Topic: Education and Child Policy

Have We Learned Nothing from “SchoolHouse Rock”?

“I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sittin’ here on Capitol Hill…”

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and cartoons were confined to Saturday morning broadcast programming, kids learned about the separation of powers (among other things) from the ”SchoolHouse Rock” toons.

Apparently some future New Jersey lawyers weren’t tuned in.

The recent lawsuit about which Cato’s Neal McCluskey has been writing asks the court to create a school voucher program in New Jersey as a remedy to the state’s deficient public school system. Right ends, wrong means. Courts are for legal interpretation; legislation is for legislatures.

There’s little doubt that New Jersey is failing to live up to its constitutional promise to provide a “thorough and efficient” education. Should the court so rule, it will be up to the legislature to fix the problem, and introducing a universally accessible free education marketplace is certainly the best solution they could implement.

But it’s their job to implement it, not the court’s.

The Answer Is: “Public School Establishment”

Yesterday, I wrote about a New Jersey lawsuit aimed at letting parents with children in failing public schools take their children, and their share of public education funding, and send them to any institution they want, public or private. It’s a new twist on educational equity suits all over the country that have produced a ton of new funding for supposedly poor districts, but little by way of academic success.

At the end of yesterday’s post, I wondered aloud whether long-time supporters of old-style equity remedies would get behind litigation intended to empower parents, or if they would only support suits that would shower more money on “the public school establishment.” I mentioned specifically the Education Law Center, which has been the driving force behind old-school equity cases in New Jersey for decades.

This morning, in a story about the disastrous Camden, NJ, public schools, I’m afraid I got my answer:

Camden schools – despite their ongoing problems – have taken positive steps by offering preschool programs, reducing class size and other efforts, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“It’s easy to criticize and have some silver-bullet solution that’s untested and unproven,” Sciarra said. “There’s a positive agenda that we need everyone, including the school-choice activists, to get behind.”

I suppose I could hope that when Sciarra attacked a “silver-bullet solution that’s untested and unproven” he was referring to pouring more and more money into improvement-invulnerable public schools, but that’s been tested repeatedly…and constantly found to be a failure. Unfortunately, I guess that means I have my answer.

Here’s an Idea: Sue for the Children in Failing Schools!

Tomorrow, a lawsuit that could revolutionize educational equity litigation as we know it is scheduled to be filed in Chancery Court in Newark, NJ. Instead of seeking the standard equity remedy—pushing so much new money into supposedly poor districts that a mile-long caravan of Wells Fargo trucks couldn’t carry it all—the plaintiffs in Crawford v. Davy want to give parents with kids in failing schools the right to use public funds to move their children to institutions that actually work, public or private.

Imagine that: Instead of rewarding educrats in failing district with tons of new cash, it would be the children—the people who are actually doing the suffering in the state’s broken schools—who will get the relief!

As this case unfolds, what will be particularly interesting to see is the reaction of the educational equity crowd, which so far has only clamored for ever bigger sums of money to be lavished on bad districts. Will their magnanimity now extend all the way to seeking “justice” for families, not just the public school establishment? We’re looking at you here, Education Law Center, for a sign.

Parental Pawns and Window Dressing

There’s no bigger sham in public schooling than “parental involvement,” a concept that educrats trot out whenever they want to show that they aren’t scared of parents or when they’re trying to curry parental favor. Otherwise,  they avoid it like the plague.

Ordinarily, parental involvement translates into sheer window dressing; feel-good activities that let parents do fun things with their children, but that in no way interfere with a school’s daily operations.

An article in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader discusses just such fluff, profiling a Kentucky program in which teams of parents and teachers run art projects in local schools. Apparently, the initiative has hit its public relations mark:

“It’s a wonderful way to get parents and teachers working together,” one parent gushed. “I think any time parents and teachers are working together, it can only benefit children.”

A less common, but more devilish, type of “parental involvement” is when politicians seeking ever-more authority over schools use parents as pawns to get it. The struggle for power over schools in Los Angeles between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) provides perfect examples of such politicized parental involvement.

Yesterday, for instance, Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, announced the creation of a “parents union” that will lobby to give Villaraigosa more power over the district. Of course, the union will only be composed of activists who support Villaraigosa, not parents in general. But, then again, Barr is only responding to the politicized use of parents by the opposition:

Barr said he became convinced of the need to organize parents after traveling to Sacramento last month to testify in favor of the Los Angeles Unified School District reform bill. He was baffled, he said, when he saw 50 parents who had been bused to the state capital by the LAUSD claiming to represent the views of all district parents.

In the end, the only way for all parents to have meaningful involvement in their children’s education is through school choice. Only when they can remove their kids from bad schools, and put them in good ones, will parents be able to force educators to respond to their needs. Of course, that’s one kind of parental involvement educrats will never support.

A Little Student Loan Perspective

For months, college students and their advocates have decried impending increases in federal student loan rates. This past Saturday, it happened: variable interest rates on existing taxpayer-subsidized Stafford loans rose from 5.3 percent to 7.14 percent, and new loans were pegged at a fixed rate of 6.8 percent. Doomsday had arrived!

Or had it? As a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics makes clear, it wasn’t very long ago that students faced significantly higher interest rates than those that went into effect Saturday, yet for the most part borrowers were able to repay their loans without great difficulty.

According to the report, most borrowers who graduated in the 1992-93 academic year paid interest rates of 8 percent in their first four years after graduation, and between 6 and 9 percent for the remaining years. Despite that, relatively few borrowers had long-term difficulty repaying their loans, and even many who at some point defaulted eventually got back on track.

What this shows, of course, is that taxpayer-backed loans aren’t nearly the burden on students that college activists have made them out to be. But don’t expect student advocates to admit that anytime soon. After all, if they didn’t act incessantly oppressed by having to pay for some of their own education, it would be a lot harder for them to get politicians to fork over ever-more taxpayer dollars.

Breaking News: Not All Children Are the Same

An article in this morning’s Los Angeles Times reports that delaying children’s entry into kindergarten “appears to help some, harm others or have no effect at all.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, what would have been surprising is if all children responded to delayed kindergarten in precisely the same way. After all, no two children are exactly alike, right?

Of course. Which is why American public education works so poorly: Even though all children are different, public school districts have no choice but to educate them as if they weren’t. By their very nature, uniform systems of education must do things uniformly.

Consider reading instruction: Just like their varied responses to delayed kindergarten entry, children respond in numerous ways to different reading curricula. School districts, however, can typically teach reading using only one technique, usually either whole language, phonics, or so-called “balanced” instruction. That means that if your child would benefit most from phonics-based instruction but is in a whole language district, he’s out of luck.

Or look at discipline. Some children need rigid rules and regulations, while others need freedom to thrive. School districts, however, can’t apply different disciplinary rules to different children, so a large number of children are going to get the short end of the stick (or carrot) no matter what.

The best way to ameliorate this problem is to eliminate it: Get rid of one-size-fits-all public schools, and create a system in which “the public” does nothing more than help needy parents afford the schools that best address their children’s needs. In other words, let the market go to work. Only then will all children finally get the made-to-order education they need to succeed.

Pulp Non-Fiction: The Seedy Side of Monopoly Schooling

The Detroit Free Press reported recently that the city’s schools have been ordered to repay nearly a million dollars in federal Title I funding because “there are no assurances that these [funds] did not benefit an employee personally.” The money went to flat screen TVs that are nowhere to be found, anger management classes that never occurred, and half a million dollars to, uh, pass out flyers. Did I mention that the $500,000 paper route went to an ex-con in a no-bid contract?

Critics of market-based education reform claim that it would open the door to corruption. As it happens, corruption has been living happily within the public schools for some time now, raiding the icebox and stealing kids’ lunch money – not to mention the money that is supposed to go toward their education. Cato’s Neal McCluskey published a run-down of this broken-down system last year.

Hat tip: Mackinac Center for Public Policy