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Forget the victory over the union bosses in Wisconsin. Yes, that was important, but school choice is an ever bigger threat to the left.

Breaking the government education monopoly would reveal the inefficiency and incompetence of government, while simultaneously threatening the power of the National Education Association, which is a major source of money and power for the left.

Even more important, school choice would give poor kids a much better education, thus increasing their ability to achieve the American dream.

Helping poor people lead better lives, though, is not a priority for the left. If people are less dependent on government, they probably are less likely to reflexively support those who want to make government even bigger.

This is why it is good news that the promise of school choice in Pennsylvania (which I wrote about last year) is about to become a reality.

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent editorial page has the key details.

The most promising development is occurring in Pennsylvania, where a state-wide voucher bill supported by new Governor Tom Corbett is moving through the Republican-controlled legislature. Children in the Keystone State’s 144 worst schools—where students scored in the lowest 5% on recent state exams—would be eligible for a voucher. …in 1996, but unions blocked the idea by claiming that lack of spending was the real education problem. Time has proven that wrong again. According to the Commonwealth Foundation, a state think tank, “taxpayer spending on public schools has doubled to $26 billion per year” over the past 15 years. Pennsylvania taxpayers spend more than $13,000 per student, or “$2,000 more than the national average and more than 39 other states.” In some of the worst school districts, per pupil spending approaches $20,000. Yet scores on national tests have been flat for years, with only 40% of Pennsylvania 8th graders at or above proficiency in reading and math. Even state tests, which have lower standards, show that only about half of Pennsylvania 11th graders are proficient in reading and math.

What’s especially encouraging about the developments in Pennsylvania is that some traditionally left-wing folks have realized that it’s time to put the best interests of kids above the interests of the teacher unions. I particularly admire the role of a black state senator.

Mr. Williams, who is black, has taken some heat for his pro-voucher stance from local civil rights groups. “The NAACP nationally is opposed to this and locally is opposed to this, and they call me all sorts of funny names,” he tells us. “But the truth is that a lot of the people in the NAACP don’t acknowledge that they send their own kids to private schools. They’ve left. They’ve moved away.” Several local labor groups in Philadelphia have also broken with the teachers union and endorsed vouchers. “We believe that children from all economic backgrounds deserve a chance for a bright future,” said John Dougherty of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. “School choice programs will give them that chance.”

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School choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Rich people already have school choice, both because they have the ability to live in good school districts and they have the resources to send their kids to private schools. The children of poor people, by contrast, are warehoused in failing government schools. Here’s what Kevin Huffman recently said for the Washington Post.

In this country, if you are middle or upper class, you have school choice. You can, and probably do, choose your home based on the quality of local schools. Or you can opt out of the system by scraping together the funds for a parochial school.

But if you are poor, you’re out of luck, subject to the generally anti-choice bureaucracy. Hoping to win the lottery into an open enrollment “choice” school in your district? Good luck. How about a high-performing charter school? Sure – if your state doesn’t limit their numbers and funding like most states do. And vouchers? Hiss! You just touched a political third rail.

…We may have done away with Jim Crow laws, but we have a Jim Crow public education system.

…Consider the recent results from a test of 15-year-olds around the world. Headlines noted the embarrassing American mediocrity (31st out of 65 countries in math, with scores below the international average). Even worse, our results are profoundly segregated by race. White and Asian Americans are still in the upper echelon. But African American and Latino students lag near the bottom quartile of world standards. As we think about our game plan to “win the future,” our black and Latino students won’t be competing with China and Finland – they’re on track to scrap it out with Bulgaria and Mexico.

But school choice is only part of the answer. If parents lack a commitment to education (or are not even present in the home), then even good schools won’t translate into good students. Walter Williams explains.

The public education establishment bears part of the responsibility for this disaster, but a greater portion is borne by black students and their parents, many of whom who are alien and hostile to the education process.

…Violence, weapons-carrying, gang activity and student or teacher intimidation should not be tolerated. Students engaging in such activity should be summarily expelled.

Some might worry about the plight of expelled students. I think we should have greater concern for those students whose education is made impossible by thugs and the impossible learning environment they create.

Another part of the black education disaster has to do with the home environment. More than 70 percent of black children are born to unwedded mothers, who are often themselves born to unwedded mothers. Today’s level of female-headed households is new in black history. Until the 1950s, almost 80 percent of black children lived in two-parent households, as opposed to today’s 35 percent.

Often, these unwedded mothers have poor parenting skills and are indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to their children’s education. The resulting poorly behaving students should not be permitted to sabotage the education of students whose parents are supportive of the education process.

At the minimum, a mechanism such as tuition tax credit or educational voucher ought to be available to allow parents and children who care to opt out of failing schools. Some people take the position that we should repair not abandon failing schools. That’s a vision that differs little from one that says that no black child’s education should be improved unless we can improve the education of all black children.

…Our black ancestors, just two, three, four generations out of slavery, would not have tolerated school behavior that’s all but routine today. The fact that the behavior of many black students has become acceptable and made excuses for is no less than a gross betrayal of sacrifices our ancestors made to create today’s opportunities.

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The invaluable Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner is an expert at exposing the corruption of big government, and his article about for-profit colleges and government-subsidized tuition shows that everybody involved in this fight is sleazy. Unfortunately, no matter who wins, the taxpayers lose. It’s also worth pointing out that the main effect of government-financed tuition payments and loans is to drive up the cost of college – another example of the third-party payer phenomenon.

Here are key passages from Tim’s column.

For a case study in the tawdry and twisted world of Washington policymaking and lobbying, you can’t do much better than the current fight over the subsidies and regulations for for-profit colleges. Behind every argument is an ulterior motive, around every corner is a conflict of interest, and in every pocket there is cash procured through government policy supposed to serve the public good.
…don’t confuse “for-profit” with “capitalist.” Without federal subsidies in the form of Pell grants and federal loan guarantees, the for-profits might not exist. At the very least, they would be much smaller. About 87 percent of the revenue at the biggest for-profits comes from federal taxpayers, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. They belong to a class of company that I call Subsidy Sucklers.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, earlier this year declared war on the for-profits, ordering the Government Accountability Office to investigate these schools’ marketing techniques. The GAO produced a scathing condemnation.
…But a closer look revealed a murkier picture. The GAO last month corrected the paper, modifying 16 of the report’s 28 findings. At Education Week, Rick Hess wrote, “all 16 of the errors run in the same direction — casting for-profits in the worst possible light.” The credibility of Harkin’s star witness in his August hearing, Steven Eisman, was also called into question.
Eisman is a short-seller who reportedly stands to make big money if the stocks of for-profit colleges collapse. He also is a vocal lobbyist for new regulations that would cripple these colleges. The term for Eisman is Regulatory Robber Baron.
… Bill Clinton’s former special counsel Lanny Davis first flagged Eisman’s role in a Politico op-ed, and liberal ethics “watchdog” Melanie Sloan followed up, criticizing Harkin for allowing Eisman to testify, sparking the liberal American Prospect to ask in a headline, “Why Are Progressives Fighting Student Loan Reform?” The answer: money.
On September 17 — about three months after Davis’s op-ed — Davis registered as a lobbyist for the Coalition for Educational Success, a trade group of for-profit colleges. Then in November, Sloan announced she was joining Davis’s lobbying firm. Also lobbying for the for-profit colleges are six former Democratic congressmen and three former Republican lawmakers.
This tale has no good guys, but it does have a moral: When you inject government into an industry, you get some pretty unsavory results.

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You wouldn’t expect any positive developments from California when it comes to schooling, but this video shows that parents now have the ability, for all intents and purposes, to fire the incumbent management of a government school.

I don’t think this is nearly as good as what’s being proposed in Douglas County, Colorado, but it’s a big step for a union-controlled state such as California.

And the parents of one failing school have pulled the trigger and are forcing good reforms.

2011 could be a very good year for school reform and improvement. That’s bad news for politicians and teacher unions, but great news for parents and kids.

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One of the few success stories in American education is the home-schooling movement. About two million kids are being taught by their parents and the evidence is overwhelming that these students get a far better education than children in government schools. And since my youngest kid was home schooled for a couple of years, I can personally testify that it often is the right approach.

But the real reason for this post is to share this very clever and funny video from Tim Hawkins (creator of the tremendously successful song parody, “The Government Can”).

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I generally focus on fiscal policy and I love low tax rates, so when I say that what happens on school choice in Douglas County, Colorado, may be more important to the future of the nation than what happens with Obama’s plan for higher tax rates next year, that should give you an idea of the critical importance of this education battle.

The union bosses at the National Education Association have been waging a vicious national campaign against competition and choice and have succeeded in limiting school choice to a handful of small systems (largely focused just on the poor) in places such as Milwaukee.

These are great success stories, but the government education monopoly won’t be broken until there is a big, highly visible, school choice success in a large, mostly white, jurisdiction. Douglas County is that example. Here’s an excerpt from a story in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The school board in a wealthy suburban county south of Denver is considering letting parents use public funds to send their children to private schools—or take classes with private teachers—in a bid to rethink public education.

The proposals on the table in Douglas County constitute a bold step toward outsourcing a segment of public education…

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a voucher program in Cleveland that public money could be used for private religious schools as long as parents were not steered to any one particular faith-based program and had a “genuine choice” on where to use their vouchers. About 160,000 children in the U.S., mostly low-income or with special needs, use vouchers or scholarships subsidized indirectly by the state to attend private schools, according to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

…Douglas County School District board members are also considering letting students enrolled in public schools opt out of some classes in favor of district-approved alternatives offered at for-profit schools or by private-sector instructors. Students might skip high-school Spanish, for example, to take an advanced seminar in Chinese, or bypass physics to study with a rocket scientist, in person or online.

…The school board is dominated by conservatives, including several who won election last fall on vows to expand educational choices. “These days, you can build a custom computer. You can get a custom latte at Starbucks,” said board member Meghann Silverthorn. “Parents expect the same out of their educational system.”

…Douglas County, a swath of tidy cul-de-sacs and look-alike subdivisions, already boasts nine charter schools, two magnet schools and an online school as well as 65 traditional schools—all funded by tax dollars. Students receive high scores on standardized tests and a recent community survey found overwhelmingly positive views about the public schools. Fewer than 4,000 students in the district chose private or home schools last year, according to state statistics.

“But we will not rest on our laurels,” board president John Carson said at a recent meeting.

…The voucher plan…would give participants about $5,000, enough to cover 35% to 100% of tuition at local private schools.

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Some of my Republican friends were disappointed with last week’s election results in Colorado, but something far more important is about to happen in the Centennial State. Douglas County, which is a significant jurisdiction with 240,000 residents south of Denver, appears to be on the verge of implementing a sweeping school choice system.  Here’s a blurb from the Denver Post:

Douglas County School District officials say an unexpected level of interest in a retreat exploring school choice today and Saturday is forcing them to add an overflow room and a video feed to allow the public to watch the discussion.

…The two-day retreat will discuss the findings of a school-choice task force that has been mulling several issues, including vouchers.

Here’s a link to the proposal, but if you just want my summary, I’m told that parents will have a voucher for about $4,500 per child that can be used to finance tuition at any qualifying school. This is more than enough money to cover costs at most non-government schools, and the population is sufficiently large to make this program a dramatic test case.

Keep your fingers crossed that Douglas County officials resist special-interest groups that are seeking to thwart this reform. The teacher unions have been vicious in their efforts to stop this kind of development. If Douglas County succeeds in putting kids first, this could break the logjam and lead to better education policy across the nation.

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