Monday, November 23, 2009

AZ: School tax credits saving mega-millions

A Baylor University economics professor told lawmakers on Monday that Arizona's private-school tax-credit scholarship program saved the state $44 million to $186 million last year. Charles North's analysis offered a substantially higher savings estimate for the state than The Arizona Republic's estimate of $8.3 million over a period of nine years, published in an article last month.

North said his analysis was based on information that was "speculative" but was reasonable enough to allow him to reach his conclusions. He was paid to conduct the study by the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative research and advocacy group that supports school choice. He appeared at a state House committee hearing chaired by state Rep. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, to consider changes to the private-school individual tax-credit program.

Under the law, individuals can donate up to $1,000 a year to fund tuition scholarships and take a dollar-for-dollar credit off their state tax bill. The money is collected by school-tuition organizations, which then disperse it in the form of private-school scholarships. Murphy's committee is considering changes to the individual tax-credit law but does not plan to discuss suggestions until its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled. A second House committee has met twice on the same issues but, after taking testimony, does not plan to meet again.

How to estimate savings

Supporters of the tax credits argue that the program saves the state substantial money because it enables students who normally would attend publicly funded district or charter schools to attend private schools. The cost of the tax credits to the state budget is more than offset by the savings from not having to pay per-student funding, supporters say.

A key to estimating savings is to determine how many students would not attend private schools without the tax credits. These students represent savings for the state. Students who get tax-credit scholarships, but who would have attended private schools regardless of the credits, represent a cost to the state.

North, the Baylor professor, estimated that in 2008, at least 11,697 students attended private school solely because of the tax-credit scholarships. He reached this number by first checking the Web sites of tuition organizations to see which ones placed a heavy emphasis on awarding scholarships based on students' need. Then, he assumed that half of the students getting scholarships from those groups went to private school only because of the scholarships. He assumed the same for a quarter of students from the other tuition groups.

North made the assumptions despite the fact that there is no uniform standard to determine need among school-tuition organizations, or STOs. The Republic reported Sunday that although the 12 largest organizations say financial need is a factor, many also considered other factors, such as recommendations by those who made tax-credit donations. Parents of private-school students often seek donations from friends and relatives, who can request their gifts be directed to those students; many STOs say they honor at least some of these requests. "This is admittedly speculative, but it seems reasonable to me based upon my own perceptions of families with financial need from my own service as a board member at a private school in Texas," North said after the meeting.

By contrast, The Republic's analysis assumed that no more than 7,530 students went to private school because of the tax-credit incentive. The number represents the entire growth in private-school enrollment from 1999, when the first tuition tax credit took full effect, to 2007. The Republic showed its analysis to economists from Arizona State University, the Arizona Department of Revenue, an accounting professor at Northern Arizona University, the finance director of the Department of Education and an analyst for the Goldwater Institute. None expressed concerns with the methodology.

North, who supports tax-credit scholarships, said that relying on private-school enrollment growth to calculate the financial effects of tax credits understates the savings. The reason is that the growth of public charter schools during that time likely drained many students from private schools. In addition, the national trend for most of the past decade was a decline in private-school enrollment. Despite those factors, he said, Arizona's enrollment still grew thanks to the scholarships.


Can British schools be freed from the ruinous grip of the British government?

Ed Balls doesn't understand that the best engine for raising standards is not ministerial diktat, but the devolution of power to parents, says Matthew d'Ancona

Michael Gove is famous within and outside the Palace of Westminster as a man you want on your side in a quiz: so much so that he sets the questions for his fellow Tory MPs when they want to test their general knowledge. So Ed Balls was taking a serious risk in the Queen's Speech debate on Thursday when he challenged the Shadow Schools Secretary to answer a GCSE question. "Explain how a fluoride atom can change into a fluoride ion," Mr Balls raged across the Dispatch Box – an unsettling mix of Magnus Magnusson and Jake LaMotta. Did he mean "fluorine"? No matter – this was never going to fox Mr Gove, who was obviously paying attention in the lab at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen. "We all know that atoms, whether fluoride or otherwise, are made up of protons, neutrons and electrons," he said. "The way to transform an atom into an ion is by adding or taking away an electron."

Let the scores on the doors show that the Shadow Schools Secretary won that particular round. What is certain is that there are many more such rounds to come in this particular battle. The next general election will probably be dominated by three issues: economic competence; change versus experience; and whether the public can stand another four years of Gordon Brown (a question which, sadly for the Prime Minister, rather answers itself). But if one is looking for an area of policy that truly showcases the difference between Labour and the Conservatives, the resilient distinction between Left and Right, it is education.

In the schools Bill announced in the Queen's Speech, Mr Balls proposes a host of "pupil guarantees", "parent guarantees" and new powers for local authorities and the Secretary of State "to intervene to raise standards in schools". It is a centraliser's charter. As the Lib Dems' education spokesman, David Laws, said on Thursday, recalling Douglas Jay's famous dictum: "There is no better version of the man in Whitehall and Westminster who thinks that he knows best than the Secretary of State."

It was Nye Bevan's ambition "to be able to hear the clatter of the bedpan on the hospital ward, in the office of the minister": Mr Balls, for his part, wants to be able hear the squeak of the marker pen on the classroom whiteboard.

And, to be fair, the Schools Secretary is that most rare of creatures: an honest centraliser. "If we simply leave it to local decision-making," he asked on Thursday "or, as we know from the Conservatives, basically opting out entirely from the national curriculum of the state system and having a much more market-based free-for-all, it might work for some children, but how can we guarantee that a child from a particularly disadvantaged background, whose parents may be less engaged, will get the necessary support? How can we make sure that we deliver social justice in that way?"

There is something both extraordinary and pathetic in a Government as arthritic, broke and impotent as this one suddenly issuing an inventory of "guarantees": promissory notes to future generations. It is true that guarantees do not cost anything, and therefore have a specious appeal to ministers at a time of fiscal tightening. But that's about it. The idea that central prescription can end this country's educational crisis has been tested to destruction. Pledges, targets, a tidal wave of bureaucracy: in many cases, all this prodding and poking from Whitehall has ended up compounding the problem. This is the 12th education Bill to be published in 12 years of New Labour: indeed, little more than a week has passed since the parliamentary debate concluded on the last one (the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009).

The instinct of the Left is to offer "guarantees" policed by the state. The instinct of the Right is – or should be – to champion freedoms. The Cameroons have embraced a fundamental principle of public service reform that became apparent to Tony Blair only in his last years as Prime Minister and has never been accepted by Brown: namely, that the best engine for raising standards is not ministerial fiat or Whitehall diktat, but the devolution of power to parents, governors and head teachers.

Mr Gove and his colleagues do not espouse the educational "free market" of Mr Balls's caricature. Rather, they claim, with good reason, that public services thrive when institutions are localised and as close to autonomous as possible: not branches of a homogeneous national system but the outcrop of each local community. This is the lesson of modern education reform, from the transformation of schools in East Harlem to the grant-maintained sector in this country during the last Tory government and the independent state schools in Sweden that are the direct inspiration of the reforms proposed by Messrs Cameron and Gove. When schools are set free, they prosper: only a few weeks ago, Harris City Academy in Crystal Palace became the first school to receive a perfect Ofsted score under the new system of inspections. Before this school became an academy, 90 per cent of its pupils failed to get five decent GCSEs.

If there is such a thing as Cameronism, it is based on an essentially optimistic view of human nature: citizens will step up to the plate, businessmen will get behind local schools, parents will become involved. This is a sharp contrast to the Left-wing pessimism embodied by the Schools Secretary: the insistence that only Whitehall and town hall can ensure educational success and social justice, that big government is the only force that stands between our children and brutish anarchy.

I know which philosophy I prefer. But I also hope that the Cameroons embark upon their reform of schools with clear sight and one eye on the lessons of history. As Kenneth Clarke and John Patten can attest, the education establishment is a vicious beast when provoked: the local education authorities, teaching unions and their allies in the schools department will do anything in their power to scupper any reform that redistributes power and threatens vested interests. Parents will be misinformed at the council taxpayer's expense. There will be strike threats, warnings of turmoil in the classroom, the risk that children will be sent home.

The recoil will be swift and ferocious. That, of course, should encourage the Cameroons and reassure them that what they are doing is real and worthwhile, rather than cosmetic. It follows that they will require serious nerve and adamantine political will as much as the right ideas. Mr Gove certainly knows his ions. But, as he well knows, the challenges ahead will test much more than his grasp of chemistry.


Beware bogus degrees

Scandal in Canada gives a warning. Online checks now needed

York University has brought in tough new controls in the wake of a Toronto Star investigation that showed a former student fabricated dozens of its degrees, and another got into Osgoode Hall Law School with a degree purchased from a diploma mill.

The new online degree verification is an invaluable tool for employers, immigration officials and other schools wanting to check whether someone holds a genuine York degree, said Alex Bilyk, spokesman for the university. "We've also made changes to our degrees and transcripts. However, we're not comfortable revealing further details on that for obvious security reasons," Bilyk said of the moves meant to strengthen and safeguard the integrity of the university's degrees.

Entitled YU Verify, the online service provides instant confirmation on whether someone received a degree and/or certificate from York, the type of degree or certificate and the year in which it was conferred. To verify a degree at you either need basic biographical information about the person (e.g. first and last name, day and month of birth) or their York University student number.

The service is a work in progress and may not yet contain information on students who graduated before 1982 or law students who graduated from Osgoode Hall this past June or before 1993, according to the Registrar's Office.

A Star undercover investigation last December revealed how former York University student Peng Sun was churning out near-perfect copies of York U. degrees for $3,000. He also sold copies of transcripts on watermarked paper containing the university logo that were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

A Star reporter posing as a bank clerk was able to buy an MBA and a sealed transcript of marks from Sun for $4,000 cash after a series of meetings in parking lots around Toronto. During the investigation, Sun, 26, boasted to the undercover reporter that he had manufactured hundreds of York and University of Toronto degrees in the four years he had been operating. His clients, he said, were mainly Chinese visa students who had skipped or flunked school during their time in Canada and wanted to go home with a degree that would get them good jobs. "I have friends in China who spent three years here, didn't want to go to school but got York and U of T degrees (from me), then got a job. There are many of them. It's funny," he said.

The price for a BA, MBA or PhD was the same because for him it was just paper and ink, Sun said.

Two Star reporters confronted Sun in his car after the transaction; when they demanded the money back, he complied. Sun was never charged with a crime. Sun's own degree from York University is real. He graduated from the Atkinson School of Administrative Studies in 2007 with a bachelor's in human resources management.

The Star investigation also showed how Quami Frederick, a 28-year-old immigrant from Grenada, got into the prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School with a degree she had purchased from a diploma mill on the Internet. Frederick, in her third year at Osgoode Hall, had just landed a job with the Bay St. labour law firm Wildeboer Dellelce LLP when the Star revealed her bachelor of science in business administration from St. George's University in Grenada was a fake. Frederick's name was on a list of bogus degree buyers compiled by U.S. Homeland Security and Secret Service agents who took down a Washington State diploma mill in 2005. A simple call to St. George's University in Grenada would have revealed that Frederick had never attended the school.

"The integrity of our admissions process is of paramount importance to the law school," Patrick Monahan, the law school dean at the time, wrote to students following the Star exposé. "If even a single individual is able to gain entrance to the school improperly, that takes a place in the class away from another qualified deserving applicant." Monahan is now vice-president academic and provost of the university.

Not only did Frederick use the bogus degree to get into Osgoode, she also forged her transcript of marks for the three years she attended. She quit York after the Star article and the law firm withdrew its job offer. "We've taken appropriate steps to detect bogus transcripts and any person caught will be prevented from continuing with the application," said Bilyk. "We welcome continued support from police to catch and charge individuals, and we are thankful to you (the Star) for having brought that to our attention."

The University of Toronto already has online degree verification but its website says it needs a turnaround of five days to fill requests. Ryerson University verifies degrees by email or fax, but not online.


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