Sunday, January 26, 2014

More on Why Preschool Vouchers Are a Bad Idea

After sending out yesterday’s School Choice Weekly, in which I bashed the Indiana House for passing a preschool voucher pilot, I received a few thoughtful comments in my email box.

One was from Brandon Dutcher, senior vice president of the Oklahoma Council for Public Policy. He wanted my thoughts on whether a state that already has universal government preschool (like Oklahoma) would be better off if the preschool funds were vouchers. I said yes.

What’s the difference? Indiana currently has no statewide preschool program. Since research and experience consistently indicates these do not benefit children (sources in SCW), it would be foolish to start a new entitlement you know will be ineffective. But if your state already has an ineffective entitlement, it’s better to make the most of it if “inefficient entitlement” and “more efficient entitlement” are the only available alternatives (i.e., you can’t end the program outright and do something more likely to benefit poor kids). I do not agree with the people who would say “don’t make an entitlement better because then you perpetuate it,” because that only serves to increase the harm to entitlement recipients and taxpayers.

Another comment came from Patrick Herrera, a professor at Chapman University who has written for me on effective reading remediation. He writes:

Those who are creating legislation to expend a great deal of time and expense should consider the purpose for pre-school.  There are no statements of purpose.  There are no cohesive programs by any of the major publishers that address the existing need.  Simply putting children in pre-school does not create a benefit.  No mention is made of the curriculum needed, nor the training that teachers need to understand early language acquisition.  More important is training in the early acquisition of a second language when the learner has the additional burden of illiteracy.

Patrick brings up a good point, which is that we do know how to close achievement gaps between middle-class and poor children, which is the main goal (though unmet) of preschool programs. There are a number of effective strategies, including assigning lagging children to an excellent teacher four years in a row, and giving those children a content-rich curriculum. The problem is that very few preschool programs, and no large-scale ones, employ such strategies. It would be difficult for them to try just from a personnel point of view, as there are not enough people trained in these strategies to hire for a large program.

But we can also employ these strategies within the existing K-12 system and catch children up once they reach kindergarten, making preschool again an unnecessary tax expenditure.

Further, the reason government subsidizes education at all is to perpetuate a self-governing republic. One can make an argument that K-12 schooling accomplishes this. The arguments for governments subsidizing preschool, at the one end, and college, at the other, are far thinner, in my opinion, because both are more likely to be lifestyle choices than necessary for the basic grounding in academics it is more appropriate for taxpayers to subsidize.


School Choice Foes Are Wrong

Opponents of school choice sincerely believe that if you make everybody stay on the Titanic, then maybe it won’t sink as fast

Virginia congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has been casting about for an issue that might help emancipate the GOP from its current caricature as a party of plutocrats who get a kick out of kicking the poor when they’re down. Hence his recent shot across the bow of New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, sought to control many facets of New York life but actually liberalized one of the most reactionary: education. During his term, the number of charter schools in the Big Apple soared from seven to 123.

De Blasio, a left-wing ideologue, does not approve. His “idealism,” as The New York Times explains, was shaped by his time in Nicaragua, then controlled by the Sandinista revolutionaries of whom he became an “ardent” supporter. “They gave a new definition to democracy,” de Blasio once said. That they did: Their version of it included censorship, suspending civil rights, breaking up demonstrations and imprisoning suspected political opponents without trial.

No surprise, then, that de Blasio is taking out after charter schools—an innovation that has helped poor and underprivileged students by bringing a (very) small degree of personal choice to a system controlled by the state. Bloomberg let charters share space with regular public schools. De Blasio has threatened to evict them. Cantor pointed out in a recent speech that this could mean the end for many of them.

De Blasio shot back, insisting the “Republican agenda in Washington” is “a dangerous philosophy that turns its back on public education”—one that “has failed many times before.” Which is odd, because (a) charter schools are public, not private, schools and (b) “a study published earlier this year shows that the typical New York City charter student learned more reading and math in a year than his or her public school peers.” This is according to that well-known propaganda arm of the Republican Party, the New York Times editorial page.

De Blasio isn’t alone. Although Barack Obama ran for the Oval Office on a theme of “hope” and “change,” on the issue of educational choice his administration has demonstrated considerable hostility to both. The White House has opposed the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to poor children. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has relentlessly attacked a voucher program in Louisiana in a campaign The Washington Post editorial page calls a “perverse” and “appalling” bid “to trap poor, black children in ineffective schools.” (The department’s claim that parental choice would re-segregate Louisiana’s schools was so transparently specious that it has retreated—somewhat. Rather than block the program outright, the DOJ now seeks to regulate it to death.)

The Obama administration has been friendlier toward charter schools, and other Democrats are even more open to innovation: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker supports vouchers, as have former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and, according to an October poll, a majority of Democratic voters in Rhode Island.

Others, however, remain firmly wedded to the notion that the only reform worthy of discussion is the same one that already has been tried a million times over: more money. After adjusting for inflation, per-pupil expenditures have nearly doubled since the mid-1970s, while student performance has scarcely budged.

Critics of parental choice point out that charters and voucher programs have shown mixed results. One federal study of the D.C. voucher program, for instance, noted that while it marginally increased the odds of a student graduating from high school, it had produced “no conclusive evidence” of academic improvement. And a federal audit found what Politico calls “a glaring lack of controls to ensure that the private schools receiving the vouchers were physically safe or academically sound.”

In other words, vouchers make bad policy because the children who use them might end up attending … schools just as bad as the ones they used to. And this is a defense of the status quo?

A second complaint about voucher programs, at least, is that they might end up benefitting rich families. Think about that for a moment: It implies that poor families should be denied a benefit simply to keep rich families from getting it too. Talk about mean-spirited.

A third knock on school choice comes from the tinfoil-hat brigade: It’s nothing but a plot to privatize education and fatten corporate profits. Two minutes’ careful thought should dispel that idea:

(1) The most common reform, charter schools, are—again—public schools, usually started by grass-roots groups of volunteers. Good luck trying to find any charters run by Halliburton.

(2) More than half the students who have participated in the District of Columbia’s voucher program chose Catholic schools. Catholic schools may be many things, but engines of profit they are not.

(3) Because school-choice proposals often are aimed at the poor, many entail tuition tax credits. In Alabama, for instance, a corporation that donates money to a school-choice scholarship fund can claim half the value of the donation as a tax credit. Indiana, Oklahoma, and other states have similar policies. This means companies in those states that support school choice for low-income kids actually lose money on the deal, the heartless jerks.

Opponents of school choice aren’t heartless jerks, either, of course. They sincerely believe that giving poor families the same opportunity to choose education alternatives that rich families have would be a big mistake: If you make everybody stay on the Titanic, then maybe it won’t sink as fast. This doesn’t make them wicked. It just makes them wrong.


Funding cuts 'threaten future of England's top schools'

The future of England’s grammar schools is under threat because education funding is being diverted towards deprived pupils with poor exam results, the head teacher of the country’s top-performing secondary has warned.

Schools face being forced to make teachers redundant and reduce the number of A-levels taken by pupils because of budget cuts, it is claimed.

Paul Evans, the head of Colyton grammar in Devon, said tackling underperformance in poor areas was a “laudable aim” but insisted it had “serious unintended consequences” for schools such as his.

Colyton alone faces losing around quarter of a million pounds in coming years, he said, meaning the “viability of this school is questionable” beyond 2017.

The comments were backed by the Grammar School Heads Association – representing the country’s 164 academically-selective state schools – which claimed that provision for bright pupils was being eroded.

It comes just a day after Colyton was named as the top-performing school in league tables covering more than 4,000 state-funded and private secondaries in England. Pupils at the school scored the equivalent of around 15 A* grades each, it emerged.

Last night, the Department for Education insisted that school funding had been protected in recent years.

But Mr Evans told the Telegraph: “Schools like ours, with able children, are being squeezed.

“And it’s not just our school. I went to a grammar school heads’ conference in the summer and I know some are saying that they just can’t see where the future lies.”

This week, the head teacher wrote to three local Conservative MPs, claiming a number of funding changes were having a damaging effect on state grammars, particularly those in rural areas.

He highlighted a series of reforms including the cost of meeting staff pay rises from a “flat budget settlement” and the loss of cash for “specialist school” status, which is now consumed into the national education budget.

In his letter, he said changes had “significantly diverted funds toward students from deprived families and with low prior attainment”, adding: “These laudable aims have, however, had serious unintended consequences on the budgets of schools, selective or comprehensive, serving significant populations of able students.”

Mr Evans said the school had been particularly hit by changes to the way sixth-form qualifications are funded which will see all schools given a flat rate for each pupil – scrapping the existing system based on the number of A-levels taken.

This hits grammar schools particularly hard because their pupils typically take up to five A-levels each, he said.

Mr Evans said these difficulties were compounded by the fact that schools in Devon already receive less money per head than those in almost all of England’s 151 local education authorities.

“I believe the cuts required to achieve a balanced budget will so limit our curriculum that we may cease to be an attractive option for parents,” he said. “The viability of this school is questionable beyond 2017.

“In the run up to the General Election in 2015, we will be cutting courses and making teaching staff redundant in attempt to reduce our potential £257,000 deficit.”

Charlotte Marten, chairman of the Grammar School Heads Association and head of Rugby High School, said similar difficulties were being faced elsewhere.

“There is the prospect of grammar schools not being able to stretch and challenge or give the breadth that they have traditionally been able to do because the funding is not in place,” she said.

A DfE spokesman said: “We have protected the schools budget in real terms. That has allowed us to ensure all local authorities, including Devon, are receiving the same amount per pupil as in 2010.

"It is down to local authorities to determine exactly how that funding is distributed to individual schools, but we have made sure that no school's budget falls by more than 1.5 from one year to the next.

"Of course if any school finds itself in particular difficulty, we are happy to look into the circumstances of their case.”


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