Some in the Republican Party Are Ready to Move On

Some of the Republicans vying to succeed Barack Obama in 2016 understand they need to do more than outsmart Democrats. But many have yet to come to terms with their last defeat and may forestall the self-reflection and reinvention Republicans need before they can start winning elections again.

Ted Cruz — a firebrand from Texas who, in two years as a senator, appears to have achieved nothing but infuriate serious lawmakers in both parties — is a good example. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry reviewed his election strategy for The Week and found that its fatal conceit reflects a broader Republican misconception: that their only problem winning national elections is tactics and strategy.

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election against Obama, too many Republicans convinced themselves that the defeat was entirely due to Romney, a bad candidate with a bad operation. The former Massachusetts governor was notorious for changing his positions on issues ranging from abortion to health care while the Democrats conducted a superior voter-outreach effort.

But Gobry points out that Romney nevertheless ran ahead of the generic Republican in many states, suggesting that his loss had more to do with how the party rather than the candidate was perceived.

The fact that Republicans were quick to blame Romney goes to what Daniel Berman, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, has called the three cycles of a party’s recovery at his blog, The Restless Realist. Read more “Some in the Republican Party Are Ready to Move On”

Chile’s Bachelet Pushes Ambitious Social Reform Agenda

Since her inauguration ceremony last month, Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, has announced a series of policies aimed at proving to the public her desire for change.

Bachelet’s election campaign was based on an ambitious social reform agenda, focused on issues such as gender inequality and social welfare, as well as tax, education and constitutional reform. Her aims are similar to those of her first term in office, between 2006 and 2010, although she acknowledges that her previous government failed to bring about the change it sought. This was particularly the case for education and poverty, issues that led to mass protests and the eventually the downfall of the previous conservative government.

Bachelet’s first major step on taking office was to announce her “fifty measures in one hundred days,” an impressive list of commitments on issues ranging from education and health care to women’s rights and the environment. Legislation implementing these changes has already swept through Congress, the first bill signed into law creating new March and winter bonuses, aimed at assisting Chile’s poorest families during the toughest periods of Chile’s financial year. Read more “Chile’s Bachelet Pushes Ambitious Social Reform Agenda”

The Argument Against Charter Schools

Via Cato @ Liberty, this New York Times article quotes a wealthy suburbanite who opposes the creation of a charter school in his neighborhood. Charter schools — which are publicly financed but independently operated — are “selfish,” he says.

“Public education is basically a social contract — we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom design it to my needs,” he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. “With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.'”

Education that is “custom tailored” to individual students? Obviously, we can’t have that!

Indiana School Voucher Program Has Problems

Governor Mitch Daniels’ introduction of an educational voucher program in the state of Indiana, designed to enhance school choice and boost quality, is widely praised. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf is thrilled, noting that two-thirds of Indiana voters approved the plan, giving the rest of the country a chance to see “how it works out on a larger scale than has ever been tried before.” But the libertarian Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer is worried. Writing for The Huffington Post, he describes the voucher program as “a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom.”

Unlike previous experiments with school vouchers, all of Indiana’s children would be eligible to enroll within three years, allowing families rich and poor to afford whatever education they prefer, public or private.

Other reforms enacted by the Indiana legislature as part of the governor’s education agenda include: Allowing principals to conduct impromptu classroom visits; requiring districts to regularly evaluate teachers; requiring teachers of grades 5 through 12 to have a college major in the subject they hope to teach.

Teachers’ unions would be prevented in the future from negotiating on anything but wages and benefits, including curriculum, instructional practices and evaluation formulas, making it easier for schools to fire teachers.

The new law also requires schools to obtain parental permission for their children to be placed in the classroom of a teacher rated “ineffective” two years in a row. Critics are afraid that this will prompt school administrators to assign the most disadvantaged students to the worst teachers, knowing that poor students’ parents are less likely to have the time and social capital to take advantage of opting out. With the voucher program in place though, they would no longer be at a financial disadvantage and able to send their children to whatever school they like. Read more “Indiana School Voucher Program Has Problems”

Republican Governors Champion School Reform

Even if education standards in most of the United States continue to decline while costs skyrocket, reformers are continually cast aside as the antagonists of teachers and public schools alike. At least two governors are aggressively contending that assertion, suggesting that tenure should be abolished and merit pay introduced.

In New Jersey, Republican governor Chris Christie, who is coping with the legacy of decades of deficit spending and government overreach in his state, is challenging conventional thinking and the powerful union establishment by proposing to introduce vouchers and have underperforming public school teachers fired.

Teachers, Christie told The New York Times, are “the most important thing for learning.” Parental involvement and technology can enhance student performance. “But if you don’t have a good teacher in front of the classroom, all the rest of that stuff is a sideshow.”

Christie’s push for education reform is endorsed by former District of Columbia public school chancellor Michelle Rhee who launched the advocacy group Students First recently. She is urging lawmakers to put children at the forefront of education reform instead of teachers. “If there are any protections that should be afforded to someone in public education, it should be to children, not to adults,” she said on the Fox Business Network this week. Tenure, Rhee added, should not be allowed to shield ineffective teachers from dismissal.

In Indiana, Republican governor Mitch Daniels stressed the economic importance of improving education standards. In his State of the State address last Tuesday, he reminded legislators that youngsters in East Asia are doing far better than American students. “They ought to be. They are in school, not 180 days a year like here, but 210, 220, 230 days a year. By the end of high school,” said Daniels, “they have benefited from two or three years more education than Hoosier students. Along the way, they have taken harder classes.” If America is to continue to compete with these countries in the future, education reform is essential. “There is no time to wait.”

“It starts with teacher quality,” according to Daniels. Like his New Jersey counterpart, the Indiana governor pointed out that class size, by comparison, “is virtually meaningless. Put a great teacher in front of a large class, and you can expect good results.”

To improve student performance, Indiana should radically reform tenure if not get rid of it altogether. “We have seen ‘teachers of the year’ laid off, just because they weren’t old enough,” said Daniels. “This must change.”

Like all education reformers, the Indiana and New Jersey governors are confronted with vehement union opposition however. As Daniels put it, “Advocates of change in education [have] become accustomed to being misrepresented.”

If you challenge the fact that 44 cents of the education dollar are somehow spent outside the classroom, you must not respect school boards. If you wonder why doubling spending didn’t produce any gains in student achievement, you must be criticizing teachers. If your heart breaks at the parade of young lives permanently handicapped by a school experience that leaves them unprepared for the world of work, you must be ‘anti-public schools.’

There is nothing wrong with pointing out that public schools aren’t working though. They distort the market, making private education far more expensive than it might otherwise be. Test scores among students in the public school system are low and these institutions have consequently come to oppose standardized testing, arguing that poor performance is harmful to a child’s self-esteem.

Rather than allowing quick learners to advance, classes are rarely organized according to ability. Uniform curricula and peer pressure discourage excellence instead. Government run schools now mass produce mediocrity. Pupils, and parents, deserve a better choice.

Michelle Rhee Putting Students First

Michelle Rhee is still on a mission. With a new advocacy group, Students First, the former chancellor of Washington DC’s public school system is urging policymakers to put children at the forefront of education reform.

As several states throughout the country teeter on the brink of bankruptcy and American education standards remain absolutely dismal compared to the rest of the developed world, it is high time for a bold reform effort. More spending is not the solution though. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Rhee notes that some of her organization’s proposals “are even budget opportunities for savvy governors and lawmakers.”

Treating teachers like professionals is an important first step. “Compensation, staffing decisions and professional development should be based on teachers’ effectiveness, not on their seniority,” according to Rhee.

On the Fox Business Network Tuesday, she admitted that tenure will be difficult to get rid of. “If there are any protections that should be afforded to someone in public education, it should be to children, not to adults,” however. “We don’t believe that tenure protections should be in place for ineffective teachers,” Rhee added.

In DC, Rhee experimented with merit pay, offering teachers a choice in 2008: either being paid up to $140,000 a year based on student achievement while losing their tenure or retaining it while earning far less. Unions strongly protested the measure but student performance gradually rose during Rhee’s chancellorship. She still supports the notion.

It’s incredibly important because we have so many hard-working teachers out there who are doing amazing things for kids. And we need to become a profession that recognizes and rewards the best people.

Union regulations often make it nigh impossible to fire bad teachers. In DC, Rhee repeatedly faced opposition from the unions when she tried to lay off underperforming teachers. She succeeded though, if only in part, to make the profession more competitive.

On his own Fox Business show last year, John Stossel complained about the situation, suggesting that it is part of the reason why education is so expensive in the United States while test scores remain low. “When your job and salary is pretty much guaranteed,” he said, “why work harder?”

The many steps that schools have to go through in order to fire a teacher are so extensive that many principles don’t bother. “Sometimes they just transfer the worst teachers to other schools,” according to Stossel. Administrators call it “the dance of the lemons” or “passing the trash.” Funny — “except it could be your kid who has that teacher.”

Rhee doesn’t want unions out of the way altogether though. “The teacher unions are just doing their job,” she told Fox Business. “They’re protecting the rights and privileges of their members which they should do. We just need to make sure that Students First is as a force in this country that protects the rights and privileges of children first and foremost.”

British Educational Standards Declining

Educational standards in the United Kingdom are on the decline. In mathematics, reading and science, British students have been overtaken by their counterparts in Norway and Poland in recent years. Schools in East Asia, including Korea and Shanghai, are far superior to those in much of Europe.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, which every three years evaluates education quality in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, British pupils have dropped in all categories compared to the survey conducted in 2006. Britain performs at about average in reading and math for developed countries. It is only slightly above average in science.

The findings prove that the huge increases in education spending that occurred under the previous government have had limited effect, if any. Education accounted for some 17 percent of public spending last year, or an average of €64,500 per student. Countries as Germany and Hungary, which have similar ratings in student performance, spent tens of thousands of euros less. Only seven countries in the OECD actually spend more per student than Britain does.

Reform of British education is nothing short of a necessity therefore and the coalition government should consider freeing children from government schools in order to boost quality.

Conservatives championed freer schools before the election this summer, arguing for instance that universities should be allowed to set their own quality standards. The party is in favor of reforming national pay rules in order to let schools reward excellent teachers financially. Firing bad teachers, which in many countries is hampered by heavy union regulations, would further compel educators to constantly improve themselves as is the norm in the private sector.

Based on the existence of charter schools in the United States and similar experiments in Scandinavia, the government is also contemplating Free Schools, which could be set up by parents, teachers or even companies and operate independently of local authorities. Such Free Schools would receive government funding however.

Charter schools in the United States have been successful in the sense that they far outperform public schools. They mirror the freedom characteristic of private schools but are in fact no substitute for them. By effectively destroying private schools, they erode the total range of educational options and undermine the competition that is essential to improving quality.

Free Schools in the United Kingdom would similarly by constrained by not being allowed to turn a profit. The notion that education is a right not something that should be paid for still pervades, even among conservatives in Britain who realize that public schooling has been a failure.

Introducing competition and profit in education would expand parents’ choice, increase teachers’ ability to deviate from centrally planned programs and improve student performance as a consequence. If Britain is to prepare its workforce for the twenty-first century while cutting back on government spending at the same time, privatizing schools is the only option that makes sense.

The Roller Coaster Decade

When historians begin to look back at the first pivotal decade of the twenty-first century, what will they see? What types of words will they use to describe the 2000-2010 years, and how will those words hold up to other decades in terms of prosperity, popular culture, and innovation?

These questions seem out of the blue, given our ever changing environment. But these queries need to be answered, or at least pondered to some degree. Every single decade of the twentieth century has been labeled to some degree or another, usually with unique events in mind.  The 1920s came to known as the “Roaring Twenties,” the 1930s saw the “Great Depression,” and the 1980s were considered to be the time of “the me generation” (whatever that means). Of course, the 1960s and 70s were both regarded as decades of immense cultural ferment in the United States, as social and political issues previously hidden or suppressed demanded their rightful place on the public agenda.

The verdict for the 2000-2010 period is still up in the air, and not without good reason; it takes generations before scholars can accurately analyze a time period in its full dimension. After all, it has only been seven months since the decade came to a close. But it’s interesting to start speculating, both because we have all experienced the tumult of those years and because the world changed drastically in a number of areas.

On its merits, the first decade of this century doesn’t appear to have been a particularly happy time for mankind. In the United States, it started with a terrible financial scandal at a huge corporation (Enron), where thousands of employees lost their hard earned livelihoods as a consequence of corrupt business executives. Of course, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 killed some 3,000 innocent civilians and gave birth a dark cloud that continues to hover over us up to this day. Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, and the SARS outbreak in China all demonstrated that humans are still unable to control everything, despite their technology and brainpower. Fighting erupted around the globe, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from the Sudan to the Caucasus.

Despite all of these disasters and catastrophes, there were also tremendous achievements throughout the last ten years. According to Charles Kenny of the New America Foundation, literacy rates across the world rose to 80 percent of the human population. In Africa, the most destitute continent, two-thirds of people can now read and write, perhaps paving the way for a new era in African development. People are being paid more, with an average global annual income of over $10,000. Agricultural yields have increased in the developing world, and the low price of grains over the last decade enabled more families to afford food and provide for their children. The number of children that have died from measles (a preventable disease) has dropped by 60 percent due to the widening availability of immunizations. And child mortality has declined by 17 percent, which could potentially help poor countries beef up their economic productivity.

From where we stand now, the last ten years seem like a mixed bag. Terrorism and violence crept into areas that were previously quiet, but intelligence services have responded with improvement. The global economy is still struggling to get out of the hole, but families are bringing more money into the household. In other words, the decade has witnessed a lot of balance, with pros butting heads against cons and solutions creating even more problems. One year, you’re at the top of the game, and the next, you’re at the bottom of the pile.

How about “the roller coaster decade?”

Freedom of the Press, Speech and Liberty

Independence Day, for me, is symbolic of the ability to freely express opinions; the hallmark of a free society. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote, in 1791, that, “Government being founded on opinion, the opinion of the public, even when it is wrong, ought to be respected to a certain degree.”

In the United States, it is commonplace to hear partisans and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum accuse one another of intellectual laziness and moral laxity. I maintain that it is impossible to prove such charges because they are dependent upon the perception and cultural lens of the individual leveling the charge.

The issues raised by the debates over the intrinsic value of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, and the Golden Compass series provide examples of this tendency. The current legal challenges have expressed a wide array of viewpoints that represent the opposing ends of the sociopolitical spectrum and the many shades of grey in between. These debates have resulted in many intensely heated exchanges and debates between conservatives and liberals.

Social conservatives argue that these series promote religious systems and beliefs that are contrary to the religious traditions of the United States by advocating intellectual principles that denigrate traditional forms of education. They favor school libraries limiting access or completely barring students from accessing the aforementioned series by either restricting the ability of students to checkout their books, or by banning them from collections outright.

Conversely, social liberals maintain that interest in these series encourages students to read and serve to develop literacy skills and provide opportunities to nurture critical thinking. Liberals assert that by limiting the right of students to read series in the vein of The Lord of the Rings promotes a culture which embraces censorship and inhibits the intellectual development of students. Being too restrictive in allowing students access to this literature would be inimical to the freedoms of press and speech as enshrined in the First Amendment.

Despite their differences, there exists at least one point upon which both parties can agree as a matter of principle. Any attempt to mandate or make compulsory a single opinion is anathema to each. Every conservative, liberal, moderate or independent regardless of social, economic or political leanings would concur with Voltaire’s long-held maxim — “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The fact that a dispute over a series of books that began its life as an issue at school board meeting has evolved into a court case and made its way into a legal setting is deeply disturbing.

It seems to me the continued endurance and health of the republic requires that individuals take great care and remain wary of utilizing the legal system to impose through force of law an individual viewpoint as Robert Jackson eloquently pointed out in 1943.

Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

Officials face the dilemma of censorship on a daily basis and must tread carefully because the freedoms of speech and the press are among the most treasured by Americans. Yet of all the rights endowed to the American people, the freedoms of speech and press are the most difficult to wield. The power to use speech freely grants to an individual the ability to influence others as President Woodrow Wilson once pointed out.

I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool, the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking. It cannot be so easily discovered if you allow him to remain silent and look wise, but if you let him speak, the secret is out and the world knows that he is a fool. So it is by the exposure of folly that it is defeated; not by the seclusion of folly, and in this free air of free speech men get into that sort of communication with one another which constitutes the basis of all common achievement.

Considering the current social, political, and economic ongoing within the nation we as Americans possess a duty to exert the rights, privileges, and duties under the Constitution of the United States and to maintain the vitality of our republic. The continued freedom of the nation lies within their respect for the liberties of the individual as Learned Hand asserted in 1944.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near 2,000 years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

It is only with the preservation of liberties that justice and freedom can endure, continue to grow and flourish in the face of all challenges.

Charter Schools a Setback, Despite Success

Education in the United States can seem a bit bewildering at times. Confronted with the undeniably poor performance of public schools, in the 1990s, an alternative was devised that gave greater freedom to individual teachers and schools while not admitting fully that the free-market option — private schools — are in fact the only viable solution to the many flaws plaguing an education system run by the state.

Charter schools are at an advantage to their public counterparts because they are exempt from some of the most stringent of rules and regulations which prevent public schools from operating successfully. Charter schools are opened and attended by choice but do receive government funding.

The charters do better than public schools but according to Adam Schaeffer, who is with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, they also “destroy private schools, decrease educational options, pull private-school students into the government education system and thereby add significant new costs to taxpayers.”

In 2007 Schaeffer already pointed out that private schools suffer immensely from this half-free government competition: “they have about half the public sector’s per pupil revenue and parents have to pay tuition on top of taxes for the government system,” he wrote. “That’s a high hurdle to clear to attract customers.”

Many parents are nonetheless desperate to get their children admitted into a private school, whether they can really afford it or not. As John Stossel noted last February, “Parents care about their kids and want them to learn and succeed — even poor parents.” He showed thousands lining up hoping to get their children into one of the few hundred lottery-assigned slots at a charter school. “Kids and parents cry when they lose,” because it means that they’re condemned to public education instead.

Charter schools are a better option because they mirror the freedom characteristic of private schools. Unsurprisingly, the number of students enrolled in these independently run institutions has risen dramatically in this decade. But they “are no substitute for private school choice,” writes Schaeffer. “In fact, by destroying private schools, they seriously erode the total range of educational options.”

The success of charter schools should convince the conservative elements currently holding American schooling in deadlock — the teachers’ unions and their representatives in Congress — that competition, not government, is vital to providing quality education. The United States should abandon the notion that education is a right and allow the market to provide parents with real options. “Absent private choice,” notes Schaeffer, “charters are a long-term setback for education reform.”