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Officials Should Come up with the Number That Districts Can Save Through Charters

As the school year drew closer, the school department of Providence, Rhode Island announced its intention to charge local charter schools around $800 per season for each of their students who participate in an in-district athletics program. District spokeswoman Christina O’Reilly told Dan McGowan of WPRI that the fees would help cover “transportation, coaches’ salaries, referees, equipment, [and] league fees” for teams, on which 50 to 60 Providence charter students play.

The city backed away from the plan within a few days, but the brief episode once again raised the controversial issue of charter school funding.

Under Rhode Island law, charter schools receive the total per-student funding that would be allocated for their students in their home districts.  The district divides its local property tax collection for schools, minus capital expenses and debt service, by the number of students and sends the proportionate amount to the charters.

The state calculates its aid on a per-student basis and sends the money to the charter instead of the district.  Then the state gives the district an additional five percent of its per-student total to cover the “indirect costs” of each charter student.

By the reckoning of The Center for Education Reform, this makes Rhode Island’s funding “equity” the most generous in New England, and among the most generous in the country.

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Getting What You Pay For in Higher Education

In a certain sense, the abstraction and often-indirect benefits of higher education ensure that students can always get what they pay for.  I mean:

In his “Introduction to Multicultural Literature,” for example, professor John Streamas informs students in his syllabus that he expects white students who want “to do well in this class” to “reflect” their “grasp of history and social relations” by “deferring to the experiences of people of color.” …

A second Washington State faculty member, Selena Lester Breikss, warns students in her “Women & Popular Culture” course this semester that they risk “failure for the semester” if they use the terms “male” or “female.” . . .

“Students will come to recognize how white privilege functions in everyday social structures and institutions,” Breikss adds.

When a student is fed that sort of nonsense by people who make a lot of money at institutions for which those students and their families are spending serious money or incurring mammoth debt, the tendency will be to believe — to want to believe — that they aren’t spending all that time and money to be spoon fed intellectual mush that will make them into good little progressive slaves.  Look at it from their point of view:  It’s outrageous enough to put so much time and money into an education that provides no career and no real occupational skills.  Having to admit that you were suckered in the bargain might be too much to take, and so the young adults head out in the world as if they bring with them the finest wisdom.

I wonder if that mightn’t be the real reason Huck Finn has lost favor on American campuses.


An Unformed Philosophy in Discrimination Against Private School Choice

Julie Negri called it “discrimination” in a Providence Journal op-ed, referring to her experience as a home-school mother when she learned that her daughter would not be eligible for funding through a state-run program, called Prepare Rhode Island. The program allows high school students to take courses at public institutions of higher education.

The legality of the state Department of Education’s policy is a matter of debate. The law creating the program specifically refers to “private day or residential schools,” andthe statute concerning the approval of private schools includes “at-home instruction.”  Negri might have a strong case if there were anybody to take up the issue on her behalf.  As a matter of public opinion, however, her daughter’s situation may be in a gray area, and it’s an area to which school choice advocates should seek to provide some color.

Across the country, Americans support the concept that parents should be able to choose their children’s schools, but the support depends on the type of school and the way the question is asked.  According to a poll recently released by Phi Beta Kappa and Gallup, 64 percent of Americans “favor the idea of charter schools,” and the same percentage of respondents “favor allowing students and their parents to choose which public schools in the community the students attend.”

When it comes to “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense,” however, favorability drops to 31 percent, with 57 percent opposed.  The poll authors conclude that “the public does not support vouchers.”  Another recent poll conducted by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice has different findings.

Actually, the findings aren’t different so much as they are more telling.

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Are Children a Lifestyle Choice or a Social Necessity?

In a conversation about government-run schools’ use of taxpayer dollars to out-compete private schools, Mike678 asks:

Are not children these days a choice and a lifestyle? Why do taxpayers w/o children have to pay for other peoples choices?

Those questions rely on a pretty progressive premise that people are burdens to manage, not ends in themselves.  The implied point of view also skips over the fact that having children is pretty much the social and biological default for human beings (yes, still).  That is, for most couples, not having children is the more deliberate choice.

And it’s a choice with severe ramifications for the rest of us.  Very directly, for example, one might ask why somebody else’s children, as taxpayers, should have to carry a heavier burden to pay the Social Security of a childless senior’s choices.  Even without entitlement programs, though, the fact is that a society needs children.  Look to Japan:

… in the long run the fortunes of nations are determined by population trends. Japan is not only the world’s fastest-aging major economy (already every fourth person is older than 65, and by 2050 that share will be nearly 40 percent), its population is also declining. Today’s 127 million will shrink to 97 million by 2050, and forecasts show shortages of the young labor force needed in construction and health care. Who will maintain Japan’s extensive and admirably efficient transportation infrastructures? Who will take care of millions of old people? By 2050 people above the age of 80 will outnumber the children.

I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest new child tax credits or a directly paid government child allowance, as some do.  Social engineering is, after all, social engineering, and the government tends to plod along in a march of unintended consequences.  (It matters, for one thing, for whom in our society we create incentives to birth more children.)  However, when children are born, it behooves us to ensure that education is a priority, and alleviating that burden becomes quite a different thing than subsidizing the procreation.


A Challenge to School Choice from the Right

Michael McShane points out a challenge coming from the political right that advocates for school choice will have to address:

…when I moved back to America’s heartland and traveled a bit more off the beaten path, I encountered a new argument that might be more threatening to the spread of school choice than anything the AFT’s Randi Weingarten or the NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia can throw at it. It is the fear that by accepting government dollars, private schools — particularly private religious schools — are opening themselves to a government takeover. “With shekels come shackles” is how a man in Michigan put it to me. A brilliant op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called it the “Pharaoh Effect.”

This is not an entirely unwarranted concern. For decades, private and religious schools have been able to coexist peaceably with American public schools. But Obamacare’s contraception mandate has increased government’s attempted influence on the inner workings of religious organizations. And if the Little Sisters of the Poor aren’t safe in America, who’s to say a school will be?

Some of the most vocal opposition that the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity faced to its Bright Today proposal, last legislative session, came from home schoolers who fear that opening this door will let the government into their homes.  Frankly, I’ve been making a variation of this argument when it comes to charter schools.  My initial suspicions blossomed into concern when I read McShane’s report for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice detailing how some Catholic schools were closing their doors and reopening as non-religious charter schools.

This area definitely merits careful policy decisions as school choice expands (which it will).  That’s life, though.  The enemy is always lurking in the woods along the path.  We can’t just stay home in fear that we’ll lose what we have.  That strategy will only empower the enemy to come and take it.


In Education, Government Wants to Promote Government Services

Be sure to read Julie Negri’s recent op-ed in the Providence Journal.  I suspect it’s one of those topics on which the majority of people giving it a cursory read might side against her, but then reconsider were they to give it more thought:

… Under a program called Prepare RI, high school students are now able to take college credit courses at the state colleges and university with the state picking up the tab for tuition, fees and books. They are able to earn college credits, while at the same time fulfilling high school requirements. …

The initiative “would enable high-performing high school students to take college classes at no cost to them.” Unless you’re home-schooled or privately schooled. Then you’re on your own, kid — good luck with that. Your parents still get to pay the same taxes, though.

Unfortunately, we’ve developed a a mentality that the purpose of public spending on education is not, first and foremost, the education of all of the children who will one day constitute our electorate.  Rather, the purpose of public spending on education is to use government to provide educational services.  So, things like taking college courses at a completely separate institution is just a perk that the public schools provide.  (Attempts to charge charter and private school students for sports falls in a similar line of thinking.)

Such a view serves the government much more than it serves the people.  Using money confiscated from the people, the government provides services with which the private sector cannot compete — at least at a price that most people would be able to pay, while still paying taxes.  A large majority of children are therefore educated in a government-approved setting, now with subject-matter standards making their way down from the federal government.  (This extreme lopsidedness of the education marketplace, by the way, also makes it impossible for competitors to arise in other areas that influence content, notably the College Board and its advanced placement offerings.)


Where Are the Providence Children Coming From?

Via the RI Taxpayers daily newsletter, I see that Providence is defying the statewide trend of fewer students’ enrolling in public school.  Here’s Anni Shalvey, from WPRI:

In 2011, the Providence School District closed five schools in response to dwindling enrollment. Since then, an unexpected bump in students is bringing the classrooms to capacity.

“We’re looking at a shortage of seats in middle schools that was unanticipated,” said Christina O’Reilly of the Providence School District.

It’s not a huge bump – about a 1.7-percent increase in enrollment since the schools were closed, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Education.

But this increase is contrary to the overall downward trend happening in Rhode Island – making Providence stand out.

So who’s coming and going in Providence schools?  According to October enrollment data, starting with the 2010-2011 school year, the cumulative increases (meaning each school year’s increase from 2010-11) by racial category was as shown in the following chart.



Providence schools have actually seen a decrease in students identifying as black, white, and Asian.  In just four years, the black population of Providence schools fell almost 10%.  That means the small bump in total enrollment was the result of an even larger increase in mixed-race, native American, and especially Hispanic students.

The next chart looks at the data by categories of services that the students receive. The acronyms stand for:

  • IEP = individualized education plan (i.e., some sort of specialized education or behavioral services)
  • FRL = free or reduced-price lunch eligibility
  • LEP = limited English proficiency



The biggest story, with this chart, is the increase in students requiring some accommodations for a lack of proficiency with English.  Such students increased from 14.3% of the student population to 21.8%.

Summed up, then, the small increase in Providence enrollment resulted from a rather large increase in Hispanic students who need help with English.  That is, the student body is likely to be transitioning toward immigrants from Central and South America.

It’s a little surprising, therefore, that the FRL numbers went down, because they are an indication of income, and one would expect  urban immigrants to skew toward lower-income groups.  However, more than 80% of students are eligible for the program, which means we’re mainly talking displacement.  There are also gradations of the program; poorer students get free lunch, while families with a little bit more income qualify only for reduced-price lunches, and this data doesn’t show whether there’s been a shift between those groups.


Public higher education spending a stunner even at the back of the pack

According to a recent study by Pew Charitable Trusts, higher education is typically the third largest item in state general fund budgets. While this is one area of public spending Rhode Island does not top national charts, public higher education accounts for $1 billion of the state’s $8.7 billion budget– nearly matching elementary and secondary education and more than doubling transportation spending.

That figure includes tuition and other revenue sources, so when budget season comes around, leaders of public higher ed annually assert that Rhode Island lags the nation in taxpayer “investment” in their organizations.  One of Pew’s charts puts Rhode Island eighth from the bottom in per student funding, and the state portion of the columns appears small relative to other states.

The bill is still massive, though.

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Dammed Teacher Union Pay Scale Prevents Realistic Variations

Yesterday, I suggested that a government program subsidizing early-childhood education degrees for childcare providers — “giving them a chance to teach in a public school and earn more money” — was an example of backwards government thinking that ignores market forces.  As if to follow up on that suggestion, Linda Borg has an article, in today’s Providence Journal, that proves and reinforces my point:

Locally, superintendents say they are flooded with applications for elementary education openings but struggle to fill vacancies in secondary math and science, especially in physics. Many school districts have now expanded their search to include international candidates. …

In Rhode Island and elsewhere, the teaching profession can’t compete with the salaries offered to math and science majors in the private sector.

Borg goes on to lay blame on increasing attempts to make public school teachers accountable for their work and the minor reductions in pension benefits, leading teachers to “postpone retirement.”  There may be some truth to the first point, although education needs some system of accountability, and absent real school choice that would create accountability through competition, the public is right to insist on objective metrics.  As for pension reforms, I’m not persuaded; indeed, the two points strike me as contradictory: If teaching is a less attractive profession, then teachers should be more inclined to retire earlier.

The real problem, here, is obvious.  The old-fashioned factory pay scale prevents public schools from dealing with market realities.  School districts are paying way above what elementary school teachers would demand if everybody were free to work for as much as they needed to earn, and they’re prevented from paying enough to attract teachers in subjects that require expertise in areas that are, themselves, more in demand.  (That’s a good indication, by the way, that those areas are particularly important to teach well.)

Some districts have agreements with their unions that allow bonuses and such for difficult-to-fill positions, but clearly, that’s insufficient, and in any event, they run up against budget constraints, because they can’t reduce other pay commensurately.

Like many other intractable problems in public policy, this should be easy to fix.  Back off the government and union restrictions, and implement school choice policies.  With freedom, competition, and more-flexible forms of accountability, everybody will find their level, and teachers, students, and taxpayers will all benefit.

Unfortunately, labor unions and politicians have built a giant dam that prevents the reasonable flow of money, talent, and customers.  Yeah, they get to siphon off money and power, but everybody else suffers.


About That “Inspiring Environment”

As Anchor Rising-Ocean State Current readers know, Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget for the upcoming year refinanced a bunch of state debt.  Simply refinancing would have save taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars; instead, the governor took the money up front (ultimately costing taxpayers additional money in financing costs) in order to plug it into big spending projects, mostly having to do with top-down economic development.

Whatever else these projects accomplish, they’ll give her opportunity for many positive-sounding announcements, with the first being the money going toward school buildings.  One line in a related Providence Journal article gets to the heart of the philosophical difference:

“We know our kids can’t learn in crumbling school buildings and that they must have access to a learning environment that inspires them to do their best,” Raimondo said in a news release announcing the authority’s launch.

Upon just a little bit of thought, I’m sure, most people would readily admit that there’s more to an inspiring learning environment than the condition of the surrounding building.  Many might go as far as to say that’s among the least important factors.

One, of course, is family structure.  And in this area, progressives like Raimondo tend to support anti-family policies, like welfare programs that replace stable homes with government checks, easy divorce, and the redefinition of marriage to remove the centrality of raising children.

Another is has been more on my mind in the past week or so, though.  Between welfare cliffs and tax-and-regulatory policies that make the ladder to success difficult to climb, there isn’t much to which to aspire.  Whatever a student’s grades, the government will take care of him or her, and the odds of success are getting smaller.  The vision of “making it if you try” that President Obama articulated in 2012 was a modest living with “a little vacation with your family once in a while — nothing fancy, but just time to spend with those you love.”

Add in progressives’ reflexive condemnation of successful people (as if success indicates cheating or theft), the cult of self esteem, and high-profile battles over whether it’s fair to have objective graduation standards, and the message we send to children is crystal clear.  Fortunate children have parents or other adult confidants who hold them to high standards and push them along, but that just brings us back around to progressive attacks on the family.


Subsidized Degrees for Something Not Needed

It seems as if the feel good, “government helps people” stories tend to be the best examples of government behaving badly… not in the sense of mischief, necessarily, but certainly in the sense of acting without due consideration and with likely undesirable consequences.  I’m thinking of a taxpayer-funded program to get college degrees to childcare providers:

Rhode Island College is offering a program that makes it easier for childcare workers to earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, giving them a chance to teach in a public school and earn more money. 

The college has partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Education to provide childcare workers with a nearly tuition-free track to a bachelor’s degree. Paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program is aimed at childcare workers who have an associate’s degree.

Later, we learn that entry-level teachers in public schools “typically” earn about twice what some childcare workers make, but two conspicuous pieces of information are left out.  First, there is no mention of the cost of the program to taxpayers, whether state or federal.

Second, and more important, the article gives no consideration at all to whether the state actually needs more teachers certified for early childhood.  My experience, being married to a woman with that degree and certification, is that the competition for such jobs is already a challenge, making job hunts very political.  It would take some research to determine whether this is typical, but a very common career path for holders of early childhood degrees around here is several years (up to a decade or more) of waiting for the phone to ring every morning, hoping for low-paid, one-off substitute teacher assignments followed by diversion into a private school or (ahem) childcare setting that pays poorly.

The market for teachers may be different elsewhere in the country, but that’s mainly an illustration of how inappropriate it is for the government to dabble in the market.  Funding new teachers in Rhode Island is an extremely inefficient way to produce teachers for some other state in some other region.

It is, however, an sure way to buy the government some constituents in the recipients of the benefits, to create some work for unionized government professors, and to ensure that public school districts and labor unions have the upper hand when dealing with employees and members.  It’s also a good way to flood the market and ensure that the pay for private school teachers and childcare workers, generally, stays well below what the government is able to force taxpayers to pay for its own employees.


Where Tuition Dollars Go

This analysis of management at Syracuse University is astonishing:

The report states 211 managers, or 30 percent, have only 1 “direct report,” and another 134 managers have just two people reporting to them. Ninety-three managers have three people reporting to them, it adds, noting the private university employs “too many decision makers.”

Almost one-third of managers manage one person?  I’m sure some of this has to do with the way “managers” are defined, meaning that people with responsibility over others have responsibilities of their own, but it sure seems like a lot of bloat (which, indeed, the analysis suggests it is).

As with my post about part-time professors, yesterday, high numbers of administrators are to be expected when an organization’s central mission changes from the provision of a product (education) to the provision of jobs and customers have relatively low incentive to be demanding about the product their receiving.

I wonder what the numbers are at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island.


Part-Time Professors Illustrate the Problem of Output-Driven Reforms

Lynn Arditi’s Providence Journal article on the plight of part-time professors gives a good indication of what happens when you attempt to address economic issues at the output end.

If the colleges and universities are getting away with something they shouldn’t be, it’s at least partly because the system is generating too many people willing to do the work part time and at that salary.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that public subsidies and loans for tuition, along with the marketing message that a degree is a magic door to more money, brings in clientele who have no clear mission for their education and a low proclivity to assert their own interests while in the program.

At the end of the day, colleges and universities have to provide courses in order to fulfill their primary mission, which buys them tremendous advantage in public esteem.  If they couldn’t find enough teachers, they’d either have to increase the pay or require full-time faculty to do more work.  (I’m isolating the employment aspect, here.  No doubt, colleges and universities would attempt to fill the gap in other ways, too, such as pushing loopholes that have graduate students teach the classes for free or adjusting the mixes of their classroom offerings using technology or teaching strategies.)

One of the reasons, I’d propose, is that the system — with government subsidies, tenure, and labor union leverage — inflates the value of full professorship.  It’s already rewarding, highly respectable work to which many people incline naturally, and with the opportunity for such perks as relatively light workloads that allow for enjoyable intellectual pursuits.  Add in unusual job security and relatively high pay, and the profession is sure to draw more candidates than it has positions available, a job-scarcity that the cost of each employee makes worse.  Meanwhile, the cost of full-time professors gives both the college and the faculty incentive to limit their numbers.

So, when you get the mix of interests pushed by the organization, by the professors, and now by unionized part-timers, the system becomes rigid and built with the primary purpose of providing jobs rather than providing an education.  Those bricks fall on people like Kenneth Jolicoeur, who, according to the article, was making a decent living by working all year at two universities, with an additional part-time job at the University of Rhode Island.

Enter the part-timer union (not to mention the Obama administration, with ObamaCare and other job-killing regulations), and Jolicoeur’s course-load was restricted and his administrative job ended.  Meanwhile, the entire higher-education system is so swamped with these sorts of perverse incentives that many suggest the bubble is reaching its limits.

Unfortunately, our society has long since fallen into the habit of trying to force the world to fit our desires, so we rarely address underlying problems until we are forced to do so by painful reality.


Student Loans Largely Increase College Costs. Duh.

This particular consequence is so obvious that it almost didn’t need to be studied, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York:

We find that institutions [of higher learning] more exposed to changes in the subsidized federal loan program increased their tuition disproportionately around these policy changes, with a sizable pass-through effect on tuition of about 65 percent. We also find that Pell Grant aid and the unsubsidized federal loan program have pass-through effects on tuition, although these are economically and statistically not as strong.

As the Week elaborates:

The resultant tuition hikes can be substantial: The researchers found that each additional dollar of Pell Grant or subsidized student loan money translates to a tuition jump of 55 or 65 cents, respectively. Of course, the higher tuition also applies to students who don’t receive federal aid, making college less affordable across the board.

From the progressive government perspective, this strategy is win-win.  The government turns a generation into debt slaves, and collegiate indoctrination mills — leading the way, among other things, in dismantling religious belief as a competitor to statism, vilifying the foundations of Western freedom, and keeping racial strife as a living, breathing issue in a country in which it could long ago have become purely a matter of history — get an infusion of money to hire more bureaucrats.

The only people who suffer are those who must attempt to make enough money with their increasingly useless degrees to cover their increasingly breathtaking debt and those who would prefer to maintain the United States as a land of freedom, intellectual diversity, and productivity.

(Via Instapundit.)


The End of Education Reform in Rhode Island?

Obviously, it’s way too early to know how Governor Gina Raimondo’s newly appointed education commissioner, Ken Wagner, will fit into the education debate in Rhode Island.  Reports headlining him as “a uniter” are not encouraging.  Here’s Linda Borg in today’s Providence Journal:

Rhode Island’s new education commissioner is described as a good listener, a peacemaker and someone who doesn’t toe a strict ideological line.

Ken Wagner, who was considered the face of public education in New York after the departure of state education commissioner John King, was introduced to the public Wednesday by Governor Raimondo. The governor said Wagner has all of the qualities that educators and community leaders are seeking: he’s a good listener, an inspirational leader, someone who treats teachers with respect. …

Carl Korn, spokesman for the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, said, “Ken did his best to walk a fine line between a governor who wanted a greater reliance on standardized tests and a test-and-punish teacher evaluation and the concerns of major stakeholders who said, ‘This isn’t what’s best for students.’”

The problem is that the education establishment — with emphasis on the teachers’ unions — is ideological and focused on their own interests.  If Rhode Island lacks a governor who is pushing hard for reform, then which “sides” will Wagner bring together?

Judging from Borg’s article, it sounds like the “sides” are teachers and students.  In New York, that apparently meant teachers who didn’t want challenging evaluations and students and families who didn’t want difficult standardized testing.  That seems a bit more like one side, to me.

He’s apparently a strong advocate for the federal Common Core standards, so perhaps the two sides are the local interests who want to keep control over education and the federal bureaucracy and ideologues who want to take it over.  But I don’t find that possibility any more encouraging.

Strange Coverage Note

As an indication of strange interests, Borg gives the following as non-career flavor from Wagner’s biography:

Wagner grew up on Long Island, New York, is married, and has two poodles, Rocco and Stella.

Some might respond to that sentence by wondering whether Rocco and Stella are adequate to give Wagner sufficient empathy with the parents of the children whose educational experience he’ll now be directing.  A more immediate question, though, might be why it’s important for us to know the names of his dogs rather than that of his wife.

A spokesman for the Dept. of Education tells me it’s Christine Marra, and she’s a psychologist.


Charters in Public-Private Limbo

I’m in the minority among my ideological peers, on this, but my thinking on charter schools has changed quite a bit in recent years.

Many conservatives, I believe, see them as a sly way to insert wedges into public education’s cracks in order to bring about wider-scale reform of the system.  If we create this alternate system of schools, literally entered with the luck of the draw, that is free of the restrictions that (for some reason) we continue to tolerate in district schools, then parents will demand that district schools be made free of the restrictions, too.

To advance this stratagem, we’ve been willing to overlook basic descriptive facts about charters that would normally concern us a great deal.  In order to work around the damage that the democratic nature of our government has wrought in education (thanks, largely, to the self-interested activism of teacher unions), we’re creating institutions over which the public has less control.  On the one hand, charter advocates insist that they are “public schools of choice,” so they should fall within the range of inside-government benefits, but on the other hand, they are demanding that the people paying the bills should not have immediate, democratic control over them.

In any other context, conservatives would recoil against that just as surely as they ought to recoil against crony capitalist deals giving connected insiders taxpayer cash for their private business dealings.  Principle should not be something to be weighed against practicality.  Rather, we should hold to our principles because they produce the outcome that we desire; it is in determining our goals that we should weigh morality and practicality.

My concern, in treading off our principled path, is that we’re more likely to get lost than to return to our firm ground.  Instead of breaking the rigid grip of special interests on public schools, charters will kill off private schools — at least all of them that are accessible to anybody who’s less than rich.  Then special interests will successfully tighten the vice, making government education a true monopoly rather than the near-monopoly that it currently is.


Education’s Future Resting on Charters in the Crossfire in Rhode Island

Advocates for charter schools in Rhode Island have begun emphasizing that they are “public schools of choice.”  The careful balancing act in that phrase proves that such schools are treading across difficult terrain.

On one side, traditional public school districts are complaining that charter schools take much more money per student than the district schools save by handing the children off. Charter schools also have fewer of the burdens that apply pressure to school budgets, like state mandates and pension costs, they say.

On the other side, private schools and affiliated organizations are pointing out that charters can skim their clientele. Families that would have gone straight to the private route try their luck with the charter school lottery, first, and with every new “public school of choice” that opens, a private school of choice finds it more difficult to stay open.

The immediate question for Ocean State charter schools is whether they can survive the crossfire over the next few years.  In the longer term, the question for residents of the state is whether a charters-only approach to school choice will actually reduce choice while draining funds.

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Tiverton School Committee Nixes Full-Day Kindergarten

With the victory of the petitioner’s budget that I submitted for the town of Tiverton, the most significant question facing the School Committee was whether to go forward with plans to implement full-day kindergarten or to deprive another 120 Tiverton children of that service, which the school department has declared to be critically important.  The five members — all of them endorsed by the local political action committee Tiverton 1st and (I believe) the Tiverton Democratic Town Committee — chose student deprivation.

From a budgetary standpoint, I find the move inexplicable, for reasons I describe over on Tiverton Fact Check.  Even folks in other cities and towns may find the situation telling of the ridiculous way in which Rhode Island law splits local government into the school department and the municipal government.

Because the town is legally bound to whatever number it estimated for state aid, and because the estimate included a $63,000 bump in state aid based on kindergarten’s going to full day (which effectively doubles the number of children for that grade for the purposes of the funding formula), the town must now come up with that money.

As a separate matter, for its proposed budget, the school department underestimated its expenses by around $423,000.  That would have been the case no matter which budget won the vote at the financial town referendum.  By cancelling full-day kindergarten, the school committee effectively transfers $63,000 from the state (for full-day K only) to the town (for any purpose), helping it to close its own estimating gap.

Not counting a somewhat-protected reserve required in the town’s home rule charter, the municipal government already has a much lower unassigned fund balance than does the school department, and the Town Council and administrator are already in a quest for any dollar they can find in order to accommodate the budget vote of the people.  Yet, nobody on the municipal side has commented on the school department’s decision, whether because they don’t understand the budget implications or just don’t care.

Returning to the School Committee, while it may be difficult to explain its decision from a budgetary standpoint, it isn’t at all difficult to understand from a political standpoint.  From the members’ comments at their last meeting (video linked in my Fact Check post), it’s obvious that they just don’t want to prove the supporters of the petitioner’s budget right.  They don’t want to admit that their scare tactics are scare tactics, so they followed through on the threat.

These are the people whom Tiverton has chosen to oversee the education of its children.


Children as Political Hostages in an Empty Room in Cumberland

Marcia Green’s Valley Breeze article on the Cumberland School Department’s threatened cuts if its budget isn’t increased by more than the mayor has proposed caught my attention when Monique tweeted it thus: “Cumberland School Committee issues list of (budget) hostages; threatens to start shooting.”

This sort of thing takes place all over the state — probably the country — and it’s a good example of why it’s dangerous to attempt to do things through government.  Everything’s a battle.

For contrast, try to imagine a similar situation for a private school.  It’s actually not that difficult, with so many smaller schools that serve working-class populations closing.  They don’t berate the parents with threatened cuts.  Instead, they very often try to increase programming, asking faculty and staff to pitch in to move a plan forward, and then asking parents to volunteer in order to minimize tuition increases and ensure the best educational experience for the students.

If faculty, staff, and parents don’t step up, it’s on them.  Note this, for example, from Green’s article:

Monday’s subcommittee meeting drew a half-dozen parents, including Laura Sheehan and Linda Haviland, who were not only speaking against the proposed cuts, but beginning to prepare for Town Council hearings.

Cumberland has nearly 5,000 students, and about six parents showed up at a meeting discussing supposedly dire cuts in programming.

Perhaps one of those parents should research the budget of Cumberland’s schools.  As it happens, I’ve been doing just that, looking into comments made by Sen. Ryan Pearson (D, Cumberland, Lincoln) about the cost of charter schools during the hearing the other day on the Bright Today legislation.

In the five years ending with the current one, Cumberland Schools’ revenue and expenditure increases have averaged a little more than 4%.  Meanwhile, its October enrollment has dropped an average of 2% per year over those five years.  That has led to average per-student expenditure growth of 6.21% — or 5.34% if we take out the tuition paid to charter schools.  Inflation, by contrast, has averaged around 1.7% per year.

Discussions about schools should be sensitive.  Maybe one of the reasons parents and other members of the community are checking out is that they aren’t being offered decisions; they’re being whipped into inexplicable frenzy.  The first approach is empowering; the second is enervating.

The tone should not be “give us more money or else.”  It should be, “here’s where we are, here’s why these are the best steps to take, and here’s what we can do to live within the means that the people paying the bills are willing to provide.”

Of course, a calm recitation of reasonable options might lead people to choose them.  Where would that leave the folks with very healthy salaries and unparalleled benefits working for the system?


When the Students’ and the Teachers’ Interests Differ

This paragraph out of a 2010 Julia Steiny column has come to mind periodically ever since, but I somehow never got around to posting about it.  It makes an important point that is too easily forgotten as the state argues over standardized testing, teacher evaluations, charter schools, school choice, and even property taxes:

When Marcia [Reback, President of the RI Federation of Teachers] had had enough, she outted the elephant in the room. The interests of the teachers and kids are not the same, but were sometimes in direct conflict with one another. And when their interests diverge, she said, “I represent the teachers.” And shrugged. Who could argue with that?

Think about that.  Here we have a wealthy and powerful union organization, funded with money forcibly taken from taxpayers and frequently used to help elect politicians and modify laws in order to tilt negotiations and the entire educational landscape in its favor, whose mission is, at least in part, to advocate in opposition to the needs of school children.

Reback’s statement has come to mind for two reasons, this week.  The first is that the school choice legislation on which I’ve been working is being heard by the RI Senate Education Committee, today.  The second is that the 0.9% budget that I put in for Tiverton won, and the local school department has been threatening not to go forward with all-day kindergarten in the upcoming school year if it didn’t get its full budget request (even though doing so is a no-brainer).

In both cases, we’ll get some indication whose interests elected officials put first.

That’s a critical question at the local level.  Sure, most cities and towns probably have it written down, somewhere, that school committees are supposed to put the children first, but the incentives undermine that mandate.  Many school committees are stacked with teachers, whether retired or active in other communities, and many others were elected with the help of teachers unions and their activist allies.  Even if they weren’t, the nature of their position creates incentive to balance the demands of the teachers with the needs of the students and their families, not to advocate for the latter.

It’s an imbalanced system that can’t do otherwise than harm children.



First Hearing for Bright Today, Tomorrow

The legislation on which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has been working that would implement the education savings account (ESA) variety of school choice in Rhode Island is scheduled for a hearing tomorrow.  It’s the second bill on the agenda of the Senate Education Committee, scheduled for room 313 at the rise of the chamber — somewhere around 4:30 p.m., give or take.

The bill in question is S0607.  Here is information about the idea.  And here is the membership list for the committee.

Legislation to grant freedom from government monopolies on this scale are a challenge in Rhode Island under any circumstances, but the public is going to have to show growing interest in the possibility for it to have any chance.


Robbing productive class Peter to pay college graduates Paul

Is the departure of recent college graduates keeping Rhode Island at the back of the pack economically? Progressives in the state’s legislature apparently think it would be beneficial to have taxpayers subsidize student loans. A look at student debt data suggests that would be a major burden on a population that’s already heavily taxed–and that the idea may, in fact, backfire.

The debate has been raging almost since the turn of the millennium: With Rhode Island’s population waning, who’s leaving?  The first assumption was that the rich were fleeing the high taxes, which inspired policies meant to keep them — like an alternative flat tax and a phase-out of the capital gains tax.

Progressives objected that the evidence did not show flight of the rich, and as it turned out, they were right.  The departing demographic was the “productive class” — families in that highly motivated period of their lives when they’re exchanging their time, sweat, and talents for a trip up the rungs to the middle class.

To make that group stay, though, politicians can’t cut taxes in exchange for the campaign support like do for the wealthy.  And the productive class doesn’t use direct government handouts, so the government can’t make them stay by handing out entitlements.  They need less regulations so they can work and innovate, and they need to be able to keep the money that they’ve earned, rather than having it taxed away.

If we look at who is sponsoring two relevant pieces of legislation on the subject, it becomes clear that Rhode Island progressives have decided to try and bribe recent college graduates into staying in the state. Based on the rationale described in the bills, they hope a younger crowd will be like their older brothers and sisters in helping the economy to grow.

Continue reading on


Tracing the Problem of School Budgets

Two Providence Journal articles related to Warwick schools, yesterday, raise a broader question, and a partial answer to that question raises an important point that one seldom hear’s considered, in Rhode Island.  First up is the tale of the excess capacity:

The consultant hired to help consolidate the district’s 23 schools briefed City Council members and Mayor Scott Avedisian on Wednesday, and said as much as 40 percent of classroom space is sitting vacant. 

“I’d have to say, it’s the most dramatic I’ve seen in all my years of analysis,” said Edward Frenette, a senior vice president at Maini & McKee Associates, the Cambridge, Mass.-based firm in charge of crafting a master plan for the district. The firm has done 21 school consolidations in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The second article has to do with Mayor Scott Avedisian’s suggested use of those savings:

Edward Frenette, a consultant with Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates working with the School Committee, has told city officials Warwick could have as many as 8 to 10 more school buildings than it needs.

“Closing school buildings and consolidating schools is not an easy task,” Avedisian said in his budget message to City Council members. “It is very difficult and I will stand behind whatever decision is made. But a decision must be made. Simply not making a decision is costing millions of dollars a year that could go to technology and programs.”

A taxpayer advocate’s first response might (rightly) be to wonder why tax relief wouldn’t be on that list of things for which school consolidation savings could be used.  The study’s conclusion is that taxpayers are paying for school capacity that the city doesn’t need, so why wouldn’t it make sense to return that money to them?

The question is partly rhetorical.  One suspects that government officials see the current tax revenue as what the public is willing to pay for government, so if money is saved on one thing, it should just be spent on another.  I don’t think most taxpayers look at it that way; they tend to think they’re paying only what they have to for necessary services.

In fairness to Avedisian, though, state law complicates things.  Cities and towns are required to keep up maintenance of effort, which basically means that local school funding can never go down.  Municipalities can calculate that funding on a per-student basis, to account for falling enrollment, but I’ve never seen a clear answer to how that works.  In Tiverton, for example, the administration simply projected more students to enter our schools next year.  Taxpayers could presumably look at a ten-year average, or something, but the potential exists for an expensive legal battle.

As the article intimates, closing schools is difficult enough without the unknowable factor of a lawsuit.  So, the money stays with a school.

The question of why a union-dominated General Assembly would impose that difficulty on cities and towns pretty much answers itself.


Education Failing the Republic

Richard Dreyfuss’s thoughts on American politics and education are somewhat surprising, coming from an upper-tier Hollywood star:

This is the result of a complete absence of teaching current events in our schools and teaching without context or candor. We have eviscerated our children’s education and unconsciously treat them as people we hate, denying them any excellence or agility of mind.

Western kids are reportedly trying to join ISIS; why? Perhaps because the only spiritual movement being discussed in public, however ugly its ideology, is extremist Islam. Judeo-Christian spirituality seems pallid and disconnected; certainly Americans are no longer learning the secular faith of the Constitution, the musculature of republican democracy, its values of individual worth, its religious tolerance, its embrace of opportunity and merit.

Dreyfuss could have been a little more explicit that such education is the responsibility of all of us, teachers and otherwise.  If we’re not engaged with and vocal about our political and religious beliefs, then even if they’re taught in school, they’ll be abstract, “pallid and disconnected.”

But when it comes to public education, he’s right on, and the problem appears to be by design.  Just look at the perversion of AP U.S. History (appropriately, “APUSH”).  In some ways, this is simply a consummation of the content that academics have been injecting into education for decades.  It’s a deliberate attempt to undermine the political and cultural underpinnings of our country.  At least, it was once considered an “alternative” history, with the standard kind presumed to be still taught in schools.

It’s not just the academics, with their educational theories, either.  There’s a reason teachers’ unions are deeply interwoven with (and significant funders of) progressive causes.  Those causes are their mission, although it’s a case in which form marries function: As a group — that is, as a union collective — public school teachers’ most visible activity is using political activism to redistribute wealth from taxpayers to themselves.

In the vision of civic engagement that (it appears) Dreyfuss and I share, that’s not supposed to be how politics and education work.