Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

National School Choice Week and the Perils of Government Monopolies

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Originally published at Every Joe

It’s National School Choice Week, an annual affair built on advocacy in pursuit of “effective education options for every child.” According to the group’s website, “The goal of National School Choice Week (NSCW) is to raise public awareness of all types of education options for children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.”

To an individual who isn’t embroiled in the politics of education, this sounds like a commonsense statement. Why subvert the needs of children to empower government and its special interests? Unfortunately, this question answers itself: The culprits are typically money and power. As a result, the issue of school choice is more complicated than it seems on its face, primarily due to the government’s long-held monopoly on education.

Eighty-three percent of children in the United States attend a traditional public school. This means that generally speaking, their education options are limited to the government-run school district that their families happen to live in. This can work out if a child is from a decently affluent area, the schools are good, and his or her parents are engaged with their education. But for disproportionately low-income children trapped in failings schools, lack of choice in education can be a nightmare that sets them up for a lifetime of underperformance.

School choice comes in many forms and, despite its increasing popularity, there are myriad roadblocks to its success. One of the most well-known and popular alternatives to traditionally zoned public schools are charter schools. These are semi or fully publicly funded entities that function as non-profits, led by a private board. Other models include vouchers or education savings accounts; both of which essentially function as a tax credit given to families with which they are allowed to make their own educational and school placement decisions.

Critics of the charter model, including socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, say these schools are focused more on profits than education. “I’m not in favor of privately-run charter schools,” said Sanders to a New Hampshire audience earlier this month. “If we are going to have a strong democracy and be competitive globally, we need the best educated people in the world. And I believe in public education,” he added. (It’s unclear whether Sanders realizes charter schools are public and that on balance they outperform traditional models.)

Critics also claim that voucherizing education – insofar as taxpayer money could be spent at a private school – has the same allegedly negative impact. But there are some major problems with these notions. First is the basic idea, as Sanders claims, that charters are profiting. They’re typically set up as non-profits for a reason; their board members aren’t investors. And secondly, even if they were making a profit, from the perspective of a free market advocate, so what? Profits are the engine of innovation; the more the better. Yet people who are ideologically committed to government centralization malign the efficacy of profits, and naturally tend to oppose choice in education because it undermines the top-down system they so admire.

But not all opposition to school choice is driven by ideology alone. Teachers’ unions are unfortunately one of the biggest opponents of a competitive market in education – and they’ve done a disservice by pitting the demands of public school teachers against what years of data proves is best for children. As Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Jared Meyer wrote at The Manhattan Institute, “The tripling of funding to schools has not benefited students. Powerful teachers’ unions have directed this funding to pay raises for themselves and increased hiring, as student achievement has stagnated.” As they noted, the U.S. went from having the world’s highest graduation high school graduation rate post World War II, to spending the most money per student in the world while falling drastically performance-wise.

This is no doubt an indication that something is fundamentally wrong with the model, not the amount of money being poured into it. And where charter schools are tried, the results speak for themselves. A popular case study proving this point is New Orleans. Post Hurricane Katrina, the city’s public schools were virtually wiped out. In a moment of crisis, the city allowed charter schools to come in and take over. What resulted was so impressive, the model has stayed intact for ten years – and is going strong.

As Jonathan Alter wrote at The Daily Beast last year, pleading with liberals to support school choice, “The results in New Orleans are impressive. Over the last decade, graduation rates have surged from 54 percent to 73 percent, and college enrollment after graduation from 37 percent to 59 percent. (There’s also a new emphasis on helping those who attend college to complete it.) Before Katrina, 62 percent of schools were failing. Today, it’s 6 percent.”

This is an incredibly impressive feat. And it’s worth noting that 85 percent of students attending New Orleans public schools are African-American, many of whom come from low-income families. These are ostensibly the people presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who has also spoken out against charters) seek to help with their top-down approach to education. Yet the model they’re pushing is an outdated, monopolistic failure. In fact, data shows that competition from charter schools actually improves the traditionally zoned ones. But yet again, we have politicians putting the interests of a union over the needs of low-income children.

Innovation should always be a key component in education. Yet all too often it’s stifled in favor of stale, rigid models that assume one-size-fits-all. The truth is this is almost never the case, especially when it comes to the art of teaching individual students. And on the measure of retaining and educating challenging students, charters manage to outperform traditional public schools as well. There’s simply no doubt that more choice in education leads to better outcomes for students, particularly those who come from families that cannot afford alternatives. To the extent that we can free the market in education and make it as vibrant as possible, the better. Here’s to National School Choice Week and their lobbying efforts. May it pay off, for the sake of the nation’s future.

The number of college students that want to restrict this important freedom is disturbing

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Originally published at Rare

Higher education has always, at least in theory, hinged upon the free exchange of ideas. While young adults are at college, exposing them to viewpoints that differ from their own is not just intellectually healthy, but necessary for the development of strong critical thinking skills. As a recent survey commissioned by The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale found, 87 percent of students agree that there is value in listening to ideas that differ from one’s own.

But when you drill down further, there seems to be a limit on how much students actually support intellectual diversity.

After all, we’ve been regaled with recent tales of rescinded speaking invitations – Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will is apparently beyond the pale – and have heard about the advent of campus “safe spaces,” recently satirized in brilliant fashion by South Park as utopian escapes from reality. These trends follow the concerningly authoritarian doctrine, popular in some corners of the left, where offensive speech is conflated with physical violence.

According to the Yale poll of approximately 800 college students across the country, 51 percent support speech codes to regulate what can be said by both their peers and faculty alike. Only 36 percent outright oppose such bans on allegedly improper speech.

Of course, who would regulate what is and isn’t “proper” remains unresolved. One can imagine the students in favor of these restrictions might just change their mind if a President Ben Carson used the Department of Education to monitor “extreme liberal bias”–an actual campaign promise from the candidate.

Furthermore, a whopping 63 percent of students believe professors ought to be required to issue “trigger warnings” when coursework could be considered offensive or upsetting. This again begs the question, by what definition? Given today’s internet mob standards, virtually everything is a microaggression of some kind. It makes one wonder what kind of material wouldn’t require a so-called “trigger warning.”

Perhaps most concerning of all is the fact that one-third of survey respondents didn’t know the 1st Amendment to the Constitution is the portion of our governing document that deals with free speech, explicitly stating that it “shall not be abridged.” Remember, we’re talking about college students, so by definition, nearly 35 percent of people who managed to graduate from high school are unfamiliar with our Bill of Rights’ most foundational protection.

35 percent of students said that despite the First Amendment’s unambiguous wording, it doesn’t protect “hate speech.” Should we assume that to mean anything with which the respondent disagrees? Because it would get extremely messy policing that in practice. As UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote at the Washington Post:

“Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas. One is as free to condemn Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal aliens, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans.”

Here’s hoping that the 36 percent of students who say they believe giving ideas they disagree with a hearing, but also support campus speech codes, rethink their contradictory position.

While it may seem pleasant to be shielded from ideas one finds offensive, college campuses should be a place of growth. If students aren’t prepared to contend with reality, which will inevitably include a whole lot of intellectual diversity, they’re going to have a hard time functioning as productive members of society upon graduation.

Back to School, With More Choice

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Originally published at Every Joe

As summer winds down and Labor Day approaches, families across the country are engaged in the familiar ritual of sending their kids back to school. For too many, what should be a time of optimism and renewal is permeated by a sense of dread as children are herded into schools that, by all objective measures, have failed them. Even in schools that perform well on paper, there are kids stuck in situations where their educational needs aren’t being met; burdened by a bureaucracy that often shackles teachers and students alike.

While the tragedy of an education system that under-serves children with diverse needs demands more attention, the good news is that innovative policies are increasingly disrupting traditional models. For too long, public education has been built around forcing students into a state-delineated district, offering families very few if any alternatives. That is finally starting to change in earnest.

As many on the Right are fond of saying, each of our fifty states is its own “laboratory of democracy,” where policies can be tested and, if successful, implemented by lawmakers in other parts of the country. One such example in the realm of school choice is the New Orleans model. Born out of the tragedy surrounding Hurricane Katrina, the ten-year anniversary of which was recently marked, the city moved to an all-charter system in the wake of destruction that prevented the re-opening of the city’s traditional public schools.

A full sixty-two percent of schools that were unable to operate due to storm damage had been designated as failing prior to Katrina. But what was unclear at the time was how incredible progress would be made in the wake of unthinkable tragedy. As Jonathan Alter wrote at The Daily Beast, “The results in New Orleans are impressive. Over the last decade, graduation rates have surged from 54 percent to 73 percent, and college enrollment after graduation from 37 percent to 59 percent.” As Alter further noted, the number of failing schools in New Orleans has been reduced to a mere 6 percent; a drastic improvement in a period of ten years.

While the success in New Orleans is inspiring, it sprung from a desperate urgency not felt in school districts across the country. Change comes slower when families are suffering silently and the spotlight that collective tragedy brings is nowhere to be seen. Although reforms are taking hold in towns, counties, and states throughout the nation, there’s still a near-infinite amount of creative destruction required to pull America’s educational system out of the monopolistic dark ages it has long lived in.

As Mary Tilloston recently wrote at The Federalist, “Arizona pioneered an unusual school-choice law called education savings accounts (ESAs), which deposits a child’s state education dollars into a bank account with a debit card parents control.” This reform mirrors the concept behind health savings accounts (HSAs), which empower people to make their own cost and need conscious medical decisions; adding an element of market competition to an otherwise highly regulated industry.

Tilloston noted that many observers have deemed this type of program a second-generation school choice effort. “Four years into ESAs’ arrival, five states now offer them. Proponents have dubbed them ‘school choice 2.0’ because they drastically expand the voucher concept by ‘unbundling’ education, or allowing parents to customize each component rather than merely turning over one check to one school at the beginning of the year,” said Tilloston. This has given families, especially those with children who have suffered academically or socially, a new lease on life.

Nevada, the newest state to offer ESAs, has garnered a lot of attention due to the expansive nature of its program. As Tilloston explained, “What had everyone talking when Nevada’s ESA program initially passed was its near-universal eligibility. Most school-choice programs are limited to specific demographics—students from low-income families, students with disabilities, students otherwise required to attend schools the state has labeled as ‘failing’. Nevada’s program is open to all public-school students.” This has started to upend the traditional public school model, and countless parents are thankful for the a la carte educational options their children now have access to.

Despite myriad examples of success however, there are many still resistant to change. Opponents of challenging the traditional system often make the argument that they oppose public money going toward private institutions; particularly religious ones. This is why the American Civil LIberties Union (ACLU) recently teamed up with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State to mount a legal challenge against Nevada’s new, extremely expansive ESA program.

But as Tilloston pointed out, you don’t hear the ACLU railing against Medicaid patients receiving care at hospitals with religious affiliations. Nor is there an outcry against the purchasing of kosher or halal food with SNAP benefits. The logic used in this case is very narrow in scope, and appears to be a strong example of selective outrage deployed to protect a longstanding state-centric model.

As Tim Keller, a lawyer at the Institute For Justice who is defending the Nevada law said, “Not one dollar that is deposited into an education savings account is set aside for any particular use, and it is the free and independent choice of parents who use those benefits that breaks the circuit between church and state.”

Like the government-led crusades against sharing economy technologies such as Uber, this opposition appears to be an example of individuals, who have long benefitted from a government monopoly, resistant to changes that would squeeze them out; even if said changes benefit the people they allegedly serve. Ultimately, bottom-up innovations that put parents in change of their children’s educational destinies have empowered countless families who otherwise lacked hope.

It’s unconscionable that groups like the ACLU would try to rob children like Daniel Reyes of Nevada of the education they deserve simply because their access to it was born out of a model they have an ideological opposition to. Instead of protecting government unions and monopolistic bureaucrats, individuals on the Left ought to embrace the very “choice” you so often hear them express support for in other arenas. It’s long past time to elevate diverse educational options over outdated government-sanctioned monopolies.