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The Problem for Public School Buildings…

is that they don’t have a union:

Rhode Island’s 276 public schools are aging rapidly, and, at the current rate, it would cost $1.8 billion to bring them up to good condition, according to a state study.

The General Assembly in July extended a three-year moratorium on new construction until May 2015, to give leaders time to devise a way of paying for major school renovations. But superintendents say that every year the moratorium is in place, crucial maintenance and repairs go undone, driving up the cost and making bond referendums less palatable to voters.

In any given organization, the people who implement the budget will look at the revenue that they expect to bring in versus the needs of the organization (the expenses).  That includes long-term planning, estimating the life of buildings and planning for improvements.

When it comes to government schools, though, the law requires that some money be siphoned off in order to pay a labor union to be constantly advocating to increase the cost of personnel.  Because they are public-sector unions, their advocacy extends to getting people who are sympathetic to their cause in office — both on the school committee that is supposed to negotiate on behalf of taxpayers and in the state legislator and executive roles that set the larger framework in which the government schools operate.

This practice corrupts the ability of school departments and the public to prioritize anything other than higher pay for employees.  Things like ensuring that a century-old building isn’t going to fall apart around the students must be accomplished in addition to the unions’ demands.  Either the extra costs for buildings must be hidden within state-level taxes, or the dollars must be borrowed.

Inevitability is difficult to prove, but it seems likely that Rhode Island’s current predicament — falling into a downward spiral when it comes to building maintenance while also failing to get satisfactory results despite high spending on employees — is inevitable when employees are required to organize to control all sides of every negotiation.

Education Rhetoric from the Unions’ Candidate

It’s disappointing that — at least in Linda Borg’s Providence Journal presentation — none of the candidates for Rhode Island governor even mentioned support for school choice beyond the entirely intra-government variety, charter schools.  A silver lining, though, is that the teacher unions’ hand-picked candidate, Clay Pell, offered a perfect example of what he means when he rebuffs attack ads by claiming the campaign should be about ideas.

Borg places this after a question about teacher evaluations, which means either Pell skirted a direct answer or she wanted to make sure he got an irrelevant talking point toward the front of her article:

“As governor, I will provide strategic direction and strong leadership to ensure a world-class education for all Rhode Islanders. I will support our classroom educators and make sure they have the flexibility to innovate and embrace students’ creativity. I do not support a charter school system that erodes the quality and sustainability of public schools. I believe it is critical that we invest in our public schools to ensure equity and high-quality education for all students; no matter their ZIP code.”

That’s by far the longest quotation in the article, so Borg must think it’s important, yet it appears to be nearly substance-free, with respect to the policies that the candidate supports.

  • It’s nice that Pell would have a “strategic direction,” but what would it be?
  • What will he do to provide “strong leadership”?
  • How will he measure a “world-class education”?
  • What sort of “flexibility” will he ensure for teachers, and how will he make sure they aren’t abusing it?  (It was a question about evaluations, after all.)
  • Is “students’ creativity” really the singular trait of children on which schools teaching basics should focus?  What about the varying degree of creativity found among a diverse student body?
  • Does he support a charter school system that does not “[erode] the quality and sustainability of public schools”?
  • Does an “investment” that “ensure[s] equity… no matter their ZIP code” mean anything other than redistributing wealth to the union-operated schools in urban areas?

One gets the impression that Pell has memorized — like prayers — some of the meaningless, sound-good phrases that the people who’ve brought us a failing state drape over the rot of their ideas.

How We Run Education in Rhode Island

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you government control of education:

Eva-Marie Mancuso, chairwoman of the state Board of Education, said Tuesday she was appalled that a cornerstone of the department’s high school graduation policy, one that was years in the making, was discarded by the legislature in the waning hours of the session.

“Maybe everybody should trust the professionals rather than running behind our backs and going to the legislature,” Mancuso said. …

But Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, the NECAP bill’s sponsor, said he is “shocked” by Mancuso’s misunderstanding of the graduation process. He said the waiver process was introduced because RIDE recognized that the NECAP was an inappropriate measure of student performance.

Linda Borg doesn’t mention it in her article, but Amore is a government-school teacher in East Providence, making him a bit more interested than your average well-meaning legislator.  This is what our state’s schools have come to: Government officials, one appointed and one elected, the latter representing the state’s most powerful special interest, arguing about whether it’s a sign that the system did or didn’t work because school districts were able to hand out diplomas to students whom they failed to educate.

We’re so many steps from a working system that this front page story might as well be about tweens arguing who was a Bieber Belieber first.

Many Threads Together in D.C. Schools

It’s not often that so many threads of topics about which one has been writing come together in a single story as in James Richardson’s USA Today essay about government schools in Washington, D.C., trying to salvage their client base:

Here, where traditional public school enrollment has dipped by 30,000 students in just the last 18 years, administrators believe the key to stemming the exodus of public school refugees lies in diverting precious resources from improving instruction to marketing.

To augment the hard sell being made door-to-door by principals, the school system even retained the pricey data miners who twice won the White House for President Barack Obama.

As noted in this space, recently, Rhode Island schools are starting to worry about competing with alternatives like charters and private schools, and our local and state governments are taking steps to change the competitive environment.  The experience of St. Jude Home Care at least hints at the risk of government’s abusing its hydra heads to give itself an advantage.  Meanwhile, D.C.’s use of Obama’s team for manipulating the public with intricate data and big money raises the same questions about whether it’s appropriate for government to be operating this way.

In plain terms, the government is taking money from taxpayers to pay for expensive tools for manipulating the public in order to make up for the competitive disadvantage that comes with prioritizing labor unions (whose mission is ultimately progressive activism).

United Nations Calls for Total School Choice

Commenting on my “education is a right” post, SGH points to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 26:

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

While it may be the case that the typical “education is a right” activist would point to this Declaration as the authority for his or her claims, it seems to me they’d be incorrect to do so.  If parents’ right to choose the manner of their children’s education comes before any implied requirement for government to provide for education, and yet elementary and (maybe) secondary education must be cost-free to the family, the only option is total, voucher-driven school choice.  

Progressives and other statists like statement number 1, which justifies their confiscation of money in order to pay for the education that they’d like to provide. They’re also apt to like statement number 2, which gives them license to indoctrinate children into their own moral and ideological framework, on the grounds that their worldview objectively benefits students’ “full development” and respect for rights.

Perhaps the progressives’ copy of the UN’s declaration has a typographical error that leaves out statement number 3.  More likely, though, they gloss over it by stuffing “parents” into a collectivist box and claiming that they collectively choose their government and therefore the type of education that the government wishes to impose on them.

What They Should Mean by “Education Is a Right”

This photograph, which appeared in the Providence Journal in the July 20th Sunday edition has been bugging me.  In case you don’t feel like clicking the link, it’s of a group of college-age-looking folks marching down the street.  Four of them are holding a sign that reads:

education is a right!


It was apparently taken from a documentary movie called Ivory Tower, about the state of higher education.  Without looking into the movie (or the insinuation behind the letters “USSA”), the meaning of the assertion necessitates the question, What do they mean?  If I assent to the proposition that “education is a right,” what, exactly am I agreeing to?

In terms of the founding documents of the United States, a right is something that cannot be taken away.  It isn’t something that others must provide to an individual.  A right to life doesn’t mean that every American must have free access to the most innovative technology that can preserve even a moment of life.  A right to speech doesn’t mean that every American is entitled to a national podium for anything they might want to say.  Rather, these are things that the government cannot actively prevent citizens from acquiring.  If you’re alive or if you have a national podium, the government cannot act to take it away from you.

So what does it mean for education to be a right?  Progressive activists mean that government schools have a right to confiscate money away in order to provide whatever educational opportunities they declare necessary.

Some activists seem to believe students have a right to absorb a certain amount of baseline information.  This view is typically targeted at the institution of public schools, to force them to prove that they’re providing a baseline education and to invalidate practices (like teacher tenure) that prioritize something else at the expense of students.  But a right to be imbued with knowledge would also imply a right to be forced to become educated, which doesn’t sound like what most people think of as “rights.”

It makes more sense — and will produce a better result, I’d argue — to understand education in the same way as life, speech, and the pursuit of happiness.  We have a right not to have the government thwart us in our pursuit of education.

As a society, we also have a strong incentive to ensure individuals achieve their potential, so we should allocate public resources to the cause.  However, the way we’ve been doing it, by setting up government school systems that have proven to be ineffective and unresponsive, can stand as a barrier to actual education, which is against students’ rights.

RI Education: High Cost, Low Results

The left-wing Center for American Progress is out with a report lamenting the low pay of America’s public school teachers.  (Imagine what they must think of private school teachers’ even lower pay!)  In some states, teachers in government schools are eligible for up to seven social service programs if they are the “head of household” sources of income for families of four.

Given the source, I’m sure plenty of arguments against the report are possible, but being from Rhode Island, my interests go in another direction — namely, the appendix table on page 6 that shows the “average teacher base salary (bachelor’s degree and 10 years of teaching experience)” for all of the states.  Wouldn’t you know it, Rhode Island leads the nation, at $67,700.

That’s 15% more than second place Massachusetts, which comes in at $58,800.  It’s 51% higher than the national average of $44,900.

When it comes to the “highest possible step on the salary schedule,” Rhode Island’s $78,200 comes in fifth, after New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maryland.  By that measure, Rhode Island is 20% higher than the national average.

Yet, as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s Competitiveness Report Card shows, the Ocean State’s median household income is fifteenth in the nation.  Our unemployment rate is worst.

Despite all this spending (which Rhode Islanders can’t afford), our students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are generally below average for the nation and, under the current governor and Board of Education, reversing some progress from the last decade.

At the very least, paying teachers beyond taxpayers’ means is not proving to be a benefit to our students, and one could plausibly argue that such the pay scale is actively harming the quality of education in Rhode Island.

Mayor de Blasio’s Very Reasonable Rate

Here’s a good example of what communities across the country are facing if they look to reform public education in such a way as to achieve good results without bankrupting themselves — by Chris Bragg:

Less than a month before Mayor Bill de Blasio struck a major contract agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, gave $350,000 to a nonprofit run by de Blasio advisers, which lobbies on behalf of the mayor’s priorities, newly released records show.

The AFT’s donation, on April 9, was the largest donation to the de Blasio-affiliated nonprofit, Campaign For One New York, since it was founded after the mayor was elected last November. Its timing raises questions about the ability of outside interests to advance their agendas before the city by supporting a nonprofit close to the mayor.

Glenn Reynolds suggests, “It doesn’t raise questions, it answers them.”  But I’m not sure that the question being answered is actually whether the mayor can be bought off.  After all, teacher contracts in New York City are counted in the billions, so $350,000 would indicate a very reasonable payoff rate.

More to the point, though, as Jim Epstein indicates, the progressive de Blasio’s affection for the union doesn’t require payoffs as an explanation.  Consider the involvement of both the American Federation of Teachers and de Blasio with Democracy Alliance — a dark-money group tasked with shuffling the money of wealthy individuals and organizations (like teachers’ unions) to progressive activists.

In short, what we’re looking at is a movement that controls both sides of negotiations to take money away from the private sector and advance the cause of government control of everything… by which I mean the progressive movement’s control of everything.

Tom Ward’s Math Solution Helps Find the Problem

Tom Ward‘s sensible suggestion for parents concerned about the mathematical education of their children, presented in the first part of his Valley Breeze column from this week, touches upon what may be the most basic of disagreements in education policy…

My advice to young parents who don’t trust the math curriculum is this: Consider what we did. Whether through or many other sites, just Google search “arithmetic worksheets,” download the lessons, and get your child to work on learning arithmetic the way you might have learned it. And if a teacher worries to you that it might “confuse” your child, ignore them. It’s your child. Nobody’s brain will explode.

The general question raised by Ward’s advice is this: Are there ways to determine whether someone knows math, separate from knowing that they made it through the individual steps of a government-approved schooling process?

For those who believe there are such ways, something like the Common Core isn’t really necessary; i.e. if we already know where to turn to evaluate mathematics knowledge, we don’t really need a sweeping national initiative to tell us how to do it.

For those who believe there aren’t such ways, Ward’s suggestion is by definition a non-starter, but they have a problem of their own; i.e. starting from an idea that what’s taught in school cannot be evaluated outside of school, or even at a later time within school, how can it be claimed that anything of enduring value is being taught?

The Common Core initiative, where a single group outside of the school system asserts itself as a neutral arbiter of what is important about a field of knowledge like mathematics fails to address any of these sets of fundamental tensions, and thus has found itself with adversaries on multiple fronts.

Speaker Mattiello at the Rhode Island Taxpayers Summer Meeting, Part 1

A retro-liveblog of remarks made by Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Nicholas Mattiello, at this Saturday’s summer meeting of the Rhode Island Taxpayers organization. The areas the Speaker touches on include education, the gas-tax, reducing regulations in RI, and some general ideas about what governing means and how it should be done.

The General Assembly’s Distorted View of Its Own Role

Even before I’ve managed to work through every bill that made its way through the General Assembly, this session, I’d have to say that legislators did grievous harm to the value of diplomas from Rhode Island public schools.  At a minimum, the General Assembly undermined even a pitiful baseline for what the piece of paper proves and catered to the teachers’ unions to limit administrators’ (already meager) leverage in trying to get them to work harder and perform better.  There’s really no question, at this point, that the brief ray of work-through-the-system education reform has effectively been blocked out.

That’s a shame, and a tragedy for students who have no choice but to go through government-branded schools in the state.

Salt in the wound is the expressed reasoning of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston):

“I became frustrated with the waiver process,” he said. “It produced inequitable results. Depending on where you lived, some communities were more liberal than others.” …

“That’s what government is supposed to do,” he said. “In a unique way, it’s supposed to serve the most humble members of our community.”

Notice that it’s Rhode Islanders, specifically students, whom the speaker sees as “humble”; it’s certainly not the legislature, whose members apparently have the massive competence to micromanage an education system serving over 100,000 children during its six-month, part-time adventure in telling other people how they must live.

Giving communities the ability to set different expectations is exactly the way to ensure that our government is representative.  If one town wants to ensure that its diplomas are known far and wide to be proof of a mastery of knowledge and ability to learn, then families that prioritize such things will move there.  If a city wants schools that amount to thirteen-year courses in building self-esteem, then it will produce the predictable results.

The General Assembly is not an appeals board for people dissatisfied with their communities to seek a solution that applies to the entire state.  Local opposition is one of the few areas of accountability that government-branded schools actually face.

If members of the General Assembly really want to empower families to find the best opportunities for their own children, they should allow parents and guardians to choose where to direct the funds that the system sets aside for their children.  It shouldn’t only be wealthier Rhode Islanders who are able to save their children from an unaccountable system that is set up mainly to preserve the high-paying jobs of teachers and the political power of unions.

UPDATED: East Greenwich Doesn’t Get That Clearing a Bar Isn’t Barring People

Emails an out-of-state friend, when he came across this story, “What is going on up there in the Ocean State?”

Honors Night at Cole Middle School is no more.

Parents got an email from Principal Alexis Meyer over the weekend saying some members of the school community “have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night.” The email goes on to say students will be recognized in other ways.

One student whom ABC6 goes on to quote illustrates the truth that too many people are apparently unable to understand, these days:  It’s not “exclusive” in the sense that it bars anybody from every participating.  Rather, it sets a bar, and students who want to be included can work toward the achievement, at which point, attendance will really mean something.

Something tells me this isn’t a good omen for the East Greenwich school district.


UPDATE (5/20/14 3:54 p.m.):

Well, that was fast.  John DeLuca tweets: “just found out from @MikeLaCrosse that EG School Administrators r reversing the decision on honors night. Will be held in June.”

I guess the people of East Greenwich also didn’t think it was a good omen for their much-lauded school district.

Coming up in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, May 21: One Small Step Towards Proficiency-Based Learning

2. S2950: Mandates that the RI Board of Education adopt “a competency-based/proficiency-based learning policy and a model district policy designed to increase programmatic opportunities for students to earn credits through demonstrations of competency”. (S Education; Wed, May 21)

We seem to be going through a particularly acute postmodernist words-mean-whatever-you-want-them-to-mean phase of education policy right now, largely resulting from some bad ideas about how to “market” the Common Core. With that disclaimer, “proficiency-based learning” usually means that students are “promoted” once they show they’ve mastered an area of knowledge, without being required to remain at a certain “grade level” in a curriculum area for an inflexible amount of time.

Proficiency based learning, effectively implemented, could be an effective outside-of-the-box solution for a host of education problems. It’s most significant difference from factory-model education is that very concrete incentives are created for students to learn academic material and demonstrate their mastery of it as quickly as they can, so that they can spend more time advancing in the subject areas they’d prefer to study while in school, or even complete school altogether in less time.

Big Government Is a Business Model, Not a Political Philosophy

The other day, I suggested to somebody that, from a certain perspective, charter schools (and mayoral academies) are like the government’s way of cutting into the private school market.  Funded like public schools, charters are an alternative for which parents don’t have to pay if they’re lucky enough to make it through the lottery. It’s likely, therefore, that they don’t poach students just from regular district public schools, but also from local private schools, particularly the lower-cost parochial schools.

So, it was utterly without surprise that I noted this passage in a Providence Journal article today about a hard-squeezed middle-class Rhode Island family:

Danielle herself is tiring. Awake at 6:30 a.m., an hour after Josh left for work, she managed the boys’ morning routine and drove Cade at 7:30 a.m. to Blackstone Valley Prep, with his brothers riding along. Ditto the return trip, when Blackstone Valley let out at 4:15 p.m.

Of course, given that the thrust of the article is how little financial space a working family in Rhode Island has, the Maziarzes are fortunate that taxpayers are funding schools to compete in the alternative space.  They mightn’t be able to afford even low-cost private schools, or they might have to find even more ways to squeeze their budget.

This is the circumstance of young families in Rhode Island, and it’s a good indication of why they’re leaving.  In another state, with lower costs and more opportunities, the family might have no trouble covering private school tuition… or even trusting their local public schools for their educational needs.

Instead, we patch a broken system with some schools that evade some of the more egregious of the government-imposed burdens.  The danger is that the tear will spread.  One conceivable future may find all private schools that aren’t targeted at the most elite of families going out of business because fewer families have enough disposable income and because the government is aggressively moving into their market space.

Then the interests that have shown such dedication to destroying Rhode Island will move in to kill or undermine the charters, leaving us back where we started, but without even an option for which a hard-working family can scrimp and save for an alternative.