Topic: Education and Child Policy

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).

A Few PIRLS of Wisdom on New Reading Results

The latest international academic assessment results are out—this time focused on 4th grade reading—and the news isn’t great for the United States. But how bad is it? I offer a few thoughts—maybe not that wise, but I needed a super-clever title—that might be worth contemplating.

The exam is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study—PIRLS—which was administered to roughly representative samples of children in their fourth year of formal schooling in 58 education systems. The systems are mainly national, but also some sub-national levels such as Hong Kong and the Flemish-speaking areas of Belgium. PIRLS seeks to assess various aspects of reading ability, including understanding plots, themes, and other aspects of literary works, and analyzing informational texts. Results are reported both in scale scores, which can range from 0 to 1000, with 500 being the fixed centerpoint, and benchmark levels of “advanced,” “high,” “intermediate,” and “low.” The 2016 results also include a first-time assessment called ePIRLS, which looks at online reading, but it includes only 16 systems and has no trend data so we’ll stick to plain ol’ PIRLS.

Keeping in mind that no test tells you even close to all you need to know to determine how effective an education system is, the first bit of troubling news is that the United States was outperformed by students in 12 systems. Among countries, we were outscored by the Russian Federation, Singapore, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Norway, and Latvia. Some other countries had higher scores, but the differences were not statistically significant, meaning there is a non-negligible possibility the differences were a function of random chance. Also, between 2011 and 2016 we were overtaken by Ireland, Poland, Nothern Ireland, Norway, Chinese Taipei, and England.

Public Schooling Battles: November Dispatch

Last month we posted our first “dispatch” from the frontlines of public schooling’s values and identity-based wars, conflicts ultimately entered on the Public Schooling Battle Map, an interactive database of such contests. The monthly dispatch is intended to lay out some of the themes we’ve observed in battles during the month, and to give you a sense over which basic values the public schools—inherently zero-sum arenas—have people battling. Here are the themes of November:

  • Discriminatory Dress Codes: Allegations that school dress codes discriminate against girls, proscribing lots of attire options for them on the grounds that they are too revealing—and may be distracting for boys—while prohibiting far less for the guys were prevalent in November. Of course, dress code conflicts are not new—the Battle Map contains nearly 90 such fights—but it seems those fueled by accusations of gender discrimination, as opposed to, say, freedom of expression, may be growing. Conflicts in November flared up in Oxnard, CA; Loyalsock Township, PA; and Washington Township, IN.
  • Sex Ed: Putting at odds basic beliefs about moral behavior, health, and age appropriateness of instruction, sex education has been a war zone for decades. But it seemed to have faded at bit over the last few years, eclipsed by contests over bathroom access and other, even hotter-button issues. But it made a bit of return in November, with battles over proposed online, parent-selected sex education in Utah; the presence of Sex, Etc. magazine—with articles such as “Where do you stand on Friends With Benefits?” and “The clitoris and pleasure: What you should know”—in a New Jersey middle school; and a proposal in Niagara Falls, NY that could involve escorting Planned Parenthood reps through schools.
  • Curricula: What public schools teach is, of course, controversial, beyond the extremely contentious subject of sex education. In November we also saw Mexican American studies—and one proposed textbook in particular—create fireworks in Texas; disagreements over the definition of “civic readiness” in Nebraska; and a proposal in Florida not just to let parents challenge textbooks, but propose replacements.

There were lots of other conflicts—over The Hate U Give, Bible study, and more—but these seem to be the trends.

By the way, over on the Battle Map Facebook page we have started posting twice-weekly polls on the kinds of conflicts we see repeatedly. They are not scientific, and we are just starting to build traffic on the page, but they often suggest significant divides among, presumably, perfectly decent people. For instance, our question whether school officials or students should decide which bathrooms and locker rooms students can use saw an almost 50/50 split, with 48 percent choosing “public school officials” and 52 percent “students.” Asked whether the tenor of American history taught in public schools tends to be “too critical” or “too celebratory,” 65 percent chose the latter, but a still significant 35 percent picked the former.

Now, head over to the Facebook page and vote on the active questions: Should student journalists or school administrators ultimately decide what gets published in school newspapers, and who should decide what kids read in public schools? Also, please send any values or identity-based battles you find to nmccluskey [at] cato.org. And ask yourself: Why should we be forced to fight, or sacrifice what matters to us, in educating our children? Why shouldn’t we be free to choose?

Will We PROSPER with This Act?

This morning the House Committee on Education and the Workforce released its legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the source of most of what the federal government does in higher ed, especially provide hundreds-of-billions of dollars in student aid. The new legislation is called the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform—or PROSPER—Act. (Oh, these names!) It will take a while to comb through in detail—it’s 542 pages long—but here is a quick reaction to some core parts from a rapid skimming of the bill (and some reporting on a leaked draft):

  • What needs to happen, ultimately, is for federal student aid to be phased out. It fuels tuition inflation, credential inflation, and noncompletion, and students with a demonstrated ability to do legitimate college-level work in in-demand fields would almost certainly be able to find private loans; both borrower and lender would likely profit. This bill, not surprisingly, does not phase aid out. It does, though, consolidate aid programs, and takes some small steps forward, capping total amounts students and their families can borrow from Washington, and letting schools say they won’t let students borrow a lot if the program doesn’t seem to justify it. The federal loan limits aren’t low—from a cap for undergraduate dependent students of $39,000, to a grand possible limit for certain borrowers of $235,500—but just saying there should be caps below the “cost of attendance”—basically, whatever colleges charge plus other expenses—is a start.
  • Other efforts to curb prices and noncompletion include making schools responsible for paying back some of the debt of students who are struggling to repay, and conditioning some funds for minority-serving institutions on at least 25 percent of students completing their programs or successfully transferring to other institutions. Both of these changes appear to put blame on institutions while ignoring the root problem—the federal government gives people money to pay for college without any meaningful assessment of their ability to do college-level work—but it might have some positive effects on prices and completion.
  • The law would end “gainful employment” regulations targeting for-profit colleges, and would also end a requirement that for a school to be accessible online in a state, it must be approved by that state even if its physical home is somewhere else. These things would free the system up a bit, but how much is unclear.

There is a lot else in there—provisions on TRIO programs, accreditation, a data “dashboard” on school and program outcomes, and more—and I’ll really have to scrutinize the thing to make sure I have all the details right. But from a quick look, this bill would generally move in the right direction, though with many miles to go to reach good higher education policy.