Dogma vs. what works

Patrick Gibbons

I see hyperbole.

In the Las Vegas Sun, Jon Ralston writes, “But both Rory Reid and [Brian] Sandoval have abandoned any pretense that they want to pay teachers more or infuse any money into one of – if not the – most pathetically funded states in the country.”

Because Reid and Sandoval, the two major candidates for governor, want to hold teachers and administrators accountable (and make it easier to get rid of ineffective teachers and administrators) and give students a choice in where they are educated, Ralston believes that this election is really about “conservative vs. very conservative” ideas.

Although Ralston seems to be one of the few people who recognize the similarities between the candidates’ plans, he misses the big picture. First, how much you spend matters less than how effectively you spend it. Second, our public education system is broke and it needs a major overhaul. Third, yes, there are such things as bad teachers; the sad thing is we can’t get rid of them. Finally, school choice works.

Let’s begin.

Spending more money does not produce better student achievement

1) Nevada’s education spending ranks anywhere from 26th to 47th (using figures from the U.S. government) depending on which expenditures you include and how you calculate the numbers. But does this matter?

No. Between 1959 and 2007, Nevada increased public education spending by 180 percent per pupil – and yes, that is after adjusting for inflation (but doesn’t include capital costs and debt repayment). Even with this 180 percent more money per pupil, no one in his or her right mind would argue that the quality of education today is better than 50 years ago.

In fact, almost no respected researcher argues that spending more money improves student achievement.

The National Working Group on Funding Student Learning, an assembly of several education researchers including professors from Washington, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Stanford and U.C. Berkeley (hardly a bastion of conservative thought) reached a consensus that “the connection between resources and learning has been growing weaker, not stronger,” and that “…the system itself is the problem … State education finance systems were not designed with student learning in mind …”

And much more evidence suggests that there is no correlation between spending more money and improving student achievement.

Don’t forget, it is widely recognized that teachers in Nevada are paid quite well relative to other states (ranking anywere from 17th to 22nd highest). Not that paying teachers more helps. According to Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky, authors of “Teacher Quality and Teacher Pay,” increasing the pay of teachers does not attract higher-quality teachers to the profession – school districts simply spent more money on the same pool of teachers.

Someone once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When it comes to education policy, doing the same thing over and over again is cruel and selfish because of the effects it has on entire generations of children.

2) Reid and Sandoval are right: Public education in Nevada is broken. We have dismal math and reading scores, rank fourth-worst in drop-out rate and are last in the nation in graduation rates. Fewer than half of low-income, black and Hispanic children can read at grade level, according to the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam. According to Education Week, fewer than one-third of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans will graduate on time with a standard high school diploma in the Silver State.

Why are our results so bad? The major reason is that Nevada’s public education system is an unaccountable, bureaucratic monopoly that focuses on jobs for adults, not education for students. I’m not alone in this judgment. The School Finance Redesign Project at the University of Washington, Bothel, concluded that public education is “focused on maintaining programs and paying adults, not on searching for the most effective way to educate our children.”

It’s not fiction, bad teachers do exist.

3) Both candidates want to reform teacher evaluations, teacher seniority and teacher tenure. Doing so will help ensure we get bad teachers out of classrooms.

The National Council on Teacher Quality notes that Nevada is a state where earning tenure is “virtually automatic.” Few higher-ed teachers, by contrast, actually receive tenure, and even then it takes five or more years to earn the privilege. Tenure makes it hard to get rid of really bad teachers.

According to the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center think tank (read: NOT CONSERVATIVE), and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, Nevada’s school districts terminated or failed to renew the contracts of just 0.2 percent of “untenured teachers” and 0.3 percent of “tenured teachers” in 2007-08. Overall, Nevada kept 99.4 percent of its teachers that year. Only Arkansas, Delaware and Pennsylvania fired fewer teachers.

If getting rid of bad teachers and implementing teacher evaluations, eliminating seniority privileges and tenure is such a conservative idea, then why would U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan say, “[w]hen inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children – then we are not only putting kids at risk, we are putting the entire education system at risk.” Yup, Arne Duncan: NOT A CONSERVATIVE.

Furthermore, Whitney Tilson of Democrats for Education Reform (read: NOT A CONSERVATIVE) identifies “three pillars of mediocrity” that must be eliminated: a) Lifetime tenure, b) lockstep pay and c) seniority (instead of merit).

Advocating education policies that actually work doesn’t mean those ideas are conservative.

4) School choice isn’t a conservative issue, either. It’s an education issue. Partisans have made it into an ideological issue solely because one major source of campaign funding – the teacher unions – hates school choice. More choice for parents and students means less opportunity for unions to control and manipulate education policy and, thus, fewer opportunities to fatten their own pockets.

Howard Fuller, a former Black Panther and current professor at Marquette University (read: NOT A CONSERVATIVE) has stated: “There is a fundamental issue confronting African Americans, and therefore all Americans. Parents without the power to make educational choices lack an indispensable tool for helping their children secure an effective education.”

Anthony Colón, a former vice president of La Raza (read: NOT A CONSERVATIVE) has stated: “Vouchers are not a Republican idea. If your community is underperforming with low graduation rates and sits at the bottom of the barrel in math and science, you don’t worry about vouchers being a Republican issue. You worry about what works for your community.”

Senator James T. Meeks, a Democrat from inner-city Chicago (read: NOT A CONSERVATIVE), not only pushed for a voucher program for low-income children in Chicago, but when the union was angered by his efforts he wrote the union a check and returned its campaign donations.

And don’t forget the crowd that marched in Florida to expand the Step Up for Students program.

Or the crowd that marched on D.C. to protest the Democrats’ union-backed and ideologically driven attempt to kill a voucher program that works.

Note, Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein (Read: NOT CONSERVATIVES) have tried to bring back the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Speaking of what works, how about the evidence that vouchers work? Nine out of 10 empirical studies find that students benefit from the use of vouchers to attend private schools. Eighteen out of 19 studies find that public schools improve when faced with voucher competition. In 2009, a U.S. Department of Education study found that students using the D.C. voucher to attend a private school over a three-year period saw an 18-month gain in reading skills, while a 2010 report found that students using the scholarship to attend a private school saw graduation rates that were 21 percentage points higher than the control group.

It is very, very clear that vouchers improve student achievement, graduation rates and public schools. It is also clear that competition between public schools as well as public school choice improve student achievement.

Researcher Carolyn Hoxby of Stanford University found that charter schools in New York improved student achievement in reading and mathematics, especially among low-income children. Importantly, Hoxby’s research shows that the charter schools closed the achievement gap significantly. Additionally, Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, found that traditional public schools improved when faced with competition from charter schools.

Even the union-run but autonomous Pilot Schools in Boston outperformed the traditional government monopoly school. Choice and school decentralization work. Period.

If Jon Ralston really does believe we need to spend more money on education, then he is advocating what doesn’t work. Ralston is completely wrong in his assessment of Reid vs. Sandoval. Painting empirically proven education policies as ideologically driven dogma is not only incorrect, it is a disservice to the students of Nevada who deserve a much better education. Reid vs. Sandoval on education policy isn’t “conservative vs. very conservative” … it is “what works vs. what works.”