Monday, March 13, 2017

Why Betsy DeVos’ Support for School Choice Will Help America’s Schoolchildren

According to her opponents during her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of education, is guilty of wanting to privatize the public schools.

To be sure, the nominee’s critics are entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Here are the facts: DeVos believes that all children are entitled to the same educational opportunities regardless of income or ZIP code.

If you want a more accurate picture of DeVos, some journalists in her home state are more likely to paint it for you.

A Detroit News op-ed praised her record of compassionate interest in the individual welfare of children, calling her “a woman devoted to helping kids succeed regardless of their socio-economic background.”

And for this, certain members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee attempted to paint her as an enemy of public schools.

DeVos’ crime is that she, along with a majority of Americans, favors school choice. But solid research demonstrates why DeVos’ views are not only consistent with those of most parents, but also upheld by facts, evidence, and common sense.


School choice programs put power back into the hands of parents, who are best equipped to decide what type of education their children receive. Impersonal bureaucratic agencies cannot do this adequately.

School choice levels the socio-economic playing field by giving low-income families the same educational opportunities that high-income families have. A Harvard study of a New York City initiative found that minority students who received a school scholarship  “to attend private elementary schools in 1997 were, as of 2013, 10 percent more likely to enroll in college and 35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.”

Similarly, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which awards need-based annual scholarships for private schools to D.C. schoolchildren, has empowered thousands of low-income and minority students to escape underperforming, failing, or unsafe schools. A study commissioned by the Department of Education found that participants saw a 21 percentage point increase in graduation rates.

A nationally representative survey by Education Next of parents in charter, district, and private schools found that private and charter parents are more satisfied with their children’s schooling than parents whose children attend district schools.

A study conducted by John Merrifield of the University of Texas at San Antonio on school choice scholarships in San Antonio’s Edgewood School District found an approximately 17 percent increase in public school graduation rates that could be attributable to the scholarship program. The improvement appeared to be one of the responses to increased competition in the education sphere.

It’s clear that school choice does not undermine the public school system economically or rob resources from it. In fact, it has proven to be more cost-effective.

School choice empowers economically underprivileged kids and encourages racial diversity. And it simply does a better job of equipping parents to put their children in the best school environment suited to their children’s unique needs—whether traditional public, charter, or private school.

Isn’t that what this discussion is all about?

It is immoral for us as a people to lock children into a life of poverty because we lock them into severely underperforming schools.

Nevertheless, we are likely to see a heated battle take place next week when it comes to DeVos’ confirmation vote.

Here’s something to keep in mind, though: More than half of the Senate Democrats on the education committee considering her nomination either attended private or parochial schools themselves, or have children or grandchildren who do.

Why the opposition?

High school seniors’ reading achievement scores have not improved for at least two decades and have even dropped five points compared to 1992. Likewise, seniors’ math performance has also stagnated for at least a decade and has dropped since 2013.

In discussing the state of public education in America, U.S. News & World Report offered a bleak and candid assessment. “In urban school districts across the country,” an education reporter wrote in 2015, “student performance is flat, poor, and minority students are experiencing staggering inequalities, and the picture is especially troubling for black students.”

And this is the status quo we’re trying to protect?

It’s been pointed out that in the 1960s, there were low moments in education policy where individuals once stood in front of the schoolhouse door trying to keep minority children out. Now, there are some who would stand in front of the doors of failing schools to keep minority and other children in.

It’s time for a new way of thinking, and DeVos represents that. She has been a successful champion of school choice in Michigan and has helped bring similar opportunities to Florida, Louisiana, and other states.

She has what it takes to guide our nation’s education policy.

It’s time to stop playing politics with our nation’s children. Let’s work together for the reform that’s needed to do something big and bold to help our nation’s greatest treasure—the next generation.


UK: Israeli Apartheid Week is ugly, but it shouldn’t be banned

Both critics and supporters of Israel must have free speech

The end of February and the move into March marks an important time on the campus calendar, and it is not the celebration of the burgeoning spring season. No, this is the time of year when the anti-Israel activists dust off their mock checkpoints and papier mâché guns and prepare to irritate their fellow students with endless flyering. This is Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW).

I have written previously that the whole awful shebang belongs in the sick bucket, and I stand by it. Those behind IAW, closely tied to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, have no interest in furthering debate on Israel and Palestine, or indeed in helping Palestinians. IAW is quite clearly an exercise in demonising Israel, based on a premise that is completely false. Like any other country, there is much to criticise about Israel’s politics, but Israel is not, and never has been, an apartheid state. Besides, there is both right and wrong on both sides of this conflict; campaigns like IAW, which seek to reduce a highly complicated situation to a battle between goodies and baddies, are highly disingenuous.

But like it or loathe it, the whole bogus roadshow pitches up at campuses across the world like clockwork every year, with different timings for different countries. This week there are events happening in Ireland and France; last week it was Britain’s turn. Except, this, IAW’s 13th year, is slightly different. Instead of the usual tradition of being offered free rein to use campuses as a playground for anti-Israel hyperbole, some activists found their events were blocked.

IAW events at Central Lancashire, Exeter and University College London were cancelled. Many are blaming universities minister Jo Johnson, who prior to IAW sent a letter to the head of Universities UK calling for a crackdown on anti-Semitic incidents on campus, and citing IAW events as a possible cause for concern. In the letter he reminded Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, of the government’s adoption last December of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. The definition has been subject to much criticism, and has been accused of outlawing criticism of Israel, as it highlights ‘targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity’ as anti-Semitism. Although the statement adds that ‘criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic’, and the government also added a similar caveat.

But Johnson’s concerns are not unfounded. Anti-Semitism is a real problem on British campuses. Recently, Holocaust denial leaflets were found on four different campuses, including Cambridge, and swastikas were painted at Exeter. Moreover, most Jewish and pro-Israel students spend IAW feeling intimidated on campus, or avoiding it altogether.

War On Want, in its write-up of IAW, complained that: ‘Some universities placed draconian restrictions on IAW events, including last-minute “risk assessments”, imposition of external moderators, securitised pre-registration processes, and even potentially unlawful cancellations. Students were not given clear information about these restrictions… These restrictions created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on university campuses.’ Middle East Monitor also released a video showing clips of pro-Palestinian students talking about coming up against restrictive university measures and sometimes finding their events cancelled.

Ironically, this has been the experience of pro-Israel students for years. Their events are frequently subject to dubious last-minute cancellations and restrictions, and protests from anti-Israel activists frequently disrupt and even halt talks by Israeli speakers. Last November, Israeli speaker Hen Mazzig literally had to run off the UCL campus for his own safety. So forgive me if my first thought in response to the complaints about restrictions on IAW is ‘diddums’.

However, the event at the University of Central Lancashire, a panel discussion on the boycott of Israel, including anti-Israel activist Ben White, was cancelled, according to the university, because it was felt it may breach the new anti-Semitism definition. It turned out that grassroots group North West Friends of Israel had led a campaign to stop the event. There were also reports of threats of legal opposition against IAW events in the UK. And organisations the Israel Britain Alliance and Campaign Against Anti-Semitism launched legal campaigns against IAW. Meanwhile, the Israeli ambassador to France has asked French mayors to ban IAW events (taking place this week) in their towns and cities.

While the other universities in the UK which cancelled events cited procedural or practical reasons, they appear to have been under significant pressure to clamp down on IAW events. In what was possibly a misguided desire to address the very real problem of anti-Semitism on campus, universities appear to have capitulated. In response, an open letter in the Guardian signed by 243 academics called out universities for restricting free speech.

The fight for open debate about Israel and Palestine on campus is a tough one. Campaigns like IAW and BDS demonise Israel, and in doing so demonise those who support Israel. It is not a shock that pro-Israel and Jewish students at some of the most virulently anti-Israel campuses, such as SOAS and Kings College in London, often feel discriminated against and intimidated. And that anti-Israel activists are now posing as free-speech martyrs must irritate pro-Israel students who have so often found themselves silenced.

But defending free speech means defending it for everyone. If pro-Israel students and activists fail to do so, they’ll have no defence when their own events are censored. IAW is undoubtedly an ugly campaign. But it should not be censored. The answer is more speech, not less.


Ivy League 2017

 James Fisher said he couldn't attend classes at the University of Pennsylvania because one his white professors refused to denounce his white privilege. Fisher is black, and he wrote an article about his mental anguish published in his university's newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian. "I stopped going to his class for a month. With different emotions going through my head from not only this class but from the Trump election, I did not want to step foot into another white space until I made sure that my mental health was restored," Fisher wrote.

The paper said Fisher is from the Bronx, NY and in his picture looked fairly normal. He must have learned some toughness living there and he's only in his sophomore year at UPenn. Is this what can happen to a man after only one year in an Ivy League school these days? He can get completely rattled by a white man who doesn't think the way Fisher believes he should? Fisher claims his professor is nice, but Fisher claims being in his presence is still traumatizing:

    "These are the types of things that happen when white teachers do not want to acknowledge their privileges; they can psychologically hurt their students. It is not enough to be aware of your privilege. It is also not enough to be a nice person. Your niceness does not mean that you are not capable of contributing to racial systems of oppression."

It's sad that Fisher is evidently coming unglued. I'm not a mental health professional, but it seems there are other issues going on with him and he's blaming a "nice" white guy for his problems. But why did the university newspaper provide space for his embarrassing article? That's what I'm wondering. Looking into this, I discovered the paper is entirely student-run, but it's funded by the university, which is private and not part of the state of Pennsylvania as, say, the University of Maine is. Pennsylvania taxpayers are not funding it, except as they pay taxes to the federal government which provides assistance for some of its students to attend there or to attend any other college. In that sense, I'm paying too and so is every other American taxpayer.

I also learned that 250 students work for the newspaper and elect an all-student board every year which makes editorial decisions like publishing Fisher's article. I saw no disclaimer such as the typical: "Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper." Seeing something like that might have provided me some comfort

Fisher's article ran under a headline identifying it as part of a continuing series called: "Spilling the Real Tea" which runs every two weeks. Given the university was established in 1740, I wondered if it was some reference to the Boston Tea Party during which revolutionaries spilled British Tea into Boston harbor in protest against the British government. When I googled the expression, all that came up were examples of people using it. Judging from context clues, it seems to mean something like "telling the real truth."

Is that what the elected board of students at a prestigious university believe James Fisher is doing? Telling the real truth? Must be, since I see he's published three other articles in the same space. Is this indicative of how absolutely crazy it is on American campuses today? It would seem so. I'll leave you with another quote from Fisher:

    "It is not enough that you are sorry for the injustices caused by your people. It is not enough that you read one article on the Black Lives Matter movement because your black friend recommended it to you. It is not enough that you gave your black students extensions on their papers because Trump got elected. The truth is, you as a single person cannot make up for the horrific things that white people have done to us throughout human history. But that does not mean that you do not have the power to stop yourself from oppressing the students that you teach every day."

Remember, it costs $70,000 a year to go to the University of Pennsylvania today. What a deal, huh?   


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