Thursday, August 06, 2015

Will 'Opportunity Scholarships' Be To Public Education What Uber Is To Taxis?

The North Carolina Supreme Court caused quite a stir last week when they ruled 4-3 in favor of 'Opportunity Scholarships' which will provide $4200 for qualified students to attend a private school of their choice.

The intense opposition from supporters of the status quo in public education made you wonder: "Are 'Opportunity Scholarships' the 'Uber' of our education system?"

Think about it. Public education has long been a monopoly protected by government fiat much like the practically-antiquated 'medallion' system for our nation's taxicab services. Mayor de Blasio of New York tried to ban Uber from New York until public pressure forced him to step aside in the pursuit of progress.

Uber, on the other hand, is a free-market solution that uses the latest in wireless technology to 'order' a car to come pick you up when you want to be picked up and take you to your destination. Uber is totally disrupting the old taxicab market from New York City to Los Angeles, California mainly because it offers 'choice' in transportation about town and to and from the airport.

Recently, we pointed out how even the very liberal-to-socialist governments of Vermont and Paris, France for decades have allowed government money to follow students through school choice options to attend private, and even religious Catholic schools in Paris, to help them get the best possible education they can regardless of any background, socio-economic situation, race, creed or color.

Such options place the critical decision of 'choice' in the hands of the student and his/her family. Just like Uber is now putting the choice decision in the hands of the consumer and not in the hands of the government-protected medallion taxicab companies.

Neither the public education system in Vermont or Paris have collapsed as far as we can tell. The concurrent expenditure of public money on private or religious schools has not 'killed public education' as proponents in both areas might have argued over the years.

Without understanding how North Carolina, and most states, fund public education, it is very hard to understand how the apparent depletion of 'public funds' for public education to support such private scholarships will not 'destroy' public education.

For one, the bulk of the funds for public education come from the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh funded by state taxes you pay every pay period. Contrary to common belief, North Carolina actually ranks in the top 10 of states which have a higher percentage of their state teacher salaries paid for by the state.

The rest of it comes from local county government, wherein lies the program for North Carolina. North Carolina is still a rural state in many ways. In counties that have been decimated by the export of textile jobs overseas; the demise of the furniture industry and the decline of tobacco in some areas, their property tax base is so low they can not fund great amounts for teacher's salaries and other expenses for their public school system.

Mecklenburg County, for example, contributes $4000 or so per student each year in county funds. Tyrrell County, on the other hand, contributes $200 or so per student each year in county funds. You do the math.

There are 600 public school students in Tyrrell County. Total.

There are over 135,000 students enrolled in Mecklenburg County Schools in Charlotte. Close to 30,000 other students are enrolled in private, religious or home schools in the CMS catchment area.

Big difference. There are high school grade classes in single 4-AA high schools in Charlotte that number more than the entire student population of Tyrrell County.

Enter into this debate the issue of Opportunity Scholarships.

As noted before, each qualified and accepted student gets $4200 in state funds to go to any private school nearby if: A) the student has been enrolled in public education and B) it can be shown that the student has received a less-then-stellar education to that point and is eager and able to do more challenging course work at another school.

Where does that Opportunity Scholarship money come from and where does the rest of it go?

North Carolina's overall budget is divided up into two pots of money. One is the public education budget and the other is the general fund part of the budget that is up for discussion each legislative session.

The $4200 Opportunity Scholarship money comes from the 'general fund' of the NC state budget every year. Not the public education fund.

On average, it costs about $9000 per student to educate them in the North Carolina public education system today. Taking the $4200 Opportunity Scholarship out of that average (again, recognizing the vast differences between counties such as Tyrrell and Mecklenburg) leaves close to $5000 in the existing public education system.

Since the inherent cost of teaching that student who receives the Opportunity Scholarship has been removed from the public school to which he/she formerly attended, that public school system has one less child to teach. It continues to receive the $5000 formerly associated with that student who has left the public system at least for the duration of the biennial budget cycle in most cases.*

$5000 per student that has left the system that the public education system in that county can do with whatever they please.

They can pay teachers more. They can hire more administrative assistants. They can buy more trombones for the band and athletic equipment for their teams.

We only bring this up to point out that critics who are saying that Opportunity Scholarships 'are an affront to the North Carolina Constitution!' or 'the stupidest thing the Republicans have come up with yet' may not thought this through completely.

Less attendance in public schools means less stress on the communities to build new schools to meet growing demand, for example. Charter and private schools make do with renovated old schools, for example thereby reducing the need for expensive bond referendums to pay for shiny new schools with all-weather turf athletic fields.

We know of a great private school, Durham Nativity School, that has met for 13 years in a church during the weekdays when no one else is occupying the otherwise very fine Grace Baptist Church building. They have sent dozens of African-American and Hispanic youth to fine prep schools including Durham Academy, Woodberry Forest and the Christ School in Asheville most of whom go on to complete college and earn a degree.

The chances of many of these same students accomplishing the same thing in their previous public schools were slim to none.

Aren't the kids at Durham Nativity getting the same chance at 'freedom' and 'choice' and improving their lives just as Uber users are getting when they decide if they want to order a Uber ride or wait on the corner in the cold rain for 30 minutes watching dozens of Yellow Taxis go by before 1 finally picks you up?

It might be helpful to sit back first and think about the advantages this ruling is going to give students and parents of these motivated students to pursue a quality better education that fits their needs, just as Uber allows adults the chance to get a cab ride based on their needs.

Isn't that the end goal anyway? Better education for our children? Any way we can find it?

Such scholarships are never going to 100% replace or supplant public education in North Carolina or any other state in the Union. Not when there are over 1.5 million students now in 2613 public schools and 141 charter public schools in North Carolina versus just over 97,000 in 574 private schools and 110,000 home-schooled students across the state.

A form of school choice has been going on in Florida for years now and the public education system is still going strong. After all that time, less than 5% of all students in Florida are now participating in the school choice plan in the state. That is hardly 'killing' public education in Florida at least.

However, school choice options are an important first step at evolving and changing our big-box public education system back to where the education of the student is paramount to anything else in public schools.

If they don't work, and students such as those at Durham Nativity School don't go on to great things later in life, then let's try something else down the road.

Maybe we should start looking at 'educating the public' in a way that Thomas Jefferson may have had in mind when he wrote the following to William C. Jarvis in 1820:
"I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.  This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power."
We do know for sure Mr. Jefferson would not approve of any restriction to the opportunities for anyone to pursue their education. Do you?
*Caveats: Every other year, the NC General Assembly allocates appropriations for public education based on 'ADM' or average daily membership of each public school in the state. If a public school system is in a declining area today with little to no growth, they will experience a flat or even a reduction in funding as it is today.

Many of the Opportunity Scholarships being offered at this time are in counties that are experiencing significant rates of growth in which case the students who leave the system are being replaced and then some by estimates of new enrollees at the beginning of each school year.

Sadly, rates of school dropouts are still too high in North Carolina which means that during the school year, on average 2.45% of all North Carolina high school students drop out of school, some forever, some for the year. That means by the end of any school year in NC, 37,500 fewer students are in classrooms than at the beginning of the school year. Funding for the schools do not drop even though the number of students they are teaching may have dropped during the school year.


Scots abysmal at mathematics?

A 50% pass mark?  No way. Scottish Higher maths exam pass mark cut to 34%

The status of the Higher as the “gold standard” of Scottish education has been undermined by the pass mark for the new maths exam being reduced to just 34 per cent, Labour has warned.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the quango that sets and grades the exams, confirmed it had reduced the pass mark for the new maths Higher to just 33.8 per cent after admitting the questions were too hard.

This compares with a pass mark of 43 per cent for the old version of the exam, which was sat by nearly half the pupils who took the subject because their schools were not ready to switch to the revamped qualification.

The pass marks were disclosed as pupils received their exam results and celebrated achieving a record number of passes at Higher and Advanced Higher level.

The number of Scottish youngsters who won a university place increased three per cent to 24,800 but, as in previous years, far more clearing places for those who did not get the grades they required were made available to fee-paying students from the rest of the UK.

However, SNP ministers faced more questions over why the overall pass rate for the new version of the Higher (79.1 per cent) was greater than that for the old one (76.7 per cent).

The total passes for Higher English increased by 17.7 per cent compared to last year despite research showing that literacy standards have fallen at all years measured in Scotland’s primary and secondary schools.

Numeracy standards have also declined and the maths Higher results bucked the trend, with the number of passes down four per cent following complaints from pupils that it was too hard.

The SQA admitted “the assessment proved to be more demanding than intended” and it had reduced the grade boundaries to compensate.

Angela Constance, the Education Minister, said there are “safeguards in place to ensure young people get the results they rightly deserve” and the SNP demanded Labour apologise for “scaremongering” that pupils who sat the new maths Higher would lose out.

But Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said: “The pupils who raised concerns about the difficulty of the new Higher maths exam have been vindicated.

“It’s true that pass marks are adjusted each year, but it’s extraordinary to see this drop to just 33.8 per cent. The Highers are the gold standard of Scottish education and this is a big concern.”

Liz Smith, Scottish Tory education spokesman, said: “People would understand if modest modifications had been made to pass rates to reflect realistic changes in exams. But this reduction is drastic, and shows just how badly the SQA got it wrong.”

But the SNP claimed the figures were “disastrous” for Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, who raised pupils’ complaints about the maths exam at First Minister’s Questions.

George Adam, a Nationalist MSP, said: “She set out to scaremonger and deliberately ignored the simple fact that the exam varies in difficulty between years.”

Standards of numeracy and literacy have declined in Scotland's schools despite record exam results

The revamped version of the Higher was introduced to dovetail more closely with the new Curriculum for Excellence and the National 4 and 5 qualifications, which replaced Standard Grades last year.

The curriculum emphasises teaching life skills rather than traditional disciplines such as learning by rote but its troubled introduction forced ministers to allow schools to delay the new Higher for a year if they were struggling to be ready.

The SQA disclosed that those pupils who sat the new maths Higher had to score 72 per cent to get an Upper A grade, 60 per cent to get an A, 47 per cent to get a B and 33.8 per cent for a C.

But their peers who sat the old version had to get 80 per cent for an Upper A, 68.4 per cent for an A, 55.4 per cent for a B and 43 per cent for a C.

The number of students passing the English increased markedly despite the pass mark for the old version remaining the same at 49 per cent and it increasing to 56 per cent for the new one.

Speaking during a visit to Craigmount School in Edinburgh, Ms Constance said: “Young people will not be disadvantaged by the Higher that they sat, whether it is the existing or the new one.”

But James Reid, a former principal assessor of maths for the SQA, told the Herald the difference between the pass rates for the old and new maths Higher as “substantial” and he would have expected a “much closer correlation.”

The Scottish Government said it was considering what changes would be needed for next year. A spokesman said: "The standard of every exam is scrutinised by experts and grade boundaries are set for every assessment every year. This ensures students still get the mark they deserve if the exam is easier or more difficult than intended."


Are English graduates facing double the debt of their US counterparts?

Graduates from university in England may be facing twice the average debt of US students, but the comparison is not as straightforward as it might seem

The high cost of university in America is well documented, with big numbers dominating our perception of studying across the pond. But has England now overtaken the US in terms of the average graduate's level of debt?

The stats would certainly seem to suggest so. According to the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), the average American graduate in the class of 2012 left higher education with $29,400 in debt , which is equivalent to just under £19,000. Out of those who graduated in 2013 from public and non-profit colleges - which make up the majority of institutions - 69 per cent had debt, with the average at $28,400 (£18,000).

By contrast the first English students graduating from the new fees system will have racked up average debts of £44,000, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

• Six in 10 students will have their debts written off

• Students will be paying off loans into their 50s, study warns

• Student loans: the real cost could be £40,000 more than official estimates

The comparison isn't quite as straightforward as the numbers might suggest. The debt figures don't account for factors such as graduate prospects, interest rates or differences between the loans systems themselves. Consequently, it wouldn’t be fair to say that English students are twice as badly off, although the contrast remains surprisingly stark when studied in more detail.

In America there are multiple types and levels of degree granting institutions and multiple funding sources, versus England's comparatively streamlined affair. In the US, each state and university runs their own system, with admissions and funding decisions often being made separately. In England, the national student finance system kicks in automatically once a university place is granted, making the process much more straightforward.

Taking a look at a typical student from each system helps to illustrate some of the differences. On the American side, Emily Byrne, 23, an international business major from Boise State University, has just graduated after 4.5 years of study with $27,000 (£17,000) in loans debt, including time spent studying abroad in Germany.

She received a government grant for under a year, and some small scholarships totaling no more than $2,000 annually, whilst her entire $150 a week earnings from part time work went towards living costs. Her parents then helped to minimise her loans debt by assisting with rent, textbooks and as much of her tuition fees as they could manage.

By comparison, Sophie Pratt, 21, a psychology student at the University of Bath, will be graduating in 2016 with around £44,000 in loans debt, after a 4 year course which incorporates a lower cost placement year. Her tuition fees are automatically covered by a student loan, but the basic maintenance loan leaves her with a shortfall for rent and living costs.

She makes up for that with a part time retail job (picking up extra shifts during holidays), the entire earnings from which go towards filling that deficit. Her parents then help her out by providing a weekly allowance for grocery costs, which ensures that she is able to keep her head above water.

The contexts these numbers and examples operate in are of course substantially different. In America there is a greater culture of saving for your child from an early age and families have had 18 years to prepare for the costs, although that is no guarantee of their ability to do so.

Comparatively the higher cost model has been introduced with a jolt in England, alongside a universal loan system, which will inherently encourage and facilitate greater debt.

Examining the issue of affordability in addition to the raw debt numbers provides further insight. In 2010 – prior to the fees hike – Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) ranked the US just below England and Wales in terms of higher education affordability.

English and US students both face high debt but encounter different challenges

However, based on their method of assessment the new fees will have reversed that situation, by substantially changing the ratio between total costs and median income for students in England.

The misconceptions surrounding the comparative debt levels have potentially arisen from a fixation on the fees at the most elite American universities. There were 4,599 degree granting institutions in the US in 2010-11 according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Pricey high profile universities such as Harvard and Stanford only make up a minority of these, but also tend to offer the most generous financial aid packages, meaning few are truly paying the advertised figure. There is also a distinction between studying in-state and out of state, with students who choose to study in their home state often paying much lower fees.

Money can still be a barrier to attending an institution in the US however, which is arguably not the case in England or the rest of the UK. Gerardo Rodriguez Orellana, 20, a student at the University of Utah, was denied the chance to attend his first choice, Rice University, due to a generous but insufficient scholarship. He described the experience as "frustrating, as no matter how much effort I put into attending my dream school, it would be denied".

Looking beyond the averages, the picture is still comparatively bleak for England. Whilst these figures will have changed, according to a 2010 factsheet by the Project on Student Debt, only 10 per cent of US students at the time graduated with $40,000 (£25,000) of debt or more, which is still considerably lower than the new English average.

Money can still be a barrier to attending an institution in the US however, which is arguably not the case in England or the rest of the UK.

One per cent of American students graduated with $100,000 (£63,000) or more in debt, which is the bracket that many English medical, veterinary, dentistry and some masters’ students now fall into. Although these figures may well have increased for the US, England is arguably now matching the American top end and surging past in the averages.

With the introduction of the £9,000 fees, universities are now supposed to use a proportion of the new income to fund access programmes, which often target low income households. The University of Leeds for instance, in their 2013-14 access guide, lay out their intention to commit 32.1 per cent of their additional fees income to access and retention measures, of which 89 per cent is earmarked for scholarships and bursaries.

However, it remains to be seen whether a more substantial culture of scholarships and financial preparation can or will emerge in England. If it does so, it could alleviate some of the pressure on the loans system, but will potentially ignite debates over elitism and send England further down the path to American style higher education.

Dr Jason Dittmer is a Reader in Human Geography at University College London, but is originally from the USA and undertook his postgraduate studies at Florida State University. He says that "while the UK is increasingly moving to the US model with regard to fees, I note that there is very limited uptake of the more altruistic side of the US model – scholarships, need-based grants and so on."

Additionally, he has concerns over university in both England and the US increasingly being sold as "a way of boosting future income" because it "ignores the benefits of an educated citizenry" and that kind of economic rationale linked to a loans system "opens the door to nearly limitless tuition hikes".

With many other countries in Europe operating systems with very low or no fees at all, England is becoming more and more distant from the rest of the continent. Perhaps a more honest view of how we compare globally is needed before we continue to head down this path.


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