… and a Pony

The new WashingtonWatch.com blog (a project of yours truly, which, along with C@L, recently ignited a firestorm of controversy over federal bed bug legislation) has inaugurated a new category of post, called “… and a Pony”.

It’s for bills in Congress promising what you’d ask Santa Claus for after you finished with the stuff you thought you might actually get.

The inaugural recipient of this categorization is H.R. 6444, To provide affordable, guaranteed private health coverage that will make Americans healthier and can never be taken away.

Uh-huh. Yeah.

Legislating in the Dark

Andrew Sullivan says he can “live with” the FISA legislation:

But it seems to me the focus of blame should be on the president and should be exercised primarily through political rather than legal means. And the trouble with prosecution is that it does become difficult to determine when exactly we stop forgiving illegal actions designed for the public safety in the immediate wake of a catastrophe like 9/11. I do forgive it in the wake, and see some lee-way for executive energy in moments of crisis or unknowing probably for a while thereafter (even though it horrifies me that the Bush administration would have merrily assigned all these powers to itself indefinitely if it could, and not even told anyone, let alone come promptly to the Congress asking for a reformed FISA law). But how do you prosecute a company on the basis of that kind of blurry line - granting immunity before but not after a point we deem appropriate or defensible?

My concerns are appeased now that the Congress has signed on in the light of day, that a court is there as a safeguard, retroactively if necessary, and that FISA is re-established as the exclusive mechanism for government wiretapping.

What puzzles me about this is that I don’t know what he means by “in the light of day.” We still don’t know who was spied on. We don’t know if it started before the September 11 attacks — one former telecom exec claims it began 7 months before the attacks — or if it was initiated months after the emergency had passed. And we don’t know the extent of the program: if it targeted just a handful of suspected terrorists or if, as the Klein declaration suggests, the phone companies gave the NSA unfettered access to all international traffic it carried. Given that Congress didn’t know these things, it makes no sense to say that it legislated “in the light of day.” Congress chose to debate in the dark, with no real knowledge of what they were granting immunity for, nor what they were approving going forward.

Even worse, the legislation appears to be specifically designed to foreclose avenues that could be used to uncover what has been done. The telecom immunity provisions have gotten a lot of attention, and they’re obviously one vehicle that could have shed some light on things. Another, less noticed, provision prohibits state utility commissions from investigating telco participation in these programs, a provision specifically designed to shut down several pending investigations by state utility commissions. And of course, the reduced judicial oversight, along with the provisions allowing the government to bypass the courts and issue “directives” directly to telecom companies, ensures that judges won’t know all that much about these programs either.

It would be one thing if Congress had conducted a thorough investigation, determined exactly what the telcos had done, and then reached the conclusion that the program, while technically illegal, was a reasonable and forgivable response to an emergency situation. It’s quite another thing to grant immunity without knowing what the immunity is for, and then give the administration and the telecom companies the green light to continue doing it without meaningful judicial oversight. That’s not signing on “in the light of day.” It’s signing a blank check.

I should mention the one provision that may yet bring some details to light: the legislation does mandate that the inspectors general of the various government agencies involved in intelligence-gathering prepare a report on the “Terrorist Surveillance Program” and submit it to Congress. That’s a worthwhile exercise, and similar reports have produced important information about lawbreaking in the past. However, it’s not clear how much detail these reports will contain, nor is it clear what Congress will do if the administration stonewalls. More to the point, Congress should have waited for the results before deciding whether to grant immunity. That’s what the Bingaman Amendment would have done: put the lawsuits on hold but delayed granting immunity until after the inspectors general had delivered their report. If the Senate had been serious about legislating “in the light,” they would have approved that amendment, but it was voted down along with the others.

Pre-K Pushers Possess Paltry Proof of Preschool Payoff

My first pre-k post showed that Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading NAEP scores have dropped and stagnated compared to the national average, and that changes in poverty levels and per-capita income can’t explain why we don’t see improvement from the state’s model investment in preschool.

Regardless of the evidence that there is little or no long-term effect from preschool, the critics will always point to the remaining shadowy corners of uncertainty. With so many possible confounding variables, it is impossible to control for them all. There might be some hidden, overlooked factor that canceled out the real, substantial long-term effects.

That’s correct. Highly unlikely in the case of the spectacular absence of a return on Oklahoma’s preschool investment and no obvious alternative explanation. But possible nonetheless.

And that is why non-experimental analysis can only provide suggestive evidence, with a heavy dose of uncertainty. Among the available research methods, the only way to be fairly certain an educational treatment has had an effect on students is to conduct a controlled experiment akin to those used in medicine or drug testing. Researchers randomly assign each person to either get the treatment or to not get the treatment.

Unfortunately, the preschool pushers have no experimental evidence that the pre-k programs they promote have a significant, long-term, positive effect.

That’s why they rely so heavily on the few pieces of experimental evidence from programs that look nothing like those in Oklahoma, Georgia, or any other state that has adopted or is considering a pre-k program.

Preschool activists kneel before a holy trinity of early-intervention programs that supposedly prove preschool is our educational, nay … our societal savior: the Perry Preschool Project, Carolina Abecedarian Project, and Chicago Child-Parent Centers Program (Sara inexplicably forgot to mention the Abecedarian Project).

Unfortunately, they don’t come even close to proving what preschool activists pretend they do.

To find out why, stay tuned … .  (and yes, I’m sticking with the excessive title alliteration.)

Education Journalists: Free Markets Demand an Apology

What do you need to have a free market in education? Price change? Low barriers to entry? Product differentiation? Other good stuff? Nah! All you need is something slightly less restrictive than traditional, absolute command-and-control public schooling, and you’ve got and yourself a free market, Bub!

OK, obviously that’s not the case, but you wouldn’t know it from education stories you read in some of the nation’s biggest newspapers. A couple of weeks ago the Washington Post ran an article that called the hiring of private management firms to run some public schools in Philadelphia a test of whether the “free market could educate children more efficiently than the government.” Andrew Coulson took the Post to task for that, pointing out that “Philadelphia did not create a ‘free market’ in education. What it did was to subcontract aspects of its monopoly to providers of its own choosing.”

Today, the Houston Chronicle offers an arguably even more egregious abuse of the term “free market,” declaring that allowing some kids from outside of the Houston Independent School District to go to Houston schools free of charge—but carrying state dollars—“would employ a free market approach to increase revenue while addressing the needs of students just beyond the HISD boundary.” No new providers—not even new managers, like in Philly—no pricing, no product differentiation, just a few kids able to attend government schools in Houston rather than in their home districts.

It’s hard to tell whether this regular sullying of the free market’s good name is done to make free markets look bad, or out of ignorance. If it’s the former, then Houston (I can’t help myself!) we have a problem! If it’s the latter, thankfully we have a solution: Education journalists, give this kid a call!

Pre-K Pusher Pans Preschool Pessimist

Sara Mead of the New America Foundation, one of the growing number of pre-K pushers, takes issue with my pointing out that Oklahoma’s NAEP scores suggest no return on their massive and celebrated investment in preschool over the past 18 years.

This is just one small item in a box full of evidence that suggests preschool has at best a negligible impact on long-term student outcomes. There are a lot of problems with the edifice of misinformation and misunderstanding that the preschool activists have built. So, this will be an epic four-part series of posts. It will test my resolve and yours, but we must sacrifice for the greater good. Can you handle this much pre-k?

Sara correctly points out that the fact that Oklahoma’s performance has fallen and then stagnated compared to the national average is not definitive proof that pre-k failed to have a massive positive impact on student performance; many things could have happened to cancel out improvements from preschool … like a massive influx of Hispanic immigrants, or any number of changes in the educational system. (Considering the sloth-like speed of the government school system in executing any substantive change, I propose that this last concern be dismissed outright.)

So let’s take a look at some of the big factors that could have wiped out the huge academic boost preschool activists claim pre-k provides; income levels, poverty rates, and Hispanic population.

The percentage of students of Hispanic origin in Oklahoma is still very low – at eight percent, it’s less than half the national average of 19 percent. So let’s turn to the most important factors correlated with student performance, income and poverty:

We can see here that in Sara’s favorite pre-k impact subject, reading, Oklahoma has not improved at all compared to the national average despite a massive and acclaimed investment in government pre-k (and the nation as a whole has actually declined in its performance on international tests relative to other wealthy nations).

Oklahoma’s poverty rate has bounced up and down around an average of 16 percent higher than the national average, with no trend at all. Per-capita income has stayed at least ten percent lower than the national average but has trended ever so slightly higher.

So I challenge you, Sara, and any other preschool activist out there, to find the nefarious factor that has destroyed all the gains from pre-k. By all means, take this data and run it through statistical software with whatever controls you’d like related to documented demographic and education changes (as long as you include the national averages as a control). I’d do it myself, but I’m sufficiently convinced already that the null hypothesis won’t be rejected.

I offer a gentleman’s bet that you’ll find no significant positive correlation between the number of children attending pre-k and NAEP scores in 4th or 8th grades.

More on the poverty of preschool claims soon …

Rep. Wexler: “Don’t Vote for My Iran Bill, Please!”

A few weeks ago, I puzzled over what the heck Congress was doing on Iran. Turns out I wasn’t the only one puzzled.

We now have one of the co-sponsors of the House bill, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fl.), posting on the Huffington Post begging his colleagues not to vote for his own bill. Why? Because:

It is clear that despite carefully worded language in H. Con. Res. 362 that “nothing in this resolution should be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran” that many Americans across the country continue to express real concerns that sections of this resolution will be interpreted by President Bush as “a green light” to use force against Iran.

The language that is most disconcerting in the resolution is the third resolved clause, which demands that the president initiate among several things an “international effort to impose stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran.”

I firmly believe it was not the intention of the authors of this resolution to open the door to a US blockade or armed conflict with Iran. However, I fully understand and share the American public’s mistrust of President Bush and his administration, which has abused its executive powers, willfully misled this nation into a disastrous war in Iraq and disturbingly continues to beat the Iran war drum.

Now, it takes a big person to say “I made a mistake,” and if that’s what Rep. Wexler believes, he should be commended for magnanimity. But it isn’t such a long bill. The wording isn’t complicated. And presumably if he holds this skeptical view of the Bush administration, it didn’t emerge in the time since he signed on to the bill. Which raises the question, “Why did you co-sponsor the bill, then?”

Yet another puzzle for the civics teacher attempting to teach America’s youth “how bills become law.”