Category Archives: Education / Youth

When “Private” Really Isn’t

Remember when Ross Perot built his third-party campaign on his image as a hard-headed private-sector businessman? And it turned out that his company did most of its “private-sector” business with government?

The revelations about Trump University are highlighting a similar reality: most supposedly “private sector” universities are financed with tax dollars.

Investigations by government officials and reporters over the past few years have uncovered numerous abuses by these schools, which recruit heavily among populations unprepared for higher education, encourage students to take on government-insured loans, and fail to provide them with the education and skills they need to succeed in the job market. According to the U.S. Department of Education, for-profit schools are responsible for 44% of all student loan defaults.

Like Trump “University,” most of these institutions aren’t universities–they’re scams. And  Trump isn’t the only public office-seeker with ties to these lucrative enterprises.

Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, in a tight race for re-election, is being criticized for his ties to Yorktown University:

The Pennsylvania Senator is expected to get the Trump U treatment over his dealings with Yorktown University, a for-profit college that has been criticized for its lack of accreditation, questionable academic offerings and marketing to veterans who can receive government tuition aid. Toomey is an investor in the online program, served on its boards and agreed to appear in its marketing materials.

……..

Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio was hit in the Republican primary for his support of the now-closed Corinthian Colleges; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee took some heat for his support of Victory University, a for-profit based in Memphis, before its untimely demise; and former President Bill Clinton has faced censure for his lucrative work with for-profit colleges, even as his wife has criticized them.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has consistently attacked schools trading false hopes for the tuition dollars being provided courtesy of taxpayers. The Education Department’s long-debated “gainful employment” rule, which requires colleges to track their graduates’ performance in the workforce and eventually will cut off funding for career training programs that fall short, was recently upheld by the courts. The Justice Department recently announced that Education Affiliates would pay $13 million to settle allegations it had falsified federal financial aid claims and issued fake diplomas, the latest in a string of similar actions.

It is past time to shut down these phony “schools” that exist only to prey on the vulnerable while defrauding taxpayers.

Why do I think that wouldn’t happen in a Trump-Pence Administration?

Ah..Those Laboratories of Democracy…

When I introduce students to America’s constitutional architecture, I sometimes begin by asking them to define federalism. Judging from the blank stares and efforts to avoid being called on, I think it’s fair to say that our federalist system is not widely understood.

That’s too bad, because one of the policy debates we should be having–but aren’t–is how such a system should operate in a time when transportation and communication technologies have changed the way we view state lines. What sorts of rules and policies need to be national in scope, and which are best left to state and local government?

However we answer that question, one important role that states will undoubtedly continue to play is in the development of new approaches to governing.

Justice Louis Brandeis famously referred to the states as “laboratories of democracy;” the idea was that state governments would try new ideas and programs, acting as “pilot projects,” that would allow the rest of the country to evaluate the merits of those approaches before adopting them.

Inevitably, some will be cautionary tales, and pre-eminent in that category is Kansas or, as Charles Pierce calls it,

the failed state of Kansas, now in the fifth year of the Brownbackian Dark Ages, as such things are reckoned. Somehow, the fact that Kansas’ status as a supply-side lab rat has dropped the state down a political garbage chute the likes of which hasn’t been seen since they shredded the Articles of Confederation is beginning to seep under the guardhouses of the gated communities. The head of a healthcare company is fleeing to the Missouri border and he’s not shy about telling the world why.

The blistering indictment of Brownback’s Kansas by that company’s CEO is illuminating; noting that Kansas has become a test center of “trickle down” economics, he pointed out that those policies have led to a “dramatic failure of government.”

Brownback implemented unprecedented tax cuts in 2012. The largest cuts were in the highest tax brackets, and Brownback promised that they would provide a “shot of adrenaline” for the Kansas economy. They actually had the opposite effect, with Kansas lagging neighboring states in job growth and missing revenue targets in 11 of the past 12 months. In the face of ever-deeper debt and another round of degraded bond ratings, Brownback has asked his citizens to pray and fast to solve the budget crisis.

That should turn things around. Not.

It is tempting to look at the hot mess that is Kansas and feel better about Indiana. And granted, our fiscal problems–while substantial– are less severe. But our Governor has  generated his own cautionary tales.

Take, for just one example, his attack on public education and his fervent support of school vouchers. Indiana now has the largest voucher program in the country–and some of the most consistently under-resourced public schools. The public justification for expanding the voucher program is that allowing parents to choose private schools will improve education, at least as measured by test scores. (Given the percentage of families using those vouchers at religious schools, however, it is likely that the Governor’s preference for church over state– his consistent effort to bolster religious institutions and practices– is implicated.)

So how has Indiana’s “laboratory experiment” been working out? Not so well.

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions. And they showed that the results were not explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers transferred out of above-average public schools.

Perhaps Governor Pence can call for a day of prayer and fasting to raise the test scores of those voucher students. In the meantime, other states can be grateful for a federalist system that lets them learn from–and avoid– others’ disasters.

Facts and Frames

I think it was Talleyrand who said something along the lines of “language has been given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.” Nowhere is this observation more apt than in the debates over school voucher programs.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many public systems are underperforming, and that people of good will are working on a variety of reforms intended to improve them. Reform is not a dirty word; it is also not a specific description. Some reforms show promise; others do not. Some are consistent with the democratic mission of public education; others are not.

Thus far, the scholarship evaluating voucher programs suggests that participating schools perform no better than public schools when you control for student population–that is, if the children in the public and private classrooms all have the same socio-economic characteristics, voucher schools do no better (and sometimes far worse) than their public counterparts. I should also note that despite careless rhetoric used by proponents and opponents of this or that reform, vouchers and charters are different animals. Charters–whatever their merits or problems–are public schools.

Indiana, under Mike Pence, has vastly expanded its voucher program, and the funds for that expansion have come at the expense of the state’s underfunded public schools. So it is understandable that members of local school boards have gotten “a bit testy,” as the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette put it.

Things have gotten a bit testy between several members of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Last week the foundation sent a new report extolling the virtues of vouchers via email to Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board.

He responded with “more distortions and lies.”

The ensuing back-and-forth was not a model of civil discourse, but it certainly highlighted something that many of us who consider ourselves pro-reform but anti-voucher have long recognized: this is a fight to which people bring different weapons. Voucher proponents use framing (it is hardly an accident that the Friedman Foundation’s vice-president is a PR professional). Voucher opponents, by and large (and with some exceptions), counter with facts. 

Voucher proponents frame these programs as a means of getting poor children out of failing public schools and into private schools that will give them a better education. That may even be their sincere intent, but it is a frame, a proposition for which, thus far, there simply is no evidence. Quite the contrary; as the Brookings Institution reported a few days ago:

Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has found that public school students that received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored lower on reading and math tests compared to similar students that remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large. These studies used rigorous research designs that allow for strong causal conclusions.

Fort Wayne School Board members responded with several facts inconsistent with the “frame”:

  • A majority of children using vouchers in Allen County go to religious schools at taxpayer expense, raising troubling questions about family motivation and public oversight.
  • Fewer than 10% of Allen County children using vouchers ever attended public schools.
  • Three times more students left Fort Wayne Community Schools that had earned an “A” rating from the state than left “D” schools.

At its base, the voucher debate is an argument about democracy, and the role of public schools in creating a polity–an “us”–out of the diverse populations that make up our nation. As I have previously written, in an article titled Privatizing Education: The Liberal Democratic Idea, Constitutionalism, and the Politics of Vouchers,

Arguments about the education of the young are at least as old as Socrates. However, it is fair to suggest that the voucher debate that has erupted over the past few years is qualitatively different from many that have preceded it. Rather than arguing about whether public schools are deficient, and if so, in what respects; rather than debating the merits of one “reform” over another, the issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to dispensing vouchers to families, enabling them to “buy” educational services in the marketplace. It is a classic political confrontation, engaging partisan strategies and implicating political ideologies.

And all too often, giving short shrift to facts and the actual consequences of ideologically motivated reforms.

 

The Nazi Salute…Really?

Students at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis are at the center of a controversy created when they posted a picture showing them making Nazi salutes to social media.

According to the Indianapolis Star,

Students at a private Indianapolis high school are in trouble for making the Nazi salute at the end of a class segment on the German language. It’s the latest example of intolerance and anti-Semitism at area schools….

The photo — taken in a World Languages classroom at Cathedral High School, a private college preparatory school on Indianapolis’ northeast side — shows 15 students holding the German flag and some raising their arms in the Nazi salute, a gesture used during German dictator Adolf Hitler’s reign, usually followed by some variant of the phrase “Heil Hitler!”

When the photo triggered a public outcry, officials of Cathedral released a statement saying, in part “We are having a meeting about cultural awareness with these students and their families regarding the poor choice they made in the picture and how offensive and hurtful this can be.”

Well, sorry, but “Heil Hitler” goes considerably beyond “offensive and hurtful.” Try ignorant and hateful.

I use the word ignorant advisedly, because if I had to guess, I’d attribute this incredible incident to Cathedral’s failure (shared by far too many schools, public and private alike) to actually teach their students history, among other subjects necessary to informed participation in civic life.

A few days ago, several people posted a video to Facebook showing a series of “person on the street” interviews conducted in New York’s Times Square. The young people who were stopped were asked questions that should have been no-brainers: “what countries fought in World War II?” “What was World War II about?” “Have you ever heard of Hitler?” To say that the answers were dispiriting would be a massive understatement. (If anyone has the link, I’d appreciate it; I couldn’t find it, and it really needs to be seen to be appreciated.)

Here in Indianapolis, as elsewhere, the Jewish community–through organizations like the Jewish Community Relations Council–holds annual events intended to educate the broader community about the Holocaust. Survivors–all of whom are now quite elderly, so their ranks are thinning–are made available to speak to student groups and civic organizations. There are books and films and memorials, all with a single focus: to bear witness to Nazi atrocities, in the fervent hope that “never again” will human beings visit horrors of this magnitude on other human beings.

These efforts, however, require fertile ground in which to take root and promote understanding. An uneducated, uninterested and unaware population is impervious to such undertakings.

The best we can hope for in situations like the one at Cathedral is to discover that these young people had no idea what the Nazis did–that they acted out of ignorance rather than bigotry and hatred, and that some mandatory education might open their eyes to the evil they were celebrating.

If not–if they were aware of what the Nazis did and what the salute conveyed–they are frightening harbingers of a new dark age to come, and we are all in trouble.

There’s a reason that many of us who do know our history see incidents like this, and watch voters respond to Donald Trump’s blatant appeals to racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism (he “tells it like it is,” he isn’t “politically correct”) with cold chills and foreboding.

Santayana said it best: those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

 

There’s Another Explanation….

Inside Higher Education has recently joined the chorus of–or at least, provided fodder to– those who equate more education with leftist indoctrination.

Americans with college degrees are to the left of the majority of Americans who lack a college degree. And a new study by the Pew Research Center shows that those who have attended graduate school are even farther to the left than those who have only an undergraduate degree.

File this under “And what else is new?”

The academy has been accused of inculcating “elitist,” liberal, unrealistic attitudes ever since I can remember. The widespread suspicion of people who choose the “life of the mind” over commerce or honest labor is at the heart of contemporary efforts to judge the value of universities by comparing job placement statistics. (It’s okay if you just attend college to acquire skills for the marketplace, but be careful that your job training isn’t subverted by some artsy-fartsy detour into learning for its own sake.)

When you learn more, evidently, it turns you liberal.

To some extent, that’s undoubtedly true. The real problem with today’s facile equation of educated people and political liberalism, however, is that the definition of  terms like conservative and liberal, never very precise, have changed over the years–and rather dramatically, at that.

Today, we dismiss as “liberal” the person who sees issues as complex, who changes her mind about a policy if new evidence suggests that previous understandings were incomplete, who relies on evidence rather than unsupported assertion. (A contemporary liberal is unlikely to sign that petition to keep trans people out of restrooms, for example, because there has never been a reported problem.) Today’s liberal is less likely to believe something because a religious figure has proclaimed that “God said so,” and more likely to accept scientific consensus about things like the age of the earth, evolution and climate change.

In short, today’s liberal looks a lot like the 18th Century Enlightenment figures who gave us science, empiricism and the social contract.

While my students have difficult believing it, liberalism so understood used to be common in the Republican party. Republicans and Democrats used to occupy broad areas of agreement, differing primarily over the policies most likely to achieve agreed-upon ends. Back then, those shared worldviews were labeled “moderate.”

As the GOP turned into the God Squad, and those areas of agreement diminished, “Republican” became synonymous with “conservative” and “Democrat” became another word for liberal.

As a result, when educated people identify as liberal these days, they don’t necessarily mean left-wing populist or socialist.  They certainly don’t identify with the Left as it developed in Europe. They don’t even necessarily “feel the Bern.”

These days, what they mean is something like “I’m not one of the nut-cases doing grocery shopping with my open-carry weapon. I don’t throw rocks at gay people, or burn copies of the Koran, and I don’t forward racist, sexist and anti-Semitic emails. I’m not one of the people calling myself ‘pro life’ when I’m really just pro-birth and anti-woman. I’m not stupid enough to think American can deport twelve million people, or carpet-bomb the Middle East or reverse same-sex marriage. I understand that issues are complicated, that facts matter, and that people who don’t look like me have rights too.”

Today, someone who says those things is a Democrat. Or– in contemporary parlance– a liberal.

It wasn’t always that way.