Live Chat with Dr. Matthew Ladner

Posted on April 02, 2008 | Type: In the News | Author: Joe Garcia
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Prior to joining Goldwater, Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice, where he provided support and resources for state-based school choice efforts. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform.

Ladner is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Houston.

Ladner previously served as director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute and as vice president of policy and communications at Children First America.


Tell us a bit about yourself and about the Goldwater Institute.

The Goldwater Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to the limited government principles of Senator Barry Goldwater-limited government, free-market economics, constitutional law, individual rights and federalism. I am the Institutes Vice President for Research, focused on education reform.

A major push by the Goldwater Institute has been for charter schools. Are charter schools the silver bullet to an ailing education system, or are they just part of the solution to supplement public-school instruction for certain students?

There is no education silver bullet, but charter schools have proven to be an enormously beneficial reform. The Charters arent a silver bullet, but we need as many bullets as we can fire at our education problems. Charter schools constitute nine of the top 10 public high schools in the greater Phoenix area, and the 10th is a magnet school, which is another school of choice. Research shows that charter schools benefit both the students who attend them and students whose public schools face competition from charter schools.

School-level management obviously can work, begging the question: why do we have school districts at all? New Zealand eliminated them, and had schools governed by an elected board of parents with children attending the school. This freed considerable bureaucratic resources for use in the classroom.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to be one of the Bush administration's gems, the answer to failing students and failing schools? What happened? Some say the concept was flawed from the beginning and its successes exaggerated.

NCLB had very high ideals and good intentions, promoting transparency and accountability, closing racial achievement gaps, etc. The concept was, however, flawed from the beginning. When Congress drafted NCLB, they required 100% of students to pass state tests by 2014 (thus: No Child Left Behind), but left the content of those tests and the definition of passing up to the states. The result: states (including Arizona) have begun to dummy down their tests to avoid federal sanctions. If nothing is done, every student in America will be passing tests by signing their names in 2014, which would send us into a transparency dark age.

Senator Goldwater warned back in the 1950s that federal aid to local schools would invariably lead to federal control of local schools. Some in Congress want to have the federal government draw up national academic standards to deal with this race to the bottom of state tests. Senator Goldwaters dire prediction, in other words, is getting dangerously close to fulfillment.

Is the Arizona Legislature serious about abandoning No Child Left Behind --and the $600 million annually from the federal government that goes along with NCLB mandates? Or are we talking symbolism here?

That remains to be seen. Arizonans of all political persuasions prefer managing their own affairs and dislike federal micromanagement- thus the bipartisan support for this bill in the Arizona House. The $600 million figure represents about 2% of the state budget, which would be a small price to pay to avoid the 2014 train-wreck of our testing system. The federal government has been running a bluff for years- providing only 7% of K-12 funding but increasing dictating how local schools run. Its high time states called their bluff.

Arizona has gone its own way before, turning away from federal Medicaid In favor of its own indigent health care system: AHCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System). Looking back, did Arizona make the right decision?

I wasnt living here before Arizona joined the federal Medicaid system, but the current system is badly broken. P.J. ORourke says that giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys. Nowhere is this clearer than in health care, where spending has been truly reckless and looks to get increasingly worse. By driving up health care costs, government programs bear much of the blame for the declining access to private insurance.

Since 2000, the AHCCS spending has increased by more than 147 percent in real dollars. Lured by the bait of federal matching funds, Arizona has discovered the hard way that the demand for free health care is completely insatiable. AHCCS now consumes 22 percent of the budget, with no end in sight for runaway costs. Arizona has serious spending commitments in transportation, criminal justice and education that will be imperiled by skyrocketing health care spending.

It is easy to imagine a state financed program that could avoid these perverse outcomes. Complying with Congressional micromanagement in the process, however, is not so easy.

Back to education: There is a move in the Legislature for more single-sex classes, the idea being that kids learn more in all-girl or all-boys schools -- as many private schools claim. What's your opinion on the idea? Isn't there some benefit from mixed classes in terms of socialization and preparation for "the real world?"

Single sex classes are precisely the sort of idea that ought not to be imposed on anyone, but should be allowed to either flourish or fail in a parental choice environment. My personal read of the research is that the approach holds promise, especially for boys in inner city schools. In a robust system of charter schools and private school choice, we could try new approaches and learn what works without forcing anyone into academic approaches with which they dont agree.

What's your view on AIMS? Have we turned into a teach-children-to-take-tests school system? And does anyone benefit from going through school for 12 years but not receiving a high school diploma?

Teaching to a set of academic standards isnt a problem. Teaching to the test items on a particular test is a farce. Sadly, I dont believe that AIMS currently represents a credible school improvement strategy. Items on the AIMS are over-exposed. Awareness of the actual test items opens the system up to teaching to the test.

On the diploma issue, we should eliminate social promotion, but at much earlier grades. No one benefits from spending over $8,000 per year on a childs education but not having him or her learn how to read- least of all the child. The nations report card finds that 44% of Arizona students havent learned even basic reading skills by fourth grade including 58% of Arizona Hispanics and (attention, complacent suburbanites) 29 percent of Anglos.

Arizona is in a budget crisis, due to the weakened economy. The Legislature appears ready to change its stance on capital financing for public schools -- a longtime Republican taboo. Is this a sign of desperation or creative problem-solving?

Desperation: Arizonas budget crisis comes from spending too much during the boom. Like most states, Arizona made huge new funding commitments during the boom times. Boom revenues are always temporary, state government spending less so. Essentially, we overspent and now find ourselves in an entirely predictable bind. If state funding had merely kept pace with inflation and population growth since 2002, the state would have a surplus of about $500 million now.

If we wanted to be creative about creating new school capacity, we would look at more charter school and private school alternatives. Charter schools operate without state facility funds, and school districts can authorize them and make use of commercially available space. Rather than piling up another $400 million in debt, the state should pass a moratorium on new school construction and school districts should authorize and open new charter schools.

Likewise, we have thousands of empty private school seats in Arizona that could be helping to relieve the pressure on overcrowded public schools.

What's are some of the biggest hurdles Arizona is facing in order to achieve excellence, and how can Arizona overcome those obstacles?

Arizona faces a crisis of imagination in just how much better our public schools can be. Florida has shown that a state can radically improve student learning. Florida enacted both top-down (tough testing) and bottom up (parental choice) reforms, and their scores have been soaring, led by improvements among minority students.

In 2007, Floridas Hispanic students outscored not only Arizonas statewide average for all students, but 14 other states as well, on the crucial 4th grade reading test. The maximum income for a family of 4 to qualify for a free or reduced lunch is $38,203, and 80% of these students live in families that earn less than $26,845 per year. Median family income in Arizona is $55,709.

A lady told me recently that the difference between a problem and a condition is whether or not youve given up. Low-academic achievement in Arizona is a problem that we can solve, not a condition that we have to accept. Our problem is overcoming the bog-like inertia created by the vested interests of our current broken system of schooling. When we do, disadvantaged children will be the big winners.

Is Arizona getting its money's worth from Arizona state universities? Are we building great institutions for learning and research that will pay dividends to Arizona's future?

On the learning side, it is impossible to say. No one can tell you whether students at ASU are learning more or less than students at UA. The National Center for Education Statistics lists Arizona States four year graduation rate as 28 percent, the University of Arizona at 30 and Northern Arizona University at 27, so it is obvious that they have become focused on things other than student education.

More alarming still, the American Institutes for Research recently assessed the literacy of 1,800 graduating seniors from 80 randomly selected two- and four-year colleges. The Institute found that more than 50 percent of students at four-year colleges cant do a basic task like summarize the arguments in a newspaper editorial. The lack of accountability and transparency universities is breathtaking in scale.

On the research side, universities clamor for public subsidies but are increasingly taking out patents on innovations they produce to capture the benefits for themselves. You can't have it both ways: monopolizing the benefits of research substantially undermines the case for taxpayer subsidy.

A new report by the U.S. Census Bureau released Tuesday said school districts in the United States spent an average of $9,138 per student in fiscal year 2006, an increase of $437 from 2005. New York was the highest at $14,884, followed by New Jersey ($14,630) and the District of Columbia ($13,446). States where school districts spent the lowest amount per pupil were Utah ($5,437), Idaho ($6,440) and -- ahem -- Arizona ($6,472).

I know more money doesn't necessarily translate into better education, but isn't it embarassing that Arizona always finds itself at the bottom of rankings when it comes to public education? And dont such rankings keep top-paying businesses from locating here, since education is at the top of employees' priorities?

The reality is that the state of Arizona doesnt report major categories of spending. The Goldwater Institute hired a Ph.D. economist to sort through the mess of reports from the state. It took months, but she calculated that taxpayers provide between $8,000 and $8,500 per student for public school student in Arizona. This puts Arizona somewhere near the middle of the pack in spending, but education ultimately is about outputs rather than inputs. Utah doesnt spend much and scores pretty well. Id much rather be in that position than spending a lot and scoring poorly.

If you were to give an overall report card for public education in Arizona-- one grade for achievement, another for effort -- what would the grades be? And why?

With 44% of Arizona 4th graders scoring below basic on the most recent NAEP 4th grade reading test, Im going to have to go with an F-needs improvement-on achievement. Some give bonus points for a relatively difficult to educate student population, but with states like Florida now having their Free and Reduced lunch eligible Hispanic students outscore the Arizona average for all students, Im not one of them.

On effort, Id give a C+. There have been some successful reform efforts in the state, just not the needed follow through.

What role, if any, should religion play in public education? This seems To be a recurring debate and controversy Should prayer be allowed? Should the Ten Commandments be on chalkboards? Should "intelligent design" and "creationism" be taught just the same as "evolution?"

My reading of the First Amendment Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof leads me to believe that government should be neutral regarding religion: neither promoting it, nor discriminating against it.

Parental choice in education does just this by allowing parents to choose between secular and different varieties of religious options. Parents do the choosing, not the state, which is an approach embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Zelman decision. We can stop fighting over these difficult issues- and others such as curriculum, by allowing parents to choose the best school for their child.

Do you believe home schooling can be just as effective as charter Schools or public schools? Or do teachers need to come from the universities'educational instruction?

Home schooling has proven itself to be a viable option for many families. Parents should not have to take classes in Colleges of Education (see NAEP reading figures above). We should take a long hard look at our Ed Schools however.

Softball question: How does the Goldwater Institute feel about the bill moving through the Legislature that would remove a statue of John Campbell Greenway to make room for a statue of Barry Goldwater?

Barry Goldwater was a true American original, widely respected by both sides of the aisle for the strength and clarity of his principles. Its hard to go wrong honoring Senator Goldwater.

From Gary Carter of Sun City:

Despite data that Ladner may site charter schools effectiveness re: Student achievement--according to many studies and esp. the 2004 NAEB report shows that no more effective than similarly measured public schools. One only needs to get on the net and find whatever "proof" you want.

The study you cite has been extensively criticized, but in any case charters making up 9 out of the top 10 high schools in the greater Phoenix area speaks for itself. Check it out for yourself on by going to Research and Compare. Type in a zip code and look at the schools within 30 miles, and then rank them by Terra Nova reading score.

From Leonard Michael Palace of Mesa:

Dumbing down tests is the logical extension of the social justice movement of the late sixties and early seventies. Until then it was understood that the school system provides a range of educational products and services. Some of these were college prep, work prep in high school and community college, home economics, and education for learning disabled and English as a second language.

After the social justice movement, all students were considered to be "college prep." But there is no possible way of equalizing educational outcomes. Humans are not bees or ants. What was required was to dumb down instruction and textbooks, sanction social promotions, and award honor role certificates at random. A goal of 100 percent proficiency anywhere near college prep level is impossible to achieve and expensive to fund.

I agree that not everyone needs to go to college to enjoy a successful professional life. I would however like to have all of our students learning how to read proficiently and do at least basic math as a return on investment for $8,000 per year.

From Russell A. Sgro of Apache Junction:

I am a principal in a district that has only two middle schools. We have located the classes for our most severe special ed students on my campus to provide economy of service. By the No Child Left Behind Legislation, I can not have more than 1% of my students excused from AIMS Testing or I automatically lose AYP. (Annual Yearly Progress) I presently have 14 students who are severely impared. Some are no verbal, and some are still in diapers at the age of 13.

Because my school population is under 750, I am "allowed" to only have 6 who are excused from the test. My school will be labled as not achieving AYP again this year because of this unrealistic requirement. I will not give 8th grade math test to students who do not have the ability to tell you their name, yet I am told that by not testing these students, I am hurting the reliability of testing. Many of these students can not even color with a crayon.

Help me to understand how reliable a test is that tests students on content they have not been taught and that, due to no fault of their own, they do not have the ability to comprehend.

A one-size fits-all national plan makes reasonable adjustments difficult. The authors of NCLB were trying to prevent school districts from labeling students as disabled in order to avoid having them take accountability tests. Obviously however there is a balance to strike here, and the situation you describe is absurd.

From Randall of Phoenix:

Why are politicians and newspaper editors motivated by inputs like spending per pupil and teacher salaries than outputs? Why aren't they seem to question their policies when countries like Slovakia beat America on Math and Reading tests with larger class sizes and less money spent per student?

With all the data demonstrating the failure of our education system, why does it persist?

I can't speak for them, but I completly agree that we need to focus on outputs more than inputs. Arizona public school spending has tripled in real per pupil spending since 1960. I haven't met anyone yet that thinks that Arizona's schools have become three times as effective during that time.

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