In Rhode Island, the school choice issue is emblematic of the insider nature of politics and the mounting public frustration with it.
Look in any direction, and the demand for school choice is clear:
- Asked in a survey how they would educate their children if given the option, 68% would choose something other than district public schools.
- In College Board data, Rhode Island is second in the nation in the percentage of private school students, and first, by a long shot, in religiously affiliated private schools, which tend to be less expensive.
- Every year, the applicants for charter schools exceed the available seats by many times, and only a fraction of businesses that would like to provide tax credit scholarships are able to do so.
Yet, asked about school choice on Thursday, the day of a School Choice Week rally at the State House, the Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) told a political reporter from the Providence Journal, “Even though [school] choice sounds like a good idea, it’s very impractical and something I am not going to be looking at very favorably.”
Data collected by the College Board reinforces survey results showing that Rhode Islanders want alternatives to the state’s languishing public schools.
Whether Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was being fair (or how unfair he was being) to Mormons in his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, I don’t know. The story did, however, reinforce a cultural aversion to being spied upon by authorities, and we could definitely use a bit more reinforcement of that suspicion.
Doyle’s claim is that early-Utah-settlement Mormons had a sort of secret police to enforce adherence to the faith, and its reach extended well beyond just Salt Lake City. From the point of view of one convert to the faith (who converted rather than be left to die in the desert), the knowledge of this mysterious group was somewhat creepy, but livable… until he ran afoul of the Elders. His adopted daughter wanted to marry a man outside of the faith, and the preferred options of the authorities were not tolerable. Flight and murder followed.
And so it is throughout history. As long as the civic structure allows people a certain degree of comfort, and as long as the rules that put one at risk of being a target are clear, many people will simply accept that those with power take liberties against their freedom. The rules have a way of expanding, though, so it’s important for a free society to have a deep distrust of the mechanisms that can close in when they do.
When we learn that government agencies are developing extensive real-time road surveillance tools, it ought to worry us. (License plate tracking technology is one of the regular bills hiding in the mass of the General Assembly’s legislation, as if awaiting a moment to slip into law.) Sure, most of the uses of the system might seem unobjectionable, at first (although I find it abhorrent that the system was build for government property grabs):
The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking, according to one government document. But the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with numerous other potential crimes, from kidnappings to killings to rape suspects, say people familiar with the matter.
Increasing revelations about false accusations of rape give a direct example of how the dragnet can thicken, but the concern is not necessarily direct. We can be certain that, over time, the list of items for which the system is used will expand, making it less and less possible for us all blithely to assume that we will never run afoul of the authorities.
Hopefully this petition from schoolteachers, asking the Supreme Court to decide whether teachers can be forced either to join unions or to pay them “free rider” fees is an indication that truth is dawning on the profession. Here’s one teacher making the case that I’ve mentioned around here before:
“I don’t have a problem with unions,” she says. “I understand a lot of people want to have that collective voice. That would be ideal where you have a choice; [you’re] not coerced, but you’re also not bullied or called a freeloader or some other name-calling because you choose not to pay for that.”
In decades past, particularly after the Great Depression, Friedrichs says the idea of labor unions made more sense. But with the increased political nature of policy discussions, unions have “morphed into something very different now.”
“They’re more a political activist,” Friedrichs says. “They’ve done more harm than good.”
Wherever there’s far-left progressive activism, the unions are right in the middle. As Allie Bidwell’s U.S. News report suggests, there isn’t a clear line between their activism on a range of progressive issues and the advocacy that they’re able to present as focused on their members.
Nobody should be forced to belong to or fund an organization like that.
Datechguy has some worthwhile reminders and thoughts as we all deal with the snow, closing with this one:
We were told just a couple of days ago NYC could get up to three feet of snow. If our computer models aren’t good enough to be accurate 3 days out, what makes anybody think the Global warming models predicting disaster 1-50 years out are worth going broke over?
That last part is the key. Assenting to climate change alarmism isn’t just agreeing that it’s a concern that we ought to consider when we make decisions; it’s agreeing to give up our freedoms and whittle away our economy (as we’re finding in Rhode Island).
Think of the snow storm that we’ve just passed through. At the height of the blizzard-prediction panic, would you have traded your children’s and grandchildren’s ability to find gainful employment in order to try to prevent the snow, based on the forecasts being made?
Rhode Island may not be a state that comes to mind when one thinks about clashes between environmentalism and coal. It should, however, be first in one’s mind when it comes to the problems of big government and pandering politicians. Applied to energy policy, those problems make the state a veritable case study in the perils of green politics.
Take, for example, Democrat John Edwards, who represents two suburban waterfront towns in the lower chamber of the state’s legislature.
My uncle once joked that he could prove that he’d taught his dog to sit. We just had to wait until the animal looked ready to take the order.
I’ve seen several tweets this morning exclaiming the wonder of Governor Gina Raimondo’s travel ban, like this one from the Providence Journal’s Amanda Milkovits:
What’s the point of amazement, here? That we’ve reached some new milestone of compliance to the governor’s authority?
I can’t help but wonder how many people — after a day or more of wall-to-wall breathless blizzard coverage and widespread cancellations of school and work — would have been out and about in a blizzard, after midnight, on a Monday night, when the storm didn’t kick in until well after normal business hours no matter what the governor had said.
As the snow closes in on you, this morning, take a moment to read Steven Frias’s article about barber protectionism in Rhode Island:
Some government regulations are excessive because they are designed to protect special interest groups rather than the public. Free-market economist Milton Friedman once explained that “the pressure on the legislature to license an occupation rarely comes from the members of the public” — rather, “the pressure invariably comes from members of the occupation itself.” The history of Rhode Island’s regulation of barbers exemplifies this.
More than a century ago, lobbying efforts were made by a barbers’ trade association to pass legislation to regulate and license barbers. Although the legislation was justified as necessary to protect the public health, The Providence Journal reported that it was also based on some barbers’ “desire to make more money than in the past by driving” lower-cost barber shops “out of business.” In 1903, the legislation was passed. Soon thereafter, some barbershops were shut down.
The example is not only an excellent one for Milton Friedman’s lesson, but also as an illustration of how Rhode Island government is killing the local economy and why the U.S. economy continues to experience an anemic recovery that can only be hidden for a time by easy money and massive amounts of government debt.
For whatever reasons of their own, some barbers are able and willing to ply their trade for a lower cost than their competitors, and some customers are comfortable with the arrangement. In other words, the market for haircuts has a space for low prices and minimal frills. Barbers who prefer higher margins push government to interfere, erecting barriers and passing regulations that make it impossible to play in that space.
Now substitute “barber” for any other profession. During times of economic hardship or readjustment, these lower-end markets would naturally grow. People have less money to spend on things like haircuts, and others need the work that such things can provide. Moreover, this doesn’t have to simply be the case for established professions; a similar dynamic can come into play for creative new directions for the economy.
But the protectionists and progressives don’t like this much freedom. They’d rather you struggle and suffer (and require the junky-hit of public assistance) than that you have the space to make your own, free decisions. So, we get heavy licensing requirements, workplace regulations, minimum wages, and on and on, until it’s nearly impossible to attempt something new. That’s especially true if you’re not the sort of person with access to big investment dollars and existing business connections. (One might say that we’ve reached the point, even, of protectionism for entrepreneurs.)
P.S. — If you don’t get the Sweeney Todd reference, see this old grainy clip of the original Broadly cast for a sense of the plot.
1A. H5099: Limits electric rate increases that can be approved by the public utilities commission to “no greater than five and 5 one-half percent (5.5%) or the percentage increase in the Consumer Price Index…unless the increase shall have been previously approved by affirmative action of the general assembly”. The issue of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of price controls aside, it is a very basic violation of the principle of separation of powers for the General Assembly to make itself into a standalone board-of-appeals for other state agencies. A basic check on the power of the legislature is that it is not allowed to ignore the requirement (with a few expressed exemptions like proposing constitutional amendments) that its actions be submitted to the governor for approval or veto.
1B. H5079: Phases-in a requirement that, by 2035, 40% of the electricity sold at retail by large electric distribution entities be obtained from “eligible renewable energy resources”. The bill states that delays in the implementation schedule due to inadequate supply may not be for more than 3 years. Is this either technically or economically feasible?
1C. H5131: Prohibits electric distribution companies from charging “an interconnecting renewable energy customer for any upgrades to its electric power system that can and should be funded through rates assessed pursuant to its electric infrastructure, safety and reliability provision and plan, including specifically any maintenance, repair or upgrade of any component of the electric power system that has been deferred for more than thirty years.”
1D. H5175: Requires all public utilities in Rhode Island to “maintain a customer service operation physically located within the state which is reasonably staffed to meet the expectations of the public”. (H Corporations;
Tue, Jan 27 postponed)
2. H5077: Charges the RI Board of Education with establishing “state-wide goals that are school specific for increasing the number of graduates who 10 earn certificates and degrees at both two and four year post-secondary public institutions of higher education” and requires the Board to develop and make available data on “college access and completion data…that includes data on students’ educational experiences and outcomes from early childhood through higher education in Rhode Island public institutions of higher education and into the workforce”. The bill then lists four specific metrics related to post-secondary enrollment, and also includes a reporting requirement on “excess credits” defined as “credits which the student earned and which were not required for the degree or certificate”. (H Health, Education and Welfare; Wed, Jan 28)
3. H5074: Raises the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour starting in January 2016 (up from $9.00 per hour currently). (H Labor; Wed, Jan 28)
It almost slipped through as a cute story about a Rhode Island legislator speaking truth to bureaucracy about his unfriendly-to-business experience with the state Dept. of Environmental Management, but readers should pause for a moment on Katherine Gregg’s report about Warwick Senator William Walaska’s interaction with DEM leader Janet Coit.
As a business owner, Walaska had a bad experience, being treated unfairly by the agency, and there are two parts to the story that are so Rhode Island you want to cry. Here’s the first:
The initial fine levied in April 2011: $49,988.
With a lawyer in Senate Judiciary Chairman Michael McCaffrey’s law firm representing the company, the fine was subsequently reduced to $21,250 plus interest.
Clearly, when being a senator isn’t enough to get one out of a fine, bringing in a more-powerful senator as representation is always to be advised.
The Rhode Island quality of the story only gets deeper when one heads over to RIOpenGov and notices that Walaska’s company, WAL, Inc., has received thousands of dollars from state government — a total of $12,962 in 2010, 2013, and 2014, most of it from the Department of Corrections.
As readers may recall from the Current’s review of Sen. William Conley’s state contracts, as well as other state payments to members of the General Assembly (including Sen. McCaffrey, as it happens), it is at least the spirit of the state’s Code of Ethics that elected officials and their companies shouldn’t be receiving money from the state.
The as-yet-unwritten third part of Walaska’s Rhode Island story will come when the Ethics Commission either doesn’t bother to investigate or does so and reasons its way to a loophole for the politician.
Of the various commentaries I’ve seen, Kevin Williamson wrings the most truth out of the embarrassing display of a debacle that is Davos:
Conservatives are generally inclined to make a moral case for limited government: that transfers are corrupting, that taxes should be collected only to the extent that they are essential, that regulation is a necessary evil and that as such it should be kept to a minimum. That is generally true and persuasive, but the more important argument is the problem of ignorance. Even if Congress were populated exclusively by saintly super-geniuses, there is only so much that 535 human beings can know and understand. The more that decision-making is centralized in political agencies, or even in elites outside of formal government, the more intensively those decisions will be distorted by ignorance. This is true of market-oriented institutions, too, in the sense that big businesses make big mistakes. One of the lessons of the 2007 financial crisis is that the guys who run the banks do not actually know that much about how banks work, even if they know 100 times what the banking regulators know. Free markets offer a critical, if imperfect and partial, corrective to that in the form of financial losses and business failures, which is why things like cars and computers consistently improve while schools and welfare programs don’t. Big markets with lots of competing buyers and sellers are the biggest thinking machines we have, offering the broadest epistemic horizon that our species has figured out how to achieve.
The part about “elites outside of formal government” has been edging its way into my consciousness, lately, for Rhode Island issues. Among a few of us, it’s almost become a game to spot the Brown graduates in government and its satellites. From a certain point of view, the audacity of Governor Gina Raimondo hasn’t been so much that she’s looked out of state to hire, but that she’s upped the number of framed Yale certificates on the walls of state offices.
The whole distorted mess of Rhode Island governance is beginning to be revealed as something cooked up (by hired help) at a casual-attire intercollegiate social among people who are about as ideologically diverse as the Amish. Politicians and bureaucrats in state government make the pronouncements, which are explained and supported in the best of lights for the slightly-less-insider readership of the Providence Journal and other news media, with all of the gears greased with Rhode Island Foundation money. I’m simplifying for effect, of course, but not by as much as it may seem.
The bottom line is that Rhode Island won’t escape its rut until it’s possible for people who didn’t make it to the social (and people who wouldn’t have gone, even if invited) to win policy battles every now and then.
The latest example of Rhode Island legislators’ not understanding the problems of the state comes via Senator Ryan Pearson (D, Cumberland, Lincoln) and his legislation to allocate a percentage point of the sales tax to school construction:
“No state has figured out how to do this,” Pearson said, referring to the financing of school construction. The Rhode Island plan is similar to one developed by Massachusetts, which dedicates 1 percent of the state’s sales tax to help pay for school facility improvements. In fiscal 2016, this proposal would generate $81.4 million, according to Pearson. The annual increases would add an additional $5.7 million.
Another variable that Pearson doesn’t take into account, which I’ve noted recently, is enrollment. By the Dept. of Education’s own report, Rhode Island schools already have 19% too much space, with projections for a continuing drop in enrollment. How many millions of dollars are we going to spend maintaining schools that face inevitable consolidation? How many more millions of dollars in economic activity are we going to forego in order to keep our sales tax rate so high?
If our state legislators really want to help cities, towns, and school districts, they should do two things. The first is to start easing the burden that they place on the people of Rhode Island in taxes and regulations and let the economy grow, improving local tax revenue. For example, Pearson’s plan would add $81.4 million at first, increasing to somewhere around $143 million over a decade, but the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s dynamic projections for eliminating the sales tax showed around a $149 million increase in local tax revenue with an elimination of the sales tax ($109 million if it were reduced to 3%).
The second is to alleviate the burdens that state law places on schools and on the municipalities that house them. A huge majority of local budgets goes to labor costs that are exacerbated by laws designed to push everything in the favor of the unions. A more fair regime of labor laws would allow cities, towns, and school districts flexibility to finance infrastructure.
Anybody who pays attention knows the score, here. Elected officials (often elected with union support) set up regular budget processes as a battle between labor and taxpayer, with the labor side parading children and the elderly as the victims of fiscal restraint, and let capital needs fester until they reach a point of such expense that there’s no choice but to borrow the money, which simply notches the labor-taxpayer battle up to a higher and higher level of expense, each year. That can’t go on, no matter how many gimmicks elected officials pass into law.
Commenting on a recent post on this site, “Mangeek” expresses the socialist planners’ rationalization for undermining democracy:
Politicians generally prefer votes over growth, because votes are useful right away, whereas decisions to maximize growth often take longer to materialize; sometimes longer than an election cycle.
“How… do we suddenly get “good planning”?”
By insulating the planners from the voters and politicians, and recruiting/retaining good ones? I guess I’m a bit of a technocrat. If things like RhodeMap, Obamacare, and the EDC are properly done, they’ll have better outcomes than the hyperlocal model Justin seems to champion, because they’ll be backed by research and statistics instead of popular opinion and votes.
As I commented briefly in reply, just one more step in reasoning and a little more historical knowledge would bring this faith in government crashing down. Stalin, for example, was a master planner insulated from voters and politicians. How’d that work out?
Even if you think it’s too much of a leap from Rhode Island’s Kevin Flynn to Stalin, it raises the question: Once we’ve “insulated” the planners from public accountability, what do we do if we happen — by some horrible twist of bad luck — to have bad (even wicked, self-interested) planners in place?
The disconnect may be the incorrect sense that mere planning is a benign, passive, objective activity. That’s the substance of Mangeek’s subsequent reply, in which he supposes that only the state government has the resources to pay people to do the research, so planners should be insulated to do that, but local governments should be free to ignore the plans.
That misconception, too, would fall quickly upon scrutiny. First of all, local volunteers appointed to planning boards do plenty of research, and political opponents do more, between which the public must judge.
More importantly, what’s the point of insulated planners if their suggestions have to be ratified by the popular will anyway? No, if we’re going to create a technocratic class of planners, then it must be assumed that their “good plans” will be implemented. That’s why RhodeMap RI includes plans on how to get communities to adopt the plan.
As Glenn Reynolds summarizes, while posting an excerpt from an essay by Alicia Kurimska, “urban planning is about control.” As Kurimska argues, Soviet planning designed communities in a manner intended to force people to structure their lives as the planners wanted… with the values that the planners demanded.
Reynolds follows the excerpt with this: “The planners promise more than they can deliver, time after time. And someone else pays the price, time after time.”
We must stop accepting the pretensions of the planners simply because they claim to have expertise and good intentions.
One of the myths thrown about to push back on calls for school choice is that parents won’t make good decisions for their children. It’s not true. Relatedly, excuse-makers for the government school system periodically claim that the teachers and other professionals can’t be blamed for student performance because it’s the parents’ fault (or that of the students themselves).
That one probably has a little more truth to it. Involved parents ensure that learning never stops, and involved parents who are also reasonable hold their children accountable to the authority of the teachers, and involved, reasonable parents who are also assertive demand accountability from the schools. It may be the case, therefore, that such parents find ways to send their children to private schools, with which they’ll have more leverage, at a higher rate.
Into the mix, throw this tidbit of research:
A new piece of research, which was conducted by Bristol University, has refuted the idea that parents from a poor background are less involved in their children than those from a wealthier background.
The findings revealed that poorer parents are as likely to help with homework, play and read with their children, as those who are better-off financially.
Next week, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will release a brief study of mine suggesting that Rhode Island parents are using lower-cost religiously affiliated schools as a means of school choice. The number of families vying for charter-school slots, as well as survey results, reinforces the point, as illustrated in this graphic:
A strong school choice policy would merely empower parents to make the decisions that they already know are best for their children. That’s what scares the special interests vested in a near government monopoly in education.
The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity unveils an online application to compare states, including Rhode Island, and demographic groups.
Although the division between them has not yet hardened into antagonism, there are two branches of the education reform movement.
One seeks to fix the system that is currently in place, with minimally disruptive reforms to make government-run schools more accountable and responsive, prodded through competition from charter schools, over which government maintains a strong hand. The other favors stronger competition through school choice, with the funds allocated for students’ education being directed by their parents to any schools that they choose.
For the better part of the last decade, Rhode Island has pursued reforms of the fix-the-system variety. In both its politics and its test results, however, the Ocean State may now be proving that such reforms have a ceiling.
It was the top headline of last Thursday’s Providence Journal: “Despite gamble, exchange pleased with 2015 signups.” Reports Richard Salit:
Total enrollments for individuals now stands at 27,690, up from 25,288 just before the start of open enrollment in mid-November. …
HealthSource RI reports that, as of Wednesday, 6,918 people who were not previously customers had been signed up for coverage. Wallack called that figure “great.”
How does a journalist report that without noting, as Sean Parnell does on The Heartland Institute Web site, that 27,961 had enrolled by the end of last year’s open enrollment period? The numbers may improve a little by next month, but thus far, the only reason there’s an increase is that people dropped out after enrolling last time around.
Parnell points out that HealthSource representatives do Rhode Islanders a disservice by not giving them a more objective sense of how the high-cost exchange is doing. Writes Parnell:
Despite not coming close to their original goals, Rhode Island’s exchange leadership still touts the numbers as a success. A letter to then-Governor Lincoln Chafee from Ferguson in November 2014 requesting funding for the exchange’s operations in 2015 noted that “…27,961 Rhode Islanders had enrolled in coverage through the individual marketplace, more than doubling federal enrollment estimates.”
Ferguson continues to tout the 100,000 enrollee assumption as well. The letter to Chafee uses 100,000 enrollees as the basis for its financial calculations, which the Providence Journal reported in a story on November 19 is the “projected 2017 enrollment target.”
Of course, the news media has to be included in the accusation of disservice. Do people buy the Providence Journal to improve their understanding of what’s going on in their state or to receive the government’s spin on what’s going on in their state? The only (somewhat) outside-government voice in Salit’s article is Stephen Boyle, president of the Greater Cranston Chamber of Commerce, and he’s a proven booster of the exchange.
Speaking of boosters, one can’t help but notice the mention of HealthSource’s “outreach plan” in the Providence Journal article. Not mentioned is that the paper, itself, is a big beneficiary of that plan, as evidenced by the quarter-page color ad for the exchange in its Sunday edition.
Yes, a lot of people responded to the Department of Education’s online survey, but something about the reporting feels off — irresponsible even:
Nearly 82 percent of Rhode Islanders said the quality of public education is of the utmost importance to the state’s success, according to a recent survey of roughly 10,000 local residents.
It’s not correct to extrapolate the results of this survey as representative of “Rhode Islanders.” This wasn’t a random sampling; it was no better than an online poll that any news organization (or blog) might post. If anything, those surveys are probably more representative, given the narrow field of people likely to come across an online survey from a government education agency.
Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg goes so far as to play coy with the survey participants: “The majority of survey participants — more than 70 percent — said they were parents, guardians or educators.” Parents/guardians and educators are quite different groups, so lumping them together doesn’t tell the reader much.
Looking at the survey results, 35.34% (3,003) of respondents stated that, above whatever else they are, they are “educators.” Of course, some of the 40.01% (3,400) who said that they are “parents/guardians” may also be teachers, but consider their status as parents to be primary. It isn’t surprising what this group chose when given the opportunity to pick three “future priorities [that] will best ensure that PK-12 schools meet future student and state needs.”
Want to guess the number 1 choice, with 4,435 votes? You got it: “Adequate funding and resources.” Number 2, with 3,957 votes? “Training and supporting quality teachers.”
It feels almost like a scam that this survey would be considered a guide for the state’s strategic plan for education, but it’s somewhat worse to report the results as if they aren’t shaded by the input of people who stand to gain professionally from that plan.
They’re still a bunch of self-righteous losers, but one can almost have empathy for the kids who blocked off I-93 in Boston the other day. I mean, if the few whom CBS Boston tracked down are representative, one must concede that it’s difficult for well-to-do young adults who live with their parents to understand the stresses and strains on people with families to support who must battle traffic every workday to and from their jobs.
I don’t like to blame the victim, but you have to admit that we, as a society, have not done right by these kids — perpetual adolescents with no sense of the rewards of adult life. Their parents should do them a favor and kick them out of the house.