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.
This wouldn't be a serious problem if every district school offered a quality education, but they do not. Rather, the quality of education that the district schools provide tends to be highly correlated with the income levels of the residents of those districts. As Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and I noted last year, our housing-based system of allocating education leads to severe inequities:
There is a strong correlation between these housing prices and school performance. In nearly all D.C. neighborhoods where the median three-bedroom home costs $460,000 or less, the percentage of students at the zoned public school scoring proficient or advanced in reading was less than 45 percent. Children from families that could only afford homes under $300,000 are almost entirely assigned to the worst-performing schools in the District, in which math and reading proficiency rates are in the teens.
Not surprisingly, some parents feel desperate when their kids are trapped in subpar schools because they can't afford to live in ritzy neighborhoods or pay private school tuition. And some of those desperate parents will provide fake addresses to get their children a better education.
In Florida, the Broward County School Board announced this week that it is hiring private investigators to spy on the addresses the school suspects of being fake. As the Sun-Sentinel reports, the private eyes will “monitor a home and then give school officials photographs, videos and a detailed report.”
Fraudulent registration has long been an issue. Parents, believing their child will get a better education at a school outside their assigned boundary, list a relative or friend's address, provide a fake address or even rent an empty apartment in the area of a preferred school.
Doing so can in Broward be prosecuted as a third-degree felony, since parents declare their addresses under penalty of perjury.
It's unlikely that the district will have the funds to hire private eyes to track every student. One wonders, then, what criteria the district schools will use to determine which students should be surveilled... will they start with students who, shall we say, don't look like most of the other students in that high-income district?
Broward County is far from unique. Parents nationwide are regularly fined and even imprisoned for stealing a better education for their children. One New Jersey town even offered $100 bounties for information leading to the expulsion of students whose parents lied about their addresses.
Writing at RedefinED, Nia Nuñez-Brady explained why her parents provided a fake address to get her into a better--and safer--district school:
One day, while I was using the ladies room, another girl, who was double my size or at least it felt that way at the time, threatened to bash my head on the wall if I didn’t stop hanging out with a guy she liked. Growing up, my dad always told me, “Your face is too pretty to get into a fight.” So, I said to her: “Please don’t hit me. I’ll stay out of your way.”
She laughed. I went back to class, and tried to focus.
The next day, while walking on the hallway at the school, this same girl grabbed another student close to me. She pushed her against the wall and instigated a fight. The difference between myself and this new student: This girl fought back. The bully wasted no time. She grabbed her Snapple bottle, broke it on the wall, and used a piece of glass to slash the student’s face.
I was petrified. That could have been me.
Nia begged her parents to change schools but they couldn't afford it. They were recent immigrants with little money. But they couldn't bear to keep their daughter in a school where they feared for her safety. So they lied.
[M]y parents did something thousands of other public-school parents feel forced to do, because they feel they have no other options. They lied about where we lived so I could go to a different school where I would feel safe. [...]
Of course, it is understandable residents of districts who have paid taxes into the system would be upset that they are subsidizing the education of children whose parents haven't paid into the system. And so it's also understandable that the district schools would seek to exclude students whose parents haven't paid into the system, just as private schools shouldn't be expected to educate a child whose parents hadn't paid tuition. As Nia explains, problem is the system itself:
I understand that perjury is against the law, and that the law should be respected. But from my own experience, I know the parents who lie about their address are often the ones with limited resources, the ones who cannot afford to move to a more affluent neighborhood, the ones who can least afford to pay a fine or fight a felony charge.
I can also understand the families who have been kicked out of a school close to where they live, because the school is overcrowded with students from other neighborhoods. That, too, is unfair.
But that’s the problem. The system is unfair.
Indeed. Getting a decent education should not depend upon the ability of one's parents to afford an expensive home. It is long past time that we break the link between home prices and school quality. Doing so entails recognizing that there's no such thing as a "public" school.
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.
Indeed, that's been the biggest problem with NCLB all along. It talks tough about proficiency, but leaves it to states to write their own standards, tests, and proficiency definitions. Again, it makes perfect political -- but not educational -- sense. Many of the federal politicians who voted for NCLB also know Americans cherish "local control" of education, so they wanted to appear to be both zealous protectors of local control and no-excuses enforcers of excellence. The result has been an endless stream of conflicting, confusing information -- like the 82 percent figure -- that few parents could ever hope to have the time or ability to sort through. And yet, as reported by the Post:
many educators agree that the law's focus on standardized testing and minority achievement gaps shined a critical spotlight on problems that public schools have long sought to avoid.
A "critical spotlight"? NCLB is more like a deranged disco ball, randomly shooting out bits of light that make it impossible to ever know what's really going on.
And the befuddling hits just keep on coming. At the same time the Obama administration is pushing national curricular standards that have little concrete content, as well as tests to accompany those standards that won't be available until 2014, Duncan is decrying the "one-size-fits-all" nature of NCLB. Reports CNN:
"By mandating and prescribing one-size-fits-all solutions, No Child Left Behind took away the ability of local and state educators to tailor solutions to the unique needs of their students," Duncan said calling the concept "fundamentally flawed."
So at the same time he's championing the ultimate one-size-fits-all solution -- national curriculum standards -- he is attacking NCLB for eroding local and state control. Of course, if you want to get political credit for fixing American education you first have to demonize what's there, even if your solution comes out of basically the same mold. Don't, though, think national standards coupled with as-yet-unseen national tests will solve our problems by ending state obfuscation. If the administration gets its way, the games will all just be played in Washington.
Trying to understand what's really going on in education is enough to make you pull your hair out. But that's what you get when you put government -- meaning self-interested politicians -- in charge.
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).
It started almost on Day One, when Horace Mann, a Unitarian, was locked in conflict with Calvinists over what kind of Protestantism the state's nascent "common schools" would teach. When Roman Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers, battles -- sometimes deadly -- erupted over who would get what kind of Christianity in the public schools. When Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution, the Scopes "Monkey Trial" fired the first big blast in the war over the teaching of human origins, a fight we are still very much in. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the fighting moved to what, if any, religious expression is permissible in public schools. And now, we're getting fired up over whose holidays will get the most deference from government schools. It almost seems like war without end.
Finally, the article gropes at -- but doesn't grab -- the solution to our education and diversity problem. Says Georgetown University professor Bradley Blakeman:
That's the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries. One size doesn't fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We're not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great.
Blakeman is heading in the right direction (even as federal policy pushes us the opposite way): The closer that control of education gets to individual people, the more easily it can be tailored to unique needs, values, and desires. Unfortunately, Blakeman fails to identify the obvious last step: completely decoupling government funding from provision of education. In other words, instituting universal educational choice. Making matters worse, Blakeman for all intents and purposes concludes that as long as decisions are made at the local level, and the majority gets its way, everything is fine:
A school should reflect the beliefs and practices of the community that they serve. And if school boards are sensitive to their populations, that's fine, provided the decisions of the board reflect the majority opinion of its community.
It may sound harsh, but one way to describe this is simply "tyranny of the majority" -- whatever the majority wants, it gets, as long as it is the local majority. It's a solution that completely ignores that ours is not supposed to be a nation of majority rule, but rule of law that protects individual freedom. And, of course, one of the most basic protections is the prohibition on government tipping the scales in favor of one religion, two religions, or no religion at all.
This solution also fails, by the way, to address the problem at hand: School districts -- not states or Washington -- having to accommodate diverse populations. In other words, "local control" is ultimately no solution at all.
Universal choice is, quite simply, the only system of education compatible with the most basic of American values -- individual liberty -- and the only way to avoid constant, divisive battles over who will get what out of the schools. Hopefully, people will come to realize that before our conflicts get even worse.
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.