Search results: fix the system reform
justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Fix-the-System Reform Means Preserving the Very Things Causing the Problems

Andy Smarick, of the American Enterprise Institute, explains how President Obama wasted a whole lot of money for zero results in education reform:

The final IES report on the SIG program is devastating to the Obama administration’s legacy. An evaluation commissioned by the US Department of Education and conducted by two highly respected research institutions delivered a crushing verdict: The program failed and failed badly.

As I’ve periodically written, fix-the-system education reforms that seek to preserve the very qualities that are causing the problem — predictable labor union incentives, central planning, the disconnect of decision making from bill paying, and a lack of direct accountability to students and parents — cannot work. We must admit this.

In any area of life except government (specifically, progressive government) it would be considered pathological to look for all sorts of complicated ways to avoid addressing the underlying problem of unhealthy behavior.  Unfortunately, the clear objective of those who do such things (specifically, progressives) is to make government do things it shouldn’t be doing, so of course perpetuating that activity becomes the irreducible factor.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Fix-the-System Education Reform Hits a Ceiling in Rhode Island

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.

Continue reading on Watchdog.org.

lukefildes-thedoctor-featured

Diagnosing the Education System’s Health

While disaster in Providence schools receives a deserved proportion of Rhode Islanders’ attention, Tim Benson of the Heartland Institute suggests that we shouldn’t lose sight of problems across the whole state:

Results from the latest version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test—also known as the Nation’s Report Card—have been released, and Rhode Island’s scores are not good.

Only 35 percent of fourth graders tested “proficient” in reading, while just 40 percent tested proficient in mathematics in 2019. These math scores were a decline from 2017. For eighth graders, just 35 percent were proficient in reading, and only 29 percent were proficient in math. Both of these results were also a decline from 2017, with reading scores being significantly down. When accounting for demographic differences across students throughout the state and control for race, ethnicity, special education status, income level, etc., Rhode Island’s scores are even worse.

Benson offers this as an introduction to his proposed solution, which is to expand the state’s tax credit scholarship program, whereby businesses receive tax credits for donating to scholarships for disadvantaged students.  Lifting the cap on that program, opening it up to non-corporate donors, and adding provisions to provide certainty to scholarship recipients would all be great changes, but of itself, that solution is wholly inadequate to Rhode Island’s problem.

One local man here in Tiverton has been on a Facebook mission to find out what went wrong with Rhode Island public schools.  There isn’t a single reason things got to their current state, and there won’t be a single fix.  The challenges are cultural, they’re institutional, and they’re deep.  Asking what went wrong is like looking at a lonely, obese, alcoholic smoker in late middle age whose house looks like it ought to be condemned for all the hazards and asking why his health is poor.

We need broad public policy reforms that open up doors for a wide variety of individualized education plans for students as part of a cultural shift in our understanding of ourselves and of government.

notanexcusetorebuildbridges-featured

The Lamentable Process of Rhode Island Reform

During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:

“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools

Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.

On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:

  1. Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
  2. Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
  3. Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
  4. Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
  5. Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.

Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials.  We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

NAEP Fruits of Reform in Florida Versus Rhode Island

By way of a contrast of two states when it comes to education reform, Florida has been among the pioneers in school choice–themed education reform, especially for disadvantaged and disabled students.  Meanwhile, Rhode Island pursued a “fix the system” approach that hit a political ceiling when Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee took the reins.

Results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test give a sense of the divergent results.  The following chart combines 4th and 8th grades and math and reading scores:

RIFL-NAEP-allgradessubjects-group-2000-2017

 

Generally, looking at the red line for “all students,” one could suggest that Florida’s reforms were more stable, compared with the now-sinking results for Rhode Island.  But look at the difference for disadvantaged groups!  Poor students (“school lunch”) have made huge progress in Florida, and “disabled” students (including all variations of learning disabilities) have at least kept pace with general improvements, while they’ve lost ground in Rhode Island.

To put it in progressive terms (or the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s 2012 report), look at the closing of the gaps in Florida.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Poorly Educated Millennials and the Urgency of Fixing Education

Testing company ETS has released a report that puts an exclamation point on our need to pursue a comprehensive and rapid reform of our nation’s education system:

One central message that emerges from this report is that, despite having the highest levels of educational attainment of any previous American generation, these young adults on average demonstrate relatively weak skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments compared to their international peers. These findings hold true when looking at millennials overall, our best performing and most educated, those who are native born, and those from the highest socioeconomic background. Equally troubling is that these findings represent a decrease in literacy and numeracy skills for U.S. adults when compared with results from previous adult surveys.

As a nation, we’re failing our children and, therefore, ourselves.  We’re spending a great deal of money, and young adults are spending a great deal of time, on activities that we label “education,” but that aren’t producing results up to expectations and that seem designed more to indoctrinate our youth with a particular worldview while funding a particular ideological and political class.  Add to this anecdotal evidence in life and current events suggesting that young adults are less well equipped to handle disagreement.

We go too far, I think, in behaving as if a person’s growth ends when he or she leaves the fantasy land of education and enters “real life”; much the opposite is true.  Still, it represents a tremendous waste of resources if Americans spend the first 20-25 years of their lives being poorly educated and absorbing a corrosive ideology and then must spend the next 10-20 years developing skills they actually need while adjusting their worldviews to reality — doing damage to our culture all the while.

On both fronts, we face an urgent need to break the stranglehold that special interests have on our education system, and the tepid prodding that we’re currently doing in Rhode Island — attempting to improve things little by little without upsetting any of the harmful influences — will not work sufficiently, even if our children had time to wait for its slow implementation.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Fiddling While the Pension System Burns

The Rhode Island media has its eye closely on the drama of the latest proposed settlement of the pension reform lawsuit — that is, the latest attempt to water down a reform that was nowhere near sufficient in the first place.  In contrast, Mike Riley is continuing to point out that the state, the labor unions, and retirees are arguing over free drinks on a sinking cruise ship:

The Rhode Island Pension fund is roughly  $8 billion dollars invested in stocks, bonds, fixed income securities, Private equity, Hedge Funds, other alternatives and cash. Im keeping the numbers simple here. The state commission, headed by Raimondo, has stated expected return of the portfolio to be 7.5% annually and this is to be achieved compounded over the next 20 to 30 years. A 7.5% return on $8 billion is $600 million for Fiscal 2015. According to the report that Treasurer Magaziner was handed, the return thus far in Fiscal 2015 shows a portfolio (Fiscal ytd )loss of 0.71% and including expenses a loss of 1.03% . This 1.03 % loss translates to a negative $80 million dollars.  The State would need to gain $680 million over the next 5 months to achieve their “expected” return.

Bill Rappleye has picked up that thread on Channel 10, but for the segment, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner spit out a bunch of squid oil to muddy the waters, selectively picking five-year investment returns to make it seem as if the state’s pension fund is doing swimmingly.  I noted the problem with this happy talk last month:

The ten-year average investment return is only 6.0 percent, which should be seen as -1.5 percent.  And the longest term number provided, back to July 2000, is 4.8 percent, which should be seen as -2.7 percent. …

If the average for the last 14 years was 4.8 percent, then the average for the next 14 doesn’t have to be 7.5 percent, but more like 10 percent, to make up the difference.  If we’re already seeing diminishing returns from the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy and President Obama’s binge of trillion-dollar deficits, what are the next 14 years realistically going to look like?

More importantly, I suggested, it should be the state’s general treasurer who is making this case to everybody.  It should be Seth Magaziner out in the news saying, “Hey, these negotiations are all well and good, but we may only have a few more years left until this pension reform thing starts to spring new leaks.”

Former Treasurer, now Governor, Gina Raimondo lucked out that the Obama Administration and the Federal Reserve proved to be such believers in stock-market-trickle-down theory.  Rather than ease the reins on innovators and working people, they’ve hit the loose-money throttle for the investment market.  That’s given the pension fund and the reform a brief period of looking like they might be fine, although as Riley argues, the state managed to do worse than other funds during the bubble’s latest inflation.

mike-stenhouse-avatar

Education Freedom: Our Children Need Opportunity Today

Everybody agrees that educating our youth is a moral obligation, and a vital basis for renewed economic growth.

Yet, very few in our political class have the courage to stand up to the special interests who want to maintain a government-run school monopoly. Look at the broken Providence School system. Parents need answers for their children today, not reforms that may help students five or even ten years down the road. Educational freedom is the answer.

moneyinyourpocket-featured

How Campaign Finance Laws Really Affect Campaign Finance

So many of the differences between us that people take as black-and-white indicators of good versus evil amount to a difference in how people look at problems.  As a general proposition, liberals/progressives see a problem and seek to put something in place to fix it, while conservatives tend to prefer changing incentives so that the system fixes the problem itself.

Campaign finance is a particularly enlightening example of this distinction.  The Left wants to create laws and reporting requirements that force politicians into the straight and narrow, while the Right wants to reduce the size of government, spread out its authority, and implement reforms that make it less valuable to bribe politicians in the first place.

A recent Washington Examiner editorial gives some explanation of the ways that the progressives’ approach can have unintended consequences.  It describes how a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg (or, say, Donald Trump) can step into a race and instantly be an intimidating contender because he or she can put as much personal wealth into the race as can be spent, while campaign finance laws push candidates who are only millionaires (or less) into the arms of lobbyists and bundlers:

Perhaps Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would propose curbing Bloomberg’s ability to spend on his own campaign, but the Supreme Court wouldn’t and shouldn’t tolerate a law restricting how much of your own money you may spend to ask people to vote for you.

Here’s a better proposal for any progressive out there who doesn’t want billionaire candidates to start with a huge advantage. Our idea could instantly abolish the position of lobbyist bundler, and it might make dark money and super PACs a thing of the past.

Here it is: Abolish the limit on individual contributions. If Bloomberg can get a million-dollar check from himself, Harris should be able to get a million-dollar check from Steyer, and Biden should be able to call up his former boss, former President Barack Obama, for a million.

If millionaires and billionaires are all on the same side, they’ll dominate our politics anyway.  Since they are not in lockstep with each other, our system should allow other candidates to attract their donations.  It should also allow people who are able to donate just a little bit more than the current limits to do so.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Another Angle (or Silver Lining) in the Loss of the PawSox

There’s another aspect of the Worcester’s PawSox gain that Rhode Islanders haven’t spent much time discussing, and it is visible in the reporting of Ethan Epstein in The Weekly Standard (emphasis added):

But the PawSox owners announced that the next two years they play at McCoy will be their last. Roughly three years ago, they announced their plans to vacate McCoy. Pawtucket, Providence, and Worcester jockeyed for position. The owners played the competitors against each other masterfully, and in the end, Worcester evidently made the team an offer it couldn’t refuse: It will build a new $90 million stadium and apartment complex. The state of Massachusetts is fronting $35 million; and “the city of Worcester is expected to borrow $100 million, some of which would be repaid by the team,” the Providence CBS affiliate reported. The deal required no input from the state legislature, and was put together in secret. The only apparent cost to the PawSox is that they will now known by the unfortunate moniker “WooSox.”

Somehow, the City of Worcester was able to pledge $100 million with no public awareness whatsoever.  John DePetro and I disagreed, on WNRI earlier today, about the significance of this angle, but I don’t think it should be dismissed.  I certainly want a governing system that allowed municipal leaders to do such a thing.

Yes, Massachusetts has been doing much better than Rhode Island in recent decades, with some solid reforms, and has therefore built up more trust equity with the voting public.  By contrast, Rhode Island is still suffering a loss of confidence from 38 Studios which (importantly) has been further strained by Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s preferred economic development method of making special deals with powerful insiders and wealthy out-of-state interests.

That doesn’t mean Massachusetts’s luck will continue, or that Rhode Island won’t reevaluate its government.  On the first count, I’ve long been noting that Massachusetts’s lead in education has been flagging ever since concessions to the labor unions under Deval Patrick, and we’ll have to wait a while to see whether the WooSox gamble pays off.  On the second count, we can only hope that the nationally visible face plant with the erstwhile PawSox will cause insiders and the voting public alike to conclude that we just can’t continue on in the way that we’ve been governing ourselves.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Massachusetts’s Education Warning Signs

I’ve been pointing out that Massachusetts took a turn away from the success of its education reform in the mid-2000s.  As in Rhode Island, reforms that sought to fix the education system in cooperation with the interests that had helped to undermine it produced political pressure to end the reforms, even though they were working.  This creates an educational ceiling.  Massachusetts started earlier and hit its ceiling in 2007, while Rhode Island’s slower and less-enthusiastic move hit its ceiling in 2011, as aggregated scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test show:

RIMA-allaverage-2000-2017

People in Massachusetts are starting to notice, too, as evidenced by Thomas Birmingham and William Weld’s op-ed in the Boston Globe:

In 2010, the Commonwealth replaced its best-in-the-nation English and math standards with national versions that cut the amount of classic literature and poetry that students learn by more than half and extends the time it takes to reach Algebra I, which is the key to higher math study.

Today Massachusetts has essentially the same English and math standards as Arkansas and Louisiana. Students in those states can’t possibly match Massachusetts’ performance, so the political reality is that the bar gets lowered so more can clear it.

The results of this change in education policy have been swift. After years of improvement, our progress has come to a halt. Massachusetts is among a minority of states whose NAEP scores have fallen since 2011 and others are catching up.

Backsliding isn’t the result of any one policy change, but a change in attitude that leads to multiple, related changes:  Accountability measures, charter schools, broader school choice, and higher standards all interact.  More importantly, all of them have opposing incentives for families/students and the entrenched interests like teachers unions.

As in this morning’s post on patriotism, the solutions all build on each other.  Reforming union policy to reduce the power of special interests will make accountability measures more plausible, while giving families high standards and alternatives will increase the resilience of the reform in the face of political pressure.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

A Voice in the Wilderness, Calling Out the Real School Problem

It can get lonely battling the status quo in Rhode Island, but every now and then, one has reason to believe that many more people share our despairs and hopes than are willing to speak up and give them voice.  Kenneth Petitti’s recent letter to the editor of the Providence Journal is one such bit of evidence:

There is one simple reason why Rhode Island and its schools are in such a mess: the corrupt connection between the politicians and all public employee unions.

After wages and pensions, there’s nothing left for infrastructure. The unions continue to feed at the trough, while the taxpayers yearn to move elsewhere.

Yes, we have a responsibility to renew the government’s school buildings’ ability to host a modern education, but we can’t only do that.  If we don’t change the incentives that led Rhode Island’s ample education resources (read: “high taxes going to education”) to be directed away from basics like building maintenance, we’re only buying a few more years and creating hundreds of millions of dollars in increased ratchets for our taxes.  (That is, payment on our maintenance debt will be built into government budgets and never go away, even as buildings are paid off or even closed.)

We need a new approach.  Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s big long-term fix when it came to pension reform was to give an unelected board the power to hand the General Assembly two choices next time the pension system went off the tracks.  Her big long-term fix for our neglected bridges and roads was a new tolling system.

Those were the wrong approaches to reform, but the school building plan doesn’t even have that, and we’re not going to get the sort of reforms we need until the people who come forward with them know that they’ve got support.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

NAEP Scores: Another Unacknowledged Crisis in RI

The word “pleased” should not have appeared anywhere in the statement of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner upon release of 2017 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test:

“Nationwide, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remained relatively flat, and we saw a similar trend in Rhode Island,” said state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “I’m pleased to see us perform better than the national average on fourth grade reading… I hope that our work around early literacy as part of the Third Grade Reading Challenge will speed up that progress going forward.”

That’s like being happy that your child is vomiting a little bit less than half the kids in the sick ward.  Never mind that his or her fever is slightly higher, his or her bleeding out of the eyes is slightly worse, and he or she is slightly more delirious than half the children.

According to the data, Rhode Island students don’t break the 40%-proficient mark in either 4th grade or 8th grade in either math or reading (or science or writing, for that matter).

For some quick perspective take a look at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s States on the Nation’s Report Card tool, which has been updated to include the latest data.  Rhode Island’s 4th grade reading scores may be above the average state, but we used to have a lead of three points, and that’s now only two.  Worse, the Ocean State’s 8th grade math scores have fallen off a cliff.  Since the 2013 test, RI students’ average score has dropped from 284 to 277.  That’s 2.5%.  In 2013, our children were scoring the same as the average state… no longer.

RI-NAEP-Gr8-subjects-2000-2017

More broadly, the fashionable distraction to which state bureaucrats lead, which journalists follow, is to lament that “achievement gaps between white students and students of color continue to remain stubbornly high.”  This emphasis manages to imply that the real challenge isn’t a broken educational system, but institutional racism, and to lead white parents to think the state’s problems belong to other people, but it disguises the more disturbing conclusion.

Combining 4th and 8th grade scores on reading and math, black students in Rhode Island are actually slightly outperforming their peers in the average state.  Hispanic students in Rhode Island do worse than in the average state, but they track closely with black students, which is more typical in our region.

The big drop in Rhode Island is actually among white students, who are the majority.  Managing to keep Rhode Island’s minority students relatively flat has actually helped keep up our scores.  To the extent that Rhode Island has addressed its “achievement gap,” it has been by failing white students even more.

As I wrote in 2015, the data is strongly suggestive of a change during the governorship of Democrat Lincoln Chafee that looks like a ceiling on Rhode Island’s progress in reforming education.  If anything, we can now see that the trends have worsened, rather than improving, under his successor, and the spin should no longer be tolerated.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

A Side Benefit of Giving Away Retirement Bonuses

Katherine Gregg notes, in a Providence Journal article, an interesting side effect of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to pay off long-time state employees to retire.  Gregg notes that the administration is assuming that 426 state workers will retire under the program, receiving $8.94 million in “retirement-incentive payments” and another $4.57 million in pay for unused time off from their years of employment.

[The plan] will also, coincidentally, turn state government into a hiring factory in the six months leading up to the 2018 elections.

So, heading into a statewide election for legislators and the governor, 426 union members will be happily flush with cash and another estimated 252 will have received seats on the state payroll gravy train.  That’s a nice little bonus effect of retirement incentives.

Of course, we shouldn’t accept the governor’s estimates.  Pushing employees into an underfunded pension plan may result in some near-term savings, but in the long term, it’s a terrible idea.  Taxpayer dollars go toward these pensions, and with people living longer and longer and government employees’ pay on ratcheting scales, we’ll only end up paying multiple people at a time for each job.

These sorts of buyouts are a bad idea when the idea is just to save money, and the impulse exposes a much more problematic fact of government.  Think about it:  If these employees are so far from worth what they’re being paid that we’ll give them bonuses up to $40,000 to get rid of them, why are we paying them so much in the first place?  If that’s not an indication that we need huge, systematic reform, then nothing is.

That point highlights the only time that buyouts might be reasonable in principle, which is when doing so is part of a system-wide fix.  But nothing is being fixed, in this case.  The governor’s just looking for a short-term budget trick that comes with some political benefit.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

We Had the Logic, Now We Have an Example, Too

Rhode Islanders, especially, should heed the admonition of The American Interest that Puerto Rico may be a final warning lesson to states within the United States:

This [bankruptcy] could have been avoided by sensible and timely cuts, by turning a deaf ear to public sector union demands for wages and salaries, by a series of small but definite steps away from the blue model, welfare state governance. But the press, certainly including the NYT which is now reporting the disaster, would have attacked any politicians taking these steps as “harsh”, or “cruel to the poor”.

Now Puerto Rico is in a deeper hole, with much more suffering than any of the moderate cuts would have imposed.

Just look at the false rhetoric permeating the debate over some overly mild reforms to the disastrous ObamaCare entitlement system for a timely illustration.  Any restraint on government programs is declared to be a “draconian cut” that will hurt or kill people, marking politicians who support reforms as evil.  This will not end well, but just like junkies, supporters of big government just want that one more fix, and let tomorrow take care of itself, somehow.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Marching Right Back to Crisis with the Pension Fund

Who could have guessed that Rhode Island’s pension fund would prove not to be fixed as promised after the much-applauded pension reform pushed by Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo when she was the state treasurer?  From today’s Providence Journal:

The Rhode Island state pension fund lost $466 million over the past fiscal year, declining from $7.96 billion in assets to $7.50 billion, or 5.9 percent.

It was the second consecutive year that the fund lost money because the payout of benefits exceeded the return on investments and contributions from taxpayers and employees, according to David Ortiz, director of communications for Rhode Island Gen. Treasurer Seth Magaziner.

The market value of investments in the fund for state employees, public school teachers and some municipal employees also fell, by $26 million, or 0.27 percent, in the fiscal year ended June 30.

A point that Gregory Smith doesn’t make in his article, but that is absolutely critical, is that the pension fund is financed with an expectation of a 7.5% return on investment every year.  That means a $26 million loss, versus breaking even, is really nearly a $500 million loss versus where the investment needed to be.  The article goes on to note that other states’ pension funds made small returns, below 2%, but even that isn’t good enough.  Even that should be seen as a loss.

This is why I’ve been attempting to learn the total benefits that the state has already committed to funding, without adjustment to put it into today’s dollars — that is, without reducing it by the estimated investment return.  The state pension agency (the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, or ERSRI) and treasurer refused to give me that number, saying the actuary (a private contractor) doesn’t even do that calculation, even though it should be a very simple calculation to do.  Last week, the attorney general’s office backed the pension agency up, although the lawyer is revisiting the decision because he somehow missed a letter I’d submitted that directly refutes the agency’s reasoning and, therefore, his.

I’ve also now requested all of the numbers that the actuary does calculate, and I will simply add them together to get the total.  ERSRI, however, has refused that request, too, insisting that the only way a member of the public can get the number would be to take the raw data and essentially repeat all of the actuary’s work.  This one I may pursue all the way into the court system, because it’s a matter of basic transparency and the rule of law, because the public records statute very clearly requires release of this information.

It’s also critical to the state’s finances.  If our pension fund cannot even achieve positive returns, let alone returns anywhere near the estimated rate, the taxpayers and voters have a right to know how much money we’re talking about.  The reason elected and appointed officials wouldn’t want us to have that information is obvious.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Testing and Accountability in Public School

Linda Borg’s article in today’s Providence Journal gives a small taste of an argument that would be much more prominent if Rhode Islanders really cared about education as much as we say that we do.  At issue is Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s decision to end standardized testing at the high-school level.  Tim Duffy, of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, gets it right:

“If you aspire to be Massachusetts, then high school graduation requirements are going to have to have some consequences,” he said. “If there are no consequences for students, teachers or the system, we end up with improved graduation rates but we haven’t measured whether they are living up to the standards.”

One superintendent adds to that:

Chariho School Supt. Barry Ricci applauds any reduction in testing, but he doesn’t want the state to abandon tying a standardized test to graduation. Without that incentive, he said, high school students will not have any reason to take the test seriously. “I don’t want to give kids the message that we’re lowering the bar,” Ricci said.

In a word, what Wagner has diluted is accountability.  There has to be some way to hold not just students, but teachers and our entire public education system accountable.  What has happened (as I keep repeating) is that Rhode Island’s “fix the system” approach to education reform hit a political ceiling.  The adult special interests that infect our education system feared the prospect of having their failures laid bare in undeniable fashion, so they used our political system as a defensive weapon.  The repercussions of that explosion are reflected in standardized scores, with disadvantaged students (predictably) suffering the most harm.

I happen to agree with those who express concerns about high-stakes testing, but the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability.  Our children would be much better off, though, and our education system tremendously improved, if accountability derived from market mechanisms.  Let Rhode Islanders determine their own priorities for themselves and their own children and send students to the schools — public, charter, private, home — that best reflect those priorities.  Schools that cannot maintain viable student populations will have to improve or go out of business.

That scares our state’s politicians and insiders because no political ceiling would be possible once Rhode Island families got a taste of real reform.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

Legislative Grants: When’s Enough Enough?

Come on, Rhode Island. Isn’t this signal enough?

More than half of Rhode Island’s 113 lawmakers responded to a Journal survey last week, including 44 of 75 House members, and 19 of 38 senators. Of those who responded with more than an automatic reply, 15 acknowledged some link to an organization — such as a Little League team — that received a grant.

To go where Katherine Gregg couldn’t with that Providence Journal article, of the 63 legislators in the General Assembly who were willing to respond to her inquiry, 15 (or 24%) were also willing to admit something that looks to many of us like corruption, straight up.  Of the 50 legislators who did not respond, we can only guess, but it would be reasonable to assume that their percentage is somewhat worse.  Then there’s the reality that something makes legislators pick these non-profits.  Keep digging, and I bet the number of connections climbs close to 100%.

This isn’t a close call; these things need to go.

Earlier today, someone of generally like mind expressed frustration about everything that goes on in our town, state, and nation that just shouldn’t.  After years of thinking about this stuff, I find myself returning to the conclusion that our system of government has been hopelessly compromised, that the solution ultimately lies with us, but that those who’ve compromised the system have also worked to make it nearly impossible to fix.

Just look at these grants.  How could legislators not know this is completely inappropriate, to the point that even those who strive to be ethical might not see it?  Well, for one thing, nobody’s called them on it.  It took the fall of Ray Gallison to open up a channel to start getting information about the corruption out to the public.  That’s on us, for failing to create an environment for consumer news that would support such investigations.

We’re already seeing those who work for good government fall into the same ol’ trap over this latest controversy — hoping for government officials to come up with some sort of solution to problems that those same government officials created.  But again: It’s on us.  We have to investigate and support those who do.  We have to run for office.  We have to vote.  The remedy for government excess isn’t more authority for government or more clever initiatives (like campaign finance reform) that corrupt politicians can manipulate to their advantage.  The remedy is for the people to shake up the ant farm.

The obvious solution to the legislative grant problem within government is to end the legislative grant program.  But that’s not going to happen, so it falls back to us to ramp up the amount of attention that we pay and the amount of effort that we put into changing things.  Unfortunately, that requires some people to make a whole lot of effort, and the problem with being against government corruption is that it’s much harder to answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

RI Elite Approaches Jobs and Education from the Wrong Angle

I agree with the Providence Journal editorial board that:

Rhode Island needs a dramatic, game-changing, long-term plan to raise the bar in its public schools if the state is going to be in a position to supply the talent that 21st century businesses are looking for.

I’d say that means full school choice through education savings accounts (ESAs), while the editors likely mean another attempt at “fix the system” reforms, which have proven to be mildly effective and to have a political ceiling.  But let’s put that difference of opinion aside for a more relevant, and probably deeper, one.  The editorial is most useful in the direct way in which it approaches the idea of economic development from exactly the wrong angle:

There was a time when businesses chose locations for their proximity to raw materials such as lumber or copper. But “today, people are the natural resources,” Meredith Amdur, an analytics expert at the advisory firm CEB, told the newspaper. Indeed, finding the right labor pool can be the most important factor in choosing a location. Not surprisingly, regions “with fewer degree holders could struggle to attract big corporations,” the report warned.

The Projo’s approach is one in which human beings are a stationary resource akin to the natural qualities of an area and, worse, one in which it is appropriate for state government to use public schools and other programs to reshape the population to fit the interests of corporate executives.

As is usually the case, inaccurate and immoral conceptualization leads to practical difficulties.  To wit, even if we train young Rhode Islanders to fit the bill of the aforesaid executives,  employees remain more mobile than companies, especially young employees.  For the company to move, the cost of moving to or starting up in Rhode Island would have to be less than the premium necessary to draw an expert Rhode Island workforce away.

And that’s assuming technology doesn’t shift ever so slightly in a way that makes all of that taxpayer-funded technical instruction obsolete.  In other words, the assumption must be that the state’s public education system can be nimble enough and the state’s leaders sufficiently prognosticative to predict the future of the marketplace.

The basic problem is that Rhode Island’s elite, which includes the Providence Journal editorial board, doesn’t want to give up the heavy hand it has in determining what the state and its people should be like.  If we’d just lower the cost and difficulty of doing business here, and if we’d just give our neighbors maximum flexibility to make decisions for themselves, including in education, then businesses for which Rhode Island makes sense for other reasons will set up shop within our borders, and those of our neighbors attracted to those industries will rush for the opportunity.

Freedom and economic health go hand in hand, and the opposing option is aristocracy and stagnation.  One can only conclude that those who insist on aristocracy are actually just fine with the stagnation.

justin-katz-avatar-smiling

The Model of Redistributing Education Money

The American Interest highlights a model for education funding in Illinois that strikes a number of familiar chords for Rhode Island (via Instapundit):

A big part of blue state politics is the effort to equalize school spending across districts; rich Illinois suburbs can afford better schools than poor towns and cities, so they are asked to send extra money to Springfield to subsidize underfunded schools in Chicago. And it’s not just Illinois—state Democratic parties across the country are eager to subsidize schools in poor places with money raised in rich ones. (Incidentally, this may be one reason Democrats are struggling at the state level).

In the author’s opinion, this model might be just fine except for the fact that local interests on the subsidized side of the ledger want to keep control over their own affairs.  That is, they want to set their own priorities and budgets and tell the folks in wealthier communities how much money to send.

Things may operate a little differently in Rhode Island than Illinois, given our size.  The urban ring is a proportionally larger part of the state, so its representatives have an easier time running the state government for their own regional interests.  That simply makes matters worse, though.  In Rhode Island, all of government is an exercise in taking money from whoever has it in order to give it to whoever’s connected.

With fix-the-system reforms in the last decade, the administration of Republican Governor Donald Carcieri attempted at least to make districts accountable by implementing consequential statewide testing and some limited school choice through charters.  The insiders didn’t like the pressure, so they’re successfully pushing back.

Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s alternative approach of setting up about a half dozen in-district “empowerment schools” that must have strong insider buy-in and that won’t be up and running for a number of years is simply not going to be consequential.  So, children will continue to suffer the effects of poor education and the state will continue to suffer the loss of its productive class as people who want to live in a dynamic society continue to make the decision that it’s not worthwhile to remain in a place where government sees them as nothing more than a funding source.