Topic: Education and Child Policy

“Nation’s Report Card” Rapid Reaction

This morning the latest scores from the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – came out, and the story isn’t very good, at least upon first examination. Average scores in 4th and 8th grade math, and in 8th grade reading, were down from 2013, and essentially stagnant in 4th grade reading.  

Of course, there is a lot you cannot tell about school systems from looking just at NAEP scores. Numerous variables that affect academic outcomes, ranging from demographic changes to cultural shifts, can have important impacts on scores. But it is sobering to see national test scores stagnate or drop, and at the very least the scores should put a damper on some of the declarations of success we’ve seen in the past from people like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in 2013 credited state transitions to the Common Core national curriculum standards for upticks that year.

Perhaps a look at Kentucky, which has been held up as a success story for adopting the Core ahead of all other states and seeing increases on its state tests, is telling. Kentucky may well be seeing improvements, but the NAEP exams, for many people, serve as something of an external audit to see if states’ own tests are producing deceptive information. Of course there can be legitimate disagreements about what test is better – and if testing is even a good way to measures success – but many people who support the Core see state tests as dishonest if they differ markedly in their results from NAEP. So NAEP is important to them. Well, now, while seeing rising scores in 4th grade reading, Kentucky has seen falling scores in 8th grade math and reading, and stagnant scores in 4th grade math. Does that mean the Common Core, or anything else they are doing in Kentucky, necessarily doesn’t work? No. But it does furnish evidence that contradicts the simplistic message of, “Look at Kentucky – the Common Core works!”

There is much that NAEP is too limited to tell us definitively, but the same goes for any single measure of education. And we should be concerned whenever we see scores go down.

Do Non-Profits Criticize Foundations? Or Are They Too Frightened to Do So?

Earlier this year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) issued a report titled “Philamplify Poll Results: Nonprofits Don’t Criticize Foundations Because of Funding Fears.”

The report seeks to explain a phenomenon whose existence it does not bother to establish. Rather than presenting evidence that non-profits are in fact intimidated into silence by grantors, the report instead simply assumes that they are. Its first paragraph declares that “Given the power imbalance between foundations and grantees, grantees are often wary of providing foundations with constructive criticism.”

No evidence is presented to substantiate or quantify this claim. How often? How wary? Says who?

Assumption in hand, the NCRP is off to the races, asking its website visitors to speculate on this hypothetical question “What is the top reason why a nonprofit would choose not to openly criticize a foundation?”

Of course those speculations would be of dubious value even if the report had bothered to establish this phenomenon’s existence. The poll answers would not tell us if even one actual non-profit had held its tongue for the reason alleged, merely that some anonymous website visitor(s) thought it plausible.

Even if we grant that it might be difficult to collect hard evidence on cases of non-profits refusing to criticize prospective donors, it does not excuse publishing a “report” devoid of relevant facts.

Consider, too, that it might be comparatively easy to collect data on non-profits that have criticized foundations. An advantage of this flip-side approach to the question is that the critics themselves can be asked why they published their criticisms. I say this as the author of an empirical study whose findings were deeply unflattering to philanthropies seeking to scale-up charter school networks.

Why did I do it? It’s my job. I study comparative education policy, seeking to understand which policies are most effective in delivering the outcomes that families value. A key question within that field is to determine which policies lead most consistently to the “scaling-up” of educational excellence—which is to say the replication and/or imitation of best practices. Since that has long been a goal of donors to charter school networks I felt it important to determine empirically the extent to which their efforts were proving effective. It being an empirical study based on a large dataset (all the charter networks operating in the state of California) there was no way to predict the outcome prior to crunching the numbers. Nor was there any need for such a prediction.

Contrary to the speculations of NCRP’s website visitors, my highest priority as a think tank researcher is not to avoid antagonizing potential donors, it is maintaining my personal integrity and guarding my reputation and that of my employer for producing reliable, useful empirical research. I am certainly not alone in holding these priorities among think tank scholars. With that observation in mind, dear reader, please contact me if you have another example in which a non-profit published work critical of foundations/potential donors. I will relay the results to NCRP in the hope that they may wish to make amends for their earlier baseless, question-begging speculations.

Bernie Sanders and the Missing GI Bill Evidence

As I’ve written before, the case for “free” college is decrepit, and Bernie Sanders’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post does nothing to bolster it. It sounds wonderful to say “everyone, go get a free education!” but of course it wouldn’t be free – taxpayers would have to foot the bill – and more importantly, it would spur even more wasteful over-consumption of higher ed than we have now.

Because I’ve rehearsed the broad argument against free college quite often, I’m not going to go over it again. But Sen. Sanders’ op-ed does furnish some “evidence” worth looking at: the notion that the post-World War II GI Bill was a huge economic catalyst. Writes Sanders:

After World War II, the GI Bill gave free education to more than 2 million veterans, many of whom would otherwise never have been able to go to college. This benefited them, and it was good for the economy and the country, too. In fact, scholars say that this investment was a major reason for the high productivity and economic growth our nation enjoyed during the postwar years.

I’ve seen this sort of argument before, as I’ve seen for government provision of education generally, and have always found it wanting, especially since we have good evidence that people will seek out the education they need in the absence of government provision, and will get it more efficiently. Since Sanders links to two sources that presumably support his GI Bill assertion, however, I figured I’d better give them a look.

Surprisingly, not only does neither illustrate that the GI Bill spurred economic growth, neither even contends it did. They say it spurred some college enrollment growth, and one says veterans ended up being better students than some high-profile college presidents expected them to be, but neither makes the Sanders’ growth claim. Indeed, in line with what we’ve seen broadly in education, one says that at least 80 percent of veterans who went to college on the Bill would likely have gone anyway, and in seemingly direct opposition to what Sanders would like to see, the other notes that the Bill disproportionately helped the well-to-do, not the working class. As the Stanley study says right in its abstract: “The impacts of both programs [the World War II and Korean War GI Bills] on college attainment were apparently concentrated among veterans from families in the upper half of the distribution of socioeconomic status.”

If we really want to do what’s best for the nation – not just what sounds or feels best – we need to ground our policies in reality. In education, as in Sanders’ op-ed, that often doesn’t happen.  

Reclaiming Liberal Support for School Choice

Aside from repeated promises about “free” college education that are prohibitively expensive and would create perverse incentives, last night’s Democratic presidential debate contained very little talk of education, particularly K-12 education. That’s much to the chagrin of most education policy wonks, but it’s for the best. Constitutionally, the federal government has little to no role in K-12 education nationwide outside of civil rights. Moreover, there’s little evidence that federal involvement in the classroom has improved education. 

One area the feds do have a role in K-12 education is in Washington, D.C., where Congress recently voted to reauthorize the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which has significantly higher graduation rates and costs much less per pupil than the district schools. Sadly, though the primary beneficiaries of the school voucher program are members of the Democrats’ base, elected Democrats mostly want to do away with it. President Clinton vetoed the OSP when it was first proposed and President Obama has repeatedly left it out of his proposed budget. The Democratic presidential frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is not likely to be any more supportive than her predecessors–there is a reason, after all, that she scooped up early endorsements from the nation’s two largest teachers unions, which vociferously oppose educational choice. Indeed, none of the Democratic candidates even want to talk about the role of choice in education, as evidenced by their unanimous refusal to participate in the Seventy Four’s education forum with Campbell Brown.

Montana Bureaucrats: Religious Families Need Not Apply

Montana’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law was already crippled and now bureaucrats are attempting to issue the coup de grâce

Montana’s STC law offers individuals and corporations tax credits in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help families send their children to the school of their choice. All Montana students are eligible to apply for a tax-credit scholarship and the value of the scholarships is capped at half the statewide average per-pupil expenditure at the district schools (just over $5,300).

The only catch is that donations are capped at $150 per donor, far lower than in any other state. That means it would take at least 34 donors to fund a single $5,000 scholarship–a monumental task for scholarship organizations seeking to fund thousands of students.

But even if the scholarship organizations manage to raise the requisite funds, families may not be allowed to use the scholarships at their preferred school due to Montana Department of Revenue’s proposed rule barring the use of tax-credit scholarships at religious schools

The proposed regulations would bar schools from participating in the program if they’re “owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination.”

The proposed regulations also note schools are barred if their accreditation comes from a faith-based organization. […]

Republican state Sen. Kristin Hansen, who supported the bill, said the department was out of bounds.

“It’s the opposite of the intent of the legislation,” she said. “When we drafted the bill, we intentionally drafted a substantial definition of who qualified, so there wouldn’t be any questions about who would be eligible. I think the department has exceeded its authority by adding its own interpretation … when the Legislature was very clear. Absolutely, I think this proposed rule exceeds the department’s authority on more than one level.”

The bureaucrats claim they’re just following the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the appropriation of “any public fund or monies” to churches, religious schools, and other religious institutions. However, as the U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts have held, tax-credit scholarships constitute private funding, not public funding, because the funds never enter the state treasury. Constitutionally, tax credits are no different than tax deductions or tax exemptions. Has the Montana Department of Revenue prohibited donors to churches from receiving charitable tax deductions? Has it prohibited the churches themselves from taking property tax exemptions? If not, why is it treating the tax credit law differently?

The department will hold a hearing on its proposed rules on November 5th. Hopefully the bureaucrats will see the error of their ways and change course. If not, they are inviting a lawsuit–one they are likely to lose.  

The Common Core Is in Retreat

A Politico article today declares that the Common Core has “quietly” won the school standards war. It is a headline that would have been accurate several years ago, but today’s headline should be somewhat different:  “Common Core in major – but quiet – retreat.”

The one thing the article gets right is that the Core did, indeed, achieve almost complete domination very quietly. But that was around six years ago, when the Obama administration, at the behest of Core strategizers, slipped the de facto requirement that states adopt the Core into the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, a pot of “stimulus” money the large majority of states grabbed for while the country panicked about the Great Recession. It was also used to pay for national tests to go with the Core. It was, for all intents and purposes, a silent coup.

But then something happened. Around 2011 the public suddenly became cognizant that they’d lost a war they weren’t even aware they were in. After the states had done their part in conforming to the new standards overlords, districts and schools were told, “implement this new set of standards you’ve never heard of.” That’s when the resistance began, and it quickly grew fierce. Indeed, the Core has been on the defensive ever since.

Polling, though subject to lots of variation thanks to wording and other issues, shows the losses the Core has suffered. As I noted a few months ago, more-neutral poll questions tend to show very low support for the Core, but it is a question that is biased in favor of the Core that captures the direction in which the Core has been going: backwards. Defining the Core as standards states simply choose to adopt that “will be used to hold public schools accountable,” the annual Education Next poll found support dropping from 65 percent in 2013 to 49 percent in 2015. Among teachers, the Core freefell from 76 percent support to 40 percent, with 50 percent now opposing.

Capturing how bad things are for the Core, a question in a brand new poll that blatantly spins for the Core, describing it as a “set of high-quality [italics added] academic standards,” elicited only 44 percent support, with only 9 percent saying the standards “are working in their current form and should not be changed.”

Sure doesn’t seem like the Core is triumphant, at least not on the battlefield of public opinion.

Analyzing Arne’s Era and What’s to Come

Arne Duncan announced Friday that he is resigning as Secretary of Education, effective sometime in December. He will be replaced – sort of – by Deputy Education Secretary John King, who will not be put up for the permanent job but will be kept until the end of the administration in an “acting” – and Senate confirmation-less – capacity.

Of course, what Duncan has done as Secretary reflects what the Obama administration wanted, not what Duncan did on his own. Regardless who was ultimately calling the shots, though, Duncan presided over a period that has fulfilled some of the worst fears of anyone who has ever said, “It might be a bad idea to have a federal education department. They might start trying to run things.”

The overarching theme under Duncan has been huge consolidation of power not just at the federal level – alone blatantly unconstitutional – but in the Department itself.