‘Nation’s Top Teachers’ Air Grievances with EdSec DeVos

Some of the “Nation’s Top Teachers” met with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and aired some of their concerns.

Jon Hazell, Oklahoma’s teacher of the year, told DeVos that school choice policies are draining traditional public schools of resources in his state. He specifically referenced charter schools and private schools in voucher programs, Hazell told HuffPost. His comment received support from other teachers in the room.

But Hazell, a Republican who voted for President Donald Trump, said he found DeVos’ responses to his concerns unsatisfactory.

DeVos told Hazell that students might be choosing these schools to get out of low-performing public schools, he said.

“I said, ‘You’re the one creating the ‘bad’ schools by taking all the kids that can afford to get out and leaving the kids who can’t behind,’” Hazell said he told DeVos in response. (Hazell said he was not referring to DeVos specifically as creating the “bad” schools but to school choice policies generally.)

Emphasis mine. Let’s take this complaint seriously: By allowing wealthy (or merely resourceful) parents to take their children out of certain schools to pursue a better education, public schools can become bad. This comes from the loss of funds when parents remove their children. That’s average daily attendance money and funding tied to individual students. In states where school choice is more prevalent, it may also mean money that follows the student to the school that parents choose, and thus draining the “common schools” of some additional fraction of funding. These reductions will reduce resources available for instructional staff and materials.

But Mr. Hazell may also be implicitly arguing that by exercising a choice, parents are “taking” better students to schools of choice. The argument here seems to be this: Test scores look bad because all the choosy parents chose a different school, and that sorting process makes some schools look better than others on paper. Regulators and state lawmakers will inevitably look to the poor-performing schools and say, “Why can’t you be more like this school that the wealthy parents chose?” It’s just an unfair comparison.

If I’ve presented an accurate picture of Mr. Hazell’s concerns, the argument has intuitive appeal, but it holds some pretty troubling implications for what to do about the perceived problems: the draining of resources and allowing some students to leave (the ones who “can afford to get out”) while others must languish.

If this represents the opinion of teachers generally, and not just Oklahoma’s teacher of the year, what would they propose as the fix?

As a legal matter, it could necessarily mean overturning a case known as Pierce. The Supreme Court in that case threw out an Oregon law that required all young people to attend public schools. The decision in the case upheld the basic civil liberty of parents to play a decisive role in how their own children become educated.

I can’t imagine that teachers want to overturn a landmark civil liberties case just so they can more effectively protect public schools from parents who just want their kids to get a more robust education. And if you view every parent as a potential threat to your preferred status quo, what does that say about your desire as an educator to serve their needs?

Thankfully, this is simply not where the debate sits with respect to school choice. Public school teachers, however well-intentioned, know in their hearts that the ability of parents to choose a better school for their kids is a fundamental decision and one that no parent wants taken away. Any political move to rein in every parent who would otherwise exercise school choice will be met with outrage. Such a move would end the image of schoolteachers as lovable/underpaid/devoted public servants.

In Kentucky, the animosity aimed at any form of school choice has become palpable, especially after teachers in Jefferson County appear to view the possible takeover of the school district by the state as a shadowy conspiracy to impose charter schools from Frankfort. Whether or not that’s a fair characterization, there’s no question that Kentucky’s largest school district has a long history of disappointing performance, most especially for the low-income and minority students who reside there. A state takeover might well be a starting point to provide those parents a more-than-passively-helpless role in ensuring a quality education for their children.

(Story via Walter Olson)

Let ’em Drop Out


Governor Steve Beshear doesn’t like that so many students drop out of school, so he’s an enthusiastic booster of the recent Kentucky Senate Bill 97, which requires that more young people must seek permission from their local school board before they depart. Once a 55% majority of school districts adopt this as a policy, it becomes mandatory for every young person in the state to seek permission (or turn 18) before departing high school.

There are several reasons why this policy is disrespectful to parents and young people, but the one that jumps out at me most right now is that there appears to be no exception in the law for kids that drop out to go to college or technical school. The exceptions detailed here make no mention of higher education. Say what you will about the value of college or vocational degrees, but they’re easily far more valuable than a high school diploma. Telling young people that they can’t skip high school for the rigors of college or often-just-as-challenging technical school is, at best, insulting.

Disclaimer:

  • I do believe that dropping out of high school is generally a poor decision. Even if you accept the idea that most of what you learn in high school is close to useless, the vast majority of a would-be dropout’s potential future employers use that diploma as a blunt screening device. Don’t get a diploma and you’ve already basically struck out.
  • My experience suggests that the last year of high school is maddeningly close to a total waste of time.

Imposing National Standards

Next month, the Obama Administration will begin granting waivers to states that are not on track to meet proficiency requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be granting these waivers selectively, based mostly on states’ willingness to abide by new executive branch mandates not included in NCLB, likely including adopting national curriculum standards.

Duncan has the authority under NCLB to grant waivers, but not to compel states to jump through administration hoops in order to earn them, as Neal McCluskey has documented clearly.

As Neal notes in today’s Cato Daily Podcast, essentially imposing national standards – as well as other potential waiver demands – represents a large-scale assertion of federal executive power over local education:

We’ve broken any semblance of a Constitutional balance of power between the executive and the legislative branch. Now the President is just going to dictate to every school what they’re going to teach. And that is a giant threat to freedom and to the American education system.

A broader recognition that the Constitution grants neither Congress nor the President any role in education would go a long way toward fixing these problems. NCLB may be, to quote Arne Duncan, “a slow-motion train wreck,” but using that law to transfer power away from parents, states and Congress is easily a solution worse than the problem.

Close the After-School Loophole!

“The terrifying reality we’re facing is that the worst-equipped people you could possibly imagine may actually be forced to take care of their children,” [Deputy Education Secretary Anthony W. Miller] said. [via The Onion]

Without the Census, How Would We Plan?

Watch this ad for the 2010 Census. Apparently the Census is doing some Super Bowl activities, including TV spots. Here’s a quote:

If we don’t know how many kids there are, how do we know how many classrooms we need? The Census helps us know exactly what we need, so everyone can get their fair share of funding. We can’t move forward until you mail it back.

First of all, helping the feds apportion education funding is not the purpose of the Census. A decennial enumeration of persons in the U.S. is in the Constitution; federalized education funding is not. But that’s not even the weird thing about the ad.

It’s the assumption that without the Census, local school administrators would be completely unable to plan for the future. It’s as if they’d make a (possibly educated) guess about how many kids will show up and then pray and wring their hands until they get an accurate count on the first day. If they don’t buy enough buns on the first day, will some kid have to go without a sloppy joe? Reminds me of an old Simpsons bit about the dangers of inflexible planning:

Marge: Homer, we have a perfectly good bookcase.

Homer: Yeah, but this is what they’re doing on campus. Besides, it isn’t costing us: I swiped the cinder blocks from a construction site.

[At the “Future site of children’s hospital”, a worker walks forlorn up to his boss]

Worker: Sir, six cinder blocks are missing.

Boss: There’ll be no hospital, then. I’ll tell the children.

Why is that auto manufacturers, homebuilders, retailers, food producers, clothing producers and others who must compete for customers are somehow able to not only plan for changes in population, but also plan for the customers who may or may not voluntarily choose to patronize them? Those companies are in turn serviced by the firms and people that somehow manage to supply just the right amount of steel, lumber, labor, food, textiles and everything else to provide for often competing needs. I realize that the Census can help all these actors at one point or another, but that count tells us precious little about the dynamic preferences of hundreds of millions of people, preferences that are readily accommodated in the marketplace.

Why is a once-a-decade count of people so critical for school planning? Shouldn’t it be easier for public schools to plan for a relatively captive group of “customers”? Beyond that, even if school administrators had perfect information about demographics and the desires of parents and were fully empowered to act on them, would they be more accommodating?

POTUS Addresses the Children

President Obama will talk to students tomorrow. He’ll say this:

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

I know Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at one point, but I think even he would be hard pressed to show me where the federal government gets the authority to do any of those things. States, sure. But the feds?

Yet another reason to stay in school, kids. You don’t want future presidents like this to try to convince you that they have more authority than they actually do, do you?

Obama will close with this:

What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

Considering I’ll never run for public office, there’s not much chance my name will end up on a bridge, federal building, dam, highway, overpass or parking meter. Still, I’d like a future president to come along, use me as an example of cynicism and say that I was an obstructionist and an opponent of progress/hope/change. That might be nice for my grandkids to hear.