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Prominent Democrats Accused of Anti-Semitic Targeting of Religious Schools

By Peter RoffAmerican Action News

Diana Robinson via Wikimedia Commons

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bungled response to COVID-19 has turned the nation’s largest metropolis into a disease-infested hotspot rife with economic and social tensions. Now parents in the city’s sizeable Orthodox Jewish community are asking a court to enjoin further restrictions on private education described in a suit as being “unscientific and discriminatory” in their origin because they prevent children enrolled in religious schools from attending them.

On Monday Yitzchok and Chana Lebovits — whose daughters attend the all-girl Bais Yaakov Ateres private school — asked a New York judge to prevent Cuomo’s latest anti-COVID-19 restrictions from taking effect specifically on the grounds they target the Orthodox Jewish community. Backed by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public-interest legal organization protecting religious freedom and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, the Lebovits want new regulations leading to school closures issued by Cuomo on October 6 set aside.

“We are devastated for our daughters and their classmates who are needlessly suffering because of the governor’s policy,” Mrs. Lebovits said. “Governor Cuomo should not take away part of my daughters’ childhood because other people are afraid of Orthodox Jews. We hope the court will let our daughters go back to school so they can pray and learn together with their classmates.”

The new restrictions ban completely in-person instruction at BYAM and other schools in Jewish neighborhoods in New York City, effectively infringing severely on the rights of parents to direct the religious education and upbringing of their children. The restrictions come after months of Cuomo and de Blasio’s apparent scapegoating of the Orthodox community, blaming them for the virus’s spread throughout the city while they were at the same time not only failing to condemn but praising the mass protests against economic and racial inequality that in some cases led to violence and looting in Manhattan.

In early October, a federal judge in New York found the new restrictions did specifically target the Orthodox Jewish community, laying the groundwork for the suit. “There is no place for bigotry in the Big Apple,” said Mark Rienzi, Becket president, and senior counsel.

“By Cuomo’s own admission, schools are not significant spreaders of COVID-19, and the new policy was not driven by science but was made from ‘fear’—fear of Orthodox Jews. Cuomo and de Blasio need to follow the science, follow the law, and stop scapegoating Jews. The Mayor and the Governor should be ashamed,” Rienzi added, referring to comments Cuomo can be overheard making during a telephone conversation with leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community. In that conversation, a copy of which was given to the New York media, the governor admits the policies he has put in place to lock down the state and keep residents confined to the homes and children out of school were based on political concerns, not science.

Critics have argued the measures taken by Cuomo and de Blasio to prevent the virus from spreading may have instead hastened its introduction into vulnerable population groups, especially among seniors and others living in nursing homes. The World Health Organization and others have recently concluded the number of deaths in nursing homes attributed to the disease is considerably higher than those occurring in the rest of the population.


The Case for Urban Charter Schooling

By David Griffith & Michael J. PetrilliNational Affairs

A decade ago, the charter-school movement was moving from strength to strength. As student enrollment surged and new schools opened in cities across the country, America’s first black president provided much-needed political cover from teachers’ union attacks. Yet today, with public support fading and enrollment stalling nationwide — and with Democratic politicians from Elizabeth Warren to Joe Biden disregarding, downplaying, or publicly disavowing the charter movement — the situation for America’s charter schools has become virtually unrecognizable.

This is a strange state of affairs, given the ever-growing and almost universally positive research base on urban charter schools. On average, students in these schools — and black and Latino students in particular — learn more than their peers in traditional public schools and go on to have greater success in college and beyond. Moreover, these gains have not come at the expense of traditional public schools or their students. In fact, as charter schools have replicated and expanded, surrounding school systems have usually improved as well.

To be sure, the research is not as positive for charter schools operating outside of the nation’s urban centers. Furthermore, multiple studies suggest that internet-based schools, along with programs serving mostly middle-class students, perform worse than their district counterparts, at least on traditional test-score-based measures. But like the technologies behind renewable energy (which work poorly in places where the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine), charter schools needn’t work everywhere to be of service to society. And, contrary to much of the public rhetoric, the evidence makes a compelling case for expanding charter schools in urban areas — especially in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, and San Francisco, where their market share is still relatively modest. Indeed, encouraging such an expansion may be the single most important step we can take to improve the lives of low-income and minority children in America’s most underserved urban communities.

It is a particularly cruel irony that many within the Democratic Party — with its historic legacy of standing up for needy urban families — have turned against a policy that could so dramatically improve the lives of their constituents. But despite some Democrats’ about-face on charter schools, it is imperative that America’s dispirited education reformers — who have experienced more than their fair share of disappointment — not throw in the towel just yet. Although the political climate may now entail a serious fight over charter schools in the coming years, the benefits of such schools make them well worth the effort.

THE EVIDENCE ON URBAN CHARTER SCHOOLS

In general, the most rigorous studies of charter schools rely on data from the randomized admissions lotteries that are conducted when individual schools are oversubscribed, which ensure that research resembles a natural experiment.

With few exceptions, these lottery-based studies have found that attending oversubscribed charter schools is associated with higher achievement in reading and math — especially in large, human-capital-rich cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York City. For example, a 2011 study of the Promise Academy charter schools in the Harlem Children’s Zone found the effects of attendance in middle school were “enough to close the black-white achievement gap in mathematics,” while the effects in elementary school were “large enough to close the racial achievement gap in both mathematics and [English language arts].”

If all charter schools were so effective, there would be little to debate. But unfortunately, charter schools that are popular enough to make use of admissions lotteries are likely atypical. Consequently, although studies may tell us something important about the schools in question — and, perhaps, about the potential gains associated with the policies and practices that allow them to do their work — this research can tell us little about the overall performance of urban charter schools.

In an effort to overcome this limitation, many recent studies have used a statistical technique known as “matching” to compare the academic trajectories of students in charter schools to students in traditional public schools with similar characteristics and levels of academic achievement. A 2012 study that used matching found that students in Milwaukee charter schools made more progress in English language arts (ELA) and math than otherwise similar students in traditional public schools, as did a more recent study of students in Los Angeles charter schools.

Although there are many approaches to matching, perhaps the best known in education circles is the virtual control record (VCR) method developed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. CREDO has used the VCR method in recent years to generate an extensive collection of national, state-, and city-specific estimates of the “charter effect.” In a 2015 analysis of charter performance in 41 urban locations, for instance, CREDO estimated that students who attended a charter school in these cities gained an average of 28 days of learning in ELA and 40 days of learning in math per year. (For the purposes of this discussion, 180 days of learning can be thought of as the progress the average American student makes in the average school year.) Students who enrolled in an urban charter school for at least four years gained a total of 72 days of learning in ELA and 108 days — over half a year’s worth of learning — in math.

Notably, these gains were concentrated among low-income black and Latino students. Black students in poverty gained 44 days of learning in ELA and 59 days of learning in math per year. Similarly, Latino students in poverty gained 25 days of learning in ELA and 48 days of additional learning in math. Students with English-language-learner status gained 79 days of learning in ELA and 72 days of learning in math.

Nationally, ELA and math achievement gaps between white students and black and Latino students are roughly two grade levels. So while most charter schools aren’t erasing racial achievement gaps, the average urban charter is putting a sizable dent in them.

Since the goal of public education is to serve all students effectively, one key question is whether the success of students in charter schools comes at the expense of their peers in traditional public schools. Yet contrary to the assumptions of many charter-school opponents, there is little evidence that this is the case.

In fact, most of the “spillover” effects that charter schools have on the traditional public schools in their vicinity appear positive — or at worst, neutral. To wit, a recent review of the literature on this question identified nine studies that found positive effects, three that found negative effects, two that found mixed effects, and 10 that found no effects whatsoever. As that summary suggests, evidence that charter competition has salutary effects on district-run schools has now been detected in a wide variety of contexts, from the dense urban cores of Milwaukee and New York City to the sprawling suburbs of Florida, North Carolina, and Texas.

Logically, if urban charter schools have a positive effect on their own students’ achievement and a neutral or positive effect on other students’ achievement, it follows that their overall effect on student achievement must be positive. To test that hypothesis, researchers at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently examined the relationship between the “market share” of local charters — that is, the percentage of publicly enrolled students in a geographic school district who attend a charter school — and the average reading and math achievement of all students (including those in traditional public schools). Overall, the data revealed that an increase in the former was associated with an increase in the latter, especially in black and Latino communities and in the largest urban areas. In other words, at least when it comes to charter schools in America’s biggest cities, a rising tide really does lift all boats.

BEYOND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT

While most parents expect their children to leave school with a mastery of critical academic skills and knowledge, the ultimate success of an education lies in the degree to which it empowers students to thrive in adulthood. Consequently, to gauge the true efficacy of charter schools, one cannot simply rely on charter students’ performance record based on standard academic tests.

Fortunately, a growing number of studies allow us to examine the relationship between enrollment in charter schools and long-term, real-world outcomes. One evaluation of a high-performing “no excuses” charter school in Chicago found that, compared to their peers, “lottery winners are 10.0 percentage points more likely to attend college and 9.5 percentage points more likely to enroll for at least four semesters.” Similarly, in a follow-up study of the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy, researchers found that the same students who had previously experienced large test-score gains relative to their district peers were also “14.1 percentage points more likely to enroll in college.” Furthermore, admitted female students were “12.1 percentage points less likely to be pregnant in their teens,” while male students were “4.3 percentage points less likely to be incarcerated.”

Other lottery-based studies encompass multiple schools. For example, one study found that attending an oversubscribed Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) middle school between 2008 and 2011 had a positive effect on post-secondary enrollment. Similarly, a 2016 study found that charter schools “increase pass rates on Massachusetts’ high-stakes [high-school] exit exam, with large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored [college] scholarship,” and that they “induce a substantial shift from 2- to 4-year institutions.” Finally, a recent study of the Democracy Prep charter network found that it boosted students’ odds of voting in the 2016 election by six percentage points.

Like the lottery-based studies of charter schools’ impact on achievement, this research doesn’t necessarily generalize to all charter schools. However, at least two studies have used matching techniques to estimate the long-term effects of charter attendance for entire cities or states.

The first, a 2011 study of charter schools in Florida and Chicago, found that “among students who attended a charter middle school, those who went on to attend a charter high school were 7–15 percentage points more likely to earn a standard diploma than students who transitioned to a traditional public high school,” as well as “8–10 percentage points more likely to attend college.” The second, a more recent study of charter schools in North Carolina, found that students who attended a charter high school were “less likely to be chronically absent, suspended, be convicted of a crime as an adult, and more likely to register and participate in elections.”

In short, although the literature on charter schools’ long-term effects is still developing, the early evidence — like the two studies mentioned above — is extremely encouraging as well as highly consistent with the evidence on charter schools’ short-term effects on academic achievement.

RACIAL INTEGRATION

In the absence of any compelling evidence that charter schools’ well-established benefits for low-income and minority students come at the expense of students in traditional public schools, the claim that charter schools exacerbate segregation is perhaps opponents’ most potent line of attack. And though, as of yet, the evidence is neither dramatic nor conclusive, there is some limited evidence to support this argument.

In a recent literature review, for instance, researchers identified 10 studies of charter schools and racial integration, including two that found they increased integration, five that found no significant effect, and three that found that they decreased integration (i.e., increased or at least preserved segregation). Meanwhile, in the most comprehensive analysis to date, researchers at the Urban Institute found that higher charter market share was associated with a small increase in racial segregation within the average school district. Specifically, the authors estimated that if every charter school in the country was eliminated, racial segregation in the average district would decrease by approximately 5%. However, that same study also found that charter schools reduced segregation between school districts. Consequently, when the analysts looked at segregation across entire metro areas, they found no significant effects.

For some charter skeptics, even the faintest hint of “re-segregation” on any level is intolerable. While this objection to charter schools is understandable, an overemphasis on this dimension of their impact risks missing the forest for the trees.

First, it’s important to recognize that American schools are already highly segregated and have been so for the many decades of traditional public-school hegemony. Thus, it’s not as if charter schools are derailing an otherwise successful program of racial integration.

Second, much of the most concerning segregation takes place within outwardly diverse schools. For example, if math or other subjects are tracked, pre-existing achievement gaps can and do lead to highly segregated classrooms, even within schools that look integrated on paper.

Third, some research suggests that, because it “decouples” housing and education markets, expanding school choice makes it more likely that white parents will move into “racially segregated urban communities.” In other words, even if charter schools do lead to slightly less diverse schools in some places, their arrival may mean that neighborhoods become more diverse.

Finally, it is simply a fact that many “racially isolated” charter schools achieve exceptional results for the minority students they serve. At the end of the day, the argument that charter programs will re-segregate America’s schools misses the profound difference between policies of enforced segregation and those that empower black and Latino families to opt out of a system designed by and for the white majority. Parents who choose all-black or all-Latino charter schools that defy society’s expectations of failure are hardly modern-day Bull Connors.

CRITICS OF THE RESEARCH

As should be obvious, much of the pro-charter argument depends on the validity of the methodologies upon which researchers have relied (and of CREDO’s methodology in particular). So, given how much is at stake, it’s worth taking a moment to understand the various criticisms of CREDO’s approach, most of which can be summarized in two points.

First, critics claim that CREDO’s estimates could be biased by unobserved differences between students in charter schools and students in traditional public schools. In other words, it’s possible that the students in charter schools make more progress than “otherwise similar” students (i.e., students with similar demographic characteristics and prior achievement) in traditional public schools because of factors that are hard to measure, like unusually involved parents.

Second, the critics argue that even if CREDO’s estimates are unbiased, they might not generalize to other locations or higher levels of charter market share. For example, if the 25% of Boston’s black students who are enrolled in a charter school are above average, easier to teach, or otherwise different from the rest of the city’s black student population, the same schools that are seemingly serving these students so well might struggle to replicate their results with the other three-quarters of that population. And of course, insofar as the extraordinary success of Boston’s charter schools depends on conditions that are not replicable — such as the city’s unusually deep reservoir of human capital — it may be difficult to reproduce this success in other locations.

For each of these criticisms, there is a compelling counterargument. For example, when the federal Institute of Education Sciences (IES) evaluated non-experimental methods for studying charter schools, it found that matching studies generated “impact estimates that are not significantly different from the experimental estimates.” Other attempts to assess the validity of matching approaches have reached similar conclusions. And in general, it’s difficult to overlook the similarities between CREDO’s estimates and those generated by other experimental and quasi-experimental studies. Like the CREDO studies, for example, those other studies found increased positive effects for disadvantaged students and students of color, as well as a stark gap between the performance of urban and non-urban charter schools, all of which suggests that CREDO’s estimates should be taken seriously.

As for the second criticism, although our knowledge of the opportunities and challenges associated with an exclusively charter-based system is thus far limited to the experience of New Orleans (which made the switch almost overnight following Hurricane Katrina), we now have quite a bit of experience with “charter-heavy” systems, where charter market share is somewhere between 15% and 45%. In general, the evidence collected in such environments suggests that the returns associated with higher charter market share do not necessarily diminish as charter market share increases. For example, one rigorous analysis found that the “average effectiveness of Boston’s charter middle school sector increased…despite a doubling of charter market share.” And CREDO’s 2015 estimates for cities like Detroit and Washington, D.C., were highly positive, despite the fact that charter schools enroll more than a third of the students in these cities. Finally, the evidence suggests that New Orleans’s leap of faith led to substantial gains for students — although it’s not clear how much smaller those gains would have been if the city had stopped at 50% or 75% charter market share instead of going all the way.

Obviously, even if one takes CREDO’s estimates at face value and accepts that there is room for growth in most places, it’s still the case that charter performance varies by location. But what this criticism often overlooks is that charter policy also varies by location. So at best, this line of reasoning is a double-edged sword. After all, nothing but politics prevents states and localities from adopting smarter education policies.

IMPROVEMENTS OVER TIME

Collectively, the research discussed makes a compelling case for expanding charter schools in urban areas. Yet that case would be incomplete without a final, critical, and frequently overlooked point: Charter schools (and urban charter schools in particular) have improved since the movement’s inception — even as their numbers have increased — and will probably keep improving in the coming years.

The first half of this claim is difficult to contest. For instance, after breaking down previously collected achievement data according to school year, CREDO estimated that students in urban charter schools gained 24 days of learning in reading and 29 days of learning in math in 2008-09. Yet by 2011-12, it estimated that these figures had increased to 41 days for reading and 58 days for math. Similarly, meta-analyses of the lottery-based and quasi-experimental charter-school literature suggest a gradual improvement in overall performance. For example, a 2008 review of 17 lottery-based and value-added studies found “compelling evidence that charter schools underperform traditional public schools in some locations, grades, and subjects, and outperform them in other locations, grades, and subjects.” Yet in 2019, the same authors concluded that charter schools had positive effects in the elementary and middle grades, with no statistically significant effects in high school.

Although the causes behind this improvement are complex, it stands to reason that it is at least partly attributable to the inevitable learning process that occurs whenever a new idea is introduced. As skeptics are quick to note, “charter schools” often feels like an unhelpfully broad category. Fortunately, thanks to nearly two decades of research, we know quite a bit about what sorts of charter schools work best, for whom, and under what circumstances. Another landmark CREDO study (and other research) tells us that non-profit “charter management organizations” (CMOs) are, on average, higher performing than for-profit networks or independent “mom-and-pop” charter schools. And numerous studies suggest that “no excuses” schools have had a particularly positive effect on black students’ achievement. Finally, as noted previously, we know that charter schools in urban areas outperform those in rural and suburban districts, especially when it comes to serving black and Latino students.

Though it’s unlikely to persuade the critics, one obvious implication of all this research is that we should allow high-performing CMOs like KIPP, Success Academy, and IDEA to expand their footprints in major urban areas. And in fact, that’s more or less what has been happening in places where charter schools in general have been allowed to grow: Since 2015, the share of newly created charter schools run by for-profit entities has fallen from 20% to around 10%, while the share of new schools run by CMOs has increased to 40%.

Once one starts looking for them, the signs that states and localities are learning from one another’s experiences are everywhere. To wit, at least half a dozen cities have now adopted common applications that make it easier for parents to choose from and apply to multiple schools. Or take Texas, which historically has had a relatively low-performing charter sector. In 2013, the Lone Star State boosted funding for its charter schools while also moving to close its lowest performers. Following the law’s passage, CREDO’s estimate of Texas charter schools’ effect on math learning went from negative 17 days per year in 2013 to positive 17 days per year in 2015, with even larger gains for poor students and the state’s ever-expanding Latino population.

This improvement is too recent to be reflected in CREDO’s national estimates, as are the widely recognized improvements in several other states’ charter sectors. But the more important point is that, even after 25 years of “learning” on the part of both states and localities, charter-school policy in most places is far from optimal. Additionally, a 2018 study found that, once the cost of facilities and other unavoidable expenses was taken into account, charter schools received 27% — or about $6,000 — less per pupil than traditional public schools. And in more than a dozen major urban districts — including Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Washington, D.C. — it has been estimated that charter schools receive anywhere from 25% to 50% less revenue per pupil than traditional public schools. In other words, urban charter schools are achieving their remarkable results despite spending far less money per pupil than their district counterparts. If and when legislators begin funding charter schools more equitably, one can only imagine the levels of success they — and their students — will achieve.

RENEWING THE PROMISE OF CHARTER SCHOOLS

In recent decades, education reformers have experimented with numerous approaches to boosting the achievement of disadvantaged children of color — from reducing class sizes to insisting that teachers receive “National Board Certification” to investing heavily in failing schools. Yet ultimately, most of these ideas were abandoned because they were politically untenable or, in hindsight, unscalable or ill-conceived. In contrast, the case for charter schools has only strengthened over time — and the experiences of places like New Orleans, Newark, and D.C. suggest we have only begun to realize their potential.

Precisely why urban charter schools work so well for students of color is difficult to say. In theory, freedom from district bureaucracies and teacher-union contracts should allow them to make better hiring decisions, appropriately reward strong performance, and let go of ineffective teachers when necessary. But it’s also possible that more intense competition between schools encourages them to make better use of their resources. Or perhaps the periodic closure of low-performing charter schools leads to a gradual improvement in quality. Or maybe allowing more school choice improves the “match” between students and schools in ways that disproportionately benefit at-risk students. Since research supports each of these theories, the best possible answer to the question of causal mechanisms may simply be “all of the above.”

Despite what many may have heard, the growth of charter schools is not out of control. To the contrary, where growth has been permitted, it is completely under the control of disadvantaged populations that can now exercise their right to pursue a better education. And despite the overheated rhetoric that dominates public conversation, the truth is that charter schools enroll a modest percentage of students in most major cities. In New York City, for instance, they enroll just one in five black students and one in 10 Latino students. Yet at the start of the 2019-20 school year, nearly 50,000 families in the Big Apple were denied a place in a charter school.

Nationally, roughly one-quarter of black students and perhaps one in six Latino students in urban districts attend a charter school. So how much progress could we make by expanding charter market share for these groups? Although any concrete estimate is subject to criticism, our back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that moving from 25% to 50% charter market share in urban areas could cut the achievement gap in half for at least 2.5 million black and Latino students in the coming decade. And of course, with more equitable funding, improved oversight, and an expanded role for truly high-performing networks, the dividends might be even larger. With so much to be gained for America’s most poorly served children, there is simply no reason not to prioritize the expansion of charter-school policies and programs in the years ahead.


The Charter School Advantage

A new study shows African-Americans and children from poorer backgrounds outpace their peers in traditional district schools.

By Paul E. Peterson and M. Danish ShakeelThe Wall Street Journal

A student at Miami Community Charter School in Flagler City, Fla., Aug. 31.
PHOTO: MATIAS J. OCNER/ZUMA PRESS

Public charter schools were once viewed as a nonpartisan compromise between vouchers for private schools and no choice at all. Not now. In its 2020 national platform, the Democratic Party calls for “stringent guardrails to ensure charter schools are good stewards” and says federal funding for charters must be conditioned on “whether the charter will systematically underserve the neediest students.” Charter schools are indeed acting as good stewards by outpacing district schools on achievement growth—especially for the most at-risk students.

In a new study we compare the progress made by cohorts of charter and district school students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2005-17—a sample of more than four million test performances. Overall, students at charters are advancing at a faster pace than those at district schools. The strides made by African-American charter students have been particularly impressive. We also see larger gains at charters, relative to district schools, by students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Sometimes known as “the nation’s report card,” the NAEP administers math and reading tests every other year to representative samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students in all 50 states. Ours is the first study to use this vast storehouse of information to analyze changes over time in the charter and district sectors. By adjusting for student background characteristics—sex, ethnicity, income, and (for eighth-grade students) computer availability and the number of books in the home—we made direct comparisons between student outcomes at charter and district schools. Because NAEP data don’t allow us to track specific students, we looked at changes in performance from one student cohort to the next over 12 years. 

In 2003 an exploratory precursor to these NAEP surveys revealed that the average performance in reading and math of fourth-grade students attending charter schools trailed that of students attending district schools. When these results became public, the finding garnered widespread media attention.

Much has happened since then. For one thing, the charter sector has grown to include 6% of all U.S. public-school students—up from 2%. Just as important, we are now able to report that student achievement at charters has been rising at a considerably faster pace than at district schools. Nationwide, eighth-graders attending charter schools show learning gains over students at district schools amounting to three months of learning from 2005-17. The differences between charters and district schools is smaller at the fourth-grade level. 

Relative to district schools, the most striking gains at charters are for African-American students, who constitute about 30% of the charter-school student population nationwide. Even after adjustments for background characteristics, their achievement gains in eighth grade exceed those at district schools by about six months of learning. African-American student performance in fourth grade rose by an extra four months of learning. Progress at charters by white students was more measured. Gains for charter-school student cohorts were two months of learning above those in the district sector. 

Eighth-grade student cohorts from poor families are also making more-rapid progress at charters than at district schools. The scores of those in the bottom 25% of the socioeconomic distribution increased nearly twice as much as those of students in the district sector. 

The charter advantage isn’t universal—Asian-American and Hispanic students are doing equally well in both sectors, as are students in the Western U.S. more generally. But the sizable gains for African-Americans and students from poorer backgrounds bolster President Trump’s claim that school choice is a civil-rights issue. Much more progress needs to be made to close the achievement gap. But if charters haven’t resolved social divides, they have proved to be a healthy tonic for the American educational system. Charters are improving outcomes even without the “stringent guardrails” proposed by the Democrats.


The Hard Truth about Remote Learning This Fall

A disconcerting amount of energy has been devoted to battling parents who are trying to solve the problem that’s been dumped on their doorstep.

By FREDERICK M. HESS & MATTHEW RICENational Review

(Ridofranz/Getty Images)

The kitchen table will once again serve as a makeshift desk for millions of students when they head “back to school” in the next few weeks. Seventeen of the nation’s 20 largest school districts have said that they’ll reopen with zero in-person instruction. Nationally, only about 40 percent of schools have announced plans to reopen in-person (with another ten percent planning for a hybrid model that includes some in-person instruction).

In short, close to half the nation’s K–12 schools may begin the new year remotely, a figure that will be far higher in the systems serving the most students. This painful reality, combined with teacher resistance to reopening and parental concerns about student safety, has prompted districts to work overtime promising that remote learning will be much better this fall.

While we’re big fans of making the best of a bad situation, we fear that this misplaced optimism has made it easier than it should be for school leaders to keep the doors locked this fall and has undermined commitment to the contractual arrangements, training, supports, and instruction needed to ensure that remote learning is more than an oxymoron. To be clear, remote learning is wholly in order where the public-health situation has rendered classrooms untenable. But it’s critical that parents, teachers, and school administrators in those locales proceed with no illusions.

This spring’s virtual-learning experiment was underwhelming, to say the least. Researchers at NWEA, Brown, and the University of Virginia have estimated that students will begin the coming school year already woefully behind, with just two-thirds the learning gains in reading and as little as half of the gains in math that we would normally expect. This is hardly a surprise, given that nearly a quarter of students were truant and that, even as the spring semester ground to an end, only a fifth of school districts expected teachers to provide real-time instruction.

Despite assurances from district officials that this fall’s remote instruction will be much improved, there’s a lot of cause for skepticism. For one thing, the evidence is pretty clear that, for most learners, virtual learning today is significantly less effective than classroom instruction. Research suggests that is likely to be particularly true for disadvantaged students.

Moreover, there’s little evidence that school systems worked out the kinks of virtual learning over the summer. Consider New York City’s dismal experience with summer learning. In the nation’s biggest and biggest-spending school district, despite New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza’s pledge that the city’s summer learning plan would get kids “ready to hit the ground running come September,” the program was plagued by the same problems that befell schools last spring — from technical glitches to poor curricula to sky-high truancy rates.

Less than half of districts offered any sort of professional development to their teachers over the summer, and just 20 percent have plans to provide support to teachers in a remote-learning setting. Parents have expressed frustration about the dearth of communication or guidance from their schools, and educators themselves have fretted that they’re not sure, after a lost spring, how they’ll convince students that this fall’s remote learning should suddenly be taken seriously. And, however tough it was for teachers to connect with students this spring, they’d already had six months of in-person instruction to build from; things are going to be exponentially tougher this fall for those teachers who know their students only as pixels and email addresses.

Meanwhile, teacher unions have served as another impediment. Even when the concerns sometimes seem exaggerated, one can appreciate why teachers may be hesitant about in-person schooling. Extraordinarily troubling, however, is that — once schools have gone fully virtual — more than a few union locals seem to be intent on pursuing provisions designed to hinder remote teaching and allow teachers paid as full-time educators to operate as part-time employees.

In Los Angeles, the “tentative agreement” between the district and the union stipulates that teachers will only need to deliver one to three hours of live instruction a day, with the exact amount determined by a complicated distance-learning schedule that incorporates grade level and, weirdly, the day of the week. In San Diego, the tentative agreement between the union and the district calls for three hours of live instruction a day, one “office hour” a day, and two hours of prep time for teachers (during which students are supposed to be doing “asynchronous” work, i.e. watching videos or filling out worksheets).

All of this leaves parents in a tough spot as they contemplate another lost semester, knowing their kids need more than the two hours of Zoom calls and busywork that many schools are offering. Some parents have been found a solution in “learning pods,” small, parent-organized classrooms led by a tutor or teacher that deliver a lot of the benefits of in-person schooling while minimizing risk. Others have turned to virtual charter schools with more purposeful, robust online programs. Still others have sought to transfer to smaller private schools offering some form of in-person learning.

Yet far from celebrating these attempts to do what many schools won’t, the nation’s scolds have apparently decided this a good time to upbraid and obstruct parents who dare to do more than sit and fret. Parents who form learning pods have been lambasted in the New York Times for choosing “to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy” and criticized in the Washington Post for “weakening the public education system they leave behind.” Those trying to move their kids to virtual charter schools have been fought by union leaders who, in Oregon, pressured state officials to block such transfers. And in Montgomery County, Md., parents who’d turned to private schools found local officials striving to shutter these options just weeks before the start of school.

When the public-health situation warrants it, remote learning is better than nothing. But, even before we turn to the crushing impacts on working parents and children’s mental health, it’s crucial to appreciate just what a dismal substitute today’s remote learning really is. And, while it’s far from clear that district and union leaders are focused on putting in place the measures that might help, a disconcerting amount of energy has been devoted to battling parents who are trying to solve the problem that’s been dumped on their doorstep.33

The takeaway is pretty straightforward. In most places, remote learning is going to be a mess this fall. School and system leaders should be doing all they can to reopen schools as rapidly and thoughtfully as their local health context permits. And, in the meantime, educators, community leaders, and policymakers should do all they can to help families find solutions that will work for them.


School Choice Is the Only Option

If there is a potential silver lining to the United States' experience with COVID-19, it can be found in the domain of primary and secondary education, where the demand for alternatives to traditional public schools is surging. The pandemic has both laid bare the US education gap and pointed the way to a solution.

By JOHN B. TAYLORProject Syndicate

STANFORD – After years of rumblings for change in US education, the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a catalyst for improving the system. America’s educational divide – especially in grades K-12 (elementary through high school) – is now clearly visible for anyone to see. Disparities in quality and access to education are a major source of the economic, social, and racial inequalities that are driving so much social unrest from Austin and Oakland to Portland and Seattle. Whether they come from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods or the suburbs, the least-educated Americans have been the hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic effects.

Fortunately, economist Thomas Sowell (my colleague at the Hoover Institution) has offered a solution. In his new book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies, he shows that schools with more autonomy and flexibility than traditional public schools are closing the educational divide, providing sorely needed choice, opportunity, and competition.

Sowell’s careful analysis of the data, which was available before the pandemic struck, shows that students in publicly funded but privately operated charter schools like Success Academy in New York City score remarkably higher on standardized achievement tests than do those in traditional public schools. The book contains reams of convincing evidence, all of which is explained beautifully and presented clearly in more than 90 pages of tables.

Sowell controls for many factors, including school location: students at charter schools within the same building as a traditional public school perform several times better on the same tests. And he supplements the hard data with simple evidence, such as the long waiting lists to get into the better performing charter schools. But if charter schools work so well, what explains the enemies mentioned in the book’s title? Critics of charter schools would list many reasons, but the main one, Sowell laments, is that public schools simply do not want the competition.

Will the COVID-19 crisis finally change things? There are already positive signs that it has. Last month, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos unveiled a new, five-year $85 million scholarship fund that will help students from lower-income families in Washington, DC go to schools of their choice. It is part of her department’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only federally funded school-choice initiative in the United States. The average income of families in the program is less than $27,000 per year, and more than 90% of students in it are African-American or Hispanic/Latino.

In another promising sign, US Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee recently introduced a bill to direct some of the educational relief funding in this year’s US Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to school-choice programs. That money would enable lower-income families that are hard-pressed by the pandemic to send their children to alternative schools. Among other things, the legislation would direct 10% of CARES Act educational funds toward scholarships for private-school tuition or reimbursement for homeschooling costs.

But most telling, perhaps, is the fact that many families and individuals are coming up with their own solutions. Consider the sudden blossoming of pandemic learning “pods,” wherein parents get together, find teachers, and form a class for kids in the neighborhood. Learning pods are a natural civil-society response to school closing in many districts in California and elsewhere. When schools suspend services, parents immediately will seek out alternative solutions, especially when they have concerns about their children’s ability to learn remotely.

Of course, learning pods already have enemies of their own, with critics complaining that the practice is unfair, harmful for traditional schools, or available only to those who can afford to hire teachers. But that is all the more reason to make high-quality, effective schools more widely accessible. Quashing new ideas is not the answer.

The struggle over pandemic-era education is quickly moving to statehouses. In June, as part of the new state budget, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 98, which caps per-student state funding for charter and public schools at last year’s funding levels. The point is to limit charter school enrollments at a time when demand for alternatives to traditional public schools is surging. But with those public schools closing and resorting to remote teaching, students from lower-income households will be the ultimate victims.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday

There are already at least 13,000 students waiting to enroll in charter schools in California. But owing to SB98, notes State Senator Melissa Melendez, “if you are in a school that is failing that is really too bad. You are just going to have to stay there and deal with it. That is not fair to the student or the parent.”

In his book, Sowell points out that, “Those who want to see quality education remain available to low-income minority neighborhoods must raise the question, again and again, when various policies and practices are proposed: ‘How is this going to affect the education of children?’”

If we all focus squarely on that question, the pandemic’s long-term impact on education could turn out to be highly beneficial.


It’s Time to Fund Learning, Not Schools

By Peter RoffAmerican Action News

There’s a lot riding on whether the nation’s children go back to school in the fall. The restoration of the economy. The ability of many parents to return to work. The safety and continued education of our kids. All of that, one way or another, is contingent on the return to things as they were before COVID hit. 

The science says it’s safe if reasonable precautions are taken. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics are, to one degree or another on board. Keeping kids out of school might be more harmful, say the experts, than letting them attend.

Leading the fight against the return to normalcy is the usual cast of characters, many of whom oppose a normal school year because President Donald J. Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos want it. That’s a reflexive response, hardly meaningful as these are the same people who’d probably try to give up breathing if Trump said it was good for you.

Teachers and their unions are also resisting. You would have thought they’d be anxious to get back to work, especially since the science shows it is in the best interest of the children. But no, they’re on the frontlines arguing against any proposal that doesn’t at least cut back on the time that will be spent in the public-school classroom. 

Some are going further. In Washington, D.C., where bad decisions by local politicians have caused the novel coronavirus to hit especially hard, public school teachers this week briefly lined up “body bags” outside the city’s administrative offices to pressure Mayor Muriel Bowser to keep the government-run schools closed.  

It’s not in the kids’ best interests to do that. Yet the teachers’ unions who are the first to proclaim they are the guardians of that sacred trust anytime something like a tax increase to fund education comes up are leading the charge to keep schools closed and more. A coalition of unions, including those representing teachers in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Racine, Little Rock, and Oakland has assembled a list of demands that is at best self-serving and, as they say, “non-negotiable.”

They won’t come back to work, they say, “until the scientific data supports it.” Which it does, even if they won’t acknowledge it. Also on the list is “police free schools,” a “moratorium on new charter or voucher programs and standardized testing,” a “massive infusion of federal money to support the reopening funded by taxing billionaires and Wall Street,” “Support for our communities and families, including (a) moratorium on evictions/foreclosures, providing direct cash assistance to those not able to work or who are unemployed, and other critical social needs,” and “All schools must be supported to function as community schools with adequate numbers of counselors and nurses and community/parent outreach workers.”

There may be a couple more, but you should understand their intent by now. The unions representing these teachers want to bring an end to any chance students might have, especially those in the inner cities, to a better education leading to a better quality of life than they knew growing up by putting an end to accountability and an end to the competition posed by charter schools.

We shouldn’t be funding these people with our tax dollars. We should be doing education differently, starting with what we pay for. We should be funding learning instead of schools and children instead of teachers. What we’re doing now doesn’t work unless you’re a politician who backs things as they are because you get political support for doing so.

Thomas Sowell, the great economist and public intellectual who has long been a leader in the fight for education reform once said, “Propagandists in the classroom are a luxury that the poor can afford least of all. While a mastery of mathematics and English can be a ticket out of poverty, a highly cultivated sense of grievance and resentment is not.” Yet that’s what we’re seeing in the demands the teachers’ unions and their coalition partners are making before they’re willing to let the schools reopen. They’re showing us they’re not in it for the kids as they claim. They’re in it for themselves and they’ve finally, because of the COVID crisis, exposed themselves for what they are.


Parents propose a new way to educate their children in the fall: School pods

By Bethany MandelWashington Examiner

It looks the same in all of my local Facebook groups: “Looking for a small group of 1st graders to go in on a homeschool type pod where we hire a retired or not comfortable to go back teacher to facilitate daily learning.” 

The volume of these posts led to a spin-off group of almost a thousand members with hardly any advertising. The whole objective of the spin-off is for families to advertise the “pods” they want to build based on age, location, the degree of caution they’re exerting, and study goals. And it’s chock-full of posts like the one above, sharing a theme: Parents are trying to connect with other parents and with teachers to supplement or completely replace the lessons planned in public schools.

With many school districts announcing they won’t return to the classroom until at least winter or late fall, with parents still reeling from the disaster that was distance learning last school year, parents are banding together and forming their own “micro-schools.” This is a grassroots plan not without controversy. 

A woman in the Bay Area in California wrote on the phenomenon, which is taking place near her as well. “This is maybe the fastest and most intense PURELY GRASSROOTS economic hard pivot I’ve seen, including the rise of the masking industry a few months ago,” she wrote. “Startups have nothing compared to thousands of moms on facebook trying to arrange for their kids’ education in a crisis with zero school district support.”

She continued, “The race and class considerations are COMPLETELY BONKERS. In fact, yesterday everything was about people organizing groups and finding matches– today the social justice discussion is already tearing these groups apart.”

Government intervention isn’t always the answer. Here’s what the government can do: allow parents and families the flexibility to take the money the state should be spending on their children and allow that money to follow those children to pods, tutors, or functioning online options. 

There are countless teachers and teachers’ unions protesting the idea of going back to work. If they aren’t comfortable, there is nobody forcing them back. And it’s time to call their bluff, as President Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers in 1981. When 11,000 of them went on strike, believing themselves to be irreplaceable, the president called their bluff and said, “Tell them when the strike’s over, they don’t have any jobs.”

In a sane world, teachers’ unions would not have outsized power to throw temper tantrums, and this is how we’d handle such a situation. We would fire any teacher not wishing to return to the classroom without a documented medical reason and funnel their salaries into a fund that students could then use to supplement their education.


Bigotry Still in Evidence at the Supreme Court

By Peter RoffAmerican Action News

Erich Salomon via Wikimedia Commons

In a remarkable turn of events, four members of the United States Supreme Court recently affirmed the constitutionality of state-sponsored religious bigotry. On June 30, by a vote of 5-4, the court struck down a Montana law barring the inclusion of religious schools as an option for families participating in educational choice programs – with the court’s liberal wing in opposition to the majority. 

In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the justices answered what the non-profit Institute for Justice called the “open question” arising from previous decisions in cases like 2002’s Zelman v. Simmons-Harris whether religious institutions could be explicitly excluded from choice programs.

The national effort to ban government support for Catholic schools goes back to the 1880s. The Republican Party, following the leadership of one-time House Speaker, U.S. Senator, and 1884 GOP presidential candidate James G. Blaine attempted to hamper the rise in influence of the Catholic immigrants coming from Europe in large numbers, in part through the use of “Blaine Amendments” that blocked state funding for religious schools.

Writing for the majority in Espinoza, Chief Justice Roberts cited them as being “born of bigotry,” adding that the “no-aid provisions of the 19th century hardly evince a tradition that should inform our understanding of the Free Exercise Clause.” The Court also said the “exclusion [of religious schools] from the scholarship program here is ‘odious to our Constitution’ and ‘cannot stand.’”

The Blaine Amendments were pushed by the kinds of people who, in 1884, referred to the Democrats as the “The Party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” It was a slogan that likely cost Blaine the White House while the state constitutional amendments named for him are a stain on the records of those who supported them, the states that adopted them, and the country as a whole. Yet it was liberal Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan who in essence affirmed them by refusing to join the majority in Espinoza.

The anti-Catholicism of the period wasn’t limited to the schools. The same concerns that drove the Blaine Amendments produced groups like Planned Parenthood, whose leader, Margaret Sanger, spread the efficacy of birth control among poorer Catholics in the cities. Her motivation, to keep Catholics from having so many children, is well documented even if modern historians tend to overlook it.

Had this been an issue that involved race, the dissenters – had there been any – would have had their decisions linked unfavorably to such odious court rulings as the ones made in Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. But, because Espinoza involved religious bigotry, its antecedents are overlooked and the justices on the wrong side have not been called to account. That’s because, for too long, the “establishment clause” of the 1st Amendment has been given decided preference over the “free exercise” provision. As the latest decision hints, however, a day of reckoning when the two sections of the amendment concerning religious freedom must at least be given equal weight is coming.


First Common Core High School Grads Worst-Prepared For College In 15 Years

This is the opposite of what we were told would happen with trillions of taxpayer dollars and an entire generation of children who deserve not to have been guinea pigs in a failed national experiment.

By Joy PullmannThe Federalist

For the third time in a row since Common Core was fully phased in nationwide, U.S. student test scores on the nation’s broadest and most respected test have dropped, a reversal of an upward trend between 1990 and 2015. Further, the class of 2019, the first to experience all four high school years under Common Core, is the worst-prepared for college in 15 years, according to a new report.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a federally mandated test given every other year in reading and mathematics to students in grades four and eight. (Periodically it also tests other subjects and grade levels.) In the latest results, released Wednesday, American students slid yet again on nearly every measure.

Reading was the worst hit, with both fourth and eighth graders losing ground compared to the last year tested, 2017. Eighth graders also slid in math, although fourth graders improved by one point in math overall. Thanks to Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute, here’s a graph showing the score changes since NAEP was instituted in the 1990s.

“Students in the U.S. made significant progress in math and reading achievement on NAEP from 1990 until 2015, when the first major dip in achievement scores occurred,” reported U.S. News and World Report. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2015 is the year states were required by the Obama administration to have fully phased in Common Core.

Common Core is a set of national instruction and testing mandates implemented starting in 2010 without approval from nearly any legislative body and over waves of bipartisan citizen protests. President Obama, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, and myriad other self-described education reformers promised Common Core would do exactly the opposite of what has happened: improve U.S. student achievement. As Common Core was moving into schools, 69 percent of school principals said they also thought it would improve student achievement. All of these “experts” were wrong, wrong, wrong.

“The results are, frankly, devastating,” said U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement about the 2019 NAEP results. “This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students. Two out of three of our nation’s children aren’t proficient readers. In fact, fourth grade reading declined in 17 states and eighth grade reading declined in 31.”

On the same day the NAEP results were released, the college testing organization ACT released a report showing that the high school class of 2019’s college preparedness in English and math is at seniors’ lowest levels in 15 years. These students are the first to have completed all four high school years under Common Core.

“Readiness levels in English, reading, math, and science have all decreased since 2015, with English and math seeing the largest decline,” the report noted. Student achievement declined on ACT’s measures among U.S. students of all races except for Asian-Americans, whose achievement increased.

ACT was one of the myriad organizations that profited from supporting Common Core despite its lack of success for children and taxpayers. Its employees helped develop Common Core and the organization has received millions in taxpayer dollars to help create Common Core tests.

“ACT is one of the best barometers of student progress, and our college-bound kids are doing worse than they have in the ACT’s history,” said Center for Education Reform CEO Jeanne Allen in a statement.

These recent results are not anomalies, but the latest in a repeated series of achievement declines on various measuring sticks since Common Core was enacted. This is the opposite of what we were told would happen with trillions of taxpayer dollars and an entire generation of children who deserve not to have been guinea pigs in a failed national experiment.

Perhaps the top stated goal of Common Core was to increase American kids’ “college and career readiness.” The phrase is so central to Common Core’s branding that it is part of the mandates’ formal title for its English “anchor standards” and appears 60 times in the English requirements alone. Yet all the evidence since Common Core was shoved into schools, just as critics argued, shows that it has at best done nothing to improve students’ “college and career readiness,” and at worst has damaged it.

While of course many factors go into student achievement, it’s very clear from the available information that U.S. teachers and schools worked hard to do what Common Core demanded and that, regardless, their efforts have not yielded good results. A 2016 survey, for example, found “more than three quarters of teachers (76%) reported having changed at least half of their classroom instruction as a result of [Common Core]; almost one fifth (19%) reported having changed almost all of it.”

An October poll of registered voters across the country found 52 percent think their local public schools are “excellent” or “good,” although 55 percent thought the U.S. public school system as a whole is either just “fair” or “poor.” Things are a lot worse on both fronts than most Americans are willing to realize.

Compared to the rest of the world, even the United States’ top school districts only generate average student achievement, according to the Global Report Card. Common Core was touted as the solution to several decades of lackluster student performance like this that have deprived our economy of trillions in economic growth and would lift millions of Americans out of poverty. That was when U.S. test scores, while mediocre and reflecting huge levels of functional illiteracy, were better than they are now.

It is thus still the case, as it was when the Coleman Report was released 53 years ago, that U.S. public schools do not lift children above the conditions of their home lives. They add nothing to what children already do or do not get from at home, when we know from the track record of the distressingly few excellent schools that this is absolutely possible and therefore should be non-negotiably required. But because the people in charge of U.S. education not only neither lose power nor credibility but actually profit when American kids fail, we can only expect things to get worse.


School Vouchers Aren’t Welfare for the Rich

By Christian Barnard • Reason

“Do School Vouchers Only Benefit the Wealthy?” asks an article this month in Governing. Like too many headlines, the implication is that school choice is a scam that disproportionately benefits wealthy students who already live in high-performing districts. The Governing story suggests that Arizona’s education savings accounts (ESAs)––publicly-funded savings accounts that parents can use to pay for private school tuition or other education services for their children––rarely help out those who authentically need assistance, favoring already-privileged children instead.

The article cites a 2017 report from The Arizona Republic which found that 75 percent of the ESA money went to students leaving districts that had an “A” or “B” ranking, and only 4 percent of the money followed students opting out of districts rated “D” or lower.

But these numbers hardly even hint at the full story. Arizona’s ESA program can only be used by specific groups of disadvantaged students. In fact, Arizona Department of Education data from 2017 reveals that 82 percent of ESA recipients were students with special needs, from military families, or students from D/F rated schools. Continue reading


New Hampshire Can Lead the Way on School Choice, But Will It?

By Lindsey Burke • National Review

“Education Savings Accounts will be our most significant step yet in giving parents and children the ability to choose the education path that is best suited for them,” declared New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu in his latest State of the State address.

A new proposal would make New Hampshire the seventh state to enact ESAs, and potentially the first to provide all families the opportunity to use them. With an ESA, parents who need to find a school or education option that is a better fit for their child can access some of the money the state would have spent on their child in the public system. They can then use those funds to pay for private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services and therapies, private tutoring, and a host of other education-related services, products, and providers. Parents can also roll over unused funds from year to year.

Last spring, the state senate passed a proposal to create a nearly universal ESA option that Sununu correctly boasted had the potential to be “a gold standard for the rest of the country to follow.” Under the state senate’s legislation, any student entering kindergarten or first grade or switching out of a public district or charter school would be eligible to receive an ESA.

The New Hampshire House Education Committee, however, took a more cautious approach. After a series of hearings and work sessions, the committee adopted a significantly scaled-down version of the proposal that would make ESAs available only to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, as well as Continue reading


The Pension Crisis and School Choice

By Lewis M. Andrews • National Review

Talk to the people of Illinois about America’s looming public-pension crisis, and they’ll tell you it’s not looming — it’s already here. This month, a statute went into effect giving Comptroller Susana Mendoza the right to make up for any town or county’s delinquent pension payments by seizing its share of sales, excise, and other taxes collected by the state. The result is that municipalities across Illinois have been scrambling to either cut services or raise taxes.

Mattoon officials have announced that ambulance services will be scuttled to pay pension bills a half-million dollars higher than last year’s, while Springfield’s budget director, Bill McCarthy, says he will have to “reduce other services just to meet pension obligations.” Normal will handle the problem through property-tax increases, while Danville has imposed a separate “public safety pension fee,” which will cost residents up to $267 annually. East St. Louis, which depends almost exclusively on its share of tax money from state’s Local Government Distributive Fund, could soon see its entire budget confiscated to satisfy pension obligations.

With a national pension asset shortfall calculated as high as $6 trillion — and with accelerating benefit payouts to retiring Baby Boomers — Illinois is sadly not the only state where voters are being hit with revenue surcharges or deprived of essential services. Florida localities will have to allocate an additional $178.5 million in their upcoming budgets to pension payments; Continue reading


The Biggest Recent School Choice Victory Was Increasing The Child Tax Credit

By Joy Pullmann • The Federalist

Through Saturday it’s National School Choice Week, an annual nonpolitical effort to increase visibility and positive feelings about the idea of families having the primary power to control their kids’ education. Beginning in 2011, President Obama recognized the week, and this year President Trump did, too.

The last approximately five years saw a marked increase in states finally opening the doors to voucher and other parent choice programs after more than 50 years of free-marketers’ advocacy. Although it descends from Founding-era school funding arrangements, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman was the most significant modern thinker to develop and advocate the concept, most notably with a seminal 1955 essay.

But it took 56 years of making this case to lawmakers and the public before state legislatures’ successful activity on the matter prompted the Wall Street Journal to dub 2011 “The Year of School Choice.” That year, 13 states passed significant education choice measures. The WSJ, however, may have used the moniker too soon, as in 2012 and 2013 state legislatures followed with a fresh bevy of choice program establishment and expansions, to the point that today the majority of states offer some kind of parent-choice program, and many offer several.

Since 2013, however, legislative activity on this matter has slowed. Continue reading


DOJ Backs Students in School Choice Case

By Charles Fain Lehman • The Free Beacon

The Department of Justice filed an amicus brief Thursday in support of students claiming they were discriminated against after the state of Montana denied them placement in a tax credit scholarship program because the school they attended was a Christian one.

The case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, concerns a the Montana Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows Montanans to deduct up to $150 of their contribution to a privately run scholarship program. The state department of revenue prompted the suit when it added a rule prohibiting tax credits for contributions to schools owned or operated by “a church, religious sect, or denomination.”

A group of parents brought suit on behalf of their children in December 2015 after they were denied participation in the scholarship program because their children attended a Christian-run school. The suit made it to a state trial court, which sided with the parents; the state then appealed to the Supreme Court of Montana, where DOJ lodged its Thursday amicus.

Continue reading


How School Choice Can Solve States’ Huge Debt And Pension Woes

By Lewis M. Andrews • The Federalist

In 2011, Arizona became the first state to adopt the most flexible school reform yet, an education savings account (ESA) plan. It provides parents who believe their child is poorly served in the local public school with an annual budget they can spend on a wide variety of accredited alternatives—not just private or parochial schools, but tutoring, online academies, special-needs services, and even computer equipment for home schooling.

More recently, five other states have followed Arizona’s lead: Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and just this year North Carolina. Initially these programs were designed to better serve learning-disabled children, but with the realization that most of its students could be educated independently for a fraction of public-school per pupil spending, Nevada authorized a plan open to any of that state’s children in 2015.

To date, Democrats in the Nevada legislature have held up funding for about 10,000 applicants, but nearly all of Arizona’s K-12 children are now eligible for an ESA worth 90 percent of their district’s per pupil spending. Continue reading


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