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DeVos Confirmed: Everything They Said about Her Is False by James Agresti

Betsy DeVos has been confirmed as Secretary of Education, but just barely. In the course of the hearings, outrageous claims were made about her views. Most originated from the public school industry itself, which is clinging to old forms for dear life. The result has been nothing but confusion. Let’s look more carefully.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) alleges that she is voting against Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education because:

  • DeVos opposes policies that allow “our young people, all of them, to participate in our democracy and compete on a fair footing in the workforce.”
  • DeVos supports “voucher systems that divert taxpayer dollars to private, religious and for-profit schools without requirements for accountability.”
  • “The voucher programs that Ms. DeVos advocates leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover; the programs also leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs.”

Each of those claims is belied by concrete facts, and Hassan is guilty of most of the charges she levels at DeVos. Also, Hassan sent her own daughter to a private school, an opportunity that she would deny to other children.

A Fair Footing

Under the current U.S. education system, the quality of students’ schooling is largely determined by their parents’ income. This is because wealthy parents can afford to send their children to private schools and live in neighborhoods with the best public schools. Such options narrow as income declines, and the children of poor families—who are often racial minorities—typically end up in the nation’s worst schools.

Contrary to popular perception, funding is not the primary cause of differences between schools. Since the early 1970s, school districts with large portions of minority students have spent about the same amount per student as districts with fewer minorities. This is shown by studies conducted by the left-leaning Urban Institute, the U.S. Department of Education, Ph.D. economist Derek Neal, and the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Moreover, contrary to the notion that certain minorities are intellectually inferior, empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests that with competent schooling, people of all races can excel. For example, in 2009, Public School 172 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York, had:

  • a mostly Hispanic population.
  • one-third of the students not fluent in English and no bilingual classes.
  • 80% of the students poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
  • lower spending per student than the New York City average.
  • the highest average math score of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of the students scoring “advanced.”
  • the top-dozen English scores of all fourth graders in New York City, with 99% of students passing.

These and other such results indicate that school quality plays a major role in student performance. Hassan and other critics of school choice are keenly aware of this, as evidenced by the choices they make for their own children. For example, Obama’s first Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, stated that the primary reason he decided to live in Arlington, Virginia, was so his daughter could attend its public schools. In his words:

That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.

Duncan’s statement is an admission that public schools in the D.C. area often jeopardize the education of children, but he would not let this happen to his child. Few parents have the choice that Duncan made because most cannot afford to live in places like Arlington, where the annual cash income of the median family is $144,843, the highest of all counties in the United States.

Other prominent opponents of private school choice—like Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Bill Clinton—personally attended and also sent their own children to private K-12 schools. Likewise, Hassan’s daughter attended an elite private high school (Phillips Exeter Academy) where Hassan’s husband was the principal.

The existing U.S. education system does not provide an equal footing for children, but Hassan criticizes DeVos for supporting school choice, which would lessen this inequity. By its very definition, school choice allows parents to select the schools their children attend, an option that Hassan and other affluent people regularly exercise.

Taxpayer Money and Accountability

Four lines of evidence disprove Hassan’s claim that DeVos wants to “divert taxpayer dollars” to non-public schools “without requirements for accountability.”

First, private school choice generally increases public school spending per student, which is the primary measure of education funding. As explained by Stephen Cornman, a statistician with the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, per-pupil spending is “the gold standard in school finance.”

Private school choice programs boost per-student funding in public schools because the public schools no longer educate the students who go to the private schools, which typically spend much less per student than public schools. This leaves additional funding for the students who remain in public schools.

According to the latest available data, the average spending per student in private K-12 schools during the 2011-12 school year was about $6,762. In the same year, the average spending per student in public schools was $13,398, or about twice as much. These figures exclude state administration spending, unfunded pension liabilities, and post-employment benefits like healthcare—all of which are common in public schools and rare in private ones.

Certain school costs like building maintenance are fixed in the short term, and thus, the savings of educating fewer students occurs in steps. This means that private school choice can temporarily decrease the funding per student in some public schools, but this is brief and slight because only 8% of public school spending is for operations and maintenance.

Second, school choice provides the most direct form of accountability, which is accountability to students and parents. With school choice, if parents are unhappy with any school, they have the ability to send their children to other schools. This means that every school is accountable to every parent.Under the current public education system, schools are accountable to government officials, not students and parents. Again, Hassan knows this, because her son has severe disabilities, and Hassan used her influence as a lawyer to get her son’s public elementary school to “accommodate his needs.”

Unlike Hassan, people without a law degree, extra time on their hands, or ample financial resources are at the mercy of politicians and government employees. Short of legal action or changing an election outcome, most children and parents are stuck with their public schools, regardless of whether they are effective or safe. That is precisely the situation that DeVos would like to fix through school choice, but Hassan talks as if DeVos were trying to do the opposite.

Third, taxpayer funds are commonly used for private schools, and Hassan actually wants more of this. Her campaign website states that she “will fight to expand Pell Grants” but fails to reveal that these are often used for private colleges like, for example, Brown University, the Ivy League school that she, her husband, and her daughter attended (disclosure: so did this author).

In other words, Hassan supports using taxpayer money for top students to attend elite private universities, but she opposes the same opportunity for poor students to attend private K-12 schools.

Hassan’s position on college aid also undercuts her objection that DeVos supports programs that “leave out students whose families cannot afford to pay the part of the tuition that the voucher does not cover.” If that were truly Hassan’s objection, she would also oppose aid that doesn’t cover the full costs of every college, because that would leave out students who can’t pay the rest of the tuition.

Fourth, contrary to Hassan’s rhetoric about accountability to taxpayers, she supports current spending levels in public K-12 schools, “debt-free public college for all,” and expanding “early childhood education” in spite of the facts that:

  • the U.S. spends an average of 31% more per K-12 student than other developed nations, but 15-year olds in the U.S. rank 31st among 35 nations in math.
  • federal, state, and local governments spend about $900 billion per year on formal education, but only 18% of U.S. residents aged 16 and older can correctly answer a word problem requiring the ability to search text, interpret it, and calculate using multiplication and division.
  • the average spending per public school classroom is $286,000 per year, but only 26% of the high school students who take the ACT exam meet its college readiness benchmarks in all four subjects (English, reading, math, and science).
  • federal, state and local governments spend $173 billion per year on higher education, but 80% of first-time, full-time students who enroll in a public community college do not receive a degree from the college within 150% of the normal time required to do so.
  • 4-year public colleges spend an average of $40,033 per year for each full-time student, but one-third of students who graduate from 4-year colleges don’t improve their “critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and writing” skills by more than one percentage point over their entire college careers.
  • the federal government funds dozens of preschool programs, and the largest —Head Start—spends an average of $8,772 per child per year, but it produces no measurable benefit by the time students reach 3rd grade.

In sum, Hassan supports pumping taxpayer money into programs with high costs and substandard outcomes, but she opposes doing the same for private K–12 schools that produce better outcomes with far less cost.

Left Behind?

Hassan’s claim that private school choice programs “leave behind students with disabilities because the schools do not accommodate their complex needs” is also false.

In Northern and Central New Jersey, there are more than 30 private special education schools that are approved by the state. As far as parents are concerned, these schools serve the needs of their children better than the public schools in their areas. If this were not the case, these private schools would not exist.

More importantly, if parents don’t think that a private school will be best for their special needs child, school choice allows them to keep the child in a public school that is better-funded thanks to the money saved by school choice.

In a recent brief to the Nevada Supreme Court, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, and its state affiliate argue that free-market voucher programs will lead to “cream-skimming—the drawing away of the most advantaged students to private schools––and lead to a highly stratified system of education.”

As detailed above, the current public school system is highly stratified by income, and income and education go hand in hand. Hence, the real issue is not stratification but what happens to students who stay in public schools. Contrary to the belief that school choice will harm these students, a mass of evidence shows the opposite.

At least 21 high-quality studies have been performed on the academic outcomes of students who remain in public schools that are subject to school choice programs. All but one found neutral-to-positive results, and none found negative results. This is consistent with the theory that school choice stimulates competition that induces public schools to improve.

Who Wins and Who Loses?

Wide-ranging facts prove that school choice is a win for students, parents, and taxpayers. However, it financially harms teachers unions by depriving them of dues, because private schools are less likely to have unions than public ones.

In turn, this financially harms Democratic politicians, political action committees, and related organizations, which have received about $200 million in reported donations from the two largest teachers’ unions since 1990. Unions also give many unreported donations to Democratic Party causes.

Teachers’ unions are firmly opposed to private school choice, and the National Education Association has sent an open letter to Democrats stating that “opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.”

So why does Hassan oppose giving other children opportunities that she gave to her own children? Motives are difficult to divine, but the reasons she gave in her op-ed are at odds with verifiable facts and her own actions.

James Agresti

James Agresti

James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts, a nonprofit institute dedicated to publishing verifiable facts about public policy.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bill to Shut U.S. Education Department Introduced in Congress

Real Heroes: Homeschool Parents — Home Education Inspires a Love of Learning by Lawrence W. Reed

The hero in this story is not any one person but rather nearly two million Americans — moms and dads who go the extra mile and who, often at great sacrifice to themselves, are rescuing children in a profoundly personal way. They are the homeschoolers, parents who give up time and income to directly supervise the education of their children. They teach, they arrange learning experiences within their home and elsewhere in cooperation with other parents, and they inspire an appetite for learning.

Of all the ingredients in the recipe for education, which one has the greatest potential to improve student performance?

No doubt the teachers unions would put higher salaries for their members at the top of the list, to which almost every school reformer might reply, “Been there, done that!” Teacher compensation has gone up in recent decades, while indicators of student performance have stagnated or fallen.

Other standard answers include smaller class size, a longer school year, more money for computers, or simply more money for fill-in-the-blank. The consensus of hundreds of studies over the past several years is that these factors exhibit either no positive correlation with better student performance or only a weak connection. On this important question, the verdict is in and it is definitive: The one ingredient that makes the most difference in how well and how much children learn is parental involvement. Homeschooling is the ultimate in parental involvement.

When parents take a personal interest in their children’s education, several things happen. The child gets a strong message that education is important to success in life; it isn’t something that parents dump in someone else’s lap. Caring, involved parents usually instill a love of learning in their children — a love that translates into a sense of pride and achievement as their students accumulate knowledge and put it to good use. As one might expect, time spent with books goes up and time wasted in the streets goes down, but there’s so much more to the homeschooling experience, as explained by Marianna Brashear, curriculum development manager at the Foundation for Economic Education:

Much time is spent not just in books, but seeing the world and participating in field trips with hands-on learning. There is so much knowledge that is gained through real-world exposure to a vast array of subjects far more lasting than reading out of a textbook. The word “schooling” in homeschooling is misleading because education takes place in and out of formal lessons. The biggest waste of time in schools comes not just from indoctrination, but also from “teaching to the test,” where kids memorize, regurgitate, and forget.

American parents were once almost universally regarded as the people most responsible for children’s education. Until the late 19th century, the home, the church, and a small nearby school were the primary centers of learning for the great majority of Americans.

In more recent times, many American parents have largely abdicated this responsibility, in favor of supposed “experts.” The context for this abdication is a compulsory system established to replace parental values with those preferred by the states and now, to an increasing degree, by the federal government. (It’s important to remember how much the current system was established as a reaction to immigrants, especially Catholics. See Robert Murphy’s “The Origins of the Public School” in the Freeman, July 1998.)

Twenty years ago, a report from Temple University in Pennsylvania revealed that nearly one in three parents was seriously disengaged from their children’s education. The Temple researchers found that about one-sixth of all students believed their parents didn’t care whether they earned good grades, and nearly one-third said their parents had no idea how they were doing in school. I can think of no reason to believe things have improved on this front in the two decades since.

Homeschooling is working — and working extraordinarily well — for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

Teaching children at home isn’t for everyone. No one advocates that every parent try it. There are plenty of good schools — private and many public and charter schools, too — that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. And I certainly praise those parents who may not homeschool but who see to it that their children get the most out of education, both in school and at home. Homeschooling almost always goes the extra mile, however, and it is working extraordinarily well for the growing number of parents and children who choose it.

This outcome is all the more remarkable when one considers that these dedicated parents must juggle teaching with all the other demands and chores of modern life. Also, they get little or nothing back from what they pay in taxes for a public system they don’t patronize. By not using the public system, they are in fact saving taxpayers at least $24 billion annually even as they pay taxes for it anyway.

In the early 1980s, fewer than 20,000 children were in homeschools. From 2003 through 2012, the number of American children 5 through 17 years old who were being homeschooled by their parents climbed by 61.8 percent to nearly 1.8 million, according to the US Department of Education. That’s likely a conservative estimate, but it equals 3.4 percent of the nation’s 52 million students in the 5–17 age group.

Parents who homeschool do so for a variety of reasons. Some want a strong moral or religious emphasis in their children’s education. Others are fleeing unsafe public schools or schools where discipline and academics have taken a backseat to fuzzy, feel-good, or politically correct dogma. Many homeschool parents complain about the pervasiveness in public schools of trendy instructional methods that border on pedagogical malpractice. Others value the flexibility to travel, often with their children for hands-on, educational purposes; the ability to customize curricula to each child’s needs and interests; and the potential to strengthen relationships within the family.

“When my wife and I first decided to homeschool our three children,” says Bradley Thompson, a political science professor who heads the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University, “we did it for one reason: we wanted to give them a classical education — the kind that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson might have received when they were young boys.” He adds,

Within a couple of years, we added a second reason: we didn’t want our children exposed to the kind of socialization that goes on in both government and some private schools. Over time, however, we added a third reason: homeschooling became a way of life for our family, a way of life that was irreplaceable and beautiful. By the time our third child goes to college, we will have been homeschooling for 18 years. Those years have been, without question, the most important of my life.

Homeschool parents are fiercely protective of their constitutional right to educate their children. In early 1994, the House of Representatives voted to mandate that all teachers — including parents in the home — acquire state certification in the subjects they teach. A massive campaign of letters, phone calls, and faxes from homeschool parents produced one of the most stunning turnabouts in legislative history: by a vote of 424 to 1, the House reversed itself and then approved an amendment that affirmed the rights and independence of homeschool parents.

The certification issue deserves a comment: we have a national crisis in public education, where virtually every teacher is duly certified. There is no national crisis in home education.

Critics have long harbored a jaundiced view of parents who educate children at home. They argue that children need the guidance of professionals and the social interaction that comes from being with a class of others. Homeschooled children, these critics say, will be socially and academically stunted by the confines of the home. But the facts suggest otherwise.

Reports from state after state show homeschoolers scoring significantly better than the norm on college entrance examinations. Prestigious universities, including Harvard and Yale, accept homeschooled children eagerly and often. And there’s simply no evidence that homeschooled children (with a rare exception) make anything but fine, solid citizens who respect others and work hard as adults. Marianna Brashear informs me thus:

More and more early college and dual enrollment programs are available for rising 9th through 12th graders, and these programs, too, are quite eager to admit homeschoolers for their ability to take responsibility and to self-motivate, for their maturity, and for their determination to learn and succeed. For example, my 14-year-old daughter will be starting with a nearby technical institute in August and will receive high school and college credit simultaneously. She will be in a class with other high school students, and they are on track to receive AA degrees before graduating high school.

Homeschool parents approach their task in a variety of ways. While some discover texts and methods as they go, others plan their work well before they start, often assisted by other homeschoolers or associations that have sprung up to aid those who choose this option. Writing in the Freeman in May 2001, homeschool parent Chris Cardiff observed that because parents aren’t experts in every possible subject,

families band together in local homeschooling support groups. From within these voluntary associations springs a spontaneous educational order. An overabundance of services, knowledge, activities, collaboration, and social opportunities flourishes within these homeschooling communities.

My FEE colleague, B.K. Marcus, also a homeschool parent, identifies this natural “socialization” as a critically important point:

Homeschooling produces communities and participates in a division of labor. Homeschooling is social and cooperative, contrary to the stereotype of the overprotected child under the stern watch of narrow-minded parents. Traditionally schooled kids show far fewer social skills outside their segregated age groups.

A quick Internet search reveals thousands of cooperative ventures for and between homeschoolers. In Yahoo Groups alone, as of June 2015, about 6,300 results pop up when you search for the keyword “homeschool.” More than 800 show up in Google Groups. Facebook is another option for locating a plethora of local, regional, and national homeschool groups, support groups, events, co-ops, and communities.

In every other walk of life, Americans traditionally regard as heroes the men and women who meet challenges head-on, who go against the grain and persevere to bring a dream to fruition. At a time when more troubles and shortcomings plague education and educational heroes are too few in number, recognizing the homeschool champions in our midst may be both long overdue and highly instructive.

Common to every homeschool parent is the belief that the education of their children is too important to hand over to someone else. Hallelujah for that!

For further information, see:

Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

EDITORS NOTE: Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.

The new anti-home school attack is use of “Badman Rules”

The Badman Rules are intended to give government agents control over homeschooling families. Will Americans fight for the well being of our children?

The goal of the progressive left is to dominate the training of every youngster in America.  Home School families are being targeted once again and I say we should all stand up for home school freedom.

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