Can Arne Duncan Fix All the Schools?

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, responding to a new study showing that District of Columbia students using vouchers to attend private schools outperformed their peers in public schools – a study that he has been accused of keeping under wraps until after Congress voted to end the D.C. voucher program – told the Washington Post of his concerns:

“Big picture, I don’t see vouchers as being the answer,” Duncan said in a recent meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. “You can pull two kids out, you can pull three kids out, and you’re leaving 97, 98 percent behind. You need to help all those kids. The way you help them is by challenging the status quo where it’s not working and coming back with dramatically better schools and doing it systemically.”

But why would vouchers only serve two or three percent of the kids? Only because Congress limited the size of the voucher program. Thousands more families have applied for public or private vouchers than there were vouchers available. If the District of Columbia took its mammoth school budget and divided it into equal vouchers or scholarships for each child in the city, Arne Duncan could bet his bottom dollar that a lot more than two percent of the families would head for private or parochial schools. His fear is not that vouchers only serve two percent of the kids, it’s that a full-scale choice program would reveal just how much demand for alternatives there is.

But note also: Duncan says that he wants to “help all those kids … by … coming back with dramatically better schools.” But he ran the Chicago schools for seven years, and he was not able to make a single school good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to send their own children there.

Wouldn’t the 97 or 98 percent of the kids in Chicago whose parents couldn’t afford the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools have benefited from having a choice?

Dance Like Thomas Jefferson’s Watching

As Thomas Jefferson’s birthday (April 13) approaches – and last night being the first night of Passover, which Jews celebrate to commemorate their deliverance from slavery – I thought I’d comment on a disturbing tale that reminds us again that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

In celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s (265th) birthday last year, about 20 D.C.-area libertarians gathered at the Jefferson Memorial just before midnight.  The plan was to have a music-through-headphones dance party for the father of the Declaration of Independence (i.e. each person would dance to the tune of his individual iPod). I was actually supposed to attend, but for some reason did not make it.

It was a short-lived party, however, with an ending that would almost certainly have made our nation’s third president frown in disapproval.

Shortly after the silent bopping started, U.S. Park Police officers began to disperse the partygoers. After shooing and pushing revelers (who were drunk only on liberty) off the memorial, one officer confronted the lone remaining dancer, Brooke Oberwetter, and told her to leave.  Oberwetter calmly asked what law or rules she was violating.  The officer provided no explanation but continued to insist that she leave.  Not satisfied with the officer’s response, Oberwetter stood her ground – until the officer pushed her against a stone pillar, handcuffed her, and led her away.

Now, nearly one year later – after the citation against her (for “interfering with an agency function,” whatever that means) was neither dropped nor pursued – Oberwetter filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the arresting officer, Kenneth Hilliard, and the Secretary of the Interior, Kenneth Salazar (whose office oversees the Park Police). Oberwetter argues that Hilliard and the Park Police violated her First Amendment rights by interrupting and preventing her expressive activity and freedom of assembly.  She also alleges that here Fourth Amendment rights were violated when she was arrested without probable cause and with excessive force.

The complaint, available here, is a model of legal writing.  Pithy, legally sound, and eminently readable, I cannot recommend it more highly to law students and young lawyers.  This is perhaps not surprising because Oberwetter’s counsel is none other than my friend Alan Gura, who last year successfully argued D.C. v. Heller before the Supreme Court.
Here’s a recent TV news story about the case and here’s Radley Balko’s (formerly of Cato, now at Reason) original post about the incident.

Full disclosure: While our tenures never crossed, Oberwetter is a former Cato employee – and a social acquaintance.  I wish Brooke and Alan the best in their fight against such arbitrary use of government power to oppress basic liberty.  (As Alan told me, a good rule of thumb for police: if you can’t think of any charges, even a few weeks later, it was probably a bad arrest.)  And I hope the incident gets Kevin Bacon thinking sequel.

New at Cato Unbound: Brian Doherty Defends ‘Folk Activism’

In today’s installment of Cato Unbound, Reason senior editor Brian Doherty defends “folk activism” (that’s what we do here at Cato, in case you’re wondering) against Patri Friedman’s complaints of ineffectiveness.

Doherty argues, in effect, that Friedman’s effort to simply go out and float a boat upon which one can do whatever floats one’s boat is parasitic on earlier “folk activism” aimed at persuasion. It is hard to find 20,000 people who will commit to moving to New Hampshire for the cause of liberty and, as Brian points out, it’s even harder to find people who will now commit to moving to a man-made island. The viability of projects like Seasteading seems to depend on the success of prior evangelism.

That said, one of the merits of Friedman’s “dynamic geography” is that it is not really a “libertarian” project at all. As he writes in his Unbound lead essay:

Because we have no a priori knowledge of the best form of government, the search for good societies requires experimentation as well as theory — trying many new institutions to see how they work in practice.

I think there’s good reason to expect competing sea-top jurisdictions to settle on a scheme of governance more libertarian than what the world’s current nation states have to offer. But I also think there’s little reason to expect a seastead to embody the system of most libertarians’ dreams unless a lot of libertarians coordinate and settle there. In that case, it’s really clear that creating a libertarian society from whole cloth depends on the prior existence of libertarians, which depends on the success of the folk activism that produces them.

For more on seasteading, check out yesterday’s Cato Policy forum with Patri Friedman and today’s podcast interview.

New at Cato

Here are a few highlights from Cato Today, a daily email from the Cato Institute. You can subscribe, here

  • The new edition of Regulation examines the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the legal drinking age and climate change policies.
  • In The Week, Will Wilkinson argues that the Obama administration should rethink its drug policy and that prominent marijuana users should “come out of the closet.”
  • Gene Healy points out in the Washington Examiner why the Serve America Act (SAA) is no friend to freedom.
  • The Cato Weekly Video features Rep. Paul Ryan discussing the Obama administration’s budget.
  • In Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Patri Friedman discusses seasteading and the prospects for liberty on the high seas.

The Bloom Could Not Survive

“Among several outstanding nominations made by President-elect Obama, I believe Arne Duncan is the best.”

That’s what Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said of now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at his confirmation hearing. Alexander thought that Duncan was a man who truly embraced reform and could work with anybody, and who, like his boss, seemed to really want to get beyond politics.

That was before reality set in.

With the Department of Education’s media-dodging, Friday-afternoon release of a study showing that Washington’s voucher program is outperforming DC public schools at a fraction of the cost, and Duncan’s galling failure to report these results as Congress debated the voucher program’s fate last month, it has become clear that Duncan is far from above playing politics. Of course, he isn’t necessarily calling the shots. He works for President Obama, whom you might recall announced that his children would attend posh, private, Sidwell Friends on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not only on choice that Obama and Duncan are playing the game. They are great at reform-y talk about such things as accountability and high standards, but talk is all they’ve delivered. Oh, that and tens-of-billions of dollars to bail out public schools from which parents should never be allowed to take their kids and money, and which aren’t good enough for the president’s children.

So is the public starting to see that the administration might not be delivering the great change it has promised? It’s hard to tell, but some journalists and education wonks are catching on.

Today, the Denver Post’s David Harsanyi rips into pretty unbelievable protestations by Duncan that he didn’t know about the DC voucher study’s results – or, presumably, that they were even available – at the time Congress was slashing the program’s throat. He also attacks an assertion by Duncan that the Wall Street Journal was being “fundamentally dishonest” in reporting that Duncan’s people refused to answer questions on when they knew about the study’s results.

Now to the wonks. Over on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli takes Duncan to task for his huge-money, huge-talk, little-substance approach to coupling accountability and reform to stimulus riches. But Petrilli  doesn’t just offer his own thoughts; he links to similar assessments by a couple of prominent Obama supporters as well.

So is the bloom coming off the Duncan rose, and at least on education, the Obama rose as well? Maybe, though growing critiques do not a fall-from-grace make.

If the honeymoon is over, it is critical that people understand that the Obama administration failing to match rhetoric to reality is hardly unique, except insofar as Obama’s rhetoric has been uniquely persuasive. No, the administration is just traveling the same political rails that all recent administrations have gone down when they’ve claimed – and sometimes even tried – to challenge the status quo.

The Bush administration softened enforcement of No Child Left Behind pretty quickly as the public-schooling monopoly dodged and evaded any meaningful change. NCLB’s predecessor, the Improving America’s Schools Act, was at best weakly enforced by President Clinton. Even Ronald Reagan gave up on major reform when it became clear that far too few members of Congress would take on the then-nascent U.S. Department of Education.

Why can’t politicians deliver the changes to the system that they promise? Because any within-the-system reforms that could be meaningful, such as high standards and tough accountability, ultimately go against the interests of the 800-pound gorillas in education – the teachers unions, administrators associations, bureaucrats, and others whose comfortable jobs are all but guaranteed by the education monopoly. So reformers might win little skirmishes now and then, but no groups have either the will, ability to organize, or resources necessary to defeat in protracted political warfare the people whose very livelihoods come from government schools.

It is not just the awesome political power of special interests, however, that keeps the monopoly in place. As Terry Moe has found, many Americans have a deep, emotional attachment to public schooling, one likely rooted in a conviction that public schooling is essential to American unity and success. It is an inaccurate conviction – public schooling is all-too-often divisive where homogeneity does not already exist, and Americans successfully educated themselves long before “public schooling” became widespread or mandatory – but the conviction nonetheless is there. Indeed, most people acknowledge that public schooling is broken, but feel they still must love it.

So how can we overcome the government-schooling monopoly, which cannot be reformed from within? We must go around it. We must let individuals control their education dollars by giving everyone school choice. We must make education work the same way as the computer, package-delivery, grocery, clothing, toy, and countless other industries, with autonomous providers competing for the business of empowered consumers. Only then will educators have to earn their money by offering something people want, not by controlling politicians.

But what of the public schooling ideology that compels even unhappy parents to support the reform-destroying status quo? How can that be overcome in order to get widespread choice?

Here’s where long, hard work comes in. We must remind the public over, and over, and over again of reality: that forced government schooling has not been a great unifier of diverse people, and has often been a great divider; that Americans for centuries educated themselves without compelled public schooling; that a government monopoly is inherently doomed to failure; and perhaps most importantly, that forcing all people to support a single system of government education, in which either a majority or powerful minority decides for everyone what the schools will teach, is fundamentally incompatible with individual liberty and freedom.

Barack Obama and Arne Duncan are guilty of too successfully portraying themselves as something different, as people above political reality who can and will implement enlightened policies no matter what. For this they deserve to be taken to task. But they are not, ultimately, to blame for yet more empty promises; political reality almost requires such deception. No, government education itself – and too many people’s blind fealty to it – is the root of our education evil.

Poor Choices Lead to Better Education

What would you do if you earned about a dollar a day and wanted a better life for your kids?

And what if your local public schools just weren’t working – with teachers often cutting classes or showing up only to sip tea and read the paper, ignoring their students. If you’re like the majority of poor Ghanians, Kenyans, Nigerians, Indians, and Chinese that professor James Tooley has studied over the past decade, you’d pay for private schooling at tuition around $2/month.

From impoverished fishing villages to blighted ghettos like those featured in Slumdog Millionaire, from the largest shanty-town in Africa to the remote farming communities of inland China, the poorest people on Earth are not waiting for educational handouts. They are taking matters into their own hands and sending their children to private schools in their own neighborhoods and villages.

Next Wednesday at noon, James Tooley will be at Cato’s DC headquarters to launch his book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

His stories are compelling – his discovery of private schools serving slum children in Hyderabad, his thoughts while being interrogated by one of Mugabe’s goons in a basement cell in Zimbabwe, his reaction to the party functionary in Gansu, China who told him that the private schools he had just visited did not exist. In addition to James’ stories, you’ll also hear those of Reshma Lohia, who runs Lohia’s Little Angels – a school serving 500 poor children in Hyderabad, India.

When I report my findings that parent-driven education markets outperform state-run school monopolies, one of the most common objections I hear is that many parents – especially poor, marginally-educated ones – couldn’t make wise choices for their kids. If you’ve ever pondered that concern, you owe it to yourself to stop by the Cato Institute next Wednesday at noon. Because James has not only chronicled the existence of private schools serving vast numbers of the poor, he has documented in peer-reviewed studies how their performance compares to that of nearby public schools spending many times as much per pupil.

You can register for the event here and help spread the word on Facebook.  We look forward to seeing you.