I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Attacks on Teacher Tenure Still Don't Make Sense

The attacks on teacher tenure keep on coming -- and they're as illogical as ever. From the Partnership for Educational Justice:
Newark, NJ—Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Department of Education released state and district level educator evaluation data from the 2014-15 school year. The data revealed that Newark employs more ineffective teachers than any other district in the state and more than five times the number of ineffective teachers in Camden, the district with the second highest number. In the 2014-15 school year, 2.4 percent of New Jersey teachers taught in Newark, but in the same year:
  • More than half (53.3 percent) of the state’s ineffective teachers were in Newark
  • Less than one percent (0.9 percent) of the state’s highly-effective teachers were in Newark
  • Additionally, 12.4 percent of Newark’s teachers received a less-than-effective rating, which was nearly eight times the statewide average (1.6 percent)
If we're going to buy into these numbers, we have to make a whole bunch of assumptions: that data suppression isn't a factor in the skew, that Newark's teacher evaluations are equivalent to other districts', that the unmistakable bias in Student Growth Percentiles isn't affecting these outcomes, etc.

But let's set all that aside for the sake of argument and agree that Newark has an inordinately high percentage of ineffective teachers compared to other districts. What's the solution, according to PEJ?
Despite carrying far more than its fair share of ineffective teachers, most teachers in Newark were rated effective, and 321 Newark teachers were rated highly effective in 2014-15. Recognizing that some of these effective and highly-effective teachers are at risk of losing their jobs while Newark Public Schools continue to employ a disproportionate number of ineffective teachers, six Newark parents filed a lawsuit on November 1, 2016, challenging the constitutionality of New Jersey’s quality-blind teacher layoff law. Under the current statute, when budget reductions force school administrators to lay off teachers, they must do so based only on the date teachers started in the district, with the newest teachers losing their jobs first. In districts like Newark, this “last in, first out” (LIFO) law forces school districts to lay off some of their best teachers while keeping ineffective ones. Newark Public Schools currently face budget cuts that will reduce state funding to the district by nearly 69 percent. [emphasis mine]
OK, hold it a minute:

Maybe the problem for Newark's schools isn't teacher tenure or seniority -- maybe the problem is persistent underfunding and the pernicious effects of charter school proliferation.

Newark has been screwed out of the state aid it should be getting according to the state's own law year after year. It suffers further injury thanks to the "hold harmless" policies of charter school funding the state imposes. And it can't access some of its potentially largest generators of revenue because of the state constitution's restrictions on school funding; essentially, Newark suffers from an inability to tax itself to raise money for its own schools.

Newark's schools are run by a State Superintendent, Chris Cerf, who has the power to veto the wishes of the duly elected school board. This past month, Cerf overrode the board's vote to dismantle the "One Newark" universal enrollment system, which puts the school district in the weird position of promoting charter schools at the expense of its own enrollment.

All of this is forcing the district to conduct layoffs, regardless of the wishes of local citizens. And yet the PEJ thinks gutting tenure and seniority rights -- not just for Newark, but across the entire state -- will somehow fix Newark's woes.

What makes this especially bizarre is that PEJ admits that funding does matter:
The six Newark parents who filed HG v. Harrington have also filed a motion with the New Jersey Supreme Court to intervene in Abbott v. Burke, a decades-old school funding lawsuit. The Newark parents’ Abbott motion, which is also supported by Partnership for Educational Justice, opposes the State of New Jersey’s request to remove the current court order for extra education funding to 31 high-need school districts, including Newark, paving the way for significant funding cuts to these same districts.
So PEJ says districts with large numbers of children in economic disadvantage -- who generally can't raise enough local revenue by themselves because their property values are too low -- should get more state aid. But they aren't getting the resources they need, and that's supposedly part of the reason districts like Newark have disproportionately high numbers of ineffective teachers.

PEJ's answer, however, isn't to concentrate on fixing differences in funding or student poverty; instead, they want to remove tenure and seniority from all New Jersey schools. Which will address these structural inequities by...

[chirp, chirp...]

I haven't shown this old table Bruce Baker made in a while:

Just a few miles from Newark, Millburn has some of the highest performing schools, public or otherwise, in the nation. The teachers there have tenure; they have seniority rights; they have union contracts. How does taking away these things away from teachers in both districts help reduce the inequities between them?

In other words, as I asked nearly six years ago: What is the independent variable?

A teacher who is effective in one district isn't always going to be as effective in another, for all sorts of reasons. So even if we could easily shuffle teachers between districts, there's no guarantee effective teachers in the 'burbs will be as effective in the cities. But let's, again, set that aside and ask: what does it take to get high-quality candidates to become teachers in districts like Newark?

As I've noted before, tenure has a value to teachers; take it away, and you'll have to replace it with some other form of compensation to attract good people to the profession. It's also worth noting that tenure and seniority don't just protect school staffs; they protect taxpayers and students, who benefit from having teachers who, once they've proven their worth, can stand up and defend their community's interests.

But who will want to teach in Newark -- a place whose schools seem to be a plaything for the politically ambitious -- without some level of protection against cronyism? Especially if wages remain the same as they were before tenure was gutted?

In Newark, teachers wait about 15 years before getting a significant bump in pay on the salary guide. Who will stick around that long if you can be fired under an innumerate and easily-gamable evaluation system the moment your pay goes up substantially?

For that matter: who wants to teach in a school with lead in the water? Where the buildings are unsafe and decrepit?

American History HS, Newark, NJ, 2011

Where staff face retaliation for speaking out?

If PEJ really believes "bad" teachers are concentrated in Newark, it ought to take a moment and reflect on why that may be. Teaching is hard enough; teaching at-risk children is even tougher. But teaching at-risk children in underfunded, unsafe schools is damn near impossible. If we want to make teaching in Newark more attractive, we should focus on making teacher working conditions -- which are student learning conditions -- better.

It makes no sense to blame the inequities between school districts on factors that they share in common, like tenure and seniority. We should be focusing on what is different if we want to equalize educational opportunity. The appellate court in California understood this, which is why they overturned Judge Rolf Treu's poorly-reasoned decision in the original Vergara case and found the state's tenure and seniority laws constitutional.

PEJ, under the direction of Campbell Brown, seems to think its best chance of gutting tenure is to shop around to different states and hopefully find another judge like Treu who is willing to buy into their arguments. They've got money to burn (and they won't reveal where it's coming from), so why not? If they can't make it work in California, maybe some judge here in Jersey will fall for their schtick...

But that isn't going to help Newark's students, who need safe, clean schools with well-paid, well-qualified teachers who can work free from political interference and cronyism. Gutting tenure does nothing to address the profound differences in the lives and schools of children living in different worlds; if anything, it will make those differences even worse.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mapping "Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers

As I did in my last post, let's start with some quotes from our incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, caught in a moment of candor:
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.

“It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education," he said. "We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities.”

When asked why they don’t just spend their time — and money — funding Christian schools, Betsy DeVos said they want to reform the whole system to bring “greater Kingdom gain.” 
“We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had, and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases … not well spent."
Now, this is not usually the argument for school vouchers that you will hear from the reformy types who push them; in fact, DeVos herself will usually sell vouchers under the free-market arguments of Milton Friedman and other pseudo-libertarians. In fact, in his best-selling 1980 book Free To Choose, Friedman argues that a voucher system that only applied to schools that weren't connected to churches would be "far superior to the present system." (p.164)*

There's scant little evidence that Friedman was right about the superior performance of these schools. And he made another prediction about vouchers in his 1962 best-seller, Capitalism and Freedom:
Our problem today is not to enforce conformity; it is rather that we are threatened with an excess of conformity. Our problem is to foster diversity, and the alternative [school vouchers] would do this far more effectively than a nationalized school system. (p. 97)
The desire for "Kingdom gain" expressed by the DeVoses isn't to be found in the advocacy of Friedman and his acolytes; then again, DeVos usually sells vouchers under the same free-market premise, as she did in this 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable.
MRS. DEVOS: Well, I’ve never been more optimistic. Today there are about 250,000 students in 33 publicly funded, private-choice programs in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The movement’s growth is accelerating. Within the last year, the number of students in educational-choice programs grew by about 40,000. In 2012, we saw new programs in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Mississippi, and New Hampshire, and expanded programs in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In 2011, Indiana passed a major new statewide voucher program, which is only in its second academic year and is already enrolling nearly 10,000 children. We conducted polling in five states, and found educational choice enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among Latinos. 
This confluence of events is forcing people to take note, particularly because of the public’s awareness that traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.
No talk of "Kingdom gain" here. Why, you'd almost think DeVos has learned to keep her true agenda quiet, for fear of alienating people -- particularly her allies in the cause on the political left -- who value the principle of separating church and state...

As I noted in my last post: when the Supreme Court, in Zelman v Simmons-Harris, found vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional -- in a tight 5-4 vote -- David Souter wrote a dissent that took the majority to task for engaging in "formalism." What he meant was that the Court could pretend that the Ohio voucher scheme in question was neutral when it came to religion, but the practical reality was that the religious schools completely dominated the program.

Is that still the case? As a practical matter, would public monies flow to religious schools -- specifically, Christian schools tasked with promoting "Kingdom gain" -- if a Trump/Pence/DeVos voucher program were implemented across the nation? 

Let's go to the data. As in my last post, I've matched state-level lists of private schools that accept vouchers/scholarships/whatever to the 2011-12 Private School Universe Survey (PSS) from the National Center for Educational Statistics. I concentrate here on some of the nation's largest school "choice" programs" Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. My matches aren't perfect: there are time differences between some of the lists and the 2011-12 database, and not all schools on the voucher-eligible lists could be matched to NCES data. Still, we should be able to get a fairly good picture as to whether religious schools predominate in these programs.

Let's start with the Milwaukee, WI area, home of one of the country's largest and oldest voucher programs:

There are a few nonsectarian schools, three affiliated with Judaism, and a couple of Islamic schools. But the vast majority of voucher schools in Milwaukee are Catholic or affiliated with some other type of Christianity.

Here's greater Indianapolis, IN:

Within Marion County, I could only match one school that wasn't affiliated with some form of Christianity.

Here's Cleveland and Akron, OH:

Catholic and other Christian schools overwhelmingly dominate the "choices" of voucher schools in Northeast Ohio.

Here's greater Colombus, OH:

There are only two nonsectarian voucher schools in Franklin County, OH.

Cincinnati, OH:

There are very few non-Christian voucher schools to "choose" from in greater Cincinnati, OH.

New Orleans, LA:

Only two voucher schools in greater New Orleans, LA are not affiliated with Christianity.

Finally -- and this really is an interesting contrast -- here's Washington, D.C.:

The DC "Scholarship" program has been in flux for years, a victim of mismanagement and corruption. But it seems to be the exception when it comes to offering nonsectarian schools as "choices." That said...

Most of the nation's school voucher programs are overwhelmingly dominated by Christian schools.

There is very little evidence that nonsectarian schools will play a significant role in any expansion of vouchers under the Trump-Pence-DeVos administration. Instead, school voucher money will almost certainly flow inordinately toward Christian institutions.

This will be a radical shift in public policy. By using "choice" as its pretext, federal and state governments will be diverting billions of taxpayer dollars, used previously to support public education, toward Christian churches -- all advancing DeVos's goal of "Kingdom gain."

Everyone OK with that? More to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

* Friedman also makes a bizarre argument that public schools "...teach religion, too -- not a formal, theistic religion, but a set of values and beliefs that constitute a religion in all but name." This kind of facile, trite argument is worthy of a Fox News screaming head, and not an eminent economic scientist.

The plain truth is that Friedman was a remarkably shallow thinker on educational "choice"; he largely based his voucher advocacy on his authority as a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and not on any empirical evidence. I've got some formal work coming soon that delves into this further; stand by...


Aside from the 2011-12 NCES-PSS, here are the sources for eligible schools in various voucher programs:

Again: the matches are hardly perfect, the data is dirty, and it's survey data. Caveat regressor.

Monday, December 26, 2016

"Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers: It's Already Working

Why do our new Secretary of Education and her husband support school vouchers? Back in 2001, they were quite candid about it:
The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom." 
Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools. 
Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed. 
In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.
School choice, they say, leads to “greater Kingdom gain.”
The two also lament that public schools have “displaced” the Church as the center of communities, and they cite school choice as a way to reverse that troubling trend. [emphasis mine]
The DeVoses made these comments at "The Gathering," an annual conference of wealthy Christians that pushes a hard-right social agenda, including normalizing homophobia, destroying women's reproductive rights, and even denying climate science.

Certainly, the DeVoses buy into the idea that "competition" will improve schools -- but let's not for a second believe their school "choice" agenda stops there:
The DeVoses say in the 2001 interview that they adhere to the Calvinist perspective of Christianity. Richard Israel, a professor of the Old Testament at Vanguard University in California, said Calvinists see it as the work of Christians to influence culture. 
"Their view of the Christian mission isn’t to be in the fortress and hold out against the pagans, but to engage culture from a Christian worldview and transform it," Israel said.

At one point in their interview, the Devoses are asked directly if they want to "destroy our public schools."
"No, we are for good education, and for having every child have an opportunity for good education," Betsy DeVos says.

“We both believe that competition and choices make everyone better and that ultimately if the system that prevails in the United States today had more competition — there were more choices for people to make freely — that all of the schools would become better as a result."
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.
Now, I've been doing some research lately into the origins of school "choice" in America. Undeniably, the current choice movement has its origins in segregationist ideology in the South. I'll be saying a lot more about this later, but for right now, check out Jim Carl's Freedom of Choice: Vouchers in American Education and Kevin Cruse's White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism for the history.

As the 60s and 70s progressed, it became clear the "choice" movement wasn't going to be sustained by appealing to segregationists; another rationale had to be sold to the public. Enter Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist whose 1962 best-seller Freedom and Capitalism contains the first widely-read argument for school vouchers presented in terms of market-style "choice."

This is the mainstream argument you'll hear these days for school vouchers: creating a market for schooling will improve education by leveraging competition. Friedman asserts that this is also the best way to address school segregation: the market will reward producers who establish integrated schools, and it will reward consumers -- in other words, parents -- who choose those schools.

Of course, time has shown that Friedman was dead wrong about this. But his market-based arguments have still had a profound effect on the way we talk about school choice: by hiding behind the rhetoric of the free market, voucher proponents can erase any of their ulterior motives, including segregation and "Kingdom gain."

Which raises an interesting question regarding vouchers: Have the school "choice" programs already in place -- programs that exist in part thanks to the efforts of Betsy DeVos -- led to "Kingdom gain"?

Let's go to the data. I'm relying here on the National Center for Education Statistics' Private School Universe Survey (PSUS). There are a few cautions I have to note: first, the latest survey data is from 2011-12. I wasn't always able to get the names of schools in the various voucher programs we'll look at for the same year; the best I could do is match the schools that were in the PSUS for the closest year that I could find a list of participating schools. Which means I might be missing some schools that were part of the voucher program in 2011-12, or I'm relying on data from the PSUS that's earlier than I can confirm a school's actual participation.

That said, I think we've still got a fairly good picture of what private voucher schools look like in terms of their religious affiliation for several of the largest voucher programs in the nation. Let's start with Indiana, which is the likely model for a Trump/Pence/DeVos school "choice" plan.

Over 97 percent of the voucher schools in Indiana are affiliated with a Christian religion. Only a tiny fraction of enrolled students attend a nonsectarian school (I could only match 7 schools to the NCES data).

Nearly 9 in 10 students enrolled in a Milwaukee "choice" school get a Christian education. The nonsectarian schools are represented a little better here, but not by much.

Here's Louisiana:

More than 9 in 10 students attending a Louisiana "choice" school are enrolled in a Christian school. Again, the nonsectarian schools are only a small fraction of the total number of schools participating.

Finally, Washington, D.C.:

Even in the nation's capital, the vast majority of students attending a "scholarship" school are enrolled in some sort of Christian school.

A few things to consider about all this:

- First, there is good reason to believe that at least some of the families that are "choosing" private schools are doing so for religious reasons. In most of these areas, there hasn't been a big growth in nonreligious schools to meet market demand.

- Which means it's quite likely these families would have "chosen" private schools anyway. So taxpayers aren't necessarily just shifting costs from public schools over to private schools; very likely, if the vouchers were discontinued, they wouldn't be paying for the public school education of many of the students who now receive vouchers. Which means it's quite likely a big expansion in school vouchers will actually costs the taxpayers more than they currently spend on schooling.

- The Catholic church is, by far, the biggest recipient of school voucher monies. But, given its decline in vocations, it's questionable whether the church could sustain a large growth in enrollment without access to more clergy to teach and administer in its schools.

Certainly, evangelicals like the DeVoses have had tricky relations with Catholics over the years. But even if we separate Catholic schools from other Christian denominations, it's clear those other schools have done well under the voucher schemes already in place. Unquestionably, churches will be the biggest beneficiaries of any new, national school voucher program.

In Zelman v Simons-Harris -- the 5-4 decision that found school vouchers are constitutional -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority:
“In sum, the Ohio program is entirely neutral with respect to religion. It provides benefits directly to a wide spectrum of individuals, defined only by financial need and residence in a particular school district. It permits such individuals to exercise genuine choice among options public and private, secular and religious. The program is therefore a program of true private choice. In keeping with an unbroken line of decisions rejecting challenges to similar programs, we hold that the program does not offend the Establishment Clause."
But in his dissent, David Souter points out the majority is engaging in nothing more than "formalism":

“If regular, public schools (which can get no voucher payments) participate in a voucher scheme with schools that can, and public expenditure is still predominantly on public schools, then the majority’s reasoning would find neutrality in a scheme of vouchers available for private tuition in districts with no secular private schools at all. Neutrality as the majority employs the term is, literally, verbal and nothing more.”
In other words: When voucher supporters claim they are offering "choice" to families, but the vast majority of the "choices" are religious, it's simply disingenuous to claim that the government is not using public funds, through school vouchers, to support churches.

If DeVos, or Pence, or Trump, try to weasel their way out of acknowledging this reality over the next several months, they should be called out on it -- hard. The plain truth is that Betsy DeVos's beloved school vouchers are going to get her exactly what she wants: "Kingdom gain" at the expense of the American taxpayer.

Pretending otherwise is bearing false witness. More to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.