Category Archives: Education / Youth

Easy To Destroy, How Long To Repair?

A friend who lives in Wisconsin occasionally sends me items from newspapers in that state that he thinks will interest me. Most have obvious implications for other states–and since Scott Walker became Governor, those implications have tended to range from worrisome to terrifying.

The most recent news from what I’ve come to call “the frontier of shooting yourself in the foot” was a report about the University of Wisconsin’s loss of thousands of engineering students.

The story began by explaining why engineering is “more than classrooms and theory: It’s a hands-on discipline for turning ideas into prototypes and products that help people.” The university should have a number of advantages when it comes to attracting engineering students–most recently, it has used private grant funds to create an innovative “maker space” appealing to both in-state and out-of-state applicants.

Accommodating those applicants is a different issue.

There are roughly 4,500 undergraduate students in UW-Madison’s engineering sequence today. About 6,600 applied last year, including many qualified applicants from outside Wisconsin who could add to the state’s talent base.

The main barrier to taking more is a lack of faculty to educate more students without diminishing the quality of the experience for all. Private gifts help, but the core funding for faculty hires comes from state government support and student tuition.

As the article delicately puts it, those funding sources “haven’t grown.” That’s a rather massive understatement: the Walker Administration’s cuts to funding for the university can only be characterized as savage. In the wake of those cuts, and other measures inimical to higher education, the once-storied University of Wisconsin has seen faculty depart and rankings slip.

Walker not only engineered (no pun intended) an enormous $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, just when other state universities were finally emerging from the recession. He also proposed to get rid of academic tenure.

As one observer wrote at the time,

With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

An article in Slate a year later considered the consequences of these changes in funding and tenure protections. Several highly-regarded professors had left; others at risk of being “poached” were retained (at least temporarily) at a cost of some $9 million dollars in pay raises and research support. As the Slate article explained:

Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.

Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their “bosses”—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.

What is happening in Wisconsin is tragic: Scott’s vendetta against intellectual “elitists” is affecting everything from the quality of the state’s workforce  to its reputation and its ability to attract new employers. Last year, the state ranked 33d in job creation–not dead last (Kansas has that distinction) but nothing to brag about.

What is happening in Wisconsin is also where Donald Trump and today’s rabidly anti-intellectual GOP want to take the rest of us. And that is truly terrifying. It’s relatively easy to destroy an asset; rebuilding it, and restoring a sullied reputation is a far dicier proposition.

 

 

 

Stuck In The Swamp

Can you stand one more diatribe about Betsy DeVos?

According to Gail Collins at the New York Times, DeVos isn’t just devoting herself to the destruction of public elementary and high schools. She’s after public universities too.

DeVos is the superrich Republican donor who once led a crusade to reform troubled Michigan public schools by turning them into truly terrible private ones. Now she’s in the Trump cabinet, and she seems to be dedicating a lot of her time to, um, lowering higher education.

When no one was watching she hired a lot of people that come from the for-profit colleges,” complained Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who feels the additions are far more interested in protecting their old associates than in overseeing them. Murray is the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, otherwise known as HELP. These days it’s hard to tell whether that’s a promise of assistance or a cry of distress.

To oversee the critical issue of fraud in higher education, DeVos picked Julian Schmoke Jr., whose former job was a dean of — yes! — a for-profit university. Specifically a school named DeVry. Last year, under fire from state prosecutors and the Federal Trade Commission, DeVry agreed to pay $100 million to students who complained that they had been misled by its recruitment pitch.

Over the past several years, we have learned that students attending these for-profit institutions pay far more, and get far less, than they would at a public college. They have huge dropout rates, and even larger rates of default on the government grants that almost all of them take out. (On the other hand, they have very low rates of employment, despite the rosy promises made by these institutions.)

Although there are some legitimate private colleges, the statistics are pretty devastating.

“The outcomes for people who take out loans at for-profits are abysmal,” said Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress. He added that almost all the students borrow, for courses they could sometimes get for one sixth the price at a community college. And about half the people who borrow default.

As the stories about deceitful for-profits mounted, the Obama administration came up with regulations making it easier for students to refuse to pay their loans if a school had misrepresented their chances of graduating and getting a lucrative career. The rules were supposed to go into effect in July, but DeVos has delayed their implementation.

Not only has DeVos “delayed” implementation of the new regulations, under her management the Department of Education has stopped approving new fraud claims against for-profits, leaving a backlog of more than 87,000.

Give her credit for one educational advance, though: Betsy DeVos is giving us all a lesson on what happens when big political contributions buy a cabinet position for a theocratic ignoramus.

Choice And Consequences

As regular readers of this blog know (and as yesterday’s post confirmed) I am not a fan of school vouchers. My concerns range from the philosophical to the practical, and the emerging research has confirmed most of the practical ones.

One consequence of voucher programs that is rarely, if ever, addressed (although, I will immodestly point out that I have addressed it): the unfair impact on small towns. Vouchers were first promoted as a way to allow poor kids to escape failing inner-city schools. (Ignore, for now, the fact that in Indiana, at least, most vouchers are being used by white kids who are leaving non-failing schools for religious ones…).

Most small towns don’t have enough students to support an alternative to the public school. Since most private schools accepting vouchers are in cities large enough to have inner-cities and multiple schools, and since they are receiving tax dollars paid by people throughout the state, small towns are effectively subsidizing private schools in more metropolitan areas.

Recently, I came across an illustration of this inequity. It’s a story from Stinesville, Indiana, a town I will readily admit I’d never heard of, although I was born (and will undoubtedly die) in Indiana.

With the largest private school voucher program in the country, and a charter sector that has grown “explosively,” Indiana is a poster state for the kinds of education policies pushed by President Trump and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. But for small rural communities, the growth of school choice over the past six years is now forcing another choice: whether to close the public schools that are at their heart as competing schools pull students and money away. As vouchers and charters were sold to voters, the cost to small towns like Stinesville, IN, where officials voted this week to shutter the elementary school, was left out of the sales pitch.

The article reports on a school board meeting held just last month, at which the decision to close the school was the agenda item.

On this night, October 18, 2017, despite the sleepy look of the downtown street, there is nothing sleepy about school’s parking lot. It is packed. Inside, the gym is full of people, filling the folding chairs that have been set on the floor, and squeezing into the bleachers. Many are wearing red. There are parents with young children, teenagers, and plenty of older people too.

The superintendent explained why he advocated closing Stinesville Elementary School and busing the children to Ellettsville, population 6,600, six miles away: declining enrollment, declining funds and escalating costs.

So what does this have to do with vouchers? The article explains.

As the voucher and charter programs were explained and advertised as “school choice” to the public, one corollary fact was not included: Indiana residents might lose a choice that many of us have taken for granted for decades—the ability to send our kids to a local, well-resourced public school. The kind of school that serves lunch and participates in the federal school lunch program. The kind of school that provides transportation. The kind of school that has certified teachers and a library and is in a district obligated by law to accept all children in the attendance area, including those with profound special needs, and to provide them a free and appropriate public education….

Governor Daniels cut $300 million from the state budget for K-12 in 2009, during the recession. That money was never replaced even as the economy began to recover. Indiana voters wrote tax caps into the state constitution through a referendum in 2010, weakening the ability of local governments to provide services.

Since 2011, public dollars being diverted from the public school system to charters and vouchers have ballooned. By the end of 2015, according to an analysis done by the Legislative Services Agency at the request of Democratic state representative Ed Delaney, $920 million had been spent on charters and vouchers. From its inception in 2011 through the 2016-2017 school year, the voucher program cost Indiana taxpayers $516.5 million.

The article documents the dollars diverted to religious schools from Stinesville’s public school, which had been ranked as one of the state’s most effective, and references research on the negative effects suffered by small communities that lose their schools.

I notice that proponents of “school choice” never discuss these issues.

 

Privatization, Florida And Betsy DeVos

Monday was a big day for collusion watchers, and I am becoming more optimistic that this unhinged and unfit child-President won’t serve out his term. That said, the throwbacks, theocrats and corrupt wheeler-dealers who populate the Trump Administration are doing incalculable harm every day.

I know there’s a robust competition for Worst Cabinet Member Ever, but even though Scott Pruitt is a strong contender, I really have to cast my vote for Betsy DeVos. (Apparently, mine isn’t the only such vote; I read somewhere that more people know who she is than any current or previous cabinet secretary, and that her disapproval numbers are off the charts.)

Every day, it seems there’s a new assault on sanity coming from DeVos. I’m particularly enraged (and that’s not too strong a word) by her actions favoring for-profit rip-off colleges, but even her willingness to wink at the private-sector “entrepreneurs” making millions by cheating both government and aspiring students pales in comparison to her pro-voucher fixation.

Recently, the Orlando-Sentinal began an investigative series on Florida’s experience with school privatization; anyone who knows anything about DeVos knows that replacing public schools with private ones, preferably Christian, is her most cherished goal.

As Daily Kos described the report,

Writers Leslie Postal, Beth Kassab, and Annie Martin have put together the first part of what promises to be an infuriating look into the swamp of privatization in Florida’s education system. According to the investigation, private schools in Florida have received $1 billion dollars in scholarship money, while not having to promise much of anything—including hiring teachers with college degrees. And that’s just the tip of the rapidly-melting iceberg.

A few of the hair-raising findings:

The limited oversight of Florida’s scholarship programs allowed a principal under investigation for molesting a student at his Brevard County school to open another school under a new name and still receive the money, an Orlando Sentinel investigation found.

Another Central Florida school received millions of dollars in scholarships, sometimes called school vouchers, for nearly a decade even though it repeatedly violated program rules, including hiring staff with criminal convictions.

One Orlando school, which received $500,000 from the public programs last year, has a 24-year-old principal still studying at a community college.

Upset parents sometimes complain to the state, assuming it has some say over academic quality at these private schools. It does not. “They can conduct their schools in the manner they believe to be appropriate,” reads a typical response from the Florida Department of Education to a parent.

It seems that the Florida program doesn’t require private schools accepting vouchers to comply with those silly standards that public schools are expected to meet, including building codes. They need not show evidence that staff members have been trained to do the tasks the schools claim they can perform. They don’t even have to do background checks– although state law does require schools to do criminal background checks, the law doesn’t require the state to check to confirm that they were actually done.

In recent years, while investigating other problems, the education department caught at least eight schools with staff members who had criminal records. One Osceola school was forced to fire its P.E. teacher and coach when the state discovered his record. But the man now works about a mile away, at another private school that takes scholarship students.

Despite these problems, Florida is one of the states that DeVos is bragging about as she tries to destroy education as we know it. A significant percentage of Florida’s voucher schools must be religious, since DeVos has demonstrated an inability to distinguish between education and fundamentalist Christian indoctrination.

Actually, she has demonstrated an inability to do the job. Repeatedly.

Footing The Bill For Proselytizing

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has reported on Indiana’s school voucher program–the largest such program in the United States–and has followed that report with a wider-ranging, scathing editorial listing additional issues with the program.

The newspaper’s revelations didn’t surprise those of us who have been watching what I can only call “the voucher scam.” Whatever the motives of the people who originally supported these programs–and I know that some of them were sincerely trying to improve educational opportunities for poor children– vouchers have become the weapon of choice for theocrats who have long felt threatened by public education.

As the article notes,

Taxpayers in Indiana are footing the bill for student scholarships to schools that push ultraconservative and sometimes bigoted viewpoints.

More than 30 private schools participating in Indiana’s school voucher program use textbooks from companies that teach homosexuality as immoral, environmentalism as spiritually bankrupt and evolution as an evil idea.

Of the 318 private schools participating in Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program – a voucher program that uses public funding to help students afford private schools – 36 use at least one textbook or piece of curriculum created by either Abeka or Bob Jones University Press.

The reporters checked the websites of 131 Christian schools that participate in Indiana’s “Choice” program, looking for details about their curricula. If a school didn’t have a website, or the information on the site was inadequate, they reached out via phone and email. Most failed to respond.

Who are Abeka and Bob Jones University Press? How do their textbooks compare with standard classroom materials?

Abeka, a textbook company, is affiliated with Pensacola Christian College, a far-right religious university in Florida that bans “dancing” and “satanic practices” in its code of conduct. Bob Jones University Press is affiliated with its eponymous university, which outlawed interracial dating until the year 2000.

According to education scholars, the textbooks produced by Abeka and Bob Jones are filled with inaccurate history and distorted science. A  historian is quoted in the article saying that the history texts don’t teach anything “that could accurately be called history;” instead, she said, “They are essentially proselytizing for Protestant Christianity.”

In a middle school American history textbook published by Abeka, titled “America: Land I Love,” Satan is blamed for the spread of the theory of evolution and modern psychology, according to a book procured by HuffPost.

A high school world history textbook from Bob Jones University Press also pushes falsehoods and stereotypes. One chapter asserts that it was Jewish religious leaders who plotted to kill Jesus Christ, a myth that has long been used to fuel anti-Semitic sentiment.

Of the 318 schools that currently participate in Indiana’s voucher program, more than 95 percent are explicitly religious. According to the Journal Gazette’s calculations, at least 4,240 children receiving vouchers funded by tax dollars attend schools that use the Abeka or Bob Jones’ textbooks.

Of course, not all participating schools use these texts, and some 34,000 students have now participated in Indiana’s voucher program, so it is only fair to consider how they are doing overall. After all, voucher programs have now been around long enough to be evaluated.

The news isn’t good.

The research simply doesn’t support the rosy claims made by proponents. In Indiana, studies show that children using vouchers have an average annual loss of 0.10 standard deviations in mathematics when compared to comparable public school students; that same research found no statistically meaningful difference in reading.  Research from other states has yielded even more disappointing results.

These schools may be bringing children to Jesus, but they aren’t improving their educations.

So–let’s sum up what we know: Significant resources are being diverted from Indiana’s struggling public schools in order to send funds to private religious schools that do not improve children’s performance in reading, and significantly worsen their performance in math. An indeterminate number of those schools substitute extremist religious indoctrination for accurate instruction in history and science.

This is the Mike Pence “model” that Betsy DeVos wants to replicate nationwide.

These are your tax dollars at work.