Category Archives: Education / Youth

Another Day, Another Voucher Study…

Okay–I know it’s just one more time beating that horse (an animal quite probably dead by now…), but I can’t resist. Brookings has just issued yet another study confirming the educational downsides of voucher programs.

The study was prompted by the recent expansion of voucher programs and “education savings accounts,” (ESAs) which are functionally the same thing–the use of public money to allow parents to send their children to private schools. That expansion has occurred primarily in states that voted for Trump in 2020, which should be a clue that these programs are based on ideology; their proponents simply ignore that pesky inconvenient thing called evidence.

(The Brookings report has multiple links to the previous academic research on each of the following points; I’m not including them, but if you click through, you will be able to easily access them.)

This study confirms a number of the findings of previous research: for example,  that after expansion of a voucher program or implementation of an ESA, pop-up schools immediately appear, many of which will close rather quickly, and that existing private schools raise their tuition.

The study notes that a decade of research has confirmed that vouchers reduce student academic achievement. Brookings cites studies from Louisiana and Indiana, among others, that found quite substantial declines in student test scores. (Indiana’s pathetic legislature simply ignored the fact that Indiana’s voucher program had demonstrably failed to perform as promised. In its recent session, the legislature made the program available to virtually  all of Indiana’s schoolchildren, and is now promoting it heavily.)

Perhaps because the reality fails to match the rhetoric, exit rates from the private schools accepting vouchers are high; in Indiana, as in several other states, some 20% of students who use a voucher to enroll in a private school depart every year–and interestingly, their return to public schooling improves their academic performance.

The research also notes the high percentage of private schools that are religious, but fails to make a point that I consider pivotal: when students leave public educational institutions where–despite residential segregation–they are more likely to interact with children whose races, cultures and religions differ from their own than in the more racially and religiously segregated voucher schools, their “tribal” identities are strengthened. That lack of diversity not only hampers their later interactions in a diverse society, it fosters precisely the sorts of polarization that bedevil contemporary society.

A problem that was highlighted in the research was the lack of accountability of these private schools, both educational and fiscal. In Arizona, “educational” costs that have been reimbursed under their program have been, shall we say, questionable, and  in North Carolina, schools have claimed payment for more vouchers than students actually used. (While this study didn’t mention the problem, others have noted that a lack of public reporting requirements  makes it very difficult for parents to determine how well a given private school is really performing. Too often, they end up making a choice based upon surface impressions–or more frequently, PR and marketing.)

As the study concludes, recent expansions of these programs will test prior findings–one of which, interestingly, is that “the larger the program, the worse the results.”

What is so discouraging about the persistent Red state expansions of these voucher programs is that these legislatures utterly ignore credible research, and–rather than applying those millions of tax dollars to the improvement of public education–throw millions of dollars into programs that demonstrably do not improve academic outcomes.

When voucher programs were first introduced, they were promoted as a way to allow poor children to leave failing urban schools. Recent program expansions have given the lie to that original argument; virtually every child in Indiana (and elsewhere) now qualifies to use public money to attend private schools–very much including children who had never attended a public school, and whose parents had previously been paying private school tuition.

Perhaps some of the proponents of vouchers remain unaware of the mountains of evidence and truly believe the hype. But given the other research I’ve cited about the segregating effects of educational “choice,” you’ll forgive me if I am cynical.



I Agree With All Of This

Institutions of higher education are under sustained attack by self-described “anti-woke” culture warriors, and those attacks understandably generate a protective response from those of us who value scholarship. That instinctive defense, however, shouldn’t morph into claims that all is well on the nation’s campuses.

All is not well. I say that as someone who spent the last 21 years of her work life on a university faculty.

Unfortunately, the current, contending critiques of college life are unproductive, because they occur within different realities. The crazed Right (DeSantis, et al) attacks scholarship itself, insisting that, to the extent instruction fails to support their preferred world-view, it is illegitimate.

They are wrong, and they are dangerous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the groves of academe. I recently came across an enumeration of those problems a litany with which I entirely agree.

The linked Persuasion essay begins by reminding readers of the multiple, manifestly important contributions of the nation’s “more than 3700 colleges and universities.”

But then come the admissions:

But yes, higher education is deeply screwed up. College is way too expensive, costing twice as much, in real dollars, as it did in 1990, nearly three times as much as it did in 1970. Half of students—half!—fail to graduate within six years. Teaching sucks, and always has. Too much of it is done by adjuncts and other contingent instructors, who now make up three quarters of the faculty. There are far too many administrators—deans and deanlets and directors and diversocrats—peddling far too much administrative bullshit. Academic standards are abysmal. Between 1963 and 2013, average GPA rose from 2.5 to 3.15, even as the number of hours spent studying fell by half over roughly the same period. Selective institutions, the ones that produce our elite, are wildly class-stratified. At the top 200 schools, two-thirds of students come from the highest quarter of the income distribution, less than one-sixth from the lower half; at 38 schools, including most of the Ivies, more students come from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%.

it’s relatively easy to generate complaints, but the author, William Deresiewicz, also offers “fixes.”

First, make public college free. We used to do this. (We still do it for K-12, and no one thinks twice.) If you’re old enough, you remember when people were able to put themselves through school with a part-time minimum-wage job. The University of California, the greatest public system in the world, charged no in-state tuition before the 1970s. Neither did the City University of New York, home to City College, known for decades as “the poor man’s Harvard.” The idea that free college would be a giveaway to the rich, because only the rich go to college, gets it exactly backwards. Part of the reason that only the rich go to college—or, at least, go disproportionately to college—is because it costs so much….

Next, reverse the tide of adjunctification by tripling (at least) the tenure-track faculty. We shouldn’t have adjuncts at all, except for the limited purpose—to enable working professionals to teach the occasional course—for which they were originally intended. Adjuncts are paid like baristas, worked like farmhands, and treated like Kleenex. Their use is bad for students, bad for morale, and bad for recruitment into the profession.

There’s more. As he says, we need to make sure that professors actually know how to teach. (Doctorates focus on research, not pedagogy.) Cost-cutting would include dramatically  reducing administrative staffs and capping the salaries of the remainder at the level of senior faculty. He’d eliminate intercollegiate athletics altogether– “Let the NBA and NFL (and WNBA and NWSL) pay for their own minor leagues.” And, finally, no more “amenities”: no luxury dorms, no climbing walls, no dining halls with carving stations.

His most important “fix,” in my opinion?

Most obviously, the “input” has to be improved. As of now, some 40-60% of entering students—another stunning figure—need remediation. Colleges, in other words, especially community colleges, are being tasked with giving freshmen the education that they should have received in high school. Improving K-12 (a monumental undertaking of its own) would also help reverse another dismal trend: credential creep. If a high school diploma actually meant something, employers wouldn’t feel the need to ask for quite so many bachelor’s degrees, and fewer people would have to go to college in the first place…  And, of course, we need to rebuild vocational education—trade schools, training kids for high-skills, high-wage manual labor—in both high school and beyond.

In other words, let’s step back and remember what colleges are for–not job training, but intellectual exploration and expansion– inquiries that allow humans to learn and grow and successfully navigate an information environment produced by those who are “flooding the zone with shit.”

The New Segregation

Indiana’s children return to school this month, and the accompanying headlines remind us that Hoosier legislators have massively increased the availability of what they call “school choice”–otherwise known as educational vouchers.

Given that expansion, a look at the research is timely.  “Choice” always sounds positive, until you look at some of the ways that choice is exercised. A recent report from the Brookings Institution focused on that question.

Brookings began with the numbers: 7% of the nation’s schoolchildren are currently enrolled in charter schools, and 9% attend private schools. Between 3 and 5% are being homeschooled. And as researchers point out, a number of public school systems also allow parents to enroll their children in any school in the system.

While the implications of school choice for educational quality and equity are hotly contested, scholars generally agree that in most circumstances choice contributes to racial and socioeconomic school segregation. In most places, charter schools worsen levels of racial school segregation. Furthermore, a large body of research shows that families demonstrate racialized preferences for schools. Most of this scholarship implicitly or explicitly attributes the link between choice and segregation to anti-Black racism, particularly among white and Asian families.

Researchers noted that the way school choice policies are designed plays “an important, but not well-studied, role in shaping families’ school choices.”

In this particular study, researchers examined the effects of policy design on school choices in North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System (WCPSS).

Between 2000 and 2010, Wake County operated an innovative socioeconomic desegregation plan that used school assignments and a targeted or “controlled” choice program to pursue a more socioeconomically and racially integrated school system. Working with the district, we identified the set of schools that the district allowed incoming kindergarteners to select from, the transportation options the district provided to each of these schools, and families’ ultimate choices. We use these data to study how WCPSS shaped the choice sets of incoming kindergarten families and how families’ school choices ultimately served to reproduce a racially segregated school system.

This study was thus confined to the choices available within a public school system. That said, it’s findings were obviously suggestive for “choice” programs like Indiana’s–programs that actively encourage parents to opt for theoretically-public charters or for private (overwhelmingly religious) institutions.

The study reinforced the interrelated nature of America’s racial issues (horrors! CRT!!): researchers found that residential segregation “significantly constrained WCPSS’s desegregation initiative.”

Back when voucher programs were first proposed, well-meaning proponents argued that school choice would allow children from overwhelmingly Black inner-city districts to attend–and integrate–majority-White schools. Both Black and White children would benefit from increased diversity.

Great goal. It didn’t work out that way, and one reason it didn’t was underlined by another Brookings finding:

If you give families segregating options, they’ll take them.

As we noted above, WCPSS’s controlled choice program offered all families school options with a wide range of racial compositions—ranging from predominantly white to predominantly Black. This meant that families had access to either segregating or desegregating school choices.

Researchers found that White and Asian parents presented with an integrating or segregating choice opted for the segregating choice. “In comparison, Black and Latino families’ enrollment decisions were unrelated to schools’ racial makeup.”

Researchers concluded that anti-Black racism shaped how parents navigated the choices they had.

From our work and a number of other studies, we know that many Asian and white families avoid schools with large Black student populations when given the opportunity…. Some degree of school choice has long been viewed as a necessary component of desegregation efforts given the significant historical evidence that families (and white families, in particular) leave districts taking aggressive desegregation action. And of course, even WCPSS’s relatively light-touch curation of schooling options for families ultimately proved untenable. In 2009, voters in the county elected school board candidates who promised to end the desegregation initiative and return to neighborhood-based school assignments—a promise the school board followed through on the following year.

The Brookings study joins several others that have found education vouchers increasing rather than decreasing racial segregation.

Actually, the most depressing conclusion from this research isn’t confined to education: it is the stubborn persistence of widespread racism in American society.

I know several people who originally supported “school choice” because they believed that it would allow poor parents to enroll their children in schools serving more affluent communities–schools able to offer students a better educational environment.

Subsequent research has dashed those hopes of better academic outcomes. The Brookings study joins other research in confirming that–in addition to failing educationally– vouchers simply allow Americans to “protect” their children from people who don’t look like them.


Who’s Indoctrinating?

There’s a psychological mechanism called “projection,” — it’s when people accuse others of faults they themselves harbor. Several commenters to this blog have noted that the GOP routinely engages in projection. 

Ron DeSantis’ Florida just shot down any lingering doubts about the accuracy of that observation.

Over the past few years, Republican culture warriors have  become positively hysterical over the “indoctrination” of students by public schools and universities. To some extent, they’re right–after all, education imparts facts and–at best– enables critical thinking. A very expansive definition of “indoctrination” might stretch to include the broadening of a student’s frame of reference.

On the other hand, I have previously argued–and firmly believe– that what really upsets Republicans is the lack of indoctrination–the failure of educators to convey their preferred, albeit distorted, versions of history and science.

Florida has just proved my point:

Videos that compare climate activists to Nazis, portray solar and wind energy as environmentally ruinous and claim that current global heating is part of natural long-term cycles will be made available to young schoolchildren in Florida, after the state approved their use in its public school curriculum.

Slickly-made animations by the Prager University Foundation, a conservative group that produces materials on science, history, gender and other topics widely criticized as distorting the truth, will be allowed to be shown to children in kindergarten to fifth grade after being adopted by Florida’s department of education.

Actual scientists who have reviewed these and other videos produced by PragerU have characterized them as worse than inaccurate, describing them as a form of rightwing indoctrination bearing little resemblance to reality.

“These videos target very young and impressionable kids with messages of support for fossil fuels and doubts over renewable energy resources – they are trying to grow the next generation of supporters for fossil fuels,” said Adrienne McCarthy, a researcher at Kansas State University who has studied the activities of PragerU.

“It’s propaganda 101. Equating people concerned about the climate change with Nazis can have long-term impacts on young, impressionable people. The beliefs PragerU are pushing forward overlap with far-right extremist beliefs. The fear is that they will bring this sort of extremist beliefs into mainstream society.”

Prager is not a “U,” nor is it any type of academic institution. It is one of the country’s proliferating  number of rightwing advocacy groups. It produces magazines and videos about slavery that have been roundly criticized by historians, in addition to the videos emphasizing climate denial. It was originally generously funded by Dan and Farris Wilks, brothers who are petroleum industry businessmen.

One video shows two children being told by their “scientist uncle,” that “Wind and solar just aren’t powerful enough to power the modern world, the energy from them isn’t dense or robust enough,”  He also tells them sadly that “windmills kill so many birds.”  A climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania said the decision by DeSantis’ administration to allow the videos “would make Goebbels himself blush”.

An essay in the Guardian ties the videos to the GOP’s goals:

PragerU’s latest annual report says that the company’s self-described “edutainment” videos racked up more than 1.2bn views in 2022, with more than 7bn since its founding. Its content has been mostly available online, particularly on Facebook and YouTube, but now it is making its way into US classrooms with the promise of fighting the so-called “woke agenda”.

 PragerU makes no secret of its own agenda. Its co-founder, Dennis Prager – a conservative radio talkshow host and writer who has been attacking progressive causes since the 1980s – was recently glib in responding to claims that PragerU “indoctrinates kids”. “Which is true,” Prager said in a speech to the conservative “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty. “We bring doctrines to children. That is a very fair statement. I said, ‘But what is the bad of our indoctrination?’”

PragerU Kids’ cartoon videos for children as young as kindergarten age not only soft-pedal the history of slavery, racism, colonialism and police brutality – they show sympathy for them. In one video, Leo and Layla Meet Christopher Columbus, Columbus tells young Leo and Layla: “Slavery is as old as time and has taken place in every corner of the world … Being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no?”

The effort isn’t limited to climate change and racism. In “How to Embrace Your Femininity,” a young blond woman with what is described as perfect hair and makeup explains that “gender stereotypes exist because they reflect the way that men and women are naturally different.” 

 People who want to revisit the 1950s will feel very comfortable in Florida–at least, until the hot rising waters get them….

That GOP War On Education

It isn’t just public education that the GOP disdains–it’s also higher education. 

According to the Republicans attacking institutions of higher education, the fact that educated Americans overwhelmingly vote Blue these days is proof positive that colleges and universities are practicing “indoctrination,” turning conservative teenagers into liberal, “woke” young voters.

I thought about that GOP article of faith when I came across this July article from the New Republic, about the upcoming national convention of college Republicans, which–according to the report– is “excitedly welcoming vicious antisemite and racist Nick Fuentes as a headliner.” These are college students who somehow managed to escape that pervasive indoctrination.

The event is being hosted later this month by College Republicans United, a group that, according to its website, has been committed to “spreading America First across college campuses since January 2018.” Among its “values” are planks like “opposition to immigration and multiculturalism.”

Fuentes–the speaker they were “thrilled” to announce– has previously been banned from social media for his violent rhetoric denouncing people of color, women, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ people, Covid-19, and much more. He’s  definitely not “woke.”

He has also proudly said he’s “just like Hitler” (whom he has also called “a pedophile … also really fucking cool”), and that “Catholic monarchy, and just war, and crusades, and inquisitions” are much better than democracy.

Fuentes will be joined by Jake Chansley, known as the QAnon Shaman,  who will also speak at the event. And the article notes that the official Republican Parties in three Arizona counties (Pima, Maricopa, and Yavapai) are backing the event.

It occurred to me, reading this, that the majority of college students who identify as progressive may be reacting against those in their midst who subscribe to–and celebrate!–the positions held by Fuentes and Chansley, rather than falling under the influence of their professors.

That said, I think it is fair to say that a sound education introduces students to the reality of ambiguity–to a recognition that the world is not black and white, that the issues they will face are complex and fact-sensitive and that people of good will can come to different conclusions about them. People who understand that complexity are far less likely to cling to the perceived verities of an ideology or the comforts offered by tribalism than people who are terrified by shades of gray. 

Ironically, what Republicans really hate about higher education is the lack of indoctrination–the widening of perspectives and the less rigid understandings that flow from a broadened world-view.

Meanwhile, however, the GOP’s war on education continues to inflict casualties: in Florida, it has led to a significant brain drain.

With the start of the 2023-24 academic year only six weeks away, senior officials at New College of Florida (NCF) made a startling announcement in mid-July: 36 of the small honors college’s approximately 100 full-time teaching positions were vacant. The provost, Bradley Thiessen, described the number of faculty openings as “ridiculously high”, and the disclosure was the latest evidence of a brain drain afflicting colleges and universities throughout the Sunshine state.

Andrew Gothard is the state-level president of the United Faculty of Florida ; he predicts a loss of between 20 and 30% of faculty members at some universities during the upcoming academic year. That would be a “marked increase in annual turnover rates that traditionally have stood at 10% or less.”

Data shows more people continue to move into Florida than are leaving, but those raw numbers don’t reflect the ages, identities or skills of those coming in and going out. It isn’t just faculty. News outlets report that immigrant laborers have left in droves, in response to DeSantis’ anti-immigrant laws, creating problems for owners of bars, restaurants and orange orchards, among others.

A recent article focusing upon the five worst states to work & live in began by noting that there are nearly twice as many job openings nationwide as there are workers available to fill them, making states with few educated workers unattractive to potential employers. It had this to say about Florida: “Rated strictly on Life, Health and Inclusion, the Sunshine State can be a dreary place.” In 2023, it gave the state a Life, Health & Inclusion Score of 129 out of 350 points–a grade of  D.

(Not that Indiana has any bragging rights: we scored 113 out of 350 points, for a grade of D-. Our universities are still functioning properly, but the students they educate mostly go elsewhere. According to a study by Ball State, the state’s disdain for education at all levels has made Indiana “ill-equipped to keep up” thanks to a less educated workforce.)

Remember that old bumper sticker about the expense of education? (“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”)  The GOP version should read: “Education endangers  Republicans. Support ignorance.”