Tag: Alternative education

A Setback for Louisiana

As you may recall, Bobby Jindal has started a large voucher program for Louisiana schools. I’ve expressed support for this, even though some schools eligible for vouchers are teaching creationism. My point is that if it’s a choice between schools that don’t teach evolution and schools that don’t teach anything, that’s not really a choice. And it’s absurd to take some of the more nutty religious schools and claim this represents the entire system.

Yesterday, a Republican judge ruled the program unconstitutional. But it appears to be a much narrower ruling than the Left was hoping for (and thinks it is):

Kelley said the method the Jindal administration, state education leaders and lawmakers used to pay for the voucher program violates state constitutional provisions governing the annual education funding formula, called the Minimum Foundation Program or MFP.

“The MFP was set up for students attending public elementary and secondary schools and was never meant to be diverted to private educational providers,” Kelley wrote in a 39-page ruling.

Kelley, a Republican, didn’t rule on whether it’s appropriate to spend state tax dollars on private school tuition, leaving open the possibility for lawmakers to pay for the program in a different way. His decision was narrowly focused on the financing mechanism chosen by the GOP governor and approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and lawmakers.

Note what he did not do: he did not rule that vouchers can not be done because they go to religious schools, an issue the Supreme Court already ruled on in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. So this has nothing to do with fundamentalism, evolution or religion. It is a matter of fiscal law.

I’m not a lawyer, least of all one in Louisiana, so I don’t know if Kelley is right on this. I suspect, given the narrowness of the ruling, he is right and the Louisiana legislature is going to have to find another way to do this (and provoke an entirely new spate of cartel-defending lawsuits).

What is striking, however, is the glee with which this ruling has been received on a number of Left wing blogs. The writers don’t really seem to care what this means for the rotten Louisiana school system (which actually spends more per student than neighboring states). All they seem to care about is that this is a defeat for Bobby Jindal and the evil religious nutbags.

I do think the critics make one valid point: vouchers are not a “magic bullet” that can cure our schools. In the end, the most important factor is having parents who are involved and committed to their child’s education. But I do think a voucher system gives those parents who are involved more power and leverage over the system. Not power over the teachers, mind you, who need some independence; but power over the over-arching administrative nightmare makes public schools difficult for students, parents and teachers.


Earlier this week, the Left Wing Echosphere was atwitter at the news that a Louisiana school eligible for vouchers had a fundamentalist religious science agenda that teaches, among other things, that the Loch Ness Monster is real and its existence refutes evolution. “Oh, Woe!” they cried, “our tax dollars are going to teach students this rubbish!”

Now never mind that, with hundreds of schools eligible for vouchers, you’re almost certain going to find some that are run by whack jobs. I’m sure there’s a school out there that will teach that Marxism works. The more important point, which I hinted at on Twitter, is expanded on by Neal McCluskey.

First, no matter how loudly government-failure deniers might protest — the government is omnipotent, dammit! – government schooling does not overcome religious belief. The latest Gallup poll assessing views on human origins came out a few weeks ago, and found as it has since 1982: The vast majority of Americans believe that God created human beings, and a plurality believes that God created us in our ”present form.” Only 15 percent hold that human beings evolved without any divine involvement. And this is with roughly 85 percent of students attending public schools.

Next, take a look at overall science achievement. According to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress results, only 32 percent of U.S. eighth graders are “proficient” in science. And private versus public schools? 43 percent of private school students are proficient, versus 31 percent for public schools. A significant part of the difference is likely that private schools tend to serve better prepared kids, but the data certainly doesn’t suggest that public schooling beats private when it comes to science instruction.

Finally, there’s the reason government schools are so inept at teaching science: All people, no matter what their beliefs, are forced to support public schools — a perfect recipe for wrenching conflict. To avoid war without end, some 60 percent of high school biology teachers gloss over the mega flash-point that is evolution. The result is that no one, no matter what their beliefs, gets coherent biology instruction.

When discussing vouchers, liberals like to pretend there is some system of idealized perfect schools that we are draining money away from. This is simply not the case, especially in the low-achievement state of Louisiana. Bobby Jindal has seen the state of Louisiana schools and decided that tweaking it at the edges is simply not an option. A game changer is needed.

An unfortunate side effect is that few schools won’t teach science. Well, guess what, friends? The public schools aren’t teaching science either. Many, if not most, of the students in the public schools are as ignorant about evolution, cosmology and astrophysics as if they’d been educated in a fundamentalist rain barrel. You can site bad examples from the private sector all day; I will site the overall massive improvement in all phases of education, including science, that the private system has over the public system.

When it comes to policy, we can’t get bogged down in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to look at the big picture. And the big picture is that Louisiana’s public schools are not cutting it in any dimension: science, reading, math, you name it. Maybe the great voucher experiment won’t produce the stunning results its supporters think it does. But we’ve got to try something other than pouring more money into the same rathole. And there are very good reasons to believe that this particular something is a good thing.

There’s one other point and it’s the one McCluskey makes last: the current public furor over teaching evolution in our schools. The libertarians have been talking about this for some time, saying we could diffuse the evolution debate by privatizing schools. I didn’t agree at first but am now coming around to that point. Half of Americans do not believe in evolution. I’m beginning to think that at least part of that is because of the deliberate politicization of the science. There is tremendous political benefit in making science a point of contention, and not just for the Religious Right. Whether portraying ones self as a stalwart against evil secular atheists or a stalwart against dogmatic religious fundamentalists, the evolution controversy empower politicians. It is always the case: when the politicians manage to divide us against each other, both sides win. If you think that the Democrats would rather the evolution issue go way, you simply don’t understand how the political mind works.

Perhaps, by moving science out of the public sphere, we can take some of the ardor out the debate. We can stop the acceptance of evolution from being absurdly equated with being a Democrat. And, in the long run, I think that will better for the science as well as the schools.

School Daze

The WaPo ran a must-read article over the weekend, written by a graduate of one of their top charter schools, now struggling as a freshman at Georgetown:

I stay in contact with most of my graduating class through Facebook. Many of my friends are at four-year schools on the East Coast, and they’ve been through similar struggles in their freshman year. Generally, we agree that our schools did not prepare us, even though they tried. My high school was one of the best I had the choice of attending; compared with other public schools in the District, it made an excellent attempt at getting me ready for college. But any high school administrator in Washington faces a problem similar to my professors at Georgetown: They’re stuck correcting the damage done before we got there.

Robinson points out that he was able to get straight A’s through memorization and repeating anything the teachers told him. But it wasn’t until he got to the last few charter high school that they began to teach him any critical thinking. It’s not that the teacher didn’t care about Darryl Robinson (although many accused him of cheating when he got A’s). It’s that they are in a system that doesn’t really give a crap as long as goals dictated from on high are met.

One of my biggest concerns about our public education system is that it has become focused on competence rather than excellence. No Child Left Behind is a perfect example, grading schools on how many students reach the bare minimum of proficiency. Truly talented and smart students, like Darryl Robinson, are left on their own.

For a student raised in a good family in a safe neighborhood, that’s fine. My own proficiency in math came to the fore when one of my teachers let us advance at our own pace. But with poor neighborhoods, drug-riddled cities and parents who may or may not be invested, it’s the death of genius. Massive potential is almost wiped out.