Sunday, May 22, 2011

Academic Freedom at Florida State University

Last week I wrote about the publicity — mostly negative — that Florida State University was receiving as a result of accepting a grant from the C.G. Koch Foundation to fund positions in the economics department. I know a lot about the issue, because I am a professor of economics at Florida State.

The publicity has kept up. Every day I’ve been getting e-mails from people near and far, some from people I know, some from people I’ve never met, passing along a link or offering an opinion. The story has been covered in the New York Times and Businessweek, among other outlets. I admit to being somewhat entertained by all the publicity, which is easy for me because unlike my Dean or university president, I have not been in the direct line of fire in these attacks on my department and university.

In what I wrote last week I was just trying to state the facts as I saw them, as someone with more knowledge about the deal than most people who offered their opinions. I didn’t pass judgment. I tried to present objective facts, and let readers decide.

As someone close to the grant in question, I do have an opinion, however, and my opinion is that the Koch grant does not compromise the academic integrity of Florida State University, has not limited our academic freedom, and has provided unambiguously beneficial results to the university — unless you count the negative publicity. So, (1) we were right to accept the grant, and (2) we should defend ourselves by explaining why we were right.

FSU President Eric Barron mostly followed through on that in this letter posted on the university’s web site that explains the facts better than I did. I say “mostly followed through” because after defending the procedures we followed, explaining how all decisions made with regard to this grant were made by our department, and saying, “…much of what has been written has been distortion of reality. We did not deserve the attack on our integrity. Certainly, our Economics faculty deserve much more credit for actively debating their concerns and then for committing themselves never to compromise their high scholarly standards,” he finishes the letter by saying, “I promise that we will be diligent in working to prevent outcomes like this in the future.”

If the outcome was beneficial to the university, and if “We did not deserve this attack on our integrity,” then why would we want to prevent outcomes like this in the future? Reading his letter, I am sure the outcome President Barron was referring to was the negative publicity, not the grant’s impact on the economics department, or the academic integrity and academic freedom in the university. Still, I am a bit uneasy about the caveat at the end.

One result of this is that today President Barron has asked our faculty senate to create a committee to investigate the possibility that the grant led to undue outside influence of university activities. I welcome the investigation, and am also not unhappy that the press is giving our state-supported university some scrutiny. We should be held accountable. I just think that in this case the facts are at odds with what most commentators have been reporting. So, investigate, and find out the facts. This is, after all, a state university that is heavily supported by taxpayer dollars.

One thing that aggravates me about all this is a nagging suspicion that the main catalyst for the negative publicity has less to do with issues of academic freedom than with the fact that the money came from the Koch Foundation. We have a group of faculty in the FSU economics department who have undertaken decades of academic research, published in reputable academic journals, that demonstrates the benefits of market institutions and limited government to prosperity. The work we have been doing for decades is consistent with the type of academic program the Koch Foundation wants to support. Having common interests, the deal was struck that was beneficial to both the Foundation and us.

Who else should we appeal to if we want outside support for this type of program? The Ford Foundation? The Carnegie Foundation? As I described in this book, published well before our department had any contact with the Koch Foundation, Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie would turn over in their graves if they knew how the money from their fortunes was being spent today. Those foundations would not support a program like ours.

If a department wants funding to support programs that are friendly to markets and suspicious of big government, they have to get it from donors who have similar views. And, those donors would be wise to try to structure any grants so that the money is spent in ways consistent with their ideas. That’s what happened in our case.

Florida State University has been under attack for accepting a grant from the Koch Foundation, but my view, as someone very close to the situation, is that we were right to take the money, and that we should stand up to critics and explain why.


Gov. Scott Walker Fights Republicans, Unions in Mission to Expand School Choice

School choice is on the move in Wisconsin, at least in Milwaukee County. The state Assembly has approved a bill that will increase the number of voucher students in Milwaukee, and increase the number of private schools they can choose from.

But an idea recently suggested by Gov. Scott Walker, to spread voucher opportunities beyond Milwaukee to Green Bay, Racine and Beloit, received a cool reception from Senate President Mike Ellis, as well as several other Republicans. Ellis also questioned a reform, embedded in the governor's budget proposal, that would lift income restrictions from voucher programs so all families would be eligible to participate.

That leads me to wonder if some Republicans, once committed to the concept of public school reform, have lost their nerve in the face of obnoxious union rallies and recall efforts.

I also wonder if Walker might have received a more positive response if he had targeted the entire state for voucher eligibility, in the same manner as Indiana. Only expanding to three cities may not sit well with legislators from areas that would not benefit.

School choice is best for all families and students. Every child is unique, and parents are best equipped to choose a school that fits their needs.

The state of Wisconsin provides a certain amount of money for every K-12 student in the state. What's wrong with letting parents spend that money at the school of their choice?

Walker sought to build momentum for school choice expansion with his keynote address to the National Policy Summit of the American Federation for Children in Washington, D.C. last week.

He focused on the idea that all students have the right to equal access to a quality education. "Every kid, no matter where they live, no matter what their background, no matter what their parents do for a living ... deserves the opportunity to have a great education because they each have limitless potential," Walker told his audience.

"We have 100,000 kids that we serve in the city of Milwaukee. Roughly 20,000 go to choice schools but that means that 80 percent of our families are looking at some other option and the majority of which are (using) public schools ... many of which fail to live up to the standard we expect for each and every child in that community and in our state.

"We fail as a country, we fail as a nation, we fail as a society if any of our kids slip through the cracks. We have to make sure every single one of them have the same opportunities we'd want for our children and grandchildren."

Walker referred to studies that show Milwaukee children in the voucher program are 17 times more likely to graduate from high school than their counterparts in Milwaukee public schools.

"If you look at the kids who come into the Milwaukee parental choice program, they more often than not come in (with lower learning levels) than kids in the Milwaukee public school system. But in the end, one of the most important outcomes is that they're 17 percent more likely to graduate by the time they're done.

"One of our greatest challenges is keeping kids in the system all the way to graduation ... It used to be that just graduating was enough to get a job, but these days you've got to have a two-year or four-year post-secondary education component just to get a job in our society. If you're not making it through graduation you're going to be another statistic."

Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is trying to recall several Republican senators from office and destroy the GOP majority in the chamber.

The union’s president, Mary Bell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that research "does not support broadening choice."

I believe the only research that matters is the research conducted by the parents of every individual student in Wisconsin and America.

If they find a school that fits their child's needs - be it public, public charter, private or religious - they should have a right to use their share of state money to enroll their child in that school.

Somehow our society has been blinded into thinking that government-run schools have an exclusive right to K-12 students. State constitutions mandate that governments provide an education to every student in their jurisdiction. That does not mean those students have to attend government-run schools.

By providing the means for students to finance an education, the state has met its constitutional responsibility. At that point the state should step aside and let parents decide where that education will take place.

As far as I can tell, the only reason for enforcing geographic school boundaries is to provide a guaranteed clientele, and guaranteed jobs, for unionized teachers. That's not a very good reason to keep any kid trapped in any school that's not meeting his or her needs.

Scott Walker seems to understand that. The union doesn’t and it’s unrealistic for us to hope otherwise. Will legislative Republicans?

Leaders should be going bold in their attempts to save children from failing public schools. This is not the time to be pussyfooting around, making sure the adults aren’t offended by reforms that put the interests of children first.


A fight for Britain's remaining selective schools

David Cameron was last night facing a fresh row over academic selection as protesters mounted the first bid in a decade to axe the 11-plus. The Prime Minister was braced for calls to come to the aid of two long-established grammar schools which are facing a concerted campaign to abolish them.

In the first move of its type since 2000, campaigners are poised to force a ballot on changing the selection policy of the two schools in Reading, Berkshire.

Last night, local Tory MP Rob Wilson angrily condemned the campaign as ‘profoundly wrong and retrograde’ and called on his constituents to fight to retain the schools.

But the battle will revive the bitter internal Tory splits of four years ago when Mr Cameron sought to rebrand his party’s image by promising that a future Conservative Government would make no effort to revive grammar school education across the country.

The row, one of the fiercest in which Mr Cameron was involved as Opposition Leader, led to Tory MP Graham Brady angrily resigning from the front bench after party bosses claimed the schools impeded social mobility.

One Conservative MP privately said last night: ‘Cameron was never against existing grammars but this whole issue is always incredibly toxic for us.’

The dispute will also prove difficult for several leading Tory MPs, including Immigration Minister Damian Green, who went to one of the grammars at risk – Reading School for boys.

It is now 11 years since campaigners against the 11-plus last tried to abolish selection at a particular school – Ripon Grammar in North Yorkshire. Using legislation introduced by the Labour Government in 1998, they forced a ballot on the admission policy there – but were defeated.

But last night it was confirmed that a group of parents in Berkshire had begun the process of forcing a vote on the future of the Reading School and the town’s other grammar, Kendrick School for girls.

The group said grammar schools were ‘a luxury Reading can no longer afford’ and claimed the ‘vast majority’ of children educated in them came from outside the town. In a joint statement, the two schools hit back by saying they were both recognised as ‘outstanding’ by education watchdog Ofsted and that scrapping selection would fundamentally change their ‘unique character’.

A statement said: ‘Parents rightly want their children to go to outstanding schools. Reading and Kendrick Schools believe that many parents would therefore wish to keep open the option of grammar school education for their children.’

Under schools legislation, parents of local ‘feeder’ schools for the two grammars are eligible to vote in the ballot. But Mr Wilson raised fears that as they had to ‘opt in’ to be registered to vote, a determined minority of anti-selection parents could carry the day. ‘I urge parents to sign up to vote in the ballot and ensure their voice is heard. We must not allow excellence and aspiration to be destroyed by the misconceived action of a small number of people,’ the MP said.

In the mid-seventies, there were more than 800 grammar schools across the country. But years of anti-selection policies and fears of ‘elitist’ education have seen their number whittled down to just over 160 now.

In 2007, Mr Cameron – keen to transform the Tories’ traditional image – made it clear that a future Conservative Government would not seek to reverse the grammar school decline. ‘There will be no reintroduction of grammar schools and no re-introduction of the 11-plus in the huge swathes of the country where they were abolished,’ he said then.


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