Topic: Education and Child Policy

The Public-School-Choice Horror!

Here are a couple of articles discussing first the hope, then the disappointment, of charter schools and other public-school choice.

The problem especially with charters is that they dangle the hope of real change and competition in front of desperate parents but are all too often at the near complete mercy of their public-schooling masters. It’s why public-school choice alone simply will not transform American education from our current moribund, socialist monopoly into a thriving free system. Just because he lets you live doesn’t mean Col. Kurtz will set you free.

Sing It to the NEA, Mr. Loaf!

The education news these days is a deafening roar of public school folks wailing and gnashing teeth over budget cuts and “tough times.” But maybe it’s not so bad after all.

From an article on the latest national employment report:

Nearly all of the major sectors of the economy lost jobs. The only industries that saw job gains in October were the education, government and health sectors — which are often considered recession-resistant. 

That’s a trifecta of security for public school nurses, but pretty good news for teachers and administrators as well. After all, two out of three ain’t bad!

Nothing Innovative in Federal Education

I’m getting to this paper — a proposal from moderate-liberal, Democratic insiders Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead — kind of late because I was working on other things when it came out, but something in it begs for commentary, especially since folks like Rotherham and Mead will likely have at least part of President-elect Obama’s ear. The report is a call for a new federal role in promoting “21st Century educational innovation,” largely by funding “educational entrepreneurs” and developing “effective educational programs.”

Mike Petrilli over at Fordham has already done a pretty decent job of critiquing the proposal, so read his back-and-forth with Rotherham for a fuller treatment if you’re so inclined. For me, just one thing in the report goes a long way toward demonstrating how foolhardy it is to think that the federal government would ever consistently promote and scale-up truly effective education reforms: It’s never done so before. Indeed, Rotherham and Mead offer just two, lonely examples of past success — Brown v. Board of Education and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — and they don’t really apply.

Don’t get me wrong, Brown v. Board was a critical turning point in American history, and IDEA was important at least for ensuring that public schools don’t ignore disabled kids. Neither of these federal offerings, however, are remotely similar to scaling up, say, KIPP schools, or identifying and nurturing the world’s most inventive reading program. Brown was an achievement of a federal court — specifically, the Supreme Court — not a federal bureaucracy. IDEA was essentially a piece of civil rights legislation for the disabled. Neither had anything remotely to do with picking and expanding the truly most promising educational waves of the future.

Looking at much more analogous precedent demonstrates clearly that the feds are about as capable of promoting effective innovation as John McCain is of appearing calm in the face of economic crisis. I give you Diane Ravitch, speaking in 2003. She headed the Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement in the early 1990s, an office intended to do just what Rotherham and Mead propose, and she has a very definite assessment of how much true “innovation” the feds have supported:

My impression, based on the last 30 years, is that the federal government is likely to be hoodwinked, to be taken in by fads, [or] to fund the status quo with a new name.

Or look at the once-vaunted New American Schools, a federal initiative launched under President George H.W. Bush to identify and replicate “break-the-mold” school designs. The effort failed because, according to researcher Jefferey Mirel, the schools that got funded weren’t really new, but old models already beloved by the educators authorizing the grants:

NAS asked for revolutionary ideas and for the most part got the “revolutionary” ideas that educators have been trying to implement since the nineteen twenties. Invited to diagnose and reform themselves, schools found the problem to be a misguided public policy emphasis on measurable knowledge and skills, not faulty ideas about teaching. The notion that their pedagogical ideals were at fault was-as E. D. Hirsch puts it-“unthinkable.”

Quite simply, the federal government will rarely if ever be able to promote true innovation in education, especially since in education, unlike defense or health — which Rotherham and Mead point to as areas of successful federal innovation efforts — people can’t even agree on the final goals. Protect troops from incoming missiles? I think all us Generals agree. Find a cure for cancer? OK. Foster critical thinking or content knowledge? Uh-oh…

Ultimately, to think the feds could effectively promote true educational innovation would be to conclude that the Department of Education — and any office within it, such as Rotherham and Mead’s proposed Office of Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation—would not be staffed with human beings who have preconceptions, opinions, or experiences that bias them toward one thing or another, and that educators don’t have biases that tend to be skewed in particular ways. They do, and that is why having a single entity try to pick innovative winners just results in “the status quo with a new name.” People know what they like, and when you make just one set of them into innovation gate keepers, what you tend to get is what they would have given you anyway.

With that in mind, file this proposal in the already overflowing “history ignored” drawer.

Bread Lines Form at Whole Foods

According to the Delaware News Journal, “hundreds of shoppers lined up early this morning hoping to be among the lucky few to get their groceries at the Brandywine Whole Foods store, taking their place behind about 35 others who had camped out overnight for a spot at the front of the line.”

Crazy, right?


The story’s lede actually reads: “Hundreds of parents lined up early this morning to sign up for the Brandywine School District’s school choice program, taking their place behind about 35 parents who had camped out overnight for a spot at the front of the line.”

In our free-enterprise economy, popular retailers and service providers simply expand when demand increases. The idea that there would only be a certain limited number of places at Whole Foods or Barnes & Noble is ludicrous on its face. But in our education system, which operates outside the free enterprise system, the best schools do not grow and open up new locations, buying out their failing competitors and stimulating the rise of others. So when parents are offered even some paltry degree of choice within their public school district, it must be rationed like bread at a centrally planned Soviet bakery.

What was it that happened to that Soviet economic system again?

How “Public” Schools Serve the “Public” Interest

Public schools are uniquely capable of serving the public interest. Or so we are told. But here is a story from Greenville South Carolina that makes this belief a tad difficult to accept. It seems that “principals of Greenville County middle schools have been told not to allow charter high school officials inside their schools to tell students about their dual college credit programs, according to the chairman of the school board.”

LaBarbara Sampson, the district’s director of guidance programs, e-mailed the district’s counselors telling them that “our schools are not to be used for the recruitment efforts of the charter schools…. If a parent needs/wants to find out about a particular charter school, they can get all the information on that school from the school’s Web site.”

Now, if the public schools were serving the public interest, you’d think they’d want every student to be as well informed as possible about all their educational options, no? So how do we explain Greenville’s decision to suppress the charter option? Actually, it’s easy. We just replace the word “public” in the first sentence of this post with the word “government.”

Government schools are uniquely capable of serving the government interest.

The people who work in and run our district school systems are just like you and me. They are guided to a great extent by their own and their families’ interests. If they think charter schools are better, and will lure away many of their prospective students, they fear that their own jobs will be put in jeopardy. So they work to protect those jobs by making it more difficult for their students to find out about the charter school alternative.

If we really want to serve the public interest, we will stop assigning children to government schools based on where they live, and ensure that all families can easily choose from among a variety of public and private educational options. That way, no entrenched monopolist will be able to put its own interests ahead of childrens’ interests, as Greenville’s school district is currently doing.

In Education, Dem Win Is a Win for Smaller Government

Nine years ago, only a crazy man would have written the headline above. The Democratic Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions, brought us the money sinkhole known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the tuition-exploding Higher Education Act, and the crowned jewel of bureaucratic worthlessness and educational futility, the U.S. Department of Education.  In the meantime, the Republican Party fought to expel Washington from the classrooms where, like the out-of-control kid with the stink bombs who keeps everyone else from learning, it simply did not belong.

And then George W. Bush happened. Flinging around talk of “compassionate conservatism” and decrying the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” Bush, with the complicity of congressional Republicans more interested in legislative (read: political) victory than rational policy, gave us the No Child Left Behind Act. What did the law do? It forced all states to create math, reading, and science standards and tests, required detailed reporting, and then, to enable politicians to simultaneously claim both toughness and a love of local control, left it states to write their own standards, tests, and implement the law. Oh, and it authorized—and ultimately produced—big increases in federal education spending. In other words, it let politicians claim to be everything to all people, while massively increasing federal bureaucratic burdens and encouraging all states to set their standards as low as they could go. Not surprisingly, while we cannot with certainty attribute any specific results to NCLB, academic outcomes under it have been poor, with gains where there had previously been some slowing, and other scores just dropping.

So why the headline above? Because while president-elect Obama has been very clear that he wants to increase federal education spending yet again, he has also hinted that he would decrease NCLB’s rigidly bureaucratic requirements. In addition, while the teachers unions are a big threat if given federal power, they tend to like money without accountability, meaning that, yes, they’ll push the Dems to set the cash spigot on “deluge,” but they’ll also resist federal rules. Put simplistically, instead of Washington doing two terrible things, it will do only one.

Unfortunately, this will likely be just a short-term gain. In the long term, there is little doubt that Democratic control would lead to both profligate federal spending and more government meddling, though this time pushing progressive education ideas. But that is where the second and more critical component to resurrecting small government in education will hopefully come in: renewed Republican opposition to unconstitutional and educationally worthless federal education intrusion. If the GOP should have learned anything from its astonishing fall from grace and power during the Bush years, it’s that big government doesn’t work, and selling your soul to get it doesn’t get you re-elected. No prescription drug bill, $700 billion bailout, or No Child Left Behind Act, has kept the GOP in the Washington majority.

There is, unfortunately, no guarantee that Republicans will learn this lesson; a big fight is no doubt coming between small-government realists and those committed to the Dem-light days of Bob Michel and Richard Nixon. If they do get the message, however, education, where for so long the Republican Party was clear that the feds did not belong, would be the perfect place to start applying the painful lessons they have learned.