Last night's vote by the Wisconsin-based portion of the Wisconsin Senate has received enormous attention. The scope of collective bargaining by school district and other government employees has been narrowed, and the state will no longer automatically garnish workers' wages to pay union dues.
This was the right thing to do. But how much of a difference will these changes actually make to the state's bottom line? As I've noted, the presence or absence of collective bargaining is not strongly correlated with school district spending. Instead, unions have won their massively (42%) above- market compensation through well-funded political action; which brings us to the question of automatic paycheck deduction of union dues.
Without automatic dues withdrawals, will public school unions still be able to afford their fantastically successful political activities? There's no reason to doubt it. Given the huge compensation premium public school employees enjoy over their private sector counterparts, they have a powerful incentive to voluntarily keep funding the political action that helped win it.
Indeed, we can see this already in right-to-work states like South Carolina. Public school employees there have no collective bargaining rights and there is no automatic union dues withdrawal, but the Palmetto State nevertheless has a teachers' union and an administrators' association that have spent large sums of money on political action. It's worked. Despite not being the wealthiest of states, South Carolina still spends roughly $12,000 per pupil on its public schools, and its public school teachers earn more than the state's median household income. The teacher and administrator groups have also successfully defeated every legislative effort thus far to open up the state's education system to private sector competition and parental choice.
The only way to rein-in out-of-control public school spending is thus to give both families and taxpayers an alternative to the government monopoly status quo. Cut taxes on folks who pay for their own children's education, or who donate to non-profit scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition for the poor. Many states are doing this already on a small scale. By so doing so on a larger scale, families will have much greater choices and taxpayers will reap enormous savings.
Finished with my woman
'Cause she couldn't help me with my mind
People think I'm insane
Because I am frowning all the time
- Black Sabbath, "Paranoid"
According to the Fordham Institute's Chester Finn, I and others like me are "paranoid." So why, like Ozzy Osbourne, am I "frowning all the time?" Because I look at decades of public schooling reality and, unlike Finn, see the tiny odds that "common" curriculum standards won't become federal standards, gutted, and our crummy education system made even worse.
Finn's rebuttal to my NRO piece skewering the push for national standards, unfortunately, takes the same tack he's used for months: Assert that the standards proposed by the Common Core State Standards Initiative are better than what most states have produced on their own; say that adopting them is "voluntary;" and note that we've got to do something to improve the schools.
Let's go one by one:
First, as Jay Greene has pointed out again and again, the objection to national standards is not that the proposed CCSSI standards are of poor quality (though not everyone, certainly, agrees with Finn's glowing assessment of them). The objection is that once money is attached to them -- once the "accountability" part of "standards and accountability" is activated -- they will either be dumbed down or just rendered moot by a gamed-to-death accountability system.
This kind of objection, by the way, is called "thinking a few steps ahead," not "paranoia."
It's also called "learning from history." By Fordham's own, constant admission, most states have cruddy standards, and one major reason for this is that special interests like teachers' unions -- the groups most motivated to control public schooling politics because their members' livelihoods come from the public schools -- get them neutered.
But if centralized, government control of standards at the state level almost never works, there is simply no good reason to believe that centralizing at the national level will be effective. Indeed, it will likely be worse with the federal government, whose money is driving this, in charge instead of states, and parents unable even to move to one of the handful of states that once had decent standards to get an acceptable education.
Next, let's hit the the "voluntary" adoption assertion. Could we puh-leaze stop with this one! Yes, as I note in my NRO piece, adoption of the CCSSI standards is technically voluntary, just as states don't have to follow the No Child Left Behind Act or, as Ben Boychuk points out in a terrific display of paranoia, the 21-year-old legal drinking age. All that states have to do to be free is "voluntarily" give up billions of federal dollars that came from their taxpaying citizens whether those citizens liked it or not!
So right now, if states don't want to sign on to national standards, they just have to give up on getting part of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And very likely in the near future, if President Obama has his way, they'll just have to accept not getting part of about $14.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary Education Act money.
Finally, there's the "we've got to do something to fix the schools" argument. I certainly agree that the education system needs fixing. My point is that it makes absolutely no sense to look at fifty centralized, government systems, see that they don't work, and then conclude that things would be better if we had just one centralized, government system. And no, that other nations have national standards proves nothing: Both those nations that beat us and those that we beat have such standards.
The crystal clear lesson for those who are willing to see it is that we need to decentralize control of education, especially by giving parents control over education funding, giving schools autonomy, and letting proven, market-based standards and accountability go to work.
Oh, right. All this using evidence and logic is probably just my paranoia kicking in again.
This can't be happening. Teachers suspended from their posts for showing students a film about the Constitution! I can understand the initial parental inquiry--if a student did say "I was taught how to hide drugs." There are such films on the market and those would certainly not be appropriate for school. But instead of gathering the facts, the school authorities seem to have made a terrible and unjust decision to suspend these teachers. The Busted film is about constitutional law and police encounters--showing people that they can lawfully stand up to the police and decline to approve a search of their home and belongings, and decline to answer police questions. Hopefully, the ACLU or FIRE will come to the defense of these teachers and get them reinstated fast.
Flex Your Rights, which produced the Busted film, recently released an even better film called 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. Cato hosted the premiere screening here in DC.
Tonya Craft is the school teacher accused of molesting children left in her care. Until this morning, William Anderson was almost alone in scrutinizing the case, but the Today Show took a look this morning. Here's the segment.
I wish there had been a little more emphasis on the actions of the trial judge. Child molestation is monstrous. To be falsely accused of child molestation must be galling. And to be falsely accused and then go to trial where the presiding judge is making lousy decisions left and right has to be terrifying.
It happens more often than most people want to believe. For more, go here and here.
This morning the National Center for Education Statistics released a new report, Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP Scores: 2005-2007. What the results make clear (for about the billionth time) is that government control of education has put us on a road straight to failure. Still, many of those who insist on living in denial about constant government failure in education will yet again refuse to acknowledge reality, and will actually point to this report as a reason to go down many more miles of bad road.
According to the report, almost no state has set its “proficiency” levels on par with those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the so-called “Nation’s Report Card.” (Recall that under No Child Left Behind all children are supposed to be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014.) Most, in fact, have set "proficiency" at or below NAEP’s “basic” level. Moreover, while some states that changed their standards between 2005 and 2007 appeared to make them a bit tougher, most did the opposite. Indeed, in eighth grade all seven states that changed their reading assessments lowered their expectations, as did nine of the twelve states that changed their math assessments.
Many education wonks will almost certainly argue that these results demonstrate clearly why we need national curricular standards, such as those being drafted by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. If there were a national definition of "proficiency," they'll argue, states couldn't call donkeys stallions. But not only does the existence of this new report refute their most basic assumption -- obviously, we already have a national metric -- the report once again screams what we already know: Politicians and bureaucrats will always do what’s in their best interest -- keep standards low and easy to meet -- and will do so as long as politics, not parental choice, is how educators are supposed to be held accountable. National standards would only make this root problem worse, centralizing poisonous political control and taking influence even further from the people the schools are supposed to serve.
Rather than continuing to drive headlong toward national standards -- the ultimate destination of the pothole ridden, deadly, government schooling road -- we need to exit right now. We need to take education power away from government and give it to parents. Only if we do that will we end hopeless political control of schooling and get on a highway that actually takes us toward excellent education.
When both the New York Times and Fox News poke fun at a school district it's a good guess that district has done something pretty silly. That seems to be the case in Newark, Delaware, where the Christina School District just suspended a 6-year-old boy for 45 days because he brought a dreaded knife-fork-spoon combo tool to school. District officials, in their defense, say they had no choice -- the state's "zero tolerance" law demanded the punishment.
Now, the first thing I'll say is that I was very fortunate there were no zero-tolerance laws -- at least that I knew of -- when I was a kid. Like most boys, I took a pocket knife to school from time to time, and like most boys I never hurt a soul with it. (I'm pretty sure, though, that I was stabbed by a pencil at least once.) I also played a lot of games involving tackling, delivered and received countless "dead arm" punches in the shoulder, and brought in Star Wars figures armed with...brace yourself!...laser guns! I can only imagine how many suspension days I'd have received had current disciplinary regimes been in place back then.
Before completely trashing little ol' Delaware and all the other places without tolerance, however, there is a flip side to this story: Some kids really are immediate threats to their teachers and fellow students. And as the recent stomach-wrenching violence in Chicago has vividly illustrated, there are some schools where no one is safe. In other words, there are cases and situations where zero tolerance is warranted.
So how do you balance these things? How do you have zero-tolerance for those who need it, while letting discretion and reason reign for everyone else? And how do you do that when there is no clear line dividing what is too dangerous to tolerate and what is not?
The answer is educational freedom, as it is with all of the things that diverse people are forced to fight over because they all have to support a single system of government schools! Let parents who are not especially concerned about danger, or who value freedom even if it engenders a little more risk, choose schools with discipline policies that give them what they want. Likewise, let parents who want their kids in a zero-tolerance institution do the same.
Ultimately, let parents and schools make their own decisions, and no child will be subjected to disciplinary codes with which his parents disagree; strictness will be much better correlated with the needs of individual children; and perhaps most importantly, discipline policies will make a lot more sense for everyone involved.
H. L. Mencken described puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
The new puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere, may be learning.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a story today in which public school educationalists wring their hands over the fear that suburban whites may be getting a good education in charter schools. This, somehow, is perceived to be a bad thing for urban minority kids.
What is bad for any child is a paucity of high quality education options from which to choose. The focus of policymakers should be on ensuring that more and better education options are constantly coming within reach of all children, regardless of the contents of their parents' wallets, the pigmentation of their skin, or their ethnic background. This, the research shows, can most reliably be achieved by harnessing the freedoms and incentives of a competitive education marketplace.
Can the charter school system create such a marketplace? Can it relentlessly spawn new excellent schools and scale up the established ones to reach a mass audience? For a discussion of those questions, drop by Cato on October 2nd.