Republic columnist Jon Talton recently used his Sunday column to describe a school-choice program that passed the Arizona Legislature with bipartisan support as "right-wing utopianism." ("As Democrats go, Napolitano makes a good Republican," Oct. 9). Researchers familiar with the academic work on choice programs have tired of such ill-informed rhetoric.
Citing the example of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I challenged Talton to back up his claim in a friendly contest: Produce two control-group studies showing that academic performance declines in a school-choice program, or that parents become less satisfied once participating in such a program. The prize: a free steak dinner.
When Mr. Talton failed to produce, I extended the same offer to the whole community. Mr. Talton's fellow Republic columnist Richard Ruelas replied in a column headlined, "School choice hurts, steaks are tasty."
Let's begin with the subjects upon which Mr. Ruelas and I agree. First, Mr. Ruelas is a clever writer. Second, steak is indeed tasty. Third, Mr. Ruelas also said that school choice is a myth for low-income families.
That is all too true: buying a house in the suburbs remains the most common form of school choice and is decidedly biased against children in low-income families, a powerful reason to expand, not withhold, choice.
Mr. Ruelas' response essentially consisted of declaring himself the author of two non-existent studies and then noting that he likes a baked potato with his steak, leaving one to wonder, "Where's the beef?"
Because Mr. Ruelas is a paid columnist attempting to disguise himself as a researcher, allow me to explain the difference between control-group and imaginary studies. Control-group studies use random assignment to divide subjects into experimental and control groups to allow measurement of the impact of a particular variable, which, in this case, is school choice. Control-group studies represent the "gold standard" of social-science research.
Control-group studies allow us to get away from the sort of armchair theorizing of the sort offered up by Talton and Ruelas. As noted originally, the consistent conclusion of such evaluations on school-choice programs is that parents are much more satisfied with the school their child attends, and students demonstrate varying degrees of academic gains. None of these studies shows any academic harm to students or a decline in parental satisfaction.
For example, a 1998 Harvard study found school-choice parents "very satisfied" at significantly higher levels regarding school safety, teaching, parental involvement, class size, school facility, student respect for teachers, teacher communication, extent to which their child can observe religious traditions, parental support for the school, discipline, clarity of goals, staff teamwork, teaching, academic quality, and sports programs.
Another control-group study led by a Georgetown scholar found that 46 percent of the private-school parents participating in a privately financed school-voucher program gave their school an "A" compared with just 15 percent of the control-group parents. The research goes on.
Forty-eight percent of Arizona fourth-graders scored "below basic" on the most recent national reading exam. Arizona's lawmakers, no doubt, view decisions about education policy as deadly serious business, even if others do not.
Control-group studies by Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown researchers trump the sort of no-substance ad hominem attacks offered by opponents. I am happy to give Mr. Ruelas another chance by extending the deadline an additional month.
I suggest calling the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, or the National School Board Association. They have legions of lobbyists and researchers who dislike school choice, and they can offer all sorts of imaginary fears and windy rhetoric on the subject, but nothing in the way of high-quality evidence.
Moynihan warned that "ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance." Mr. Ruelas' glib response certainly qualifies. If opponents of choice can offer no proof to back their assertions, they deserve neither my steak nor anyone's confidence.
This piece originally appeared in the Arizona Republic, Sunday, November 13, 2005
The government will spend an estimated $100,000 on a child's education by the time he finishes high school. For most Americans, that will be the greatest public expenditure ever made on his behalf. Unfortunately, the quality of that education is often less than it should be.
In a report released Tuesday, November 15, by the Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation education policy analyst Dan Lips proposes a reform that could change that.
Instead of channeling education funding through the public education system, the government would deposit funds directly into an Education Savings Account for each child. Parents could draw on those funds to pay tuition at public schools, private schools, or to pay for other qualified education expenses such as tutoring.
Akin to popular Health Savings Accounts that give patients more control over their health care spending and decisions, Education Savings Accounts could give parents more control over where and how their children are educated and open up more educational opportunities for students. Because unspent funds can be rolled over from year to year and used for college, the accounts would also help control the inflating costs of education.
ESAs follow in the tradition of parent-directed education reforms first recommended by Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. That tradition includes innovations such as charter schools, school vouchers, and education and tuition tax credits, which are in widespread use in Arizona and other states.
-Goldwater Institute: "Education Savings Accounts: A Vehicle for School Choice"
-The Heartland Institute: "Time to Consider Education Savings Accounts"
-The Heartland Institute: "Education Savings Accounts Could Expand School Choice"
Occasionally, a teacher union official tells you what he really thinks. The reigning champion in this regard was the late Albert Shanker, former President of the American Federation of Teachers, who famously said, "When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."
With equal candor, Shanker also said, "It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy."
Now, the National Education Association may have someone to follow in Shanker's illustrious footsteps: Morty Rosenfeld. Mr. Rosenfeld is the head of a local union in New York and sits on the NEA national board of directors. This October, Rosenfeld said:
"If the United States is to preserve our system of free public schools, teacher unions are going to have to stop accepting the status quo and making excuses for the poor performance of our students. Most of us know that contrary to all of the talk about how we are raising our standards, in most of our schools they continue to decline. The low scores on the so-called high stakes tests are testimony to the fact that large numbers of students leave school knowing next to nothing and ill equipped for any but the most menial of jobs."
Mr. Rosenfeld continued, "While many of our most talented young people spend their days in so-called accelerated courses with curricula once thought more appropriate to the college level, too many of them have whizzed right by basic skills and cannot string together three coherent sentences or know to any degree of certainty if they have received the correct change in a store. We must face the fact that some of the right-wing critique of public education, particularly their criticism of the ever inflating costs of public education, resonates with the American public because it is true, or at least truer than some of the blather put out by the people who run the schools and the unions who represent the people who work in them. If it is true that our freedom is ultimately tied to our being an enlightened and educated citizenry, we are in terrible trouble."
Here's to Mr. Rosenfeld's candor. Accepting the reality of that "terrible trouble" is the first step to ending the union's stonewalling and beginning to solve the problems in American public education.
-Plainview-Old Bethpage (New York) Congress of Teachers: "Teacher Talk with PCT President Morty Rosenfeld: Telling What We Know, Part 1"
-Goldwater Institute: "A Guide to Understanding State Funding of Arizona Public School Students"
On November 16, the Phoenix City Council will decide whether or not to float an estimated $850 million in bonds to finance various projects, including libraries, senior centers, and police stations. If it does, voters will have the final say come March 14. Are bonds a healthy way to finance current spending?
As a wise man might say, it is better to live within your means.
In personal finance, issuing debt to pay for purchases today borrows against your future income. The risks and rewards of this type of financing are yours alone. But in government finance, issuing debt to pay for current spending bets on payments from taxpayers tomorrow, a game of chance in which government spends today, and depends on taxpayers to foot the bill later.
The city of Phoenix relies largely on property taxes and increasing assessments to finance its debt. Any slow down in property values will invite a spike in the tax rate. Rather than gamble on the back of taxpayers, the city should prioritize spending and bring current spending in line with current resources.
It is said that nothing is certain but death and taxes. But even James Bond has a better chance of escaping death than of surviving the crushing weight of future taxes promised by today's profligate spending.
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