Topic: Education and Child Policy

Congress Voting to Save School Choice in D.C.

Tomorrow, Congress is scheduled to vote on the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP was scheduled to expire later this year. Back in December, I expressed skepticism about a standalone reauthorization bill because the Obama administration has repeatedly worked to undermine or eliminate the school choice program, even though the OSP has the support of local Democratic politicians such as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the D.C. City Council. Fortunately for the low-income children attending the schools of their choice through the OSP, the president has signaled that he does not intend to veto the legislation:

“While the administration continues to strongly oppose the private school vouchers program within this legislation, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the administration will continue to use available SOAR Act funds to support students returning to the program until they complete school, so that their education is not disrupted,” the Office of Management and Budget said.

The White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat. But the administration made clear its distaste for the voucher program, which President Obama has tried to kill several times. The measure, a priority of former Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, provides money for some students in D.C. to attend private school.

Predictably, the White House claimed that studies of the D.C. OSP show it has “not yielded statistically significant improvements in student achievement by scholarship recipients compared to other students not receiving vouchers,” ignoring that the OSP achieves those similar results at a fraction of the cost (less than $9,000 per voucher on average versus about $30,000 per district school student), and that the same random-assignment study found that OSP students were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than the control group. 

Low-income students shouldn’t be condemned to low-quality schools just because their parents cannot afford a home in a wealthy neighborhood. As the Washington Post wrote in a recent editorial, “The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given.” The D.C. OSP was an important step toward breaking the link between home prices and school quality, so it’s encouraging to see that D.C. is not likely to take a step backward. Ideally, though, Congress would take the next step from school choice to educational choice by enacting a universal education savings account program.

Philly Pays $1.5 Million to “Ghost Teachers”

The Philadelphia school district is in a near-constant state of financial crisis. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state–particularly its governance structure–but it is compounded by fiscal mismanagement. One particularly egregious example is paying six-figure salaries to the tune of $1.5 million a year to “ghost teachers” that do not teach. Pennsylvania Watchdog explains:

As part of the contract with the School District of Philadelphia, the local teachers union is permitted to take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The practice, known as “release time” or “official time,” allows public school teachers to leave the classroom and continue to earn a public salary, benefits, pension and seniority.

These so-called ghost teachers perform a variety of jobs for the PFT, serving as either information officers for other teachers or carrying out the union’s political agenda.

“Teachers should be paid to teach,” attorney Kara Sweigart, who is arguing ghost teacher lawsuits for the Fairness Center, a free legal service for employees who feel they’ve been wronged by their unions, told Watchdog.

“At a time when school districts are hurting financially, districts should be devoting every tax dollar to support students,” she said, “not to pay the salaries of employees of a private political organization.”

According to public salary data available through Philadelphia city agencies, the school district is paying 16 ghost teachers $1.5 million this year. All of them are making at least $81,000.

Newest Test Scores are Bad News for Centralized Education, Common Core

This morning I read an op-ed by Douglas Holtz-Eakin tackling the chasm between what it takes to enroll in college and how ready for college students actually are. It is a yawning gap, and Holtz-Eakin rightly laments it. But then he pulls the ol’, “Common Core is a high standard,” and suggests that it will bridge the college prep divide. He even writes that the Core has been “shown” to be “effective.”  

Not only has there been no meaningful evidence of the Core’s effectiveness, but right after I read Holtz-Eakins’ piece I saw that the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores had come out – indeed, for the very 12th grade students on the verge of college – and they had dropped in both reading and math between 2013 and 2015, and some dropped going back to 2009. This was, of course, as Common Core was being implemented nationwide. And not only did aggregate scores drop, but also scores for numerous racial and ethnic groups.

Do these results prove that Common Core is either impotent, or worse, a negative force? Certainly not. For one thing, as presented we can’t even break the 12th grade scores out by state as we were able to do with the 4th and 8th grade scores released several months ago. And even that was only able to furnish slightly more nuanced evidence than looking at aggregate national scores. But all these scores do undermine any proclamations of proven Core effectiveness.

Of course, lots of things affect test scores – federal policies, state policies, local policies, economics, demographic changes, etc. – and we can’t ignore all those things and just declare whatever policy we happen to dislike the undisputed villain. But one thing is clear, no matter how you feel about Common Core or anything else: NAEP tests continue to produce awful results for the students who are about to finish K-12 education, whether it is stagnant 17-year-olds’ scores on Long-Term Trend NAEP exams, or these scores for 12th graders on the “Main NAEP.” And this, as I tackle in a new, big update to the Downsizing the Federal Government K-12 page, despite huge increases in spending over the decades, as well as heavily centralized control.

Do the latest NAEP results prove that the Common Core, or centralization more broadly, are bad for American education? No. But they sure don’t help the narrative that centralization, including the federally driven Core, has helped it.

New Hampshire Legislators Seek School Choice Solution

New Hampshire legislators are working to end a legal battle between a small town and state education bureaucrats over the town’s school choice program.

The town of Croydon (2010 population: 764) has fewer than 100 elementary-and-secondary-school-aged students. Unsurprisingly, the town found it was not cost effective to run its own K-12 school system. Instead, the town runs a very small K-4 district school and had a longstanding, exclusive agreement with a neighboring district to educate 5th through 12th graders. However, when their contract was nearing expiration, town leaders decided to allow students to take the funds assigned to them to a school of choice.

Sadly, the New Hampshire Department of Education wasn’t about to let a town empower parents to escape the district school system so easily. After a series of meetings and threats to withhold state funds, the department ordered Croydon to end their school choice program, which it claimed violated state law. However, former NH Supreme Court Justice Charles G. Douglas, III, the attorney for Croydon, that the department was misreading state law:

The letter from Douglas and [then-Croydon School Board Chairman Jody] Underwood argues against the state laws [NH Commissioner of Education Virginia] Barry used to support her order to stop school choice in Croydon:

“You cite RSA 193:1 and purport that it says that districts may only assign students to public schools. This is inaccurate. RSA 193:1 defines the duties of parents to ensure school attendance, and neither describes the duties districts have nor restricts the assignment ability of districts. In addition to your inaccurate interpretation, you cite to the portion of that statute that states: ‘A parent of any child at least 6 years of age … shall cause such a child to attend the public school to which the child is assigned.’ You fail to cite section (a) of the statute which clearly states that private school attendance is an exception to attending public school.”

The dispute is now being litigated.

Recently, some NH legislators sought to clarify any ambiguities in the law by explicitly authorizing local authorities to allow local education funding follow children to private schools of choice. As the New Hampshire Union Leader editorialized, this is a step in the right direction. However, the legislation does contain one serious flaw: it limits parental choices to non-religious schools, thereby discriminating against schools based solely on their religious affiliation.

On Vergara: Stop Making Parents and Children Wards of the State

I am not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not an expert on California law, but yesterday’s state appeals court ruling in the much-discussed Vergara v. California teacher tenure case seems plausible. While Golden State statutes make it very hard to remove bad teachers, and may lead to the worst teachers being disproportionately assigned to schools serving low-income kids, district administrators could curb that if they really, really wanted to. It would just require very expensive, convoluted dismissal procedures be followed for each unsatisfactory educator. So technically, the law may not violate California’s constitution. But to defend it, in reality, is to defend a system heavily slanted against low-income students.

Vergara has spawned similar cases in other states, and I would guess there is a good chance similar rulings will come down the pike in those places. But there is probably also a good chance of tenure laws being overturned. It doesn’t strike me that, from a legal perspective, either side has a clearly superior case. But again, I am not a lawyer.

What this once again screams is that public policy needs to move away from an education system in which parents are dependent on politicians or courts to protect their children. They need money to be attached to kids and to have the ability to take their children out of schools they do not like and put them into other institutions. And there should be no blanket state seniority or teacher evaluation rules. Educators should be free to get together and set up schools with whatever policies they want, and whether or not those schools survive or those policies are maintained should depend on their ability to attract enough paying customers with the services they produce.

We need to stop making parents and children wards of the state, and instead give them real power.

How School Districts Resist Reform: Newark Edition

Today, the Library of Law and Liberty is carrying my review of Dale Russakoff’s book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, which explored the impact of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark’s district school system. Years later, it had little to show for it. At times The Prize reads like a comedy of errors, but given what was at stake, it was really a tragedy. But it didn’t have to be.

Zuckerberg’s gift was matched by other philanthropists and foundations, but even $200 million wasn’t enough to bring the “transformational” changes that reformers desired. The bureaucracy was just too good at impeding reform and sucking up resources:

The new labor agreement was also pricier than initially anticipated: it consumed nearly half of the $200 million of the philanthropic package. The teachers’ contract itself cost $50 million, including $31 million in back pay to cover the raises that teachers hadn’t received over the previous two years.

The union boss, Joe Del Grosso, made the back pay a condition for even holding the negotiations. “We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money,” Del Grosso later explained, “Otherwise, it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.” The contract also included merit bonuses and financial incentives for teachers to switch to a universal pay scale.

On top of that, [Newark Superintendent Cami] Anderson asked for $20 million in “buyout” funds to incentivize low-performing teachers, principals, and support staff to leave; $8.5 million in tuition support for teachers to earn graduate degrees relevant to their subject area; and $15 million for a new contract with the principals’ union (which didn’t actually happen during Anderson’s term because the principals refused to negotiate).

The high cost of the agreement meant eliminating plans to invest in community organizing, early-childhood programs, and vocational programs for Newark’s thousands of recent dropouts, which had been one of [Newark Mayor Cory] Booker’s priorities.

Then, too, the teachers’ contract contained fine print that raised its cost even higher. Teachers received 15 paid sick days and three paid personal days (in a less than year-round job, that is, a school year of 180 days), meaning that the district had to pay for both regular and substitute teachers for up to one out of every 10 school days—a particularly large expense given that at least 560 teachers earned more than $92,000 a year. The seniority pay bumps also remained in place, so the district couldn’t afford the performance incentives that they had wanted to give promising young teachers to persuade them to stay.

The great expense was deemed necessary to get greater flexibility and accountability, but it was never clear how permanent those features would be. Asked if the union would continue the accountability reforms after the contract expired in three years, Del Grosso replied: “Let’s pray there’s another Zuckerberg.”

Four years after Zuckerberg’s announcement on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the reforms had not lived up to expectations. The 2014 state test results showed that proficiency in both math and English had declined in every tested grade since 2011. Moreover, the ACT college admission test, which all high school juniors had taken, revealed that only 2 to 5 percent of non-magnet school students in the district were ready for college. Anderson resigned the following year. By then, Booker had already moved on to the U.S. Senate, and his successor, Democratic Mayor Ras Baraka, was elected largely because of his opposition to the Booker/Anderson reforms. Soon after, [New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie turned his attention to his (ultimately failed) presidential bid.

If anything, Newark’s education reform debacle is further evidence of the wisdom of Professor Jay P. Greene’s advice: Build New, Don’t Reform Old

Big East…I Mean, Villanova…Wins!

As a fan of the Georgetown University Hoyas, I’ve been pretty pessimistic about the state of college hoops over the last few years. In pursuit of the potentially huge bucks associated with college football, conferences have been realigning and schools without football have been left behind. And while some private universities have come out ahead in these gridiron games, private schools generally can’t compete with public institutions in football. They don’t have the state-subsidized scale needed to gather huge student bodies, nor do they “represent” their states, both of which help fill football stadiums and bring eyeballs to television sets. So I have feared doom for private schools left out of the “Power Five” conferences, especially those in the “new” Big East.

Then Villanova won the NCAA championship. And I had to ask: Has my trepidation and depression been misplaced?

Maybe it has. While the revenue potential of college hoops is significantly smaller than it is for football, the costs are also much lower. There are far fewer players and coaches, the equipment is less costly, and you don’t need nearly as big a band. That means you don’t need as much TV money, or as many posteriors in seats, as you do for football. And if you don’t have football, as some Big East players recently pointed out, hoops is the school’s flagship sport, and the basketball players are the biggest campus stars. That may be a recruiting edge.

Or maybe Villanova’s championship is just long odds that played out, as opposed to a sign the odds are not that bad. Indeed, the Big East overall has struggled a bit in the Tourney since the conference’s reinvention three years ago. It was also lucky that it formed at the same time Fox Sports was putting together a new sports channel – FS1 – and needed programming to fill the hours. Fox offered the Big East a princely (for basketball) sum of about $4.2 million per school per year over a 12 year period. But so far the ratings have been pretty paltry: the first two conference championships had only about 702,000 and 414,000 viewers, respectively, and even though this year’s was on the full Fox network, it only attracted 1.4 million viewers. In contrast, this year’s Big Ten championship game drew 3.2 million eyeballs.