Monday, March 29, 2010

Score one for Constance McMillen

It's just about the best outcome possible, given the overt victimization of a high school student by the adults in charge of her education. After the Itawamba Agricultural High School in Mississippi canceled the prom rather than let Constance McMillen and her girlfriend attend together, a federal court called out officials of the Itawamba County School District as a bunch of bigots in front of a national audience, pointedly affirming McMillen's claim that her First Amendment rights had been violated.

It's hard to imagine the mind-set of people who would rather cancel a school event than let a lesbian couple attend, but maybe Itawamba school officials are getting a bit of a reality check after the wave of national support for Constance and her girlfriend: over 421,000 supporters of "Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom!" on Facebook, invitations to proms around the country, media appearances and a $30,000 college scholarship. If the tidal wave of public support for Constance hasn't hammered the message home, the yet-to-be-determined settlement to Constance's ACLU-backed lawsuit in the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Mississippi might do the trick.

The prom is still off -- parents are reportedly organizing a private event at which Constance and companion will be welcome, so the public school won't be compelled to put the dance back on the schedule. Note that the court didn't order the organizers of the private dance to accommodate Constance. As private individuals using their own resources, they would have the right to be as bigoted and exclusionary as they please, unlike public officials who draw salaries and use resources partially funded by taxes extracted from Constance's family.

As it is, Constance's future is looking pretty promising -- and the petty educrats who sought to turn her into a pariah are on notice.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Forcing everybody into the same public schools is a good idea because ...?

All Constance McMillen wanted to do was to attend the high school prom with her girlfriend. Unfortunately for her, she lives in Fulton, Mississippi, a notch on the Bible Belt where the idea of two girls holding hands gives lots of people a bad case of the ickies. One thing led to another, the ACLU got involved, and officials at Itawamba County Agricultural High School (where girl-on-girl action is off limits, but the sheep are nervous) stomped off in a huff to cancel the prom rather than let ickiness prevail. Ridiculous as the situation is, it's all too common an outcome when disfavored minorities in public institutions come up against the preferences, prejudices and rank stupidity of the majority who run things.

Minorities and individuals believe nasty and stupid things, too, of course, but they are less likely to dominate political institutions. And make no mistake about it: public schools are political institutions that reflect the wishes of whatever faction controls the levers of power -- often representing majority whims, at least on hot-button issues, in democratic systems. In Tucson, Arizona, this means apartheid-ish racial and ethnic quotas for school discipline, in my stomping grounds it means a prevailing disdain for actual learning, and in Fulton, Mississippi, it means hating the gays.

You can't escape the prejudices of the people who run the show unless you can escape the institutions that they run.

This seems to be the strongest possible argument for decentralizing education and empowering families and students. If Constance McMillen attended a tolerant school chosen and supported by her family, the way they choose their grocery store and their housing, she'd be attending her prom instead of ... err ... being feted in Hollywood. So, OK, things aren't working out badly for her. But most put-upon teens don't end up with celebrity advocates -- even if they win, they battle for years and go through hell in the process.

Why should every kid have to joust with dragons -- and usually lose?

Every community includes minorities whose lifestyles, religious views and ideologies are sufficiently at odds with those of the majority that they can't be accomodated within institutions controlled by the majority without breeding conflict. Having to pay taxes to support those institutions not only adds insult to injury, but deprives people of the resources they might use to pay for alternatives. That leaves these minorities at the mercy of people who have completely incompatible values.

It's odd -- nobody suggests that we nationalize grocery stores and put them under the management of militant vegetarians or Atkins Diet fanatics, yet it's deemed OK to force gay and lesbian students to attend schools run by homophobes.

There's no reason to victimize Constance McMillen. She ought to be educated by people chosen by her family -- people who treat her with respect instead of disdain. Then she could attend her prom with her girlfriend without a moment's worry about other people's prejudices.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I pledge allegiance -- for now, provided certain conditions are met

Already this month, the Pledge of Allegiance has made news headlines multiple times. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal of a Florida high school student who was punished for failing to swear loyalty to the national symbol, a federal judge declined to strip the words "under God" from the pledge in a New Hampshire school district, and a ten-year-old Arkansas boy was punished not for his principled refusal to recite the pledge, but for telling a pushy, uber-patriotic teacher to "jump off a bridge."It seems that America's own aging oath of fealty has a hankering for the spotlight. But do even the rebels at the root of the news stories understand why the Pledge of Allegiance is so troubling?

The Supreme Court case involved a Florida law that, since 1942, has required all school students to recite the pledge unless excused by their parents. In 2005, Cameron Frazier declined to participate in the patriotic chorus at Boynton Beach High School because of his objection to government policies and was booted from class for his trouble. He sued (PDF) and initially won, but a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment rights in the case belonged to parents, not children, so Frazier had no legal legs to stand on. The Supreme Court has decided to let matters rest there.

Unlike Frazier, the plaintiffs in the New Hampshire case didn't object to the whole pledge -- which is optional where they live -- but to the phrase "under God," which was added to the original 1892 text in 1954. As atheists and agnostics, they don't want officially sanctioned recitals to include religious material. The judge's dismissal of the case is now being appealed.

Will Phillips, the Arkansas ten-year-old, refused to say the pledge out of solidarity with gays and lesbians who, he believes, don't enjoy equal rights in the U.S. Unusually for somebody his age, he had the backbone to stand his ground -- and talk back -- when castigated by a teacher offended by his alleged disloyalty.

In both the Florida and Arkansas cases, the resisting students stood on principle to refuse to say the pledge. They objected to policies or perceived flaws in the country and decided, as a matter of conscience, that they couldn't ... well ... pledge allegiance.

But what if you like what the folks currently in power are doing, think that everything is going swell and approve of the wording of the oath in question? Is it OK to pledge allegiance then?

While we don't often consider what the Pledge of Allegiance actually means, it contains pretty strong words. The definition of "allegiance" in The Free Dictionary is:

1. Loyalty or the obligation of loyalty, as to a nation, sovereign, or cause.

2. The obligations of a vassal to a lord.

Even if we gloss over the feudal implications of definition two, the first definition is awfully absolute. "Loyalty or the obligation of loyalty."

Do free people really make open-ended promises of loyalty?

It's worth knowing that the author of the pledge was no particular fan of America's (imperfect) tradition of individual liberty. Francis Bellamy was a Christian socialist and a fan of a now quaint-seeming, but then popular movement to reorganize the country along quasi-military, top-down lines in which everybody would be drafted into industrial armies. The goal was sketched out in his cousin Edward Bellamy's once best-selling novel, Looking Backward (a work saved from a certain naive creepiness only by its age).

The pledge was Bellamy's small way of nudging the country away from individualism, toward authoritarian nationalism. His ideal people would pledge loyalty, and wouldn't be free.

After all, free people support governments, institutions and symbols only so long as those things respect their rights and have something positive to offer. Their support is purely conditional. When governments, institutions and symbols displease them, free people trade them in for something they hope will be better, like Americans did in 1776.

The founders weren't really "Pledge of Allegiance" sort of people.

Implicitly, people like Cameron Frazier and Will Phillips seem to understand that point, even if they don't explicitly reject the idea of an oath of loyalty. After all, when you stop reciting a pledge when policies change, it's clear that you've never really made a pledge at all, since your allegiance is conditional.

And that's the way it should be.

Those stubborn kids who refuse to stand to recite the pledge with the the rest of the class may not agree on the reasons for their refusal, but by hedging their bets on their political loyalty, they all prove themselves to be better advocates of liberty than the drones mouthing words they don't understand.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Zero tolerance gets detention

Last year, a ten-year-old boy in North Carolina was suspended from school because he had a broken pencil sharpener in his possession. The tiny sliver of metal that shaves wood away from the graphite was deemed to be the equivalent of a cavalry saber, putting the school in, as the local paper put it, "the precarious position between the district's zero tolerance policy against having weapons at school and common sense." Arizona's Savana Redding had to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to find justice after she was strip-searched at her school on suspicion of possessing ibuprofen -- the common and legal painkiller that was, nevertheless, forbidden from school grounds. That such incidents are no rarity is clear from a Web search on "zero tolerance" and "schools" and by legislation that just took effect in Texas returning a modicum of rationality to the treatment of students found in possession of pocket knives, pain relievers and other items forbidden by insanely restrictive policies.

Horror stories related to zero-tolerance policies have grabbed headlines for as long as the rigid policies have existed. That could have been predicted by anybody with half a brain. If a policy draws unforgiving lines when it comes to "violence," "drugs" and "weapons," then it's inevitable that children will be expelled and even arrested and jailed for writing gory stories, toting penknives and sharing aspirin.

As the outrage, ridicule and lawsuits in response to zero-tolerance, even the legislators and educators who'd implemented the policies to absolve themselves of the responsibility for difficult decisions began to back away from what they had wrought. Even the laziest school administrator must recoil at the response to nine- and ten-year olds hauled away in handcuffs for drawing violent pictures with crayons, if not at the reality of the incidents themselves.

So, finally, we get legislation intended to alleviate the worst abuses of zero-tolerance policies.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Texas's "law relating to consideration of mitigating factors in determining appropriate disciplinary action to be taken against a public school student" was signed by the governor just days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the strip search of Savana Redding was unconstitutional. The law eliminates the unforgiving nature inherent in prevailing rules by requiring that educators consider four factors when considering what should be done about infractions of school rules. Specifically, the law mandates:

consideration will be given, as a factor in each decision concerning suspension, removal to a disciplinary alternative education program, expulsion, or placement in a juvenile justice alternative education program, regardless of whether the decision concerns a mandatory or discretionary action, to:

(A) self-defense;
(B) intent or lack of intent at the time the student engaged in the conduct;
(C) a student's disciplinary history; or
(D) a disability that substantially impairs the student's capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the student's conduct;

Strictly speaking, nothing about the law specifically ends the madness of children penalized for pocket knives, drawings and painkillers, but it does strip school officials of the ability to claim that their hands are tied by black-letter rules. From now on, the responsibility for each school disciplinary decision in Texas can be laid at the feet of a human being, not passed off to a piece of paper or a few paragraphs on a Website.

Still, Texas Zero Tolerance, a group formed in response to the horror stories, warns that "What the bill does not do, however, is extend due process to the accused children and their parents. ... Until parents are allowed in the principal’s office before punishment has been decided, we will continue to see travesties of justice."

Also, the group wants to see a formal appeals process in place for challenging disciplinary decisions (some of them pretty devastating, such as expulsion) up the bureaucratic food chain.

Until that happens, laws like the one taking effect in Texas will be only an incomplete first step toward keeping public schools as viable contenders in an era when educational alternatives chosen by families, including charter schools, homeschooling and private schools, are becoming increasingly available and attractive.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hey, Mr. President, leave those kids alone

President Reagan spoke to school children when he was in office over two decades ago; so did President Bush the first. Sadly, there's little doubt that many (but not all) of the people screaming about President Barack Obama's nationally broadcast classroom snooze-inducer had, or would have had, no problem with the speeches given by Republican office-holders in educational settings. But beyond partisanship, there's good reason to object to today's presidential eat-your-veggies nag-fest. Frankly, mere government officials have no business bypassing parents and speaking directly to children.

There's something unseemly about the idea of politicians in general eating up valuable school time for a one-on-one with kids. Most of us seem to know that it's wrong to let a city councilman or a state legislator pretend to have any moral high ground on which to stand while addressing tots and teens. "What's that SOB up to?" we ask ourselves. "Is he planning a Senate run ten years out and already stroking future voters?"

But that healthy skepticism seems to evaporate when it comes to whatever ethically challenged work-dodger is currently resident in the White House. For some reason, we've laden the office of the presidency with far more prestige and respect than the founders ever thought appropriate. From an office that George Washington simply described as "chief magistrate," the presidency has mutated into what presidential scholar Gene Healy snarkily refers to as "a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise."

The presidency has taken on the characteristics of a secular papacy -- an unhealthy quality in a republic where free people are supposed to take responsibility for their own lives.

Remarkably, even after scrubbing the originally worshipful lesson plan (PDF) for President Obama's speech, the Department of Education wants students to ask of themseves, "How will he inspire us?"

Inspire us? He's a politician. At best, we can hope he doesn't put everybody in the classroom into a coma and then steal their iPods.

And all this before we even get to the fact that the Constitution gives the federal government, of which the president is just one part, no authority whatsoever over education. Go ahead and check: war, diplomacy, commerce -- but nothing about education. That's a state, local and family matter. There's no more reason to let President Obama nag children about their futures than there is to hand an hour of classroom time to the head of the plumber's union.

Whether you approve or disapprove of any given president's policies isn't the issue. What's important is that the president is a government official with no authority over schools, and no business speaking directly to kids.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Supreme Court says: Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone

A strip search of a high school student based on a tenuous tip that she possessed a legal painkiller -- forbidden under school rules -- violated the constitutional rights of that student and is unjustified under law. However, the school officials who ordered and conducted the search cannot be held legally liable for their actions. That's the decision of the United States Supreme Court in a much-anticipated decision (PDF) that further defines the Fourth Amendment protections available to public school students, and stands as a victory for Savana Redding, the student who waged a long battle after being humiliated by officials in Safford, Arizona.

In 2003, at the time of the search in question, Savana Redding was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Safford Middle School in the small town of Safford, Arizona. School officials got a tenuous tip that Savana had given a friend some ibuprofen -- the stuff in Advil and Motrin. That was against school rules, so the girl was detained by Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson. She was subjected to a strip search by two female school employees. The search turned up nothing.

But the Redding family wasn't done. They fought the search through the courts, finally winning at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (PDF) which ruled "A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil."

Today's Supreme Court decision, written by retiring Justice David Souter, and sparking notable dissent to its Fourth Amendment holdings only from Justice Clarence Thomas, says in part:

[T]he content of the suspicion failed to match the degree of intrusion. Wilson knew beforehand that the pills were prescription-strength ibuprofen and over-the-counter naproxen, common pain relievers equivalent to two Advil, or one Aleve. He must have been aware of the nature and limited threat of the specific drugs he was searching for, and while just about anything can be taken in quantities that will do real harm, Wilson had no reason to suspect that large amounts of the drugs were being passed around, or that individual students were receiving great numbers of pills.

The court goes on to say:

In sum, what was missing from the suspected facts that pointed to Savana was any indication of danger to thestudents from the power of the drugs or their quantity, and any reason to suppose that Savana was carrying pills in her underwear. We think that the combination of these deficiencies was fatal to finding the search reasonable.

But while an intrusive search in search of a vague threat based on tentative suspicions fails to meet constitutional muster, the officials in this specific case can't be held liable for their transgressions. That's because of legal uncertainty over the extent of school officials' liability for constitutional missteps, providing officials, up until now, anyway, with conflicting guidance about just how far they can go. Because of that gray area, says the court, Wilson and company are entitled to qualified immunity for their actions.

That leaves Savana Redding with no clear path to seek redress for her abuse by school officials -- other, that is, than the knowledge that such searches are clearly off-limits in the future. Savana's fight has strengthened legal protections for students following in her footsteps.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Constitutional lessons I learned at school

Earlier this month, sheriff's deputies in Harford County, Maryland, showed up in the parking lot of Harford Technical High School with drug-sniffing dogs and set the animals to sniffing for contraband. The search was random -- suspicionless and warrantless -- but hardly unique in American public schools. Across the country, students have long labored in an environment where many Fourth Amendment protections magically don't apply. Now, though, a case before the Supreme Court may help establish just how far school officials can go in pawing through the possessions -- and even the underwear -- of their youthful charges.

"Reasonableness" is the standard that guides those parking lot searches, and "reasonableness" is at issue before the Supreme Court in the case of Safford United School District No. 1, et al., v. Redding. The problem, as always, is that what strikes some school administrators and law-enforcement officers as reasonable may strike students and parents as completely insane.

Which brings us to Savana Redding.

In 2003, at the time of the search in question, Savana Redding was a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Safford Middle School in the small town of Safford, Arizona. School officials got a tenuous tip that Savana had given a friend some ibuprofen -- the stuff in Advil and Motrin. That was against school rules, so the girl was detained by Assistant Principal Kerry Wilson. She was subjected to a strip search by two female school employees. The search turned up nothing.

And Savana and her family sued.

The case worked its way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which examined the facts and concluded (PDF), "A reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a thirteen-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil."

We hold that Savana’s rights were clearly established at the time that Assistant Principal Wilson, in his official capacity, initiated and directed the strip search. The record before us leaves no doubt that it would have been clear to a reasonable school official in Wilson’s position that the strip search violated Savana’s constitutional rights...

The case of Redding before the Supreme Court is an appeal by the school district from the Ninth Circuit decision.

The "reasonable" standard for schools, so different from the "probable cause" standard that guides most search and seizure cases, was established in New Jersey v. T.L.O. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that, while the Fourth Amendment does apply to school officials, they're held to a lower standard than law-enforcement officers. That's because "[a]gainst the child's interest in privacy must be set the substantial interest of teachers and administrators in maintaining discipline in the classroom and on school grounds." The court added, "The warrant requirement, in particular, is unsuited to the school environment."

So, if the Fourth Amendment applies, but not so much, what constitutes an acceptable search? To answer that question, the court created a new standard out of whole cloth:

[T]he legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search. Determining the reasonableness of any search involves a twofold inquiry: first, one must consider "whether the . . . action was justified at its inception," Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S., at 20 ; second, one must determine whether the search as actually conducted "was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place," ibid.

Looking askance at what his colleagues had wrought, Justice Brennan warned in dissent:

Today's decision sanctions school officials to conduct fullscale searches on a "reasonableness" standard whose only definite content is that it is not the same test as the "probable cause" standard found in the text of the Fourth Amendment.

He was right. "Reasonableness" is in the eye of the beholder, and what we behold largely depends on whether we're in positions of authority, or among those subject to authority. That's how we ended up with K-9 patrols in school parking lots and teenage girls shaking out their bras during searches for headache tablets.

Loose guidelines for searches have actually been institutionalized. The Harford County suspicionless searches are conducted well within the advice formally provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

If drug-sniffing dogs can be unleashed to alert with a "a bite, bark or scratch" on any car that contains a roach (or a hamburger wrapper), it's not that far a step to pawing through a student's underwear based on a vague assertion by another student.

The Supreme Court itself, in another case involving the power of school officials, once warned:

That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.

That's a fine sentiment. Too bad the court didn't hold it to heart in T.L.O. We have now raised just about two generations of public school students in an environment in which vague standards and meaningless restrictions on officials' power are considered "reasonable." Those students are now adults, applying the lessons they learned in school to the world around them.

There's no guarantee that the Supreme Court will set tougher standards in Redding. It may set no standards at all, and side-step the issue entirely by granting the Safford officials qualified immunity from lawsuits without touching on the constitutional questions.

But Redding is the best chance in a long time to draw a line that firmly establishes some indignities committed by state officials upon public school students as beyond the pale. With school officials increasingly conducting random, warrantless searches of their charges, we need to know whether our schools are subject to constitutional protections, or whether they are just little police states.

Really, if it's acceptable to strip-search Savana Redding, there's no place else to go.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Even Swedes have more school choice than most Americans

There's a nice write-up in USA Today on popular and well-established education alternatives to state schools in Sweden, of all places.

Before the reform, most families depended on state-run schools following a uniform national curriculum. Now they can turn to the "friskolor," or "independent schools," which choose their own teaching methods and staff, and manage their own buildings.

They remain completely government-financed and are not allowed to charge tuition fees. The difference is that their government funding goes to private companies which then try to run the schools more cost-effectively and keep whatever taxpayer money they save.

The article is a bit hazy on the details, but the Swedish program seems to more closely resemble American charter schools than vouchers, since the money apparently goes directly to the schools rather than to families to pay tuition.

Demand for the Swedish independent schools is growing. "In 1992, 1.7% of high schoolers and 1% of elementary schoolchildren were privately educated. Now the figures are 17% and 9%." By contrast, in Arizona, where charter schools are about as well-established as they are anywhere in the U.S. 8.7% of students attend charters and about 5% attend private schools (working from 2005 numbers). A good guesstimate is that a bit less than 4% are homeschooled.

Since the state remains closely involved in education under the Swedish (and charter) model, I view the approach as less than ideal. There's still plenty of room for officials to pick and choose providers and exercise influence over curriculum. But, by contrast with the one-size-fits-all model that previously prevailed the Swedish model is a vast improvement, since it expands the range of approaches and philosophies available to families. Before the 1992 reform, Sweden's state schools followed a uniform national curriculum. If you didn't like it, you could pay private tuition on top of (high) Swedish taxes. Now, some degree of choice is available to any family.

Arizonans enjoy the luxury of choices comparable to or exceeding the options offered in Sweden. Charter schools now make up one in four public schools in Arizona, homeschooling is unencumbered by red tape and private schools are relatively inexpensive. But most Americans still have to pay for whatever the state offers -- and then pay again for what they prefer if they don't like the state option.

If Sweden can expand the range of education options available to families, why can't more U.S. states do the same?


Friday, July 11, 2008

Decision in Arizona case restores Fourth Amendment to schools

In a major slap-down to holding-pen ... err ... public-school control-freakery, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (PDF) that there actually are limits to the power of educrats to grope and humiliate their charges in search of illicit over-the-counter medications.

From the opinion, here are the details of the search of 13-year-old Savana Redding, which took place in Safford, Arizona:

First, Savana removed her socks, shoes and jacket for inspection for ibuprofen. The officials found nothing. Then, Romero asked Savana to remove her T-shirt and stretch pants. Embarrassed and scared, Savana complied and sat in her bra and underwear while the two adults examined her clothes. Again, the officials found nothing. Still progressing with the search, despite receiving only corroboration of Savana’s pleas that she did not have any ibuprofen, Romero instructed Savana to pull her bra out to the side and shake it. Savana followed the instructions, exposing her naked breasts in the process. The shaking failed to dislodge any pills. Romero next requested that Savana pull out her underwear at the crotch and shake it. Hiding her head so that the adults could not see that she was about to cry, Savana complied and pulled out her underwear, revealing her pelvic area. No ibuprofen was found. The school officials finally stopped and told Savana to put her clothes back on and accompany Romero back to Wilson’s office.

Yes, the school had a firm-and-fast rule against the sort of medications almost everybody keeps in their medicine cabinet for casual use. As insane as that seems, it's a concern best addressed separately.

Earlier court decisions had given a rousing thumbs-up to Redding's ordeal, but the appeals court had second thoughts. Writing for the majority, Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw said:

Common sense informs us that directing a thirteen-year-old girl to remove her clothes, partially revealing her breasts and pelvic area, for allegedly possessing ibuprofen, an infraction that poses an imminent danger to no one, and which could be handled by keeping her in the principal’s office until a parent arrived or simply sending her home, was excessively intrusive.

Logically enough, the court found that "The strip search of thirteen-year-old Savana ... was conducted in violation of Savana’s Fourth Amendment rights."

Good. Not only is that ruling a sound recognition of the rights of the individual, but it will spare many fathers and mothers the unpleasant necessity to go forth and do violence to school administrators who abuse their children.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Schools peddle nonsense to kids -- again

Was it just this spring that the Center for Inquiry was slamming the textbook American Government, written by John Dilulio and James Wilson, for peddling conservative political positions disguised as objective education? Now the Arizona Republic editorial board warns of an ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District that propagandizes for identity politics and victimization in the guise of ... well ... objective education.

The Arizona Republic editorial drew heavily from a column penned by former Tucson High Magnet School teacher John Ward for the Tucson Citizen. He wrote that his U.S. history course was taken over by instructors from the Raza/Chicano studies department:

Immediately it was clear that the class was not a U.S. history course, which the state of Arizona requires for graduation. The class was similar to a sociology course one expects to see at a university.

Where history was missing from the course, it was filled by controversial and biased curriculum.

The basic theme of the curriculum was that Mexican-Americans were and continue to be victims of a racist American society driven by the interests of middle and upper-class whites.

In this narrative, whites are able to maintain their influence only if minorities are held down. Thus, social, political and economic events in America must be understood through this lens.

This biased and sole paradigm justified teaching that our community police officers are an extension of the white power structure and that they are the strongmen used "to keep minorities in their ghettos."

It justified telling the class that there are fewer Mexican-Americans in Tucson Magnet High School's advanced placement courses because their "white teachers" do not believe they are capable and do not want them to get ahead.

It justified teaching that the Southwestern United States was taken from Mexicans because of the insatiable greed of the Yankee who acquired his values from the corrupted ethos of Western civilization.

It was taught that the Southwest is "Atzlan," the ancient homeland of the Aztecs, and still rightfully belongs to their descendants - to all people of indigenous Mexican heritage.

As an educator, I refused to be complicit in a curriculum that engendered racial hostility, irresponsibly demeaned America's civil institutions, undermined our public servants, discounted any virtues in Western civilization and taught disdain for American sovereignty.

When I raised these concerns, I was told that I was a "racist," despite being Hispanic. Acknowledging my heritage, the Raza studies staff also informed me that I was a vendido, the Spanish term for "sellout."

Is Ward exaggerating the biased nature of the curriculum? It doesn't seem so. Augustine Romero, the head of the ethnic studies program, told the Arizona Daily Star, "We have to be able to be honest. If we have cancer, should we not name the cancer and overcome it? If oppression and subordination are our cancers, should we not name them?"

A February column by Arizona Republic columnist Doug MacEachern found Romero touting the virtues of politicized education.

If Romero's words sound politically anchored, they should. Romero happily acknowledges that he and all his instructors are "progressives," and he is contemptuous of teachers who resist admitting that all history instruction is political.

"Our teachers are left-leaning. They are progressives. They're going to have things (in their courses) that conservatives are not going to like," he told me.

"Their concern is that it's not their political orientation. To sit here and say teachers don't walk into the classroom with a political orientation, that's the furthest (thing) from the truth."

Romero is a confident man. Not unlike that self-assured aide-de-camp of Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, whose romantic portrait has been hung in Romero's ethnic-studies classrooms.

Ché, too, believed the world was divided between progressives and ultraconservative reactionaries, many of whom he imprisoned and shot.

In one of Romero's TUSD classrooms, in fact, a video posted for a time on the Internet Web site YouTube showed at least four separate posters of the beret-capped Ché decorating the classroom walls. And a poster of Pancho Villa. And, yes, one poster of the godfather of the revolution himself, Fidel.

So concerns about right-wing indoctrination in the classroom alternate with concerns about left-wing propaganda, ad nauseum.

This is nothing new, I'm sorry to say. Is anybody keeping track of just how long the battle over teaching evolution in classrooms has raged? In the 1990s, the New York State legislature ordered schools to teach the Irish potato famine as an act of genocide by the English against an occupied people. Not surprisingly, the bill was proposed by a lawmaker whose constituents were heavily Irish-American.

As I've written before, "It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parents' tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate."

People want their views of the world taught to their children. Trapped as they are in the government schools, it's logical that they'll try to shape the curriculum. And if that means they get the added benefit of spoon-feeding their views to the neighbors' kids, so much the better. Those kids ought to be disabused of their parents' horrible ideas anyway, don't you think?

And it's not just parents, of course. The captive audiences represented by rooms full of public-school children are tempting targets for every activist and organization with an axe to grind. Whisper a few words in the ear of the right official or round up enough legislative votes, and you can determine what ideas are taught for six hours a day, five days each week, to children too young to put up an argument. The chance to help mold the beliefs of the next generation is an irresistible lure for anybody who wants to bypass debating adults by indoctrinating kids.

And so the government-run schools become ideological battlefields, with access to young minds as the spoils.

Of course, alternatives such as home-based education and private schools aren't immune to bias. But the ideas they teach are selected and approved by each child's guardians. Since families can pick the school or the lesson and reject those with which they disagree, parents can ensure that their own values are taught -- and then send their children out into a world where other kids have learned very different lessons. That means a more diverse society, where children haven't all been taught whatever victorious ideology has been imposed from the top down.

But the idea that parents should pick the viewpoints their children learn and let them freely interact with peers taught vastly different ideas seems to be a controversial one in our society. Mainstream thinkers seem much happier with the prospect of an eternal cage match between John Dilulio and Augustine Romero for control of a unified curriculum forced down the throat of every kid trapped in a public-school classroom.

I'm happy that my wife and I have access to several excellent options that aren't subject to top-down government control for educating our son. I look forward to Tony going out into the world to engage your kids -- after he's been given a foundation in my family's core beliefs.


Friday, May 16, 2008

School vouchers nixed in Arizona

School vouchers took a beating in a decision handed down yesterday by Arizona's Tucson-based Court of Appeals, Division Two. Specifically, in Cain v. Horne (PDF), the court ruled that the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program, which enables disabled children to attend private school, and the Arizona Displaced Pupils Choice Grant Program, which similarly helps foster kids pay private school tuition, run afoul of the Arizona Constitution.

Article 9, Section 10 of that document reads:

No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.

I think that's an unfortunate provision, but there's no doubt that it exists. Given the clear words of the document, the court's interpretation seems reasonable.

So, what does that mean for school vouchers as a means for expanding education options for Arizona families? The overt glee of the Arizona Education Association should be a clue. When the state's leading cheerleader for Stalinist schooling is rapturous, it's a sure sign that the education menu is getting trimmed.

But that doesn't mean that choice is dead -- just that vouchers are probably off the table unless the state constitution is revised.

The court of appeals pointed the way to an alternative when it cited 1999's Kotterman v. Killian decision by the state supreme court:

In Kotterman, the court disposed of the Aid Clause challenge in a single paragraph, finding the tax credit there was neither an appropriation of public money nor the laying of a tax...

So, that leaves tax credits -- with which Arizonans have substantial experience -- as a viable option for enabling foster children and disabled kids to attend private schools, if they so wish. Tax credits have the additional advantage of further removing the state from the process, putting distance between officials and the tuition money and minimizing the influence government can exercise over schools and families. That increases the likelihood that the schools families choose can actually have different philosophies and curricula than the public schools, rather than being carbon copies of the institutions parents seek to escape.

Homeschooling remains an option, of course, as do charter schools, distance learning and paying private tuition out-of-pocket. Simply because parents can choose what's right for their own children, pretty much any of these options are superior to sending your kids to the cookie-cutter traditional public schools we're all mugged to support, whether we want to or not.

Ideally, I'd get the state as far out of education as it is out of religion, if I could, and for many of the same reasons. We don't need state-employed teachers trumpeting officially sanctioned lessons any more than we need state-funded pastors delivering officially sanctioned sermons. But that's a distant goal for the moment.

The court of appeals decision may have been a bit of a setback, but it didn't kill education choice for Arizonans.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Homeschooling -- not just for fundies anymore

Homeschooling is still stereotypically depicted -- by people who don't have a clue what they're talking about -- as an education option largely reserved for white, conservative religious fundamentalists. I'm fortunate to live in an area where it's a common and accepted means of teaching children, but in much of the country, proud ignorance prevails.

Nevertheless, homeschooling continues to grow in popularity, especially among people not traditionally considered to be prone to pulling their kids from the government schools and trying the DIY approach to education. Take, for example, this interesting article from the Village Voice about African-American homeschoolers in New York City:

Robinson, like a small but growing number of black parents, has chosen to take her son Tau out of the public-school system and teach him on her own (Deion is a cousin's child she's also teaching).

In the 2006–2007 school year, the city's Department of Education says that 3,654 students in New York were homeschooled. Most are white, but a growing number are African-American. Black parents tend to take their children out of the schools for other than religious reasons, and homeschooling groups say black children taught at home are nearly always boys. Like Robinson, some of New York's parents have concluded that the school system is failing the city's black boys, and have elected to teach them at home as an alternative.

That's no surprise. The same arguments for homeschooling that originally appealed to religious Christians and educational progressives can be equally convincing to any parents dissatisfied with what the schooling establishment is inflicting on children. The more people who take their childrens' education into their own hands -- whether by taking on the responsibility themselves or by actively choosing another option -- the stronger the constituency for truly decentralized education will become.


Surprise! Public school textbook is biased

From KTAR in Arizona:

A New York-based think tank is criticizing a high school textbook as being ``too conservative."

The Center for Inquiry says the book, "American Government," contains numerous erroneous statements, including one that scientists aren't sure global warning exists. The center issued a scathing report about the book after a New Jersey high school senior raised concerns about its content.

The book is used in some Arizona high schools, and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Horne, says there's no reason to pull it from classes.

"The mere fact that a textbook may have a statement that can be argued about doesn't mean anything because it's up to the teacher to present the student with a lot of different sides about all kinds of issues," Horne said.

The textbook in question was written by conservative scholars (and sometime Republican officials) John Dilulio and James Wilson.

Of course, it's worth noting that conservatives have complained for years that many textbooks display liberal bias. Maybe Dilulio and Wilson thought that turnabout was fair play.

As I've written in the past, if we insist on giving government a virtual monopoly over indoctrinating ... err ... educating young minds, it's inevitable that the curriculum will become a political football battled over by competing factions seeking to mold the next generation.

Wrote yours truly in a 2004 column:

It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parents' tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate. Nobody wants hateful ideas and propaganda force-fed to their children, but people don't always agree on which ideas are hateful and which information is false. As a result, lessons are often crafted to please, or avoid offending, those with the most political clout.

Biased textbooks aren't just unfortunate, they're inevitable.


Thursday, April 3, 2008

School kids still can't write

The latest measure of the nation's tax-funded educational institutions is out, and the results aren't especially encouraging. According to The Nation's Report Card: Writing 2007, released by the U.S. Department of Education, there has been some very minor improvement in performance at the lowest level of writing achievement, but none at higher levels. The report defines reading achievement levels thusly:

Basic denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade.

Proficient represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.

Advanced represents superior performance.

Says the executive summary:

At grade 8 in 2007

  • The average writing score was 3 points higher than in 2002 and 6 points higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Basic level increased from 85 percent in 2002 to 88 percent and was also higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Proficient level was higher than in 1998 but showed no significant change since 2002.

At grade 12 in 2007

  • The average writing score was 5 points higher than in 2002 and 3 points higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Basic level increased from 74 percent in 2002 to 82 percent and was also higher than in 1998.
  • The percentage of students performing at or above the Proficient level was higher than in 1998 but showed no significant change since 2002.

The percentage of students writing at a Proficient level rose from 31 percent to 33 percent of 8th graders, and remained at 24 percent of 12th graders.

The percentage of students performing at an Advanced level of writing remained at 2 percent of 8th graders from 2002 to 2007, and declined from 2 percent to 1 percent of 12th graders.

That's not much of a return for a significant and growing investment. Even as the states and federal government battle over the controversial mandates of No Child Left Behind and tax dollars flow into the public schools in a growing torrent, only one in four students in their last year of high school "have demonstrated competency" in written communication.

I say that tax dollars go to public schools "in a growing torrent" because it's true. As the Department of Education boasts, "On a per-pupil basis and adjusted for inflation, public school funding increased: 24 percent from 1991-92 through 2001-02 (the last year for which such data are available); 19 percent from 1996-97 through 2001-02; and 10 percent from 1998-99 through 2001-02." And that's only the tip of the iceberg -- real per-pupil spending almost tripled in this country from 1965 to 2002.

The Census Bureau uses slightly different figures, but still finds per-pupil spending growing, exceeding $10,000 in seven states and the District of Columbia.

And despite all of this money and repeated legislative crusades to make that money do something, most kids still aren't learning to communicate in writing at a credible level by the time they leave school.

Those high school graduates take their poor writing skills with them as hobbles into their adult lives. The College Board reports (PDF) that "a significant proportion of responding firms (about one-third) report that one-third or fewer of their employees, both current and new, possess the writing skills companies value." That's a big problem, because the same report found that "[m]ore than half (51 percent) of responding companies say that they frequently or almost always take writing into consideration when hiring salaried employees."

Education officials are spinning the results of the writing report to put as positive a cast on it as possible. They trumpet the slight improvements in overall writing skills while ignoring stagnant or declining performance at higher levels of achievement. The truth, though, is simple and unpleasant: the public schools still aren't teaching kids to write. After decades of failure despite increased attention and funding, there's no reason to believe the public schools are up to the task.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

The sweetest little black market

Inadvertent leaders in economic research, public school officials seem dedicated to discovering again and again just what it is that sparks the creation of a black market. What have they found? Restricting goods that school kids want inspires many of them to foray into the world of underground entrepreneurship.

California school officials have discovered -- surprise! -- that banning "junk food" creates economic opportunities for kids willing to take a few risks in smuggling and peddling contraband. The lesson comes courtesy of the drive to promote healthy eating, or else, among the nation's pudgy youth. Golden State officials have cracked down on unapproved foodstuffs and put their official weight behind healthier -- but less popular -- alternatives.

“It’s created a little underground economy, with businessmen selling everything from a pack of skittles to an energy drink,” said Jim Nason, principal at Hook Junior High School in Victorville.

This has become a lucrative business, Nason said, and those kids are walking around campus with upwards of $40 in their pockets and disrupting class to make a sale.

The results could have been predicted by an economist or student of history who has paid even cursory attention to repeatedly thwarted efforts by government officials to restrict people's access to goods and services that they want. The situation in California (and in Boulder, Colorado, earlier) not only emulates the reaction to Prohibition and drug bans -- it directly reflects students' response to junk food bans elsewhere. Says the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph:

The situation echoes that in the UK where a similar drive to promote healthy eating sparked a playground black market in junk food with pupils trading snacks and fizzy drinks and the most organised staging lunchtime runs to local shops and McDonald's to fill junk food orders.

British officials shocked by widespread resistance to their efforts are considering barring students from leaving campus at lunch, and even preventing fast-food restaurants from opening near campuses -- schemes intended to further restrict the flow of contraband. Considering, though, that flat-out outlawing marijuana and heroin has failed to cut off the supply, it's hard to see how tighter restrictions on legal products can do anything more than slightly raise prices (and profit margins) on goods smuggled through school doors.

Oddly enough, surreptitious peddling of cokes and candy may offer public school students the best economic education they're likely to receive in tax-supported institutions. School officials may barely be able to teach kids to read and write, but they're offering an excellent lesson in the hurdles faced by any effort at prohibition and the inevitability of the underground economy.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stop making education a political football

The Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson explains to Wired why government monopoly schools inevitably breed battles over curriculum and exacerbate social divisiveness. He argues that it's better to let families guide their own children's education -- even if they teach them a dose of nonsense.

Actually I would. I would say you should leave all these decisions to individual families. The alternative is to make the government the arbiter of truth. You either leave it up to families, or you say the political process is going to decide what truth is. We've tried doing this before, and you get any number of problems. Deciding evolution is truth and teaching it in biology classes is not effective. You also set up a conflict, because we have one of the most pluralistic societies on the planet, and we don't see eye to eye on history, math, reading, evolution ... it goes on and on. You say there has to be an official truth, you force people into conflict. You have a battle, it's a knock-down drag-'em-out fight, and it's zero sum. For every winner, there's a loser, and that's why we're still fighting the Scopes-Monkey trial 80 years later. It solves nothing basically to say the government will declare, this is truth.

I addressed this issue in a column four years ago (please excuse the funky formatting). Among other points, I emphasized that government schools often teach nonsense too.

No lesson is too trivial to become a political football. In 1997, New York State ordered public school teachers to treat the Irish potato famine of the 1840s as an act of genocide by the British. Historians debate the causes of the famine, but Empire State politicians know that only one interpretation stirs the passions of Irish-American voters.

It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parents' tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate. Nobody wants hateful ideas and propaganda force-fed to their children, but people don't always agree on which ideas are hateful and which information is false. As a result, lessons are often crafted to please, or avoid offending, those with the most political clout.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's for the kids, of course

I live in an area where a lot of parents, for reasons that I find unconvincing, are suspicious of vaccination and refuse to have their kids immunized against diseases, some of which have historically killed or crippled all too many children. The result is that my wife's pediatrics practice sees a small but steady stream of cases that seem drawn straight from 19th-century medical texts -- nasty ailments that were supposed to have been eliminated by now. Not surprisingly, we've chosen to vaccinate our son against everything. We're just not taking our chances in the rare-disease lottery.

But as unwise as I think it is for parents to resist vaccinating their children, there's something that's certainly worse: letting kids see their parents hauled off in chains because they're opposed to vaccination.

In Maryland, Prince George's County officials are threatening parents with $50 per day in fines and ten days in jail if they fail to vaccinate their offspring. Parents of 1,700 children have been ordered to show up with their kids to circuit court this weekend for a ritual tongue-lashing and mandatory inoculations. The penalties will be levied against those who refuse.

R. Owen Johnson Jr., chairman of the school board, is quoted saying, "This is a public health and a children's rights issue." Oh, that's a great blow for children's rights -- sending mom and dad off to the hoosegow because they calculate the risks and benefits of vaccination differently than does the majority.

The county's authority in this little travesty seems to come from a state law requiring public school attendees to be vaccinated, so it strikes me that the logical response for parents is to withdraw their children from the public schools. That might require some scrambling on the part of parents to find alternatives, but what a great opportunity for like-minded families to set up homeschooling co-ops to give the kids a better education than they're getting in the county holding pens.

Of course, with thousands of parents and kids ordered to appear at the courthouse, vaccination opponents might want to take this opportunity to drag Judges William D. Missouri and C. Philip Nichols Jr. from the bench and -- along with any other public officials who show their faces -- give them a well-deserved flogging.

It would be an object lesson for the children in attendance -- sort of an intellectual vaccination against the pernicious idea that government officials have the right to lock us behind bars if we don't bend to their will.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The most important lesson of the year

The school year is now well underway, so it's as good a time as any to remind new and returning students and faculty at America's institutions of higher learning that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stands ready to protect their liberty from sometimes overbearing or simply craven campus authorities. From speech codes to tenure battles to star-chamber-like judicial proceedings, FIRE has repeatedly waded in to remind college administrators that personal freedom and due process really are good things.

On its website, FIRE has a good roundup of the resources it offers right here.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Drop that sketch!

When I was a kid, I whiled away many painful hours in boring classes by drawing in my notebooks. Since I was a fairly typical boy, these sketches largely consisted of bloody depictions of combat, with every variety of weapon and atrocity penned with painstaking detail in the margins alongside my social studies notes.

If I were a student today--especially if I attended Payne Junior High in Chandler, Arizona--I'd be screwed.

Two students were suspended by school officials at that school over a sketch of a gun. That's right--a drawing. No threats were involved; there apparently wasn't even any of the imaginary gore with which I littered my school papers. It was just an artistic depiction (rendered with an unknown degree of talent) of a weapon.

But, oh yes, it violated the school's infantile zero-tolerance policy, which states that "possession or threatening use of any weapon, real or simulated, is strictly prohibited."

I guess that a sketch of a gun could be interpreted as possession of a "simulated" weapon--by a rules-bound idiot. I guess it's a good thing neither of those suspended kids had the nerve to tote a pocket knife--like my friends and I did through much of our school career.

Call the Chandler Unified School District to tell the folks there that you can hear the wind whistling through their empty heads.

Main number: (480) 812-7000
Community relations: (480) 812-7650
Community relations email:

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Burying the hatchet

Now here's a nice change of pace--a news story from Virginia that describes cordial relations between local public school administrators and the area's thriving homeschooling community.

The area homeschooling network has become stronger, Waynesboro Schools Superintendent Robin Crowder said.

He supports parents who want to homeschool their children.

“We’re going to try to support those parents and we will embrace those children when they come back in our schools,’’ Crowder said.

The progress of Virginia homeschooled students is monitored each year through standardized test results submitted by parents to school districts.

Sometimes, homeschoolers decide to go to public school during their high school years, Augusta County Superintendent Gary McQuain said.

“They come back to our schools because of the opportunities in art and music,’’ he said.

Fordham’s Cooper said most parents can’t teach subjects such as calculus, and the high school offerings of math and science spur some to turn to public schools as students during those years.

Homeschoolers “do well,” in public schools, McQuain said. “If they are motivated to work at home, they will be motivated to work in our schools.”

It's heartening to see home-based education become increasingly mainstream and accepted even by people among the ranks of the competition.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Say 'no' to group-think

Have you ever seen a good idea turned into a one-size-fits-all knee-jerk policy? Well, that's my fear after reading this Hartford Courant story about the wholesale adoption of what seems like a common sense idea by public school educrats in Minnesota.

Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, explains that last winter he invited David Walsh, author of the recently published "No: Why Kids - of all Ages - Need To Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It," to speak at his association's convention of elementary school principals.

He said that Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, contends that kids today are living in a culture that promotes "more, fast, easy and fun," and the result is that kids are lacking important qualities - perseverance, patience, self-discipline, self-reliance - that are vital for success.

"I think today people are so fast-paced and busy, and in the majority of families, both parents work," said Storti. "Sometimes because life is so fast-paced, there's sometimes a guilty feeling parents have that they haven't spent enough time with their kids. ... Many times, to make things easier, we give our children things."

Walsh's message hit such a strong chord among the principals that they decided to conduct a statewide campaign, which they are calling, "Minnesota: Say Yes to No."

Now, I'm in full accord with the sentiment that children should be told "no" on a fairly frequent basis. Well-defined limits are absolutely necessary for children who need to be taught about right and wrong. So is encouragement to persevere in the face of obstacles--life is hard, and kids need to be aware that temporary setbacks are part of the program. Giving kids everything they ask for and smoothing over all of the rough spots does them a disservice; they'll never grow into self-reliant adults that way. While I've never read it, I just might like David Walsh's book.

But it's one thing to say that Walsh is on to something, and it's another entirely to convert his ideas into group-think slogans like "Minnesota: Say Yes to No." They'll probably even put posters espousing that idea in the teachers' lounges. I can't think of any better way to ruin a good idea than to turn it into the educational philosophy flavor of the month, complete with un-subtle marketing campaign.

Of course, how else do you transmit promising ideas from the center throughout an institution so that they're adopted by administrators on the periphery?

That's probably the wrong question. The real question is: How do you keep institutional education from turning even good ideas into mindless slogans to be applied to children of varying dispositions and abilities?

The answer, I'm afraid, is that you can't. Having surrendered the education of most of our children to a vast bureaucracy, we've ensured that even the best intentions will be applied in the worst way possible.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Zero tolerance under the microscope

If you're interested in a roundup of tales of injustice resulting from school zero-tolerance policies, as well as a rogues gallery of school officials defending those policies even while discussing the aforementioned cases, check out this article from The Nogales International.

First, the troubling anecdotes:

Shannon, a 10-year-old, discovered at lunchtime that her mother had put a small paring knife in her lunch to cut an apple. Shannon realized that the knife might violate the school's zero tolerance policy, and turned it in to a teacher, who told her that she had done the right thing. Should Shannon have been disciplined?

Lisa was an honor student, a cheerleader, a Student Council member, a violinist in the school orchestra, an award winner at the school science fair and the recipient of high praise for a project in her honors history class. However, she violated the school alcohol policy by bringing a bottle of cherry 7UP with added grain alcohol to school. What should have happened?

David, an Arizona seventh grader, inspired by the movie "October Sky," a biography of NASA rocket scientist Homer Hickam, brought a homemade rocket made from a potato chip canister to school. The potato chip canister was fueled with three match heads. What result was appropriate?

In Pennsylvania, a 5-year-old wore a five-inch plastic axe as part of his firefighter's costume to a Halloween party. Should he have been disciplined?

A 6-year-old in Colorado Springs. Colo., was observed giving another student some "candy" with a brand that the teacher did not recognize. "It was not something you would purchase in a grocery store," said a district spokesman. "It was from a health food store." What was the proper course of action?

[A]s the 5-year-old Halloween firefighter found out, zero tolerance - even though it aims to protect students - can sometimes go overboard. The kid was suspended for bringing a simulated weapon to school. After firefighters around the country contacted the school to complain, the school officials composed an open letter to firefighters across the country stating that they never intended to offend firefighters by referring to the axe as a weapon. However, they defended the zero tolerance policy against weapons and simulated weapons as fair.

Even though Lisa, the honor student with the spiked 7UP, had never been to the principal's office for any disciplinary reason, she was assigned to five months in a military style boot camp. Had she been charged in juvenile court, she would have received a ticket and a fine.

David, the rocket-crazed seventh grader, was suspended for the the school term after the police were called and they classified the rocket as a weapon.

The 6-year-old who shared candy with his friend? Thinking that the candy may have contained drugs, the school administrators called an ambulance. The candy was determined to be lemon drops. Nevertheless, the kid was suspended for a half day.

And Shannon? The girl who turned in the paring knife her mother sent in her lunch box? She was expelled for bringing a knife to school in violation of the school's zero tolerance policy.

The defenses of zero tolerance range from, "gangs are bad, m'kay," to fretting over lawsuits resulting from disparate punishments meted out for similar offenses if teachers and administrators are permitted discretion. My favorite quasi-defense of zero-tolerance reasoning, though, comes from this little exchange between two administrators:

[W]here do you draw the line in schoolyard violence? Bejarano asked. What if a kid stands up to a bully? "I ask you to consider this," he said. "If you're out in public somewhere with your family and someone punches you in the face, are you going to go find help or are you going to stand up for yourself?"

"I wouldn't put myself in that situation to begin with," answered John Fanning, the president of Calabasas Middle School.

You wouldn't out yourself in what situation? Going out in public?

Overall, the school officials featured in the article come off as dominated by CYA bureaucratic timidity and wishful thinking about the image into which the world can be forced if the penalties for deviation are made sufficiently draconian.

Kids, of course, are caught up in the fallout from those fears and delusions.

But the problem is worse than just the immediate injustice visited upon isolated children. These children, and all of their classmates in the public school system, spend their formative years subject to a system of discipline that imposes ridiculously over-the-top punishments for minor and even unknowing transgressions, and that permits little leeway for mercy. Even such fundamentally natural acts as defending yourself from a bully can draw harsh penalties.

Existence year after year under such a regime can't help but shape the view of the world that inmates in the government-funded holding pends have of the world around them. At best, they learn that the law is something to be resisted and that authority figures are drones and thugs to be avoided at all costs. That's probably a valuable lesson in today's world, if it helps to raise a generation of instinctive anarchists who harbor abiding contempt for governing institutions.

At worst, though, the zero-tolerance system breeds serfs and snitches who live in fear of intrusive authority and seek favor by reporting each other for transgressions of the most mindless rules. If they carry that lesson with them into adult life--and at least some certainly will--just how well equipped are they to function in or maintain the trappings of a free society?

For now, I'll hope we're raising more anarchists than serfs.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A charter for success

About a month ago I had a discussion with my sister and brother-in-law about education choices for our kids that turned into a political debate. My sister is very familiar with (and opposed to) my libertarian views and believes that because I question the legitimacy of government and refuse to be bound by many laws, I shouldn't be allowed to use most public services--even though I'm forced to cough up substantial taxes to support those services.

This is important because my wife, Wendy, and I mentioned that we were considering sending our son, Tony, to a charter school when he gets old enough for formal education. Homeschooling is on the table, too, but it was the charter school option that set off my sister and her husband.

"Charter schools are public schools too," my sister protested. By her logic, we shouldn't be allowed to enroll Tony in one of the charter schools we've been considering.

I'll admit that I was briefly caught flat-footed--not by the seamless logic of my sister's argument that I should be denied access to government services, but by her unquestioned assumption that charter schools are much like any other public schools. Y'see, it used to be my job, back when I worked for the Internet Education Exchange, to make exactly that argument. It was our seemingly uphill task to convince the skeptical public at large that privately managed but publicly funded schools were no threat to the supposed sanctity of government-run education. Four years later, my generally statist sister had unknowingly adopted my argument and turned it around on me.

Who'd have guessed?

I mention this now because the New York Times has an interesting story on the growing success of charter schools in Los Angeles. Steve Barr and his Green Dot Public Schools have seemingly cleared away most of the barriers to establishing and running charter schools in the city. Barr has won his battles by organizing parents to lobby on behalf of reform--but also by buddying up to the politicians and teachers unions who made the traditional schools such a mess to begin with.

Charter schools are undoubtedly becoming more mainstream, but you have to wonder how much of their independent character they're retaining as they win converts and open new facilities. What happens if charter schools become increasingly accepted only by turning into their hide-bound competition?

In the end, by arguing that charter schools really are just another type of public schools, we may have undermined our own case. I'll stay optimistic for now; Green Dot schools are out-performing traditional public schools and my local options are greatly expanded by the existence of charters. But I hope we didn't just fortify the government education monopoly when we thought we were subverting it.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Good kid, bad officials

This from Rogersville, Tennessee:

A good kid made a bad decision Wednesday at Cherokee High School that will land him in alternative school for the remainder of his high school career, school officials said.

As a result of a search in the school parking lot Wednesday morning, school officials found a shotgun in the vehicle of CHS senior Justin Tyler Luster, 18, 1430 Beech Creek Road, Rogersville.

Aside from closing out his high school career in alternative school, the Hawkins County Sheriff's Office charged Luster with carrying a weapon on school grounds.

Hawkins County Director of Schools Clayton Armstrong was quick to point out Wednesday that there was no threat to students at school, the shotgun was never in the school building, and Luster had no ill intentions for the shotgun.

Apparently Luster was planning on going turkey hunting after school and had the shotgun hidden out of view in his vehicle.

So, let me get this straight. The shotgun was unloaded, locked in the kid's car, and clearly intended for an innocent use, and Luster is said to have made a "bad decision?" School officials are willing to simultaneously admit that they know that Luster had no ill intentions, and also to punish him severely?

Actually, school director Armstrong says he could have expelled Luster, so he apparently thinks he's being merciful.

This is what you get with mindless zero tolerance policies. You start with a rule that is already unnecessarily restrictive, such as a ban on possessing firearms on school grounds, even when unloaded and locked in your own vehicle. You then apply the rule robotically, even to people who very clearly intend no harm to anybody. Presto! Innocent people are subject to suspensions, expulsions and criminal prosecutions.

And when officials are faced with clearly unjust results as a consequence of their rules, they simply roll their eyes heaven-ward and plead that they have no discretion--under the rules they themselves established to escape the torment of exercising intelligent judgment.

We can only hope that Justin Luster comes through his encounter with knee-jerk officialdom relatively unscathed, and with a healthy disrespect for authority.

Do us all a favor. Call Director of Schools Clayton Armstrong at 423-272-7629 x110 and tell him he's a weasel.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

School rivalry

The headline says "Charter Schools Causing Public Schools To Suffer," which, if you take it literally, suggests that roaming gangs of privately managed places of learning are giving their publicly managed cousins wedgies, stealing their lunch money, and otherwise paving the way for years of expensive therapy. The actual story, though, is a bit different -- and a lot more interesting.

What's happening in Pueblo, Colorado, is that students are fleeing the private schools for charter schools, filling the classes and waiting lists -- and taking their funding with them. The waiting list for one school, Cesar Chavez Academy, is in the thousands at an institution that currently teaches 1,100, students.

Just this year the district has lost $1 million and here's why.

"Charter schools get 100% of the per pupil funding for every one of their students", says Lueck.

That leaves less money to go around for public schools.

If we were looking at two competing brands of anything else -- toothpaste, say -- we wouldn't worry about who was "suffering." Instead, we'd be remarking on the success one vendor was having in pleasing customers -- and so winning patrons from the other. That's a market success story -- and an opportunity for the failing vendor to change its ways.

So it is with charter schools in Pueblo, Colorado; they're clearly a brand (or multiple brands) that meets the needs of the customers. Public schools are losing students to the charter schools because they don't satisfy their students and those students' families to the same extent.

But competition doesn't have to meet the death of one brand and the ascendance of another. Smart participants in the market change their ways to win back customers. School district officials say they're "figuring out a way to adjust" to the loss of students to charter schools. If they know what they're doing, they'll start providing better-quality education to compete with the competition.

And then everybody will benefit.