Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Magical Thinking of School Choice

While busy implementing super-vouchers to further disrupt, defund and dismantle public education, Governor Kim Reynolds took a moment to tweet this:


Well, of course it's a zero sum game. Unless your state has an infinite supply of money, there's a limit to the number of taxpayer dollars you're going to spend on education, and any piece of that pile that you give to one sector of the education environment will absolutely be taken away from other slice.

But this piece of magical thinking has always been part of the modern school choice movement. "You don't have to settle for your one public school system," the sales pitch has gone. "You can have all these other different school systems as well-- and it won't cost you a penny more!!"

Sure. And when a business is running into financial trouble, a common tactic to make those dollars stretch is to acquire and open a bunch more sites. When a family is having trouble taking care of one house, a common tactic is to buy a second house and move part of the family into that house.

The notion that two, three, four, or more school systems can be operated at the same cost as one public system is a fairy tale, a delusion, a trip to the unicorn farm on the back of a dragon carried by break-dancing fairies. It's believing that daylight savings time makes the sun shine longer. 

Occasionally choicers try to pair that fairy tale with the fairy tale of The Public Schools That Waste Money Inefficiently, but you'd have to search far and wide to find a five hundred dollar hammer on school grounds; instead, you'll find teachers in a crumbling room wielding a third-hand stapler that they bought at a Salvation Army and reassembled with some duct tape at home. And at this stage of the game, The Tale Of The Magic Charter School That Did More With Less has been pretty much dropped in favor of The Tale Of The Charter School That Demanded A Larger Slice Of The Pie.

So the choice world hides the extra costs by getting wealthy benefactors to kick in, or hitting up parents for some extra money and/or unpaid labor. Some of the extra cost is simply passed on to taxpayers. That mechanism is admittedly complicated, as laid out by researcher Mark Weber here. Choice can actually raise per pupil spending in public schools, because fixed and stranded costs are spread over fewer remaining students, or because taxpayers put more money into the district to deal with those costs. And it's hard to figure in the "cost" of lost programming. 

It is the least surprising thing in the world to conclude that running multiple school systems costs more than running a single system. But somehow choice supporters can never quite bring themselves to make the honest pitch-- "We believe that every child should have a variety of options for education, and we believe in it so much that we are asking taxpayers to contribute more money so that the choice dream can become a reality." 

Why don't they pitch that hard reality? Because some great things could be accomplished in that reality. Well, free is always the most attractive cost for a program, and it's particularly attractive when many of the people who are driving the bus actually have the policy goal of shrinking public education spending to zero. And there are always those who sincerely believe in the magical idea that budget dollars are infinitely stretchy.  Who knows. Maybe if we close our eyes and wish real hard...

Friday, January 27, 2023

PA: 445 School Districts Call For Charter Reform

Charter funding in Pennsylvania is a miserable mess. Well, it's a miserable mess if you're not running a charter school; if you are running a charter school, Pennsylvania is like Christmas All The Time.

There are several major issues with the twenty-five-year-old funding rules.

One is that charters, for some arcane reason, are reimbursed for students with special needs at the same high rate. Students with inexpensive special needs are a cash cow in this state, simply illustrated by this piece of research from the PA School Boards Association:

In 2014-2015, school districts paid out $294.8 million in special ed supplement money to charter schools.

In 2014-2015, charter schools spent $193.1 million on special ed services.

Another is that cyber-charters are reimbursed at the same per-pupil rate as brick and mortar schools. Of all the advice I haven't taken, I rank a former superintendent of mine, who, on his way out the door, told me to get into running a cyber-charter because "it's easier than printing money." It's similar--except that the money is being drained from actual public school systems

Add to that the fact that cyber-charters are mostly not audited at all. Like our tax credit scholarship system, our cyber-school system makes money disappear into a black hole where nobody can see what has become of it

There are other issues, such as huge differences between charter rates for different districts. 

Local school districts have noticed. My old district noticed a lot the year that they had a $800K bill for cyber charter students and closed an elementary school building on the theory that it would save about $800K. 

Tom Wolf tried to get the legislature to budge on fixing some of this, but budge they did not. Charter supporters squealed like pigs being pulled away from the trough. Harrisburg is heavily lobbied by the charter industry (after all--charters have plenty of extra money to throw around). 

But in the meantime, school districts across the state have been steadily joining the cause and passing resolutions calling for charter reform. Pennsylvania is a diverse state, and the 500 school districts in the state represent everything from deep MAGA red to wide sky blue. And yet, there are now 445 districts that have passed some version of a resolution calling for the legislature to bring the charter funding rules into the 21st century. Now if only Harrisburg would pay attention. 

UT: Vouchers Pass With Serious Shenanigans

Utah has joined the ranks of school voucher states with a flurry of fast-track shenanigans that managed to bypass anything resembling a democratic process.

HB 215 was distributed to Utah's House on Monday, January 16. They had a fiscal analysis by Wednesday, got it in and out of the education committee in one day. They had their second reading on Friday morning at 11:09, third reading at 11:14, and passed it at 12:25 and sent it to the Senate.

The bill took the weekend off, then on Monday, it was all aboard the Senate railroad. The Senate education committee had it back to the full Senate later that same day. It was back on the floor on Tuesday, a couple of amendments were quickly brushed aside, and on Thursday, January 23 at 12:09 PM, HB 215 passed the Senate.

And they say legislatures can't get anything done. This was clearly a well-orchestrated and effectively stage-managed piece of legislative force-feeding.

Say what you like about this shifty manner of getting the bill passed quickly before ordinary folks could raise much noise. After all, they've let the voters speak to this issue before and they didn't like how that turned out, what with the defeat and all. Democracy is so inconvenient. Well, at least the bill is--nope, there is no at least. It's a terrible bill.

It provides zero accountability, both in terms of how parents spent the money and in terms of what vendors can sidle up to the voucher trough to grab some of that sweet, sweet taxpayer money. 

As always, the real choice will be up to the "service providers." Students with special needs waive their rights under IDEA. And the bill contains the usual language declaring that the state can't require private schools to alter "creed, practices, admission policies, hiring practices, or curricula."

The education savings accounts will be about $8,000--double the support the state provides per student in the public school system. And because these are universal vouchers, students who have never set foot in a public school, as well as the children of wealthy families who can well afford pricey private schools, will all get their $8K, and public schools will lose a mountain of money before they lose a single student. 

If you're thinking that it sounds as if Utah's GOP wants to gut public schools, you don't have to guess. One of the consultants helping to push this steaming heap of legislation said so. Allison Sorenson was caught on tape 

“I can’t say this is a recall of public education. Even though I want to destroy public education, I can’t say that,” said Sorensen. “The legislators can’t say that because they’ll be just reamed over the coals.”

The bill even includes language that sure looks like it's there to forestall lawsuits arguing that the whole business is just Utah trying to weasel out of any obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education:

The creation of the program or establishment of a scholarship account on behalf of
a student does not:
(i) imply that a public school did not provide a free and appropriate public education
for a student; or
(ii) constitute a waiver or admission by the state.

However, the bill also requires the department of education to hire an outfit to run the program--in other words, outsource a function of the state government by both developing and enforcing the nots and bolts policies that will guide this giant boondoggle.

And the very worst part-- this was passed with a super-majority, making it pretty much impervious to any actions taken to undo this thing. 

It's very bad news for Utah, and for all the state that are about to be hammered by the well-financed traveling circus that pushing these bills. Taxpayers get to throw their education dollars down a black hole, while public education is defunded and dismantled. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Vouchers Are Not About School Choice. Here's How We Know.

The new wave of voucher bills being rammed through red state legislatures all demonstrate a truth about school voucher policies-- vouchers are not about choice. They're about peeling people away from the public school system in order to defund and dismantle that system.

What makes me think so? Here it is. Sometimes it's not about what people say, but about what they don't say.

If the concern were really and truly choice for every student, then voucher fans would be addressing some of the real obstacles to school choice.

This door doesn't lead where they told you it would. 
For one, they would be addressing discriminatory and exclusionary policies. Yet when have we ever heard a voucher supporter say, "These discriminatory policies have to stop. LGBTQ+ students deserve just as much school choice as any other students." 

The closest thing we ever get is "Well, then they can start an LGBTQ-friendly school of their own." Yet when that happens, pro-voucher politicians target that school with terms like "perversion." And of course in some states, such a school can never happen because talking about LGBTQ students or Black history has been outlawed. And voucher laws are written to hold the private school right to discriminate as it wishes inviolable.

If someone were serious about voucher based choice, they would also address cost. Vouchers are typically far too small to pay for tuition to top schools in the state. If voucher supporters were really interested in making sure that, as Jeb Bush says, "each and every...student can access the education of their choice," there would be a robust discussion about how to bridge the gap between meager vouchers and expensive schools.

Yet we never hear voucher advocates saying, "We need to find the way to fully fund vouchers so that they provide a real choice to students." Choice advocates like to point at the inequity of the public system--parent choice is limited by their ability to buy an expensive house in a wealthy neighborhood. But the current crop of voucher programs doesn't change that a bit--a voucher offers little to change the fact that how much "freedom" you get depends on how wealthy you are. 

It has been done. But when Croydon, NH set up a school choice program, a voucher-like system that bore the full cost of sending a student to the school of their choice, local libertarians tried to shut it down because they wanted lower taxes. 

Voucher fans love the idea of school choice; they just don't want to actually pay for it. 

If these folks were serious about school choice via vouchers, we would have calls for oversight and accountability. It would make a choice system that much more attractive for parents to know that all the available options have been vetted and screened and will be held to some standards, just like shopping in a grocery store where you can rest easy in near-certainty that whatever you pick, it's not going to actually poison your family. 

And yet not only do voucher fans not call for oversight and accountability, but they actively block it with language that hammers home that nobody can tell vendors what to do or how to do it.

Voucherphiles like to call their system child-centered, but in fact it is vendor-centered, with "protections" for the service providers written into the law, and protections for the students non-existent. Parents are left to navigate an unregulated system of asymmetrical information that favors the businesses-- not the families.

If we were really talking about school choice, we would be talking about these ideas. Choice advocates would be demanding we talk about them.

But we're not.

Vouchers are not about choice. They're about saying, "I'll give you a couple grand to sign away your rights to a free and appropriate public education." They're about using that deal to get one step closer to Milton Friedman's dream of education being a cost shouldered by parents, not society. In other words, not just privatizing the delivery of education, but also privatizing the responsibility for it. 

It's about not having to pay taxes to educate Those People's Children. If at the same time we can use some taxpayer dollars (collected from Other People) to also further some "Kingdon Gains" and fund some private religious schools (just the Right Ones), that's a win-win. 

I'll end with my usual caveat--there are undoubtedly some folks out there who sincerely believe that vouchers are a good way to a pursue real school choice. Believe it or not, I myself can imagine what a true functional and beneficial school choice system would look like. And it wouldn't look anything like what has been ramming its way through state legislatures in the past few years. 

Jeb Bush Weighs In On Florida Voucher Giveaway

Jeb Bush, who helped kick off Florida's long march toward dismantling public education, thinks House Bill 1, a bill to remove any income caps on voucher use, is a swell idea. Here's his press release on the subject:

The right to a publicly funded education is a promise our state makes to every student and yesterday, Speaker Paul Renner and members of the legislature took bold steps to ensure each and every Florida student can access the education of their choice.

Florida stands on the monumental verge of restoring the original intent of publicly funding education – by funding individual students – so each child can reach their God-given potential. HB1 is a forward thinking and important move toward ensuring Florida remains the nation’s leader in student-centered solutions. I applaud Speaker Renner and the Florida House for their vision and leadership in creating this unmatched opportunity for Florida students and families.

There's a lot of untruth in this statement, underlining the level of cynicism behind this pitch to simultaneously defund public education while shooting taxpayer dollars over to private schools. 

Vouchers are not about choice. When Bush says that the bill will 

 ensure each and every Florida student can access the education of their choice

he's simply not telling the truth. LGBTQ students will not be able to have any education of their choice, because schools that want to discriminate them are free to do so. In fact, those religious schools retain the right to reject or push out any students that don't fit their religious requirements. 

Nor will the amount of money in a Florida voucher (around $8K) allow students to "access" the education provided by pricey private schools. Parents who want to attend upscale schools can either take out loans or--well, just not go. Voucher fans love vouchers and school choice--just not enough to have taxpayers actually pay the true cost. 

Nor will students with special needs, who must waive their rights in order to collect their voucher, have a choice of education, unless they want to choose not to have supports in place. 

The notion that this expanded program would benefit students is silly. It will benefit private schools, and it will provide nice rebates to families who can already afford to attend those private schools. It's a new subsidy, a new entitlement, like taking the money taxpayers give to maintain a community park and giving it to rich families to keep their private gardens nice. 

Meanwhile, HB 1 could mean that a whopping $4.6 billion leaving the students who choose public schools, or who are simply stuck there because they are not welcome in any of the "choice" options; a system that will be pushed a bit further down the death spiral. 

ND: Actual Anti-Furry Legislation. Really.

Furry panic has been going on now for over a year, seemingly impervious to debunking and facts and common sense. 

So some legislators got together in North Dakota to protect--I don't know. Something?

I shouldn't make light of House Bill 1522, because the main thrust of this two-page waste of the legislature's time is one more attack on transgender students. The bill defines" sex" as "the biological state of being male and female, based on the individual's nonambiguous sex organs, chromosomes, and endogenous hormone profiles at birth." So once again, the state will want to literally check inside your child's pants, and maybe you'd better keep a picture of your child's genitals at birth on file, just in case some cranky parents want to throw charges at your daughter just because she beat their precious Buffy in a track and field event (which is not something I'm making up, but an actual event in Utah).

The bill goes on to say that no school may set up "a place, facility, school program, or accommodation" for a transgender student, and that includes pronouns. If parents consent, and gender-afforming surgery has been performed on the student before this bill takes effect, then the school is allowed to set up a unisex bathroom. Since such surgery is not performed on minors, regardless of what that Facebook post you saw says, this just adds more junk to a junk bill.

Any parent of any child at the school can bring a "civil cause of action" against the school over a perceived violation. The parent can sue for up to half a million in "exemplary damages." See-- save those baby genital pictures for your day in court.

But wait--there's more! Along with not providing "a place, facility, school program, or accommodation" for transgender students, schools may also not cater to "a student's perception of being any animal species other than human." Thereby joining the ranks of legislators who have aimed to prohibit letting yeti's ride unicorns down the main street while throwing golden eggs. 

Rep. Lori VanWinkle, one co-sponsor, told NBC news in an email that "Yes we have people who would like to claim themselves as animals such as cats and dogs." Oh, honey. 

There was a committee hearing yesterday on this slab of baloney tagged as an "emergency measure" that is nestled in among seven bills making various sorts of attacks on transgender persons. There were also bills prohibiting medical transition procedures for people under 18, solving another problem that doesn't exist (unless the problem is that some legislator isn't getting enough press), a bill making conversion therapy okee dokee, and of course protection for female sports. The North Dakota legislature is having a great week; on Monday a bill passed out of committee to ban children from attending drag shows. Glad to know the North Dakota legislature is devoting time to the really important stuff.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

KY: Andy Bashear Gets It

Kentucky Governor Any Beshear is one of the few politicians out there who vocally and directly supports public education, and he has stood firm in a state where the legislature is determined to defund public schools. I'm embedding the education part of his message from 9 months ago so you can watch the whole thing, but I want to transcribe for you here his bold and clear statement about charter schools (it starts at about 2:20 in the clip). He's announcing that he will veto the entire charter school bill. 

I'm against charter schools.

They are wrong for our commonwealth. They take taxpayer dollars away from the already underfunded public schools in the commonwealth, and our taxpayer dollars should not be redirected to for-profit entities that run charter schools.

As attorney general, I can tell you the number of prosecutions we had against for-profit colleges, how so many of them took advantage of so many people. And the idea that we would open up that same ability for people to prey on our even younger students is simply not the direction that Kentucky should go. 

And the bill would send taxpayer dollars to charter schools that have boards that are not elected and are not answerable to the people. Public dollars being spent without that oversight. And they're not even required to comply with the same controls and accountability measures as our public schools. 

The answer to concerns about the performance in our public schools lies with actually funding and working with our public schools, not trying to divert money away to folks that you give more flexibility to than the group you're asking to do a better job. 

There's more. You can watch the whole thing here. If you're in Harrisburg, could you run this on over to Josh Shapiro's office and have him take a look?