Topic: General

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.

Gray Power and State Tax Competition

At my neigborhood Fourth of July block party yesterday (in Fairfax County, Virginia), a 40-year resident gave a going-away speech to the crowd. She and her husband were sick and tired of the high state and local taxes in Fairfax and had looked into alternate warm states that had more pocketbook-friendly tax regimes. They settled on a small town in North Carolina. Interestingly, she appeared to be a hard-core Democrat.

Expect to hear lots more about comparative state tax rates as tens of millions of baby boomers begin retiring in coming years. 

Negative Ads Inform Voters

Last week the New York Times roiled the upcoming U.S. Senate election in New Jersey by reporting that Repubican Thomas Kean Jr. planned to produce a film claiming that his opponent, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), was implicated in a corruption investigation twenty years ago.

Critics sometimes deplore such “negative advertising” and call for restrictions on such speech or the money that funds it. Under such a scenario, the government would gain the power to approve the content and tone of electoral advertising.

The Supreme Court, however, has never recognized “improving speech” as a legitimate reason for regulating money in politics. That’s a good thing.

The Kean film, if produced, will give New Jersey voters important information. If Kean’s claims about Menendez’s past are true, surely voters would want to know that. On the other hand, if Kean is making wild charges, the voters could also draw their own conclusions about his fitness for office.

The best solution to abuses of free speech is more speech, not government control over politics.

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

Government Catch-22

The Washington Post reports today on the series of corruption scandals to hit Connecticut in recent years.

One scandal involved former Governor John Rowland, who was sentenced to jail for illegally accepting gifts. The Post quotes Rowland’s defense attorney lamenting that a new state legislature effort to crack down on corruption by imposing tighter rules will mean that “government will operate less efficiently.”

That illustrates a central conundrum of Big Government. Because today’s governments give away billions of dollars in contracts, grants, benefits, and loans they must have massive and complex bureaucratic rules to minimize the inevitable efforts to rip-off the taxpayer through fraud and corruption.

But all the red tape that is needed to prevent even the worst abuses results in the government working nowhere nearly as efficiently as private enterprise. Government bureaucrats, and anyone dealing with the government, spend an enormous amount of time and money filling out paperwork, but if you believe in big government programs, there is no way around that.

The only solution to excess bureaucracy and the chronic corruption in Washington and the states is to downsize government by moving activities to private competitive markets. See my book, Downsizing Government.

A Declaration of Cognitive Independence?

Michael Shermer has a nice piece in Scientific American on confirmation bias, the process “whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.” New neuroimaging studies are revealing exactly how it is that we avoid actually thinking about politics. Psychologist Drew Westin says:

Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.

I think this process is especially fascinating to libertarians like Shermer and me who stand on the sidelines of partisan political tribal warfare. Not that libertarians aren’t guilty of confirmation bias—everyone is. It’s just that less is at stake for libertarians; we don’t have any power to lose. Reinforcing and encouraging this specific kind of unreason is one way political coalitions assure their integrity and survival. The day-in-day-out work of partisan political magazines is to explain to its loyal readers why there is basically no reason to take the other side’s so-called arguments seriously. All you need to know about the minimum wage, say, is that there is someone good at math at Princeton who thinks it’s good, and that everyone who dislikes it secretly wants to send the poor to forced labor camps. Or all you need to know about people who oppose the war is that they are flag-burning America-haters whose pusillanimous “post-modern” sense of moral equivalence leads them to secretly crave the reign of jihadist overlords. Etc.

As the scientists show, when confronted with a position contrary to our own, we don’t even think, we just feel our way to our dogmas, and we feel good about it. In a country, like ours, where there is actually a rather surprising broad consensus surrounding a great number of issues, survival as a distinct political coalition with a distinct identity may require getting the most polarizing mileage possible out of people’s tendency toward confirmation bias. That may not be ideal for democracy.

But confirmation bias matters not only because rationality matters, but because autonomy matters. Last week I attended an Institute for Humane Studies seminar at Stanford, and philosopher David Schmidtz gave a talk about psychological freedom—freedom from internal contraints. He remarked that there is something pretty depressing about the fact that what we believe is largely a function of the order in which we encountered new ideas—that our commitments are highly path dependent. But the fact that we can know that holds out hope for a kind of liberation.

So, this Independence Day, why not pick up a political book you know you’ll disagree with. Or write a short essay giving the best argument you can think of for a position you find abhorrent. Or really listen to what your annoying brother-in-law thinks about the war at the family picnic. We could all be a little more rational, and a little more free, if only we really wanted to be. Dogmatic, whole-hearted commitment does feel good. But there is more to life than feeling good. There is truth, for one thing. And there is freedom—self-command. We’re all jerked around by our own minds. But we can be jerked around less.

Shermer concludes, “Skepticism is the antidote for the confirmation bias.” Now, we don’t all need to be like Socrates, claiming to know about nothing at all. But a little intellectual humility goes a long way.

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Money Packs

Perhaps because it’s what most Americans grew up with, we tend to assume that “public education” must mean public entities building and controlling schools, and students going wherever they are assigned by their home address. It’s a system that has failed us for decades, yet many people can imagine nothing else. Thankfully, public education doesn’t have to be this way.

In today’s New York Daily News, Fordham University professor Bruce Cooper introduces a simple but powerful way to reinvent public education: Attach funding to children, not schools and districts, enabling parents to choose their children’s schools and forcing schools to compete for students.

Unfortunately, Professor Cooper’s proposal would only let kids take their new “backpack[s] of education funding” to different public schools. But there is no compelling educational reason for such a restriction. Instead, we should give parents maximum educational freedom by letting them send their children to any schools they want—public or private—with their new money packs attached. Do that, and we might finally have a system of public education worth keeping around for decades.