Thursday, October 16, 2014

Grading state voucher programs - how does your state rank?

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Want to know how state voucher programs stack up? The Center for Education Reform has the answer.

In their new report, School Choice Today:  Voucher Laws Across the States Ranking and Scorecard 2014, CER takes a look at the 15 voucher programs currently in existence and gives them a grade. 

There are three As, three Bs, seven Cs and two Ds.

It’s the first analysis of its kind, providing a state-to-state comparison of the various voucher laws and builds on the work CER has done to rank charter school laws and tax credit-funded scholarship programs.

“Having a voucher law on the books is a good start, but not enough to make sure students are actually benefitting from school choice programs,” Kara Kerwin, CER president said in a press release. 

“Policy design is critical, but the true strength of school choice voucher programs depends heavily on implementation.”

The state voucher programs were evaluated in four areas:
  • Student eligibility requirements
  • Program Design
  • Preservation of private school autonomy
  • Student participation

“From the types of students eligible to the number of regulations imposed on private schools, each element of a voucher program’s design impacts how effectively the voucher truly empowers parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child,” Brian Backstrom, CER senior policy advisor and author of the report, said.

Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin earned an A grade for their programs.

With 31 out of 50 total points, Indiana offers a universal voucher program available to all students and imposes no limits on the number of vouchers awarded. But it ranked second worst in the nation when it comes to infringing upon the private schools’ autonomy because it mandates course content and allows government observation of classes.

Ohio earned 30 points for what the report called a “piecemeal” approach to vouchers with five different programs. But its top ranking for student participation was praised as a “worthy achievement.”

Wisconsin, home of the oldest voucher program in the county, also earned 30 points, with its strong Milwaukee/Racine programs offering choice to 12 percent of the state’s school-aged population.

Washington, D.C., Arizona and North Carolina tied for fourth place with 27 points, earning them a B grade.

The D.C. program has a high percentage of children receiving vouchers, but its strict income eligibility threshold is the lowest in the country which limits the program’s reach, the report said.

For the 2014-15 school year, North Carolina’s program got twice as many applications as there were vouchers available. The state is currently defending a lawsuit against the voucher program which is on hold due to an injunction halting the distribution of the funds.

Arizona’s personal education accounts worked so well it was expanded in 2013. The state deposits educational funds directly into an account controlled by the parents who can choose how to spend the funds using a type of debit card that is coded to allow its usage only for pre-approved expenses. The accounts can be used for tuition at any school, to pay for college or university courses while their child is still in high school, for online education, certified tutors, testing preparation like for SATs, or even a la carte public school courses (foreign languages, for example). They also have the choice to not spend it and put it toward a future college education. Anything not used in a year is allowed to accumulate.

It’s a popular idea. Florida just implemented a similar one and Delaware just proposed their own program based on the concept.

Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah and Mississippi all earned a C grade with scores of between 19 and 23 points.

Louisiana imposes “such significant regulatory intrusion” that it ends up with a C. Their regulations are such that new private schools are prohibited from participating.

The ranking for Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah and Mississippi are due primarily to the fact that their programs are only for special needs students.

Colorado’s program is tied up in legal wrangling, but even if it were implemented, it only offers 500 vouchers for the more than 62,000 eligible children.

Vermont and Maine both earned D grades because they don’t offer a modern-day voucher program, but merely a method by which students in areas and towns without any district school systems can get an education.

The report states that legislators considering vouchers or modifying their existing programs “would be well-served by examining the design elements that have led to the success of several state 
programs, and the components of state voucher program laws that are holding some states back.”

With “reliable policy blueprints and visible implementation of strong voucher programs, more state leaders need to step up to the plate in order to grow and expand school choice opportunities across the U.S. so more children have access to options that best meet their individual learning needs,” Kerwin said.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

School voucher programs save billions, audit shows

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

A recent audit of 10 school voucher programs shows a cumulative savings of at least $1.7 billion since the first program was established in the 1990-91 school year.

The Freidman Foundation for Educational Choice wanted to know if founder Milton Friedman’s concept of school vouchers would not only expand personal freedom and improve achievement, but also save money.

To find out, they took a “cautious, rational estimate of the overall fiscal effects of school voucher programs” established over the last 24 years. They warn that the audit is not a to-the-penny calculation, a look at the average amount of the vouchers and the current costs of educating students in the public school system. If the voucher amount is less than the per-pupil educational costs, there is a savings.

In conducting the audit, the Foundation looked at voucher programs that had been in place for at least three years and only went up to the 2010-11 school year, in order to account for any lag in reporting.

Three Ohio programs, the Cleveland Scholarship Program, the Autism Scholarship Program and the Educational Choice Scholarship Program made the cut.  Also included were two programs from Florida and one each from Washington, D.C., Georgia, Louisiana, Utah and Wisconsin.

Over 500,000 students received vouchers with a total savings since their inception of $1,703,864,521.

Their audit also showed that the pace of the savings growth has outpaced the growth of student participation, “rising 675-fold since 1990.”

Many voucher opponents claim that money diverted to the voucher programs “steals” funds from public education. But most of the time, those arguments ignore the fact that when students leave the public system, the school district no longer has to expend costs to educate them, so there should be savings along with the transfer.

The audit also asks “(i)f  one is opposed to school choice because of its effect on the finances of local public schools, does it not also follow that he or she should favor prohibiting families from moving among public school districts?”

School funding is a complicated, with money from local taxpayers and property owners, state governments and the federal government, each often accompanied by various rules and regulations about how it can be used and for what services.  The audit does address many of these factors, including the recent decline in private school attendance. 

But even with all those other factors, the bottom line is that vouchers have saved taxpayers billions, savings which are certainly enough to justify their continued existence.

DC Opportunity Scholarship Program works

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

In 2011, Congress passed the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act which reestablished the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income families in the District.

The OSP provides tuition vouchers so that parents can send their kids to a private school.

While many states have such programs, this is the only one authorized by Congress and, as part of the Act, the U.S. Department of Education was required to evaluate the program.

The first year analysis was released in October – and it has a lot of good news for kids.

Because SOAR expanded the scholarship amounts, the types of students who receive priority for the scholarships and the accountability requirements for the private schools, the report looks at the program from 2004 to 2013 so there is some historical comparison.

The analysis addressed three questions:
  1. How many private schools participate and what are their characteristics?
  2. What is the nature of the demand for the program among eligible families and students?
  3. To what extent is the OSP enabling students to enroll in private schools?

It showed that more than half the private schools in the DC area participate in the program, though the percentage of participation has declined. The study concludes that the 2011 changes did not result in increased private school participation.

However, it also says that 52 schools currently participate, including 33 that have participated since the beginning in 2004. Nine schools that were part of the program transformed into public charter schools and were no longer eligible under OSP. It also found that four of the private schools closed during their participation. Only five private schools actually withdrew from the program.

Other findings about the schools show they added high school grades, are less likely to be religiously based, serve a small percentage of minority students and are more likely to have tuition rates higher than the scholarship amount.

The report also says the private schools have smaller class sizes, a smaller student enrollment and a higher proportion of white students than public schools. But according to program statistics for the 2013-2014 school year, 97.2 percent of OSP participants were African American and Hispanic.

What isn’t surprising is that applications for the program vary based upon available funding.

Most applications were filed the years the program was authorized, when new funding was first available. In other years, OSP funds were used to support continuing students or only replace those who left the program. Without additional funds for new applicants, it’s no wonder the applications were down.

But the report also notes that less than 5 percent of eligible families actually participate. Based on eligibility criteria, estimates say that about 53,000 children would qualify for scholarships. However, there were only 1,550 applicants in the first two years after the SOAR Act was passed.

The report suggests that demand for the scholarships is lagging.

But the American Federation for Children, a leading school choice advocacy organization, says that’s a false conclusion, noting that demand is not the same as applications.

“Applications and new enrollees are lagging because of restrictive implementation guidelines, such as prohibiting eligible children currently in private schools – including those with siblings in the program - from entering the program,” they state in a press release.

AFC also notes that thousands of families are on the waiting lists for charter schools in the District and that many of them are eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“In addition,” AFC says, “the OSP new application period closes in late January, before the charter school application deadline, preventing hundreds if not thousands of eligible families from considering the OSP as an option.”

They also dispute the analysis which says that SOAR Act applicants are less likely to have attended a low-performing school or SINI, “schools in need of improvement.”

“During the 2013-14 school year, 98% of enrolled OSP students were otherwise zoned for a School in Need of Improvement (SINI),” AFC states.

“The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program continues to serve the city’s lowest-income families and produce remarkable results,” Kevin P. Chavous, executive counsel to AFC and former member of the D.C. city council, said.

He also said that with some common sense modifications the OSP could be serving another 1,000 children in low-income families next year.

“For a program that has averaged a 93 percent graduation rate, with 90 percent of those graduates enrolling in college, and a 92 percent parent satisfaction rate since 2010, we should be doing everything humanly possible to enroll more kids in this life-changing program,” Chavous said.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ohio needs more high-quality education seats in urban areas

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Ohio recently changed the way it rates schools, going to an A-F grading system that is supposed to make it easier for parents, taxpayers and the community to understand how well each school performs.

There are two key measurements which quickly communicate the overall school quality: the performance index and the value-added rating.

Performance is easier to understand, since it’s similar to a grade-point average.  It’s a snapshot of student achievement within a school at a particular point in time.

Value-added ratings are a bit more complicated. They are an estimate of the school’s impact on achievement tracked over a period of time. It’s supposed to show if students are improving their performance (actually learning) year after year.

The 2013-14 report cards for the schools with these new ratings were released earlier in October – and the political spinning began:

  •          District schools do better than charter schools.
  •          Charter schools do better than district ones.
  •          Kids are leaving good district schools to go to bad charter schools.
  •          Vouchers are evil.
  •          We need more money.

You name it and someone probably said it about what the new report cards really mean.

Then along came The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an Ohio-based think tank that promotes educational excellence for every child.

They decided to objectively compare the educational options in the eight largest Ohio cities – Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown – and what they found is disappointing.

High quality urban schools of any variety – district or charter – are not the norm, their report says. And the number of high-quality seats (the proportion of Ohio students who attend high-quality schools) are nowhere near as prevalent as low-quality ones.

Percentage of high- and low-quality seats in public schools, district and charter,
across the Ohio Big Eight urban areas for 2013-14. (Note: does not equal 100% because
medium-quality tier is not displayed.)

“In Ohio’s urban areas,” the report states, “it is safe to say that far more students languish in a low-quality public school than thrive in a high-quality one.”

And what about the public charter schools in those cities?

"In Columbus, 32 percent of its charter students attended a high-quality school in 2013-14. In Cleveland, the figure is 28 percent. The charter-school sectors of Youngstown, Dayton and Cincinnati offer a more-modest percentage of high-quality seats: Respectively, 22, 20, and 18 percent of their charter students attended a solid charter in those cities. Meanwhile, the charter schools in Akron, Toledo, and Canton provide few good charter-school options.”
While all the areas were “plagued” with low-quality charter schools, Cincinnati had the highest amount with 52 percent of low-quality charter school seats, the report shows

But that doesn’t mean that district schools were any better.

In Cleveland, 51 percent of the traditional public school seats were low quality. Cincinnati had 36 percent while Columbus and Toledo had 33 percent low-quality seats.

Overall, the analysis found that charter had a higher proportion of high quality seats (22 percent) than traditional district schools (13 percent). Charters also had a lower proportion of low-quality seats (32 percent) than the 38 percent of low-quality seats found in the district schools.

Why are high- and low-quality seats important?

“…so that state and city leaders can grasp how many good schools must be created, or present ones expanded, to give every student the academic opportunities she needs,” the report explains.

As rigorous new standards and assessment testing take effect, the report predicts that proficiency ratings will fall, but that they’ll provide a more honest view of student progress.

It will be a sobering picture and will only serve to emphasize the need to “dramatically grow the number of high-quality seats in urban communities through whatever means possible – charter, district, or private school choice.”

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Need an education reform plan? Steal this one

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

The Wisconsin Federation for Children, the state-based affiliate of the American Federation for Children, wants you to steal their education plan.

In a press release they write:

“Recognizing it takes “hundreds of hours” to draft original plans, today the Wisconsin Federation for Children offered a “ready to plagiarize” education reform agenda. Any candidate is free to copy “limited passages” or adopt the entire plan word-for-word.”
You see, there’s been a lot of news coverage about Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin, copying large portions of her jobs plan from other candidates for governor.

This is certainly a clever way to take advantage of the news cycle, but it also gives candidates good ideas for education reform.

Calling it a public service, they present their four-point plan as a way to empower parents with quality educational options. They even provided a dotted line interspersed with scissors to make it easier to ‘cut out’ the points and carry them with you.

The copyright free, open source, public domain points are:

  • A child's ZIP code or family’s income should not determine their ability to have educational options. Today, tens of thousands of families are currently able to choose a school that meets their child’s needs but more needs to be done. That’s why I will put children and parents ahead of union bosses and I will lift the cap on the statewide parental choice program.
  • We need to break down the barriers that deny students with special needs access to quality schools. I vow to provide special needs students in choice and charter schools with equitable funding.
  • Because I am committed to education reform and believe that the powerful, entrenched special interests who support the status quo stand in the way of innovation, I pledge to expand the number of quality schools by allowing the University of Wisconsin and Technical College Systems to authorize new charter schools.
  • We have a responsibility to educate the public, but the brick and mortar of the building that education takes place is not the paramount concern. Because all of schools are a vital part of the educational landscape here, I will adopt a parent-friendly, comprehensive academic accountability plan for all publicly-funded students whether they are in traditional public schools, independent charter schools or choice schools.

There’s not much to dislike in the plan. Who could argue against equitable funding for special needs students, or expanding quality schools, or accountability for all students regardless of which school – or type of school – they attend?

Perhaps “union bosses” and “entrenched special interests” might object, since they are singled out as entities that aren’t working for the best interests of children, but their own. But education should be “for the children” and not for others who would hope to carve out more money or power for themselves.

So parents, educators, candidates, school board members, school choice advocates, feel free to use all or any part of this terrific plan. And be sure to thank the Wisconsin Federation of Children for doing all the work and sharing it with you.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Who owns the equipment in charter schools? Ohio Supreme Court will decide

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Photo by Derek Bruff
via Flickr Creative Commons
Who owns the equipment in charter schools?

We’re talking the computers, desks, supplies – all the things that go into the structure of a charter school. It seems like the common sense answer would be the school.

But most charter schools in Ohio are public, which means they’re funded with public dollars much the same way as traditional public schools.

In which case, your answer to the question would probably be “the taxpayer, ultimately.”

And again, that makes sense.

But there’s an odd twist to this question and it’s playing out in the Ohio Supreme Court.

You see, there are management companies who are contracted to run the day-to-day operations of charter schools, and when you add these private companies into the mix, things get a bit muddled.

The case is Hope Academy Broadway Campus et al. v. White Hat Management, LLC, et al. and oral arguments were heard Tuesday.

The case pits 10 charter schools against White Hat Management.

According to the schools, White Hat refused to allow their financials to be inspected by the schools who wanted to see how the money paid by the state was used. The schools sued, asking to recover roughly $100 million that was spent on property and equipment.

White Hat maintains that it owns the equipment, but offered to let the schools keep the desks, computers and other items if they paid the current value for them.

The trial court and the 10th District Court of Appeals agreed with White Hat, saying that the public money paid by the state on a per-pupil basis became private funds as soon as White Hat, the private company, received them.

Just like when the state pays a private contractor to pave a road, the public funds are no longer public, though there is an obligation for the contractor to actually complete the project according to the terms of the contract. But how the contractor spends those specific dollars is not public.

The relationship with the charters is the same, White Hat attorneys argue. They say White Hat is a private entity performing a service for the public entity.

But the charters say White Hat is acting like the “functional equivalent” of a public entity because it is accepting and using public dollars to perform the function of a public school. They maintain that White Hat was supposed to act as the purchasing agent for the schools and since the company is just the agent, the money remains public and the purchased items are owned by the school.

The charters also say that because it is public money, it can at least be audited. And there is some case law in Ohio that says when a private entity receives a substantial amount of public funds, it can be audited, but only when they are serving as the functional equivalent of a public office.

"Would you agree that White Hat is the functional equivalent of a public office?" Chief Justice Maureen O’Conner asked during the oral arguments.

"If you're doing a public function with public funds, aren't you the functional equivalent of that public official?” Justice BillO’Neill asked.

No, White Hat attorneys argued. They were a private company providing a service to the charter schools which are the public entity.

The Supreme Court will decide – and the decision will have implications for more than just the 10 charter schools in the suit.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Corporate tax credits mean more school choice for parents

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Two students whose parents took advantage
of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Photo courtesy of Step Up For Children
There are corporate tax credits for all kinds of things – from making a film in a certain location to providing health insurance for employees. But a corporate tax credit for school scholarships?

Yep – in Florida.  And why not?

The Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program grants corporations a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to scholarship funding organizations. The Florida legislature created the program in 2001 as a way to give low-income families a choice in their children’s education.

Under the program, corporations can redirect up to 100 percent of their corporate income, insurance premium and direct-pay sales taxes, 90 percent of their alcohol beverage excise, and/or 50 percent of their oil and gas severance tax liabilities to non-profit scholarship organizations like Step Up For Students.

Scholarships are for kindergarten through 12th grade students who qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program.  It can be used to provide tuition assistance to one of nearly 1,500 participating private schools or $500 to help cover transportation costs to an out-of-district public school.

The program was expanded in 2010 to allow more participation by students through an increase in the eligibility thresholds and by increasing the maximum amount that can be allocated. It also indexed the scholarship amount to public school spending.

According to the Step Up For Students website, the bill granting the expansion was approved by a bipartisan majority, which included “nearly half the Democrats, a majority of the Black Caucus and all but two in the Hispanic Caucus.”

It’s not just another voucher program – there’s accountability with it.

All students in grades 3 through 10 must take a state-approved test and a University of Florida research team reports test gains in reading and math. Schools that receive more than $250,000 in scholarship monies must also file a financial report with the state.

In 10 years, the number of participants has grown 643 percent – from 10,549 in the 2004-05 school year to 67,800 in the 2014-15 school year. And 54 percent of those students are from single-parent households.

The majority of the students are minorities and “tend to be among the lowest-performing students in their prior school,” regardless of how well their prior school did in overall performance.

Sounds like a good deal – right?

Not to everyone – or rather, not to those who gets money for public education.

The Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association and the state Parent Teacher Association filed a lawsuit against the program on Aug. 28.

They claim the tax credit program is unconstitutional because it funnels taxpayer money into private and religious schools, which is similar to the complaint made in North Carolina.

And like in the North Carolina case, where a judge ruled the program unconstitutional, hypocrisy abounds.

In 2006, the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program was overturned by the courts. That program granted students vouchers from the state so they could attend private schools. The court ruled the Florida Constitution prohibits using “public monies to fund a private alternative to the public education system.”

But unlike the Opportunity Scholarship Program, this isn’t money from the state – it’s a tax credit just like for contributions to churches or food banks or other non-profits.

No one claims those organizations are publicly-funded – why is the Florida Tax Credit scholarship any different?

Interestingly, the organizations waited until the FTC Scholarship was expanded to higher incomes. They didn’t have a problem with the program when it was just low-income, low-performing students.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz issued a statement:

“When Florida Tax Credit Scholarships were available only to the very poor, who disproportionately are minority families, and other students with unique needs, the School Boards Association didn’t challenge their constitutionality. These students often bring more challenges to the classroom and require extra help, more individualized instruction and additional resources. It is only now, when the eligibility for scholarships has been expanded and when less-impoverished students can participate that the School Board Association has discovered its constitutional indignation."

But it doesn’t look good for the opponents of school choice.

A 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn said that tax-credited contributions are not government expenditures.

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to (School Tuition Organizations), they spend their own money, not money the state has collected from respondents and other taxpayers,” the majority opinion read. “…the tax credit system is implemented by private action and with no state intervention. … Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding (School Tuition Organization) tax credits are not owed to the state and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations.”

And it’s clearly a popular tax option, with more than $88 million pledged so far in 2014.

Ultimately, it’s all about the money. The organizations and entities that receive tax funds don’t want to lose funding – even when it’s funding they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

As for the children?

They’re just pawns in the struggle and whatever education best suits them be damned.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Debunking the myths about charter schools

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Graphic courtesy of National Alliance for
 Public Charter schools
Students around the nation have begun their 2014-15 school year and many of them are at charters schools – a school of choice.

But even though charter schools have been around for a while now, there are quite a number of myths about them that deserve to be debunked.

The biggest – and some think the most important one – is that charter schools are not public.

Actually, they are. They’re public schools, the same as traditional school districts operate, though they have been released from certain requirements in order to provide innovation and creativity in the way they teach.

They are not private schools either.

And despite what you may have heard otherwise, the support for charters is growing.

According to a recent PDK/Gallup poll, “(s)even of 10 Americans support public charter schools, particularly when they’re described as schools that can operate independently and free of regulations.”

That’s huge!

But there’s a problem.

PDK/Gallup conducts this polling annually, so they’re able to track opinions over time. Concerned that the description “schools that can operate independently and free of regulations” might be presenting a bias in the question, they decided to ask the question without the descriptor this year.

What they found shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Support for charter schools declined when no descriptor was included, leading the pollsters to conclude that “(m)ost Americans misunderstand charter schools.” And it declined in all groups asked: nationally, public school parents, Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

The poll also tried to determine what, exactly, the participants know about charter schools.

In 2006, 53 percent thought that charter schools were not public. In 2014, 50 percent think they are, but 48 percent still believe they aren’t.

In 2006, 50 percent thought the charter schools could teach religion. By 2014, the number who thought that was true was still high at 48 percent.

In 2006, 60 percent thought charter schools could charge tuition. In 2014, 57 percent still believe that.

Perhaps the most startling result was that 68 percent think charter schools can select students on the basis of their abilities. This is up from 58 percent in 2006.

None of those are true. Charter schools are public, they can’t teach religion, they don’t charge tuition and they cannot discriminate.

Based upon these results, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools decided to embark on a campaign, The Truth About Charters, to help educate the public and, hopefully, see the results of their efforts in future PDK/Gallup polls.

Katherine Bathgate, the director of communications and marketing for NAPCS, said she wished the misconceptions about charter schools were not as high as they were.

“That’s why we’re doing the work we are now,” she said. “It’s why we’re trying to get the word out about charter schools and how they function in the community.”

She’s careful to always refer to them as public charter schools, not just ‘charter schools’ to help address the false idea that they are not public schools and not private schools.

She said she is baffled as to why some believe public charters can discriminate in their selection of students.

“Some inaccurately claim that charter schools can skim or pick the best students,” she said. “They’re tuition free, must accept all students and if more students apply than they have seats for, they must conduct a lottery to see who gets to attend.”

She speculated that perhaps it’s an excuse for why public charters are performing better in general, “because it can’t be the curriculum, structure, or anything else that’s different,” she said.

Except that’s exactly what’s different and enables public charters to tailor their education to the individual needs of the student.

But do they all perform better?

Not all of them, just like not all traditional public schools are bad, she explained, but a great many do.

“Since 2010 there have been numerous research studies and all but one shows that charter school students outperform their public school peers,” Bathgate said. “Sometimes public charters do serve a larger percent of disadvantaged students, especially those who have achievement gaps – sometimes two to three years behind. Data shows that they’re able to close that gap.”

And what about those low-performing charters? In Ohio, some claim that parents are pulling their kids out of good traditional public schools only to send them to a bad public charter.

Bathgate thinks parents should make responsible decisions about the best educational opportunity for their child, but thinks it’s odd that so many worry about poorly-performing public charters, but not poorly-performing traditional public schools.

What about the parents who have no choice but to send their child to a D- or F-graded traditional school just because it’s the only option in their zip code?

“We advocate for strong oversight and accountability – freedom and autonomy in exchange for results,” she said. “And if that’s not being met, it needs to be addressed immediately for the sake of the students. I think it’s important to judge how a school is performing overall, but public charter schools are a school of choice and parents should have the right and opportunity to (find) the public charter school that fits the schedule or the interest of their student.”

The bottom line, she said, is parental choice and the best education for the child.

“Want to make sure that students go to a well-performing school,” she said, “but in the big picture, want to raise the bar for both charters and traditional public schools.”

That’s a goal everyone should be able to agree upon.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Choosing your words wisely - a lesson from #Dream14

The cover of new survey
by Reason-Rupe.
One of the things emphasized during social media panels at the Americans for Prosperity Defending the American Dream Summit was the choice of words.

Liberal, conservative, progressive, limited government, big government, socialism, capitalism, fair share, greater good, individual responsibility...

When you hear these words you immediately have an image of something - either good or bad depending upon if you believe in the concept or if you're going by what you've heard or associate with the term.

The other thing was the difference between preaching to the choir and trying to persuade or influence others.

Too often on the right side of the political spectrum, we are preaching to the choir and using terms they like, or ones that appealed to us as we formed our political opinions.

That's okay - and something we need.

But if we're trying to persuade others, we have to understand how they interpret words and messages and then use the phrases that will resonate with them.

So this post is definitely preaching to the choir about how to change our language and our phrases in order to appeal to those who might be receptive to a conservative philosophy if we weren't using words that immediately turned them away.

A recent Reason-Rupe survey on millennials is a good place to start.

Millennials are 18-29 years old and, according to the survey, "trust neither political party, are social liberals and fiscal centrists, and are supportive of both business and government. They favor free markets, but aren’t sure whether markets or government best drive income mobility."

They're less partisan and more receptive to a non-traditional candidate. They don't trust either party, especially when it comes to issues of privacy. They overwhelmingly (78 percent) think the budget deficit and national debt are are major problems and a majority believe that businesses pay too much or just the right amount of taxes.

As the Daily Signal explains:

Millennials say they prefer a “larger government” that provides more services. They don’t tend to think of “big government” leading to higher taxes and heavier regulation. Once the possibility of higher taxes to support a larger government is mentioned, though, millennials’ support shifts.

The survey also says "millennials believe in self-determination and endorse the values underpinning the free market system."

If you ask them to choose between capitalism and socialism, only 52 percent will pick capitalism. But if you ask them to choose between a free-market economy and a government managed economy, the support for free-markets jumps to 64 percent.

The survey shows two critical things:

1. They either don't know or don't care about various terms and what they mean, which is scary in and of itself.

2. They do understand concepts and are more likely to align with conservative economic principles so long as they are phrased to reflect the concept.

Another important fact from the survey: they vote.

As the Daily Signal explains:

"The 18- to 29-year-old demographic played a crucial role in the 2008 and 2012 elections. These millennials were instrumental in electing Barack Obama to the presidency not once, but twice. In 2008, Obama won 66 percent of voting millennials; in 2012, he captured 67 percent.

Emily Ekins, polling director for Reason Foundation, says that had those ages 18 to 29 not voted in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney would be in the White House."

This is good news for those of us on the conservative side, but it means we have to change how we characterize our positions if we expect to reach this key demographic.

But it's not just the millennials. Too many of our friends and neighbors are just not into politics. It's something they think about only in passing or when they go to vote. They often have the same reaction as millennials - or they tune out when they hear certain words or phrases and never get to hear the message behind the language.

Bottom line: if we are going to share the message, we have to change our words.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Hypocrisy in the NC school choice lawsuit

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

A North Carolina judge has decided that the state’s school choice scholarship is unconstitutional.

Of course the case is being appealed as is the permanent injunction which would put an immediate stop to the program and kick some kids out of their chosen schools.

But what’s unusual about this case is the hypocrisy by those who sued to stop the program.

You see, this school choice scholarship allows kids to attend private schools – including religious ones.

In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) and provided $10.8 million out of the general fund budget to cover scholarships of up to $4,200 for eligible children so they could attend a private school.

There were more than 5,500 applicants for the OSP so the state held a lottery in June to determine who would get the scholarships.

The fact that there wasn’t enough money to meet the need says a lot.

Applicants had to list the school they wanted to attend. Of the 446 identified, 322 were religious schools and 117 were independent schools.

According to the lawsuit, in 32 of the state’s 100 counties, the only private schools are religious ones, and some of them will only admit students of a particular religion. As of July, the 10 schools with the most OSP enrollees were religious ones.

And that’s the problem.

Certainly, there are complaints that some of the private schools are not accredited by the state board of education and don’t follow the same requirements as public schools when it comes to credentials or degrees for teachers and principals. But part of the appeal of private schools is that they don't have to follow one-size-fits-all criteria.

True, the state constitution does have specific language about public education. But the legislature replaced the $10.8 million it originally deducted from the public school budget in order to negate the constitutional challenge about funding public education.

The bigger issue is religion. And that’s where the hypocrisy comes in.

You see, according to some, the state is funding religion with public tax dollars and that’s a no-no to them.

Except that’s not really true. Technically, the money is going to the child – or rather, the child’s parents – in order to give back to them the state tax dollars they pay toward their child’s education. The parent then chooses how to best spend that money and, for some, that’s in a private religious school.

Karen Duquette, vice president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the goal of the program is for every child to have the education that best fits their individual needs. She noted that a similar program for children with disabilities hasn’t been challenged in court and it operates the same way as the OSP.

The intent, she said, is to start educational choice with an underserved community.

“If you like your school, you don’t have to leave it,” she explained. “But if that school isn’t working for you, without some form of scholarship opportunity, you’re stuck in that school. Our obligation is to help every child, whether low income or with disabilities, so every child has access to the education that’s best for them.”

So you’ve got parents receiving funds from the state and then choosing how best to spend those funds and some of that spending happens to be at a religious institution.

How is that any different from food stamps?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides funds for parents to purchase food. No one tells the parent they can’t exercise their choice and purchase junk food.

And what about TANF – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families?

Under that program, the government hands out cash and the family can spend it in any way that benefits the child, including the parent’s transportation and employment expenses. A parent could choose to use those funds for costs associated with a religious vacation bible school, if they wanted.

Choices abound everywhere. These are just two examples where parents get to choose how their spend government subsidies or handouts based upon their own judgment as to what is best, including religion-related activities.

But no one sues over those decisions, even though some of them are more harmful to children than sending them to a religiously-sponsored grade school.

That’s hypocrisy.

Either parents get to decide or they don’t. And if they get to decide how they spend their SNAP and TANF funds, they should get to decide how they spend their education funds as well.

Fortunately for the children – it’s “for the children” after all – already enrolled for this school year, almost all of the schools will allow them to stay while the permanent injunction against the scholarship program is appealed, Duquette said. She hoped the North Carolina Supreme Court would quickly overrule the permanent injunction as they did the temporary injunction that was previously issued.

The unconstitutionality ruling is also being appealed.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

#Dream14: be kind and show grace to win the hearts of others

I’ve attended various blogger and center-right conferences for a number of years now and, among other things, they were focused on ‘how-to’ and engaging those of similar thinking to promote core principles of free markets, the Constitution and the ideals of our Founding Fathers.

While there is plenty of that at the Americans for Prosperity Defending the American Dream Summit in Dallas, the new message is that preaching to the choir isn’t going to advance the message or persuade those who either disagree or are uninformed and whose hearts and minds we need to win.

In fact, overwhelmingly, the discussion in sessions and speeches is that techniques that work on conservatives are likely to backfire when talking to those who are receptive to conservative principles but are predisposed to reject the buzzwords usually associated with them.

The Leadership Institute hosted a media training session where they helped people who have never been on camera – or those who are finding themselves being asked to speak to the media – understand how to better communicate their points.

They gave some instructions, video tapped attendees in an interview, then shared the recording and offered critiques. A key point was to be genuine, smile and let people get to know you because likability is more important than talking points.

But another thing participants were told is to avoid catch phrases with general audiences and tailor the choice of words so the people who are seeing the interview don’t immediately tune out. For instance, “big government” is fine with conservative audiences, but “bureaucrats in Washington” is probably better for general audiences.

Guy Benson, second from the left
In one of the general sessions on building your brand, Guy Benson, senior political editor at, said to work hard and “be nice.” Attendees were also told that they should be the same person online as they are in person and to allow people to see more about them than just their political opinions.

In another social media session about finding followers, Dana Loesch said to act with grace. She warned the standing room only crowd not to become what they hate.

“Social media is a form of journalism,” she said. “Journalism is a practice. Anyone can do it. But even though we are not burdened by the same constraints as traditional media, we still have a responsibility to do it right.”
Standing room only crowd at one breakout session.

She said showing grace to others in our interactions is the pathway to winning the hearts of those who are persuadable.

Loesch also emphasized that citizen journalism is not a gated community, no matter how much the main stream media and certain politicians believe. “Citizen media is the new minuteman,” she said. “The person you convert is one more person you don’t have to fight,” she added, saying you can still disagree politely and plant the seeds of change.

And she noted it was especially important to show grace to those on the same side, even when none is given.
But, she warned, “Don’t mistake finding common ground with compromise. You don’t compromise the truth.”

Dr. Melissa Clouthier instructed attendees to remember what they’re fighting for. “Remember the big picture,” she said, “and be sure your actions move you toward the right ends. We’re not fighting each other. We’re fighting an ideology that is absolutely destructive, not just in the U.S., but everywhere.”

Panelists Carol Wehe, Erik Telford, Dr. Melissa Clouthier
and Dana Loesch (seated left to right)
She said the time is ripe to persuade others.

“There is a deep sense of abiding shame across America because they voted for Obama – twice,” she said. This presents a real opportunity to reach people with a message that resonates, especially through pop culture.

She said politics is downstream from culture so understanding and knowing today’s culture is a great way to start a conversation with someone who might not otherwise be receptive to what is traditionally a political message. The new movie “The Giver” is a great example of something many are enjoying and it can be discussed with anyone, regardless of their politics. And since it has a great conservative message, it can be used to introduce conservative principles outside the political realm.

Even Arthur Brooks, president of American Enterprise Institute and one of the keynote speakers during the genera session, followed the same theme.

He said an Associated Press poll showed that only 16 percent of Americans think the Republican Party is compassionate – and that’s a problem.

He noted that a majority of people voted for Obama because they thought he cared about people like them. “You can’t win when think you don’t care about them,” he said.

Arthur Brooks during his stop at
the Blogger Lounge before his
address during the general session.
“I’m a conservative because I believe in lifting people up,” Brooks said. “Conservative values are the only values that give people dignity. Capitalism has lifted millions of people across the world out of poverty.”

But he said, conservative are good at explaining what they’re fighting against.

“The trouble is,” he said, “people don’t want to know what you’re fighting against, they want to know who you are fighting for. Until we convince them we’re fighting for them, we’ll lose.”

He said it was a moral obligation to fight for those who have been left behind.

“They might not vote like us or like us – it doesn’t matter,” Brooks said. “Patriots and leaders fight for everyone no matter how they vote. Stop fighting against things. Fight for people.”

As a result of this training, I expect that many of the grass roots will change their tactics, focusing more on the ‘how’ than the ‘what’ and engaging all people with a refined message that will actually begin to win their hearts – and their minds.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Tons of potholes and this is how Toledo spends our road repair money

Around 8:30 a.m. I heard the sound of loud truck backing up. When I investigated, I found it was a city tar truck. It was having problems and around 9-ish a supervisor showed up and managed to get it working.

Probably sounds like a typical day in the City of Toledo Division of Streets, Harbors and Bridges.

Except the street they were getting ready to work on was a dead-end street in Point Place, used by only 1 household that has a driveway on it.

117th Street as it dead ends at Maumee Bay.
By 9:30, they were finished tarring and putting gravel across this small stretch of road work - and I'd been on the phone with numerous people to complain.

Finished work - isn't it pretty?

It started three years ago when they did the same thing.

I am supposed to be notified by a leaflet or paper at my home. That didn't happen then or now. I was told it was only done every five years. Wrong again.

One problem is that I have to pay for this. The cost is assessed against my property taxes and I have no say in the matter.

My neighbors across the street are great, but they're the only ones who use this "paper street" (according to the city). They pay 1/3 of what I do because their address is on 307th, even though there is no access to their property from that street. Technically, it's frontage for me and a side street for them, which means I pay 2/3 of the cost of the treatment.

My neighbor's "front" yard at the corner of 307th and 117th.

But the worst part about all this is the complete waste of resources.

The work crew, not including an
engineering intern, the crew supervisor
and the tar truck.

The city has no money - it can't balance the operating budget without raiding, over the past several years, nearly $1 million from the capital improvements budget.

The capital budget is strapped because of this and, with the extremely harsh winter, we still have major potholes and roads that are in serious need of attention.

With all that, the street resources - equipment, time, personnel - are being used for the dead-end portion of my street to benefit one home.

Wouldn't a better use have been to fix Ottawa River Road (at Suder) between the BP and Sunoco gas stations? Or if that wasn't in the same budgetary fund, any road that you find a nightmare to drive upon?

This is sheer stupidity. We're not called "Little Detroit" for nothing....

And yes, this definitely qualifies for "stuck on stupid" designation.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Ohio extends EdChoice Scholarship deadline

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

It’s good news for Ohio parents. The Ohio Department of Education extended the deadline for the EdChoice Scholarship Program until Sept. 5, so there’s still time to apply.

The extension is so the state can recalculate report cards for districts that manipulated student data.

Schools in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo and several other districts throughout the state incorrectly removed some students with absences and low test scores from their required report card calculations. This resulted in better grades for the school’s academic standing.

Following the two-year investigation, the state decided to add back the deleted students and recalculate the report cards for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school year.

This means that some schools that appeared to be performing well might have grades that would allow students to qualify for EdChoice Scholarships. The program provides vouchers to students from underperforming public schools so they can attend participating private schools.

To be eligible, students must meet one of the following conditions:

  • Currently attend an underperforming public school in the district where they reside
  • Currently attend a public school in the district where they reside and be assigned to an underperforming school for the upcoming year
  • Currently attend a charter or community school in lieu of attending the underperforming school where they would normally be assigned
  • Be 5 years old by January 1, 2015 and eligible to enter kindergarten at an underperforming school
  • Be a first-time Ohio school student who would be assigned to one of the underperforming schools.

Additionally, some children may be eligible for the EdChoice expansion scholarship if they are going to enter kindergarten or first grant in Fall 2014 and has a family household income that is at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Children in the Cleveland Municipal School District are not eligible.

The state expects to issue 60,000 scholarships for the 2014-15 school year, not counting the approximately 4,000 expansion scholarships.

As of the end of May, 3,209 students had applied under the voucher expansion and 18,228 had applied for the EdChoice Scholarship.

The first application period was February 1 through May 9, 2014. The vouchers are $4,250 for grades K-8 and $5,000 for high school and they cover tuition only. Students must first apply at the participating private school.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A minimum wage political stunt to make you 'feel' but not 'think'

Last week for Ohio Watchdog, I wrote about the latest political stunt to push a higher federal minimum wage.

It's all about a "Live the Wage" campaign and you can read the details here.

But here's the gist: There are a bunch of people out there - primarily on the left side of the political aisle, along with unions - who want to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

They so want that targeted number that their latest telephone conference to announce a new initiative was held at - wait for it - 10:10 a.m.

The new ploy is called "Live the Wage" and it's similar to the bogus food stamp challenge that was so popular - and so criticized - just a short time ago.

You see, the thinking is that if only members of congress (who earn about $83 per hour) would try to live on a minimum wage, they'd see how hard it is to do. Then, after experiencing that hardship, they'll rush to vote to increase the current rate of $7.25 per hour to $10.10.

Yes - it's all about an appeal to emotion.

Of course it's hard to not have money, especially in a society that is constantly pushing you to buy things.

And no one aspires to be poor. It's not like you wake up one morning and decide your goal is to earn only the minimum wage.

Even people who are currently working at a minimum wage job don't think that's all they'll ever be paid. That's just not in the human psyche.

So with the new campaign, supporters of the increase challenge you to live on $77 per week - after taxes and housing expenses, that is. You see, housing varies so much from city to city that it's just not a doable challenge if you don't take out the average cost.

And $77 is what they say is all that's left to live on if you're a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage. (Never mind that 21 states, including Ohio, already have a minimum wage greater than that.)

The supporters of the wage hike use a lot of emotionally-charged words in their push. Phrases like 'work hard' and 'play by the rules' and 'support a family.'

Except, as my Ohio Watchdog story shows, most people who get paid the minimum wage are NOT supporting families. In Ohio, less than 2 percent are single parents with children in the home. And the average household income for a person who earns minimum wage is nearly $66,000.

What this means is that the vast majority of people we're supposed to feel sorry for are teens or college students who are working while going to school and living with their parents (at least when they're not living at school, which their parents are most likely paying for as well).

Or they are seniors who are willing to take a minimum wage job to supplement their retirement income, especially because if they earn too much, they could see reductions in that retirement income.

Or they are spouses who are earning extra income to supplement the family budget. This could be because they desperately need that second income - even at minimum wage - or because they want it to pay for items they'd like to have but don't necessarily *need.*

So the emotional appeal - that you need to feel sorry for these poor people who are trying to support a family of four on only $77 a week - falls extremely flat in light of the facts.

But you're not supposed to pay attention to the facts. You're supposed to *feel* - but not *think.*

The other fact you're not supposed to consider is that minimum wage is a starter position, usually reserved for the least-skilled individuals with no experience. Nearly all people who start out making a minimum wage are going to be earning more than that within a year, many in less time than that. Many companies use it as a probationary wage, increasing it slightly after 90-120 day when the new employee has proven their ability to come to work on time and do the job.

And most companies will be a pay increase after one year. Even the woman on the conference call with the politicians when they announced this stunt - the one who was supposed to represent the average worker who just couldn't get by on $77 a week - admitted that she got a raise and was no longer earning just the federal minimum.

But interestingly, no reporters who were on the call with the Live the Wage supporters asked about that.

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who was on the call, started his week of minimum wage living early. He said it was really tough.

Well no kidding. I don't know how much he's making as head of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, but the last CAP Action Fund president earned $164,000 in 2012 (according to the 990 form the non-profit is required to file). So it's no surprise if he finds it "tough" to go from that to $77 a week - who wouldn't?

You get used to living at a certain income and when your income suddenly drops, you have to make adjustments. You can't eat out as much. You buy cheaper cuts of meat - probably more chicken than beef tenderloin. You forgo $20 salads at swanky restaurants in exchange for tuna fish sandwiches you make at home. You cut down on alcohol since you just don't have the funds to pay for it.

Or you do what U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky did - eat like this:
That probably looks like most family's menu for the week. Oh the horror!

The point is - most individuals can live on a minimum wage salary if they have to. They'll make sacrifices and change their habits based upon a limited income, but they'll do it.

If they have a house with a mortgage they can't afford on that salary, they'll sell it and move into an apartment they can afford. They might get a roommate - or two - in order to make it more affordable. They make adjustments to their travel methods, maybe opting for public transportation or ride-sharing. They shop at Goodwill or re-sale shops rather than at the mall. They might even sell things, like clothes, video games and equipment or other items. They might choose to take on two jobs.

Even if they do those things, they probably won't be in such a situation for long. They'll get a raise, network, get more experience and most will get a better-paying job. Eventually they'll be back to where they were before, living comfortably.

And the less than 5 percent of minimum wage earners who are heads of a household have a host of resources available to them: food stamps,TANF, Aid to Dependent Children,housing vouchers, transportation vouchers, utility assistance, job training and host of other government benefits and private charities. They won't really be living on just $77 a week, when all that is included.

The problem is, most people know this. Most people with a job have worked at a minimum wage position (me included) and we know what it was like. We also know we didn't stay there long, and that doing a good job and showing your employer your value as a worker was a key aspect of moving out of the minimum-wage position. We remember what it was like to live on Ramen noodles and we know we could do it again - if we had to. We just make sure we don't have to.

We also know that rising the minimum wage means too many people who need entry-level, no-skill jobs will be priced out of the market. The work that they are qualified for and can do won't be worth that much money. Unemployment will rise even more. It won't give us the kind of economic growth we need.

And supporters of the hike have no arguments left that can't be debunked by a little bit of common sense.

So now you're supposed to *feel* ... because if you'd only *feel* what it's like to live a minimum wage, all your logic and reason will fly out the door and you'll jump on the bandwagon to raise it.

Instead of thinking about why businesses aren't hiring, what kinds of costs job providers are having to pay that prevents them from using money for hiring, why the economy isn't growing like it should or why millions of people are out of work, politicians are ridiculously trying to 'feel the pain' of living on $77 a week - as if that will give them great insight into why the number of unemployed is at a record.

Don't you think it's funny that no one ever tries to live like a small business owner for week? To feel what it's like to try to make a payroll, deal with government forms and mandates, handle local government rules and regulations, deal with happy and angry customers, supervise a work staff, promote your business, do the accounting and somehow find time for family and friends and an actual life outside of work?

One day in the life of small business owner is much more difficult and stressful than trying to live on $77 a week.

That's the reality of this ridiculousness - and that's why the whole "live the wage" publicity sham is such a travesty.

Friday, July 18, 2014

People will abuse powdered alcohol, Ohio lawmakers say

My latest at Ohio Watchdog...

By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog

PALCOHOL: In a YouTube video,
Palcohol inventor Mark Phillips
 shows how the product works
and addresses what he calls
the “completely false” claims
about his product.
We have powdered coffees, powdered juices, powdered soups, powdered eggs, powdered milk.

Why not powdered alcohol? After all, it’s light, portable and convenient.

But we’ll abuse it, two Ohio lawmakers say.

Reps. Ron Gerberry, D-Austintown, and Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, introduced House Bill 594 to prohibit the sale of powdered or crystalline alcohol in Ohio.

Alaska and South Carolina have already banned the substance while New York, Vermont and Minnesota have pending legislation to do the same.

“The potential for abuse of this product far outweighs any value it may have in the marketplace,” Gerberry said in a news release.

“The public health risk of powdered alcohol is too great for our state to ignore,” Buchy said in the same release. “We have to do our part in putting forth reasonable laws that protect our children and prevent the availability of drug forms that have a higher potential for abuse.”

Their concerns mirror those of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, who asked the Food and Drug Administration to ban it.

In April, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates taxing and labeling of alcohol products, approved seven flavors of Palcohol. They then temporarily rescinded those approvals due to a technical issue with the package fill levels. Palcohol made some changes and resubmitted the labels for approval.

According to Schumer, the FDA supersedes the TTB approval in the presence of significant health concerns.

He said “experts” should “step in before this mind-boggling product, surely to become the Kool-Aid of teen binge drinking, sees the light of day” and “stop this potentially deadly product in its tracks” to avoid the “hospitalizations and death that are likely to follow.”

Nonsense, says its inventor.

Read more

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