Affirmative Discrimination in Higher Education

by Roger Clegg
Notes on the continuing struggle

Racial and ethnic admission preferences will probably have to be pried from the cold, dead fingers of university officials, but the pressure to end this affirmative discrimination continues.

For starters, such preferences are unpopular with most Americans, and most Americans have a dog in this fight. I’ll cite just two recent polls, from somewhat surprising sources. A survey conducted last April by MTV of “millennials” aged 14 to 24 found that 90 percent “believed that everyone should be treated the same regardless of race” — and so, unsurprisingly, 88 percent opposed affirmative action. The Boston Globe in July discussed a survey that resoundingly confirms the view of Massachusetts as a very liberal state – with one notable exception. “Amid those liberal tendencies, though, was an outlier: a stark opposition to affirmative action. Just 24 percent agreed that qualified minorities should receive special preference in hiring and education, while 69 percent disagreed.”

Here’s hoping decision-makers will listen. They did in California, another blue venue: “California voters will not be asked this year to decide whether to roll back California’s ban on racial preferences in college admissions,” Assembly speaker John A. Perez announced this spring, according to the Sacramento Bee. The story notes, “The move came a week after three Asian-American state senators — who had previously supported putting the question to voters — asked Pérez to put a stop the measure.” That is, what doomed the measure was, in particular, opposition from Asian Americans.

Even among the intelligentsia, there is more and more call for schools to admit economically and socially disadvantaged students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Here are two thematically similar pieces appearing recently in two liberal bastions: from the New York Times, “If Affirmative Action Is Doomed, What Next?,” by David Leonhardt; and, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “What Sotomayor Gets Wrong about Affirmative Action,” by Richard D. Kahlenberg. Both talk about income/locale-based alternatives to racial preferences in university admissions, since both believe that such preferences are dying, and both discuss two new works on the alternatives, Place Not Race, by Sheryll Cashin, and a chapter in The Future of Affirmative Action by Anthony Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, and Jeff Strohl.

Sometimes the support given for ending racial preferences is not only unlikely but inadvertent. Janet Napolitano, now head of the University of California system, wrote a Washington Post op-ed this spring that was illogical and dishonest in predictable ways – mischaracterizing the state’s ban on racial preferences, ignoring the costs of such discrimination and overstating the benefits, etc. — but she grudgingly admitted that the “educational benefits” of “diversity” can be achieved without racial discrimination. So her complaining actually amounts to an admission that other schools in other states are required to forgo racial and ethnic discrimination, too — since the Supreme Court has made clear that they can engage in such discrimination only if there is no alternative way to achieve diversity.

Likewise, Columbia University president Lee Bollinger’s recent defense of racial preferences made clear that the principal reason he favors them is based not on the “diversity” rationale but on a remedial rationale long rejected by the Supreme Court.

And sometimes the case is made forthrightly: A particularly comprehensive critique of affirmative action in university admissions was recently published by Peter Schuck in National Affairs

Napolitano’s op-ed was prompted by the Supreme Court’s decision on April 22 in Schuette v. BAMN. There the Court upheld the constitutionality of the ballot initiative passed in 2006 by voters in Michigan to ban, among other kinds of affirmative action, the use of racial and ethnic admission preferences at its public universities. The initiative was prompted by the Court’s 2003 decision that had allowed (but of course not required) the use of such preferences at the University of Michigan.

The Schuette decision opens the door for other states to end the use of racial preferences in university admissions. The list of states that either do not use or at some point in recent years have not used such preferences is long and growing: Michigan, California, Washington, Nebraska, Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Iowa, and New Hampshire. States in which bans in recent years have been actively considered include Utah, Missouri, Virginia, Ohio, and even Wisconsin.

There is a role for the national legislature, too, if only it would play it. The fiftieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be a good time for Congress to clarify what the Supreme Court ignored in the Bakke case, namely that the act prohibits the use of racial preferences in admissions to federally funded universities. At a minimum, it should include in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act a requirement that federally funded schools (i.e., all American colleges and universities except Hillsdale and Grove City) report publicly whether they use such preferences and, if so, how they meet the legal requirements put on them by the Supreme Court.

In all likelihood, however, the federal action will remain in the courts. And that brings us, of course, to the continuing saga of Fisher v. University of Texas.

In June 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a Fifth Circuit decision upholding the University of Texas’s use of racial and ethnic admission preferences, sending the case back because the lower court’s scrutiny of the discrimination had been insufficiently strict. This summer, alas, a divided Fifth Circuit panel on remand again upheld the university’s discriminatory admissions policy (here are the judges’ opinions), and a request for the full circuit to rehear the case has been filed and is now awaiting decision.

The panel’s majority opinion says that it is all right to engage in racial discrimination in order to achieve the educational benefits that purportedly accrue from having a critical mass of this or that racial group. Yet the precise nature of the “educational benefits” at the University of Texas is never defined, nor is the term “critical mass.” And how, in particular, can a court ensure that there is the “narrow tailoring” that Justice Kennedy’s 2013 opinion for the Supreme Court demanded in this case — that, specifically, there are no race-neutral ways of achieving the relevant educational benefits — when these terms are undefined? As a practical matter, it seems that the framework erected by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger – the 2003 decision in which the Court upheld the use of racial preferences — is not working very well.

So it’s good that the legal team that is litigating the Fisher case is looking for other lawsuits to bring, and is targeting in particular Harvard, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.

Likewise, the Center for Individual Rights has filed a lawsuit in Connecticut on behalf of Pamela Swanigan, a graduate student in English at the University of Connecticut. The suit alleges that Ms. Swanigan was not allowed to compete for a highly prestigious merit-based scholarship despite being the top applicant the year she applied to UConn. Instead she was routed into a less prestigious and largely segregated scholarship program intended to increase “diversity” (Ms. Swanigan is biracial). As a result, she was deprived of the opportunity to compete for an academic award that would have benefited her career; what’s more, the diversity scholarship did not provide funds for off-campus dissertation work, an option that Ms. Swanigan wanted and thought she was getting.

I’m not at all convinced that there is a “compelling” interest in considering race for admissions into an English graduate program, even under the Court’s misguided precedents, let alone that the racially discriminatory award of scholarships is “narrowly tailored” to whatever that interest might be.

But here’s the fundamental question in this whole area: Just what do we expect African-American and Latino students to say to white and Asian-American students that will provide the latter with such compelling “educational benefits” that racial discrimination is justified to make it perhaps more likely that these random conversations take place? The purported existence of such conversations — which is what the “diversity” argument boils down to – is the only justification for admission preferences that the University of Texas, or any other university, is using or can use.

Any such benefits are flimsy, debatable, and marginal, while the costs are heavy, indisputable, and numerous, as I discuss here. Among those heavy costs is, for example, the mismatch effect – the presence of which is increasingly well documented, and which harms, in particular, the African-American and Latino students who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this discrimination.

One last thing: As legally dubious as the use of racial and ethnic preferences is by universities in student admissions, they are even more indefensible in faculty hiring and promotion.

— Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

Teaching Reform

by Frederick M. Hess
From the October 20, 2014, issue of NR

Those who fear that the big problem with America’s schools is the teachers who work in them would be heartened by spending a little time at an Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) conclave. Sydney Morris and Evan Stone launched Educators 4 Excellence in 2010 to push unions and schools to get serious about recognizing excellence and addressing mediocrity. The idea of E4E germinated during their hour-long commute on the 4 train from New York’s East Village up to their elementary school in the North Bronx, when they had plenty of time to share their frustrations. Says Morris, “In room 402, I could close the door and focus on my students. In that room, I had lots of responsibility, autonomy, and control. Yet beyond those four walls, I had little say in any decision that affected my students or me as a professional.”

Morris and Stone launched E4E after learning that, in the United Federation of Teachers’ 2010 leadership election, 65 percent of the votes were cast by retirees or non-classroom personnel. Morris marvels, “Classroom teachers were actually a minority of the folks who voted in that election!” Together with a dozen colleagues, Morris and Stone penned a declaration of beliefs that became the foundation of E4E. Stone says, “We had a bunch of teachers from seven or eight schools, some new and some with a decade or more of experience, but we all had the same frustrations: a lack of meaningful feedback, of tools and supports, of aspirational career pathways. The goal was to lay out our visions and beliefs and see if other teachers felt the same way.”

Teaching has long suffered occasional bouts of enthusiasm for “new unionism,” which promises to end industrial-era conventions in favor of a performance-oriented culture. Such talk has consistently come up empty because of entrenched union resistance, adverse conditions, and a lack of organizational muscle. But we may be in the midst of a more significant shift, as a generation of teacher-reformers seeks to take advantage of changes that give them a fighting chance.

The teachers’ unions face some daunting challenges. Financial headwinds have caused decades of persistent spending growth in schooling to give way to choppier waters, pitting young teachers against old on issues such as layoffs and pensions. Successful GOP efforts to narrow the scope of collective bargaining in states such as Wisconsin and Indiana have cost unions members and threatened their clout. Reformers fighting to curtail tenure protections and to get serious about teacher evaluation are visible across the land. And, for the first time in memory, these trends have caused the mighty 3 million–member National Education Association to suffer substantial membership losses. Unions are struggling to regain their footing and just may be forced to evolve.

Today’s teacher-reformers may be fresh-faced, but they’re also passionate, tech-enabled, and backed by big philanthropy and professional operatives. They’re fighting for an outsider’s reform agenda with an insider’s credibility and savvy. E4E’s declaration calls for the kind of tough-minded reform that teachers are often thought to oppose. It calls for a system that uses “an evenhanded performance-based pay structure to reward excellent teachers.” It calls for eliminating “last in, first out” layoffs and ensuring that tenure is a “significant professional milestone.” And it advocates “plac[ing] student achievement first” when making decisions about schooling or spending.

Stone says that advocating these beliefs hasn’t been easy. There have been plenty of petty attacks and cheap shots. “But,” he says, “we kept growing because we offered like-minded teachers camaraderie and a safe space for solutions-oriented dialogue. It wasn’t one teacher standing up, but many standing together.” Today, E4E encompasses more than 15,000 teachers in locales including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Connecticut, and Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the union diehards may not be as strong as is commonly assumed. Teach for America co-CEO Matt Kramer observes that TFA alumni (who include both Morris and Stone) have long shown little interest in pursuing union leadership. More recently, he says, “we’ve started to see promising stories of TFA members and alumni getting involved. . . . When our people get involved, they see the ways they can make a difference, they step up, and we’re seeing changes. The unions have been held captive by a fringe element. But that’s changing in some places.”

Celine Coggins launched the Boston-based Teach Plus in 2009 because, she says, “at the time, when we talked about performance-based pay or teacher leadership, union leaders could say, ‘Teachers don’t want that,’ as if teachers were monolithic. And no one could really challenge or question them when they said that. I thought it’d make sense to bring teachers together, especially younger teachers, and see what they said.”

Drawing on her experience in both the classroom and the Massachusetts department of education, Coggins says, “When teachers think about unions and city councils, most of them think those are a waste of time and that it’s all just talk. Connecting the dots helps them get over that.” Teach Plus has put forward teacher-inspired plans for merit pay, performance-based evaluation, and tenure reform that have influenced policy in a number of cities and states. Today, there are more than 17,000 Teach Plus members in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, D.C., and Indianapolis.

E4E and Teach Plus aren’t alone. Other ventures include New Orleans–based Leading Educators, Chicago-based VIVA Teachers, Gates Foundation–sponsored ECET2, and the reinvigorated National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Much of this activity has been turbocharged by a generation of energetic TFA corps members.

It can be easier than onlookers expect for these reformers to win over the silent majority of teachers and change the direction of their unions. After all, teachers know better than anyone that they suffer for the incompetents in their midst. The journal Education Next reported in 2014 that teachers believe 5 percent of those teaching in their local school systems deserve an “F” and another 8 percent a “D.” The independent think tank Education Sector has found that 75 percent of teachers want their union to make it simpler to remove ineffective teachers, and a survey by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 89 percent believe tenure should reflect teacher effectiveness.

Mike Stryer started teaching high-school social studies in Los Angeles after nearly two decades in international business. Elected a building representative to the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), Stryer walked into his first union meeting and noted that the topic of discussion was not L.A.’s “35 percent dropout rate” but “the condition of Bolivian tin miners.” He says, “It made me realize why a lot of teachers are completely turned off by the union. It didn’t represent classroom realities, the needs of teachers, or the needs of students.”

In response, Stryer helped launch NewTLA. Stryer and his allies elected 75 teachers to the 300-member UTLA assembly. Stryer laughs, “I was called everything under the sun. Folks were saying, ‘You have a hidden agenda, you’re a privatizer.’ Just the other week, I was called a ‘Kool-Aid-drinking Nazi propagandist.’” The same group then pushed the UTLA to fight for teacher evaluations that would be based in part on student achievement.

Anticipating a fight, Stryer “studied the contract and the bylaws. It turns out we could bypass the leadership and take a referendum directly to the members if we got 500 members to sign a petition. The result couldn’t be overturned. Few people even knew you could do that. But we gathered the signatures and got it approved with 56 percent support. That made it the ‘official policy’ of the UTLA.” His success provided a model for a group of Boston Teachers Union members to form a group named BTU Votes and successfully fight to open up their union elections.

Stryer says, “Money could have helped, but it wasn’t necessary. This was all social media and word of mouth. It really only takes a few people. We were able to do this in Los Angeles with a core group of five!”

It’s easy for politicians and reformers to paint with too broad a brush. When it comes to teachers and unions, the usual formulation has been, “Teachers’ unions are awful, but we love our teachers.” This line has proven as ineffective as it is incoherent. For one thing, as Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe has shown, teachers’ unions generally reflect the preferences of their members. For another, attacks on tenure make clear that reformers think there are plenty of teachers who don’t deserve to be loved.

At a time when tens of thousands of reform-minded teachers have organized a vanguard, reformers would do well to paint teachers and unions with a finer brush. Rather than disparage unions or offer insincere laurels to all teachers, reformers should stand foursquare behind teachers who are fighting for professional responsibility. 

Twenty-first-century school reform, from Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top, has suffered for its fascination with grand national solutions. Efforts by today’s teachers reveal a more Tocquevillian impulse. Theirs is the activism of shopkeepers stripping off their aprons and working to set things right. Such an effort is altogether admirable. These teachers bring to the reform cause not only hard-won credibility, but also a practical appreciation of consequences and daily realities that can elude impassioned advocates who talk while others do.

– Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The Cage-Busting Teacher. This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.



Arne Duncan’s Office of Civil Rights: Six Years Of Meddling

by Michael J. Petrilli
The Obama Department of Education blocks opportunity in the name of civil rights.

At his confirmation hearing in 2009, Senator Lamar Alexander famously told Arne Duncan that “President-elect Obama has made several distinguished cabinet appointments, but in my view of it all, I think you are the best.” Duncan had already made statements indicating a willingness to embrace charter schools and break with the unions over teacher evaluations – sentiments not typically expressed by Democratic secretaries of education. And on many issues, Secretary Duncan has not disappointed, regularly pushing a pro-education reform line, especially via his bully pulpit.

Most intriguing about Secretary Duncan — from my perspective at least — was his early embrace of the theory of “tight-loose” federalism. As he put it in 2012,“the federal government should be tight on goals,” but state and local leaders should decide how to attain them. “Local leaders, not us, know their children and communities best — to try to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington would be the height of arrogance,” he said.

Indeed it would be. But trying to micromanage 100,000 schools from Washington is precisely what Duncan has been doing.

In fact, Duncan’s greatest failure — on par with politicizing the Common Core and trying to kill D.C.’s school voucher program — has been his unwillingness to follow through on the “loose” part of his “tight-loose” promise. It feels like there’s been no problem too big or too small for his Department of Education to tackle. This is particularly the case for his Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which has been a prime example of executive overreach and federal interference run amok for almost six years now.

Its actions haven’t just trampled all over federalism and the Tenth Amendment, though they have. They have also made it tougher for local educators and officials to do their jobs well.

The War on School Discipline
This conflict started in earnest in 2010, when Duncan gave a big speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to mark the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. He and his assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali, promised to use “disparate-impact theory” to investigate schools that were disproportionately disciplining minority children or weren’t ensuring equal access to advanced courses. Furthermore, Ali promised to “issue 17 guidance letters that will touch on issues such as how districts should address sexual violence in schools, how nurses should be trained to address students’ food allergies or work with students who have diabetes, and how schools should address the needs of ELLs who are gifted or have disabilities.” No micromanagement there!

These were not empty threats. In January of 2014, OCR, along with the Justice Department, rolled out a “Dear Colleague” letter that is certain to have a chilling effect on the use of appropriate school-discipline measures.

The key part of the administration’s policy states,

The administration of student discipline can result in unlawful discrimination based on race in two ways: first, if a student is subjected to different treatment based on the student’s race, and second, if a policy is neutral on its face — meaning that the policy itself does not mention race — and is administered in an evenhanded manner but has a disparate impact, i.e., a disproportionate and unjustified effect on students of a particular race.

As eminent legal scholar Richard Epstein explains in a recent Education Next article,

Much of the analysis turns on the word “unjustified.” Disproportionate rates should not be regarded as unjustified merely because they reflect higher rates of improper behavior by minority students than by white students. But this point is never explicitly acknowledged in the ED and DOJ guidance.

This is the heart of the matter. What if African-American and Latino students actually misbehave at higher rates than do white and Asian students? If that’s the case, then race-neutral discipline policies, fairly applied, will result in a greater proportion of minority students receiving punishments. Yet the administration is saying that educators whose legitimate, even necessary, actions produce that result can still be charged with discrimination. Epstein rightly asks,

Just what sanction should apply to a school where discipline is imposed on a color-blind standard yet has statistically imperfect outcomes? Should some white students be summarily suspended, expelled, or otherwise sanctioned to make the numbers come out correctly? Or should schools give a pass to black students who have committed serious offenses in order to achieve the same ends?

Lamentably, it cannot surprise us if minority students today misbehave at “disproportionate” rates. African-American and Latino children in America are much more likely to face challenges that put them “at risk” for antisocial behavior. They are more likely to be poor (and much more likely to be extremely poor); more likely to grow up in a single-parent family (nearly always headed by a mother, which is especially problematic for boys growing up); much more likely to have a parent in prison; and much more likely to live in neighborhoods where poverty is concentrated. Civil-rights enforcers should, at minimum, consider these “background variables.” Yet the administration’s policy looks at race alone. 

A Right to Advanced Placement?
Another obsession of Duncan’s OCR has been getting more poor and minority students into advanced courses, such as the College Board’s AP classes. On its face this is a laudable goal, and reform-minded districts (and charter schools) have made much progress in preparing disadvantaged students for the rigors of challenging coursework. But is this an appropriate realm for civil-rights enforcement?

If schools are forced by an OCR investigation to expand access to AP classes for poor and minority kids, what are the chances that they will also do all the complex work it takes (from kindergarten through 11th grade) to make sure those students are ready? To implement solid curricula, hire stronger teachers, provide extra help for struggling children? Isn’t it much more likely that bureaucrats will simply flood AP courses with unprepared students? We can all guess what the impact will be on the students who are ready for AP coursework, whose classes will be inundated by peers who haven’t mastered the prerequisite material.

Yet that’s precisely the chain of events set in motion by OCR’s latest (and breathtakingly audacious) “Dear Colleague” letter, this one focused on “unequal access to educational resources.” While asserting a federal right to equal spending (something the left has sought ever since its defeat in San Antonio v. Rodriguez), OCR claims (emphasis added),

Equal educational opportunity requires that all students, regardless of race, color, or national origin, have comparable access to the diverse range of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities offered in our Nation’s schools. Students who have access to, and enroll in, rigorous courses are more likely to go on to complete postsecondary education. Further, completing college or other postsecondary education such as a technical certification is increasingly necessary for students to enter careers that will enable them to join the middle class.

Therefore, OCR assesses the types, quantity, and quality of programs available to students across a school district to determine whether students of all races have equal access to comparable programs both among schools and among students within the same school. OCR generally considers a range of specialized programs, such as early childhood programs including preschool and Head Start, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, gifted and talented programs, career and technical education programs, language immersion programs, online and distance learning opportunities, performing and visual arts, athletics, and extracurricular activities such as college preparatory programs, clubs, and honor societies.

So if a district has two high schools — one serving mostly affluent white students, and another serving mostly poor and minority students — those schools had better offer a similar number of Advancement Placement courses, lest the OCR come knocking on their doors. Never mind everything we know about low-income children coming into school with all manner of disadvantages, all of which make them much less likely to be ready for AP-level courses by the 12th grade. Some will make it there, to be sure, thanks in part to great schools. But to expect equal numbers of rich and poor to be ready for advanced courses is to ignore reams of social science and to engage in wishful thinking.

Each of these examples has three things in common. First, they show a complete disregard for the notion that federal power is limited by our Constitution. Second, they illustrate an almost endless faith in federal bureaucrats’ ability to intervene effectively and positively in far-away places. And third, and most disturbingly, they consistently disadvantage the poor and minority children who deserve our greatest support: those who are already striving to be successful. Schools serving poor and minority students will respond to these dictates by turning a blind eye to discipline problems and by crowding advanced courses with unprepared students.

It’s a perversion of the notion of equal opportunity, and it’s wrong.

— Michael J. Petrilli is research fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

What’s Right about Common Core

by Robert Pondiscio
The beleaguered standards include education ideas conservatives have long championed.

I confess I’m somewhat bewildered by the passionate arguments over the Common Core State Standards. Getting in high dudgeon about K–12 learning standards, which say almost nothing about what kids do in school all day, makes no more sense to me than getting apoplectic about food-handling procedures, which I seldom think about when pushing my cart through the grocery store. In New York City, where I live, architects seem grimly determined of late to litter the skyline with strange new monstrosities, each a greater eyesore than the last. It had not occurred to me to blame Gotham’s building codes. 

I expect an argument when I assign my students Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Hayek. But standards? They are dry, unlovely things.

But no matter. I come neither to praise nor bury the Common Core State Standards, now widely regarded as a “damaged brand” and a political piñata. But I do wish to point out that the standards enshrine several sound education ideas that have long been near and dear to conservatives. If Common Core disappears tomorrow, the considerable energy that has gone into fighting the standards ought to be redirected toward ensuring their survival. If not, conservatives may win a pyrrhic victory over standards, losing the bigger, longer war to improve America’s schools. 

Here are a few big ideas in Common Core worth preserving and promoting:

Reading to Learn
If you haven’t set foot in an elementary school in a few decades, you might be surprised and dismayed to see what reading instruction has become. Most of us over the age of 40 probably remember learning to read, then reading to learn — and little explicit reading instruction after third grade. Those days are long over. Reading instruction in America now mirrors adolescence. It never ends. Under the pressure of testing, English-language arts (ELA) dominates the school day.

There’s merit to the idea that if children struggle with it, they should spend more time reading. However, reading is not a “skill” like riding a bike that you can learn, practice, and transfer to any bike. It’s true that your ability to turn the letters on this page into words is a transferable skill; this explains why you can “read” made-up nonsense words like “plizzle” or “pagbo.” But making meaning from the written word is far more complicated. Reading comprehension largely depends on vocabulary and background knowledge — a common understanding of both the words and the context — shared between readers and writers. Pick up a newspaper story about a sport you don’t follow, for example, or try reading the instructions for installing an operating system on your computer (if you’re not a tech whiz) for a quick demonstration of the importance of background knowledge. You may find that you know all of the words, but still struggle to make sense of stories on subjects you don’t know a lot about. If reading comprehension feels like a skill to you, it’s because you know at least a little about a lot of things. Broad general knowledge of the world correlates with reading comprehension — the more you know, the more you take from reading. 

This is one of the primary reasons middle-class and affluent children are primed for reading success relative to their disadvantaged peers. Well-off kids are far more likely to bring to school the knowledge and verbal advantages that accrue from enrichment opportunities, educated parents, and a language-rich home environment — all of which pay big dividends in literacy.

The way most elementary schools teach reading has tended to ignore the symbiotic relationship between broad knowledge and broad reading ability. For years, teachers have been encouraged to teach comprehension as a collection of “reading strategies” to be applied to any text on any subject (like “predicting,” “visualizing,” or “finding the main idea”) as long as it’s at a child’s “just right” reading level.

By contrast, Common Core’s recognition that content matters — the more you know, the more you can read with understanding — is an important recognition of how reading comprehension actually works. It’s one of the reasons Common Core asks schools to spend more time with nonfiction texts. But with or without Common Core, overthrowing the content-agnostic, skills-and-strategies approach to reading instruction is long overdue.  And not just any nonfiction will do. Schooling needs to be coherent. 

Curriculum Matters
Nearly 30 years ago, an unlikely bestseller found its way on to the New York Times best-seller list and lingered there for six months. E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Cultural Literacy came out at the height of the 1980s culture wars and was was fiercely championed by conservatives, starting with then–education secretary Bill Bennett. In the decades since, Hirsch has been indefatigable in arguing that progressive, “child-centered” education ideas do real harm to kids. If we want to ensure that every child can read and write competently, Hirsch argued, we have to ensure that schools impart a common body of knowledge in history, science, the arts, and other subjects. Hirsch founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, spawning a network of schools — public, private, and charter — dedicated to his curriculum. And where those schools weren’t available, homeschoolers have used his books to guide learning over countless kitchen tables.

But within the American education establishment, Hirsch’s arguments largely fell on deaf ears — until Common Core. To be clear, Common Core is not a curriculum, which is a defined and detailed course of study — lessons, assignments, books, and tests – in a given subject. But the authors make it clear the standards can’t be met without one. Indeed, perhaps the most important feature of Common Core is the most overlooked – its call for a knowledge-rich curriculum:

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

Hirsch was not involved in the writing of the Common Core Standards, but this brief passage is a tidy summary of his thought and insight. Indeed, the principal author of the Common Core Language Arts standards recently described Hirsch’s vision as “absolutely foundational” to the standards.

It’s hard to imagine a single education reform that would do more to improve the verbal proficiency of American children – especially low-income and minority kids – than for Hirsch’s call for a rich, coherent elementary and middle-school curriculum to take deep and permanent roots in American schools. It would be brutally ironic if our schools’ long-overdue core-knowledge moment – long devoutly wished by conservatives – was sacrificed on the altar of Common Core.

Show What You Know
There’s no nice way to say this. Writing in our schools is in appalling shape. The dominant “authentic” and “child-centered” instructional techniques championed by progressive educators haven’t helped much. Children as young as third grade are routinely asked to write about their personal experiences – even producing “memoirs.” The personal essay remains, alas, a staple of the college-admissions process, but it leaves students ill equipped for the demands of more-scholarly writing once they arrive on campus, much less for the kind of professional writing demanded by the real world.

Meanwhile, the old-fashioned book report is as dead as the dodo bird. Prior to Common Core, when children wrote about books they’d read, it was far more common to write a “personal response.” This can mean pages of inconsequential personal reflection only tangentially related to the book. This fashionable flavor of writing is intended to be engaging. If kids enjoy writing, the theory goes, they’ll write more. But too many teachers tend to be far more concerned with “voice” than with structure or grammar. At its worst, the “writer’s workshop” can feel more like group-therapy sessions than helping kids develop any particular set of skills.

Common Core focuses – some might say fetishizes – reading and writing for evidence. This doesn’t – or shouldn’t – mean that kids never write creatively or about topics they choose themselves. But there can be little doubt that the pendulum has swung too far in recent years in favor of personal expression. The very worst that one can say about this is that it’s an overdue market correction. This too deserves to survive, with or without Common Core.

There are other features of Common Core worth saving with or without the standards themselves. The standards reinforce the importance of phonics; it’s hard to see much support for discredited whole-language techniques.

And contrary to what critics claim, the math standards do not discourage memorization of math facts or the use of standard algorithms; in fact, they are much more traditional than most collections of state math standards that they replaced. Remember, there is no such thing as a Common Core “curriculum.” The daily parade of bizarre “Common Core” math problems and homework and reading assignments that litter social media is almost invariably a function of an individual school or teacher’s impressionistic interpretation, not the standards themselves.

But, again, no matter. Conservatives have valid reasons to object to Common Core’s rollout and overly warm federal embrace. But the overheated rhetoric around Common Core elides the fact that it incorporates several fundamentally sound and long overdue ideas that have gone missing from our schools for decades.

So throw out Common Core if you must. But be careful. Some of our babies are in that bathwater.

— Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., and a senior adviser to Democracy Prep Public Schools.

Knowledge Makes a Comeback

by Sol Stern
From the October 20, 2014, issue of NR

I began writing about education 20 years ago, in part because of the disturbing instructional practices I was seeing at my children’s New York City elementary school. When my oldest son was accepted for the kindergarten class at P.S. 87 (despite living outside the catchment area) my wife and I celebrated our good luck. Also known as the William Tecumseh Sherman School, P.S. 87 was considered the crown jewel of Manhattan’s Upper West Side by the neighborhood’s liberal parents. It had just been named by Parents magazine as one of the ten best elementary schools — public or private — in the United States.

P.S. 87 proudly affirmed its progressive educational traditions, but I had no idea what that would mean for my kids’ education. The first thing I learned was that the school followed no common curriculum. Many of the teachers had been trained at Columbia University’s Teachers College or the Bank Street College of Education, where they were taught that they should “teach the child, not the text” and that all children were “natural learners.” Another pedagogical insight disseminated at these progressive ed schools was that the classroom teacher must be a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage.”

Thus my son’s third-grade teacher devoted months of classroom time to a unit on Japanese culture, with the children building a Japanese garden. When I asked my son what he had learned in math each day, he cheerfully answered, “We’re still building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the apparent lack of math content. He told us not to worry; in building the garden with his classmates, my son was acquiring “real-life math skills.”

Nevertheless, we continued to worry, even more so when our son’s fourth-grade teacher assigned “real life” math-homework problems, including one in which he was asked to calculate how many Arawak Indians Christopher Columbus killed during his conquest of the island of Hispaniola.

As for history, P.S. 87’s children were taught almost nothing about the American Revolution or the Founding Fathers. I once asked my son and several of his friends whether they could tell me anything about the heroic Union commander their school was named after. They gave me blank stares. I realized that not only had the children not been taught anything about the historic figure who delivered the final blow against the slaveholders’ empire, but they knew almost nothing about any aspect of the Civil War. When I reported this to P.S. 87’s principal, he told me not to worry. Though he granted that it was important for children to learn about the Civil War, it was “more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War.”

I was now even more worried about my kids’ school. This led me to read E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s first two education books, Cultural Literacy and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. Without ever having stepped into P.S. 87, Hirsch critiqued the instructional approach that it and many other schools across the country were using. His books convinced me that the adults who worked in my kids’ school had abandoned common sense in favor of unproven progressive education fads that were causing harm, and not only to comparatively fortunate students but also, and especially, to poor minority children.

On the first page of Cultural Literacy, Hirsch summed up the appalling situation in the nation’s schools: The “unacceptable failure of our schools has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty education theories.” The problem was not that progressive educators (like P.S. 87’s principal) favored the wrong curriculum, but that they stood for no curriculum at all, rejecting the idea that there might be a set body of knowledge that all students should be expected to master. Citing romantic theories of child development going all the way back to Rousseau, the progressives assumed that with just a little help from teachers, children could acquire their own knowledge.

The most devastating consequence of this “anti-curriculum” doctrine was that it tended to widen rather than narrow the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” Hirsch wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge, which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Hirsch believed that the struggle he was leading to create a content-rich curriculum for all children was the “new civil rights frontier.” This was long before education reformers of the Left and the Right began using the civil-rights analogy.

During the two decades since my children left P.S. 87, I have written about many of the attempts that have been made to transform the system by making schools more competitive and accountable — including vouchers, charter schools, and curbing the power of teachers’ unions. I ultimately concluded that although such “market” reforms were sometimes useful, they were insufficient by themselves to bring about significant overall improvement in student achievement or to significantly narrow the racial achievement gap. The market reforms did not affect the classroom. Hirsch argued that any reform scheme must ultimately be judged by whether it produces better classroom instruction and a coherent curriculum: “The effort to develop a standard sequence of core knowledge is, to put it bluntly, absolutely essential to effective educational reform in the United States.”

Hirsch’s warnings about the absence of a curriculum based on a defined body of knowledge have been prophetic. While there have been some gains in American students’ math scores in the early grades in recent decades, reading performance has lagged far behind. Moreover, according to a recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year [1971].” Improvements in the lower grades aren’t significant if they disappear in high school, or if students entering college or the work force — the end product of the public-school system — need remediation in reading and writing, as many now do. Meanwhile, the ed schools continue to miseducate future teachers into believing that reading can be taught as a set of skills, including phonics, while ignoring the broad content knowledge that all good readers must acquire.

It’s tempting to speculate about how different this alarming picture of American student achievement might have looked if more attention had been paid to Hirsch’s plea for a content-based curriculum. Until the unveiling of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, Hirsch and his supporters had encountered little success in convincing school districts that the key to improving student achievement was a coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Now, with the adoption of the standards, there is at least an opening to do just that.

There has been much legitimate criticism of the Common Core national-standards document that 43 states have now pledged to implement. But with the exception of Massachusetts’ 1993 Education Reform Act (which was also heavily influenced by E. D. Hirsch’s ideas), no state’s standards have ever explicitly called for a content-based curriculum. On that point, the Common Core is a major improvement.

You wouldn’t know it from the incessant complaints about the standards by conservatives, but the Common Core document includes a breakthrough declaration about revolutionizing classroom instruction that is perfectly consistent with traditional education principles:

While the Standards make reference to some particular forms of content, including mythology, foundational U.S. documents, and Shakespeare, they do not — indeed cannot — enumerate all or even most of the content that students should learn. The Standards must therefore be complemented by a well-developed, content-rich curriculum consistent with the expectations laid out in this document.

Many of the grade-specific standards in the Common Core also require students to engage with specific content and broaden their historical and cultural literacy. For example, students in ninth and tenth grades are asked to “analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’), including how they address related themes and concepts.”

These and other passages about content knowledge in the standards are an acknowledgment by the Common Core writers that the evidence has vindicated E. D. Hirsch’s critique of progressive education, along with his call for restoration of a content-based, grade-by-grade curriculum.

After a quarter century of neglect by the education establishment, this is a redemptive moment for Hirsch. It’s also an opportunity for my son’s old elementary school, P.S. 87, to begin teaching a coherent curriculum, including the Civil War.

– Sol Stern is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.

Schools: The New Social-Welfare Centers

by Julie Gunlock
Schools do everything from babysitting to providing summertime meals, and that’s not good for families.

There are many reasons that our country’s public-school system fails so many American kids. Unions protect incompetent teachers (and even defend convicted child molesters), and our location-based schooling system prevents the kind of competition that has spurred tremendous innovation in other sectors of the economy.

Yet here’s another less-discussed reason many schools are in bad shape: Today, schools are not so much educational institutions as they are child-welfare centers, offering an array of services that lie outside the core educational mission.

Babysitting Services
Among the more popular programs offered at schools are the before- and after-school babysitting programs. While some are privately managed and operated, many are run directly out of the school. And even when the federal government awards grants to a private company, the programs are usually located on school property, using school facilities and resources.

Before- and after-school programs begin as early as 6 a.m. and run until 6 or 6:30 p.m. That means some children will spend more than twelve hours at school — that’s a long day even for adults. While these programs are often very popular and well run, they are also a burden on schools.

Moreover, these programs continue the already pronounced trend of shifting child-care responsibilities from family, friends, and, most of all, parents to schools and government-sponsored programs. That creates new challenges for schools, which can no longer expect parents or a loved one to engage with kids after school, helping with homework and hearing about what’s happening in their classrooms and among their peers.

Schools and these after-school care programs command the lion’s share of kids’ time during the work week and therefore end up providing the bulk of their educational and emotional support. That’s a big job even for the most dedicated education professionals, whose time is inevitably divided among dozens of kids. Kids who spend less time and who get less support from parents need more from schools, and even good schools can struggle to deliver.

School Meal Programs
Unsurprisingly, when kids began spending so many of their waking hours at schools, schools began taking over the responsibility of providing meals to students. And officials also see school feeding initiatives as a way to expand their programs and power.

For example, when officials in Washington, D.C., announced that they would expand the school dinner program from 99 to 123 of the city’s public schools, they explained to the Washington Post that the expansion had three goals: “hedging against childhood hunger, reducing alarming rates of obesity, and drawing more students to after-school programs.” So one direct purpose of these efforts is to encourage more parents to make use of after-school care. At some point the public might wonder when enough is enough: To what extent should schools be encouraging parents to outsource oversight of their kids to government bureaucracies?

This official also noted to the Post that principals and teachers reported that “not only were many kids hungry for the last few hours of a long day, some of them weren’t eating much at home.” The Post reporter focused his story on the expanded school-lunch program but could have instead considered a more fundamental question of why parents are sending their kids to school for ten-plus hours without packing them a simple meal or at least a snack to hold them over until dinner.

Similarly, a 2012 USA Today story about summer meals programs explained that these programs offer “a safe location for children to eat lunch, and [a place to] get free food to take home to their families.” Yet the reporter seemed to miss the much bigger story: Why aren’t parents feeding their children during the summer months? Why do children have to go to their schools or to mobile feeding sites to get food for themselves and their families? Talk about burying the lede!

Sadly, feeding kids is less and less seen as the parents’ responsibility, as many school officials actively discourage parents from performing this simple task. The much-lauded Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 — the school-lunch reform bill pushed by the first lady — did just that when it created a mechanism for the automatic enrollment of poor kids in school meal programs. Parents no longer even had to take the step of signing their kids up for free or reduced-price meals. Instead, students who were already receiving welfare benefits were automatically added to the meal rolls. The bill authorized the USDA to award bonuses to states that expand their free-lunch rolls — thereby incentivizing states to increase enrollment in the programs.

In February 2014, the first lady announced yet another expansion of school feeding programs: All children who attend schools in which 40 percent or more of the students are eligible (not actually participating, but eligible) for free or reduced-price lunch will now be provided, at no cost to them, school-prepared meals. In other words, demonstrating financial need is no longer required to get a government handout. Instead, all parents are encouraged to let the state take over this core parental duty.

The first lady said that the expansion was a way to “reduce the stigma and paperwork for schools,” but it also came at a big cost: Study after study shows that parental involvement is key to helping kids eating right and maintain a healthy weight, yet government increasingly seeks to push parents out of the role of feeding their own kids.

And There’s More . . . 
Today, schools do an awful lot more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. From gardening programs to school-based clubs to condom handouts and sex education to those often-politicized environmental and recycling efforts, schools have become the hub for everything a child must learn and do. Some would argue that this is a good thing, because schools have become a gathering place for the community. But putting so many responsibilities in the hands of schools erodes it.

Consider school gardens, which have long been promoted as a solution to the problem of childhood obesity problem. The idea behind the enthusiasm for these gardens was that children would more eagerly consume healthy food if they knew where it came from. But as Caitlin Flannigan observed in The Atlantic, in a powerful essay entitled “Cultivating Failure”: “The suicidal dietary choices of so many poor people are the result of a problem, not the problem itself. The solution lies in an education that will propel students into a higher economic class, where they will live better and therefore eat better.”

In other words, rather than invest so much time on these outdoor fantasies, shouldn’t schools focus on improving children’s true educational outcomes? After all, it isn’t as though schools are doing such a bang-up job on their core responsibility that they’ve earned the right to take on more and more responsibility. In fact, our national test scores confirm that schools fail to teach a frightening portion of the next generation even the most basic skills. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” only a third of eighth-grade schoolchildren attending public schools can read and do math at grade level. High-school students fared even worse — scoring an average of 153 out of 500, and only 288 in reading. In spite of these grim numbers, public schools spend, on average, more than $12,000 per child.

And It’s About to Start Even Earlier
The president’s fiscal-year 2015 budget includes a $75 billion Preschool and Early Head Start Child Care Initiative to create universal government-run child care for all three- and four-year-olds. Stressed parents might applaud the idea of getting more help with their preschoolers, but, once again, there are major costs to government taking over the duties of raising children.

When homeschooling became popular in the mid ’90s, critics often suggested that homeschooled kids would miss out on the socialization aspect of school. In response, many parents created private sports leagues, clubs, and other activities for homeschooled kids. Today, studies show that homeschoolers are thriving compared with their peers.

Parent involvement matters. When schools take the place of parents in many areas, as they are doing increasingly, it pulls focus from their primary job of educating kids. Even more alarmingly, it marginalizes parents.

— Julie Gunlock writes for the Independent Women’s Forum.

A Real Education Market

by Andrew P. Kelly
From the October 20, 2014, issue of NR

In mid June, the Department of Education put for-profit Corinthian Colleges out of business. Citing the company’s failure to respond to claims it had fudged job-placement data and falsified attendance records, the department placed a 21-day hold on any additional federal loan and grant money due the institution. Corinthian’s 107 colleges — serving 72,000 students under the Heald, Everest, and Wyotech brands — draw 83 percent of their revenue from federal sources, and the firm was already reeling from two years of declining enrollment and a dozen state-level investigations. Despite Corinthian’s $1.6 billion in revenues in 2013, the department’s hold left it without enough cash to pay the bills. In early July, the firm agreed to sell most of its campuses and close the rest.

The announcement sent a shock through the for-profit sector. The Obama administration’s bloodlust for such schools had put the industry on its heels since 2009. But before June, none of them had been effectively forced out of business by the government. Education Department officials themselves must have realized that they had overstepped, and feigned ignorance that the hold would be the final nail in Corinthian’s coffin.

Many conservatives were understandably outraged by the administration’s coup de grâce. The Wall Street Journal editorial page called it an “extraordinary violation of due process . . . akin to a judge issuing the death penalty while a case is in discovery.” Economist Richard Vedder called it an “ideological victory at the expense of many poor younger Americans.” A longtime Wells Fargo analyst of the sector called it a “chilling and aggressive new level of oversight.”

These critics are right to question the administration’s ideological campaign — more witch hunt than reform effort — against private enterprise in education. Still, it is also hard to ignore the incongruity here: Since when are conservatives the staunchest defenders of a company that takes nearly all of its revenue from taxpayers, let alone one that is known to charge substantial sums for a shoddy product? As of 2012, nearly 30 percent of Corinthian students defaulted on their federal loans within three years of entering repayment, and a 2013 investigation found that campuses had boosted job placement numbers by paying temp agencies $2,000 to hire their graduates for short stints.

Two things can be true simultaneously: First, the department’s execution of Corinthian was an ideologically motivated and inappropriate use of federal power. Second, any rational market would have driven many of Corinthian’s programs out of business long ago. Indeed, perhaps the most telling aspect of the Corinthian saga is that it takes unprecedented federal overreach to drive a poorly performing college out of business.

The bigger problem is that for every Corinthian College there are literally hundreds more — public, nonprofit, and for-profit alike — that fail students and taxpayers but operate just below the radar. Thousands more charge far too much for a mediocre product, saddling students with debt that outweighs the value of what they were taught.

It’s time to ask why we subsidize so much failure in American higher education, and what we can do about it. Our goal should be to change the incentives that allow colleges — and not just the for-profit ones, but all of them — to survive and even thrive regardless of whether they deliver anything of value.

From the outside, federal higher-education policy looks like a conservative Shangri-La: Aid is given out as a voucher, and students can choose any college they want, including private institutions. Private accreditation agencies are tasked with ensuring academic quality, keeping government regulators at arm’s length. Ideally, market forces should reward good colleges and force the bad ones out of business, with accreditation agencies setting minimal standards: a model of market-based social policy.

But this market has been less successful in reality. Colleges have capitalized on goodwill, federal largesse, and hands-off regulation by doing whatever they please. That has included charging ever-higher tuition to finance ever-larger campuses while paying little attention to how their students fare once they enroll.

Unfortunately, the students aren’t faring particularly well. Evidence suggests that college students spend ten fewer hours studying per week today than they did in the 1960s. When two researchers tracked student learning at four-year colleges, they found that more than one-third made no perceptible gains in critical thinking between their freshman and senior years.

Nationally, just over half of all students who start a degree or certificate program finish a credential within six years, and those with some college but no degree now earn about as much as their high-school-educated peers. While those who graduate are better off, they are often unprepared for the world of work. The New York Fed found that 44 percent of recent college graduates were working jobs that did not require a college diploma in 2012, a fraction that has been on the rise since 2000.

All of this failure costs a whole lot more than it used to. Tuition prices at public four-year colleges have nearly quadrupled since the early 1980s, and the federal government now hands out $170 billion a year in grants, loans, and tax credits. Students are borrowing more than ever to finance college, but earnings have not kept pace. The effective delinquency rate on student loans is now as high as it was on subprime mortgages at the height of the housing crisi

If you ask progressives, many will tell you that for-profits are to blame for these troubling trends. For instance, in a recent New York Times op-ed, Cornell professor Suzanne Mettler argued that “tougher regulations of the for-profits, long overdue, are the quickest way to help the poorest Americans who seek college degrees.”

But the notion that problems are limited to a particular tax status — and one covering schools that enroll only about 12 percent of higher-ed students — is nonsense. According to the latest federal data, borrowers from 488 of the colleges eligible for federal student aid had three-year default rates of 25 percent or higher. True, the majority of those schools were for-profit, but 166 were public institutions and 40 were private nonprofits. When it comes to graduation rates at two- and four-year colleges, there is no shortage of embarrassing results. In 2012, 681 public colleges had graduation rates of less than 25 percent, a mark matched by 165 for-profits.

No, the problem is much deeper and more insidious than tax status alone. It’s a function of colleges’ self-interest and the flawed federal policies that indulge them. Democrats argue that for-profit colleges’ interest in maximizing revenue encourages bad behavior. What they fail to realize is that all colleges operate according to self-interest. Public and nonprofit institutions may not be out to maximize revenue per se, but they work instead to maximize prestige and influence. These colleges operate under what economist (and former president of the University of Iowa) Howard Bowen called the “revenue theory of costs”: They raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise. And because the quest for prestige is open-ended, public and nonprofit colleges will tend to seek never-ending increases in spending, financed by never-ending fundraising and never-ending increases in tuition.

But maximizing prestige may have little to do with the quality of the education students receive. In fact, since measures of student learning don’t factor into popular rankings or public-funding formulas, there’s little reason to invest in great teaching. University of Michigan economist Brian Jacob and his colleagues have found that outside of the highest achievers, students tend to choose campuses that spend the most on amenities, not the ones that spend the most on instruction. Of course, the same problem applies to the for-profits: Building the best recruiting and marketing departments will attract students and revenue, but it won’t help them learn anything.

Higher-education policy could try to change these incentives. But the federal student-aid system seems tailor-made to serve the interests of colleges. The problem is threefold.

First, federal aid programs encourage any high-school graduate to enroll in any accredited institution at any price. With no underwriting of any kind, federal loans provide no signal as to the expected value of a given program. A generous federal loan program for parents, which allows borrowing up to the cost of attendance, helps ensure that students will have the money to pay tuition bills. And access to easy credit gives colleges every incentive to enroll students. Whether they succeed or not, colleges are paid in full.

Second, prospective consumers have difficulty judging the quality of different options. Some of this is unavoidable; college is hard to evaluate until it is actually experienced. But some of these blind spots are self-inflicted. Basic pieces of information needed to make a sound investment — out-of-pocket costs, the proportion of students who graduate on time, the share who earn enough to pay back their loans after graduation — are either incomplete or nonexistent. That’s due, in part, to a 2008 law that prohibited the federal government from collecting data on all college students. Championed by the private-college lobby and congressional Republicans, the ban keeps useful (and potentially embarrassing) information — things like graduation rates, debt, and post-college earnings — out of the public eye. As a result, prospective students typically have no idea whether a given program will be worth their while and are easily wooed by flashy amenities, high tuition prices, and promises of a high salary.

Information gaps would be less problematic if we could count on the accreditation agencies that serve as gatekeepers for federal aid programs to hold colleges accountable. Therein lies the third problem: Rather than protecting consumers, accreditation actually keeps poor-performing colleges in business. Accreditation is a process of peer review. Faculty from other campuses evaluate peer institutions, and accreditation agencies finance their operation with dues from the colleges they accredit. It is also a binary variable — you are either accredited or you’re not. Because federal aid is the lifeblood of colleges, the consequences of revoking accreditation are incredibly severe, with the result that accreditors are reluctant to go that far.

Together, these three structural problems have created a system in which poorly performing colleges that would never pass muster in a functioning market are rarely stripped of their access to federal aid. That aid, in turn, encourages consumers to buy substandard products they would otherwise avoid.

Conservatives typically respond to these problems with familiar calls to do away with federal aid entirely. But without any federal aid, we’d face the under-provision problem we started with: Many low-income students who would benefit from post-high-school education could not afford it. Phasing out federal aid would certainly lead to a drop in prices, but it’s not clear that the market alone would ensure equal opportunity for all qualified students.

In the absence of serious efforts to change the incentives for colleges, Republicans have ceded this ground to Democrats. As the existing system continues to deteriorate, progressive proposals to create an elaborate system of federal college ratings or a federally funded “public option” will get serious consideration. Conservatives who want to maintain and improve the market-based system must present their own set of solutions. Two ideas stand out.

The most direct way to align the interests of colleges with those of students and taxpayers is to give colleges “skin in the game” when it comes to student loans. Currently, colleges can enroll any high-school graduate with a pulse because they bear almost none of the risk that the student will fail. They’re held harmless unless and until more than 40 percent of their borrowers default on federal loans within three years. Default rates are easily gamed, though, and if students default after three years, the college gets off scot-free. Last month, the Department of Education went so far as to “adjust” some schools’ default rates at the eleventh hour in order to save them from losing aid eligibility.

As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Alex Pollock has argued, when mortgage lenders operated under a similar set of incentives — handing out risky loans, bundling them up, and then selling them to investors, thereby shedding the risk — the result was the subprime-mortgage crisis. “A principal lesson from mortgages, nearly universally agreed upon, is that those who create the mortgages should retain a material part of the credit risk,” Pollock wrote in 2012. It is a lesson that he argues we should extend to higher education.

The simplest approach would be to make colleges responsible for paying back a fixed percentage of the loans their students default on. A clear, objective risk-sharing policy would hit colleges where it hurts — their budget — and would not be all-or-nothing like current default-rate regulations or the accreditation system.

Democratic senators Jack Reed, Dick Durbin, and Elizabeth Warren have introduced legislation that would force colleges with high default rates to pay back a share of defaulted loans. But here again, Democrats would rather play favorites than hold all colleges to account. The bill includes exemptions for historically black colleges and universities and for community colleges, schools that have default rates higher than the national average. And the proposal would cover only campuses where more than 25 percent of students take out loans. In other words, Democrats believe that only a subset of colleges should have skin in the game.

Excluding groups of colleges from risk sharing would be akin to exempting some mortgage lenders from regulation because they lend to subprime clients. We know how such lenders behaved when they had no skin in the game, and it wasn’t pretty. A better way to avoid unintended consequences would be to couple risk sharing with rewards for serving low-income students well. For instance, the feds could provide colleges with a cash bonus for every Pell Grant recipient they graduate, providing schools with an incentive to lift students out of poverty.

The second way to align the interests of colleges, students, and taxpayers is to provide consumers of higher education with the information they need to make informed decisions. In K–12 education, Republicans have been the party of transparency and accountability. The No Child Left Behind Act failed on many fronts, but it did compel states to collect and publish valuable information on the performance of public schools. When it comes to higher education, though, many congressional Republicans have stood in the way of similar ideas, not only rejecting the Bush administration’s recommendation to collect better federal data but banning such collection outright. This policy has left consumers in the dark when it comes to basic facts about their options, leading to bad investments and stunted market discipline.

Not all Republicans have toed the line. Senator Marco Rubio (Fla.) teamed up with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon to propose the Know before You Go Act, which would require the federal government to collect data on graduation rates, debt, and post-college earnings and publish that information for each program a college offers. Without support from other conservatives, however, these efforts to empower and protect consumers will go nowhere.

Some might argue that skin-in-the-game and transparency reforms represent an expansion of federal power. Conservatives should strenuously disagree. Skin in the game is not an expansion of the federal role, but a way to ensure that federal investments don’t go to waste. This sort of arrangement is standard in other policy areas. In the food-stamp program, for example, if local agencies dole out too many benefits in error, states must pay financial penalties to the federal government. Since that policy was instituted, food-stamp error rates have plummeted.

Likewise, the federal government is the only entity that can systematically track and publish information on post-college earnings and debt. Some states have tried admirably, but they can’t follow graduates across their borders. Put simply, better consumer information is a public good without which the market will continue to fail.

Rather than micromanaging colleges from Washington, these reforms would compel them to consider taxpayers and students’ interests as well as their own. Conservatives should welcome such a change.

– Andrew P. Kelly is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, whose Center on Higher Education Reform he directs. This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.

The Left’s Legal War on Children

by Jason Bedrick
The war against school choice hurts the very children it is supposed to help.

Nearly 60 years after Milton Friedman proposed a system of universal school choice in his seminal essay “The Role of Government in Education,” his vision is more popular than ever — and opponents of school choice are taking every measure to fight it.

In a recent survey by Education Next, half of those polled expressed support for universal school vouchers, and 60 percent favored giving tax credits for individual and corporate donations to scholarship organizations that help low- and middle-income families pay private-school tuition. Moreover, a recent Friedman Foundation survey found that support for school-choice tax-credit laws was highest among groups that traditionally vote for Democrats, including low-income Americans (67 percent), younger people (74 percent), blacks (72 percent), and Hispanics (80 percent).

That popularity has translated into political success. The number of private-school choice programs has more than tripled in the last decade, from 15 in 2004 to 51 programs in 24 states and Washington, D.C., today. In that time span, the number of students attending a private school with a voucher or tax-credit scholarship has grown from just under 100,000 to over 300,000.

Much of that growth has occurred in just the last few years. Since 2011, dubbed “The Year of School Choice” by the Wall Street Journal, states have adopted 24 new school-choice laws and expanded 33 existing choice programs. None have been legislatively repealed.

With school choice winning in state legislatures and the court of public opinion, opponents of choice have turned to the courts to stop them. Left-wing groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the teachers’ unions, and the Florida School Boards Association have filed a bevy of lawsuits in recent years to stem the school-choice tidal wave. Perversely, these organizations’ lawsuits would harm the very populations that they claim to want to help.

There are currently active anti-school-choice lawsuits in Alabama, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and North Carolina, plus two in Florida. Last month, a judge dismissed a third lawsuit by the Florida Education Association because it could not demonstrate harm and therefore lacked standing. Lower courts in Oklahoma and North Carolina recently struck down those states’ special-needs voucher and low-income voucher, respectively. Those decisions are being appealed.

Earlier this year, a federal judge tossed out a challenge to Alabama’s school-choice law, which absurdly claimed that the law violated the equal-protection clause because it failed to rescue all children from low-performing public schools. The judge held that the “equal protection” the plaintiffs sought was, “in effect, equally bad treatment.” A second lawsuit challenging Alabama’s school-choice law on procedural grounds is pending appeal.

What follows is a summary of three of the main types of legal challenges that school-choice laws currently face.

The most common anti-school-choice legal challenge claims that such laws unconstitutionally fund religious education with public money.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that school-voucher programs are consistent with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause when they serve a secular purpose and are neutral with respect to religion, and when aid goes to parents, who then choose where their child attends school. Thus any public money that flows to a religious institution does so only as a result of the choice of a child’s parents. In this sense, a parent who uses a school voucher is constitutionally no different from a person who regularly hosts Bible studies in his Section 8 subsidized apartment or uses SNAP funds to purchase food for a religious feast.

Since this decision closed the door to challenges under the U.S. Constitution, opponents of school choice turned to the historically anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendments” contained in most state constitutions. During the late 19th century, Senator James Blaine of Maine, a nativist, sought to amend the U.S. Constitution to forbid state aid to religious schools, fearing that Catholic immigrants would want government funds for their parochial schools. At that time, public schools were de facto nondenominational Protestant schools. Though Blaine’s effort was unsuccessful at the federal level, most states adopted some version of his proposed amendment, often in addition to an earlier constitutional provision prohibiting the “compelled support” of religion.

State supreme courts have differed in their interpretation of the Blaine Amendments. Some courts have closely tracked the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, as the Indiana Supreme Court did last year in unanimously upholding the state’s voucher law. However, the Arizona Supreme Court had previously struck down two voucher laws under that state’s Blaine Amendment.

Nevertheless, the Arizona court upheld the state’s school-choice tax-credit law because tax credits do not constitute public funds. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled likewise in ACSTO v. Winn (2011), holding that funds do not become “public money” until they have “come into the tax collector’s hands.” In that sense, tax credits are constitutionally no different from tax deductions or exemptions. For example, no reasonable person believes that a church is “publicly funded” because its donors receive charitable-donation tax deductions or because the church itself receives a 100 percent property-tax exemption.

Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected a Blaine Amendment challenge to the state’s school-choice tax-credit law, holding that none of the plaintiffs had standing to sue since the law did not harm them. School-choice tax-credit laws have a perfect record so far in states’ high courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, Arizona’s education-savings-account law also survived a Blaine Amendment challenge, despite the state supreme court’s previous hostility toward vouchers. The court ruled that the law was constitutional because parents can spend the funds on a wide variety of educational expenses beyond tuition — and a significant number of families did not spend any of the funds on tuition.

The Florida public-school establishment is suing to repeal the Sunshine State’s 13-year-old school-choice tax credit and its new education savings accounts under the state’s Blaine Amendment and its “uniformity clause,” which mandates that “Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools. . . . ” The Florida Supreme Court previously struck down the state’s voucher program under this provision in Bush v. Holmes (2006), on the grounds that the vouchers “divert[ed] public dollars” from “the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida’s children.”

In other words, the Florida Supreme Court interpreted “uniform” to mean “exclusive.” That reading would be strained even if not for the fact that the very same sentence of the Florida Constitution explicitly authorizes the state to create “other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.” Further straining credulity, the court interpreted the latter clause to refer only to junior colleges and adult-education programs.

Both the dissenters and two of the five justices in the Holmes majority have since been replaced, so it’s unclear how the new bench is likely to rule. It remains to be seen whether it has the will to eliminate the nearly 70,000 scholarships going to mostly minority, low-income families.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court, the Florida Supreme Court may find that the plaintiffs do not have standing to challenge the school-choice tax-credit law because it does not utilize public funds. Moreover, since the Holmes decision also interpreted “uniform” to mean that all schools must teach the same curriculum, it would appear to outlaw the state’s public charter schools, which are not required by Florida statute to teach the state curriculum. The far-reaching consequences, combined with the fact that Holmes contradicts the plain meaning of the state constitution, may be enough to persuade the new bench to overturn or at least narrowly limit the Holmes precedent.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice attacked Louisiana’s voucher law, claiming that it thwarted the DOJ’s efforts to desegregate public schools. Ludicrously, the initial brief pointed to only two examples: a school that “lost six black students as a result of the voucher program,” thereby “reinforcing the school’s racial identity as a white school in a predominantly black school district,” and a disproportionately black school that “lost” five white students. The shift in the racial makeup of each of these schools was less than 1 percent, yet that was too much for the racial bean counters at the DOJ.

Worse, Louisiana’s vouchers were restricted to low-income families with children assigned to failing public schools. More than 85 percent of the voucher recipients were black. The Washington Post condemned the DOJ’s lawsuit as “appalling,” noting that “rules to fight racism” were being “used to keep students in failing schools.”

The absurdity of the DOJ’s lawsuit was further exposed when two studies by researchers at the University of Arkansas and Boston University revealed that the net effect of the voucher program was to improve racial integration. The DOJ eventually backpedaled somewhat, dropping its demand that it have authority to approve or deny every single voucher, but a federal judge ruled that the state must fork over data about the race of participating students, which the DOJ could use in future challenges.

Defenders of the public-school monopoly have had limited success in their lawfare against school choice, despite a few painful decisions. As the courts continue to uphold choice programs, opponents will likely shift to using regulation to strangle choice programs and turn to more targeted legal challenges, like the DOJ’s threats against Milwaukee’s voucher program over special-needs enrollment. When crafting school-choice laws, wise legislators will consult in advance with the experts at the Institute for Justice, the Goldwater Institute, the Pacific Legal Foundation, or the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to ensure that their legislation is well designed to withstand the inevitable legal challenge.

As ever, eternal vigilance is the price of educational liberty.

— Jason Bedrick is an education-policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

In Defense of For-Profit Colleges

by Neal McCluskey
Too many taxpayer dollars go to gild the whole ivory tower, not just the for-profit sector.

Unless you follow education policy closely, you probably don’t know who Representative John Kline is. But just a few weeks ago, lefty talk-show host and comedian Bill Maher declared the district of the Minnesota Republican his top target for flipping from red to blue. Why? First and foremost, because Kline chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee and gets donations from, apparently, the worst villains this side of the Joker and Lex Luthor: for-profit colleges.

After running through a parade of horribles perpetrated by Kline — opposing Obamacare, Planned Parenthood funding, etc. — Maher stated that Kline is at his worst on higher education, especially because he “is the champion of for-profit colleges, which they used to call diploma mills, but that’s back when you at least got a diploma.” Then he really zinged the schools: “These are not real colleges. Real colleges have leafy quads and libraries, and hippie professors who turn nice Christian kids into bisexual atheists.”

Maher is not alone in attacking proprietary schools. For the last several years, Senate education committee chairman Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) has hunted the for-profit sector as if it were his white whale, holding slanted hearings, issuing a damning report, and generally railing against the colleges. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Education has been pushing “gainful employment” regulations, due to be finalized in the coming months, specifically targeting for-profit schools. And then there are state attorneys general, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who have launched several splashy investigations into proprietary colleges.

So are for-profits truly awful? At least, do they perform worse than the thousands of putatively nonprofit institutions sporting the leafy quads and Christian-flipping profs that Cornell grad Maher and so many others seem to think essential to higher education?

There are certainly reasons for concern.

A major one is the sector’s high federal student-loan default rate. According to the most recent numbers, 19 percent of students at for-profit schools had defaulted within three years of entering repayment, versus 13 percent at public institutions and 7 percent at private, nonprofit institutions.

Their completion rates aren’t stellar, either. According to the federal Digest of Education Statistics, the latest six-year completion rate for people in four-year programs is a cringe-inducing 32 percent. Finally, there’s the cost: According to the College Board, which produces annual reports on college prices and aid, the average cost of tuition and fees at for-profit institutions was $15,130 last year. That was 70 percent higher than the state-resident price at an average four-year public college, though only about half the cost of a four-year, nonprofit private school.

All this looks pretty bad for for-profit colleges. But here’s the thing: Public and not-for-profit private schools also produce atrocious results. This is especially true when you try to pinpoint students with demographics similar to those at for-profit schools: generally older, lower-income people who were less likely to be on a college-prep track in high school.

Consider completion rates again. When you compare for-profits with public colleges with noncompetitive admissions — the schools most likely dealing with similar types of students — for-profits equal or outperform them.

The six-year graduation rate for open-enrollment public schools is the same as for proprietary four-year programs: 32 percent. For African Americans, the for-profits beat their competition. Twenty-one percent at for-profits completed their programs within six years, compared with 18 percent at open-admissions public institutions.

The numbers are starker when you look at two-year institutions. For-profits see 63 percent of students complete within 150 percent of the time a program is supposed to take. For public two-year institutions, the figure is a minuscule 20 percent. Among African Americans, the difference is 53 percent to 11 percent.

There are problems with these data — they include only first-time, full-time students who finish at the institution where they started — but they are the best available, and at the very least they strongly suggest that for-profits do as good a job or better of moving their types of students to graduation than do public colleges.

But do the resulting credentials translate into increased earnings?

Again, there are no broad, systematic data on outcomes, so it is impossible to control for all the factors needed to isolate the effects of schools versus student characteristics. However, one study using federal data, conducted by the Parthenon Group but funded by embattled Corinthian Colleges, suggested that enrolling in a two-year-or-less for-profit program generated greater short-term gains than did doing the same at a two-year public institution. For-profit students saw a $7,900 jump in annual earnings versus $7,300 for those who graduated from community colleges, though from a baseline of just $14,700, versus $20,300 for community-college students.

Perhaps a more powerful indicator of success than questionable earnings data is that enrollment in proprietary schools has grown at a pace eclipsing that in the other higher-education sectors. According to the most recent data, between 1992 and 2012 enrollment at for-profit schools grew nearly eightfold — from 230,269 students to 1,808,898 — while at private nonprofits and public colleges it rose by only a third.

Apparently, for-profit schools are providing something many people want, and unless you assume people are shockingly irrational, that is an important sign of relative effectiveness. And again, you have to see for-profit schools in context to understand their draw.

Proprietary schools are typically unadorned operations found in strip malls, office buildings, and online, offering flexible schedules and frequent enrollment periods. They are intended to be places where you can get the skills or credential you need, quickly, because you’ve got kids and a job to worry about. Meanwhile, traditional colleges are geared toward, well, traditional students: just-out-of-high-school kids whose primary job is to go to school.

Okay, maybe “job” is misleading. More than just the leafy quads of Maher U, today these institutions offer amenities ranging from first-run movie theaters to rock concerts to recreation facilities differing from a Carnival Cruise only in that the college is on land. On land, that is, unless you are on a “Semester at Sea,” sunbathing at the University of Missouri’s “Truman’s Pond,” or floating through Texas Tech’s $8.4-million “leisure pool” complete with a meandering “lazy river.”

Of course, college prices have infamously skyrocketed as traditional students have demanded more amenities and as schools have grabbed for cash.  And who has furnished much of the inflationary fuel? The very politicians who devote so much energy to attacking for-profits. According to the College Board, inflation-adjusted federal student aid leapt from $38 billion in the 1992–93 academic year to $170 billion in 2012–13, a blistering 347 percent increase.

And just because they are called “nonprofit,” don’t think traditional schools don’t bring in far more money than it costs to educate most undergraduates. According to a Cato Institute analysis by Oklahoma State University professor Vance Fried, once donations and state subsidies are factored in — two huge revenue streams that for-profits don’t have — public research universities make profits of around $11,000 per student, and private, nonprofit schools nearly $13,000. The only reason this isn’t called “profit” is that, rather than sending it to investors, schools keep it in the form of higher salaries, more employees, new amenities, and so on.

Which brings us to perhaps the primary reason that for-profits have been under such focused assault: They make great scapegoats for politicians whose huge subsidy programs are a major cause of rampant price inflation and fruitless college enrollment. Rather than address their poisonous but popular aid programs, politicians point to those who dare openly seek a profit and declare, “There’s the witch!”

But ignoring the real problem won’t make it go away. And contra Bill Maher, the problem isn’t too many leafless, quad-less, for-profit colleges. It is far too much taxpayer money throughout the ivory tower, and there’s nothing funny about that.

— Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Time for a Reboot

by Chester E. Finn Jr.
Individualization, technology, new funding options: ideas on tomorrow’s education reform.

Americans are ambivalent about testing, standards, and accountability in their children’s schools. This is clear from survey results that swing wildly depending on how, exactly, the question is phrased — and on whether the practice in question might inconvenience one’s own kid, as apart from “fixing those awful schools across town.”

The public shows far greater tolerance for tests whose scores may yield things we crave — admission to the college of one’s choice, for example (SAT, ACT), even advance credit for college work (AP) — than for the kind whose foremost purpose is to rank schools or teachers and give distant officials data by which to fine-tune their policies. Indeed, when it comes to statewide standardized testing of the sort that’s become universal in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, a great many parents — and a huge fraction of teachers — appear to have had enough. They grump, with some justice, that

Too much school time is given over to test prep — and the pressure to lift scores leads to cheating and other unsavory practices.

Subjects and accomplishments that aren’t tested — art, creativity, leadership, independent thinking, etc. — are getting squeezed if not discarded.

Teachers are losing their freedom to practice their craft, to make classes interesting and stimulating, to act like professionals.

The curricular homogenizing that generally follows from standardized tests and state (or national) standards represents an undesirable usurpation of school autonomy, teacher freedom, and local control by distant authorities.

Judging teachers and schools by pupil test scores is inaccurate and unfair, given the kids’ different starting points and home circumstances, the variation in class sizes and school resources, and the many other services that schools and teachers are now expected to provide their students.

The political fracas brought on by Common Core standards has certainly exacerbated all of the above.

Although decent responses exist for every one of these concerns, as do sundry ways of curbing their excesses, it’s probably time for education reformers and policymakers to admit that just pushing harder on test-driven accountability as the primary tool for changing our creaky old public-school system is apt to yield more backlash than accomplishment. In any case, the NCLB-era strategies — centered on setting standards, administering assessments, and holding everybody “accountable” for the results on those tests — have yielded only modest gains, especially in the high-school years.

That’s not to say testing should cease. It’s still essential to know how kids and schools (and districts and states) are doing at the requisite skills and knowledge of the core curriculum, to inform families making school choices, and to enable educators to fine-tune their own work. The end-of-year results, in particular, make possible all manner of diagnoses, ratings, gain calculations, and interventions at every level of the system, and we’d be crazy to do away with such hard-won information. Yet testing is not a sufficient engine to drive the next generation of education reforms.

So what might be?

The wrong answer is to give up (or declare victory) and settle for the status quo. Far too many kids are still dropping out, far too few are entering college and the work force with the requisite skills, and far too many other countries are chowing down on our lunch.

Major-league education change is still needed, maybe now more than ever, and it’s no time for either complacency or despair.

Alongside transparency-oriented testing based on rigorous standards for the curricular core, here are four drivers of tomorrow’s reforms that are already nudging in promising directions and have the potential to push much harder:

1. Individualization. Without going crazy — everybody still needs to learn to multiply, to compose a grammatical sentence, to explain the background of the Civil War — education is ripe to shift from batch-processing to customizing kids’ instructional experience, moving from pre-set menus to some version of “grazing.” Not just with regard to what is learned or when, but also the mode of instruction — and the rate at which a youngster moves through school.

2. Technology hugely simplifies individualization. Over time, it will also save money, and some of those savings can be redeployed toward hiring better — but fewer — flesh-and-blood teachers. Completely “virtual” out-of-school education will have limited appeal — eight-year-olds still need an adult nearby, plus other kids — but there’s vast potential in “blended” learning under the school roof. And older kids can carry these options beyond the classroom.

3. Quality choices. Choice among schools is a fine thing, and the U.S. has made major strides in widening access for millions of kids via vouchers, charters, tax credits, savings accounts, and more. But some youngsters still have few options — and too many of the available options are mediocre. This part of the reform agenda needs more work, as does widening the marketplace to include choices among courses, delivery systems, even teachers.

4. Attaching the money to the child. All of the foregoing strategies will stumble so long as education dollars flow to schools and districts through multiple program channels that have little to do with which students attend which schools, that fund traditional district schools far more generously than “schools of choice,” and that cannot be counted upon to move if the child changes schools, courses, speed, or delivery system. Solidly placing all the money in the child’s backpack, varying the amount according to her circumstances, giving families substantial say over what schools (or other vendors) will receive it, then empowering the school to spend it however does that child the most good — this may turn out to be the most liberating reform of all.

Each of these strategies will face opposition from the education establishment and will be disruptive of hoary structures and timeworn policies. But if the available alternatives are status quo on one hand and just doubling down on testing on the other, it’s surely worth giving them a chance.

 Education reform is dead. Long live education reform.

— Chester E. Finn Jr. is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.

ESAs Are Changing the Game

by Lindsey M. Burke
Education savings accounts give parents a wide range of options, from private schools to online learning.

‘A blind student in Arizona gets about $21,000 a year,” says Marc Ashton, whose son, Max, is legally blind. That $21,000 represents what Arizona spends to educate a student such as Max in the public-school system.

“We took our 90 percent of that, paid for Max to get the best education in Arizona, plus all of his Braille, all of his technology, and then there was still money left over to put toward his college education,” Marc explains. “So he is going to be able to go on to Loyola Marymount University, because we were able to save money, even while sending him to the best school in Arizona, out of what the state would normally pay for him.”

How did the Ashtons do it? Thanks to Arizona’s innovative education savings account (ESA) option, they were able to take 90 percent of the funds the state would have spent on Max in the local public school, and instead create a customized education plan for him. In Arizona, those eligible for an ESA include children in underperforming schools, foster children, children of active-duty military families, and children with special needs and their siblings.

Parents receive a debit card loaded with their child’s education funding — just the state portion, no local or federal education dollars — and can then use that money to pay for a variety of education-related services and products.

That flexibility is why education savings accounts represent the next generation of school choice.

Distributions to ESAs are made quarterly, with each quarter’s allocation being deposited after the family has submitted receipts for the previous quarter’s education expenses to the state Department of Education. In the event there was a misuse of funds, the subsequent quarter’s payment can be withheld and used to rectify the issue.

The amount of money distributed into a family’s ESA depends on student-specific factors. In Arizona, as of 2012, children in foster care, in active-duty military families, or assigned to an underperforming public school received approximately $2,800 per year (90 percent of the state per-pupil allocation of approximately $3,100). An expansion in 2013 increased the average award to roughly $5,300.

Children with special needs receive significantly larger distributions according to their disability. In the Ashtons’ case, as we saw, this meant about $21,000 per year, although, on average, students with special needs in Arizona are awarded approximately $13,500.

ESAs operate on the philosophy that parents are best equipped to make the important decisions about their child’s education. For their part, parents who choose to participate in the ESA option sign a contract agreeing to ensure that their children receive an education in the core academic subjects.

While the Ashtons used the bulk of their ESA to pay for tuition at a private school, they were also able to direct dollars toward Max’s assistive technology to facilitate his learning, along with his Braille textbooks and talking computer. And as Marc mentioned, they still had money left over at the end of each year to roll into a college savings account, which Max will put toward his tuition at Loyola Marymount this fall.

That is just one of the helpful features of ESAs: Unused funds can be rolled over each year  into a college savings account. Any ESA dollars that are still unused return to the state after college graduation or four years after the child graduates from high school.

Since families know they can save unused funds, they’re motivated to consider whether they’re getting the best education possible for the money they’re expending from their ESA. That consideration holds the promise of putting significant downward pressure on tuition costs as the ESA option becomes more widespread.

In addition to paying private-school tuition and rolling over funds for college, parents can use their ESA to pay for private tutoring, online learning, special-education services and therapies, textbooks, curricula, and a host of other education-related expenses.

Arizona and, now, Florida have done what economist Milton Friedman first advocated in 1955: They’ve separated the financing of education from the delivery of services. These states have recognized that public financing of education does not have to mean that education is delivered in government schools.

As forward-thinking as Friedman was about school choice, he was perhaps even more innovative than many education-reform advocates realize. The father of the school-choice movement was also the father of education savings accounts.

“Why is it sensible for a child to get all his or her schooling in one brick building?” Friedman pondered in a 2003 interview with Columbia Teachers College professor Pearl Rock Kane. “Why not have partial vouchers? Why not let [parents] spend part of a voucher for math in one place and English or science somewhere else?”

Why not, indeed? Such flexibility becomes even more important as online learning proliferates, offering, among other things, course choice and innovative “micro schools.” It is becoming critical that education financing is restructured in a way that enables parents to direct every dollar allotted for their child’s education to their choice of services, products, and providers.

Fewer than two-thirds of high schools across the country offer physics, and just half offer calculus, according to Michael Horn, an education-innovation guru. As school choice advances and becomes even more granular, new and refined financing mechanisms such as ESAs offer a promising path forward for ensuring that students have access to a wide-open world of content.

That’s the heart of the philosophy that undergirds the move to education savings accounts. ESAs enable education funding to be student-centered, not institutional. ESAs continue the tradition of publicly financing education, but allow those dollars to harness the power of a market that has improved outcomes in nearly every other aspect of American life.

Although the Ashtons are among the roughly 66 percent of Arizona families with ESAs who are using them in a way similar to a private-school voucher, some families are eschewing brick-and-mortar schools altogether and are completely tailoring their own children’s education using their ESAs.

“We’ve done a schooling-at-home program now for two years with the teacher,” explains Kathy Visser, mom to Jordon, a ten-year-old ESA participant who has cerebral palsy. “She’s got the visual knowledge to work with his vision, and she’s a special-ed teacher.

“Workbooks, and mathematics, and manipulatives. We are developing his curriculum based on his needs. That is a huge advantage for us,” says Jordan’s father, Christo.

School choice has been proliferating like never before over the past few years. Forty-one private-school choice programs are now serving more than 300,000 students in 24 states and the District of Columbia. ESAs build on this momentum, and offer the option of complete educational customization.

Over 70 percent of participants in the ESA program are satisfied with it, according to a recent survey by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A principal reason is that they feel they aren’t locked in to what their local public-school district does, but can finally direct their children’s education.

“I am seeing children [who] are blossoming that were not in the traditional system,” Kathy Visser says. “And to me, that’s accountability.”

— Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow for Education Policy in the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

Meet the ‘Blue Collar Ivies’

by John Zmirak

Editor’s Note: The following is an adapted excerpt of Choosing the Right College 2014–15: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known Institutions.

While the price of tuition has been skyrocketing, jobs for new college graduates have become ever scarcer, with most starting annual salaries less than the amount each graduate owes (and many new graduates unable to land full-time work at all). I won’t barrage you with facts and figures, but here’s a sobering one: According to the Project on Student Debt, students from the class of 2011 who borrowed to gain their bachelor’s degrees — that’s two-thirds of graduates — emerged with an average of $26,600 in student-loan debt.

The good news is that there are more affordable options where, with the right guidance and a little initiative, a student can get a true education. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute scoured the country to find the best low-cost educational options in America. In the latest edition of our Choosing the Right College, we provide detailed guidance on how to get a good education at each of them.

Some Blue Collar Ivies we profile offer full-tuition scholarships to students, sometimes in return for full-time work on campus. They are worth a careful look. But because these colleges can afford to be extremely selective, and some have income restrictions on whom they admit, we also profile at least one public university in each of the 50 states. Paying in-state tuition, a student can attend at one-third or even one-fourth of what others would pay.

The advantage of such a cost savings is obvious. And there really are excellent opportunities at most state universities. In these profiles, we point you to honors programs at state schools that often are nearly as rigorous as the options at elite private colleges. Some public institutions even offer Great Books programs; we tell you which ones. We highlight options for honors housing, which lets serious students escape the zoo atmosphere that pervades too many state-college dorms. We also tell you about schools that have set up internship programs with local employers or enable science students to work closely with senior faculty in research.

Even outside these programs, the Blue Collar Ivies have many dedicated professors — frequently people whose own degrees come from the best schools in the country. Such teachers are often frustrated by the mediocrity and ideological pressure that prevails at state universities, and they uniformly report that they are delighted when eager, intellectually curious students seek them as mentors. You will find in every college profile some names of such professors.

While spotlighting outstanding programs at state universities, we also call attention to land mines you should avoid. We flag programs and departments that are directionless, underfunded, or flooded by radical activists (as many liberal-arts departments sadly are), and we try to steer students to the strong ones. The good news is that state universities are so big, there is almost always some worth­while path a proactive student can forge through the trackless forest. We find you that path, combing through each school’s catalogue to select a solid core curriculum of classes that will guarantee a basic liberal-arts education to any student, regardless of major.

The Blue Collar Ivies aren’t perfect. But if you follow the advice offered by the wise professors and savvy students who talked to our reporters, you will find a way to gain a solid, affordable education.

Here are excerpts from our profiles of two of the best state universities we covered — one on the East Coast and one out west:

The University of Maine

Orono, Maine

Strong Suits

Plenty of traditional, solid courses to meet both gen-ed and majors’ requirements.

Strong emphasis on teaching, in addition to research.

Very solid programs in sciences, engineering, forestry, nursing, political sci­ence, history, psychology.

Humanities departments are less ideological than at most state schools.

Excellent honors program with many serious liberal-arts courses.

A Great Books Living Learning Community.

Women’s-studies department may close for lack of student interest.

Weak Points

Some departments are “unwelcoming” to religious or conservative students.

Foreign-language majors have been cut due to lack of funding.

Several social-science departments are subpar.

Few options in theater or the arts.

The University of Maine, a land- and sea-grant university, opened in 1868. While its research is well respected, the school also focuses sharply on teaching, especially in the liberal arts. UMaine students and faculty speak with pride of their engineering, nursing, forestry, and agriculture programs, and the Honors College is truly noteworthy.

Academic Life: Partly Cloudy

All students must fulfill a set of general-education requirements within six categories: Science, Human Values and Social Context, Mathematics, Writing Competency, Ethics, and Capstone Experience. There are good courses offered (along with fluff) in each of these categories, so students should choose carefully. Under Human Values and Social Context, students must take a course in Western Cultural Tradition, with very good options like “History of Ancient Philosophy.” In the required Cultural Diversity and Population and Environment subcategories, pickings are slimmer and include “Sex and Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Students can satisfy the Ethics requirement with a worthy class such as “Introduction to the Jewish Bible.”

UMaine’s student-faculty ratio is a middling 15:1, and more than half of courses have fewer than 20 students. Even the most crowded courses top at around 35 students. “Professors are quite accessible and helpful,” says one student. “I have had absolutely fantastic professors.” A teacher comments, “One of the things I really like about UMaine is the close balance of teaching and research. The university places a much greater emphasis on teaching than other research universities,” with stan­dards “similar to those at very highly ranked liberal-arts colleges.”

The honors program offers classes no larger than eight to 14 students. Says one, however, “The honors-sequence experience varies greatly depending on the professors.” A professor praises the Honors College as the “jewel in the crown,” stating that his best students “write very solid senior theses to conclude their B.A.,” followed by a two-hour defense to a faculty committee. The thesis project, a well-chosen adviser, and some of the excellent course material offered (the Odyssey, the Republic, Greek dramas, the Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Inferno, Renaissance art, the Bible, The Prince, Shakespeare’s plays, The Social Contract, the works of John Locke, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, and much more) make the honors sequence the best choice for an undergraduate at UMaine.

Besides the Honors College, students and faculty speak most highly of engineering, chemistry, anthropology, political science, forestry, nursing, history, psychology, biology, marine sciences –as well as the Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Other programs are weaker. A professor warns against the social sciences, “with the exception of psychology . . . which has a nationally respected doctoral program, especially in family counseling.” Though one student calls UMaine’s business school “pretty good for a public state university,” a professor counters that it has “low standards.” This professor also notes that the foreign-languages department is “too small” with “too few courses in non-European languages.” Another teacher says that UMaine’s theater, public-administration, and women’s- studies departments have all been “slated for being phased out due to low numbers of majors.”

UMaine is a real bargain for Mainers, who paid only $8,370 in tuition in 2012–13 (compared with $25,230 for out-of-state students) and room and board of $8,848. Some 60 percent of students received need-based aid, but those who borrowed racked up a daunting $32,438 in average student-loan debt.


University of California at Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, California

Strong Suits

Comparatively little ideology in the classroom: “Just the data, ma’am.”

20 percent of students take part in research with teachers.

Excellent hard-science departments (especially Nobel-rich physics) and good programs in the humanities, political sci­ence, and film studies.

Highly qualified faculty who do all teaching (grad students lead discussion sections).

Comparatively wholesome dorm policies and a beautiful campus.

Weak Points

Some enormous (800-student) classes.

Politicized courses in the black- and Chicano-studies programs fulfill general-ed mandates.

General advising is weak.

Many bars and a good deal of drinking near campus.

Several chaplaincies are slackly heterodox.

What is today the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) was founded in 1909. Twice in the past decade, UCSB has been named one of Newsweek’s “twelve hottest American colleges.” Five Nobel laureates and dozens of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellows on faculty attract such attention; so do twelve national state-of-the-art research centers. It also helps that students and teachers don’t waste much of their time on radical politics. The school isn’t near the beach; it’s on the beach. (The university includes a weather report on its homepage.)

Academic Life: Science More than Letters

Most of the almost 19,000 undergraduates at UCSB are attracted to the school’s science-centered programs and the chance to participate in top-flight research, but Santa Barbara also has some good liberal-arts departments. Although the university has no core curriculum, there are many substantial courses available that can help students gain a solid liberal-arts foundation if they choose wisely.

UCSB is known as a research institution, and its strengths accordingly lie in the sciences. Several departments are among the best in the nation, especially physics, where four members of the faculty have won Nobel Prizes. More than 20 percent of undergraduates (including freshmen) participate in some form of research, and there are abundant opportunities — not just in the hard sciences but in the humanities and social sciences too — for those who seek them.

Apart from instructors, students have plenty of other academic resources available. The UCSB Libraries are major research facilities with 3 million books and bound journals, and more than 500,000 sound recordings.

There are only a few politicized distractions in the curriculum — men in lab coats tend not to put up with them. “Strange and bizarre courses are very few, since UCSB mainly focuses on the hard sciences,” says a student. For the most part, students can express their views without fear of reprisal. According to one student, because Santa Barbara is “predominantly a hard- science school, there is a communal belief that everything has to test for validity, no matter who says it.” But the few distractions, when they do occur, are glaringly obvious. The black- and Chicano- studies departments get most of their business by helping students fulfill a particular general-education requirement.

The film-studies department is considered by some to be the best in the country and was given a big financial boost when alumnus Michael Douglas donated $1 million to the Carsey-Wolf Center for Film, Television, and New Media.

The Department of Religious Studies “is one of the major centers in North America for the study of religions,” the school reports. It takes pride in having once employed the famed post-Christian theologian Paul Tillich. The department “houses the prestigious Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life; maintains close ties with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, [and] boasts several endowed chairs located within it — the XIV Dalai Lama Chair in Tibetan Studies, the Virgil Cordano Chair in Catholic Studies, and the Tipton Distin­guished Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies.” It’s probably a good sign that a fair number of professors in the religious-studies department earned degrees at the University of Chicago; several philosophy professors come from UCLA; and classical studies tends to hire from Berkeley and Harvard.

For a student who knows what he would like to study and what courses to take to get there, the College of Creative Studies, dubbed “the graduate school for undergraduates,” is an interesting alternative. With approximately 300 students, “the creative-studies major is for talented students who are committed to advanced and independent work in one of the disciplines represented in the college,” according to the catalogue.

There is also an undergraduate College Honors Program, which earns a student a diploma with distinction as long as he maintains a B average. Some of the courses are graduate level, while some undergraduate courses may count for honors credit if students attend honors discussion groups. Honors students have access to the graduate-student library, an honors study center, priority registration, special academic awards, field trips and research lectures, and a mentorship program that pairs honors upperclassmen with freshmen.

Students outside the honors program say the best advice comes from faculty advisers in their majors. There is a general-education advising office on the campus: “They can sometimes be helpful,” a student warns, “but they don’t always know the whole story. The professors have a better grasp.”

Once in class, students can generally expect to find professors (in the upper-level courses) or lecturers (in the lower-level ones) doing their own teaching. Graduate teaching assistants handle some discussion sections and the grading in larger, lower-level courses. Class sizes for some general-education courses can range from 200 to 800. The average class size in lower-division classes is 52. Upper-division courses average 36 students. The overall student-faculty ratio is 18:1.

Despite the large classes, students are impressed with the faculty. They report that their professors are outstanding teachers and mentors with proven track records. “My professors have been the most important part of my education here and have encouraged me, guided me, taught me, and trained me,” says one student. Another student calls her professors “amazing and helpful.”

In 2012–13 California residents (and illegal aliens residing in California) paid $13,671 in tuition and required fees to attend UCSB. Out-of-state Americans paid $36,549. Room and board were a hefty $13,275. Fifty-five percent of all students received need-based aid, and the average loan burden of a recent grad was a moderate $18,627.


The Blue Collar Ivies


Auburn University

University of Alabama


University of Alaska


University of Arizona


University of Arkansas


University of California at Berkeley

University of California at Los Angeles

University of California at Santa Barbara


United States Air Force Academy

University of Colorado at Boulder


University of Connecticut


University of Delaware


Florida State University

University of Florida


Georgia Institute of Technology

University of Georgia


University of Hawaii at Manoa


University of Idaho


University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign


Indiana University Bloomington


University of Iowa


University of Kansas


Alice Lloyd College

Berea College

University of Kentucky


Louisiana State University


University of Maine


United States Naval Academy

University of Maryland


University of Massachusetts–Amherst


University of Michigan


University of Minnesota–Twin Cities


University of Mississippi


College of the Ozarks

University of Missouri


University of Montana


University of Nebraska–Lincoln


University of Nevada

New Hampshire

University of New Hampshire

New Jersey

Rutgers University

New Mexico

University of New Mexico

New York

Brooklyn College (CUNY)

Cooper Union

State University of New York at Binghamton

United States Military Academy

North Carolina

North Carolina State University

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

North Dakota

University of North Dakota


Ohio State University


University of Oklahoma


University of Oregon


Pennsylvania State University

Temple University

Rhode Island

University of Rhode Island

South Carolina

College of Charleston

South Dakota

University of South Dakota


University of Tennessee


Texas A&M University

University of Texas at Austin


University of Utah


University of Vermont


College of William and Mary

George Mason University

University of Virginia


University of Washington

West Virginia

West Virginia University


University of Wisconsin–Madison


University of Wyoming

 John Zmirak is editor of Choosing the Right College 2014–15: The Inside Scoop on Elite Schools and Outstanding Lesser-Known Institutions. This adapted excerpt is reprinted with permission of ISI Books and has been amended since posting.



Show Us the Money

by Jason Bedrick

A bank would never grant a loan to a business that failed to disclose its overhead. So why do taxpayers and state legislators consistently vote to increase spending on public schools without knowing their full cost?

A new report from the Cato Institute finds that state education departments routinely understate the cost of public schools and often completely fail to report key spending categories. This may be contributing to the public’s vast underestimation of the true cost of public education.

The report, “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?,” assigns A-to-F grades for the completeness, timeliness, and accessibility of the spending data that the departments publish on their websites. The report reveals that very few state education departments provide complete and timely financial data that are understandable to the general public.

The most useful figures for comparing school districts of varying sizes are the annual per-pupil expenditures (PPE). However, half of all state education departments report PPE figures that leave out major cost items such as buildings, interest on debt, and pensions, thereby significantly understating what is actually spent. Alaska’s Department of Education website does not report PPE figures at all.

Other important spending categories are often omitted. Eight states fail to provide any data on capital expenditures, ten states lack any data on average employee salaries, and 41 states lack any data on average employee benefits.

Few states manage to publish timely spending data. By the end of the last calendar year, only 13 states had published per-pupil spending data for the 2011–12 school year. Most states’ data were a year behind, and for a handful of states the most recent spending data were two or three years old.

In addition, states too often report spending data that are hard to find or interpret. For example, the commonly used term “current expenditures” gives the false impression that it refers to data that are recent, which is not necessarily the case.

The average citizen is unlikely to know that “current” refers to “operating” expenditures, indicating that the figure excludes some major categories of spending, such as capital expenditures. Moreover, state education departments often use undefined acronyms that are practically impossible for the average citizen to decipher.

This financial opacity may be contributing to widespread misperceptions about public-education spending. Despite tremendous and persistent spending growth in the last half-century, the public greatly underestimates how much is spent on public schools.

A recent survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that the public’s average estimate of the annual cost per student in public schools nationwide was only $6,680. The true cost is more than double that estimate, at nearly $14,000 per student annually, according to the most recent inflation-adjusted data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Harvard survey also examined how misconceptions about education spending affect support for spending levels. The researchers randomly divided survey respondents into two groups. The first group of respondents were simply asked, “Do you think government funding for public schools in your district should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?” Respondents in the second group were first told what the annual per-pupil expenditures were in their school district.

The survey found that informed respondents were significantly less likely to support increased spending. While 53 percent of uninformed respondents stated that they wanted to increase spending on public schools, support fell to only 43 percent among informed respondents, while 57 percent wanted spending to stay the same or decrease.

The public’s gross underestimation of education spending has real-world consequences. For example, on Election Day 2012 in Colorado, a majority of voters in 29 of 31 districts voted to increase K–12 education spending by a total of over $1 billion, approving 34 bond issues and operating-revenue increases. Nearly two-thirds of the ballot questions passed with less than 60 percent of the vote. If the Colorado voters resembled the Harvard survey’s national sample, it is very likely that a fully informed public would have voted differently.

An informed public is a necessary prerequisite for self-government. When government agencies offer incomplete or misleading data, they deprive taxpayers of the ability to make informed decisions. At a time when state and local budgets are severely strained, it is imperative that state education departments provide the public with accurate, timely, and accessible spending data.

— Jason Bedrick is an education-policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and the author of “Cracking the Books: How Well Do State Education Departments Report Public School Spending?”

The Wannabe Oppressed

by Stanley Kurtz
Today’s college students, climate change, and the cult of victimization

What do America’s college students want? They want to be oppressed. More precisely, a surprising number of students at America’s finest colleges and universities wish to appear as victims — to themselves, as well as to others — without the discomfort of actually experiencing victimization. Here is where global warming comes in. The secret appeal of campus climate activism lies in its ability to turn otherwise happy, healthy, and prosperous young people into an oppressed class, at least in their own imaginings. Climate activists say to the world, “I’ll save you.” Yet deep down they’re thinking, “Oppress me.”

In his important new book, The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse: Save the Earth, Punish Human Beings, French intellectual gadfly Pascal Bruckner does the most thorough job yet of explaining the climate movement as a secular religion, an odd combination of deformed Christianity and reconstructed Marxism. (You can find Bruckner’s excellent article based on the book here.) Bruckner describes a historical process wherein “the long list of emblematic victims — Jews, blacks, slaves, proletarians, colonized peoples — was replaced, little by little, with the Planet.” The planet, says Bruckner, “has become the new proletariat that must be saved from exploitation.”

But why? Bruckner finds it odd that a “mood of catastrophe” should prevail in the West, the most well-off part of the world. The reason, I think, is that the only way to turn the prosperous into victims is to threaten the very existence of a world they otherwise command.

And why should the privileged wish to become victims? To alleviate guilt and to appropriate the victim’s superior prestige. In the neo-Marxist dispensation now regnant on our college campuses, after all, the advantaged are ignorant and guilty while the oppressed are innocent and wise. The initial solution to this problem was for the privileged to identify with “struggling groups” by wearing, say, a Palestinian keffiyeh. Yet better than merely empathizing with the oppressed is to be oppressed. This is the climate movement’s signal innovation.

We can make sense of Bruckner’s progression of victimhood from successive minorities to the globe itself by considering the lives of modern-day climate activists. Let’s begin with Bill McKibben, the most influential environmental activist in the country, and leader of the campus fossil-fuel divestment movement.

In a 1996 piece titled “Job and Matthew,” McKibben describes his arrival at college in 1978 as a liberal-leaning student with a suburban Protestant background. “My leftism grew more righteous in college,” he says, “but still there was something pro forma about it.” The problem? “Being white, male, straight, and of impeccably middle-class background, I could not realistically claim to be a victim of anything.” At one point, in what he calls a “loony” attempt to claim the mantle of victimhood, McKibben nearly convinced himself that he was part Irish so he could don a black armband as Bobby Sands and fellow members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army died in a hunger strike. Yet even as he failed to persuade himself he was Irish, McKibben continued to enthusiastically support every leftist-approved victim group he could find. Nonetheless, something was missing. None of these causes seemed truly his own. When McKibben almost singlehandedly turned global warming into a public issue in 1989, his problem was solved. Now everyone could be a victim.

Wen Stephenson, a contributing writer at The Nation and an enthusiastic supporter of McKibben’s anti-fossil-fuel crusade, is one of the sharpest observers of the climate movement. In March, Stephenson published a profile of some of the student climate protesters he’d gotten to know best. Their stories look very much like McKibben’s description of his own past.

Stephenson’s thesis is that, despite vast differences between the upper-middle-class college students who make up much of today’s climate movement and southern blacks living under segregation in the 1950s, climate activists think of themselves on the model of the early civil-rights protesters. When climate activists court arrest through civil disobedience, they imagine themselves to be reliving the struggles of persecuted African Americans staging lunch-counter sit-ins at risk of their lives. Today’s climate protesters, Stephenson writes,“feel themselves oppressed by powerful, corrupt forces beyond their control.” And they fight “not only for people in faraway places but, increasingly, for themselves.”

One young activist, a sophomore at Harvard, told Stephenson that she grew up “privileged in a poor rural town.” Inspired by the civil-rights movement, her early climate activism was undertaken “in solidarity” with Third World peoples: “I saw climate change as this huge human rights abuse against people who are already disadvantaged in our global society. . . . I knew theoretically there could be impacts on the U.S. But I thought, I’m from a rich, developed country, my parents are well-off, I know I’m going to college, and it’s not going to make a difference to my life. But especially over this past year, I’ve learned that climate change is a threat to me.” When one of her fellow protesters said: “You know, I think I could die of climate change. That could be the way I go,” the thought stuck with her. “You always learn about marginalized groups in society, and think about how their voices don’t have as much power, and then suddenly you’re like, ‘Wait, that’s exactly what I am, with climate change.’”

The remaining biographical accounts in Stephenson’s piece repeat these themes. Climate activists see themselves as privileged, are deeply influenced by courses on climate change and on “marginalized” groups they’ve been exposed to in high school and college, and treat the climate apocalypse as their personal admissions pass to the sacred circle of the oppressed.

It may be that these activists, eyes opened by fortuitous education, are merely recognizing the reality of our impending doom. Or might this particular apocalypse offer unacknowledged psychic rewards? These students could easily be laid low by an economic crisis brought on by demographic decline and the strains of baby-boomer retirement on our entitlement system. Yet marriage and children aren’t a priority, although they could help solve the problem. Why? Many dooms beckon. How has climate change won out?

Last academic year, the National Association of Scholars released a widely discussed report called “What Does Bowdoin Teach? How a Contemporary Liberal Arts College Shapes Students.” The report chronicles what I’ve called a “reverse island” effect. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the classic liberal-arts curriculum first came under challenge, courses in ethnic and gender studies were like tiny islands in a sea of traditionalism. Politicized in ways that were incompatible with liberal education, these ideologically based “studies” programs were generally dismissed as necessary concessions to the nascent multicultural zeitgeist.

Today the situation is reversed. Not only have the ideologically driven “studies” programs taken over a large share of the college curriculum, but many courses in conventional departments reflect the underlying assumptions of the various minority-studies concentrations. Today, classic liberal-arts courses have themselves been turned into tiny besieged islands, while the study of alleged oppression represents the leading approach at America’s colleges and universities.

In this atmosphere, students cannot help wishing to see themselves as members of a persecuted group. Climate activism answers their existential challenges and gives them a sense of crusading purpose in a lonely secular world. The planet, as Bruckner would have it, is the new proletariat. Yet substitute “upper-middle-class” for “planet,” and the progression of victimhood is explained. Global warming allows the upper-middle-class to join the proletariat, cloaking erstwhile oppressors in the mantle of righteous victimhood.

Insight into the quasi-religious motivations that stand behind climate activism cannot finally resolve the empirical controversies at stake in our debate over global warming. Yet understanding climate activism as a cultural phenomenon does yield insight into that debate. The religious character of the climate-change crusade chokes off serious discussion. It stigmatizes reasonable skepticism about climate catastrophism (which is different from questioning the fundamental physics of carbon dioxide’s effect on the atmosphere). Climate apocalypticism drags what ought to be careful consideration of the costs and benefits of various policy options into the fraught world of identity politics. The wish to be oppressed turns into the wish to be morally superior, which turns into the pleasure of silencing alleged oppressors, which turns into its own sort of hatred and oppression.

What do American college students want? I would like to think they are looking for an education in the spirit of classic liberalism, an education that offers them, not a ready-made ideology, but the tools to make an informed choice among the fundamental alternatives in life. The people who run our universities, unfortunately, have taught their students to want something different, and this is what truly oppresses them.

 Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at [email protected].

Liberal Education vs. Liberalist Education

by Nathan Schlueter

Among those hit hardest by the prolonged downturn in the economy are recent college graduates, who face both high unemployment rates and a high debt burden from college expenses. This fact has rightly caused many to question the value of a college degree. But when the numbers are broken down, they tell a slightly different story. Graduates with degrees in engineering or teaching, for example, are much more likely to find work than graduates with degrees in the humanities.

And so the question is narrowed: What is the value of a college degree in the humanities or liberal arts? (Here I shall use these terms interchangeably.) A recent story in the Wall Street Journal, which focuses on the drop in liberal-arts undergraduates at Harvard University, is only the latest in a growing refrain of unease among students, parents, and policy makers on the value of a liberal-arts education.

But the question is still not sufficiently in focus, for it fails to ask a prior question: What is a liberal-arts education? Until we answer this question, we will not have a clear idea of what is really at stake in the debate. As I tell prospective students and their parents when they come to visit Hillsdale College, where I teach, although most colleges and universities describe themselves as liberal-arts institutions, only a very small fraction of them offer anything close to the real thing. What they offer should really be called “liberalist education.” Liberalist education is characterized by three features: First, a suspicion of all authority, including the authority of truth; second, the celebration of autonomy and individual choice; third, a commitment to social justice. Whatever the merits of these things, none of them has anything to do with a real liberal-arts education.

The real educational problem we face today is not the value of a liberal-arts education per se, but the large number of liberalist education programs — most of them heavily subsidized by taxpayer money — that masquerade as liberal-arts programs while depriving students of the specific excellences that can only come from the real thing. Liberalist humanities professors prepare students to fight hegemonic power structures through various kinds of victimization studies organized around race, class, gender, etc. In response, conservatives are often all too ready to throw liberal education overboard and to replace it with an education focused on technical training for productive employment. Both groups can miss what is singular and valuable about a liberal-arts education. 

David Brooks is on the right track, then, when he attributes today’s crisis of the humanities to a change of focus within the humanities themselves. “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus,” he writes. “They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.” Unfortunately, Brooks then commends to his readers a new report by a commission (of which Brooks was a member) of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.”

The title of the report alone suggests why Brooks’s underlying tone about the report is less than enthusiastic, despite his endorsement. Amazingly, in over 60 pages of prose, this report, produced by what are presumably the nation’s leading figures in the humanities, does not use the words “truth,” “goodness,” or “beauty” even once. Instead, the report echoes the kind of high-sounding but meaningless phrases one is now accustomed to hear from increasingly desperate humanities professors.

For example, the report repeatedly states that education in the humanities will produce “an adaptable and creative workforce,” without ever bothering to ask whether adaptation is always good. Rather than address the real problem, the report merely reinforces the contemporary academic division of labor: The physical sciences change the world, the humanities teach us how to “adapt.” As the banal boilerplate of one typical liberal-arts college puts it: “A liberal arts education prepares human beings to adapt to a diverse and rapidly changing world.” It’s no wonder the humanities are in trouble.  

How can one distinguish between liberalist and liberal education? This is itself a question for liberal inquiry. Put most simply, a true liberal-arts education cultivates the intellectual virtues whose ultimate object is wisdom or knowledge of the whole. It differs both from technical training, which serves useful ends, and from “specialization,” which focuses exclusively on some part of the whole. Specialization and technical training are necessary and useful, but by themselves they are radically incomplete. A liberal education enables human beings to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil, and beauty from the obscene and sentimental. It is, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, not simply for the sake of living, but for the sake of living well.  

How does one identify a college that offers this kind of an education? Here are three marks to look for.     

First, does the institution have a robust and unified core curriculum consisting of specific courses every student must take, and specific texts every student must read?

If the liberal arts really are arts, then like other arts they consist of a substantive body of knowledge, specific practices, and standards of excellence that are internal to those arts and which can only be learned under the careful guidance of masters in those arts. Unfortunately, recent defenders of the humanities have a habit of reinforcing the common but false stereotype that the hard sciences are about reason and reality, whereas the humanities are about spontaneous emotion and subjectivity. Lee Siegel reflects this naïve, romantic prejudice when he writes in the Wall Street Journal that “every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and method. Literature requires only that you be human.”

Liberalist institutions, instead of initiating their students into the specific excellences of the arts, flatter their democratic prejudices by giving them the widest possible range of choices across a distribution of general subjects. But what other art can be mastered by the undirected and free choice of the apprentice? No program in biology or engineering or accounting operates in this way, and neither should a liberal-arts education. To tell students otherwise is to do them an injustice.

Harvard University is a case in point. The university website celebrates its new “Program in General Education,” which consists of eight categories. The reason why these particular categories were chosen and how they are related to one another is far from clear. Most of the category titles are vague (“Culture and Belief”), meaningless (“Societies and the World”), or simply parochial (“United States in the World”). Within each category is a long menu of course offerings. “Culture and Belief,” for example, includes 41 different course offerings with titles such as “Animated Spirituality: Japanese Religion in Anime, Manga, and Film” and “Institutional Violence and Public Spectacle: The Case of the Roman Games.”  

Two graduates of another Ivy League university recently recalled to me how a professor at their freshman orientation announced to his audience, “we look forward to learning from you.” (Doubtless this professor did not pay the same tuition as them for this privilege.) They told me they would be willing to spend a considerable amount of money now to get the liberal education they never received at their alma mater. This fact speaks volumes. Ivy Leaguers are often wealthy enough to go to school twice, but not all are so fortunate. Most 18-year-olds can recognize when they are being patronized; sadly, it is often only later that they discover the costs of this indulgence. 

Second, what is the quality of the teaching?

I once saw a clever college advertisement that read something like this: “Your teachers this year will be: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, John Milton, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot.” If, as I did, students receive a degree in the humanities without reading these authors, they have been defrauded.

Today it is common to describe a liberal-arts education as training in purely formal skills such as “critical thinking and reasoning,” but the real masters of that tradition are the Great Books. Logic, along with rhetoric and grammar, are necessary and important tools in a liberal-arts education (and would that more liberal-arts colleges today taught even these), but by themselves they tell us nothing about reality itself. The Great Books are characterized by powerful imaginative and intellectual forms that guide, test, deepen, and enrich our knowledge of reality.

A true liberal-arts education, therefore, is not freestanding or contentless. It is constituted by what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “tradition of inquiry,” which is recorded, expressed, articulated, challenged, revised, and continued through the Great Books. For liberalist humanities professors, however, the term “Great Books” is code for a right-wing political agenda that is bound up with sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of hegemony and oppression.

The irony here is that this very criticism is made possible by the Great Books tradition. The Great Books tradition, unlike most other traditions in the history of the world, is characterized by openness to the truth and the value of different cultures and ways of life, and so is permeable by the artistic and intellectual gifts of all cultures. By closing a liberal-arts curriculum around the Great Books, therefore, students are made more open to seeing the richness of reality than by the flat, directionless “open” curriculum.

It is not enough simply to read the Great Books, however. Moderately intelligent readers can find spontaneous delight in reading the Great Books for fun, but the deeper and more lasting delight comes from the ability to unpack the depths of rich meaning in these books. This requires an art of interpretation and analysis. In a real liberal-arts education teachers are like well-trained tour guides who teach their students how to notice not only the surfaces of things, but also the layers of meaning lying in and beneath that surface. This involves a trained art of reading. Just as no biology teacher tells her students that an organism is whatever they feel or want it to be, so no liberal-arts teacher tells his students a book means whatever they feel or want it to mean. Texts, like organisms, like reality, have a real structure and meaning that can be discovered only through careful and often difficult interpretation and analysis. An education in postmodern deconstruction is not a liberal-arts education. Criticism has an important role to play in a liberal-arts education, but the “hermeneutic of love” must come before the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Socrates is a better guide than Descartes.

Third, what is the quality of student life outside the classroom?

Does what the students are learning in the classroom feed their conversations and friendships outside the classroom, or are life in the classroom and social life sharply demarcated? Are the students more energized by the ideas they are learning, or by the prospect of the early-weekend drinking binge?

Here again the common core curriculum described above plays an important role. I’ll never forget the first party I attended at a true liberal-arts college (by then I was a graduate student), when amidst the free-flowing libations a fierce argument broke out among the whole group over the relative merits of Achilles and Odysseus, Homer’s two great epic heroes, who exemplify the tension between the specific excellences of body (bie) and mind (metis). It was not quite a symposium, but it was a far cry from the usual bacchanalia one finds on other campuses. Without a common core, students simply lack a common subject matter to discuss with their roommates, to argue about, and build friendships around when they are not in the classroom, and teachers have no common foundation upon which to build in upper-division courses.

A liberal-arts education is not principally concerned with what you do, but with what you are. Therefore defenders of the humanities are right to insist that the value of a liberal-arts education cannot be measured simply by productive employment. To defend liberal education in this way is like defending religion in terms of morality, or friendship in terms of personal utility.

But then one can also say that just as real religion does in fact reinforce morality, and just as real friendship is in fact useful, so a real liberal-arts education does in fact prepare students for productive employment and for democratic citizenship. Imagine what the American Founding would have looked like had Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton only been trained in gender studies, or accounting. But the fact that liberal education is ordered to non-useful ends should not be a cover for fraudulent humanities programs to insulate themselves from the criticism they have received and deserve. The real scandal is not that graduates in the humanities cannot find jobs, but that they have spent four years and thousands of dollars on a random hodgepodge of trendy courses. Jobless, they don’t even have the comfort of a rich intellectual life to compensate them for their poverty.  

— Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College.

Don’t Leave Responsible Parents Behind

by Frederick M. Hess
Education reformers shouldn’t penalize parents who do the right thing.

One of the remarkable things about contemporary education reform may be its lack of interest in responsible parenting. In recent years, an intense focus on closing racial and economic achievement gaps has resulted in policies and practices that can sometimes come at the expense of families that work hard and play by the rules.

Don’t misunderstand: Parents get plenty of lip service. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sounded all the right platitudes when he told USA Today, “Parents are always going to be our students’ first teachers. The most important thing I can do is to read to my children every night, to not have them watching TV and to really be a partner with that teacher. Parents have to step up.” Presidents, governors, and civic leaders are always saying things like this.

Yet school reformers have done little or nothing to encourage, support, or honor responsible parenting, and have seemed remarkably unconcerned with the possibility that their reforms might harm those parents who are trying to do the right thing.

Take the hotly discussed issue of college affordability. Proposals to rethink college loans and grants are plentiful right now, but hardly any see fit even to mention that families that struggle to save are today penalized by being asked to pay more so that colleges can offer bigger aid packages to students whose parents didn’t save.

In September, the Brookings Institution touted a new analysis that argued that state financial-aid systems “undermine” federal financial aid (because merit-based state aid is insufficiently redistributive). Utterly absent was even a pro forma reference to how these systems affect incentives for families to save. This simply reflected standard practice. Collegiate financial aid is driven by an “expected family contribution.” This figure, based on a family’s income, assets, debts, and future obligations, is an estimate of what a family can be expected to pay for college. Basically, people who save more are eligible for less aid. Yet this penalty for savers seems to bother none of the nation’s experts on higher-education policy. 

For instance, of 15 major financial-aid white papers that were funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and released in 2013, just one (a College Board discussion of education savings accounts) makes any reference to encouraging savings. The rest are silent on this topic – including papers by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Alliance for Excellent Education, Association of Public Land Grant Universities, and Institute for College Access and Success.

While most states have created so-called 529 plans to encourage families to save for college, economists Roberto Ifill and Michael McPherson have found that saving money in 529 plans can reduce the amount of financial aid a family receives. For a middle-income family, the researchers estimated that an additional $100 in 529 savings would reduce the amount of aid they’d receive over four years by $15. They noted that families that use prepaid tuition plans or save in another manner thereby “reduce their eligibility for need-based aid.” Policy proposals start, reasonably enough, by asking how to help low-income students attend college, but they too often fail to consider how doing so might undermine desirable norms such as encouraging working families to save aggressively for college.

A similar effect can be found in K–12 schooling, where most of the nation’s schools and systems avidly encourage teachers to “differentiate instruction.” In plain English, this means tailoring instruction to individual students. In theory, this makes terrific sense. In practice, it’s really hard to do for everyone. Today, given education’s monomaniacal emphasis on basic proficiency rates and closing “achievement gaps,” teachers tend to devote less attention to students whose parents have already equipped them to learn. For instance, pollsters Steve Farkas and Anne Duffett have reported that teachers believe their students are all entitled to equal attention but that, when asked who is most likely to get one-on-one attention, 80 percent said academically struggling students and just 5 percent said academically advanced students.

The Teacher’s Guide to Success, published by Pearson, lists 15 techniques to differentiate instruction for struggling learners, but fewer than half as many for gifted learners — and many of those for the latter group amount to euphemisms for benign neglect. Teachers are advised to “encourage the reading of library books” and “provid[e] opportunities to sit in on special unit activities in other classes.” In June, the nonprofit literacy organization Reading Is Fundamental reported that just one in three parents read bedtime stories to their young children daily. The same report noted that children in families with an annual household income below $35,000 are more likely to watch TV (40 percent) than read books (35 percent). Reformers horrified by such statistics nonetheless  promote policies and practices that effectively neglect the children of those parents who read to their kids, turn off the television, and focus on academic success. State accountability systems that emphasize minimum proficiency and teacher evaluation systems that focus monomaniacally on improving reading and math scores have the effect of marginalizing those students whose families have taken care to read to them and do math problems with them — and who look to schools for more.   

When it comes to school choice, it’s striking how quickly an admirable concern with the right of low-income families to exercise choice can turn into contempt for middle-class and affluent families who exercised the choice to pay a premium to buy a home in a high-performing suburban school system, and who resent the idea that families from outside the community who don’t pay local taxes have a right to attend their schools. The fact that parents may have worked hard, saved responsibly, and then bought a house in order to ensure their child a seat in a good neighborhood school is often treated as suspect. Adam Emerson, the “school-choice czar” at the conservative Fordham Institute, last year acidly attacked the residents of Zachary, La., for not choosing to throw open their schools to children who didn’t live in the district. Emerson blasted the community for “erect[ing] a fence around its public schools” and thundered at “those who make ‘sacrifices’ for the best [but] want to keep their investment exclusive.” 

Choice advocates are right to argue that low-income children ought to be free to escape awful schools. But parents and homeowners who have paid dearly to purchase homes in desirable school districts also deserve some consideration. Rhetoric like Emerson’s turns school choice into class warfare, with reformers questioning the decency of parents who have worked hard to do right by their kids. Given that, it’s not hard to see why vouchers and charter schooling have played so poorly with suburban parents and homeowners.

All of this helps convince working-class and professional families that much of the education-reform agenda has no interest in or is hostile to their concerns. The result is that reform is tolerated rather than embraced. Gallup has reported that only about one in five respondents think “improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools” is the most important of the nation’s education challenges – yet it seems that five out of five education reformers think just that. This disconnect makes it hard to build broad, sustained support for reform.

In an era in which reformers have pledged to “leave no child behind,” raising such concerns can seem off-putting. After all, policies that reward responsible parenting will tend to magnify the advantages of kids born to educated, responsible parents. The consequence of our inattention on this score, though, is that education reform has steered around the role of parental responsibility and given short shrift to the policies and practices that can foster it. 

Three ideas might help for a start. One is that savings ought not to reduce eligibility for college aid, at least not for professional and working-class families with accumulated assets of less than $1 million (the very wealthy may be another matter). This would permit need-based aid formulas to still factor into account earnings and substantial wealth, but would reduce the current penalty for savings. 

A second is that school districts should adopt formal policies making it clear that accountability systems and established practices should not be taken as an excuse to short-change students whose families have helped them master basic skills. They should devise metrics and evaluate principals and teachers with an eye to ensuring that the focus on “closing achievement gaps” does not serve as an excuse to ask more-prepared students to babysit themselves for large portions of the academic day. 

A third might be a pledge by school-choice advocates that they will cease any and all attacks upon parents of means who have chosen to pay a premium for good public schools, and who have reasonable concerns about proposals that would change the terms of the deal by affecting the quality of their schools and harming their property values. Choice advocates should design plans with an eye to win-win solutions, such as aggressively encouraging the emergence and expansion of terrific new private and charter schools, supporting the expansion of choice to schools and systems that want to enroll participating students, and ensuring that incentives reward suburban districts that do choose to open their doors to students from outside their boundaries.

As usual, the penalties for parents who read to their children nightly or who save assiduously for college have little impact on the truly wealthy, who can insulate themselves in ritzy private schools and easily afford even Ivy League tuition. Instead, the costs fall most heavily on responsible working-class and professional families.

Education policy can and should help level the playing field. It’s admirable to put a thumb on the scale towards equalizing opportunity, but the aftermath of the Great Society should have taught us that nothing good is accomplished when technocratic reforms are allowed to displace responsible familial norms. A good place for reformers to start might be by taking their own version of medicine’s Hippocratic oath. They should pledge to at least ask whether their bright ideas are poised to weaken or impugn the very filial behaviors that they purport to uphold.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The Education Debit Card

by Lindsey M. Burke

‘The public-school system has no ability to handle Shawn’s sensory needs,” says Jennifer Doucet, mother of the Arizona fourth-grader. “We needed a program that understood him, that [we] could gear toward his needs, instead of him having to fit into someone else’s box.”

So the Doucet family enrolled Shawn in Pieceful Solutions, a private school in Chandler, Ariz., with a mission of providing personalized education for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. It’s the longest-running school in Arizona designed specifically to meet the needs of students with autism.

Shawn’s mom says the teachers at Pieceful Solutions understand autism; they “know the difference between when he is acting out and he really does not understand something.”

Jennifer also says enrollment at the school would not have been possible without Arizona’s innovative education savings account (ESA) option. “The ESA is the only reason we have been able to stay at [Pieceful Solutions]. Without a savings account, we would not be able to afford the care that Shawn needs.”

Arizona enacted first-in-the-nation education savings accounts in 2011. It expanded the option a year later, and again in 2013.

So how exactly does the option work, and how are ESAs different from vouchers? In Arizona (the only state currently offering ESAs), parents who are not satisfied with their child’s assigned public school can withdraw the child from the public system and have 90 percent of what the state would have spent on their child deposited into an education savings account. Those funds are deposited directly onto a restricted-use debit card, which parents can use to pay for a variety of education-related services and providers.

Approved expenses include private-school tuition, online learning, special-education services, educational therapy, curricula, and a host of other education expenses. And that is what makes ESAs unique — a refinement of Milton Friedman’s original concept of school vouchers. Parents can direct their child’s share of education funding to multiple providers and services, instead of using those funds at a single educational institution, such as a private school.

As innovative as that is, the architects of Arizona’s pioneering choice program didn’t stop there. Unused funds can be rolled over from year to year, a policy that encourages parents to consider opportunity costs (are they getting a good bang for their educational buck?) and empowers families to save for future education expenses. Families can even roll unused funds into a college savings account.

Parents using an ESA receive distributions to their account quarterly, after having submitted receipts for all purchases to the Arizona Department of Revenue. In the event funds are used on a non-approved item or service, the subsequent quarter’s funds can be used to rectify the error. In the event of an egregious misuse of funds, ESAs are subject to audits by the state.

ESAs were first opened to Arizona children with special needs. In 2012 eligibility was expanded to include children from low-income families in underperforming schools, children of active-duty military parents, and children in Arizona’s foster-care system. In 2013, eligibility within these categories was extended to children entering kindergarten (that is, the requirement that students had to already be enrolled in public school to apply for an ESA was eliminated for kindergarteners). Today, more than 220,000 children are eligible for an ESA.

Stories from some of the first families to enter the program illustrate how life-changing the ESAs have been.

“Two years ago we weren’t even sure if we were ever going to have a conversation with him,” says Amanda Howard, mother of second-grader Nathan. “He is in a private school now for kids with developmental delays. . . . He reads now. He is reading a little below grade level. But he likes math. He is working above grade level for math. And he really loves social studies; he knows all the 50 states. So it is really exciting to see all the progress he has made verbally and being able to communicate, and that he is actually making a lot of academic progress.”

Like Jennifer Doucet, Amanda Howard credits her son’s progress in part to their ESA. “I think that for kiddos like Nathan, it really shows the difference the right education environment can make,” she says.

While the Doucets and the Howards have been using their children’s ESAs primarily to access private-school options, many Arizona families are using their accounts for a variety of education-related services and providers, completely customizing their children’s educational experiences to meet their unique learning needs.

According to a new evaluation by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, more than one-third of families are using their ESAs to pay for multiple education services along with private-school tuition. Some have eschewed private school altogether and are using their ESAs to purchase textbooks, curricula, and online classes, and pay for private tutors.

ESAs represent a complete reimagination of what it means to finance education publicly. They represent a shift from the very worthwhile goal of school choice to educational choice, the future of school choice.

As more states across the country consider ways to provide school-choice options to families, ESAs should be at the top of their lists. And states with existing voucher or tuition-tax-credit programs should consider expanding the allowable uses of funds and transitioning them to more flexible ESAs.

“When you find out your kid has autism, you go through a stage where you think you are all alone,” says Nathan’s father. “But then people slowly, but surely, point out different things. The ESA is one of those things.”

— Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation. To learn more about ESAs, read: The Education Debit Card: What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts.

Bind Us Together? Not in Public Schools

by Neal McCluskey
Forcing diverse people together creates conflict, not harmony.

The ongoing federal shutdown offers a powerful lesson about public schools, and it’s not just that you can’t count on checks from D.C. It is something much more basic: When government makes decisions, it is very often a zero-sum game — either you get what you want or someone else does — and that is a recipe for harmony-shredding conflict.

That our nation is politically polarized is obvious. Indeed, it feels like an entire industry has sprung up to let us know just how torn asunder we are. As a Washington Post headline declared recently, “Shutdown’s roots lie in deeply embedded divisions in America’s politics.”

Alas, this isn’t a new or one-time thing. No, it seems that the more Washington has tried to control, the worse our divisions have gotten. Take the president’s health-care law, arguably the biggest single increase in federal power in decades. It is probably also the most divisive; having caused rage-filled town halls before it was rammed through on a purely partisan vote, it now drives much of the current federal paralysis.

Basically, the more that government does, the more inevitable divisive warfare becomes. Government action forces everyone into the political arena to determine who gets what from whom, rather than letting people freely choose with whom they’ll interact, and freely choose to cooperate for mutual advantage.

Ironically, perhaps the fundamental notion undergirding public schooling is that government control is essential to bind diverse people together. Horace Mann, the “Father of the Common Schools,” declared that the only way Americans could be educated and kept out of “social, interminable warfare . . . is the elevation of the common schools.”

How has that worked out?

In Mann’s Massachusetts, the common schools first exacerbated long-simmering tensions between Congregationalists and Unitarians — Mann was among the latter — forcing them to debate what kind of religion the schools would teach. It was a burning dispute dampened only by the arrival of large numbers of Roman Catholics — at the time, a common enemy of many Protestants.

Roughly a century of political and social tension between American Catholics and Protestants is well documented. But the battles were perhaps most heated in education, where they included physical combat — with numerous people killed — in the 1844 “Philadelphia Bible Riots.” The spark that set off the conflagration was the question of whose version, if any, of the Bible would be used in the public schools.

Of course, numerous districts for many decades saw peace. What largely maintained tranquility was that, unlike Philadelphia and other diverse areas, most districts were small and their communities homogeneous. That, and large “out” groups — especially African Americans — either were shamefully barred from public schools or, in the case of Roman Catholics, established their own institutions.

As public schooling evolved, it became increasingly centralized, first with consolidated districts, then with state and federal controls. With extremely diverse people now placed under unified governance, today we see constant conflict over numerous values-laden, intensely personal matters, including religion in the schools (or lack thereof); portrayals of different races and ethnicities in curricula and texts; student speech rights; reading selections; and the list goes on.

Indeed, the Cato Institute has been tracking public-schooling battles since 2007 and has posted a map (with ongoing updates) identifying hundreds of “values” battles across the country. And those are just the throwdowns that have received relatively prominent media attention.

Painfully illustrative of the problem is the Anoka-Hennepin district in Minnesota, north of Minneapolis. First it was torn by accusations, in the wake of several student suicides, that it fostered an environment hostile to gay students. Then it came under fire for contemplating policies that conservatives considered threats to their values. Superintendent Dennis Carlson concluded that being a district designed to incorporate very diverse people was the root cause of the seemingly inescapable conflict. Then he said, “It’s not a battle we want to fight. That’s not why we’re here.”

Sadly, Mr. Carlson is wrong: Forcing diverse people together is why public schools are here, as Horace Mann himself proclaimed. But as we are learning the hard way, not just in education but across politics, government control often does not yield harmony. Indeed, quite the opposite.

— Neal McCluskey is the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the report Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict.

Education Today

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

‘One of my most treasured possessions is a picture taken many years ago when I was a young father,” William J. Bennett writes in the introduction to his Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. “It is a picture of me at the beach and on my shoulder I’m carrying my older son, John, who was three years old. I love it partly for obvious reasons of sentiment, but also for another reason. The picture represents one of those moments when I might have played the role of a father well. It is an inspiration and a reminder and it lifts me up, as I lifted up my son on that day.”

Bennett, the former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, has sought to uplift as a husband and father, public servant, author, commentator, and radio-show host. As it happens, his most recently published book, written with David Wilezol, asks the question “Is college worth it?” To begin National Review Online’s fall education week, Kathryn Jean Lopez checked in with Secretary Bennett, the bestselling author of The Book of Virtues, about education in America today.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What troubles you most about American education today?

WILLIAM J. BENNETT: What troubles me the most is poor or mediocre performance and the fact that too many Americans are satisfied with it. Second, that too many education policymakers are focusing on money. The focus needs to be on the right kind of work by teachers, parents, and students.

LOPEZ: You’re an optimist, though. What’s the good news?

BENNETT: (1) Massachusetts. If it were a country, it would be about the tenth highest-achieving country in the world.

(2) New Orleans. It’s an example of good leadership and great reform efforts.

(3) Douglas County, Colorado. Douglas County is an affluent, urban district that refuses to be self-satisfied.

LOPEZ: What’s the most important thing a parent can teach a child?

BENNETT: (1) God loves you.

(2) I love you.

(3) Hard work works. 

LOPEZ: Whatever happened to those old Heritage Foundation backgrounders on the need to abolish the Department of Education? Is the Tea Party today providing that viewpoint?

BENNETT: Yes, for the most part, but that’s not their focus. 

LOPEZ: What would be your priorities if you were secretary of education today?

BENNETT: They would be the same as they were before: choice, accountability, content, and character.

LOPEZ: Will peace come to the debate about Common Core?

BENNETT: Not for a while. We probably need to get rid of the term and have a discussion without the interference the phrase generates.

LOPEZ: Did you learn anything from Ronald Reagan?

BENNETT: Yes, tons.          

You mentioned optimism? I never knew a warrior as happy as — or better than — Ronald Reagan. His 1994 open-letter good-bye reflected the faith, courage, and affection he demonstrated throughout his public life and in his friendships: “When the Lord calls me home,” he wrote, “I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.”

The man loved his country and was eternally optimistic.

LOPEZ: How should history remember him? And how might that help us today?

BENNETT: In education, he was concerned about us not passing on the legacy of America to our children. He was right then and is still right today.

LOPEZ: What have you learned since the days when you were secretary of education? About education? About life?

BENNETT: About education, I have not learned much different from what I understood then. About life, I’ve learned that you see things a little differently at 70 than at 45.

LOPEZ: Are Cabinet secretaries what they once were? Do they have the same influence?

BENNETT: Sure — they mostly don’t matter.

LOPEZ: What’s the best advice you were ever given — and that you could ever give?

BENNETT: The advice my wife, Elayne, gave me. When I was secretary of education, she said I should go to the schools, teach, and talk to the students, their parents, and their teachers, and find out what I’m talking about before I run my mouth. I went to about 120 schools back then, and I’ve been to almost 500 schools more since then. 

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

Race-Based Admissions after Fisher

by Roger Clegg

It’s depressing that, nearly six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, the legality and morality of racial discrimination in education continues to be a contested issue.

Consider: Last month the Obama administration issued “guidance” for universities on the meaning of the Supreme Court’s decision last June in Fisher v. University of Texas. The guidance predictably reiterates that the administration “strongly support[s] diversity” — including, of course, using discrimination in order to achieve it — but, as a legal matter, this is irrelevant if a school is sued, because whether in a particular case there are educational benefits stemming from such diversity is an educational judgment, not a political one.

The fact is that this “guidance” is designed not to help schools follow the law, but to push them to adopt dubious race-based policies that the Supreme Court has warned against and that have prompted lawsuits in the past, but that the Obama administration and its political allies stubbornly support. The whole tone of the new guidance is to offer encouragement to schools that want to engage in racial discrimination: The administration promises that it “will continue to be a resource” for such schools. It is as if the FBI offered eager encouragement to state and local police that wanted to engage in racial profiling without violating the law.

What’s worse, though, is that the guidance is probably telling many schools just what they want to hear: Study after study by the Center for Equal Opportunity has shown that universities across the country are only too happy to weigh race very heavily indeed in their admissions. But, if they (and their lawyers) read the Fisher decision honestly, it ought to make them gulp and reconsider such discriminatory policies. And I should add that, in the run-up to the ruling, it became clear how increasingly unpopular and discredited racial preferences in admissions are, even among liberals who had once supported them. This ought to prompt some serious soul-searching among university presidents on whether “diversity” is really worth the price of racial discrimination.

In Fisher, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, before race can be used in university admissions, a university must give “serious, good faith consideration of workable race-neutral alternatives” to achieving the goals that are purportedly being achieved by weighing race in admissions decisions. The high court said that the lower court, on remand, “must assess whether the university has offered sufficient evidence that would prove that its admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.”

The Court also said that there must be “a careful judicial inquiry into whether a university could achieve sufficient diversity without using racial classifications.” And: “The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” A nondiscriminatory approach must be used if it “could promote the substantial interest about as well and at tolerable administrative expense.”

There is certainly enough in this language to justify an aggressive and thorough challenge to universities’ use of race in admissions, and so they should expect as much. Universities must now be able to document their consideration of alternatives to weighing race, including any reason for not adopting such alternatives.

A particular example would be documentation of how the educational benefits of considering race in admissions would be greater than the educational benefits of considering other, nonracial factors instead. How is education improved by using race, exactly — and how much, exactly, are those benefits of “diversity” enhanced by considering race in admissions, rather than nonracial characteristics that provide actual diversity in backgrounds, such as income or parents’ professions/educational level or geography or age or work experience or whatever?

If a nonracial admissions system would achieve similar benefits and with fewer costs, then the consideration of race cannot be said to have been narrowly tailored to the achievement of those benefits.

More fundamentally, schools must now be able to document why and how race is considered in student admissions and must periodically review and rejustify those considerations. And they must be able to document not only (a) the anticipated benefits but also (b) the possible costs associated with the consideration of race in student admissions at the university — and especially, with regard to the latter, the relative academic performance of members of groups that have received such favorable consideration: That is, they must address the “mismatch” problem of “preferred” minorities being set up for academic underachievement or failure by being admitted into schools where their academic qualifications are significantly below those of the rest of their classmates.

As the Fisher litigation continues, meanwhile, Texans should ask the University of Texas’s president, Bill Powers, “Mr. Powers, just how much of the taxpayers’ money from the people of Texas are you willing to spend in litigation to justify your school’s racial discrimination against wrongly colored Texans?” The predicted expense is now above $1 million.

Three other quick points:

1. Litigation expenses and bad policy aside, the amounts spent — that is, wasted — on these diversity programs is appalling, as Manhattan Institute fellow and NRO contributor Heather Mac Donald has documented.

2. As legally and morally dubious as racial preferences are in student admissions, they are even less defensible in faculty hiring and promotion — yet they are equally ubiquitous, with the added problem that here sex rears its ugly head as well. A recent lawsuit filed by a white male administrator against the University of Florida is a good wakeup call for university officials, many of whom seem to think that, if race can be considered in student admissions, it can therefore also be considered in employment decisions. This is just not true. The statutes and the law are different in the two areas, and there is no plausible legal justification for universities to weigh race in making employment decisions in 2013. Here’s a recent discussion of why universities have no legal justification for racial/ethnic/gender preferences in employment.

3. A word with regard to K-12 education: It is appalling that the Justice Department is trying to use old school-desegregation orders to block Louisiana’s school-voucher program (as John Fund discussed in the NRO piece that really broke this story). But, as I wrote more than a decade ago, the underlying problem is often that school districts — for shortsighted political reasons — have been too complacent in leaving these old orders in place, and so they must bear some of the blame. There are still a couple of hundred of these court orders out there, and school districts — and federal judges, on their own initiative — ought to be proactive in removing the ones that are no longer necessary and in fulfilling any that have not yet been fulfilled, six decades after Brown.

— Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which joined an amicus brief in the Fisher case.