Archive for August, 2016

PDK Poll Indicates Public’s Perplexed Perspective, Magical Thinking on Schools

August 31, 2016 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post on Phi Delta Kappa’s annual poll on public education aptly titled “Same Old, Same Old”, concluding that

Nothing new except that Gallup is no longer the polling company. No headlines. The only obvious conclusion: the American public is confused about why we have schools and what they should be doing and whether they are doing it well.

After reading the Executive Summary of the poll I concur with Ms. Ravitch’s conclusion: Nothing has changed about the public’s perception and there does appear to be confusion about the purpose of schooling given the finding that “Less than half (45%) of adult Americans say preparing students academically is the main goal of a public school education, and just one-third feel that way strongly. Other Americans split between saying the main purpose of public schools is to prepare students for work (25%) and for citizenship (26%).“. But I did see a change in the language used by PDK, a change that seems to be leading toward a purely functional purpose for public schools:

“There’s a real question today about education’s return on investment. While we know that a college degree is essential in today’s economy, parents and the public want to see a clearer connection between the public school system and the world of work. Policy makers and leaders need to understand what their publics want from their schools,” said Joshua P. Starr, CEO of PDK International.

The phrase “return on investment” seems to imply the purpose of education is NOT purely academic: it’s to make certain that taxes spent on schools result in a tangible good that can only be measured in dollars. And the conclusion that “…parents and the public want to see a clearer connection between the public school system and the world of work” is not supported by the data in the survey where only 25% say the main purpose of schooling is to prepare students for work.

One other element of the survey that jumped out at me was the public’s magical thinking. Consider the inherent contradictions in these findings:

  • By the most lopsided result in the survey, the public by 84% to 14% says that when a public school has been failing for several years, the best response is to keep the school open and try to improve it rather than closing the school. But if a failing school is kept open, then, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans say replacing administrators and teachers is preferable to giving the school more resources and support staff.
  • For the 15th consecutive year, Americans say lack of funding is the No. 1 problem confronting local schools.
  • More Americans support (53%) than oppose (45%) raising property taxes to improve public schools, but there is broad skepticism (47%) that higher spending would result in school improvements. If taxes are raised, there’s little consensus on how the money should best be spent. A plurality (34%) says it should go to teachers but divides on whether that means more teachers or higher teacher pay.

So if “lack of funding” is the number on problem, how could more funding NOT be the preferred solution to fixing a failing school? How could higher spending NOT result in school improvements? How could a substantial majority NOT support an increase in taxes? Maybe the public thinks they can get a better return without any investment… and maybe they believe in unicorns as well.


Higher Taxes or Robots? Which Do YOU Think We Will Choose?

August 30, 2016 Comments off

New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog today featured an article on the decline in spending on public education, a phenomenon writer Eric Levitz characterized as a “disinvestment from our nation’s future”. The diminishment of public education spending described in the article is appalling:

In May 2008, U.S. school departments employed 8.4 million teachers, administrators, and other staff. Today, they employ just 8.2 million, despite the fact that those schools now serve 1 million more students, according to Department of Education estimates. And while those teachers are being asked to serve more students, they’re making less money: According to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, weekly wages for public-school teachers have declined 5 percent over the past five years… Between 2008 and 2014 (the last year for which we have full data), state public-education funding declined 6.6 percent. While the stimulus money was still flowing, Uncle Sam was able to ameliorate this austerity somewhat, but still left schools spending 2.4 percent less per student over that period, when adjusting for inflation. And when the stimulus wore off, state and local governments failed to pick up the slack: In 2012, total school funding fell for the first time since 1977. As FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman notes, this cutback wasn’t concentrated on administrative salaries or extravagant construction — instructional spending has fallen at roughly the same rate as overall budgets.

The New York article covered some of the same ground as the NYTimes editorial I blogged about yesterday, emphasizing the impact (and preposterousness) of State-level Reagonomics. Noting that the graying of America will drive up retirement and health care costs and that the reduction in pay for teachers is making the profession less attractive, Eric Levitz concludes with this mind-boggling choice:

In the long run, it will take either a drastic increase in federal investment — and/or the proliferation of low-cost robots — for American schools to truly leave no child behind.

Given the choice between “pro-union Government run schools” and a robot that can teach children at home or in, say, a church basement, what do you think taxpayers will vote for?

The Broadband Fight Isn’t Over as the Telecom Oligarchs Win in Court

August 29, 2016 Comments off

As one who has long ascribed to the belief that expanded broadband is a civil rights issue, I am distressed to read articles like the one by Cecilia Kang in today’s NYTimes describing the recent “victory” in federal courts that prevents local governments from expanding their municipal broadband services to nearby communities who are less affluent. Titled “Broadband Law Could Force Rural Communities Off Information Superhighway”, Kang’s article describes a law passed by NC legislators that made it illegal for municipalities to extend their broadband to neighboring communities even though those municipalities already offer electricity to those communities. Sadly, the federal district court in NC and TN did not buy into the notion that broadband is a utility the same way electricity is and instead bought into the wrongheaded thinking of NC legislators that offering broadband might pose a risk for taxpayers. Here’s the background on the case:

In 2011, companies like Time Warner Cable, represented by the cable lobbying association, asked the North Carolina legislature to adopt a law to limit Wilson’s ability to serve customers outside Wilson County, even though the city serves electricity customers in four additional counties.

Grant Goings, Wilson’s city manager, said the court decision made it unclear “how we can bridge the digital divide and create economies of the future when there are corporate interests standing in the way.”

But some lawmakers and free-market-oriented think tanks say public broadband projects should be carefully scrutinized by local regulators because they are costly and, if unsuccessful, can be a financial burden on taxpayers. In addition, the F.C.C. cannot intervene in state laws, they said.

The court decision “affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the F.C.C. completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hardworking taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Thom Tillis, a Republican United States senator who pushed through the 2011 bill when he was North Carolina’s House speaker, said in a statement.

The bottom line is that those who can afford broadband see their advantage as an example of “the fairness of the free market” while those who look at this issue from afar see those without broadband as unfairly disadvantaged. The small rural communities in NC and TN should thank their lucky stars that Mr. Tillis and his ilk were not in power when FDR decided electrification was needed or else they would be in the dark today since some unelected bureaucrat at the FCC determined they needed to have power lines extended into their towns. Time Warner doesn’t want rural customers to get broadband unless they can pay a premium price for it and they are willing to contribute whatever it takes to make sure the free market’s “fairness” is maintained.

This Just In: Half of the States Spending Less On Schools Now Than in 2008

August 29, 2016 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes editorial, “Back to School With Budgets Still Tight“, opens with these sobering paragraphs:

The children entering kindergarten and first grade this school year were not yet born when the Great Recession ended in mid-2009. Incoming high school seniors were not yet in middle school.

But in many states and localities, the wounds to school budgets from recession-era cutbacks are still large, leaving schools with more students and less money. Recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that as of last year, 25 states were still spending less per student than before the recession, adjusted for inflation, and cuts in seven states exceeded 10 percent. In 31 states, local government spending per student fell between 2008 and 2014, the latest data available (adjusted for inflation). It is safe to assume some improvement in recent years, but even so, there is clearly a long way to go before overall spending catches up with enrollment and inflation.

The editorial then describes the especially egregious instances of slashed spending (Oklahoma and Kansas) and praises the efforts of two states, California and Minnesota.

It is interesting— and not at all surprising— to note that the parsimonious states are all led by Republicans who refer to public schools as “government schools” and the two states singled out for their expansive and future oriented spending are led by progressive Democrats. I’m sure if you dig into the data you’d find that the DISTRICTS who recovered from the Great Recession are those serving affluent children whose local taxpayers can dig deeper into their pockets and those who remain stuck are the ones serving children raised in poverty. In the meantime, we continue to read that “choice”— NOT more funding— is the solution to fixing the “failing” schools serving poverty stricken children. If parents who can afford to spend more on their child’s education are doing so money MUST make a difference. In the meantime, parents who reside in communities who cannot raise more money and cannot afford to spend more themselves are left to choose from a list of substandard schools with programs that do not begin to match those offered to affluent children. And we wonder why it is increasingly difficult to move from one socio-economic start to a higher one.

Takeovers Destroy Democracy… But Persist as Cheap, Easy, Fast “Solution” of Reformers, Politicians

August 28, 2016 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday that included a link to a comprehensive TV report on voting rights by News21, a national initiative to train a new generation of journalists capable of reshaping the news industry.” Based on their reporting on the impact of school takeovers they are doing an excellent job of achieving their mission, for the overview of takeovers and the reports on four communities affected by takeovers are comprehensive and compelling.

The data on school districts that do get taken over is unsurprising: they are mostly poor and mostly black and brown children:

More than 5.6 million people live in places where state officials took over entire districts or individual schools in the past six years, according to News21 data collected from state government agencies. About 43 percent are African-American and around 20 percent are Hispanic. On average 29.2 percent of people in those areas are living below the poverty level. The U.S. average is 15.5 percent.

The profiles on Highland Park MI, Drew MS, Little Rock AR, and New Orleans LA describe the frustrations of parents and citizens who no longer have a voice in how their schools are operated because the districts their children attend are now operated by the State and, in most cases, a private for profit educational management company. The reasons for the takeovers are varied, but the results are always the same: the community has no voice in how its schools function and no ability whatsoever to gain back control of the schools they pay taxes for. The News21 team doesn’t look at these takeovers from an educational perspective but having read articles about three of the four I know that the schools are no better off under the takeovers and it’s clear the voters in the towns where schools are taken over are far worse off. So who DOES win?

The politicians win because they can declare victory by virtue of containing costs and thereby saving the taxpayers money. They can also claim that their actions “rescued” children from substandard schools— even though their poor conditions were invariably cause by the underfunding of public schools by the legislators and governors themselves. In the case of New Orleans, the politicians can point at the district as a model of “choice” since parents can choose to send their child to any school in the district— even though all the schools are no better than the ones they replaced when Hurricane Katrina decimated the city.

The education management industry and their shareholders are also big winners. They can operate schools with low overhead and pocket the “savings”.

The affluent taxpayers, who don’t have to dig deep in their pockets to provide the necessary funds for children raised in poverty and can rest assured that the public schools are now under the competent leadership of the private sector.

The big losers, as the article shows, are parents, voters…. and children.

The Nexus Between Epi Pen Pricing Scandal and Public Education: A Mandate Without Money that Enriches Shareholders

August 27, 2016 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes has a follow up article on the ongoing controversy surrounding the decision of the CEO of Mylan to increase the price of Epi-pens, a life-saving device that mitigates allergic reactions to foods like peanuts and a device that is mandated in public schools in 11 states. It seems that Mylan’s CEO, Heather Bresch, received a huge pay raise while overseeing a fourfold increase in the cost of Epi-pens, a product that was not developed by Mylan but WAS developed by (drum roll, please) the federal government. And to make matters even worse Mylan spent over $4,000,000 advocating the passage of a Federal bill that encouraged public schools to stock the epi-pens and then relocated its HQ overseas. Its telling that the Times didn’t go into the details on all of this nearly as much as Alternet, which cross-posted Travis Gettys’ Raw Story article that included these gems:

Mylan completed a corporate inversion to change its legal residence to the Netherlands, a tax haven, while keeping its headquarters and most of its employees in the Pittsburgh area.

The move allowed Mylan to cut its U.S. effective tax rate from 9.4 percent in 2013, the year Congress helped protect its market dominance, to negative 4.7 percent in 2015, according the group Americans For Tax Fairness.

Mylan’s worldwide effective tax rate fell after moving to the Netherlands from 16.2 percent to 7.4 percent—even as its global profits shot up by 22.5 percent between 2013 and 2015.

The company receives millions in U.S. taxpayer funding through federal programs such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has helped offset consumer costs as Mylan has jacked up EpiPen prices.

EpiPens now cost $609, more than twice the $265 rate in 2013 and more than five times higher than their $104 cost in 2009, not long after the company acquired the drug from the German drugmaker Merck.

The company’s CEO, Heather Bresch, has raised her own pay at similar rates to the drug she lobbied Congress to promote through federal law.

Bresch took home $4.9 million in 2009, but last year she made $13.1 million—and the year before, when she moved Mylan overseas after securing the Emergency Epinephrine Act, she made a whopping $25.8 million…

The pharmaceutical company’s “EpiPen4Schools” program, which started in August 2012, before the bill was passed but after it was introduced, offers free or discounted EpiPens to schools with one catch.

To qualify for the discounted $112.10 price, schools must agree not to purchase similar products—such as the lesser known Adrenaclick—from Mylan’s competitors.

So Mylan “generously” offered public schools a discount on Epi-pens in 2012 if and only if they agreed to purchase their pens exclusively and then jacked up the price fourfold. And the loser in all of this: taxpayers. We paid for the research and development that led to the development of epi-pens, we’re losing the taxes Mylan used to pay, and we’re paying more for the product Mylan now owns and sells to our publicly funded institutions. Any way you look at it we, the taxpayers, lose and Mylan shareholders win. If there is any justice in the free market this scandal will result in a lowering in Mylan’s stock.

Good News About Educational Inequality in NYTimes is Not THAT Good: More Work is Needed!

August 27, 2016 Comments off

Today’s online NYTimes featured an article by three education professors— 

The enormous gap in academic performance between high- and low-income children has begun to narrow. Children entering kindergarten today are more equally prepared than they were in the late 1990s…From 1998 to 2010, the school readiness gap narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading. The gaps that remain are still vast. But even this modest improvement represents a sharp reversal of the trend over the preceding decades.

OK… that IS an improvement and a reversal of a trend, but, as the article acknowledges later implicitly and explicitly, the change is so small that it is impossible to know what caused it and so small it would take another four generations at least to close it completely. After listing a host of specific programs that might be making a difference in preparing disadvantaged children for Kindergarten, the researchers conclude that poorer parents are mimicking their affluent counterparts by  “…rapidly increasing their investment of both time and money in their children’s cognitive development” and this, combined “…with public investments in home-visiting programs and high-quality preschool programs” has narrowed the gap by the small marginal amount found in their study. While the article has an upbeat title, it ends on a sobering note:

As encouraging as this new evidence is, we have a long way to go. Poor children still enter kindergarten nearly a year behind their richer peers. Even if school readiness gaps continue to narrow at the rate they did between 1998 and 2010, it would take another 60 to 110 years for them to be completely eliminated.

Changes in parenting are not going to be sufficient to sustain or speed this progress, although more paid leave would help. Economic inequality still constrains poor children’s horizons. Low-income and middle-class parents still struggle to find affordable, high-quality preschools. The elementary, middle and high schools that rich and poor students attend differ markedly in resources and quality. And it isn’t clear that the recent reductions in school readiness gaps will automatically translate into greater equality in high school, college and beyond.

My concern is that those who want to avoid investing in public education to avoid higher taxes will seize on the headline and translate the findings of this research into a narrative that makes the acquisition of skills the sole responsibility of the parents… while simultaneously advocating less benefits for the parents and fewer resources for “government schools”. I’ll be on the lookout for such assertions in the future….