Topic: Education and Child Policy

Why Don’t Public Schools Give Parents What They Want?

The Washington Post reports today that it’s “harder to describe” the mission of one of the magnet schools in Arlington County, Virginia: Arlington Traditional School. Not that hard, if you just read the quotes from the principal and parents:

“Our emphasis is on basic education,” Principal Holly Hawthorne said….

“The word ‘traditional’ implies a cachet to us,” said Craig Montesano, a lobbyist for the shipping industry who visited Arlington Traditional with his wife. To him, the word conjures ancient Rome and Greece and the promise that his daughter will be “grounded in the learning that has come down through the ages in Western civilization.”

Some parents say the selective nature and more disciplined culture remind them of private school. 

And it seems to work:

The federal government has twice named Arlington Traditional a National Blue Ribbon School for its academic performance. And its students routinely outscore district averages on the Standards of Learning tests.

And parents like it:

Last spring, 298 families applied for 72 slots.

So why doesn’t the Arlington County School Board expand it, or build more such schools around the county to accommodate all the parents who want their children to get this exotic thing called “traditional” or “back to basics” education? Maybe they just didn’t realize until today – or last spring – how popular it is? Well, as it happens, I live in Arlington, and I recall that the Washington Post has been reporting on the popularity of Arlington Traditional School since the late 1970s. Parents used to camp out overnight to get their children into the school until they created a lottery system. Through the Nexis service, I found some of the stories I recalled. Most of these articles are not online. 

Here’s what the Post reported in September 1982 when the school, then called Page Traditional School, was three years old: 

For Arlington school board member Margaret A. Bocek and her husband, the first day of school this year began late Monday night when they and 40 other parents camped out on the lawn of the county’s Page Traditional School to ensure that their 3-year-old children could attend there on opening day, 1984…. 

In the last three years, such parent stakeouts have become commonplace at Page, a public alternative school that stresses a traditional format of self-contained classrooms, regular homework and strict standards for behavior and appearance. Page parents have been lobbying recently for expanding the program to the eighth grade and for expansion of the school’s program to other schools.

And here’s a report from September 1985:

This year, the line began to form at 10 a.m. on Labor Day, 23 hours before Page Traditional School in Arlington would begin accepting applications for the kindergarten class of 1987.

By the time Principal Frank Miller arrived at 9 a.m. the next day, about 80 parents were waiting on the lawn – more than triple the 25 slots that would be available in the school’s one kindergarten class.

Seven years after its much-heralded establishment as a back-to-basics, structured alternative to the open-classroom schools popular in the mid-1970s, Page is a cause of both enthusiasm and consternation in Arlington.

Each September, eager parents camp out on the lawn at 1501 N. Lincoln St. to put the names of their 3-year-olds on the kindergarten waiting list.

December 1991:

In an effort to stop overnight campouts by parents eager to register their children at Arlington’s three popular alternative schools, county school officials have proposed dropping the first-come, first-served admissions policy in favor of a random drawing.

An October 1999 headline:

School’s Excellence Is in Demand

Now you’ll notice that the 1991 story mentions three “popular alternative schools,” and indeed the other two, Drew Elementary and H-B Woodlawn Secondary, offer a very different alternative, a more informal, individualized style of education reflecting the “alternative” ideas of the 1960s and 1970s. The Post referred in 2004 to Woodlawn’s “quirky, counterculture ways.” In November 1991 the Post reported that “Last weekend, dozens of parents camped in front of H-B Woodlawn to register their children for the 70 sixth-grade slots.”

In 2012 the Arlington school board did vote to expand Arlington Traditional School by 12 classrooms. But why did it take so long? And why not open more “back to basics” schools, and also more “counterculture” schools, if that’s what parents want?

I wrote about that years ago in a book I edited, Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City.   

In the marketplace, competition keeps businesses on their toes.  They get constant feedback from satisfied and dissatisfied customers. Firms that serve customers well prosper and expand. Firms that don’t respond to the message they get from customers go out of business. Like all government institutions, the public schools lack that feedback and those incentives.

No principal or teacher will get a raise for attracting more students to his or her school. A successful manager in a private business gets a raise, or gets hired away for a bigger salary. A successful entrepreneur expands his or her store or opens a branch. Can one imagine a public school choice system allowing a successful principal to open another school across town and run both of them? 

If Virginia were even a little bit tolerant of charter schools, or if Virginia allowed real private school choice, parent groups or entrepreneurs could organize to deliver the kinds of schools – from traditional to counterculture – that families want. But in a bureaucratic monopoly, the local paper can run thirty years of stories about parents desperate to get their children into particular types of schools, and the central planners can ignore them. 

The Silver Lining in the Florida School Choice Expansion Loss

Supporters of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship (FTS) program are understandably disappointed that the state senate abandoned legislation to expand the program on Thursday. The FTS assists low-income families that want to enroll their children in private schools by offering tax credits to donors of nonprofit scholarship organizations. This year, the state’s only active scholarship organization, Step Up For Students, was able to aid more than 60,000 students but there were not enough funds to aid the more than 30,000 additional applicants. The proposed expansion would have provided enough funds to aid about 6,000 more students. The bill’s withdrawal therefore leaves 6,000 students without the funds they need to attend the school of their choice.

However, the disappointment should be tempered by a large measure of relief. While the legislation contained several praiseworthy changes and eliminated some red tape (including a requirement that would-be scholarship recipients spend a year in a government-run school first), legislative negotiations threatened to add a poison pill that would have severely affected school autonomy and parental choice.

The FTS currently mandates that all participating schools administer a nationally norm-referenced test. Nevertheless, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz insisted that the FTC expansion bill include a provision requiring that scholarship students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), which is soon to be replaced by a Common Core-aligned assessment.

While the existing mandate is unnecessary because private schools are already directly accountable to parents, it still allows schools and parents some measure of flexibility in deciding how best to measure performance. By contrast, the proposed state testing mandate would have forced all schools into a uniform testing regime. Since tests dictate what is taught, when, and how, this mandate would have induced conformity at the expense of diversity and innovation. As explained in the open letter on choice and accountability that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others, such mandates undermine the central purpose of educational choice:

Educational choice has also been repeatedly shown to produce far higher levels of parental satisfaction than does centrally planned schooling. That’s because choice empowers parents to find the best education for their children, and test scores are not their only consideration. Research shows that many parents care more about safety and discipline, graduation and college acceptance rates, and moral values.

Dictating uniform standards and tests threatens those other valued features by redirecting educators’ focus from serving families to catering to bureaucrats. It also contributes to a culture of “teaching to the test” that has already resulted in several large-scale public-school cheating scandals.

Children are not interchangeable widgets that can be beneficially fed through their education on the same conveyor belt. Even within a single family, children often learn different subjects at different speeds. Myriad new options are arising in response to that reality that allow students to learn at their own pace in every subject, helping all to fulfill their individual potential — the very antithesis of uniform government mandates.

Fortunately, the FTS already contains an “escalator” provision that allows it to grow over time, albeit not as quickly as it would have under the expansion bill. Hopefully, Florida legislators will take a second look at some of the important reforms that would have expanded access to the program. Meanwhile, other states that are considering scholarship tax credit legislation should learn from Florida’s experience. Design matters.

Conspiring to Be Civil

A few days ago, a reporter asked me to comment on a conference video in which I appeared. The event was four or five years ago, but the Florida teachers’ union must have just discovered the video and apparently was circulating it to the media. Couched as a smoking gun, it was purported to reveal school choice advocates’ “true intentions.” But the media, apart from some left-leaning Florida bloggers, seem to have concluded it was wasn’t newsworthy (not enough hand-wringing or maniacal laughter, I suppose).

That’s really too bad, because upon rewatching the clips that the union selected, I’m really pleased to have attention drawn to them. Several deal with the strongest argument that can be leveled at government-funded school choice: that, like state-run schools, it can force taxpayers to pay for the promotion of ideas that violate their convictions, leading to social conflict.

Here’s my take on how to address that problem:

WaPo Blogger Wrong About School Choice… Again

Once again, the Washington Post’s education blogger, Valerie Strauss, failed to do her due diligence before posting a hit piece on school choice. A year ago, she falsely claimed that scholarship tax credit programs benefit corporate donors and wealthy recipients. In fact, donors break even at most and the best evidence suggests that low-income families are the primary beneficiaries even in the few programs that are not means-tested. Unfortunately, Strauss has still failed to issue a correction.

Now Strauss has posted an op-ed from an anti-school choice activist in Florida that contains numerous additional errors, which the good folks at RedefinED.org have thoroughly debunked, including the following canard:  

Any way you look at it, private entities receive public tax dollars with no accountability.”

One can certainly debate whether there is sufficient accountability, but there is certainly more than none. All scholarship students take state-approved nationally norm referenced tests such as the Stanford 10 or Terra Nova. The gain scores are reported publicly, both at the state level and for every school with 30 or more tested scholarship students. Additionally, schools with $250,000 or more in scholarship funds must submit independent financial reports to the state.

Not only did the op-ed’s author fail to correctly explain the law, she failed to understand that school choice is accountability. As explained in an open letter that the Cato Institute recently issued along with the Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and others: “True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs.” 

Moreover, the claim that “private entities receive public tax dollars” is also false. The money flows from private donors to private nonprofits to private citizens to spend on their children’s tuition at private schools. That the donors receive a tax credit does not transmogrify their donation into “public” money. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this view erroneously “assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.” Likewise, neither tax deductions for donations to a church nor the church’s own property tax exemption mean that churches are therefore funded by “public tax dollars.”

The Washington Post has an in-house fact-checking team. They should not have to rely on RedefinED.org or others to ensure the veracity of what their bloggers post. 

How Has Your State’s Academic Performance and K-12 Spending Changed over the Past 40 Years? Find out Here.

Last summer, I stumbled across a clever 1993 paper by education statisticians Mark Dynarski and Philip Gleason that proved it was possible to adjust average state SAT scores for variations in the test participation rate and demographic factors, making them comparable to one another. Barely able to contain my excitement (hey, don’t judge), I set about extending their method so that it could discern trends in state SAT scores over time, and improving the validity of its estimates by using more data, fewer assumptions, and more exhaustive methods. Last week, I released the technical paper presenting those extensions. Yesterday, I released a paper that uses them to chart academic achievement and spending trends, for every state, back to 1972. How did your state do? Find out here.

To pique your interest, here’s the chart for Masschusetts:

Massachusetts education and spending trends

What the Useful Polling Shows about Common Core

Whether the Common Core is good policy, or was federally driven, is not dictated by polling results. But the Core’s political fate is tied to public opinion, which is probably why pro-Core pollsters are spinning like mad, and supporters like Bill Gates are undertaking a new PR blitz.

Achieve, Inc., a creator of the Core along with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, has released Common Core survey results for several years running. What these polls have primarily been notable for finding is (1) very few people know much about the Common Core, and (2) if you feed respondents a glowing description of the Core they – surprise! – like it. At the end of last week, Achieve released their latest such survey.

What did they find? According to the main point of their summary, “solid majorities of voters support common standards, common assessments, and allowing teacher (sic) and students time to adjust to these new expectations.” But the really important finding was this: Of the people who reported knowing about the Common Core – those not relying on the loaded description of the Core as all wonderfully state-led and egalitarian – 40 percent reported having unfavorable opinions of the Core, versus 37 percent favorable.

Alas, Achieve blamed this, essentially, on people being misinformed by vocal Core opponents:

It is likely this mixed number is attributable to CCSS opponents who in the past year have made their opposition known through all media outlets, leaving a more negative “impression” among voters.

Opposition couldn’t be based on evidence and logic. No! Common Core is too pure and beloved. It must be coming form a lot of light-thinking, highly impressionable people. In contrast, respondents reporting that they agree with a loaded, glowing description they were just read? That’s real support!

Distaste for the Core among people who report being knowledgeable about it is mirrored in recent polling in New York, the state, along with Kentucky, that is furthest along implementing the Core. After massive “proficiency” decreases under its first round of Core testing, New York is also the state that is most convulsed. A February Siena College poll found Empire Staters very closely split on the Core.

That support cracks after people learn about the Core is almost certainly why defenders like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bill Gates are undertaking a massive PR campaign to push the Core. Unfortunately, based on an ABC News interview with Gates this weekend, and longstanding pro-Core practice, the main messages are likely going to be that the Feds have nothing meaningful to do with the Core; high standards will revolutionize education; and anyone who tells you otherwise is willfully misleading you.

But here’s the thing: Core supporters can spin and spread gloss wherever they want, the more the public experiences the Core, the less they seem to like it. And then, of course, there is all the evidence and logic showing what a policy failure the Core is likely to be. You know, showing that the Feds have driven and must drive the Core; high standards – if the Core even is thatwill not fix education; and many Core opponents know exactly what they’re talking about.

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.