Friday, November 30, 2007

Updates on School Choice

Over the last couple weeks I’ve gathered a few articles on school choice.

In an article by Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., at -
“In their review of more than 200 scientific analyses of the effects of competition on traditional district public schools and students, researchers from Columbia University Teachers College conclude, “A sizable majority of these studies report beneficial effects of competition across all outcomes,” including improved public school student performance, higher graduation rates, greater public-school efficiency, smaller class sizes, better teacher salaries, and improved housing values. Not one of the analyses found that competition harms the performance of public-school students.”

No commentary necessary. It seems like there would be no debate, but apparently, Ivy League studies of 200 scientific analyses are not enough for everyone including these guys.

From an article by Jennifer Radcliffe in the Houston Chronicle -
Amigos por Vida is a charter school in Houston that leased and converted part of an apartment complex. It is a relatively small school and has situated itself where many of the kids can walk to school.

“Lauren Macedo…[a] seventh-grader walks just a few yards from her apartment to the state-sponsored charter school”
The proximity is ideal for the impoverished immigrant community: Kids have few excuses for missing class and, when they do, teachers are a short walk from their front doors.
…family members can easily get to campus for parenting workshops and teacher conferences.”

Another advantage of using charter schools is that they cannot issue bonds and increase property taxes to pay for facilities. They have to raise their own funds to build schools or to lease space.

“Unlike traditional public schools, charters can't ask voters to approve bonds for construction. Charters that attempt to own, rather than rent, face the challenge of raising funds and financing loans. In this case, Amigos Por Vida needs to persuade the community to chip in roughly $3 million, while financing the rest.”

If the school has to use funds to pay for rent and a public school does not, surely less money in the classroom means lower results, right? Wrong.

“The campus is starting to pile up accolades. In 2006, it received the Governor's Excellence Award for high scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. In September, it received a U.S. Department of Education award for helping to close the achievement gap.”

But who wants to go to school in an old apartment complex?

“More than 250 students are on Amigos' waiting list.”

Also from the Houston Chronicle, an article by Lisa Gray -

She describes the experience of a boy named Deonté who was having many problems at his traditional public school. The KIPP Polaris Academy was recruiting middle school minority boys. The school wanted kids who had been in trouble at other schools, and kids with lousy grades and test scores. The principal, Shawn Hardnett, chose a Frederick Douglass quote as the school motto: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." What a refreshing perspective to see a school seeking out the worst kids and trying to reform them.
The end of the story, which I recommend everyone read the whole thing, was particularly poignant.

[The principal] summons Deonté to the center of the room. The boy squirms with pride, examining his certificate as the cafetorium echoes with applause.

Deonté swells as Hardnett pulls out his cell phone.

Cheryl Powell [his mother], at work, braces herself for a call from Deonté's school,then hears that her boy has won an award, that he's done something great. "You're sure?" she asks in tears. "My son?"

She gets her answer. On cue, every boy in the room shouts: "Deonté!"

As always, tell me what you think.

Monday, November 26, 2007

ABC's Chicken Little

The Sunday before Thanksgiving my youngest son decided that it was time to get up at 6 am, so this let me catch an interview by Bill Weir, one of the hosts of Good Morning America on ABC. Mr. Weir had been extolling the virtues and authority of a UN Global Warming report that said that global warming was growing worse than previously thought.

According to the Mr. Weir’s introduction his interviewee, Kentucky State Representative Gooch, was a global warming critic. The video can be seen here.

Here’s how the interview went down…

Bill Weir “Do you believe that global warming is not happening?”

Gooch – “…I believe that the climate is changing…We can certainly say that man does have an effect…so naturally we think we have an effect…we believe that we can do something about that…and we ought to be doing that…”

At this point it appears that Rep. Gooch is not a global warming critic. He believes in global warming and he believes that humans are one of the causes.

Bill Weir “Why do you call a hearing in front of your legislator…and bring people who believe it’s all a myth?”

Gooch – “That was just to get the debate going that not everyone is in agreement, that there is another side of the story.” Then on proposed legislation in Congress: “The chamber of commerce recently said that that would cost 3.4 million American jobs, and would cost 6 trillion dollars to our economy.” “What I want to make sure we do is that if we act we have the science right.”

Bill Weir goes on to accuse him, after the clip I linked stops, of voting for a bill that would let coal mines pour pollution into the rivers, and makes claims that he profited from this because his family has ties to the coal mining industry. By the way, Rep. Gooch is a Democrat.

The real kicker is at the end of the video clip, where Bill interrupts and says, “But according to all these scientists, the more hand wringing we do, the more we dither on this, the worse it’s going to get. And what if you’re wrong? What if this, in fact, is a global catastrophe? Isn’t there a moral imperative as a public servant to err on the side of planetary survival?”

What if he’s wrong? Wrong about what? Didn’t he just say that he believes in global warming and that humans are having an effect? Apparently, the moral imperative that Bill Weir is espousing is that Rep. Gooch should ignore other points of view and should ignore the economic consequences of his actions. Sorry, Herr Weir, but if my Congressman ever says that he has a moral duty to ignore the facts, other viewpoints, and economic consequences I’m going to punch him in the face.

It’s interviews like this that conjure up images of a powerful liberal media elite pushing their agenda on the American public. Don’t let them fool you. Bill Weir is no one special. Before joining GMA Weekend he was sportscaster for local TV in Green Bay and L.A. He’s ill informed, so he relies on his communication skills and comfort in front of the camera to bully people and make himself look like a good journalist.

Oddly enough, John Stossel, the anchor of ABC’s 20/20 interviewed one of the scientists on the UN panel Bill refers to just a couple of weeks ago. This scientist stated that he did not agree with the findings of the report, but the UN had put his name on it claiming, “We all agree”. He sued to get his name taken off the report and the UN finally relented. Apparently, of the thousands of names on the report only about 52 people were actually scientists.

Wait a minute, doesn’t John Stossel have a moral imperative to not report this? If all these scientists agree, shouldn’t he cover this up? Why did Bill Weir not walk down the hall at ABC News and inform John Stossel that he is endangering the planet, and the very future of humanity, by allowing competing opinions to be heard? "We are all going to die because you’re wasting precious time, John!"

When I was in college, I met people like Bill Weir. I got into probably no fewer than 1,000 political arguments in college so it was bound to happen. The best advice is to know your subject twice as well as them, and prepare for personal attacks. This sounds difficult, but most of these bullies will base their entire argument on a half dozen sound bytes from TV, and if you don’t back down when the insults start flying they’ll either get real quiet or fly off the handle and make complete fools of themselves. You start quoting statistics or Ivy League PhDs and these guys will pee their pants.

Like a good Boy Scout, be prepared.

Hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why School Vouchers?

This past week I debated for school vouchers on Tory Gattis’ blog. I won some points, but only changed one opponent's perspective a little, so I was inspired to think about it this week.

First, though, an excerpt from an article in the Economist on New York’s successful charter schools and expansion of a more market based system. It adds to my belief that market based education under charter schools and then vouchers is inevitable.

--Excellence is an independently run public school that has been allowed greater flexibility in its operations in return for greater accountability, though it cannot select its pupils, instead choosing them by lottery. If it fails, the principal (head teacher) will be held accountable, and the school could be closed. Three years old, Excellence is living up to its name: 92% of its third-grade scholars (eight-year-olds, the oldest boys it has, so far) scored “advanced” or “proficient” in New York state English language exams this year, compared to an average (for fourth-graders) across the state of 68% and only 62% in the Big Apple. They did even better in mathematics.

This is the sort of performance that the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, now wants to extend from New York's 60 charter schools to all of the city's schools. On November 5th, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Joel Klein, announced what is in effect the final piece in their grand plan to charterise the entire city school system.--

Proponents of vouchers do a good job of arguing why we need a change in our schools, but we have not painted a clear picture of what life will be like with vouchers and why this picture is better than the just using Charter schools.

The limit to Charter schools is the school district boundary. A charter school cannot take kids from other districts, nor can a child cross district lines to attend a charter school except in rare cases. While cities like New York have dozens of charter and magnet schools, other districts are too small to offer a wide array of school choice. There simply are not enough kids to justify a diverse offering. Different kids need different teaching styles. The more diverse the choice the more likely that parents will be able to find the niche that suits their child best.

This past year, a bill submitted in the Texas Legislature would have given state funded vouchers for kids with autism to attend public, charter, and private schools that specialize in the education of autistic children. Few districts have programs specifically for autism. Right now, these students are rarely afforded the opportunity to cross district lines because it is so expensive to help them. The result is that autistic children cannot receive the best treatment available. Unfortunately, the public school establishment venomously attacked this bill and it died after being passed in a Senate committee.

Another advantage is that vouchers can solve much of the debate on religion in schools by giving parents a choice. While the news cherry picks horror stories of propaganda in public schools, the result that I see more often is a dullness of consensus. The only acceptable values are those that do not offend anyone. Some see vouchers as a way for parents to isolate their child in environments that stifle free thought (church schools). I disagree, but even without allowing religious schools to receive voucher funds, a diverse array of private school environments will allow parents to find one that does not suppress their moral values and beliefs.

Because of the geographic monopoly that public schools hold, regulation makes sense to many as a way to protect their kids from the problems that are more common amongst the poor. They passed minimum lot size zoning to prevent low-income homes. They restricted the development of inexpensive apartments to keep out poor and transient residents. Both practices are now illegal. Parents in the suburbs are not horrible people for trying to keep violent kids out of their schools and away from their children, but the result is continued segregation on racial and class lines. Schools in poor neighborhoods are jammed with problem students because those who care about education, and can afford it, move away.

With vouchers, geography matters less. Where you live would not dictate the quality of school your child attends. If a private school has high standards of discipline and shares many of their values, parents do not have to live in a far-flung suburb to know that their child is safe. They can live somewhere more convenient to work and less affected by what someone is building across town. According to a 2005 poll done in Philadelphia, 59% said living near good schools was very important in deciding where to live, but only 30% said that living near people like themselves was important. This implies that schools may be a more powerful component of our self-imposed segregation than prejudice.

Public School offers too much of a one-size-fits-all education. Vouchers break down barriers between the diverse needs of the students and the ability of teachers to meet those needs. Vouchers are more effective than Charter Schools at meeting those needs by offering a more diverse approach to education. Public Schools cannot appease the values of an increasingly diverse society without suppressing some and limiting free speech. Vouchers allow private schools to offer a wide array of value systems from which parents can choose. The geographic monopoly of public schools reinforces racial and class segregation. Vouchers break down the barriers of education, break down the barriers to the free exchange of ideas, and break down the barriers of segregation.

As always, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Let My People Go

My wife was a school teacher for 5 years and my mom has been one for over 30. Both have taught in schools where the vast majority of students were poor. On occasion I have had the privilege to meet the children of the sad stories they brought home. I remember the stained clothes of a young girl who smelled of urine because her parents didn’t have the common decency to buy a litter box or keep the cats outside. I remember the sullen dark eyes of little John whose mother would have him committed to a mental hospital during holiday breaks because she didn’t want to bother with him. I remember the feisty crooked smile of little Amy who hid under a bed with her brother as her father shot two people to death in the next room of their trailer. I remember reading their hopes and dreams written and posted on the bulletin board in my wife’s classroom.

On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court struck down segregation in schools in a nine to nothing decision which stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Warren said:

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

What breaks my heart is that 53 years later our schools are still separate and still unequal. The sad reality is that few of the hopes and dreams posted on those bulletin boards will ever come true because they face a grossly unequal education system. These children are bound by geography to attend schools overwhelmed by children with problems. With reasonable concern, more affluent areas make rules to keep their children safe from those problems. To break these bonds every child deserves the right to attend a school of their choice, whether it is the local public school or a private one. We can not place the burden of responsibility on the parents ability to afford a home in better school districts or travel long distances to take their children to better schools. School choice can and will repair the brokenness of inequality.

The unbridled creativity and compassion of our nation’s teachers can solve many of the problems those in poverty face. Their skill and determination should not be corralled by the bureaucracy and petty turf wars built into our current system. It is no wonder why so many teachers burn out so quickly. These teachers should be able to open schools in a competitive marketplace where good school programs succeed and bad programs fail.

As always, shrill voices rise to defend the status quo. They call this risky and they call it a threat to public schools. They ignore the fact that 7 different studies have shown that students that switch to private schools under voucher programs show improved test scores AND the test scores of the students who stay behind at the public schools also improve. Nobody is left behind. Competition forces everyone out of old habits to make needed changes ignored for years. History has shown that dumping billions upon billions of dollars into failed school systems hasn’t improved test scores at all. A mountain of evidence supporting school choice rises before them, but these patrons of the past defend the status quo.

They also ignore the fact that Milwaukee has had school vouchers for 17 years. They ignore that Cleveland and Washington D.C. have school vouchers, and when it came time to rebuild the tattered schools of New Orleans’, the choice was clear: Vouchers and School Choice. They ignore the fact that Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland all have nationwide voucher and school choice programs. None have gone back to our old system. All of these countries not only outperform our students, they are getting further ahead every year. The only risk is to expect our children to compete in the future marketplace with a school system based in the past.

What is the status quo? I am embarrassed to say that our country is ranked 22nd in the industrialized world in education and we are falling further behind every year. We see drop out rates in many poor school districts surging past 50% and 60%. Can you look into the desperate eyes of our nation’s poor children and tell them that they don’t deserve the right to choose a better school? Can you continue to herd them into the same failing school year after year without remorse? I can not, and I will not stand idly by while injustice goes unanswered. To claim that shuffling them along the same failed pathway is fair and equal is absurd and offensive. Schools separated by geography are inherently unequal.

So I repeat the words of the Supreme Court that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Equal does not mean taking from some it means giving to all. Equal means that every parent and child has a choice and equal funding to attend the school that most meets their needs. Equal means that hopes and dreams are not a faded sheet of paper on a bulletin board soon to be thrown away. We must have equality, we must have vouchers, we must have school choice.

If You Only Knew the Power of the Free Market

I received this response from Joe M. of League City, Texas regarding last week’s post.

If the mega company (who is still making record profits) wants to, they can take the cheap way out. Does it really help the economy or do they keep the cash? Do they re-invest those savings in improving the current bad situation, increase benefits to employees, or anything that makes sense other than to pad the pockets of the wealthy .01% on the planet?

Ever since we were kids, we saw that some people had special privileges that we did not. There was the pretty cheerleader who never seemed to get in trouble for going off campus for lunch. There was the fast-talking jock that charmed homework answers from the bashful nerd. As adults, we see movie stars and athletes not going to jail or serving little time. We know that rich people have more clout and it bothers us. Sometimes the advantages are more than just a few perks, and we worry that a rich person or a big company with lots of connections will be able to destroy us financially because we do not have the money to fight back. It does happen in real life, not just in the movies.

Some see the government as the solution to this power, but government power is the vehicle the wealthy often use to expand their power. If the government passes a law that only affects a small group it’s very difficult to convince thousands of people to care enough to undo the law. You might wonder what power we have to protect ourselves if we don’t use the government. The answer is to use the power of the free market. The market grinds away at special privilege like a jackhammer.

I talk about it all the time, but what exactly is the Market? We are the Market. When I say I am looking for free-market solutions, it is the same as saying free-people solutions.

We usually think of voting as a card we fill out or an electronic pad we touch, but in the free market we are voting every second of the day. When we walk down the isles of a grocery store, we are voting on every product. You might see the price on black olives as being good, where I require payment to haul them to the dump. You vote to purchase them and I vote not to purchase them. If too many people vote not to purchase the olives, they will have to lower the price. We control the price not the grocery store. With a mere “Pshh, I’ll wait until the price comes down” we vote by the thousands. We are in charge, not them. If the government doesn’t interfere, the market has all the power, meaning that we have all the power.

The example of Cap-and-Trade from last week will help illustrate this power in the situation that Joe mentions. Let’s say that in 2009, Texas passes Cap-and-Trade for industries in Texas. Bob is majority owner of Texas Box, Incorporated. Bob’s engineer figures out the company can save millions by cutting pollution under the new cap-and-trade system and selling the credits. Texas Box Inc. makes record profits. Bob decides to keep all the new profit for himself and his shareholders, giving nothing to his employees. Many people think that Bob is selfish and nothing can be done without passing laws to make him give some away. Bob is friends with many Texas politicians so this is unlikely to happen.

Unfortunately for Bob, the ability to own a big office is insignificant next to the power of the free market. Stan is the majority owner of Louisiana Box, Inc. and has never tried to make boxes in Texas because the profit margins didn’t justify opening a new plant. However, his planning people show him news reports that Texas Box is making record profits. They do a little digging and figure out that Texas Box is selling pollution credits along with the boxes. Stan goes to his rich friends, borrows money to buy an old box plant in Texas, and fixes it up to sell boxes and pollution credits. To get new customers Stan undercuts Bob’s price. To keep his customers Bob cuts his prices too. Now Jim from New Mexico Box, Inc. joins the fun and undercuts them all. Stan and Bob lower their prices again to keep their customers. The prices fall until the profit margins are just about what they were before the cap-and-trade. The power of the market decides the price not Bob, not Stan, and not Jim.

While Bob, Stan, and Jim all made some sweet profits for a little while, eventually the market drives down the price because of competition. So in the end, who wins? We do. Our boxes are cheaper, and Stan and Jim hired more people to build boxes. While Bob might not want to be so generous, the free market takes his big profits away and gives it to us.

So the next time you walk through the store and choose not to buy something because the price is too high, remember that in a small way you are Stickin’ it to the Man.

As always, tell me what you think.

Letters to the Editor

Over the next few weeks, I want to challenge you to write a letter to the editor that I will include in this newsletter. It can be a few sentences or a couple paragraphs, but no more than 300 words. I want you to convince the readers of this newsletter about a topic that you feel passionately about. I also pledge to edit only misspellings, not whole sentences like the Chronicle. If I think something is inappropriate I will explain via e-mail. For those of you with co-workers who receive this newsletter you can request to be anonymous.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

And You Can Quote Me On That

A few weeks ago, I added a list of suggestions for writing a Letter to the Editor, so this weekend I took the advice and wrote one to the Houston Chronicle. Lo and behold, they printed it on Tuesday. You can read it here.

They suggested a 250-word limit, so I limited my e-mail to around 160 words, but a few of my sentences were still removed by the editors. I am including those sentences in bold.

I have always thought that Mayor White had the right priorities. However, his sudden enlightenment on the need for emergency legislation to prevent the Ashby high-rise reveals that he is as much a sycophant to the wealthy as the worst hypocrites in office. The Chronicle has written dozens of articles detailing community groups trying to stop higher density development where city officials just shrugged and repeated, “They are within the law.” I guess things change when you can afford Rusty Hardin to represent you. White also supports the Metro plan to spend hundred of millions on new light rail lines hoping to bring density and urban living to Houston, but then sends a cold message of warning to the very developers who will build that density that they better not build anywhere near rich neighborhoods. I thought Democrats were against the undue influence of the rich and against urban sprawl. Maybe they are, but not the big one at city hall.

I felt like the sentences they removed made it more of an indictment on making exceptions for the rich than on the Mayor’s hypocrisy, but in the end, I think the point came across.

A Little on Cap-and-Trade

I’ve been a little confused recently why I’ve been hearing some conservatives talk negatively about Cap-and-Trade policies that help fight pollution. It is a significant improvement over current policy.

Historically, the government has simply passed laws that put a maximum, or cap, on the amount of pollution an industrial site can put into the air. The problem with this approach is that certain industries that we need, like iron ore smelting and oil refining, produce a lot of pollution. When the government simply caps pollution output it can cost these companies a fortune to be compliant because the laws of physics dictate that a whole lot of undesirable chemicals have to be released to produce their products.

The other downside is that any company that falls under the maximum already has no incentive to reduce their pollution other than personal ethics and public image. It is very possible that this company could reduce their pollution output rather inexpensively. The trade part of cap-and-trade allows these two companies to trade pollution cuts.

As an example, let us say that the pollution cap on Bad Chemical X is 100 units, and ABC Refinery Company produces 150 units. ABC Refinery Company calculates that it would cost $75 million dollars to reduce the pollution down to 100 units. Now XYZ Power Company is currently producing 95 units of Bad Chemical X, so it does not need to cut pollution under the law. However, XYZ Power Company investigates and finds that for only $35 million dollars they could reduce their output of Bad Chemical X by 50 units. Under Cap-and-Trade they can sell the reduction in pollution to ABC Refinery Company, who would likely pay some price less than $75 million dollars to spend less than doing it themselves. XYZ Power Company makes a profit by cutting their pollution and selling the reduction credit. ABC Refinery saves money by buying that reduction credit.

The same amount of pollution is cut, plus the economy only loses $35 million to added expenses instead of $75 million. Cap-and-Trade policies are better than simple maximums on the amount of pollution.

Why some conservatives have a negative reaction to cap-and-trade is probably because the system was first proposed on a large scale under the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol was bad because it exempted China and India from virtually any pollution standards and put the burden on the U.S. and Europe. However, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Cap-and-Trade solutions to pollution are a big improvement over any other pollution control mechanisms that I have seen.

As always, tell me what you think.