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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
By Joy Pullmann • The Federalist
Despite running two-thirds of states and looming fiscal catastrophes for which school choice is one of the few positive solutions, Republicans have mostly created tiny, overregulated choice programs that, consequently, have few significant effects. After decades of opinion polling have continued to find school choice a popular political position, Republicans have finally decided it’s safe for them to proclaim their support for it — without having taken or promising to take steps that actually would realize their rhetoric.
A new example of this tendency is inside the House GOP’s huge “tax reform blueprint” released last week and under consideration currently, more than a year after presidential candidate Donald Trump promised “major tax reform” if he were elected (presumably a signal to legislators to get some bills ready to roll come Inauguration Day, but obviously not). The current proposal would allow tax-advantaged savings accounts, or 529 plans, now only offered for college expenses to also apply to K-12, including private school tuition. Continue reading
By Marcus Winters • National Review
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos likes to point to Florida’s education reforms from the Jeb Bush era as a potential model for expanding school choice. It’s a reasonable place to start given that adoption of these policies in the early 2000s coincided with outstanding educational improvements in the state. Statewide progress on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a test administered over time by the federal government, has far outstripped that of the nation and nearly all states.
But the new emphasis on Florida has put a target on the state’s back. Two recent pieces, one in the Washington Post, the other in the New York Times, take direct aim at the state’s two expansive school-voucher policies. Both stories seek to highlight the limitations of the school-choice reforms. Neither is convincing. And both are often highly misleading.
In the Post, reporter Emma Brown takes up Florida’s corporate tax-credit program, which offers vouchers worth up to $5,886 for students from households with income below 260 percent of the federal poverty line. Last year nearly 100,000 students used scholarship, or voucher. If it were a school district, it would be about the size of Baltimore’s. Continue reading
Albert, now 9, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the public elementary school he attended in St. Martin Parish struggled to meet his needs. So when his mother learned he might be eligible for Louisiana’s school choice program, she applied. He got in.
Albert is in his second year at Holy Family Catholic School in Lafayette, La. He’s doing so well, his two sisters joined him.
Fuselier tells us the public schools her children attended weren’t awful. They weren’t derelict. They weren’t unsafe. But they were big. The teachers didn’t really know the students. They didn’t have the patience to work with Albert. Continue reading