Perhaps the most pervasive myth about our nation's education system is the notion that "public schools have to take all children." Last year, when criticizing charter schools that she claimed, "don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids," Hillary Clinton quipped, "And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do, thankfully, take everybody."
No, in fact, they do not.
At best, so-called "public" schools have to take all children in a particular geographic area, although they can and do expel children based on their behavior. They are more appropriately termed "district schools" because they serve residents of a particular district, not the public at large. Privately owned shopping malls are more "public" than district schools.
The AP reports some good news out of Texas over the weekend:
A long‐standing Texas law that has sent about 100,000 students a year to criminal court — and some to jail — for missing school is off the books, though a Justice Department investigation into one county’s truancy courts continues.
Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a measure to decriminalize unexcused absences and require school districts to implement preventive measures. It will take effect Sept. 1.
Reform advocates say the threat of a heavy fine — up to $500 plus court costs — and a criminal record wasn’t keeping children in school and was sending those who couldn’t pay into a criminal justice system spiral. Under the old law, students as young as 12 could be ordered to court for three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools were required to file a misdemeanor failure to attend school charge against students with more than 10 unexcused absences in six months. And unpaid fines landed some students behind bars when they turned 17.
Unsurprisingly, the truancy law had negatively impacted low‐income and minority students the most.
In the wake of the arrest of a Georgia mother whose honor role student accumulated three unexcused absences more than the law allowed, Walter Olson noted that several states still have compulsory school attendance laws that carry criminal penalties:
Texas not only criminalized truancy but has provided for young offenders to be tried in adult courts, leading to extraordinarily harsh results especially for poorer families. But truancy‐law horror stories now come in regularly from all over the country, from Virginia to California. In Pennsylvania a woman died in jail after failing to pay truancy fines; “More than 1,600 people have been jailed in Berks County alone — where Reading is the county seat—over truancy fines since 2000.”)
The criminal penalties, combined with the serious consequences that can follow non‐payment of civil penalties, are now an important component of what has been called carceral liberalism: we’re finding ever more ways to menace you with imprisonment, but don’t worry, it’s for your own good. Yet jailing parents hardly seems a promising way to stabilize the lives of wavering students. And as Colorado state Sen. Chris Holbert, sponsor of a decriminalization bill, has said, “Sending kids to jail — juvenile detention — for nothing more than truancy just didn’t make sense. When a student is referred to juvenile detention, he or she is co‐mingling with criminals — juveniles who’ve committed theft or assault or drug dealing.”
It’s encouraging to see movement away from criminalized truancy, but it’s not enough. As Neal McCluskey has noted, compulsory government schooling is as American as Bavarian cream pie. We shouldn’t be surprised when the one‐size‐fits‐some district schools don’t work out for some of the students assigned to them. Instead, states should empower parents to choose the education that meets their child’s individual needs.
I’m reluctant to give more attention to the steaming pile of dreck that Slate is using as linkbait this morning, but someone should point out how incredibly asinine it is. The author argues that anyone who sends their child to a private school is a “bad person” because, well, see for yourself:
I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.
The first sentence is clearly true but it’s downhill from there. There’s a lot of economic illiteracy to unpack there as well as some rather frightening assumptions about the duty of individuals to sacrifice themselves for some ill‐defined “common good” (on Twitter, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat notes that this argument has an eerie resemblence to the Italian fascist motto, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state”).
I’ll let others heap on the mocking and scorn that this argument so richly deserves. What I want to focus on is the evidence.
Had this self‐declared non‐education wonk bothered to take even a cursory look at the research literature, she’d find that competition actually improves the public schools. Of 23 studies of the impact of school choice programs on public school performance, 22 studies find a small but statistically significant positive effect and one finds no visible effect. None find any harm.
The reason that competition works is because it makes schools responsive to the needs of parents. What’s so astounding is that the author wants schools to be responsive to parents, but thinks that the best way to do it is to have a government monopoly, as though Ma Bell would’ve eventually produced an iPhone.
Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “In our upper‐middle‐class world, it is hard not to pay for something if you can and you think it will be good for your kid.” I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.
Whatever you think your children need — deserve — from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school — the one you are now sending your child to — better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt — listen to it.
Scratch away the economic ignorance and smug self‐righteousness and you find a compelling argument for school choice. Yes, low‐income families also want access to good quality schools that meet their kids’ individual needs. But forcing everyone into the same school isn’t going to help. The author correctly identifies the problem but fails to arrive at the right solution. If we want true equality of opportunity, we should expand the educational options available to low‐ and middle‐income families, not restrict the choices of everyone.
The big schooling story is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's assertion that this year 82 percent of public schools could be identified as failing under No Child Left Behind. That's a huge percentage, and also hugely disputed. But the real story here, as always, is that government control of schooling is all about politics, not education.
Start with the 82 percent figure. It's a consequence of NCLB's demand that all students be "proficient" in mathematics and reading by 2014. That's a severely reality-challenged goal, especially if proficient is supposed to mean having mastered fairly tough material. But the law largely wasn't driven by reality -- it was driven by politicians wanting voters to see them as uncompromising on bad schools.
Now the controversy. People who track NCLB results -- including many Democrats -- say the 82 percent figure is ridiculously inflated. Reports the Washington Post:
"I find it hard to believe," said Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who is president of the Center on Education Policy, an independent think tank that tracks the law. "I think they really stretched it for dramatic effect."
And why the possible prioritization of "dramatic effect" over "reality"? Because the Obama administration is pushing to get the law rewritten along lines it likes, and might very well feel the need to scare the bejeepers out of the public to get momentum behind it:
Charles Barone, a former congressional aide who helped draft the 2002 law, called Duncan's projection "fiction." Barone tracks federal policy for a group called Democrats for Education Reform, which is generally in accord with Obama's policies on education changes.
"He's creating a bogeyman that doesn't exist," Barone said of Duncan. "Our fear is that they are taking it to a new level of actually manufacturing a new statistic - a 'Chicken Little' statistic that is not true - just to get a law passed. It severely threatens their credibility."
But hold on! With only about 37 percent of schools identified as failing last year, the leap to 82 percent certainly does seem improbable. But quietly evading the spirit of NCLB -- actually improving educational outcomes -- some states backloaded their improvement goals to very late in the full-proficiency game, betting NCLB would be gutted by 2014 and they'd never be held accountable. So some states really might be on the verge of having to pay the piper big time, and the failure rate perhaps could be set to rise dramatically. But you'd have to know a lot about the political machincations in every state to figure that out.
This week, President Obama called for the hiring of 10,000 new teachers to beef up math and science achievement. Meanwhile, in America, Earth, Sol-System, public school employment has grown 10 times faster than enrollment for 40 years (see chart), while achievement at the end of high school has stagnated in math and declined in science (see other chart).
Either the president is badly misinformed about our education system or he thinks that promising to hire another 10,000 teachers union members is politically advantageous--in which case he would seem to be badly misinformed about the present political climate. Or he lives in an alternate universe in which Kirk and Spock have facial hair and government monopolies are efficient. It's hard to say.
Yesterday, FoxNews.com posted a story on what appears to be a growing problem for public school systems across the country: accommodating Muslim holidays. Unfortunately, the report didn't contain the solution to the problem. It did, though, contain a very succinct discussion of the root of the problem; an example of the good intent that causes people to ignore the problem; and the kind of "solution" that is ultimately at odds with the most basic of American values.
A quote from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the essence of the problem:
One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won't be any school.
There you have the basic conundrum in a nutshell: Whenever you have a diverse population -- whether in a hamlet, city, state, or nation -- and everyone has to support a single system of government schools, you cannot possibly treat all people -- or even most of them -- equally. Either there are winners and losers, or nobody gets anything.
Understanding why public schooling can't handle diversity -- why, simply, one size can't fit all -- is really basic common sense. So why isn't there more outrage over, or even just recognition of, the utter illogic of our education system? Mohamed Elibiary, President and CEO of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, illustrated the attitude that likely causes lots of Americans to wear blinders:
I'm a little torn. I want Muslims to be getting the same recognition as other Americans, but at the same time I don't want to see public education systems be a battleground between religious identities, because then we're missing the point of why we have a public education system to begin with.
No doubt many people truly believe as Elibiary does: that a major purpose of public schooling is to bring diverse people together and, by doing so, unify them. It's a fine intention, but also a classic case of intent not matching reality. Indeed, the reality is often very much the opposite. Rather than unifying people, public schooling has repeatedly forced religious conflict (as well as conflict over race, ethnicity, political philosophy, curriculum, and on and on).
Sending billions of federal taxpayer dollars to teachers and other public school employees is the bailout that just won’t die. It’s been sliced, shot up in a firefight between Democrats, and even had a battle with food stamps, but it just can’t be killed!
Now, let’s be clear: This is not some wonderful crusade all about helping “the children.” It is pure political evil, a naked ploy to appease teachers’ unions and other public school employees that Democrats need motivated for the mid‐term elections. It has to be, because the data are crystal clear: We’ve been adding staff by the truckload for decades without improving achievement one bit. Since 1970 (see the charts below) public school employment has increased 10 times faster than enrollment, while test scores have stagnated.
But suppose there were some rational reason to believe that we need to keep staffing levels sky‐high despite getting no value for it. Lots of teachers’ jobs could be saved without a bailout if unions would just accept pay concessions like millions of the Americans who fund their salaries. But all too often, they won’t.
Sadly, this is all just part of the one education race that Washington is always running, and it absolutely isn’t to the top. It is the incessant race to buy votes. And guess what? Despite its reputation even among some conservatives, the Obama administration, just like Congress, is running this race at record speeds.