, as I see it, with Murray’s argument is simply that he is assuming the “ceiling” on academic achievement is lower that it is actually likely to be. This may be due to the fact that, at present, the education system through which 90 percent of American students pass is badly designed, and consistently fails to raise students up to their full potential.

It is also worth noting that Charles makes no mention in this particular piece about the benefits of an improved K-12 education system for brighter students. Surely they deserve the opportunity to fulfill their intellectual potentials just as much as children on the left side of the bell curve.

In short, a better school system could do a lot of kids an awful lot of good.

False Fordham Hopes

For a moment yesterday, I thought that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, arguably the nation’s foremost neo-con education think tank, had gotten the message that the federal government can’t create education policies that work for parents and children rather than politicians and bureaucrats. Sure, I hadn’t had much success when I tried to make this point to Fordham vice president Mike Petrilli for a solid week last April, but maybe something had changed.

Why’d I think that? Yesterday, Petrilli had a surprising op-ed on National Review Online denouncing the No Child Left Behind Act, which set off my fleeting hopes. Indeed, Petrilli suggested that getting the feds out of education completely might actually be a better option than sticking with NCLB:

Into the “Don’t Do it At All” bucket goes everything else. No more federal mandates on teacher quality. No more prescriptive “cascade of sanctions” for failing schools. No more federal guarantee of school choice for children not being well-served. The states would worry about how to define and achieve greater teacher quality (or, better, teacher effectiveness). The states would decide when and how to intervene in failing schools. The states would develop new capacity for school choice. These are all important, powerful reforms, but they have proven beyond Uncle Sam’s capacity to make happen.
 

Could it be that Petrilli had come to realize that federal policies are doomed because the bureaucrats and policymakers that Washington promises to hold “accountable” have all the lobbying power, while parents have little to none? Is it possible that he went even further than that, realizing that the key to innovation and progress in education is the same as the key to innovation and progress in all other endeavors: Letting individuals freely pursue their own interests – in the case of education, through universal school choice – rather than government pulling their strings through rules, regulations, and standards?

Alas, no. The very day I read Petrilli’s NRO piece, I attended a New America Foundation event on Senator Chris Dodd’s (D-CT) new proposal to create national science and math standards. There I saw the Thomas B. Fordham Institute listed right above the National Education Association on a roster of organizations endorsing Dodd’s idea, and Petrilli himself spoke in favor of the proposal.

But I really didn’t need to go to the panel discussion to see that my hopes were unfounded. Petrilli’s piece itself reveals that he and Fordham still haven’t gotten the message. For one thing, it fails to explain that the only way to make schools really accountable is to enable all parents to remove their kids – and their money – from schools that don’t work and put them into schools that do. Moreover, at the same time Petrilli acknowledges that NCLB has been a failure – just like all federal involvement before it – he states that among many “powerful” ideals underlying the law that he still supports is the notion “that improving education is a national imperative, and that the federal government can and should play a constructive role.”

What a disappointment.