Tag: parent

Are People Finally Seeing the Gloom?

Maybe, just maybe, word might finally be getting out, and people might finally be getting angry, about the dirty dealings in Washington, DC, that are quietly killing the city’s desperately needed school voucher program.

The story has been percolating for more than ten days, ever since the U.S. Department of Education staged a stealthy and too-late-to-matter release of a study showing that DC’s voucher program works. But the coverage has largely been restricted to the blogosphere, along with a smattering of newspaper opinion pieces.

What might be changing that? A smarmy Education Department letter released late last week telling parents who thought they had won a voucher for the 2009-10 school year that no such voucher would be forthcoming. This despite the fact that the voucher program is not scheduled to end until 2010-11. Apparently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan – who seems to be doing all of the political dirty work against DC school choice – decided that it just doesn’t make sense to let kids have a year of private schooling if they’ll just have to go back to DC public schools. Never mind that a year of good schooling is better than no good schooling, or that the program can still be saved if Congress and the DC City Council vote to reauthorize it – barring the door to quality education right now is clearly in the children’s best interest.

The department’s letter has finally sparked some news media interest in the plight of DC school choice. Spurred by the letter, this afternoon Fox News ran what, to my knowledge, is the first non-opinion piece about the Obama administration’s quiet-but-deadly campaign against choice in DC. There is also word that voucher parents are beginning to organize a response to the assault on their children’s educational lifelines, with a strategy meeting scheduled for Wednesday night. Oh, and the opinion pieces keep on coming.

Sadly, as I and a few others have noted over the least week-and-a-half, when it comes to education it seems that President Obama’s rhetoric about putting evidence ahead of politics is just that – rhetoric. Hopefully, more people are starting to see the dim, disappointing light.

Making Sure the Job Gets Done

If you’ve been reading this blog over the last week or so, you’ll have noticed that the big story in education has been the highly suspicious handling of an evaluation of Washington, DC’s, voucher program by the supposedly politics-out-of-policymaking Obama administration.  The evaluation shows voucher students making clearly superior readings gains to students who applied for but did not receive vouchers, while math results were equal. In other words, vouchers seem to work. But it doesn’t matter: For all intents and purposes Congress killed DC choice last month, and throughout that murderous process this study was being held under wraps  – for numerous possible, but all unacceptable, reasons – in the United States Department of Education.

Well, on Saturday the Washington Post editorialized about the whole stinkin’ mess, and in so doing revealed something new: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decided not to allow any new students to enroll in the program for the 2009-2010 school year, despite the program not being scheduled to end until 2010-2011. And, though it is close to unthinkable politically that both Congress and the DC City Council will reauthorize the program – just as Congressional enemies of educational freedom planned when they wrote those stipulations into law – it is not absolutely impossible. But in good hitman style, Duncan is making sure the job gets done, holding the pillow over the victim’s face as long and tightly as possible to make sure there won’t be any unforeseen and inconvenient coming back to life.

Oh, and irony of ironies? According to the Post, Duncan is doing this extra bit of dirty work because [italics added] “it is not in the best interest of students and their parents to enroll them in a program that may end a year from now.”

Can Arne Duncan Fix All the Schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, responding to a new study showing that District of Columbia students using vouchers to attend private schools outperformed their peers in public schools – a study that he has been accused of keeping under wraps until after Congress voted to end the D.C. voucher program – told the Washington Post of his concerns:

“Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer,” Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. “You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.”

But why would vouchers only serve two or three percent of the kids? Only because Congress limited the size of the voucher program. Thousands more families have applied for public or private vouchers than there were vouchers available. If the District of Columbia took its mammoth school budget and divided it into equal vouchers or scholarships for each child in the city, Arne Duncan could bet his bottom dollar that a lot more than two percent of the families would head for private or parochial schools. His fear is not that vouchers only serve two percent of the kids, it’s that a full-scale choice program would reveal just how much demand for alternatives there is.

But note also: Duncan says that he wants to “help all those kids … by … coming back with dramatically better schools.” But he ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and he was not able to make a single school good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to send their own children there.

Wouldn’t the 97 or 98 percent of the kids in Chicago whose parents couldn’t afford the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have benefited from having a choice?

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

The More Obama ‘Challenges,’ the More Education Will Look the Same

The Obama Administration talks a mighty game about “change” and taking politics out of decision making, but at least when it comes to education it seems to be all about playing politics.

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific editorial on the latest evidence of old school political maneuvering by Obama’s education apparatus. (And Andrew Coulson has just blogged about the nefarious goings-on.) Basically, the Obama people let Congress slash the jugular of DC’s school voucher program despite almost certainly having an evaluation in hand showing that students in the program did better than those who tried to get vouchers and failed. And when was this report finally released? Last Friday afternoon, a perfect time to keep press coverage to a minimum. 

I had to insert “almost certainly,” by the way, when stating that education department people had the report in hand while the voucher killing was going on because, according to the WSJ, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s people have refused to say who knew about the report’s results when. Apparently, they didn’t want to deliver any smoking gun showing that they tried to suppress the DC evidence.

So the Obama Administration is hostile to school choice. What, then, is its plan for reform?

Here’s what Secretary Duncan recently told the Washington Post after dismissing DC’s voucher program:

The way you help them [all kids] is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.

Oh, challenge the status quo and deliver “dramatically better schools”! Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” I mean, that’s powerful stuff, along the lines of how do you get to Mars? You fly there!

Obviously, the important thing is how you challenge the status quo and provide better schools, and for decades we’ve been trying sound-bite-driven reform like Duncan offered the Post, and exhibited in his recent declaration that he will “come down like a ton of bricks” on any state that doesn’t use waste-rewarding “stimulus” money effectively. And how will we know when a use is ineffective? Why, we’ll make states report on test scores, teacher quality, and other things, and then threaten to withhold money if outcomes don’t get better.

Of course, we know how well that’s worked before.

Simply put, tough talk from politicians has delivered pretty much nothing good for kids or taxpayers. The powers of the status quo – the teachers unions, administrators, and bureaucrats who live off our moribund public schools – have effectively neutered almost every top-down, tough-guy reform ranging from state standards, to Goals 2000, to the No Child Left Behind Act. And of course they have: These groups have by far the most political power in education because they have by far the greatest motivation and ability to control education politics. After all, the system provides both their livelihoods and much of the money they use for political action, and you and I have no choice but to pay for it! And like all of us, the adults who control the schools want as much money, and as little accountability, for themselves as possible.

So what would really challenge the status quo? Look no further than what the unions, administrators, and bureaucrats hate the most: school choice! Yes, the very reform that Duncan has regularly pooh-poohed, undercut, and ignored is by far the greatest threat to the status quo. Why? Because it is the only reform that would destroy the monopoly that keeps the education interests in power! Choice would also unleash specialization, competition, and innovation – the wonderful market forces that give us everything from constantly improving computers to incredibly reliable delivery services – but from a reform standpoint, the most fundamental thing that choice would do is actually challenge the status quo, not just talk about it. 

Unfortunately, it seems that kind of change is too challenging for Obama and company. It’s just much easier to give the special interests all the money they want, wrap it up in tough talk, and kneecap anything that would really challenge the woeful status quo.

Terrible Example, Mr. Secretary

Here’s something rich from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan: According to The New York Times, yesterday Duncan smeared South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford as a reform obstructionist because Sanford wants to turn down education stimulus money.

“For South Carolina to stand on the sidelines and say that the status quo is O.K., that defies logic,” said Duncan.

That’s right, Duncan had the gall to frame as a protector of the status quo the same governor who for years has been crystal clear that schooling in his state is dismal and that school choice – which takes power away from politically ferocious, government-schooling special interests and gives it to parents – is the key to real change. It’s also the same desperately sought after reform, by the way, that President Obama and his education secretary are happy to let die a slow – but politically convenient – death in Washington, DC.

And what do Secretary Duncan and his boss have in mind for South Carolina? The same worthless, failed education “solutions” too many politicians have proffered for decades: spend ever more money and talk big about the better results you’ll “demand” but never get. That makes the politicians look like they care about “the children” while really rewarding the politically potent, school-choice-hating, accountability dodging unions, administrators and bureaucrats who live off the status quo and serve not the kids, but themselves.

So let’s get something straight, Mr. Secretary: If you want real change you actually have to do something different, something that attacks real problems, and with his crusade for educational freedom that’s exactly what Governor Sanford has been doing. In stark contrast, so far all the Obama administration has offered is a lot of bluster, and a lot more money for our hopeless education monopoly.  And that, Mr. Secretary, is truly acting like the status quo is O.K.

A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste (after High School)

The South Carolina NAACP is among the most strident opponents of a new education tax credit proposal in that state that would make it easier for families – especially poor families – to choose private schools for their kids.

But the NAACP’s national platform states that:

The NAACP is a leading advocate of equal access to quality education.  In an effort to promote and ensure education opportunities for minority youth, the NAACP offers the following national scholarships: Earl G. Graves Scholarship, Agnes Jones Scholarship, …. These awards help eliminate financial difficulties that may hinder students’ education goals.   

Doesn’t that put the SC NAACP’s position into clear conflict with its parent organization? Actually, no. I deleted the qualifier “higher” before the word “education” in the block quote above. The NAACP strongly supports scholarships for poor kids to attend private schools, so long as the kids are over 18 or so.

A few years ago I debated this bizarre inconsistency with a very candid and pleasant NAACP representative, and his response boiled down to this: ”I lived through the Jim Crow South and I don’t trust a bunch of white Republicans to have our best interests in mind.” Fair enough. We shouldn’t trust politicians of any stripe to have the public’s interests in mind on any issue. We should instead look at what actually works best both here and around the world, and do that.

From the largest shanty town in Africa, to the slums of Hyderabad, India, to the remote rural villages of in-land China, the poor are already choosing private schools in vast numbers. And those schools are significantly outperforming their public sector counterparts at a fraction of the cost. Their stories are told in The Beautiful Tree, a compelling new narrative non-fiction book by scholar and world-traveler James Tooley. Cato is launching the book at noon on April 15th at our DC headquarters. I hope someone from the NAACP will attend.

Oh, and in case it matters to anyone, the lead advocate of SC’s tax credit school choice program is state senator Robert Ford, an African American Democrat. For some reason the NAACP still opposes it.