“No School Choice for You!”

If you're the kind of revolutionary, trailblazing, damn-all-conventions parent who wants your child to have--gasp!--a quality education, and you would like to have the ability to get your child into quality schools just like rich people do, then you don't have a friend in the Obama administration:

One of President Barack Obama’s conceits is that he is a pragmatist who seeks policies that work rather than pursuing a partisan agenda. On school choice, he doesn’t live up to the advertisement. His administration has been relentless in its ideological hostility to the idea, and seized on every possible pretext to express that hostility.

The White House considers any government funding for private or parochial education, even indirect funding, to be a betrayal of the public schools. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program -- which provides federally funded vouchers for poor kids in Washington to attend private schools -- seems to have had some positive results, including higher high-school graduation rates for participants. Yet the Obama administration, not generally known for its tightfistedness, has repeatedly tried to end funding for it.

This position was terribly misguided, but it was at least open and transparent. Twice this year, the White House has gone after local school-choice programs -- which involve no federal funding -- in a more underhanded way.

In April, the Justice Department announced that private schools that participate in a choice program in Milwaukee will be subject to new regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They will be treated as though they were government contractors. Never mind that the schools have contracts with parents, not with the government that aids the parents. Never mind, either, that in the program’s 22 years of operation no complaint about the treatment of a disabled student has ever been filed. A five-year study of the program found that being disabled had no bearing on a student’s likelihood of getting into a participating school.

The decision will nonetheless raise costs for the private schools. It will also make them think twice about participating, both because they want to avoid those costs and because they don’t want to compromise their independence.

Read on for a discussion of the administration's decision to sue Bobby Jindal's school choice program in Louisiana, which has been covered here. It is perhaps trite to recycle that old line about education being the focus of the civil rights struggle of our time, but just because the line may be trite doesn't mean that it isn't true. It's bad enough that the Obama administration won't promote school choice in DC. It is even worse that--as Ramesh Ponnuru notes--it is trying to suffocate school choice efforts in states and localities around the country, and that it is on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle as a consequence.

An Open Letter

TO: Allison Benedikt

FROM: Pejman Yousefzadeh

RE: Activities of Your Arch-Enemy

Dear Ms. Benedikt:

Someone who truly despises you appears to be hellbent on trashing your reputation in the punditry world by having written this preternaturally awful piece under your name. As you are doubtless a significantly intelligent and educated individual, I am sure that you join me in cringing at the words attributed to you by whatever mortal foe is possessed by an Ahabesque hatred of your illustrious person. Words like the following:

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. (Yes, rich people might cluster. But rich people will always find a way to game the system: That shouldn’t be an argument against an all-in approach to public education any more than it is a case against single-payer health care.)

And this:

So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better.

And this:

I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education—the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one bookThere wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.

And this:

Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.

(All emphasis in bold italics mine.) I am sure I don't have to detail just how absolutely terrible this "reasoning" is, or how much the attribution of this "reasoning" to your unquestionably great and good name serves to annihilate any semblance of respect for your in the punditry world. Or outside of the punditry world. Or amongst humans in general. Or even amongst hamsters, gerbils, and paramecium.

Some have claimed that this piece was written purely and exclusively as troll-bait, designed to get Slate some desperately needed clicks, pageviews, unique visitors and attention. But I truly believe that something far more nefarious is at work. I believe that some poor, benighted soul has taken it upon him/herself to play Khan Noonien Singh to your James T. Kirk, and to chase you 'round the quizzes of Ken Jennings, and 'round the bad arguments of Matthew Yglesias, and 'round Perdition's flames before s/he gives up on making you a pariah in the field of opinion-piece writers. As such, I strongly suggest that you take decisive action to deal with this threat to your standing. Use whatever methods you must, whatever methods are available to you to unmask your personal Lex Luthor and salvage your standing as a pundit. Remember, it's only a no-win scenario for you if you stand back and do nothing.

I hope and trust that this public missive has been helpful. Please do keep us all informed on your efforts to restore your good name.

Now Under Attack: School Choice in Louisiana

I am one of those radical revolutionaries who believes that education is the great civil rights struggle of our time, and that as part and parcel of that struggle, parents who don't like the public schools where their kids are going ought to have the right to take their kids out of a failing public school and use vouchers to exercise school choice--including patronizing private and religious schools where kids can receive better educations.

I believe this strongly enough that if I were re-drafting the Constitution, I would make school choice--along with economic liberty--part of the Bill of Rights. I am glad to see that Bobby Jindal, one of my favorite governors, has decided to make school choice a priority in Louisiana.

Too bad that the Department of Justice has decided that it has nothing better to do than to sue to stop the school choice program. Note that "[a]lmost all the students using vouchers are black," which means that the Justice Department's actions will disadvantage minority students by a tremendously disproportionate amount. Should the Justice Department's suit succeed and should those students once again have to contend with failing schools, they will have Eric Holder to thank for their plight.

Bob Moses Is an Inspiration

No, not that one. This one. If we had a few more like him, our education system would be the envy of the world. To get an idea of just how important a figure Moses is, consider the following excerpt:

Taylor Branch, a leading historian of the civil rights era, says Moses' Northern roots, quiet demeanor and philosophical training made him different from many of the movement's decidedly Southern and evangelical leaders.

"He spoke quietly, he didn't give big sermons like Martin Luther King," Branch says. "He didn't seek out dramatic confrontations like the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins, but he did inspire a broad range of grassroots leadership."

Branch says Moses was self-effacing, observant and sensitive. He says Moses went south to serve Mississippi's sharecroppers and ended up a leader by helping to push voter registration to the center of civil rights work.

"To this day he is a startling paradox," Branch says. "I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown."

Benjamin Franklin told us that we have a republic if we can keep it. If we can get Bob Moses more famous, and if others are inspired to follow his example, we might be able to keep our republic after all.

Education Policy in Perspective

I am just going to let Derrell Bradford say his piece on school choice, after which, I am going to let him drop the mic. Because he can:

I am a Democrat, and I support vouchers, tax credits, etc. with all of my heart and in the deepest and truest place in my being. And there are a few reasons for this. First, I had the experience of getting a voucher when there were none in Maryland (as there still, unfortunately, aren’t any) and that experience literally saved my life. I never go to Dartmouth or the University of Pennsylvania without that, and I wake up every day knowing that more kids should have that chance. Second, I’ve had too many friends, family members, and neighbors, wrecked by schools that did not work and that had long histories of not working. Educational opportunity is a personal thing for me…and every kid’s future is more important than preserving anyone’s notion of residential assignment as the primary way we distribute education.

And maybe the most important thing for my friends on the left is that we would never support delivering health care the same way we deliver education. If you had to go to the hospital that was closest to you just because you lived near it the world would end…no one would stand for it. But we force families to get their education precisely that way. How does that make sense? We have these discussions about wealth inequality but our education system distributes quality through the housing market, which is absolutely a wealth proxy. If you’re for forcing people to buy “free” education with a mortgage then it’s not free and it certainly isn’t “public.”

Vouchers, charters…choice…to me they inform a worldview about education where there is no 100% solution. There are, instead, 100 one-percent solutions. You need choice—accountable and transparent of course—just like you need teacher tenure and evaluation reform. Just like in the real world you need both laws, and the police. Law without the police is anarchy. The police without law are an army. These things compliment one another. And again, the wealthiest families know this already. They’ve got plenty of choices. The only folks who don’t have them (or who have them in short supply) are poor.

I don’t want to rant on but there is one more important thing. I tell folks all the time that President Obama is the most important school choice story in America. Parochial school in Indonesia, and a scholarship to the prestigious Punahou school in Honolulu. Want to know the kind of difference expanding choices for minority kids can make? Just check out 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Economy Is a Disaster Case

So sayeth the UCLA Anderson Forecast.  It is hard to disagree with its findings, which are written in admirably candid fashion:

The expected U.S. "Great Recovery" hasn't materialized and the economy has fallen short of even normal growth, according to a forecast released Wednesday.

The second-quarter UCLA Anderson Forecast said the growth of real gross domestic product - meaning the inflation-adjusted value of goods and services produced - is too small to help the nation climb out of its slump.

The figure was 15.4 percent below a "normal" growth trend, forecast director Edward Leamer wrote.

"To get back to that 3 percent trend, we would need 4 percent growth for 15 years, or 5 percent growth for eight years, or 6 percent growth for five years, not the disappointing twos and threes we have been racking up recently," he said.

"It's not a recovery. It's not even normal growth. It's bad," he wrote.

A real GDP growth rate of just 1.9 percent is expected for this year, only rising to 3 percent in 2015, according to the forecast.

[. . .]

Unemployment should fall to 6.9 percent next year and 6.6 percent by 2015, according to the forecast - partly due, however, to discouraged workers dropping out of the labor force.

Leamer said that while jobs are being created, "the tepid growth continues to obscure the nation's most fundamental problems: too much government spending funded with too much borrowing, too little national savings to cover late-in-life health care issues and too many workers lacking the skills to compete in the modern economy," according to a University of California, Los Angeles press statement.

In addition, the jobs being created may not provide workers with a secure future and the education system is failing to provide skills such as analytical thinking that will be crucial for future workers, he wrote.

"Regrettably we reward teachers if their students can regurgitate the information on standardized tests," Leamer wrote.

About the only good news contained in the report is that the housing market appears to be further recovering. But the rest of the news is bad, and the commentary on education policy failings is entirely apt. Recall that during his re-election campaign, President Obama told us that things were definitely looking up when it came to the economy. I wonder if he will be made to take back those words. Perhaps the national media, which is supposed to hold public officials to account, might want to get on the president's case regarding the rhetorical puffery he used to try to convince us that all is well with the economy.

In the meantime, James Pethokoukis admirably pushes back  against the notion that we need to have a tighter Federal Reserve. I can't believe that this issue is actually being discussed. Inflation will be a threat down the line if we do not get fiscal policy under control, but it is not a threat now, or in the near future. And the economy could use all the help that it can get from an expansionary monetary policy.