One of the key reasons why school systems need to be less dependent on political processes is because, at best, the political process is a “sausage factory”. Expecting too much from the political process, especially refusal to acknowledge obvious limits on the ability of the electorate and public officials to process information will make the outcomes of an inherently ugly process, increasingly ugly, and destructively dysfunctional. Even the voters and legislators that want to cast only informed votes confront major difficulties, not the least of which is the huge number of informed votes expected of them. Some of the symptoms are obvious and unsurprising; for example, very low turnouts and very low levels of informedness for state board of education and school district school board elections.

The situation in Bexar County, Texas is a good example. Each Bexar County resident has a chance to vote for nearly forty representatives; everything from President to U.S. Senator, County Clerk, Land Commisioner, School Board, Edwards Underground Water District and Sheriff. Since many races are contested in a primary, and then a general election, that’s over one hundred office-seekers to pick from. There are also judges (over 30) to pick and state and local ballot issues to decide. Is it any wonder that voter turnouts are low in the vast majority of races, microscopic in many, and that the reason for voting for someone is often trivial (leading in the polls?!?!), based on scant information, or misinformation?

With so many races to cover, is it any wonder that the media are over-extended too. Many races are invisible to the vast majority. We are asked to vote on so many things that only an unemployed political junkie could make an informed choice in each race. The implications are unacceptable and unsustainable. Only with broad-based, informed participation in the political process can government be “by the people and for the people”.

Over-extension of the electorate is often a self-reinforcing process. Small percentages of the electorate elect people that most people know very little about. Poorly scrutinized candidates are more likely to make decisions (appointments, policies) inconsistent with mainstream views. The resulting disappointments and cynicism about government produce yet lower voter turnouts and reduced informedness, and they produce demands that voters be closer to the decision-making process by having direct election of previously appointed officials, and initiative and referenda to directly decide or overturn policy decisions. That is a curious reaction. We get upset with politicians, and then demand that more be created. The assumption persists that citizens will make additional informed choices, even though it is clear that informedness and turnout are already microscopic just below the top of the ballot.

The fragmentation of political power in more elected offices also reduces the accountability of elected officials. Extremely unpopular policies can survive a long time because it is hard to fix blame. Complaints lead to finger-pointing rather than change. Fragmentation of power, and over-extension of the electorate, also increases the power of special interest groups. The small turnout of largely uninformed voters makes it more likely that a small cohesive bloc will be decisive. For example, in the majority of states where Teachers’ Unions are more powerful than they are in Texas, it is widely understood that most school board members are handpicked by the local leaders of the teachers union.  It is not inconsequential here, including for other races involving school system policies.

Since I doubt that “big government” can be made to be “by the people and for the people” my preferred solution to the over-extension of the electorate is a lot less government. Taking some choices out of the realm of politics, and relying more on private initiative, markets, and charities, means fewer elected offices.

Without drastic cuts in the scope of government, the only way to spur a broad-based rise in voter informedness and turnout is to have fewer races to monitor, and make the outcomes more important to voters. That would mean lengthening terms of office, and concentrating power locally in fewer elected officeholders. Reducing the number of elected officials and the frequency of campaigns facilitates informedness. Shifting power from federal to state, and state to regional and local governments, and concentrating power in fewer elected offices would strengthen the incentive to be informed and to vote, and it would increase competition among local jurisdictions. That means consolidating some overlapping jurisdictions (cities and counties, various special districts), converting some elected positions to appointed positions, and increased reliance on political parties.

The concentration of power can bring serious abuses. I propose two safeguards against such abuses: 1.) Streamlined recall procedures for all elected officeholders; and 2.) An accessible petition and referendum process for overturning decisions.

I can only comfortably offer the suggestions above as a starting point for debate and research. The substantial lack of either on this critical subject is very troubling. The details of any reform proposals are critical, and the implications of inaction are bleak. Microscopic voter turnouts, and rising voter alienation and cynicism about politicians and government, cannot comprise a true republic, much less be true to our founding fathers’ vision of government (eloquently stated by Lincoln) of the people, by the people, and for the people.

U.S. Chamber Report Shows Unprepared Students

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce just released its new report on K-12 educational effectiveness, and the results are somewhat lackluster. The report found that through the eyes of business leaders, American schools are improving, but still failing to create internationally competitive, college-and career-ready students.

The report focused on eleven measures:

  • academic achievement
  • academic achievement for low-income and minority students
  • return on investment
  • the “truth in advertising” of each state’s student proficiency
  • postsecondary and workforce readiness
  • the quality of the teaching force
  • parental options
  • data quality
  • access to technology
  • international competitiveness
  • fiscal responsibility

Here are some of the highlights of the report:

Only 10 states received an “A” in international competitiveness. The report looked at scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) compared with international benchmarks and passage rates on Advanced Placement (AP) STEM and foreign language exams. Even the highest performing states had AP exam passage rates lower than 20 percent. Combined with “middling comparisons to international benchmarks,” the authors paint “a bleak picture for American students and a nation that wants to compete globally.”

Our teaching force belongs in another century. Not a single state earned top marks for their “21st Century Teaching Force.” While states did well in identifying high quality teachers, they failed in their efforts to properly prepare teachers and expand their pool of good teachers.

Our students aren’t college or career ready. While states are making an effort to better prepare students, it’s simply not enough. The highest performing states on the 2013 NAEP still only had half of their students labeled “proficient” on the 4th and 8th grade reading and math metric.

All in all, the report says there’s been progress from last year, but that American public schools still have a long way to go to ensure our students are competent, internationally competitive members of the workforce.

A Star-Studded Reminder that Chartered Public Schools Rarely Represent School Choice, and Even Less Frequently Represent the Effects of Market Accountability

Problems with Deion Sanders’ Texas-based Chartered Public Schools (CPS) have gotten a fair amount of attention lately because Neon Deion is a flashy celebrity. Neon Deion’s school promotion and management struggles and the threats they pose to children, directly and indirectly as examples of CPS in action, are good cases in point for several issues I have raised previously. First, an easy one; Sanders’ CPSs specialize in athletics, which is not the same thing as the sports themeI have used as a specialized schooling example on several occasions. Nevertheless, as a specialized schooling option, an athletics theme, like a sports theme, will be quite attractive to some families, but not to others. It cannot be provided, as a consistent theme through which to teach math, reading, and government (etc.) in a traditional public school (TPS) with children assigned to it.

The across-the-board low quality of some the TPS alternatives that many charter users have, or the poor fit of their child for a TPS that other families think work well for their children, the Sanders focus on an attractive theme, alongside Neon Deion’s fame, or as he put it, his “notoriety”, generated a waitlist of over 2000 children (2012-2013 — most recent number available). We know that persistent shortages (waitlists) result from mandated “pricelessness”. And we know that mandating “pricelessness” results from the widespread school system sacred cow of the “free-to-all” price control. We know that shortages (waitlists) leave thousands of children their families believe are a poor fit for them, or worse, while they also invariably erode quality and largely eliminate accountability to clients. “Pricelessness” persists because of the widespread assumption of significant net equity gains from “free-only” for taxpayer-financed schooling, even though the opposite is more likely to be the case.

When troubled chartered public schools (CPS) stay open until the authorities close them through a protracted due process, we have the potential for the apocalyptic accumulation of scandals associated with “school choice”, which is especially ironic in the case of chartering because the vast majority of CPS, because of their typically long wait lists, represent school chance, not school choice. Because of the eventual long odds of getting in, and widespread dissatisfaction with an assigned TPS, families make fast, haphazard school choice decisions when new charters are announced. The schools fill quickly, often long before they open, including through many hasty decisions to choose the new school even when the child enrolled is not a good match for the specialized approaches used by about half of all CPS.

Twenty-Seven Percent of Wisconsin School Children Exercise Educational Choice

The MacIver Institute’s 2014 Wisconsin Student Census records the school choices of every K-12 student in the state. That ranges from students that attend their local traditional public schools to private school students, homeschooled students, students in charter institutions, and pupils that use open enrollment to attend a traditional public school that lies outside of their home district. In all, there were 1,011,939 K-12 students in the state for the 2013-14 school year. 273,194 of those students — 27 percent — chose their classrooms rather than allowing geographic limits dictate which school they attended.

wisconsin 2013

The number and concentration of students attending charter schools or using open enrollment to attend a public school rose, but that was not enough to offset the population decreases in the state’s private schools or amongst the declining number of pupils who used Three-Choice Enrollment and Chapter 220 transfers in Milwaukee and beyond. This led to a slightly lower concentration (.03%) of students who exercised school choice in 2013-14 than did in 2012-13.

The majority of students chose the state’s local public schools, leading to a small increase in their share of the state’s pupil count. However, since overall enrollment dropped by more than 800 students these public schools actually enrolled fewer children in 2013-14 than they did in the previous year. Wisconsin’s private schools educated the second-most students in the state, but suffered an overall loss of more than 3,000 students last year. That drop came despite the presence of a new statewide school choice program — the Parental Choice Program — that enrolled more than 500 pupils in a cap-limited voucher program.

wisconsin enrollment

The state’s virtual schools and open enrollment programs enjoyed the most robust growth in the past year, gaining more than 10 percent of their previous populations through new enrollees. Two programs that are primarily limited to Milwaukee, intra-district Chapter 220 transfers and Three-Choice Enrollment saw their participation rates decline at significant rates. However, it should be noted that the 2012-13 figure for Three Choice Enrollment was an estimate and not the exact figure, so the percentage of students lost may not be accurate.

Charter school enrollment continued its steady growth in the Badger State, cresting the 40,000-student plateau for the first time. Homeschooling saw a modest resurgence after participation numbers dropped by over 1,200 students between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years.

This growth amongst open enrollment and charter schools and decline in private school enrollment is the continuation of a trend that dates back to the first MacIver Institute Student Census from 2010.

wisconsin enrollment2

-Results From The 2014 MacIver Institute Wisconsin Student Census

Needed: A Better Nation’s Report Card

The periodic National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams are widely referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. Because the typically still-easy NAEP questions are more rigorous than most state exams, NAEP results which have mostly not increased during a decades long reform frenzy and a an inflation-adjusted tripling of per pupil funding, are widely seen as more credible than state exam results. That says a lot about the sad state of most states’ standardized test-based accountability systems, because as a “no-stakes” test, the credibility of NAEP results is not easily taken for granted. “No-stakes” means, in this instance’, that the sample of students that take a NAEP exam face no consequences for their performance on the exam; good or bad.

Because of the “no-stakes” nature of the NAEP, and the extent to which NAEP scores are used as indicators of school system performance (public and private school students take the test), I have been concerned enough about students’ lack of incentive to try hard on the exam that I have repeatedly asked my colleagues if that aspect of the NAEP concerns them. In the rare instances where I got any answer at all, it has been a sort of the-emperor-has-no-clothes reaction where they implicitly say that it must be okay or it wouldn’t be so widely used. Though with much trepidation, in part because all of the other indicators, formal and informal, also point to Nation-at-Risk outcomes, I have also held the “it must be okay” attitude.

Microsoft and Minecraft: The Perfect Partnership?

Microsoft has purchased Minecraft maker Mojang, and it’s got people talking. With its May release of Office Mix, a Powerpoint add-on that allows teachers to integrate quizzes, videos and whiteboard-like sketch tools into their presentations, Microsoft seems to be signaling its move back into the education sector.

The purchase of Minecraft has huge potential. The game already carries a huge reputation as a great tool for teaching STEM subjects, and a large following among supports of education technology. If Microsoft really is looking to get a stronger footing in the education game, purchasing Minecraft is a great way to do it.

Integrating hands-on, fun learning techniques such as Minecraft is a great way to get kids engaged in the STEM subjects, and learning in general. As a huge distributor of software generally used in the classroom, Microsoft has the opportunity to open the gates and give multitudes of students the opportunity to experience the STEM subjects in an engaging way.

While it seems doubtful Microsoft will go as far as integrating Minecraft into the next iteration of Office Student, Microsoft has expressed interest in expanding Minecraft’s presence in traditional education sectors.

Tech giants like Microsoft need STEM students to spur innovation as the company moves forward. Making moves to get kids involved in STEM at a young age isn’t just good for the kids or the economy — down the road; it could have serious benefits for the companies themselves. Let’s hope Microsoft capitalizes on the opportunities Mojang’s purchase brings.

Low-Income Families Find the Means To Enroll Their Children in Better Schools

I recently re-discovered a finding that twelve percent of Oklahoma’s private school users are from families with annual incomes below $25,000. It reminded me of a key finding from my 2009 study of Edgewood‘s (San Antonio) 1998-2008 privately-funded tuition voucher program: low income families find the means to enroll their children in schools that will work better for them. So, an expansion in the menu of schooling options facilitated by price decontrol — school choice including permission to top-off public funding with private funding — is not irrelevant or unfair to the poor. Such an expansion benefits all income classes, directly and indirectly; directly through immediate access to new, better-fit schooling innovations, and indirectly through increased competition in the private sector and because new schooling options are likely to fall in price with competition and experience producing the new instructional approaches.

There is no question that finding the money to top-off — for example, use a $4000 voucher and $1000 of their own money, or $1000 from a third party to pay a $5000 tuition — is harder to manage with less income. But, that greater hardship is NOT grounds to deny low income families, alongside everyone else, that opportunity. It is a challenge to public and private entities to lower the affordability barrier. I highlighted “or from a third partybecause the Edgewood experience, and other readings over the years, reminded me that the money to top off a voucher or tuition tax credit does not necessarily have to come from the great sacrifices that low income families have shown themselves willing to make. They can (and do) come from “scholarship” funds such as the ones that helped some families top off their Edgewood vouchers.

The Oklahoma finding is even more remarkable than my Edgewood finding that, for example, some families topped off their approximately $4700 voucher to attend Holy Cross High School; some with their own money and some from scholarship funds. The Oklahoma program is a tax credit scholarship program, and the per-pupil voucher generated by tax credit scholarship programs is typically much less than $4700; Florida’s Tax Credit scholarship has been an exception.

Higher Education Problems Go Mainstream

Earlier this week, higher education problems were hilariously slammed by two HBO programs. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Real Time With Bill Maher both highlighted the problems with high levels of student debt — in particular — the problem with for-profit universities.

Oliver tackled for-profit institutions like Corinthian Colleges, Strayer and others. In a period where non-profits are recording record levels of tuition costs, it is hard to justify the cost of going to for-profit education centers. In Oliver’s segment, he detailed how for-profit universities can cost four to five times as much as a community college and almost double the cost of a four-year university.

To be labeled a for-profit, the institution may not allow more than 90 percent of its funding to come from federal loans. However, some schools have found a loophole getting funding from benefits that veterans receive to fill in the last ten percent of school costs. Schools like Ashford University have gone as far as sending recruiters to wounded warrior barracks at certain bases to sign people up, including those that had brain injuries and could not remember signing up for the courses.

Other schools simply lower their admission standards so low as to accept anyone that could provide tuition money for the universities. Some, for example, would admit people with elementary school reading levels.

With the Obama Administration’s recent announcement that it would be imposing stricter standards on for-profit universities, these institutions have mounted an intense lobbying campaign. Bill Maher had Jerry Seinfeld discuss the issue and he called for-profit universities “diploma mills.” In fact, that seems like an appropriate term considering the statistics for graduation and post-graduation employment.

  • At the University of Phoenix, 88 percent of enrollees to not graduate.
  • In one of ITT Tech’s Engineering Program of 2012, 115 people applied, 27 graduated, and 13 found jobs in the field they studied in.

With heighted scrutiny on their questionable practices, for-profit colleges are going to have to either clean up their acts or close completely. Corinthian has already announced that it will sell almost 100 schools and close dozens of others. Perhaps this is a sign of what is to come for the rest.

Contesting the Central Planning Assumption

Last week, I described a 2012 book on Education Governance; a must-read despite its significant failure to seriously consider central planning-lite approaches to school system reform. A knee-jerk central planning assumption driven by inertia is a major reason why nearly every analyst and policymaker that would support transformative changes, including many that I’ve advocated; for example, an end to pricelessness and the public finance monopoly of the public school system. But because they assume that every syllable of the new way of doing things would have to be legislated and implemented through existing bureaucracies, they have given up on transformation and set their sights lower; much lower at something they believe to be realistic (more on that later). After elder statesman, reform advocate, Ted Kolderie correctly points out that that we currently have an “inert system,” his new book puts the alleged impossibility of transformational change very succinctly:

The effort to transform the system radically through political action . . . is not practical. A political majority for radical change is almost a contradiction in terms.

Though I agree that elimination of government-run schools, or radical re-design of the nature of public schooling, is not going to happen, I disagree with the premise that “radical change” — school system transformation — is politically infeasible. Though we should pursue productive tinkering with the central plan in whatever useful ways the political process allows, we can achieve productive, transformational change without that. We can move forward with a catalyst for transformational change without any tinkering with the traditional public school (TPS) “business plan”. That means not having to change how we collectively decide what the curriculum and textbooks for public school students will be, or teacher training or pay or recruiting. What we don’t need to spell out in new laws or regulations also includes deciding which TPS teachers teach which students, which we now do randomly, except that we sort the children by age and by attendance zone. We don’t need to re-write the central plan for government-run schooling. We only need to make it easier to opt out of the government-run schools. That “only” requires doing something that is hard to contest directly — ending discrimination against private school users — and allow parents to top-off public funding like a tuition voucher, tuition tax credit, or education savings account. That means allowing families to spend more on the schooling of their children than taxpayers want to spend on each child. The actual transformations of the school system will then follow through market forces. I’m not arguing it would be easy — far from it — but winning the argument to subsidize children the same regardless of whether the government, a non-profit entity or a profit-seeking entrepreneur runs the school that a parent believes will work best for their child, and allowing them to spend their own money on schooling, is not the impossible dream.

Is STEAM Gaining Steam?

STEM is a familiar concept — it’s the growing movement to teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics in a fun, engaging way. It’s been called the answer to poverty, gender discrimination and unemployment.

STEM education is held in such high regard for good reason. According to the Department of Commerce, over the past ten years, the growth in STEM jobs outpaced growth in non-STEM jobs 3:1. STEM workers make higher wages. Employers are clamoring for STEM workers, and American needs more STEM students if it hopes to keep up with global innovation.

I have heard noise about putting the arts back in STEM for a while. The movement, referred to as STEAM, now seems to be gaining…well, steam.

STEAM supporters argue that it isn’t just a basic knowledge of the sciences that we need to spur innovation. We need the creativity, curiosity and multitude of perspectives that come with the arts to truly foster success.

Yet the focus on STEM vs. STEAM only obscures the bigger problem — that our education system is broken. Arguing the STEM vs. STEAM debate wastes time and energy we could be using to help our students in school right now — rather than arguing over programs that wouldn’t be implemented for another ten years or so.