Topic: Education and Child Policy

Public Schooling Battles: January Dispatch

January brought a new year to our calendars—more on calendars shortly—but a look at the public schooling values and identity-based battles for the month shows that nothing much has really changed. Some of the big battlegrounds of 2017—and years before that—are still big battlegrounds at the outset of 2018. Which should come as no surprise: A new year doesn’t suddenly make diverse people abandon the cultures, histories, and values they cherish.

DC Private Schooling: A Portrait in Diversity?

Private schools are the preserves of rich, white people, and if they weren’t around education would be more racially integrated. That’s probably the assumption many people have, and it could be what people reading about a recent Shanker Institute report on segregation in Washington, DC, might have gathered.

“It’s no secret that the District’s public schools are highly segregated, with a recent analysis showing that nearly three-quarters of black students attend schools where they have virtually no white peers,” began a Washington Post story on the Shanker analysis. “But a recent report examines the role that enrollment in private schools, which are disproportionately white, plays in the city’s segregation woes.” Similarly, a story on WAMU—a DC NPR affiliate—intoned: “’In a very loose sense,’ the authors explain, ‘D.C.’s private schools serve as the segregation equivalent of a suburb within a city.’ That’s because white students in D.C. tend to enroll in private schools.”

So are the city’s private schools really preserves of white people? And are they a big impediment to integration? The answer appears to be “no” to both questions.

Importantly, the Shanker report, while saying that a disproportionate share of private school students are white, also noted that African-American students in private schools had greater exposure to white students than black children in public schools, an indicator that for African-American kids in private schools the racial mix is less isolating. The typical black student in a DC public school (traditional and charter) goes to an institution in which only 3.5 percent of students are white. For the typical black private schooler, the student body is 24.5 percent white.

Those numbers indicate greater exposure to whites for African American private schoolers, but that the latter is not a much higher number also indicates that many African Americans attend private schools that are predominantly minority, which the WAMU story notes at the very bottom: “While there are fewer students of color in private schools, when they do attend private school it’s usually with students who look like them. 65 percent of an African-American student’s peers in D.C. private schools are also African-American.”

Contrary to what many people likely imagine, DC’s private schooling sector is not lily white: private schools serve all sorts of kids. Breaking down the city’s 63 private elementary and secondary schools using National Center for Education Statistics and GreatSchools.org data indicates that almost half—31 schools—serve predominantly minority student bodies, defined as more than 50 percent black and Hispanic. Roman Catholic schools—which have traditions of serving first dispossessed Catholics, then other poor and marginalized groups—disproportionately serve such populations, with 58 percent of Catholic schools doing so. Catholic schools, especially diocesan institutions, also tend to be less expensive than non-Catholic schools, making them more affordable to African Americans and Hispanics, who tend to have lower incomes.

More School Choice Is Not Always a Step Forward

It’s the first day of National School Choice Week , a time when most school choice advocates embrace all types of educational choice programs. Many school choice promoters believe that every single incremental policy that expands educational options is an overall improvement. I disagree. You might be surprised about this, but I promise I have not pulled a Diane Ravitch. While I used to share the view that any incremental policy weakening government monopoly power would improve the education system overall, I have realized that there are potentially large costs that could result from expanding certain types of educational choice programs. While this is not a comprehensive list, here are three key concerns that I have with enacting and expanding every single choice option that becomes available.

Regulated Choice

The main problem with expanding regulated choice is that existing autonomous private schools will be nudged to behave like public schools. Independent private schools currently have to compete with educational institutions that are free at the point of entry. They have a clear financial incentive to accept school choice funding, even if it requires them to change what and how they teach. As Lindsey Burke and I have recently discovered empirically, voucher program regulation could lead to less specialization in the supply of private schools. In other words, we could end up with a more homogenous supply of schools than we had absent the choice system. Also, even if a private school choice program is completely unregulated today, policy-makers could decide to change that in the future, especially if the program is funded by public dollars. If a private school already serves a large portion of voucher students, they will have a huge incentive to put up with new regulations, which would essentially turn them into government schools.

Unbalanced Competition

Because I am confident in the ability of the price system to provide the information and the incentives necessary to increase quality and reduce costs, I used to believe that every single type of choice ought to be welcomed. After all, with a level playing field, the market would determine which types of choice would succeed and which would fail. However, this is not necessarily the case. School choice programs do not all receive the same amount of public funding, even within the same geographic location. In D.C., for example, the 2016 per pupil public funding amount for charter schools was about $14,000, while the average voucher amount was only around $9,600. Why should we expect educational outcomes to be equal across choice types when government favors public charter schools by giving them 46 percent more resources? In this sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that the most recent experimental evaluation of the D.C. voucher program found negative effects on student achievement relative to students in district and charter schools.

Much Ado About Yik Yak

Campus controversy is all the rage these days. Today’s installment comes from the University of Mary Washington, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Members of the local student affiliate of the Feminist Majority Foundation took public positions against fraternities and various other problems exemplifying what was, in their view, a toxic student culture regarding sexual assault (for example, the men’s rugby team singing a necrophilic drinking song).

Students who disagreed with the feminist activists went on Yik Yak, a now-defunct app that allowed anonymous users to post whatever they like. It turns out that the veil of anonymity encourages people to speak in an unvarnished way, so many of the comments on the app were aggressive, vulgar, and hyperbolic.

The activists demanded that the university administration take action – and some actions were taken (including suspension of the rugby team) – but the university could not very well punish anonymous postings because, well, they were anonymous. The administration pointed out that banning a public forum because of objections to the speech expressed there would be an affront to free speech, which the University of Mary Washington, a public institution, is obliged by the First Amendment to protect.

The activists were displeased and, backed by the national Feminist Majority Foundation, sued the school for failing to ban Yik Yak and otherwise crack down on offensive speech, in alleged violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The federal district court granted the university’s motion to dismiss, so the case is now on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Market Failure and The College Football Championship

Tonight is the college football championship, an all-SEC affair between the Bulldogs of the University of Georgia and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Going into it, however, even these programs have something to lament: the end of the 80 percent federal tax deduction season ticket holders would get for providing mandatory “gifts” to the schools’ athletics departments. It went away with the recently enacted tax reform package.

Yes, the tax code treated it as charitable giving when one made a required donation, on top of actual ticket costs, to get into college football games. That included the $4,000 per-seat, per-year, needed to obtain Ivory Club seating at the University of Alabama, and the $2,250 required for Champions Club views at Georgia. Presumably the justification was that market failure—season ticket buyers thinking only of the private good of attending games—would have undervalued Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s, or Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s, contribution to the public good, and absent Saban’s roughly $11 million annual compensation, and Smart $3.8 million, the public would have been hurt by these guys (and lots of assistant coaches) doing something other than coaching football. (To be fair, both figures include such provisions as payments for apparel use and media appearances.) Meanwhile, outside the Power Five, the National Champion* Knights of the University of Central Florida were demanding a $1,500 per-seat donation for Tower Club seats, but nonetheless lost head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska. Frost was only earning $2 million at UCF, which was presumably a failure to subsidize correctly.

Of course, big-time college football and basketball are not about the public good. Yes, schools often argue that their football and basketball programs make big bucks that support other sports, but not only is there little justification for sports at all as a public good, many of these programs lose money as they compete in the uber-expensive college sports arms race. And there is no reason that season ticket holders should get tax deductions for attending games they thoroughly enjoy, or that colleges that do make big football and hoops bucks can’t use those profits to subsidize other sports without tax incentives.

Much more important, these programs are just the shiniest parts of widely gold-plated American higher education, a system that costs taxpayers hundreds-of-billions of dollars a year, while producing rampant price inflation, cruise ship-like facilities, greatly devalued credentials, and massive non-completion. So tonight, let’s all cheer the arrival of a little rationality in the wacky world of college sports, but tomorrow focus on all the rest of the far larger, crazily counterproductive subsidies going to America’s Ivory Tower.

* Self-declared for having had an undefeated season and beating a team that beat Alabama. And the college football playoff system is unfair to non-Power Five schools. And a whole lot of other things no doubt all intimately connected to serving the public good, as higher education purely exists to do.

Public Schooling Battles: December Dispatch

Did we experience heavenly peace in public schools this December? No, but the month tends to be more peaceful than most. With schools typically out for about the latter third of the month, there’s just less time to fight. We also, though, observed something that was out-of-the-ordinary peaceful for the month: no conflicts over Christmas in schools hit our radar. The last time that happened was in 2010. Every other year going back to 2005 we catalogued at least one, and typically three or four, battles over Christmas displays, singing religious carols in concerts, or other Christmas-related flaps. (The Map, by the way, lists years going back to 2001, but we only started collecting in 2005, and any years before that are there because conflicts we found in 2005 or later originated in those years.) Is this absence of acrimony because President Trump ended the war on Christmas? It’s just as likely that he sucked up so many headlines that less reporting was directed at Yuletide tiffs, but it could also be there just weren’t any significant Christmas battles in public schools this year.

Of course, there were some battles, including a couple of trends:

  • Dress Codes: This was also a trend in November, and in December it included an Iowa district dress coding a cancer patient who wore a knit beanie after a round of chemotherapy, and a girl in Kentucky who was sent home for an exposed collarbone.
  • Teacher Language: In New York City, a teacher who is also a comedian, and whose act is about her experiences as an educator, came under fire because part of her show involved her quoting an unidentified child saying, “Yo, n—a. What’s poppin’?” Meanwhile, a Colorado teacher was placed on administrative leave for writing on the classroom whiteboard, “I want to kill children but I am a loving Christian man who never would hurt a flee (sic) so please sit down and read.” Some parents believed it was a joke and supported the teacher.

Perhaps the biggest headline-grabbing incident of the month was the firing of a teacher in Utah for, he says accidentally, allowing grade school children to see some famous nude paintings, setting off a dispute over where art ends and indecency—or age inappropriateness—begins. This does not constitute a trend—there are no similar fights over nude paintings in the Battle Map database—which is perhaps a bit of a surprise. It could be, like teaching rigorous evolution, that most art teachers skip nudes to avoid controversy. Or perhaps most art taught in schools simply never reaches that level of sophistication. Or maybe people just aren’t that uncomfortable with nude paintings.

No matter what the reason for the dearth of art vs. decency battles, our newest (unscientific) poll on the Battle Map Facebook page asks whether schools should show nude paintings or sculptures in class. (By the way, you’ll love Venus’s shirt.) Vote now! Earlier December polls found 79 percent of respondents opposing corporal punishment in schools and 21 percent supporting it; 65 percent saying public schools should “formally recognize Christmas with displays, songs, or parties” and 35 percent opposing; and 74 percent believing that 2018 will be even more contentious in public schools than was 2017.

Will that 74 percent be correct? Stay tuned!

Oregon Returns One of Two Kids It Seized From Low-IQ Couple

Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler of Redmond, Oregon have not been accused of abuse or neglect, and “both have standard high school diplomas,” reported Samantha Swindler in The Oregonian this summer. But the state of Oregon deems their IQs to be too low and has seized their two sons in what has turned into a four-year battle.  

I was a guest in August on Glenn Beck’s radio show to discuss the case. The Blaze summarizes:

Essentially, the state doesn’t have to prove anything definite to take away a child; the argument is that they are going by the expert’s recommendation for what’s best just in case something could happen. In Fabbrini’s case, her estranged father has told authorities that she is an unfit mother; however, people closer to her have vouched for her ability to parent.

“If they [authorities] want to take your child, they’ve got him,” Olson said….

“It’s been called [‘worst-first’] thinking,” he explained. “If you’re in the child protection business, then, you know, everything looks like a danger. … You always think the worst possible thing could happen.”

And now, from The Oregonian, word of a joyous—though only partial—reunion

Four days before Christmas, a Redmond couple received their miracle. Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler’s 10-month-old son Hunter will spend his first Christmas at home after a judge found the couple’s limited cognitive abilities did not make them unfit to parent.

But the ruling does not reverse the termination of the couple’s parental rights over 4-year-old Christopher, who is deemed to have more complex needs because of developmental hurdles; they will be back next month in court to fight that. 

As they say, hug your loved ones close this holiday season and rejoice if you have the good fortune to be together (adapted from Overlawyered).