Education savings accounts run wild

Parental choice takes several forms, but arguably none as appealing as education savings accounts.  Arizona was a pioneer in establishing them in 2011.  But what has happened there serves as a cautionary tale for other states (“Cosmetics and Clothes: Parents Misspent $700,000 in Arizona’s School Choice Program,” Education Week, Nov. 19).

The way they work likely explains why.  The state deposits 90 percent of per-student funds allocated to a participating pupil into a dedicated bank account.  Parents are given a debit card to spend the money on a list of approved educational expenses.  But some parents have been using the money for prohibited purchases such as cosmetics, clothing and travel.

Arizona has not aggressively monitored the program until recently.  The only way to do so is to track cash withdrawals on a daily basis, rather than wait until parents have run up thousands of dollars of withdrawals.  Education savings accounts are not personal piggy banks to be used as parents alone see fit.

Florida uses the accounts also, but the state does not administer the program.  Instead, two non-profit groups are charged with that responsibility.  Yet even under that system abuses are possible unless oversight is systematic.  The lesson to be learned is that parental choice funding requires constant accounting.

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Teacher unions are still needed

Teacher unions are scapegoated for all the ills afflicting public schools today.  Critics say their existence makes trying to fire incompetent teachers a Sisyphean task.  I understand their anger and frustration.  But there’s another side of the story that needs retelling (“A School Strike That Never Quite Ended,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  It’s a history lesson that is relevant today.

In 1968, black leaders urged the creation of a local school district in the low-income Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y.  They demanded hiring more black teachers who would serve as role models for the largely black schools in that district.  The local school board sent telegrams to 19 unionized teachers informing them that they were terminated.  (One black teacher mistakenly was included but was immediately rehired.)

Only the intervention of Albert Shanker, the union president, prevented their dismissal.  But he was unable to prevent their involuntary transfer, despite filing a grievance and submitting to arbitration.  Contrary to widespread belief, the union did not call a strike at that point.

What finally led to a protracted strike was the lack of due process for the teachers, which he correctly knew would set a precedent for future dismissals.  What is forgotten is the long record of politically- and personally-based transfers that non-unionized teachers had to endure.

Which brings me to today.  If teacher unions were abolished, it would subject even the best teachers to retaliation by abusive principals.  Critics assert that only the worst teachers would be affected.  But that is not so.

I’ve written often before about what happened in 2004 and 2005 at Brooklyn Technical High School, which is one of a handful of elite high schools in the New York system.  The principal bullied so many teachers during his tenure, including some with exemplary records, that several requested transfers.  If it were not for the existence of the union, I venture that they would have been terminated or so hounded that they would have quit.

Some teachers believe that they possess immunity because they are well liked by their students.  They are naïve.  Principals still possess enormous power because of the state education code and school board decisions.  Without the protection of unions, they all are vulnerable.

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New college sex assault rules long overdue

College students accused of sexual assault found themselves in what were essentially kangaroo courts (“Betsy De Vos Reverses Obama-era Policy on Campus Sexual Assault Investigations,” The New York Times, Nov. 17).  But that is about to change – and not a moment too soon.

Defendants will soon have due process rights, including most importantly the right to cross-examine their accusers.  I never understood why administrators did not refer such cases to off-campus police.  I say that because the lives of many men have been ruined under the old system.  I’m not implying that all accused students are innocent.  On the contrary.  But they deserve the right to defend themselves when the stakes are so high.

If colleges and universities insist on trying sexual assault cases on campus, then it’s incumbent on them to adhere to the rules of criminal law.  I’m glad that some sense of fairness may finally come to higher education.  My main concern is that schools can still use a “preponderance of evidence” rather than “clear and convincing evidence” as the standard.

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Collegial collaboration is hard to achieve

As pressure mounts to improve student performance, professors from time to time weigh in with proposals that are supported by research (“How better teachers are made,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16).  The latest example is Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute and emeritus professor at Stanford.

Darling-Hammond says that instruction is improved when teachers are “supported with good ideas.”  The key, she urges, is collegial collaboration.  I agree, but she needs a reality check because the lockstep schedule that characterizes public schools in this country makes her suggestion almost impossible.

Teachers in pre-K-12 don’t have the luxury that professors enjoy.  Their day barely allows them time to use the restroom, let alone sit down with their colleagues to discuss instructional strategies.  Teachers are simply too exhausted.  I challenge university professors to teach for a month in a public school.  They’ll quickly find out what I mean.

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Mismatch in college admissions

When students are admitted to elite colleges and universities in the name of diversity even though they are not well qualified academically, they are being set up to fail (“The WSJ and the 1 Percent,” The Weekly Standard, Nov. 7).  The latest evidence was on display in the recently concluded lawsuit accusing Harvard of racial discrimination against Asian applicants.

According to an internal report, if strict merit were the only basis for admission to Harvard, Asians would make up 43 percent of the freshman class.  Meanwhile, less than one percent of black students would be granted admission using the same criterion.  As a result, blacks struggle more than they would at less selective schools.  If so, how is granting them admission solely on the basis of increasing diversity helping them?  The only basis for admission should be the ability of students to do the work.

But what about athletes and legacies?  They are pointed to as evidence that pure merit is not the only factor considered in admission.  Critics are correct.  I understand why these two groups, along with racial minorities, are given special treatment in the admissions process. But two wrongs do not make a right.

On the heels of the recent Harvard lawsuit comes another one against the University of California system.  It alleges that the system violated state law by reintroducing race as a factor in admissions.  (California has banned affirmative action in colleges and universities since 1996.)  The suit was brought by Richard Sander, professor at the UCLA School of Law who is a proponent of the mismatch theory.

Colleges and universities do not help academically unqualified applicants when they admit them.  The blow to their self-esteem when they find out they can’t handle the work often haunts them for life.  They would be far better served by applying to less academically rigorous schools

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School choice appeals to majority of blacks and Hispanics

Critics of school choice say it shortchanges low-income black and Hispanic families in particular because so many moonlight, leaving them little time to investigate what is open to them.  But if so, then why do 56 percent of blacks and 62 percent of Hispanics favor private-school vouchers (“The School Choice Election Bonus,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14)?

Consider charter schools. Demand for admission far outstrips the supply of openings.  For example, in New York City there are some 53,000 families on charter school wait lists.  And in New Bedford, Mass. there are more than 446 families on a wait list for enrollment in a K-8 public charter school.

The news is similar elsewhere. There are now more than 400,000 students in Florida and 260,000 in Arizona who attend charters or receive tax-credit scholarships.  Granted, not all of these are low-income blacks or Hispanics.  But the majority of those on wait lists are low-income blacks and Hispanics.

I believe the number of students will continue to grow in the years ahead.  That’s because parents of all races and socioeconomic status want the right to choose what they alone believe is best for their own children. Few parents are willing to sacrifice the education of their own children on an ideological altar.  I don’t blame them.

As a product of a K-12 public-school education, it pains me to say this.  But the evidence says I’m right. For example, state tax-credit scholarships, which Arizona started in 1997 and which Florida copied in 2001, appeal to more and more families.  Equally popular are education savings accounts that allow parents to use state per-pupil funding for tutoring, private- school tuition and other education expenses.

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Student suspensions are still needed

When students disrupt learning in the classroom despite repeated warnings and counseling, they need to be suspended.  Yet because such suspensions show racial disparities, the entire policy is attacked (“NYC Student Suspensions Rise as Advocates Call for Change,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1).

In New York City, for example, 46 percent of suspensions in 2017-18 involved black students who constitute 26 percent of enrollment.  Hence, critics charge the suspensions show racial bias.  But white students are suspended more than Asian students?  Does that mean the policy is racially biased against white students also?

If people have not taught in a public school, they have no idea how the presence of even one recalcitrant student can ruin the education for all other students and become a nightmare for the teacher.  When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, busing began.  Teachers were not given any preparation for the influx.  Any attempt to discipline a disruptive student from that group was automatically denounced as racially biased.

As a result, teachers began to allow behavior that soon turned classrooms into chaos.  Not surprisingly, teacher morale was severely undermined.  I don’t think what happened at the high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career is unique.

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Bezos education investment is no sure thing was most recently in the news when it revealed its plan to open two new corporate outposts.  Far less attention was paid to Jeff Bezos’s decision to invest $2 billion for a new network of tuition-free Montessori schools for low-income children (“Montessori, long a favorite for wealthy families, struggles to expand its reach,” The Washington Post, Nov. 5).

I wish him well in his new venture.  But I think he is going to find it hard to enroll the kind of children he wants.  I say that because culture plays a greater role in parental choice than he knows.  Low-income black parents tend to favor a more structured learning environment than what Montessori offers.  That’s why so many black students are enrolled in no-excuse charter schools.

Montessori schools have long appealed to wealthy parents.  It’s hard to know why, but the evidence is there.  A 2016 study published in the Journal of Montessori Research found six in ten public Montessori schools had a lower proportion of students of color than their surrounding districts, and two-thirds had fewer poor children.

If Bezos is to succeed, he needs to reach out to low-income black parents far more vigorously than Montessori schools have in the past.  Two billion dollars is a good start, but how it is spent will largely determine its success.

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Teacher ineffectiveness is hard to establish

As hard as it is to believe, 29 states do not allow teachers to be fired if they can’t teach (“Most State Laws Silent on Dismissing Teachers Who Simply Cannot Teach,” National Council on Teacher Quality, Nov. 1.)   It’s this omission that undermines respect for the profession. I can understand why.

Yet the issue is not quite as simple as it initially appears.  So much of the success of teachers is the direct result of the students they happen to be assigned.  Inept teachers can be made to look good if they inherit a class of Talmudic scholars. In other words, the students shine in spite of the teacher, rather than because of the teacher. The reverse is also true.  Exemplary teachers can look bad if they are given a class of future felons.

If all teachers in a school were assigned students strictly at random, then valid inferences could be drawn about their competence.  But I doubt that will ever happen.  Principals have their favorite teachers whom they reward by giving them the easiest-to-teach students.  Conversely, principals punish those teachers they dislike for one reason or another by assigning them the hardest-to-teach students.  It’s not fair, of course, but it happens more than most people know.

Teachers who consistently demonstrate their ineffectiveness regardless of the students they inherit are a completely different story. They need to be given support to improve within a stipulated time frame.  If they can’t, they should be fired.

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College grad underemployment was predictable

Despite a new report by labor analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies that 43 percent of college graduates today are underemployed, the myth about the marketability of a bachelor’s degree refuses to die (“Some 43% of College Grads Are Underemployed in First Job,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27).  That’s not at all surprising because the wage premium attached to a four-year degree is based on evidence from the past.

When a college degree was a rarity, holders could major in whatever they wanted without concern about finding a job commensurate with their education.  But today, a bachelor’s degree is so common that what students major in is far more important.  For example, I question the market value of a degree in gender studies.  Yet students do opt for that major despite evidence that is virtually useless in the job market.

When I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1950s, employers were not particularly interested in my liberal arts major.  Perhaps that was because the mere possession of a B.A. from an Ivy League school signaled that I had the wherewithal to be an asset.  But that was then.  Today, so many young people have degrees from such a variety of schools that employers seek concrete evidence about what they can immediately contribute.

I think what we are seeing is a variation of Gresham’s Law, which said that cheap money drives dear money out of circulation.  The easy availability of a degree from some colleges in some majors today will make the possession of a degree in STEM from a marquee-name school so much more valuable.

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