Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Since when does DC pass up federal money?

When the teachers' unions demand it. Here's Dan Lips describing Del. Norton's absurd battle:

How much funding for the education of students is District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton willing to lose to prove a political point? At least $18 million, apparently.

Del. Norton is using her voice in Congress to try to end the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, a federally-funded program that currently helps more than 1,900 disadvantaged kids attend private schools in the District.

This program has proven widely popular with D.C. families. Since it began in 2004, approximately 7,200 students have applied -- about four applicants per scholarship.


Unfortunately, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton remains fiercely opposed to vouchers. She was honest about her intentions: "I can tell you that the Democratic Congress is not about to extend this program." As the House Appropriations Committee considers whether to fund the program, Norton appears intent on leading an effort to block the $18 million in funding for scholarships.

For D.C. taxpayers, this is a costly way to score points in the political struggle over public education. Terminating the program would pull $18 million out of the D.C. public education system and increase the burden on the school budget by sending 1,900 kids back into public schools.

For families with children in the scholarship program, it's impossible to quantify what taking these scholarships away will mean. You can hear directly from participating families themselves by visiting http://www.voicesofschoolchoice.org/. There, families explain how they are benefiting from the opportunity to choose a safe and effective private school for their children.

Conveniently, as the House Appropriations subcomittee considers the issue today, the Department of Education issues a report claiming no significant improvement from vouchers. From the Post:

The congressionally mandated study, conducted through the Institute of Education Sciences, the department's research arm, compared the performance and attitudes of students who had scholarships with those of peers who sought scholarships but weren't chosen in the lottery.

Both groups took widely used math and reading tests, such as the Stanford Achievement Test. Overall, there was no statistically significant difference in performance.

But some groups of voucher recipients showed improvement. For instance, among students who earned relatively high reading scores before the program started, those with scholarships progressed faster and are now about two months ahead of their peers.

Students who previously attended struggling schools -- a group the program is designed to help -- showed no boost in test scores compared with their peers. Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, director of the institute, said one possible explanation is that those children lagged far behind academically and had trouble adjusting to what may be a more demanding classroom.

Parents of students with scholarships were more satisfied with their children's new schools and were less likely to worry that schools could be dangerous, the report found. Students showed no difference in their level of satisfaction.

First, the program has purposely been hobbled by its political enemies through regulations and spending limits, precisely to limit any significant effects. Second, insignificance indicates just that, i.e. neither significantly positive nor negative effects. This is not surprising in a new (and hobbled) program. Third, so why give up the federal money? There's no loss to DC taxpayers. Fourth, a little perspective is in order. We're talking about allowing parents and kids, poor parents and kids, the freedom to choose a way out of a miserable state run monopoly. If monopoly is so great, why not expand it to shoe sales, let the government do that. Or consider the beautiful irony of the Senate's monopolized cafeteria, courtesy of Jonah Goldberg:

As befits a government-run commissary, the Senate cafeteria has a decidedly Soviet attitude toward variety. It has averaged only two new menu items a year over the last decade. The food is so bad, every lunch hour Senate staffers rush to the House side of the Capitol, like starving New Yorkers of the future storming the last Soylent Green vendor.

According to auditors, the chain of restaurants run by the Senate food service, including the snooty Senate Dining Room, has almost never been in the black. It's lost more than $18 million since 1993 and dropped about $2 million last year alone. If the food service doesn't get an emergency bridge loan of a quarter-million dollars, it won't be able to make payroll.

So how will the Senate fix the problem? Well, with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein taking the lead, the Democrats -- that's right, the Democrats -- have called a classic Republican play: Privatize it.

The House of Representatives made the switch in the 1980s, and its food service is now better. And profitable: the House has made $1.2 million in commissions since 2003. True to the founders' vision of the Senate as the more slow-moving branch of government, the Senate has taken 20 years to follow suit.

This was a painful decision for many Democrats who believe that privatization cannot be justified simply because it delivers better service and higher quality for less money. "What about the workers?" they cried. Apparently, some in the Democratic caucus feel that the top priority in the restaurant business is to generate paychecks for people who are bad at their jobs.

Feinstein, head of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administrations, was forced to deal with reality. "It's cratering," the Washington Post quoted Feinstein as saying. "Candidly, I don't think the taxpayers should be subsidizing something that doesn't need to be. There are parts of government that can be run like a business and should be run like businesses."

Yes, yes, go on Dianne. Run with that thought. Explore it, as the therapists say.

Perhaps you might meditate on the District of Columbia's public school system, which spends roughly $14,000 a pupil in exchange for one of the worst educations in the country. Every year, one of the greatest mysteries in the nation's capital is whether textbooks have been delivered to the right kids, or even to the right schools. It can take until Christmas to get it all worked out. FedEx Corp., meanwhile, can tell you where any of its millions of packages are in more than 100 countries, right now. (Why not just FedEx the textbooks to the kids?)

And fifth: There's an immense amount of evidence that vouchers work. See Salibury and Tooley's international overview, especially Lewis Andrews chapter on special education.

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