Topic: Education and Child Policy

Geography Teacher Rapped in Flag Kerfuffle

From today’s Best of the Web:

“A Jefferson County [Colo.] geography teacher was placed on paid administrative leave on the second day of school for hanging several flags from other countries in his classroom,” Denver’s KMGH-TV reports.

The school district placed Eric Hamlin, a teacher at Carmody Middle School, “on administrative leave for insubordination, citing a Colorado law that makes it illegal to display foreign flags permanently in schools… . The school’s principal escorted Hamlin out of class Wednesday morning after he refused to remove the flags of China and Mexico.”

A district spokesman tells the station: “Under state law, foreign flags can only be in the classroom because it’s tied to the curriculum.” And what subject does Hamlin teach?

Uh, world geography.

Hat tip to James Taronto – who, interestingly enough, shares the name of the Canadian capital.

[Editor’s note: Though he spells “humor” without a second “u,” Andrew Coulson was born and raised in Canada. He is aware that the nation’s capital is Ottawa, and that its Prime Minister is not Tim Hortons.]

Higher Education Policy: Dysfunction in Microcosm

In “Budgeting in Neverland,” James L. Payne explains that one of the major reasons federal policy is so irrational – and expensive – is that policymakers typically hear only from people who stand to gain from expanding federal expenditures and programs, while those who bear the costs – taxpayers – are almost never heard from.

Federal higher education policy illustrates this perfectly. Case in point: a Department of Education notice issued just last Friday to establish “negotiated rulemaking,” part of the process for revising federal regulations. Take a look at the groups the feds will permit to have representatives on various rulemaking committees, and you’ll see Payne’s problem in action:

The Department has identified the constituencies listed below as having interests that are significantly affected by the subject matter of the negotiated rulemaking process. The Department anticipates that individuals representing each of these constituencies will participate as members of one or more of the negotiated rulemaking committees. These constituencies are:

Students; Legal assistance organizations that represent students; Financial aid administrators at institutions of higher education; Business officers and bursars at institutions of higher education; Institutional servicers (including collection agencies); Trustees; State higher education executive officers; Business and industry;

Institutions of higher education eligible to receive Federal assistance under Title III, Parts A and B and Title V of the HEA, which includes Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, American Indian Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, and other institutions with a substantial enrollment of needy students as defined in Title III of the HEA; Two-year public institutions of higher education; Four-year public institutions of higher education; Private, non-profit institutions of higher education; Private, for profit institutions of higher education; Guaranty agencies and guaranty agency servicers (including collection agencies); Lenders, secondary markets, and loan servicers; and Accrediting Agencies.

In addition to these groups, the Department would like the following groups to be represented on the negotiating committee for the ACG and National SMART Grant program:

K-12 public schools, including charter schools; Governors; Private schools and home schooled students; Registrars; Admissions officers; Parent organizations; and Organizations related to National SMART Grant majors.

The feds recognize numerous groups as having “interests that are significantly affected by the subject matter of the negotiated rulemaking process,” but the people who actually pay the federal bills are nowhere among them. It’s just another example of your – I mean, their – government at work.

A Poll-ish Joke About School Vouchers

In its 38th annual poll of the public’s attitudes toward education released yesterday, Phi Delta Kappan magazine makes the following statements:

  • “Since 1991, the PDK/Gallup polls have approached [the school choice] issue with a question that measures approval of the voucher concept – ‘allowing parents and students to choose a private school to attend at public expense.’”
  • “Support for vouchers started at 24% in 1993…”
  • “Support for vouchers is declining and stands in the mid-30% range.”

This representation of their own survey results on the subject is incomplete, disingenuous, misleading, and, in one instance, factually incorrect.

PDK actually started asking the American public about vouchers back in 1970, with a rather more informative question:

In some nations, the government allots a certain amount of money for each child for his or her education. The parents can then send the child to any public, parochial, or private school they choose. This is called the “voucher system.” Would you like to see such an idea adopted in this country?

Response to this question was initially somewhat unfavorable, but those answering favorably began outnumbering those opposed in 1981, and that pattern was never reversed. The last time PDK ever asked this question, in 1991, 50 percent of respondents were in favor while only 39 percent were opposed.

I guess PDK’s editors just didn’t happen to have those back issues of their magazine handy when writing up this year’s report – which is somewhat odd given that they are now all available on-line

That’s the misleading and disingenuous part. The factually incorrect part is that they confuse the starting year of their own newly revised question (see the bullet points above), suggesting that it was introduced in both 1991 and 1993. In reality, it was first administered in 1993. As noted above, they were still asking their original voucher question – the one whose existence they now fail to acknowledge – through 1991.

I like to think – in the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Telltale Heart” – that their guilty conscience over sweeping their earlier voucher question and its positive results under the rug caused them to slip up on their chronology for the new question.

Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering, if you change just a handful of words in PDK’s current voucher question, the results are almost exactly reversed. The public’s response goes from being 60 percent opposed (PDK/Gallup 2006) to 60 percent in favor (Harris, 2005). A hearty thanks to the Friedman Foundation for pointing that out.

As a final historical note on the original voucher question wording, it was asked one last time, to my knowledge, in 1992, though not for Phi Delta Kappan. The response in that year was that 70 percent of Americans favored school vouchers when informed that they already exist in other countries.

How surprised should we be that an advocacy organization for the public school monopoly is reluctant to tell Americans about the competition and parental choice that exist in other nations?

Happy Birthday, Welfare Reform

Ten years ago today, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. As we look back on the results of those 10 years, it’s worth reflecting on just how wrong the critics were.

At the time the bill was signed, the welfare rights lobby warned that “wages will go down, families will fracture, millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.” One frequently cited study predicted that more than a million children would be thrown into poverty. 

Rep. Jim McDermott wasn’t satisfied with that prediction — he raised the estimate to 2.5 million starving children. Welfare advocates painted vivid pictures of families sleeping on grates in our cities, widespread starvation, and worse.

The New York Times claimed “the effect on our cities will be devastating.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg  (D-NJ) predicted “Hungry and homeless children” would be walking our streets “begging for money, begging for food, even…engaging in prostitution.”  The Nation warned bluntly, “people will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar.”

If one listened to the welfare lobbies, you would have expected to be stepping over bodies in the streets every time you left your house.

Now, with 10 years of experience, we can see that those claims were about as correct as claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Welfare rolls are down. Roughly 2.5 million families have left the program, a 57 percent decline. Undoubtedly, some of this was due to a growing economy, especially in the late 1990s, but welfare rolls remain down despite the post-9/11 economic slowdown.

At the same time, poverty rates today are below the rates before welfare reform was enacted. Child poverty rates declined from more than 20 percent in 1996 to 17.8 percent today. Roughly 1.6 million children were lifted out of poverty. Perhaps even more impressively, the poverty rate among black children has fallen at the fastest rate since figures have been recorded. 

Dependent single mothers, the group most heavily affected by welfare reform, account heavily for this decline. Since the enactment of welfare reform, the poverty rate for female-headed families with children has fallen from 46 to 28.4 percent. The decline in poverty among female-headed households has been greater than for any other demographic group.

Most of those who left welfare found work, and the vast majority of them work full-time.  It is true that most first jobs found by those leaving welfare are entry-level positions — on average, they earn about $16,000 per year. That’s not much, but for many it leaves them better off than they were before. Moreover, studies show that as these former welfare recipients increase their work experience, their earnings and benefits increase. And, for better or worse, many continue to receive other forms of government assistance.

Surveys of former welfare recipients indicate that they believe their quality of life has improved since leaving welfare. And they are optimistic about the future. A majority of former welfare recipients believe that their lives will be even better in one to five years. Many of the former recipients actually praise welfare reform as a stimulus for their beginning to look for work and as an opportunity for a fresh start, and a chance to make things better for themselves and their children. Both the women and their children appear to benefit psychologically from the dignity of working.

Certainly, I’ve had my own criticisms of welfare reform. It didn’t go far enough toward making people truly independent of government. It is too prescriptive, setting too many detailed rules for states to follow. The recent reauthorization of the reform added a worthless $1.7 billion program to encourage marriage. And, Congress has failed to build on welfare reform to restructure other federal anti-poverty programs.

Still, by almost any measure you can think of, it is clear that the critics of welfare reform were quite simply wrong.

That’s worth keeping in mind when those same Chicken Littles raise similar scare stories about the proposed reform of other government programs, from Medicare and Medicaid to Social Security. Once again, we are hearing that any changes, reductions, or “privatization” of these programs will lead to widespread poverty, suffering, and other disasters. For example, they claim that allowing younger workers to privately invest a portion of their Social Security taxes through personal accounts will leave seniors eating cat food. But given their track record, maybe we should be a little bit skeptical the next time they predict the sky is falling.

Striking While the Irony Is Hot

The New Jersey Courier-Post has come out in favor of parental choice in education, and was criticized for doing so on its own op-ed page today. The critic, one John R. Flynn, argues that the Courier-Post failed to provide enough support for its position. Ironically, he provides no support for his own opposition to school choice. Naturally, I felt it my civic duty to point that out in a letter to the editor:

School Choice Critic Uninformed

In his August 21st commentary, John Flynn criticized the Courier-Post for providing, in his view, insufficient evidence for its support of school vouchers. How ironic.

Mr. Flynn voices “serious questions” about the feasibility of public and private school choice programs, but seems not to have seriously looked for the answers. He is apparently unaware that such programs are well established and successfully operating in a host of countries. The Netherlands has had school choice since 1917. Nearly three quarters of its students are now enrolled in private schools and the Dutch outperform American children in every subject at every grade. School choice programs also exist, in various forms, in Chile, Australia, Sweden, and Denmark, among other nations.

If critics spent less time wringing their hands and more time informing themselves about the international success of school choice, they would do a great service to American families.

Educational Toleration

NPR reports on a new Florida law that requires the teaching of American history in the schools and sets up some rules for how it should be taught. At the beginning of the report I was amused by the description of the impetus for the law:

Mike Fasano was a state Senator from New Port Richey, Florida, just north of Tampa. After visiting some schools he learned that students often didn’t know the name of their town’s mayor, the name of the state’s lieutenant governor, or even the difference between the Florida legislature and the U.S. Congress.

The name of the lieutenant governor? Let’s see … kids who can’t vote can’t name a public official who has no power. And that’s a problem? But OK, they should know the difference between the legislature and the Congress. And so:

To help remedy that, Fasano proposed a bill recently signed into law that requires Florida schools to teach the history of the United States from the period of discovery to the present. Nothing controversial about that. The clause that alarmed historians was the one that seemed to suggest that any discussions of controversial events that were open to different interpretations would be off-limits.

Indeed, the bill does say:

American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

And that has stirred controversy. Teachers and educrats and a Washington lobbyist for historians (!) all complain that history is not just “facts,” that interpretation is essential for understanding what happened. And of course they’re right. The first problem is that millions of things happened every day in 400 years of American history (note that “400 years” assumes that American history began with the arrival of European settlers). You can’t tell kids every one of those things, so already you’re picking and choosing among facts, based on some theory or assumption about what’s important.

And then of course history is full of controversies: Did the British treat the colonists unfairly? Did the colonists treat the Indians unfairly? Were the costs of the American Revolution worth it? Were the Founders hypocrites to proclaim their devotion to liberty while holding slaves? And so on and so on, right up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, the debacle of Vietnam, and the contemporary questions of whether either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush was the worst president in American history.

But the mere listing of a few historical controversies illustrates the difficulty of deciding on a “right” answer. Whose interpretation should be taught to all students in government schools? Should we tell students that Jefferson was a hero or a hypocrite? That the 600,000 deaths in the Civil War were or were not worth it? That the bombing of Hiroshima was a war crime or a necessary measure to save even more lives? That FDR saved capitalism or transformed a federal republic into a centralized welfare state?

There are no right answers to these questions. (Well, there are, but apparently not everyone sees them.) So the teaching of history becomes a political struggle: Which faction will get to impose its view on millions of children?

The way to avoid political fights like these is to depoliticize them. Take away the power for anyone to impose his or her views on all the children. People used to expect the state to impose one religion on the whole society. When, nevertheless, people came to hold differing religious beliefs, Europe went through the Wars of Religion. And out of those conflicts came a new understanding: religious toleration and the separation of church and state. Let everyone worship as he chooses, and let no one impose religion on those with different beliefs.

The separation of school and state would accomplish the same thing in education: No more political fights over school prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, gay teachers, evolution, dress codes, sex education, or historical interpretation. Let every family choose schools that reflect their own values or otherwise best meet their educational needs. And if we can’t achieve separation, we could at least adopt toleration: Let all parents send their children to schools they choose, without financial penalty.