Monday, July 27, 2015

How High School Nearly Destroyed Me, and Why School Choice Matters

Many say school choice is a dangerous idea because it turns parents and students into customers and teachers into something like service providers. In my experience, the absence of school choice turns parents and students into captives with no ability to make decisions that would improve educational opportunities.

My time at Dover High School (DHS), located in a small city in southern New Hampshire, was not what most people would call normal. What started as a simple medical annoyance when I was in junior high school slowly transformed into a painful and undiagnosed stomach illness that progressively got worse with each passing day. It seemed as though every time I ate something, my gut would burst into flames, preventing me from spending time with friends, attending school, and even getting my driver’s license.

With each passing year, the number of days I missed school grew. By the time I was in my third year of high school, I was absent well over 100 times in a 180-day school year, and I often came to school late on many of the remaining days.

Being sick all the time was hard enough, but it was nearly unbearable to be sick in a school where the vast majority of the teachers and school administrators thought I was fabricating the illness because it was officially undiagnosed. My parents had followed all the proper guidelines for ensuring the school would continue to make reasonable accommodations for my education. They took me to countless doctors and received documentation from each indicating there was a real medical problem. They also ensured I was signed up for the 504 Plan, a set of policies established by federal law mandating public schools continue to offer sick and disabled students an education, and they met with school officials constantly to try and keep them on-track.

No matter what my parents or I did, my teachers wouldn’t budge. They were convinced my illness was a big lie I orchestrated to get myself out of going to class. As one of my history teachers wrote in a letter, he was unwilling to comply with the mandates of the 504 Plan because he refused to support “Justin’s vacation.” Teachers would fail me in courses even when I received A grades on tests and class assignments. One of my English teachers said it wouldn’t be fair to give me a passing grade when other students “actually came to class.”

School administrators were even worse. They suspended me for missing too many days of school—an absurd irony—and one official in a meeting flatly insisted I was “a liar” who had managed to trick his parents into believing an elaborate fiction.

There was no one willing to hold these teachers and administrators accountable for breaking federal law, and there were no other public school options available. I was trapped in what seemed like a hopeless situation.

Toward the end of my junior year, a doctor affiliated with Harvard Medical School diagnosed and treated what at the time was a relatively unknown bacterial infection that, when given the opportunity to build for several years, can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. After five years of being sick, I was cured in a little over a month.

The public school officials were baffled by this turn of events and went into full panic mode. After months of giving me virtually none of the required assignments from my teachers, a school official provided me with hundreds of assignments from all of my courses in one day. Soon the teachers and administrators began to spread an elaborate story claiming I had actually been treated fairly the whole time and was now lying about the various educational problems I had cited in the previous years.

It wasn’t until the school became aware of the meticulous record-keeping my parents had used to keep track of all the run-ins with teachers and school officials that the school district finally forced the school to resolve the crisis.

Faced with the potential of a costly lawsuit, the school’s teachers and administrators gathered in a room with my parents one afternoon to discuss options for resolving the dispute. The solution they came to was to completely fabricate three years of school records, making up grades out of thin air in order to get out of a very sticky situation. Grades were haggled and bartered over like a business transaction; providing an education was not evidently an item on the school’s priority list.

My transition into life after high school ended was difficult at times, but I eventually went on to graduate at the top of my class at the University of Richmond and obtain two graduate degrees, one in government and another in journalism. I’ve been published in some of the world’s most prominent publications, and I have the honor of working for The Heartland Institute, a leading free-market think tank.

When people ask me how I found my way into the pro-liberty movement, the honest answer is that I was pushed into it. I didn’t learn much about calculus or physics in high school, but I received a priceless lesson in how bureaucracies work, how teachers unions protect their own at the expense of schoolchildren, and why giving parents and students the freedom to make educational choices should be a universal right, not a privilege reserved for the few.


Some British Universities accused of running 'racket' which lets thousands of students in with just three grade Es

Universities have been accused of running an education ‘racket’ by giving places to thousands of students with A-level grades as low as three Es.

Official figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday reveal that more than a tenth of one university’s teenage intake last year had only scraped through their A-levels.

At Bolton University, 12.1 per cent of its 17- to 19-year-olds beginning courses last September were in this category, compared to the national average of 1.3 per cent, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Other universities with high intakes included London South Bank (8.1 per cent), Southampton Solent (6.9 per cent) and Anglia Ruskin (5.6 per cent).

In total, 3,685 students across the country were admitted to courses from computing science to the arts with qualifications equivalent to three Es or below. Education experts described the trend as ‘madness’.

The findings come a few weeks before the publication of this year’s A-level results, which will trigger the annual scramble by universities to attract students to fill up their less popular courses. Experts warn that many students, who pay up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees, will be short-changed because they are not academically equipped for degree-level work – even though many start on a ‘foundation’ year to boost their academic skills before embarking on three-year courses.

Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: ‘It’s a racket. It’s incredibly misleading and damaging to youngsters because most of those getting poor A-level grades would be much better off getting a job. They are persuaded that university is their best option but of course the universities concerned are making a lot of money out of this.’

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: ‘There’s a kind of madness affecting universities. A lot of money in our cash-strapped system is being spent for social purposes when it should go on providing opportunities for those most able to benefit.’

Bolton University, whose vice-chancellor Professor George Holmes earns £200,000 a year, said it was ‘proud of its tradition of giving opportunities to students from widening participation backgrounds and with non-traditional qualifications’.

A spokesman added that students were admitted to foundation courses if their qualifications at 18 ‘were lower than the standards we normally expect’ to give them the best possible opportunities. London South Bank University, Southampton Solent and Anglia Ruskin said they encouraged ‘diversity’.


Douglas County School-Choice Decision Highlights Need to Re-Examine Blaine Amendments

The recent Colorado court decision to stop a school-choice pilot program is more disappointing than shocking.

On June 29, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the Douglas County Choice Scholarship program by overturning a February 2013 Court of Appeals decision upholding the voucher program as constitutional. According to CSC’s decision, the Douglas County program violates Article IX, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution, which prohibits the state from giving appropriations “in aid of any church or sectarian society… or to help support or sustain any school… controlled by any church or sectarian denomination.”

Douglas County, Colorado began the school voucher program in 2011. The program offered scholarships for 500 students to attend the school of their family’s choice, including religious and secular private schools.

This decision ignores the fact the voucher program exists to aid families, not schools. The money is not “appropriated” to any school, religious or secular. Parents who choose to join the voucher program select the school.

The decision references the state’s Blaine Amendments, sparking extensive debate regarding such provisions since the 4-3 ruling. Blaine Amendments are add-ons to many state constitutions that prohibit the government from giving direct assistance to religious organizations. Ironically, they originated in the 1800s as a way to keep schools Protestant by preventing funding of Catholic schools. In the 1800s, schools were largely Protestant institutions, and the Protestants prevailed in public schools for many years thereafter.

Today, Blaine Amendments are a constant cause for concern for anyone who sees the value in school choice. Cases such as this, filed continuously across the country, often result in the school-choice program remaining intact, but sometimes courts make rulings as upsetting as the recent Colorado decision.

The fear for teachers unions and others who wave the Blaine Amendments around like a medieval shield is this: If given a choice of whether to use the traditional public schools assigned to students based only on their zip code, parents, students and families will flee to other schools, religious or otherwise. The education establishment’s real fear is empty classrooms and a loss of funding that follows the students to other schools through choice programs.

Religion is thus just another excuse for stopping choice. A New York Times story reported the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado claimed the ruling “drew a clear border between public money and private faith.”

“Parents are free to send their children to private religious schools if they wish, but the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed today that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for it,” read a statement in the Times story by Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, which represented some of the challengers in this case.

Such a statement blatantly disregards the fact the Douglas County choice program would provide taxpayers a greater say over how their tax dollars are spent. The public is already ponying up for these students’ education, and denying families any choice means the court is limiting taxpayers to only one option: to foot the bill for traditional public schools, a large percentage of which are underserving their children.

The voucher program would not force any parents to send their children to a religious school. It’s important to bear in mind many parents make such a decision not because the school is religious but because it is better — often far better — than the local public school. Many students who attend Catholic or other religious schools do not practice the religion of the school they are attending. They choose to go there because the schools offer a better education.

Blaine Amendments enable the education establishment to use religion as a convenient means of blocking choice for parents and students. School voucher programs are not “state appropriations,” and with traditional public schools failing to educate students, courts shouldn’t grant those responsible for the failures another place to hide.


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