Topic: Education and Child Policy

AFT Message to Pearson: Hands off Our Monopoly!

Today the American Federation of Teachers – the country’s second largest teachers union – is joining “global allies” to protest outside of the shareholders’ meeting of Pearson PLC, a London-based company perhaps best known as a government contractor for standardized tests. What’s irking the AFT and friends? Pearson is heavily involved in government-imposed testing, as well as trying to help make private schooling more affordable in some of the world’s poorest places.

From the AFT’s press release:

The American Federation of Teachers, along with teachers unions and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world, will speak out during Pearson’s annual general meeting Friday, April 29, in London to call for a review of its business model that pushes high-stakes testing in the United States and privatized schools in the developing world.

How the press release sounds:

We oppose testing, and we oppose people having the ability to leave the government schools that impose it. Because, you know, we need to force taxpayers to fund these schools that impose these bad things. Because they also force taxpayers to pay for us.

I’m not a big fan of standardized testing, especially that is used to superficially deem students or schools “good” or “bad,” but I can certainly see the utility in testing. It can supply useful information. I can also understand why testing fans want assessments to have real ramifications for schools, even if I think they over-value test results. Learning should matter, right?

The key to balancing everyone’s myriad desires and judgements – especially when there is no conclusive evidence what works best for all, unique children – is to give individuals real choice and educators real autonomy to set up schools with different policies and focuses. Parents and educators who value standardized testing could work with each other. Parents and teachers who feel differently could do likewise. It’s called “freedom,” which is good in and of itself, but is also crucial for innovation, specialization, and real-but-flexible accountability.

Of course, freedom also makes it much harder to maintain a monopoly over employment terms and labor organization.

To see what this means in real life, I strongly suggest that the AFT and its allies – not to mention Pearson people and defenders of private schools everywhere – read James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree, which documents the existence of abundant private institutions serving many of the world’s poorest people, and doing so better than the public schools.

Why better than the public schools? Maybe because public schooling is so easily subjected to things like blanket standardized testing. Or labor monopolies. Or both.

What’s In a Name? Uproar Over Renaming the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University

The left must be in disarray over at George Mason University. It took the faculty senate almost a month to adopt a resolution expressing “deep concern” over the university’s decision to rename the law school after the late Justice Antonin Scalia, following grants of $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and $20 million from an anonymous donor. That’s slow by today’s academic standards, especially in this year of protests across the country.

What’s worse, the National Law Journal reports today that fewer than 140 faculty members have thus far signed a letter opposing the renaming. Their concerns, however, will surprise no one. It seems that Justice Scalia was less than solicitous of identity politics. Moreover, the resolution claims, he “was a significant contributor to the polarized climate in this country that runs counter to the values of a university that celebrates civil discourse.” And perhaps of greatest concern, this decision reinforces “the external branding of the university as a conservative institution rather than an unaligned body that is a comfortable home for individuals with a variety of viewpoints.” Oh the horror, at intercollegiate colloquia, to have GMU on one’s name tag.

Notice the apposition in that last concern: “a conservative institution rather than an unaligned body that is a comfortable home for individuals with a variety of viewpoints.” We’re invited to believe, first, that the average American university is an “unaligned body”—like Princeton, for example, where in the 2012 presidential election, 157 faculty and staff donated to Barack Obama’s campaign, 2 to Mitt Romney’s—a visiting engineering professor and a janitor. For a broad picture of the ideological complexion of American law schools, see the splendid article by Northwestern University Law School’s Jim Lindgren in the current Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. GMU’s law school is anomalous only in having a fairly broad ideological distribution of faculty members, where any student can find any number of sympathetic professors.

But note also and especially the implication that liberals could not be “comfortable” if GMU were, in fact, a conservative institution. Funny how that concern doesn’t seem to go both ways, as many a conservative student at your average liberal institution can attest—the evidence for which has been richly documented by the scrappy Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). But that concern is deeply revealing as well, and goes far toward explaining why our college and university faculties are so overwhelmingly of the left: They, indeed, are uncomfortable with opposing views. Witness this very incident. Does anyone believe that such conservatives as there are at GMU would come out of the woodwork in protest if a liberal justice’s name were given to the law school?

Res ipsa loquitur.

Congress Voting to Save School Choice in D.C.

Tomorrow, Congress is scheduled to vote on the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act, which would reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP was scheduled to expire later this year. Back in December, I expressed skepticism about a standalone reauthorization bill because the Obama administration has repeatedly worked to undermine or eliminate the school choice program, even though the OSP has the support of local Democratic politicians such as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority of the D.C. City Council. Fortunately for the low-income children attending the schools of their choice through the OSP, the president has signaled that he does not intend to veto the legislation:

“While the administration continues to strongly oppose the private school vouchers program within this legislation, known as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the administration will continue to use available SOAR Act funds to support students returning to the program until they complete school, so that their education is not disrupted,” the Office of Management and Budget said.

The White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat. But the administration made clear its distaste for the voucher program, which President Obama has tried to kill several times. The measure, a priority of former Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, provides money for some students in D.C. to attend private school.

Predictably, the White House claimed that studies of the D.C. OSP show it has “not yielded statistically significant improvements in student achievement by scholarship recipients compared to other students not receiving vouchers,” ignoring that the OSP achieves those similar results at a fraction of the cost (less than $9,000 per voucher on average versus about $30,000 per district school student), and that the same random-assignment study found that OSP students were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than the control group. 

Low-income students shouldn’t be condemned to low-quality schools just because their parents cannot afford a home in a wealthy neighborhood. As the Washington Post wrote in a recent editorial, “The scholarships provide a lifeline to low-income and underserved families, giving them the school choice that more affluent families take as a given.” The D.C. OSP was an important step toward breaking the link between home prices and school quality, so it’s encouraging to see that D.C. is not likely to take a step backward. Ideally, though, Congress would take the next step from school choice to educational choice by enacting a universal education savings account program.

Philly Pays $1.5 Million to “Ghost Teachers”

The Philadelphia school district is in a near-constant state of financial crisis. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state–particularly its governance structure–but it is compounded by fiscal mismanagement. One particularly egregious example is paying six-figure salaries to the tune of $1.5 million a year to “ghost teachers” that do not teach. Pennsylvania Watchdog explains:

As part of the contract with the School District of Philadelphia, the local teachers union is permitted to take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The practice, known as “release time” or “official time,” allows public school teachers to leave the classroom and continue to earn a public salary, benefits, pension and seniority.

These so-called ghost teachers perform a variety of jobs for the PFT, serving as either information officers for other teachers or carrying out the union’s political agenda.

“Teachers should be paid to teach,” attorney Kara Sweigart, who is arguing ghost teacher lawsuits for the Fairness Center, a free legal service for employees who feel they’ve been wronged by their unions, told Watchdog.

“At a time when school districts are hurting financially, districts should be devoting every tax dollar to support students,” she said, “not to pay the salaries of employees of a private political organization.”

According to public salary data available through Philadelphia city agencies, the school district is paying 16 ghost teachers $1.5 million this year. All of them are making at least $81,000.

Newest Test Scores are Bad News for Centralized Education, Common Core

This morning I read an op-ed by Douglas Holtz-Eakin tackling the chasm between what it takes to enroll in college and how ready for college students actually are. It is a yawning gap, and Holtz-Eakin rightly laments it. But then he pulls the ol’, “Common Core is a high standard,” and suggests that it will bridge the college prep divide. He even writes that the Core has been “shown” to be “effective.”  

Not only has there been no meaningful evidence of the Core’s effectiveness, but right after I read Holtz-Eakins’ piece I saw that the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores had come out – indeed, for the very 12th grade students on the verge of college – and they had dropped in both reading and math between 2013 and 2015, and some dropped going back to 2009. This was, of course, as Common Core was being implemented nationwide. And not only did aggregate scores drop, but also scores for numerous racial and ethnic groups.

Do these results prove that Common Core is either impotent, or worse, a negative force? Certainly not. For one thing, as presented we can’t even break the 12th grade scores out by state as we were able to do with the 4th and 8th grade scores released several months ago. And even that was only able to furnish slightly more nuanced evidence than looking at aggregate national scores. But all these scores do undermine any proclamations of proven Core effectiveness.

Of course, lots of things affect test scores – federal policies, state policies, local policies, economics, demographic changes, etc. – and we can’t ignore all those things and just declare whatever policy we happen to dislike the undisputed villain. But one thing is clear, no matter how you feel about Common Core or anything else: NAEP tests continue to produce awful results for the students who are about to finish K-12 education, whether it is stagnant 17-year-olds’ scores on Long-Term Trend NAEP exams, or these scores for 12th graders on the “Main NAEP.” And this, as I tackle in a new, big update to the Downsizing the Federal Government K-12 page, despite huge increases in spending over the decades, as well as heavily centralized control.

Do the latest NAEP results prove that the Common Core, or centralization more broadly, are bad for American education? No. But they sure don’t help the narrative that centralization, including the federally driven Core, has helped it.

New Hampshire Legislators Seek School Choice Solution

New Hampshire legislators are working to end a legal battle between a small town and state education bureaucrats over the town’s school choice program.

The town of Croydon (2010 population: 764) has fewer than 100 elementary-and-secondary-school-aged students. Unsurprisingly, the town found it was not cost effective to run its own K-12 school system. Instead, the town runs a very small K-4 district school and had a longstanding, exclusive agreement with a neighboring district to educate 5th through 12th graders. However, when their contract was nearing expiration, town leaders decided to allow students to take the funds assigned to them to a school of choice.

Sadly, the New Hampshire Department of Education wasn’t about to let a town empower parents to escape the district school system so easily. After a series of meetings and threats to withhold state funds, the department ordered Croydon to end their school choice program, which it claimed violated state law. However, former NH Supreme Court Justice Charles G. Douglas, III, the attorney for Croydon, that the department was misreading state law:

The letter from Douglas and [then-Croydon School Board Chairman Jody] Underwood argues against the state laws [NH Commissioner of Education Virginia] Barry used to support her order to stop school choice in Croydon:

“You cite RSA 193:1 and purport that it says that districts may only assign students to public schools. This is inaccurate. RSA 193:1 defines the duties of parents to ensure school attendance, and neither describes the duties districts have nor restricts the assignment ability of districts. In addition to your inaccurate interpretation, you cite to the portion of that statute that states: ‘A parent of any child at least 6 years of age … shall cause such a child to attend the public school to which the child is assigned.’ You fail to cite section (a) of the statute which clearly states that private school attendance is an exception to attending public school.”

The dispute is now being litigated.

Recently, some NH legislators sought to clarify any ambiguities in the law by explicitly authorizing local authorities to allow local education funding follow children to private schools of choice. As the New Hampshire Union Leader editorialized, this is a step in the right direction. However, the legislation does contain one serious flaw: it limits parental choices to non-religious schools, thereby discriminating against schools based solely on their religious affiliation.

On Vergara: Stop Making Parents and Children Wards of the State

I am not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not an expert on California law, but yesterday’s state appeals court ruling in the much-discussed Vergara v. California teacher tenure case seems plausible. While Golden State statutes make it very hard to remove bad teachers, and may lead to the worst teachers being disproportionately assigned to schools serving low-income kids, district administrators could curb that if they really, really wanted to. It would just require very expensive, convoluted dismissal procedures be followed for each unsatisfactory educator. So technically, the law may not violate California’s constitution. But to defend it, in reality, is to defend a system heavily slanted against low-income students.

Vergara has spawned similar cases in other states, and I would guess there is a good chance similar rulings will come down the pike in those places. But there is probably also a good chance of tenure laws being overturned. It doesn’t strike me that, from a legal perspective, either side has a clearly superior case. But again, I am not a lawyer.

What this once again screams is that public policy needs to move away from an education system in which parents are dependent on politicians or courts to protect their children. They need money to be attached to kids and to have the ability to take their children out of schools they do not like and put them into other institutions. And there should be no blanket state seniority or teacher evaluation rules. Educators should be free to get together and set up schools with whatever policies they want, and whether or not those schools survive or those policies are maintained should depend on their ability to attract enough paying customers with the services they produce.

We need to stop making parents and children wards of the state, and instead give them real power.