That’s Edutainment

I recently watched the Pacific Research Institute’s documentary “Not as Good as You Think,” about the woes of a middle-class suburban public school district, the myth of universally good middle class public schools, and the Swedish alternative of private school choice.

As with all of PRI’s policy products, the viewer gleans a lot of important information. It’s a quality piece. What’s really great about it, though, is how entertaining it is to watch. Putting myself in the place of someone not working in education policy, I can still imagine watching this flick purely to follow the story it tells. It’s definitely worth a look.

Barney Frank Endorses Regulatory Protectionism

When a government increases the burden of taxes, spending, and/or regulation, this makes it more likely that productive resources - on the margin - will gravitate to jurisdictions with better economic policy. Crafty politicians understand that the freedom to cross borders is a threat to statist policies, which is why international bureaucracies dominated by high-tax nations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, are trying to undermine tax competition between nations by imposing fiscal protectionism. The same is true for regulation. The Chairman of a key House committee wants to impose regulatory protectionism to restrict the ability of Americans to patronize banks and other financial services companies based in jurisdictions with more laissez-faire policies. The Financial Times has the unsavory details:

Barney Frank, chairman of the House financial services committee, said he was concerned the new U.S. push to regulate banks and brokers more rigorously could put it at a competitive disadvantage if other countries did not follow suit. As a result, he would like to ban U.S. banks from doing business with countries not subject to similarly tough standards on everything from leverage limits and capital requirements to rules on transparency and clearing of derivatives. “Once we have rules  . . . we will say to anybody who wants to be an outlier, ‘you forfeit your right to participate in the American system’,” Mr Frank told the Financial Times. “We will instruct the [Securities and Exchange Commission] and Treasury and the Fed to deny access to the American financial system to any country that holds itself out as a haven to escape our financial regulation.” …“It is absolutely the wrong approach,” said a top industry lawyer, who did not want to be identified criticising Mr Frank. “The assumption is that everybody has to do business in the U.S. and we can set global standards. That is absolute nonsense. There are alternatives, including Hong Kong,” the lawyer added. …Tim Ryan, president of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said that U.S. regulations should not be imposed on other countries. …Mr Frank’s interest in banning groups from non-co-operating countries stems in part from the U.S. experience after it adopted the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accountability law. Many overseas companies opted to list outside the U.S. rather than comply with Sarbox requirements.

Debating the Future of Shool Choice

I have blogged repeatedly of my concern that charter schools are likely to succumb to the same heavy burden of rules and regulations that beset traditional public schools. And that, in doing so, they will expand rather than contract the existing state monopoly – first assimilating independent private schools into their fold, and then homogenizing them as the regulatory burden mounts.

This does not appear to be one of the concerns that will be represented at a forthcoming Fordham Foundation event on charter schools and the future of school choice. Instead, Fordham staff and their guests will discuss whether the current administration’s desire to expand the number of charter schools has doomed the voucher movement to irrelevancy.

It’s an interesting enough topic by itself, and suitably provocative, but it also excludes from consideration a far larger segment of the private school choice policy spectrum: education tax credits. Perhaps to their occasional advantage, tax credits seem to garner far less attention among education technocrats than do vouchers. Yet scholarship donation and personal use credits are benefitting more than 5 times as many students as vouchers, though the benefit is generally smaller. Credit programs are growing faster than vouchers, on average, and seem to enjoy more bi-partisan support – certainly when it comes to programs not limited to special-needs students.

I’m sure the upcoming Fordham event will be interesting, almost as much for what it will omit as what it will include.

Using Twitter to Confront an Anti-Semitic Attack in Chile’s Paper of Record

After a morning workout and attending Mass this Sunday, I read El Mercurio (Chile’s paper of record) online. Although I seldom read Chilean newspapers blogs (too many attacks and too much dirt), I did so that morning because I was impressed by the indignation expressed by my friend Luis Larraín in his Sunday blog (titled “Canallas” – Shameless). I had named Larraín Superintendent of Social Security when he was 25 years old. At that time I was 30 and Secretary of Labor and Social Security.

With astonishment I discovered that a certain “Mr. Murillo”, in the comment number 10 on the blog (which I copied immediately, and backed up electronically), explicitly attacked another commenter, Mr. José Fregoso Edelstein, by saying that his previous comment was due to the fact that he is from a “bad race” because he is Jewish.

I immediately logged in to Twitter and posted a ‘tweet’ demanding El Mercurio delete the blog comment, because it is a terrible insult directed at a group of people that have suffered indescribable horrors, not only in the 20th Century, but throughout history. I would have done the same thing if the insult was directed at Palestinians, Lebanese, Croatians, or any other racial/religious/national group.

However, I found an unexpected surprise. Instead of receiving immediate support for an action I thought just and reasonable, several people on Twitter attacked Jews, and me for defending them (one wrote, “You have used your enormous prestige in Chile to become “a shield for the Jews”). They also accused me of “encouraging censorship”, suggesting a “media dictatorship”, etc… . I replied inmediately in Twitter to the least offensive ones. Fifteen minutes later I received a ‘tweet’ from an editor at El Mercurio, saying that they had seen my complaint in Twitter and that they were studying the situation. With another tweet I insisted on immediate deletion of the comment. Twenty minutes later the newspaper editors deleted the offensive comment number 10. I want to emphasize that the editorial mistake, even this grievous one, does not compromise the newspaper El Mercurio as a whole, and its fast action in regard to the issue speaks to the newspaper’s chief editor’s integrity. It was an extraordinary triumph of the fast boat Twitter over the “media carrier” in Chile, another demonstration of the liberating potential of the wonderful new technologies being developed in the land of the free and the brave.

What left me very worried, and the reason I wrote this, is having detected a worrisome anti-Semitic sentiment among my fellow countrymen. Is this unjust anti-Semitic sentiment widespread, though hidden, in Chile, or was this only a “black swan?” I declare myself in a state of alert. We are building a free and good country. There should be no place whatsoever for the language of hate and the discrimination of minorities. As the great Albert Einstein said: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”

Government Schooling vs. Freedom

Yesterday, I posted a blog entry responding to an interview with historian Diane Ravitch in which she criticized “privatization” and asserted that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” My response was directed at Prof. Ravitch, but touches on a bigger issue with which all people in the education debate need to grapple: How much should the school choice debate be centered not around test scores or financial costs – though those are obviously very important considerations – but on the role and structure of education in a free society? Can we not trust free people to make their own education decisions? If not, how can our system of education be compatible with a nation firmly rooted in individual liberty?

That is a debate I think we desperately need to have – it is fundamental for a free society – and I hope others will join in.

Fear of Freedom Leaves Only Faith Healing for Our Schools

Historian Diane Ravitch drives me nuts. She has written numerous, terrific books chronicling the ills of government control of education, including the wrenching social conflict it has caused; the ejection of meaningful content from textbooks and tests it has required; and the dominance of educrats over parents and children it has enabled. She has been, essentially, the official historian of government-schooling’s failure. And yet, in a new blog interview with journalist John Merrow, she appears not to comprehend the most important lesson her copious works have to offer: that government education is doomed to fail.

Why the huge disconnect between her historiography and willingness to act on its clear implications? Because, it appears, as much as she knows that government schooling fails, she fears educational freedom even more. “Privatization,” in her mind, is simply too dangerous:

I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have.  In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’  What’s your ideal approach?  Are we moving in that direction?

If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.

Unfortunately, while Prof. Ravitch knows a gigantic amount about education history, she exhibits precious little understanding of freedom or its economic subset, free markets. For one thing, charter schooling – a system by which public schools are given a right to exist and largely held accountable by government – isn’t even close to “privatization,” if by that we mean taking control from government and giving it to free, “private” individuals. Worse, Ravitch evinces a reflexive and, frankly, simplistic fear of free markets in hyperbolically asserting that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” I’d strongly suggest that she explore some non-education history – for instance, that of government-sponsored institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act; and federal regulation – before making any such over-the-top declaration again.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Prof. Ravitch fails to grasp – or, perhaps, to intuitively feel – how freedom works, and hence she fears it. Like many people, maybe she’s just not comfortable with seemingly ethereal spontaneous order, and needs to have some higher power pulling the strings to feel safe. Perhaps she fails to see how freedom, by fostering competition and innovation, produces all of the wonderful things we take for granted. Maybe she doesn’t really understand that it is due to freedom that we have an abundance of computers, coffee cups, cars, houses, package delivery services, miracle drugs, and pencils, not to mention religious pluralism, marketplaces of idea, and even happiness.

And then there’s the flip-side: government failure. While she has done more than perhaps any other historian to detail government failure and damage it has inflicted in education, Ravitch seems dead set against applying what she knows to public policy. She knows, for instance, that government often works precisely for the powerful special interests it’s supposed to keep in check. She doesn’t, though, seem to know why that is, and why it is the rule in government. She doesn’t appear to realize that the people who would be regulated, or who are employed by government, have by far the greatest motivation to get involved in the politics of their narrow areas, and hence exercise by far the most influence over them. And she doesn’t realize that it is only when special interests control government – not when they are in free markets – that they can exert unchecked power, because it is only then that they no longer have to get others to voluntarily do business with them.

Unfortunately, Ravitch’s apparent fear of freedom forces her to deny the only hope for making American education really work:  to empower all parents to choose, and to set educators free. Only then would schools be able to specialize in the needs of our hugely diverse children, and would children be able to attend them. Only then would educators have to compete for their money, forcing them to respond to the people they are supposed to serve rather than exercising political control over them. Only then would we see in education the kind of powerful innovation and progress we take for granted in everything from consumer electronics to restaurants.

And yes, freedom works in education, just as it does in almost every field of human endeavor. Despite much of the world having adopted the government-schooling model, we have ample evidence of this. For instance, James Tooley’s hugely important research reveals how private, for-profit schools are educating the world’s poorest children much more effectively than “free” government schools. And Andrew Coulson’s recent review of education research reveals that the more free an education system, the better its results.

Freedom, quite simply, works, and government, typically, does not. Which might be exactly why, after Ravitch has bashed “privatization” and “deregulation,” the only prescription she has left is blind, reality-ignoring hope: “At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.”

We should wait, in other words, for a miracle, a healing of that which is inherently broken. It is, of course, no solution at all, but both knowing the history of American education, and fearing real freedom, Ravitch has nothing else to offer.