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Well, RI Does Love Passing Laws for Emotional and Political Reasons

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed with the get-right-to-the-point title, “Tuition-Free College Is Nothing More Than a Political Ploy,” Allysia Finley suggests real motivation is Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo’s presidential aspirations.  She also suggests another topic that merits some careful research before Rhode Island jumps on the bandwagon:

Promising free tuition could steer more students to public schools from private ones. The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York estimates Gov. Cuomo’s plan would boost enrollment at public colleges by 116,000 while reducing the head count at nonprofit schools by 11%. The declines would be particularly acute at small, less selective colleges. For-profit schools would be pinched, too.

According to the commission’s analysis, the plan would shift $1.4 billion away from nonprofit colleges, resulting in 45,000 job losses. Compensating jobs would be created at public schools, but dislocations would invariably occur. “Once this is out there and implemented, possibly some of the more precarious institutions will go under,” Gary Olson, president of Daemen College, told Inside Higher Ed. “And what that will do is cause millions of dollars of lost economic impact on the local community where the college is located.”

Yes, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities sounds like an interested party, but our society is supposed to work by pitting such interests against each other for the public’s edification.  Perhaps one of Rhode Island’s problems is that it isn’t big enough for collective voices to emerge, even as politicians have enough power to make individual institutions wary of crossing them.

In that, Rhode Island an excellent case study in the danger of big government.  When your economy depends on the ability to procure special deals from the government, the incentive is to not advocate for your interests publicly, which leaves the public uninformed for votes.

Anyway, if Rhode Island’s non-government institutions of higher learning are too besotted or timid to argue their own interests, mark this down as another reason the General Assembly should pass the “free tuition” idea along for a study commission that might draw some real evidence out of the still waters of public discourse.

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Higher Education Funding for Unaccountable Administrators

The American Interest points to an investigation of California’s state higher education system:

In other words, administrators have been hiring more administrators for make-work positions and giving each other raises without sufficient accountability in a self-perpetuating cycle of bureaucratic decay that is sadly endemic to academia at large.

These findings should give pause to those who think that larger and larger state subsidies are the answer to higher education’s woes. Much of the public money spent on “free college” schemes championed by left-wing populists would end up being pocketed by the ever-expanding bureaucratic class of student services directors, Title IX coordinators, and HR managers, raising costs while steadily diluting quality.

Before Rhode Island embarks on this “free tuition” idea — Curious, isn’t it, how this out-of-nowhere scheme by the governor is being pushed through without any real time to think? — maybe the state should conduct a study of the administrative weight of the organizations under the state’s system.  It’d be difficult to out-do California, but Rhode Islanders have a right to know how much they’re wasting on unaccountable educational bureaucracy.

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Irrational Avoidance of Actual School Choice

In a not-online Newport Daily News article from April 18, Derek Gomes reports on new programs allowing students from other towns to attend Portsmouth High School:

The move comes on the heels of the state Department of Education designating the high school as a regional program provider for the career and technical pathways of child development and television production.

While the school has offered courses in each subject for years, it had to tailor curricula and have state education officials observe the classes before the state education department approved Portsmouth’s application last month.

“These tuition-based programs will welcome students statewide to participate and earn industry-based credentials and job experiences in these areas,” according to a letter the School Department posted on its Web site.  “Students from other districts may apply for enrollment … and be considered for admission on a competitive basis.”

Details from the district’s Web page don’t make it immediately clear whether students attend the district full time or, as with vocational classes at Rogers High School in Newport, just attend for the few relevant classes.  The Portsmouth tuition of $15,830 could certainly be full time, but the economics of these programs are crazy, with students’ home districts paying the same tuition for a couple of courses as they would for a full course load.

What strikes me at the moment, though, is how narrow and convoluted this all is.  There’s a reason Little Compton sends its high school students all the way through Tiverton to attend Portsmouth High School.  People actually move to Portsmouth for the same reason, and some private school parents in the area simply treat Portsmouth as another private school and pay the tuition.  Why should the district have to offer specialized programs in order for the Department of Education to incorporate the choice into the system?

As I’ve written before, taxpayers should see themselves as funding the education of children in our community, not the maintenance of a government-branded school system.  If that were the attitude, then we’d direct our resources where they will be used to greatest effect.

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The Peter Pan Generation in Rhode Island and Nationally

The U.S. Census has put out a report contrasting the living conditions of young adults (18-34) over time.  Some of the long-term data is stunning, such as the collapse of young adults who are married.  Nationwide, in 1976, around 93% of women in their late 20s and 57% of women in their early 20s had been married; for men, the percentages were 75% and 38%.  By 2014, these percentages had fallen to 46% and 17% for women and 32% and 10% for men.

One suspects a great deal of social and psychological pain can be explained by the fact that women with children have not decreased by as much.  Whereas in 1976 the percentage of women who were married was substantially higher than the percentage who had children, those with children now outnumber those who are married.

It’s related data, available at the state level, that initially caught my eye, with reference to Millennials.  From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of young adults living with their parents jumped up from 26.0%, nationwide, to 34.1%.  Rhode Island had a bigger jump than the national average: from 28.6% to 37.1%.  Rhode Island’s jump was the 15th biggest in the country (3rd biggest in New England).

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As Aleister suggests at Legal Insurrection, perhaps young adults should stop pursuing useless degrees and start seeking rewarding careers in the trades.  Along the way, they should also stop voting for politicians who promise them handouts but undermine the economy.

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Picking Statistics to Push for More Taxpayer Funding of Higher Ed

Budget season has arrived in Rhode Island, which means it’s time for credulous journalists to pass along spin from powerful insiders preaching the need for more taxpayer funding.  Here’s Linda Borg, in the Providence Journal:

Rhode Island ranked 41st in the nation on state spending per student in public higher education during the 2015-16 school year.

Among the six New England states, only Vermont and New Hampshire spent less on their public colleges, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.

The latest data also show that Rhode Island’s support for higher education declined 23 percent from 2008 to 2016. By contrast, the national average dropped 15 percent.

Two factors make this line of argument highly misleading, to the point of spinning things around backwards from how we ought to look at them.  First, as I’ve written before, a business model is absolutely bizarre if an increase in customers creates a shortfall in revenue.  To the extent that each additional student’s tuition exceeds the marginal increase in costs per student, higher enrollment should mean more money.  And to the extent that the student’s tuition falls short of the marginal increase, the increased enrollment indicates room to increase tuition.

The CBPP’s “drop” in funding is calculated per student.  That means that states with big increases in enrollment will show a “drop” in funding, even if funding goes up substantially.

Second, as I’ve also written before, Rhode Island has a high percentage of out-of-state students.  Here again, success would show as failure by CBPP’s measuring stick.  Out-of-state students should be a source of additional revenue helping the public colleges and universities fulfill their primary role of providing educational opportunities for the people of the state.  Yet, the more we attract, the lower our funding will appear to be per student.

In summary, if our colleges and university are being successful, attracting more students from in state and out of state, they will appear to be losing public funding.  If it weren’t government, these arguments would be a scam.

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The Cheese Sandwich Lesson for Socialism in Schools

It’s difficult to believe that Bob Plain isn’t trying his hand at parody with an interesting article on RI Future today about “lunch shaming”:

It’s known as lunch shaming. Students are subjected to special, sometimes embarrassing, treatment because their parents didn’t pay the school lunch bill. “Some provide kids an alternative lunch, like a cold cheese sandwich,” according to a recent NPR story. “Other schools sometimes will provide hot lunch, but require students do chores, have their hand stamped or wear a wristband showing they’re behind in payment. And, some schools will deny students lunch all together.”

The so-called cheese sandwich policy seems popular in suburban Rhode Island: Bristol/Warren, South Kingstown, and East Greenwich all use it.

From Bob’s article it appears that we’re talking debts in the amounts of $5 or $10, which seems like a paltry amount that districts could find some way to accommodate.  I’m trying to imagine a working-to-middle-class private school taking such steps.  In a transaction in which one side actually has the option to leave, other approaches have to be considered, whether a mandatory up-front fee, a deposit of some kind, a credit card on file, mandatory use of a payment processor that handles the collection, or a slight increase to all lunches in order to generate a reserve fund that provides a buffer for this sort of “debt.”

Putting aside the “what would the private sector do” comparison, though, think of what this little story says about the relationship of government to the people.  Adults in position of authority over school districts with budgets in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are agonizing over ways to embarrass children so as to extract a few owed dollars from their parents.  That doesn’t indicate a mindset of provider-client or public-servant–beneficiary.  Rather, it indicates the dynamic of ruler-subject similar to a Dickensian orphanage.

Suffice to say it takes a series of monumentally bad social and public policy decisions to get us to the point at which the proverbial lunch lady is scornfully handing a child some bread and cheese over $5 owed.  We should start unraveling those decisions.

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State House Report with John DePetro, No. 5: Branding Raimondo & Free Tuition

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, the topics were my column on the “free tuition” plan, Raimondo’s free branding help from the Providence Journal, and more on the PawSox scheme.
Click full post link for audio.

I’ll be on again Tuesday, April 18, at 2:00 p.m.

(Note: Graphic parody of the Providence Journal‘s free promotional work for Governor Raimondo.)

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A State Without Children

Way down in his weekly roundup column, Ted Nesi highlights another point from the recent RI Kids Count report:

One statistic that stood out: Rhode Island now has the fifth-lowest birth rate in the country, following a 15% slide in the number of babies born here over the last decade. What does that mean for the state’s future? It’s already having an effect on the economy, with Care New England saying the decline in births is hurting revenue at Women & Infants.

That’s an understated example of the effect of this dynamic.  Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate the effects of an increasingly sterile population.

To touch on one narrow political matter: As I’ve pointed out in Tiverton and for the state as a whole, our public schools have generally lost about two full grade-levels worth of students in the last decade.  Picture no fourth and no fifth grade students in the entire state; that’s how much enrollment has decreased.  This leaves a bureaucratic, unionized, and expensive education establishment demanding increased budgets to educate fewer children, which its partisans do against a taxpaying public that has less and less actual use of the schools.  That battle alone will be huge in Rhode Island.

But even an issue of that magnitude is as nothing to the reorientation of a society with fewer children.  The way people think and interact with the world will change on that basis.  Indeed, not having children (or not having multiple children) takes pressure off of people to become full adults, making them more susceptible to the pitch of the “government plantation” advocates to look to central planners as parents to us all.  It also makes us vulnerable to people from other cultures in which Peter Pan has been held at bay.

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Rich Senators Target Poor Children’s Scholarships

Yes, of course we should be interested in having government-driven programs be free of waste, fraud, and abuse, but this sure does seem like a political attack on a policy that helps disadvantaged students escape failing government schools and secure real opportunities through private schools.  According to Emma Brown, in the Washington Post, three Democrat Senators are asking the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate states’ tax-credit scholarships, which allow businesses to donate money for scholarships in exchange for some percentage back as a tax credit.

Naturally, Rhode Island’s upper crust U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the three signatories.  The emphasis of the letter on whether such programs “pose a risk of waste, fraud, abuse, misconduct, or mismanagement” indicates that the objective is to attack the programs, not simply to learn from them.  Note, especially, that the letter doesn’t ask the GAO to look into the positive results of the programs.

One wonders where Whitehouse sent his own children to school.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Republican state representative Robert Lancia (Cranston) has submitted legislation that would increase the cap on Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program and implement a feature that would allow it to grow according to demand.  His bill (for which I offered feedback based on a review of other such programs) would also make scholarships more predictable, by prioritizing continued funding of scholarships for students already receiving them.

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Twiddling Thumbs in Education

Stop the presses!  Rhode Island is switching standardized tests… again… this time to Massachusetts’s MCAS.  Now we’ll have another half decade during which Rhode Islanders have no way to measure the progress of students, overall, or schools.  This seems to be a suspiciously regular problem.  Every time we have a test for a few years and begin to be able to draw conclusions that aren’t favorable to our government school system, well then, it must be time to change tests.

With this switch, though, at least there’s this benefit:

“I think it’s long overdue,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees. “We can now measure our performance against Massachusetts communities.”

What we allow government insiders and labor unions to do to our state’s children remains a travesty.

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Is Providence College a Place Where Catholic Views Are Welcome?

I can’t find the quotation on that horrible online monstrosity called “Facebook” that people like to use, for some reason, so the caveat “if true” applies here, but John Leo reports some disturbing news regarding Providence College and one of its professors, Anthony Esolen:

Support for Esolen by the college president, Father Brian Shanley, has been tepid, of the sort sometimes issued by Catholic administrators embarrassed to be interrupted while converting a Catholic college into a formerly Catholic one. Over the weekend, in a Facebook post, Esolen said of his scheduled speech, “Christ and the Meaning of Cultural Diversity,” that if he tried to give it, he had been told that activist students would shut it down. He said on Facebook: “It is no longer clear to me that Providence College would qualify as ‘worth attending’.”

Colleges must make it clear that students who are incapable of considering ideas to which they object or (worse) unwilling to allow others to do so are not fit for the campus.  Students who disrupt speeches should be expelled, and non-students who do the same should be arrested for trespassing.  Any ostensible institution of higher education that does not take such steps to ensure the free and vigorous exchange of ideas certainly does not qualify as “worth attending.”

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“Free Tuition” Makes Suckers of Us All

I’ve got the “con” side of a Providence Journal commentary-page presentation of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s college tuition proposal, today:

The typical transition of students to adulthood goes something like this: Children begin attending public school in kindergarten (or earlier) and graduate with diplomas at the end of the 12th grade. Depending on their interests, aptitude and resources, they will either begin working, pursue vocational training or enter college. These decisions are all highly personal and represent only the beginning of a long life in the productive labor force.

In general, where is Rhode Island going wrong for its young folks in this story?

Hint: It isn’t the lack of opportunities for insiders to buy votes or take more money from taxpayers.

On the “pro” side is Deval Patrick who (as one might expect of a politician) tries to take credit for his state’s long slog toward health, proclaiming that “in many ways, from the perspective of a shifting economy, Rhode Island today looks like Massachusetts did 10 years ago.”  Umm.  Massachusetts’s Prop 2 1/2 tax reform went into effect in the early ’80s.  The Bay State’s education reforms were implemented in the early ’90s.  On that count, as I’ve written before, Patrick’s capitulation to the teachers’ unions placed a political ceiling on Massachusetts’s progress, and its standardized scores haven’t improved.

Raimondo’s got the front-page plastered with her face under the headline, “The Raimondo Brand: Nation’s top Democrats tout R.I. governor as icon of party’s ideals.”  If that’s true, the national party is gambling a great deal on the governor’s phony self promotion.  I end my op-ed quoting from Crimetown and suggesting that “free tuition” both compromises its beneficiaries morally and makes us all suckers.  One suspects a national audience won’t be as inclined to ignore the utter failures of Rhode Island government, nor be impressed with the numbers games of its “reforms,” nor desire to emulate the policies of a governor under whom employment growth has almost entirely stopped.

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When a College Degree Does You No Good

Bloomberg article by Steve Matthews, printed in the Providence Journal, is worth a close read.  It’s about the plight of young college graduates who wind up with jobs that didn’t actually require a degree:

About 44 percent of recent college grads were employed in jobs not requiring degrees in the final quarter of 2016, not far from the 2013 peak of 46 percent, and the share of that group in low-wage positions has held steady, data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed Wednesday.

That’s a sign that the nation’s labor market isn’t at full health, despite an unemployment rate forecast to remain at 4.7 percent in March, close to the lowest in almost a decade. In fact, the elevated level of college grads in non-college jobs could mean there’s still slack and that the Fed can go slow in raising interest rates, betting that more high-wage jobs will materialize. It could also mark a more permanent shift in employment that the Fed can’t fix and be a tough challenge for President Donald Trump and Congress.

As the formula goes with such articles, Matthews opens with an anecdote to humanize the story: a hotel desk worker with a degree in something related to forest resources.  Perhaps, one might suspect, not all degrees are created equal when it comes to their job-finding capacity.

Even if we put aside entirely useless, luxury majors, our approach of broadly encouraging college degrees, period, could be predicted first to max out occupations with limited openings.  Forestry may be a highly valuable, highly technical degree (I don’t know), but the relevant jobs may be limited.

Another point worth drawing from Matthews’s article is that degrees shouldn’t come first, as an economic development plan, but last.  Filling an economy that has insufficient job opportunities with new graduates will not create new jobs.  It will just mean that somebody, somewhere is paying for an underutilized education and that the young adult has wasted time only to be sent back to the entry level of the career ladder.

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When Mixing People, What We Value Matters

I talked about this in my Last Impressions podcast last week, but Megan McArdle’s article about Utah’s success with income equality and other social markers deserves additional attention.  One thesis is Utah succeeds by mixing people of different socio-economic backgrounds:

Sims has looked at what happens to kids from schools in pairs of counties located along state borders, which provides something close to a natural experiment. Adjacent counties can be assumed to have broad overlap in the kind of people and businesses that locate there but will, because of their different state governments, have different levels of school funding and institutional practices. Sims found this made “almost no difference.”

So he asked, in his words, “What are schools doing?” Answer: exposing students to social networks that aren’t like theirs.

I’d suggest that McArdle pulls up short on this count, especially with regard to comparing Utah to other parts of the country.  She segues into a discussion of racial homogeneity and the state’s racial past, but a different focus might be more relevant.

The prominent Mormonism in Utah introduces a strong influence to celebrate middle-class values.  When schools and the broader society mix children of diverse backgrounds and encourage the disadvantaged ones to emulate those with stronger family backgrounds, that’s helpful.  In more-socially-liberal areas, the mixing can go the other way if adversity or victimhood status bring the social value.

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Building in a Structural Surplus

Over in Tiverton, the school department is considering campaigning for an alternate budget that would add to its structural surplus.  I look at the history over on Tiverton Fact Check:

The prospect of that campaign reminds me of spring 2015.  That year, a budget petition that I put forward reduced the school’s increase by about $126,000.  (The school budget still went up more than that, but not with local taxes.)  The school committee voted to cancel plans for all-day kindergarten.

Ultimately, they reversed that decision after weeks of advocacy on my part and that of affected parents.  How much would you guess their budget came up short at the end of the year?  It didn’t.  In fact, the school department had $1,130,867 left over, a surplus, bringing its reserves to $3,454,163.  If my budget petition had lost (or if all-day kindergarten had actually been cancelled), the surplus would have been around $1,257,208 for a total of about $3,580,504.

The most important phrase in Rhode Island public school budgeting is “maintenance of effort.”

Continue reading on Tiverton Fact Check.

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How Might Education Be Doing If Government Hadn’t Made It So Backwards and Bureaucratic

Well, this is a curious finding, articulated by Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit:

The takeaway here is that people who didn’t go to school at all did as well as or better than people who did. Considering the huge amounts of money, and other social resources, that we invest in K-12 education, that’s kind of a big deal. Of course, you’d want to do a bigger study before taking this too seriously on a policy level, but it ought to spark at least a bit of rethinking.

Of course, an important caveat is that “unschoolers,” as they’re called, are bound to be a self-selecting group, the last paragraph of Reynolds’s source article puts well:

In sum: “The findings of our survey suggest that unschooling can work beautifully if the whole family, including the children, buy into it, if the parents are psychologically healthy and happy, and if the parents are socially connected to the broader world and facilitate their children’s involvement with that world. It can even work well when some of these criteria are not fully met.”

Education is so dependent on individual circumstances that a changing world will inevitably require freedom to adapt.  Unfortunately, we’ve built a massive, self-interested education establishment that may be among the most resistant-to-change institutions in our society.

One wonders how we’d be doing, right now, if the progressive sentiments of the last century didn’t put education into such a backwards, bureaucratic model.  Parents would have sought the best opportunities for their children — because, if you haven’t noticed, parents tend to love their children and want what’s best for them more reliably than anybody else in the world — and communities would have figured out ways to guide families along, helping where needed — because that’s what communities tend to do.

Sadly, there are always those who think they know better and care more (conspicuously benefiting themselves through the process of dictating to others).

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The Economics of Giving Stuff Away

As is typical, Kevin Williamson is worth reading on the practical economics of government policy:

We are a very, very rich country. We can afford all sorts of things: food for the hungry, health care for the indigent, education for children, and hearing aids for families that for whatever reason cannot manage to scrape together $1,000 a year to invest in the well-being of their own children. (Those $5,000 hearing aids last for about five years, meaning that their real cost over time is less than the $1,200 a year typical American family spends on cable television.) I myself am all for doing many of those things, though I do not think that government very often is the best instrument for getting them done. But if we are going to use government, then, by all means, let’s use government in the most honest, transparent, and straightforward way we can. Forget the insurance mandate and just write the check.

In that regard, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s free tuition would be preferable to some other policy that tried to force somebody else to pay for it — homeowners insurance or something like that.  Of course, other basic economic lessons come into play, which struck me when WPRI’s Dan McGowan tweeted:

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“Affordability” is a measure of price against value.  Following Williamson’s price estimate for hearing aids, in-state tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) is less than the average family cable bill.  Rhode Island College (RIC) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) are substantially more, but both saving and borrowing spread out the payments.

Considering that the average monthly student loan payment for all years of all colleges is somewhere around $280, two years of in-state tuition in Rhode Island would be much less.  That means young adults are valuing a large number of other things — cable, cell phones, video games, weekly dinners out, and so on — more than they’re valuing education.

Pushing the price down for them doesn’t make them value the education any more.  What it will do, though, drive up tuition and hurt taxpayers.

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One Side Wants Both Public and Private Schools; the Other Wants a Monopoly

Denisha Merriweather has a powerful school choice story, as told by Alexandra DeSantis on National Review Online.  And it has made an advocate of her:

In her view, education policy ought to be a bipartisan issue, and she thinks the strength of the school-choice movement lies in its inclusive mindset. “I do feel like the public-school advocates or the teachers’ unions always want an ‘us or them’ mentality. In their minds, you can’t have both,” she explains.

“And we on the school-choice side are not saying that at all. We’re saying, ‘Let’s all be productive, and let’s all serve our children.’ That’s one thing that really sets us apart from those who are pushing for the public-school system,” Denisha continues. “Why can’t we have more choices, and all the choices? [The unions] can’t understand that we do want to keep the public schools. We just want all of these other choices, too.”

In some respects, she’s incorrect about that.  The unions, and the rest of the education establishment, have a different vision of what government schools should be — namely, the monopolistic control of all education, with only the exceptions that the very wealthy can carve out with their own money.  That’s what “both” means to them.

Where poor performance and high cost become so outrageous that a somnolent public begins to wake up to the problem, the establishment will concede very limited reforms, perhaps to the degree of setting up a private school system within government itself (that is, charter schools).  To rephrase Merriweather, it’s not that the establishment doesn’t believe that we can have both a public school sector and a healthy private school sector;  it’s that the establishment doesn’t want both to exist.

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