Monday, April 30, 2012

New Orleans and Old Libertarians

Washington Post Op-Ed page staff writer Jo-Ann Armao enthused at length on Friday about the miraculous things happening in the erst-while very public schools of New Orleans in this post-Katrina era. In between gulps of Kool-Aid, Armao wrote about wonderful "turn-arounds" of schools once imprisoned in the grasp of evil teachers unions and inept traditional administrators.
Most of the buzz about the city’s reforms focuses on the banishment of organized labor and the proliferation of charter schools, which enroll nearly 80 percent of public school students, up from 1.5 percent pre-Katrina. But what really distinguishes New Orleans is how government has re­defined its role in education: stepping back from directly running schools and empowering educators to make the decisions about hours, curriculum and school culture that best drive student learning. Now, state and school-district officials mostly regulate and monitor — setting standards, ensuring equity and closing failing schools. Instead of a traditional school system, there is a system of schools in what officials liken to a fenced-in free market. Families have more choice about where their children can best succeed, they say, and educators have more opportunity to choose a school that best aligns with their approach.
OK. The stage is set. The free market in public education has come to post-Katrina New Orleans. And what has resulted? Armao goes on:
Since 2006, New Orleans students have halved the achievement gap with their state counterparts. They are on track to, in the next five years, make this the first urban city in the country to exceed its state’s average test scores. The share of students proficient on state tests rose from 35 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2011; 40 percent of students attended schools identified by the state as “academically unacceptable” in 2011, down from 78 percent in 2005.
Nothing short of a miracle, if you believe it; but only a fool would.

Milton Friedman, in one of his last public utterances before he died, called Katrina an "opportunity." "Most New Orleans schools are in ruins as are the homes of the children who have attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity.” What he meant, of course, was that the tragedy presented the opportunity to privatize and "charterize" the New Orleans public school system. Friedman was being perfectly consistent with what he had written in 2002 about the use of "crises" to open the door to favored reforms. "Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That … is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive … until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

There is much that is shocking in Friedman's insensitivity and cynicism, not the least of which is that his comments imply that mere "perceived crises" (not necessarily "real"?) can present the opportunity to implement a radically different political philosophy. We have had enough of "manufactured crises" in the business of education reform.

But back to Armao. Yes, things might be different in the New Orleans public schools, but attributing those differences to free-market reforms is ludicrously naive. What happened from pre- to post-Katrina was a dramatic shift in the city's demographics. Between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census, the population of New Orleans changed like so:

New Orleans Population Change, 2000—2010, by Race
Race 2000 2010 % Change
Non-Black 156,000 137,000 –12%
Black 329,000 207,000 –37%

More than one in every three Black persons in New Orleans was displaced from the city by Katrina, because they lacked the resources to return after the hurricane or because they lived in the wards most severely affected by the flood. About one in ten non-Black persons (overwhelmingly non-Hispanic White) was similarly displaced.

Any attempt to draw a conclusion about charter schooling or free-market reforms from pre-Katrina vs post-Katrina test score comparisons would be a good exercise for a Freshman course in logic. That the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post fails at such an exercise should be both surprising to readers and embarrassing to the editorial staff.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When Will the Cyberschooling Giants Start Acquiring EMOs?

For the past few weeks, I have been corresponding with some film producers who—encouraged perhaps by the commercial success of "Waiting for Superman"—have an inkling that some very important things are happening with public education in America...some things like crony capitalism, and an economy shifting to public risk and private profit. Recently they asked me whether the virtual schools trend was important. I offered the reply copied below.

Is the advent of online schools for elementary and secondary school students one of the biggest stories in public education today?

The emergence and growth of cyberschools at the k-12 level is a great story because it tugs at the heart strings: little kids—6, 7, 8 years old—staring at the PC screen for hours, alone or with a sibling, their intellectual development entrusted to a parent whose moral outrage is not matched by their intellectual curiosity or mastery of even the simplest school subjects? Yes, that is truly awful. My daughter once had neighbors who were homeschooling their children, and she could see that the kids spent most of the day in the backyard on a trampoline. And homeschoolers are among the biggest source of customers for the cyberschool companies—homeschoolers and potential dropouts.

But cyberstudents still constitute a very small slice of the total k-12 population. One could argue that they are currently getting more attention than they deserve because their situation is so striking. If their numbers reach 300,000 students, that’s just 0.6% of the public school population (300,000/50,000,000). Nonetheless, the brazenness of the commercial companies—primarily K12 Inc.—does make cyberschools a compelling story.

Incidentally, you may want to look into whether the military recognizes an online school diploma. Last I heard, it did not.

Although k-12 cyberschools are still a tiny slice of the public school population, charter schools are not. In some states—Arizona for example with 540 charter schools enrolling 135,000 students; Colorado with 185 schools and 80,000 students—charter schools are enrolling about 10% of the public school population. And although that movement started out with idealistic visions of brilliant young teachers and highly motivated students, it is devolving into a shoddy business with increasing numbers of charter schools operated by profit-making Education Management Organizations (EMOs).

Now the cyberschool companies use the charter school laws to make their money. It’s obvious if you think about it. So can alliances and mergers between the biggies—K12 Inc and Pearson (Connections)—and the EMOs be far in the future? For a report on the state of the EMOs, see .

Currently in the U.S., there are approximately 5,500 charter schools enrolling more than 1.7 Million students. That works out to about 1,700,000/50,000,000 = 3.4% of all the k-12 school children in the nation. Now if we strike a “price” of about $10,000 per student—the current average expenditure in the U.S. for a k-12 student—we can see that the charter school business is a $17 Billion market (“B”, not “M”). In 2010-2011, EMOs managed about 1,900 charter schools enrolling approximately 750,000 students in Kindergarten through grade 12. These three-quarter million EMO-managed charter school students represent a $7.5 Billion market for the cyberschool industry. K12 Inc., the big shot in the cyberschool business, has annual revenues just more than a half billion dollars.

What should we expect then? Obviously, the big players—K12 Inc. and Connections—must already be looking to acquire some of the small EMOs. Stock-holders expect such things, particularly when a major player like K12 Inc. disappointed them mightily in November 2011 when its stock price dived 50% from $37/sh to $18/sh, not coincidentally after the October release of a critical policy brief by the National Education Policy Center focused on cyberschools generally and an article in the New York Times focused specifically on K12 Inc.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Conservatives, ALEC, and Vouchers Lose—Temporarily—in Arizona

Governor Brewer (R-AZ) caused a bill to be killed that would have greatly expanded the Arizona voucher program. Enacted a few years ago, the program gave vouchers, pegged at 90% of the average per pupil expenditure, to handicapped children’s parents that could be redeemed at any private school. The Arizona Supreme Court routinely approves of such legislation. In Fall 2011, only 75 vouchers were issued statewide. Perhaps most private schools would rather not deal with handicapped students, and those that do deal with them well cost considerably more than $8,000 per year. So legislators came back this session with a bill to expand the program to included “gifted” children. Since all God’s children are gifted in one way or another, the bill killed by Brewer would have enormously expanded the program and created a market niche for private schools: the “gifted” children of middle-class families.

Giftedness has such an absurd history in American education that basing any legislation on it is a joke. The pressure exerted by parents on administrators to label their child “gifted” results in multiple definitions–soon “gifted” is expanded to “gifted and talented”–so that ultimately the wave of giftedness has to be controlled by placing a statistical limit on the use of the label. (Many years ago while studying the distribution of “emotionally disturbed” students across states, I noticed that Utah had the highest rate of EMD pupils in the nation. That did not comport with my own stereotype of the Beehive State, so I investigated. I found out that the vigorous efforts of professionals in the state had prompted the Utah Legislature to place a cap of 3.5% on the percentage of students who could be labeled EMD, and lo and behold, 3.5% of the students in the Utah public schools were diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.)

Bills like the attempted expansion of the Arizona voucher program are probably lifted directly from the model legislation disseminated by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the source of most of the business-friendly legislation making its way around the country these days. Wikipedia says quite accurately that “The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a politically conservative 501(c)(3) nonprofit policy organization, consisting of both state legislators and members of the private sector, mostly representing corporations. ALEC's mission statement describes the organization's purpose as the advancement of free-market principles, limited government,federalism, and individual liberty.” ALEC’s budget amounts to roughly $7 Million a year, but only 1% of that total comes from state legislator members; the rest comes from large corporations. Among ALEC’s recent pushes has been the attempt to get legislatures to pass voter identification laws in preparation for the 2012 general election. For example, potential voters in Texas will be able to cast their ballot in November if they present identification in the form of a gun permit but not a college student ID card. Coca-Cola and Pepsi withdrew their financial support of ALEC this week.

Governor Brewer has promised her conservative backers that she will revisit the expansion of the voucher program question this summer after the state budget is set.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University