‘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)

RIP Lowell Reese

Lowell Reese was a journalist who cared deeply about the rules that governed the game. His decades in journalism, his sharp mind, and his kind heart all contributed to his engaged, deep, often meticulous data-driven reporting on politics and policy.

More than that, Lowell Reese was a helpful, generous friend to anyone who wanted to understand practical politics on a deeper level. He gave me important information that drove my studies into Kentucky’s pension system, for which I wrote more than a little bit. In the process of writing on this subject, there weren’t many people to talk to, and Lowell Reese was absolutely invaluable as I tried to understand the ground-level realities of the incentives that drive Kentucky’s pension plans.

I came to know Lowell well while working for the Bluegrass Institute, directing the group’s KentuckyVotes.org platform to track lawmakers’ daily activities in Frankfort.

It’s fun to remember how energizing Lowell was to me, Chris Derry, and Jim Waters as we worked to get the project off the ground and bring that all-important daily rundown of lawmakers’ votes to the public for free. His enthusiasm for the project played out through introductions to helpful lawmakers, helpful staff at the Legislative Research Commission and the various people who had either pull or knowledge to help us move the project forward. I can never thank him enough for so gleefully giving me access to his network.

When I moved to Frankfort to run the project throughout the legislative session and write for Kentucky Gazette, Lowell revealed himself to be a great friend, as well. Always interested in what I knew and freely giving of what he knew, we held occasional meetings in the maddeningly beautiful office behind his home. It was, I recall, the perfect perch for an independent journalist: a life’s work on the walls and a relaxed, engaged journalist behind the desk.

The big issue toward the end of Lowell’s life was pension transparency. You’d be forgiven for thinking this meant he was concerned only about abuses perpetrated by Wall Street profiteers on the poor, defenseless managers of billion-dollar pension funds. Private equity’s appeal to pension managers is a big problem, to be sure, and Lowell was concerned about it, but for him this was at most half of the problem associated with a lack of transparency in pension finance.

Lowell was also intensely concerned with the manner in which individual public sector workers could make relatively minor adjustments in their working lives to trigger massive pension payouts. He made various estimates of how a little-known bill, HB 299, passed in 2005, would allow some Kentucky lawmakers to make a few key moves with respect to their employment and pensions to increase their lifetime wealth by a million dollars or more.

It’s a bigger issue than just lawmakers, of course, and the kind of data detailing the size of pension payouts and and various decisions that balloon pensions is also still shrouded in mystery. But thanks in no small part to Lowell Reese, that issue is on the table like never before.

Only since Kentucky Gazette published his obituary have I learned that Lowell was apparently an active Republican campaigner. Personality driven politics were rarely a part of our discussions. What made Lowell interesting to me was his own interest in the consequences of ideas and appropriateness of rules.

Here’s more from Kentucky Gazette and more from Jim Waters, and some more precise details of his later projects with the Bluegrass Institute.

Big Speech in the Kentucky Senate Race

In The New York Times Magazine‘s piece on the U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, I came across this:

This year’s Kentucky Senate race is the latest chapter in this political arms race, drawing contributions from large outside “super PACs” and wealthy individual donors.

Factually incorrect, but not surprising.

It’s typical for media outlets to ignore the important distinction between a direct contribution to a campaign and political advertising that supports a candidate. What’s troubling to me how often the error occurs and the ignorance it demands of reporters and editors. I’d prefer to believe that it’s borne out of a poor understanding of both the First Amendment and campaign finance laws, but it’s very hard to square.

Reporters, in my experience, broadly support restrictions on free spending on political ads and other advocacy by unaffiliated groups. Establishment journalism has long occupied a special place free from exactly those kinds of restrictions, but there’s no good reason to believe that kind of exemption would have to continue. Newspapers, radio stations and television outlets have served as providers of both information and advocacy, endorsing candidates freely and spending mightily on the bandwidth to broadcast those messages. There’s no clear distinction between the spending of a super PAC on a message and the spending of a newspaper to express the same thing.

If it’s pure ignorance that drives reporters to not clearly understand the implications of tight regulation on “outside” advocacy, it’s galling. If the error is driven by the specious, unstated belief that no future Congress would dare impose those same restrictions on establishment media, it’s dangerous.

Lynn’s Paradise Cafe Is Still Closed, Still Unknown Exactly Why

A year ago this week, I was puzzling over why one of my favorite Louisville tourist traps, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe, had suddenly closed. I suggested it may have had something to do with the impending regulations that would be foisted upon businesses in 2014 by the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). I haven’t lived in Louisville for nearly nine years, so I’ll admit that I don’t understand all the dynamics that went into Lynn’s decision to shut down. I earned only one response I believe was ill-considered. Louisvillian Briana Morgan said that my suggestion was irresponsible. Here are her thoughts. More

Public Pension Woes

I wrote a short piece for The American Magazine on state pensions. Here’s a nug:

Most public pension funds across the United States were on an unsustainable course long before the financial crisis hit.

For example, prior to the crisis, in my home state of Kentucky, the share of pension fund assets flowing from the pension fund to retirees went from less than 5 percent to more than 9 percent between 2001 and 2007, just before the financial crisis began to cascade. That means that however quickly the pension fund grew, payments to pensioners grew considerably faster — during good times. All well before Taibbi’s supposed “legend of pension unsustainability” got started.

Furthermore, while the shift by public pension funds away from secure fixed income and into riskier investments accelerated after the financial crisis, it was actually decades in the making. Between 1984 and 1994, U.S. public pension funds in total held just 5 percent of assets in alternatives and 50 percent in fixed income, reports Pensions and Investments. By 2007, alternatives had doubled to comprise 10 percent of all pension fund holdings. Since the financial crisis, alternatives have nearly doubled again to 19 percent of total assets. By contrast, fixed income holdings have fallen nearly in half to 27 percent of total assets.

Clearly, pension funds have been chasing returns. Part of the cause is that politicians, during the reasonably good economic times before the financial crisis, were loath to make the full contributions recommended by actuaries — the people who tell lawmakers how much to contribute to keep pensions funds functioning into perpetuity.

Here’s the rest.

Kentucky Attorney General v. Free Advice

In a parallel universe, U.S. Senator Jack Conway is presently writing legislation to license all newspaper columnists who purport to provide free (and worth it!) advice. In this universe, he’s just trying to shut down one columnist for advising without a license.

From the video description:

In May 2013, John Rosemond—America’s longest running newspaper columnist—received an astonishing order from the Kentucky attorney general: Stop publishing your advice column in the Bluegrass State or face fines and jail. The attorney general and Kentucky’s psychologist licensing board believe that John’s column, which is syndicated in more than 200 papers nationwide, constitutes the “unlicensed practice of psychology” in Kentucky when it appears in a Kentucky newspaper. Kentucky’s crackdown is part of a national surge in the abuse of occupational licensing laws to censor advice.

Kentucky’s already got a poor track record with occupational licensing.

An additional note to Jack Conway: The Institute for Justice has both the capacity and will to make your office look foolish, unprincipled, shortsighted and craven on a very public stage should you choose to dig in for the long fight.

Sheriffs talk tough on Second Amendment (unnecessarily)

A number of sheriffs around the country (Oregon, Kentucky, Missouri, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah) have said they will refuse to enforce federal restrictions on private gun ownership that they find to be in conflict with the Constitution.

It seems like a bold threat, but it really isn’t. State and local law enforcement officials simply don’t have to enforce federal laws that they don’t want to enforce. That fact is not controversial. It is, however, a persistent issue in the federal versus state struggle over the marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington. Those states have simply chosen to stop assisting the federal government. It may complicate the feds’ ability to enforce those laws, but it’s just not as confrontational an approach as media reports have suggested.

Robert Mikos discussed this in his new paper with respect to marijuana laws, but the principles related to how states and federal powers interact is one that holds significant implications for the right to keep arms and the President’s health care law.

Mikos and I discussed the marijuana initiatives for a Cato Daily Podcast. You can also watch the forum.

Tim Lynch and I also discussed gun restrictions and federalism in a Cato E-Briefing last week.

Marcus Carey on SuperPACs

Kentucky U.S. House candidate Marcus Carey recently put out a web ad that says that his campaign has “no entanglements with Super PACs.”

There are a few ways to interpret this. One, the statement makes it sound like he doesn’t actually understand that his campaign is barred by federal law from coordinating with a supportive Super PAC, so claiming to have “no entanglements” with them may reveal a serious lack of understanding of the basic landscape of electoral politics.

But, if like any good candidate, Carey does clearly understand how federal election law prohibits the very activity that he so proudly eschews, then it sounds a lot more like he’s accusing his opponents of coordinating with SuperPACs that support their candidacy. He would seem to imply that his opponents are violating federal law.

Of course he’s not saying that. What I believe Carey means to say is that he’s not encumbered by having “big money” supporters, turning the liability of fewer monied supporters into a campaign strength of the appearance of relative independence and principle. Unfortunately, the populism that goes along with demonizing Super PACs means rejecting much of the First Amendment and making false logical leaps about the nature of corruption.

For anyone who cares about vigorous and freewheeling debate that the First Amendment protects, it’s important to note the cynicism of a candidate who believes that because wealthy people like a campaign, that candidate is therefore compromised and corrupted. That equation – financial support for a candidate’s run equals explicit corruption – is the kind of thinking that gave us the freedom-harming incumbent-protecting McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws.

I’ve met Marcus Carey. He seems more circumspect and earnest than this kind of political game would suggest.