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The Academy’s Fruits in the Grown-Up World

After coming across the subject five or six times, I finally followed a link on Instapundit to Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s attempt at a left-wing explanation and, to some degree, rationalization of Rolling Stone’s fake reporting on rape at the University of Virginia.  The article reminded me of the much-ballyhooed gobbledegook that good liberal students used to churn out when I was in college.

The Bruenig passage on which most commentators have focused consists of a pair of paragraphs, the first of which explains the subtle thought of liberals in understanding oppression versus the second of which, asserting the brutish right-wing “obsession” with individual, factual cases and “specific details.”  Admittedly, it’s a telling turnabout.  The Left, in its superior thought, understands the real Truth, even if it can’t be articulated in actual facts; the Right, being less capable of the higher thought that transcends facts, extrapolates meaning from mere happenstance.

The more interesting passage, though, is the one that fully articulates Bruenig’s thesis:

Pinning an indictment of a system on the story of an individual is essentially a rightwing tactic with a dodgy success rate; it’s a way of using an individual as a metonym for systematic analysis that both overplays the role of individual heroism and effort and underplays the complicated nature of oppression as a feature of institutions, policies, traditions, and persons.

Note that this is presented as if it’s one of those examples of higher thoughts that needn’t be attached to “specific details.”  The word for that (even if only in right-wing circles) is “unsubstantiated.”  Upon a little bit of thought, in fact, it’s utter nonsense.  From Saul Alinsky’s rule to “personalize” issues to the labor-friendly “Ballad of Joe Hill” to the statement that a single death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic, generally attributed to Joseph Stalin, the Left has long consolidated movements into individual stories.

Bruenig is accurately describing a leftist tactic, but because the context puts it in a bad light, it must temporarily be characterized as a right-wing tactic.  It’s not unlike analysis of religious freedom laws that depends on whether they advance conservative or progressive causes at a particular moment.

The Bruenig essay brings to mind a law review article by now-Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, in which he expounded on the constitutionality of using government schools to teach that God does not exist.  (See also here, here, and here.)  In my brutish, fact-driven conservatism these two examples seem like evidence of the Left’s strategy to destroy the capacity of Americans to engage in reason, as opposed to logical gymnastics to support conclusions that are actually driven by politics and emotion.  The gobbledegook of the classroom has made its way into the grown-up world.

That may help to explain why government and the news media seem to operate as if the world has the padded safety of the campus, permitting concentration on abstract “deeper truths” disconnected from reality.

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Incrementalism for Government, Not for People

I’ve been having an interesting Twitter exchange with Jason P. Becker (who, it bears mentioning, appears to have been paid $163,276 by the Dept. of Education as a research specialist from 2011 to 2013) about my Providence Journal op-ed on school choice funding.  The conversation took a fascinating, profound turn when we argued our way down to Becker’s core complaint:

Don’t wrap yourself the language of marginal shift when you really want a titanic change.

What’s fascinating is that, over the course of a century (or more, depending on definition), progressives have brought our country to its current position at the precipice of technocratic aristocracy by using any means necessary to take incremental steps, always dishonestly pretending they aren’t really changing anything.  By “any means necessary,” I’m referring in part to pushing legislation (when progressives have advantage there), which can than be manipulated through executive action (when progressives have the advantage there) and solidified and pushed in radical directions through the judiciary (when progressives have the advantage there).  I’m also referring, however, to the use of cultural institutions, from the media to the education system, often financed and empowered by the government, to cross all social and cultural lines for advocacy purposes.

Education is, itself, an excellent example.  Even look at a legal precedent that Becker mentioned in passing.  In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court created the “Lemon test” to determine whether religious interactions with the the government created an unconstitutional circumstance.  Among the laws shot down was a Rhode Island statute directly paying a portion of private-school teachers’ salaries.  Now, we’ve got the federal government implementing national standards, which will affect what is taught and how, and state government pushing government schools into full-day kindergarten and even preK.  In another area (for example) we’ve got the government attempting to take over healthcare.

In all of these cases, the government extends its reach incrementally, and over time, it’s reducing the space for private interactions.  Where people wish to bring their religious worldviews to those private interactions, the government is essentially strangling their ability to do so.

What’s profound is the difference that Becker’s objection draws between progressives and limited-government, free-market conservatives.  As a simple point of fact, the education savings accounts currently proposed are nothing if not incremental.  The money available for each student is limited.  It requires the involvement of parents.  Existing private schools can only accommodate so many students.  And so on.  The only “radical” idea that the legislation would advance is that the main rationale for public funding of education is to foster an educated population, not to support a government-school near monopoly.

If free-to-the-student government-run schools can’t improve enough to persuade the people who are paying for them through taxes to send their children to them, then the incremental step of the ESAs will rightly expand.  But if government schools manage to stop the enrollment hemorrhage by actually providing what we justifiably expect them to provide, you won’t see conservatives looking for ways to force parents to send their children to private schools instead.

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Charter Schools, Education Savings Accounts, and Sensible School Choice

Even advocates for school choice have to admit that Rhode Island’s public school districts have a point when they complain about the financing of charter schools.

Charters are new public schools funded largely with taxpayer dollars, and not only do they take all of the state aid allocated for each student, but his or her home district has to send along a large chunk of local money. That money goes, as charter opponents put it, to build a duplicate education system.

If we take a step back from the politics of education and teacher unions, it’s difficult to see the sense of making this large investment. A report that the Rhode Island Department of Education published a couple of years ago estimated that it would cost almost $2 billion to bring all of the state’s public school buildings up to a “good condition.”

At the same time, the report’s authors calculated that those buildings currently have 19 percent excess capacity — meaning that they have a lot of empty space — and projected a continuing reduction in the number of students. From 2011 to 2021, the study projected a 4 percent drop in enrollment overall, reaching 13 percent in the suburbs.

In that light, does the state really need to increase its number of public schools?

Continue reading in the Providence Journal.

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Policies So Good, You’re Not Allowed to Say “No”

Kevin Williamson’s “Utiopia’s Jailers” would be good assigned reading for a low-level political philosophy course:

The Left’s heart is still in East Berlin: If people want to leave your utopia and have the means to do so, then build a wall. If they climb over the wall — as millions of low-income parents with children in private schools (very commonly Catholic schools) do — then build a higher wall. …

It isn’t just education, of course. In much of Canada, private health insurance is effectively banned. The existence of private insurance is a very strong indicator that there are some people who are not entirely pleased with Canada’s single-payer system. (Monopolies rarely have happy customers.) So they opt out, at least in part, exercising the right of exit that is the most fundamental of civil rights. This is an affront to progressive values. Solution? Ban private health insurance. …

… try opting out of Social Security or Medicare and see how long it takes for Uncle Stupid to put you in prison as a tax evader. Those metaphorical prison walls are almost always political veneers for actual prison walls.

A more difficult question is why we let them do it.  In East Berlin, there was the little matter of an invading military force, but Americans are letting progressives rope them down like an incrementally compliant Gulliver.  Williamson’s examples give a good indication of the answer.

Acquiescence to the pitiful likes of President Obama and former Governor Chafee, let alone the legions of Whitehouses, Cicillines, Foxes, and so-ons, requires a long-term effort to miseducate the population, promise them things at others’ expense, and gain a patrician’s power over them.  As the wall goes up, the effort of dismantling it becomes greater and greater, making it easier and easier to succumb to the hope that the malicious builders will stop after one more row of bricks.

They won’t.

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Private Schools and Sports

I’m not much into sports, so arguments about long-standing high school rivalries hold no allure for me.  But Bob Plain’s been engaging in some Twitter banter about public schools versus private schools, particularly in relation to sports, and it raises an important point.

Private school teams, he claims, “are essentially all-star teams,” elaborating that they “drain away the talent – sometimes they just buy it!”  The subsequent exchanges focus on whether private schools give athletic scholarships, but doesn’t that kind of miss the point?

Really, what’s the argument here?  That private schools might give a discount to students who play competitive sports?  You know who gives a really big discount for education — as in just about free?  Public schools.

The important question is why private schools’ core product of education is considered to be so superior to public schools’ that offering a discount can blithely be declared to be “buying” students.  I’m not bashing public schools, here.  Bob Plain is a big advocate for public schools, as well as an avid class warrior, and even he takes it as given that a private school that charges no tuition is essentially engaging in an unfair competitive practice against public schools.

That’s a very common assumption, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.  And it’s an indication of a problem.

Public schools have massive revenue advantages over most private schools.  In some cases — notably, the schools directly controlled by the Providence Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church — the income brackets of private school students aren’t as different from the general public as one might think.

If public schools can’t compete for student talent, it’s an indication that educating students is not their core mission.  And if Bob’s right, athletic teams clearly aren’t their core mission, either.

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More Money, Fewer Students, and Trust

According to Rhode Island law, cities and towns are never allowed to decrease the amount of money that they supply to their public school systems.  If enrollment goes down, they can calculate their “maintenance of effort” on a per-student basis, but that requires a projected decrease.

By way of example, budgeting for the 2013-2014 school year, the Tiverton school department projected enrollment of 1,899.  It turned out to be 1,873 in October.  For the 2014-2015 school year, enrollment was 1,871, yet the department is now projecting that it will rebound to 1,890.

This is a side note, though, to my latest post on Tiverton Fact Check.

I recently discovered another area of student projections that has significance for school funding.  For this year’s budget, the schools asked for an increase in their budget for out-of-district expenses for special needs students.  Last year, there were 93 such students, and it appears that the district projected at least as many.  It turned out, though, that there were only 77 such students, so the district transferred exactly $600,000 out of that account.

The projection for next year goes down by another 10 students, so the schools may be returning to their prior ability to project this part of their budget accurately.  Still, the schools’ local funding increased by $546,014, this year, presumably on the strength of the incorrect projection, so that money is baked into the budget.

I’ve confirmed with the Department of Education that the state’s view is that the district cannot return the unneeded money, even if the aggressive school committee that recently sued the town for much less were to vote to do so.

From the 2001-2002 school year to the one we’re currently in, the Tiverton school department’s budget, from state and local funding, has gone up 65%, from $17.7 million to $29.3 million.  Meanwhile, enrollment fell 16%, from 2,219 to 1,871.  It’s as if two full grade levels disappeared from the school, but we’re paying for another five.*  And word has it that the district is about to come forward and ask local taxpayers for millions of dollars for necessary spending on the school buildings, which will certainly require more debt.

The people who support such trends (probably because they profit from them) are quick to accuse anybody who finds them disconcerting of “hating the schools.”  To the contrary, it doesn’t take but a dose of common sense to see that something is seriously out of whack, here.

 

* Preventive PolitiFact note: Using inflation-adjusted dollars, the schools’ budget increase would only be 24%, so it’d be more like losing two grades while paying for an extra two.  But (1) this is a quick illustration to compare numbers, (2) a healthy town’s school system should grow, so the loss in students is arguably understated, and (3) I don’t know why a school system can’t be expected to become more efficient over time, which would require another adjustment.

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Education savings accounts give parents choice, save public money

In February, Politico mentioned Rhode Island on a list of states considering the “radical new idea” of education savings accounts (ESAs) to provide parents with educational choice for their children.

It’s rare for the Ocean State to be mentioned among advocates for limited-government policies.  This particular list might seem even more unlikely, considering that Rhode Island has the fifth most powerful teacher unions in the country, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In actuality, Rhode Island has been on the list of school choice states for quite some time — since passage of a tax credit scholarship program in 2006.  That program is, however, extremely small, serving only a few hundred students even after the better part of a decade.  To understanding why Rhode Island would lead — and then lag — on such a policy is to understand why even broader school choice is so critical for the state’s children.

Continue reading on WatchDog.org.

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Superintendents of the Pay Scale

Stephen Beale quoted me in a GoLocalProv article, last week, about the winners of Rhode Island’s municipal government salary race:

One taxpayer advocate worries that high compensation may lead to an entitlement mentality among local officials. Rather than welcome citizen involvement, they are incentivized to preserve their power, according to Justin Katz, the research director for the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

“At a recent meeting of the Tiverton Budget Committee, newly elected member Donna Cook commented that people are beginning to feel like they work for the town’s employees, rather than the other way around,” said Justin Katz, who is also a Tiverton resident.

“Simply put, government creates far too many opportunities for people to reach the upper tax brackets,” Katz added. “When residents of a city of town decide to get active at the local level, they’re inherently disadvantaged against a group with so much incentive to keep things out of their hands, and for whom political advocacy is ultimately part of their job.”

The most significant thing to note about Stephen’s article, though, may be the limits that he put on his top 30 list.  It’s only for employees in some kind of management position, and it excludes school superintendents, because they would take pretty much the whole list.  As the payroll application hosted on the site of Tiverton Fact Check shows, even our small town has a superintendent and a police lieutenant who make more money than some of the municipal administrators on the list.

Looking around at Rhode Island’s roads and its education system, it’s difficult not to agree with Donna Cook.  Who’s working and sacrificing for whom?

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American Schools Failing Our Children

This is what you get when a near government monopoly — subject not only to the manipulations of labor unions that treat schools as a job-entitlement program, but also the political whims of activists — controls a nation’s education system for decades:

U.S. millennials, defined as people 16 to 34 years old, were supposed to be different. They’re digital natives. They get it. High achievement is part of their makeup. But the ETS study found signs of trouble, with its authors warning that the nation was at a crossroads: “We can decide to accept the current levels of mediocrity and inequality or we can decide to address the skills challenge head on.”

The challenge is that, in literacy, U.S. millennials scored higher than only three countries.

In math, Americans ranked last.

In technical problem-saving, they were second from the bottom.

According to Todd Frankel’s article in the Washington Post, the problem has gotten worse than a decade ago, and American schools are producing highly inequitable results.  It’s a bit more than assumption to suggest that giving in to more of the demands of the progressives who make so much noise about inequality would only exacerbate problems, as the Obama Era has proven with income disparities.

The results don’t appear to be broken out by state, but given Rhode Island’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), especially in math, we can be sure that the Ocean State fares worse than the nation’s abysmal performance.

There is no more time for footsie with the special interests that are harming our children and our country.

(Via Instapundit.)

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Rhode Island and New Hampshire Education Trends

According to his bio line, Ron Wolk is an advocate for “performance-based assessment” in schools, so his argument in a recent Providence Journal op-ed should be considered with that in mind.  That’s a minor qualifier, though, inasmuch as one expects people typically to advocate for things they believe in.

It’s just something to keep in mind while considering his comparison of education trends in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.  The two states, he suggests, began moving toward reforms at around the same time, and with much the same plan, but then:

As the years passed, Rhode Island marched in place for a while and then retreated when most schools continued with business as usual. The commitment to multiple measures was never fully accepted, and state officials steadily increased the 10 percent limit on New England Common Assessment Program scores until a “passing score” was deemed necessary for a student to graduate. Today, the state remains mired in a system where time is the constant and learning is the variable, and where the “learning” is largely “delivered” through classroom instruction. 

Meanwhile, New Hampshire has stuck with its vision, working at ground level with principals, teachers, parents and students to make CBE successful. Much work remains to be done, but progress is steady. More students are earning credit for supervised internships and projects in communities. Research shows significant declines in dropouts, school failures and disciplinary problems. Student engagement and learning have increased. Students say their work is more challenging and their interactions with teachers are more rewarding.

It’s a distortion to say that a “passing score” became obligatory in Rhode Island, rather than just a mild improvement of a non-passing score, which is the truth.  But putting that aside, is his characterization of the states’ trends accurate?

Looking at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s online application to compare states’ results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, I’d argue that the answer is, “no.”  If you scroll down the application and compare the two states by multiple measures, a few trends emerge:

  • New Hampshire started the millennium considerably higher than Rhode Island.
  • New Hampshire is considerably less diverse (as evidenced by the fact that the “all students” category tracks so closely with the “white students” group.
  • Looking at just white students, for a more direct comparison, and averaging grades (four and eight) and test subjects (math and reading) Rhode Island moved from a 5.5-point deficit in 2003 to a 1.75-point deficit in 2013.

The most important observation, though, is that the overall impression of the trends is actually, as I’ve written before, a more-rapid improvement in Rhode Island than elsewhere… up until the point that Governor Chafee’s administration put a stop to the reforms that Wolk laments.

“Performance-based assessment” may prove, in the long run, to be an excellent principle by which to organize education, and the specific approach that Wolk appears to advocate may prove workable, but I don’t think this particular comparison is the evidence that he thinks it is.

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School choice sentiments simmer in Rhode Island as politicians go about business as usual

In Rhode Island, the school choice issue is emblematic of the insider nature of politics and the mounting public frustration with it.

Look in any direction, and the demand for school choice is clear:

  • Asked in a survey how they would educate their children if given the option, 68% would choose something other than district public schools.
  • In College Board data, Rhode Island is second in the nation in the percentage of private school students, and first, by a long shot, in religiously affiliated private schools, which tend to be less expensive.
  • Every year, the applicants for charter schools exceed the available seats by many times, and only a fraction of businesses that would like to provide tax credit scholarships are able to do so.

Yet, asked about school choice on Thursday, the day of a School Choice Week rally at the State House, the Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) told a political reporter from the Providence Journal, “Even though [school] choice sounds like a good idea, it’s very impractical and something I am not going to be looking at very favorably.”

Continue reading on Watchdog.org.

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Take It from a Teacher: Unions are Activist Organizations Doing Harm

Hopefully this petition from schoolteachers, asking the Supreme Court to decide whether teachers can be forced either to join unions or to pay them “free rider” fees is an indication that truth is dawning on the profession.  Here’s one teacher making the case that I’ve mentioned around here before:

“I don’t have a problem with unions,” she says. “I understand a lot of people want to have that collective voice. That would be ideal where you have a choice; [you’re] not coerced, but you’re also not bullied or called a freeloader or some other name-calling because you choose not to pay for that.”

In decades past, particularly after the Great Depression, Friedrichs says the idea of labor unions made more sense. But with the increased political nature of policy discussions, unions have “morphed into something very different now.”

“They’re more a political activist,” Friedrichs says. “They’ve done more harm than good.”

Wherever there’s far-left progressive activism, the unions are right in the middle.  As Allie Bidwell’s U.S. News report suggests, there isn’t a clear line between their activism on a range of progressive issues and the advocacy that they’re able to present as focused on their members.

Nobody should be forced to belong to or fund an organization like that.

(via Instapundit)

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Pearson’s School Construction Bill: General Assembly Still Not Getting It

The latest example of Rhode Island legislators’ not understanding the problems of the state comes via Senator Ryan Pearson (D, Cumberland, Lincoln) and his legislation to allocate a percentage point of the sales tax to school construction:

“No state has figured out how to do this,” Pearson said, referring to the financing of school construction. The Rhode Island plan is similar to one developed by Massachusetts, which dedicates 1 percent of the state’s sales tax to help pay for school facility improvements.   In fiscal 2016, this proposal would generate $81.4 million, according to Pearson. The annual increases would add an additional $5.7 million.

Another variable that Pearson doesn’t take into account, which I’ve noted recently, is enrollment.  By the Dept. of Education’s own report, Rhode Island schools already have 19% too much space, with projections for a continuing drop in enrollment.  How many millions of dollars are we going to spend maintaining schools that face inevitable consolidation?  How many more millions of dollars in economic activity are we going to forego in order to keep our sales tax rate so high?

If our state legislators really want to help cities, towns, and school districts, they should do two things.  The first is to start easing the burden that they place on the people of Rhode Island in taxes and regulations and let the economy grow, improving local tax revenue.  For example, Pearson’s plan would add $81.4 million at first, increasing to somewhere around $143 million over a decade, but the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s dynamic projections for eliminating the sales tax showed around a $149 million increase in local tax revenue with an elimination of the sales tax ($109 million if it were reduced to 3%).

The second is to alleviate the burdens that state law places on schools and on the municipalities that house them.  A huge majority of local budgets goes to labor costs that are exacerbated by laws designed to push everything in the favor of the unions.  A more fair regime of labor laws would allow cities, towns, and school districts flexibility to finance infrastructure.

Anybody who pays attention knows the score, here.  Elected officials (often elected with union support) set up regular budget processes as a battle between labor and taxpayer, with the labor side parading children and the elderly as the victims of fiscal restraint, and let capital needs fester until they reach a point of such expense that there’s no choice but to borrow the money, which simply notches the labor-taxpayer battle up to a higher and higher level of expense, each year.  That can’t go on, no matter how many gimmicks elected officials pass into law.

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Involved Parents and School Choice

One of the myths thrown about to push back on calls for school choice is that parents won’t make good decisions for their children.  It’s not true.  Relatedly, excuse-makers for the government school system periodically claim that the teachers and other professionals can’t be blamed for student performance because it’s the parents’ fault (or that of the students themselves).

That one probably has a little more truth to it.  Involved parents ensure that learning never stops, and involved parents who are also reasonable hold their children accountable to the authority of the teachers, and involved, reasonable parents who are also assertive demand accountability from the schools.  It may be the case, therefore, that such parents find ways to send their children to private schools, with which they’ll have more leverage, at a higher rate.

Into the mix, throw this tidbit of research:

A new piece of research, which was conducted by Bristol University, has refuted the idea that parents from a poor background are less involved in their children than those from a wealthier background.

The findings revealed that poorer parents are as likely to help with homework, play and read with their children, as those who are better-off financially.

Next week, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will release a brief study of mine suggesting that Rhode Island parents are using lower-cost religiously affiliated schools as a means of school choice.  The number of families vying for charter-school slots, as well as survey results, reinforces the point, as illustrated in this graphic:

A strong school choice policy would merely empower parents to make the decisions that they already know are best for their children.  That’s what scares the special interests vested in a near government monopoly in education.

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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.

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Credibility for an Online Poll

Yes, a lot of people responded to the Department of Education’s online survey, but something about the reporting feels off — irresponsible even:

Nearly 82 percent of Rhode Islanders said the quality of public education is of the utmost importance to the state’s success, according to a recent survey of roughly 10,000 local residents.

It’s not correct to extrapolate the results of this survey as representative of “Rhode Islanders.”  This wasn’t a random sampling; it was no better than an online poll that any news organization (or blog) might post.  If anything, those surveys are probably more representative, given the narrow field of people likely to come across an online survey from a government education agency.

Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg goes so far as to play coy with the survey participants: “The majority of survey participants — more than 70 percent — said they were parents, guardians or educators.”  Parents/guardians and educators are quite different groups, so lumping them together doesn’t tell the reader much.

Looking at the survey results, 35.34% (3,003) of respondents stated that, above whatever else they are, they are “educators.”  Of course, some of the 40.01% (3,400) who said that they are “parents/guardians” may also be teachers, but consider their status as parents to be primary.  It isn’t surprising what this group chose when given the opportunity to pick three “future priorities [that] will best ensure that PK-12 schools meet future student and state needs.”

Want to guess the number 1 choice, with 4,435 votes?  You got it: “Adequate funding and resources.”  Number 2, with 3,957 votes? “Training and supporting quality teachers.”

It feels almost like a scam that this survey would be considered a guide for the state’s strategic plan for education, but it’s somewhat worse to report the results as if they aren’t shaded by the input of people who stand to gain professionally from that plan.

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RI Education: Big Bucks, Small Achievement

Dan McGowan has a short summary, on the WPRI Web site, of Education Week’s review of education among American states.  Rhode Island comes in as average, overall, at C+.  Education Week considers spending on schools to be a positive factor, and Rhode Island is seventh highest in the country by that measure, but actual student achievement (27th in the nation) dragged the Ocean State down.

One paragraph from McGowan, in particular, caught my eye:

Even though it has made some of the largest gains in the country on the math and reading sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, Rhode Island earned a D+ for student achievement, in part because the state has some of the largest poverty-based achievement gaps in the country.

Compared with much of the nation, Rhode Island has, indeed, made slight gains on the NAEP, although the real story is that the national average has made even-slighter gains, setting a low bar for Dan’s claim of “some of the largest.”  Here’s some perspective: Averaging 4th and 8th grades and math and reading tests, from 2003 to 2013, the average state saw an increase of 6.3 points, reaching 245.  For Rhode Island, the gain was 8.8, to 244.  But other areas have done significantly better.  Washington, D.C., which began a high-profile school choice program in 2003 increased 21.5 points, to 237.  Other states that are often mentioned in conversations of school choice and reform outpaced Rhode Island significantly (like Florida and Indiana, for example).

I’m getting these numbers from a new online application on which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is working that will soon be available for the public.

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Implications of the Gist Limbo

In addition to the points I emphasized here, when I was on the Matt Allen Show on New Year’s Day with Jay Martins, Jay asked me for my prediction about the pension lawsuit.

In a nutshell, I think the law will stand.  This is Rhode Island, so the legality of the thing is secondary to the politics, and the cost to the state of seeing the pension lawsuit invalidated, now, would be catastrophic.  However, there’s likely to be a backside payoff to the unions.

Seeing Elizabeth Harrison’s RIPR report that the State Board of Education hasn’t chosen to renew Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract (which only means that renewal isn’t guaranteed, but might be negotiated) makes me wonder if that’s one such backside.  Rhode Island’s education reforms under Gist haven’t been anywhere near what Rhode Island needs — or what its students deserve — but they’ve definitely been beyond what the teachers unions will willingly tolerate.

Gina Raimondo’s signature reform has a direct budget implication that will make the politicians’ lives more difficult if it doesn’t stand.  Gist’s educational reforms have no such immediate pain for politicians, so it’s possible that they may be sacrificed (along with her job) for the reform that does.

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The Accountability Spin

Here’s the headline from a Rhode Island Department of Education press release about science NECAP scores, out today: “Science assessments show statewide improvement over six-year span.”  The average reader can be forgiven for taking that to be great news, and the average cynic can be forgiven for wondering what happened through those six years to make the department reach back so long for its headline.

You can decide for yourself what group Governor Lincoln Chafee falls into.  Here’s his statement in the release:

“Proficiency in science plays an important role as we prepare Rhode Island students to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow,” said Governor Lincoln D. Chafee. “I am pleased to see this improvement over time in the results of our science assessments. With continued excellent instruction, our students will make progress in future years as well.”

My vote is that Chafee should receive the cynics’ crown, because he’s surely aware of the year-to-year data.  As a matter of fact, overall science NECAP scores have fallen for two years in a row, in Rhode Island.

  • 11th graders are stuck at 30% proficient, after hitting a high of 32% in 2012.  (As if that’s an acceptable percentage…)
  • 8th graders have fallen from last year’s high of 30% down to 23%, losing all gains made since 2010.
  • 4th graders managed to hit 46% in 2012, but now they’re stuck at 41%.  That’s a mere 1% improvement from 2009.

Overall, 25 Rhode Island school districts saw declines from last year’s scores.  Middle schools were particularly bad, with even Barrington’s score dropping 16.7 percentage points.  Narragansett middle school led the list of regular districts, with a 30.1 point drop, although The Compass School’s middle schoolers dropped 49.1 points.  Some high schools saw gains, particularly North Smithfield, at 19.9 points, but they were exactly canceled out by losses, such as Tiverton’s 18.2, Jamestown’s  19.3, and Smithfield’s 19.5.

It takes a cynic, indeed, to tell the people of Rhode Island that these are encouraging results.  At least Education Commissioner Deborah Gist expressed “concerns about the one-year decline in percent proficient in our middle schools,” although  one wonders why longer-term drops and stagnation at the elementary and high school levels aren’t matters of concern, as well.

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School Building Costs and School Choice

An op-ed by Brown English graduate student Aaron Apps in today’s Providence Journal drew my attention to an FY13 report put out by the Rhode Island Dept. of Education (RIDE).  Here’s Apps:

 Last summer, I wrote a Commentary piece (“City’s schools require immediate repairs,” Aug. 29) describing the conditions I witnessed inside Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence’s West End. To reiterate: The paint is peeling off of the walls, the roof is leaking, ceiling tiles are falling down, the water is non-potable, and there is a giant curtain in the main auditorium made of asbestos. Not to mention probable mold, exposed rusty pipes, and piles of unattended-to bird droppings. …

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2013 “Public Schoolhouse Assessment” gave Gilbert Stuart a rating of 2 in its scale that ranges from 1 to 4, where 1 is “good” condition and 4 is “poor” condition. The report rates 304 public schools. Of these, the average rating was 2.05, meaning that Gilbert Stuart, in its appalling, unacceptable condition, is slightly better than average, according to the state’s own rating scale.

One important caveat on the study is that conditions are self reported.  That means the ratings are subject to the  perspectives and biases of the people in each district, as well as their political calculations.  A district that’s pushing for more state and local tax dollars might exaggerate its buildings deficiencies, while a district that’s truly concerned about backlash based on deteriorating schools might downplay the problems.

Be that as it may, RIDE estimates almost $2 billion in expenses to bring all schools up to “good condition.”  In contrast, it foresees a continuing drop in enrollment — by more than 13% in the suburbs, for the 2021-2022 school year (compared with 2011-2012).  That’s on top of an excess capacity already calculated at 19% (meaning that much space is available for more students).  So, that huge expense would be to maintain increasingly empty buildings across the state.

The report makes the obvious recommendation of closing schools and consolidating, which leads to the strategy of regionalization.  Whenever either of the steps of that suggestion come up in reality, however, they become the subject of push-back, both from parents and from labor unions, making them very difficult to execute.  As long as there’s a chance that other people can be made to pay the bulk of the cost, nobody wants to give up their neighborhood school or their job.

The solution (as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will be laying out over the coming months and years) is a broad program of school choice.  For one thing, empowering families with options changes the politics from a necessity of taking away money and local convenience to a policy of granting opportunity.  For another thing, initial estimates by the Center suggest that school choice would create billions of dollars of flexibility, both in public dollars freed up and in new private dollars invested in tuition.

The question of the near future is going to be whether entrenched interests, including unions, can explode common sense and rational policy for their own benefit.

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Keep the Education Scandal on Your Radar

As we pay justified attention to attempts to infringe on our property rights and to take our money to pay for a government healthcare system, let’s not lose track of the travesty that is our education system.

Specifically, I have in mind Linda Borg’s recent Providence Journal article:

About 98 percent of Rhode Island’s teachers in their latest evaluation were rated as effective or highly effective by their principals, a number at odds with student performance in a number of districts. …

“If everyone here was at 98 percent, Rhode Island would be leading the nation” in student achievement, “not Massachusetts,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

Let’s put it plainly: The evaluations are a fraud designed to ensure that government schools and their employees have no real accountability. A few data points in the article reinforce this aggressive conclusion:

“Central Falls and West Warwick have high percentages of teacher effectiveness but student performances that lag behind state averages.”
“The Blackstone Valley Prep charter schools in northern Rhode Island report less than a third of their teachers are highly effective yet they show the most growth in student achievement.”
In last year’s edition of the review, a survey reported the embarrassing findings that fewer than half of teachers thought the evaluations were measuring anything, and two-thirds of principals admitted rating teachers too high.
So according to the evaluations, schools that are performing poorly (or even more poorly than the rest of Rhode Island’s government schools) ought to be doing well, and schools that are performing relatively well ought to be doing poorly. And if evidence emerges that the evaluation system is being gamed, well, they just stop asking the questions that had the embarrassing results.

The conclusion, here, is that government cannot evaluate itself, mostly because it doesn’t have any make-or-break incentive to improve. In education, it’s a veritable monopoly that has a huge amount of emotional leverage and political power to continue taking more and more resources on the premise of solving problems that are never fundamentally addressed.

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Question #4: In-State Employment Rate of URI Engineering Grads Does Not Justify $125 Million Tab for Taxpayers

This Tuesday, Rhode Island taxpayers will be asked if they are willing to pay an eye-opening $125 million, excluding interest, to construct a new building and renovate existing buildings at URI’s College of Engineering. Proponents claim it will improve Rhode Island’s workforce, but how many URI engineers are actually staying to work in the state, right now?

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Government School Enrollment Over Time

Somebody asked me, recently, whether there’s any way to know how many students leave Tiverton High School for private schools. It’s an interesting question, and the short answer is “yes,” but in a sense, “no.”

The RI Dept. of Education (RIDE) keeps records of the students from each district who attend private schools, including the schools that they attend. The problem is that the way the state keeps the numbers makes it time consuming to pare them down to a usable form.  Even when that work is done, though, I don’t think such records go back for a very long time.  Since what we really need are cohorts (tracing grade levels from year to year), and because factors like the economy can affect the data, all of the work cleaning data might produce useless results if they only cover the last few years.

Nonetheless, I thought the question interesting enough to kick off a new feature on Tiverton Fact Check, for which readers can email us questions about Tiverton (about statistics, about process, about the law, or about whatever) and we’ll do our best to answer them.  In this case, I looked to RIDE’s October enrollment data, which goes back to the 1998-1999 school year.

Specifically, I compared Tiverton to North Smithfield (because similar) and Barrington (because dissimilar in a way that Tiverton should work to change), and found:

To answer the reader’s question as directly as this data allows, for the twelve years that we can compare the number of students starting eighth grade in Tiverton with the number starting twelfth grade, the average number of students lost is 30.  That’s an average of a 17% drop in high school seniors from the start of eighth grade.

For comparison, North Smithfield lost an average of 20 students, or 13%, while Barrington actually gained an average of 8 students, or 3%.