Category Archives: Democracy

Forever Unequal, Immobile, and Politically Divided? Facing Brutal 500 Year Trends

Much of modern philanthropy focuses on reducing inequality, increasing economic mobility, and increasing the efficacy of government.

Three recent books, each in their own way, make the case that philanthropy will likely fail.

Forever Unequal: Inequality Persists Save for Massive Wars, Plagues, State Collapse 

In The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Walter Scheidel argues that inequality generally increases over time unless something very awful happens: massively mobilized warfare, societal upending revolutions, plagues, or state collapses.

In short: since the advent of farming, rising inequality has been the default state of humanity across almost all cultures and economic systems.

See below for a history of European inequality. Inequality has always risen save for the Fall of the Roman Empire, the plague, the Black Death, and WWI/WWII.

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Scheidel marshalls data sets that support this argument in societies across the world.

His final take: while it’s possible that we can inequality through policy and social programs, it’s unlikely.

Yes, individual countries can tweak inequality at the margins, but since the invention of farming, policy has never been able trump long-term immutable trends of increased inequality.

Forever Immobile: The Persistence of Family Status 

In The Son Also Rises, Gregory Clarke utilizes a novel technique – tracking the status of last names over time – to solve many previous problems of economic mobility research, which usually only tracked economic shift of 1-2 generations.

Clarke’s method allows him to avoid the noise of only looking at short time horizons.

If a rich person’s son becomes a poet, it might appear that the family was downwardly mobile. However, if the poet’s daughter then becomes a CEO, the downwardly mobile trend is erased – and so on.

Clarke’s main argument is that, over multiple generations, there’s much less mobility than we thought.

Clarke’s results are stunning: the previous literature estimated intergenerational earnings elasticity to be around ~.3; Clarke’s data raises this estimate to ~.8.

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Under Clarke’s estimate, family advantages don’t disappear over two or three generations, but ten to fifteen generations.

Forever Divided: The Long Hold of Original Immigration Patterns

In Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Fischer argues that you can trace many of our country’s current conditions to long-ago immigration patterns from Europe (note: I have not read the book yet, and am largely relying on Scott Alexander’s review). 

Fischer tracks the migrations of the Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Scotch-Irish – and shows how current inequities and culture can in many ways be tied to these 400-500 year old immigrations patterns.

In summarizing the book, Scott Alexander makes a few observations:

If this is true, I think it paints a very pessimistic world-view. The “iceberg model” of culture argues that apart from the surface cultural features we all recognize like language, clothing, and food, there are deeper levels of culture that determine the features and institutions of a people: whether they are progressive or traditional, peaceful or warlike, mercantile or self-contained.

And:

If America is best explained as a Puritan-Quaker culture locked in a death-match with a Cavalier-Borderer culture, with all of the appeals to freedom and equality and order and justice being just so many epiphenomena – well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. Push it under the rug? Say “Well, my culture is better, so I intend to do as good a job dominating yours as possible?” Agree that We Are Very Different Yet In The End All The Same And So Must Seek Common Ground? Start researching genetic engineering? Maybe secede? I’m not a Trump fan much more than I’m an Osama bin Laden fan; if somehow Osama ended up being elected President, should I start thinking “Maybe that time we made a country that was 49% people like me and 51% members of the Taliban – maybe that was a bad idea“.

Many have argued that the post-colonial country formation process led to unworkable patchworks of different cultures be thrown into single countries.

Perhaps this is true of the United States as well.

Will This Time Be Different? 

On one hand, all of the above makes me incredibly gloomy about our prospects of evolving our society into a more equal, mobile, and better governed nation.

On the other hand, the sample size is small: humans have only had post hunter and gather economies for relatively small time frame, and our current institutions and technologies are very different than those of a few hundred years ago.

Moreover, there’s one place we have improved things: we’re incredibly more productive and wealth than we used to be.

So perhaps what we need is the equivalent of the industrial revolution but for inequality, mobility, and political culture.

But, at the very least,  baseline predictions should keep us sober: it will take a radical departure from historical trends to change the trajectory of our nation.

Hastings Fund donates $50,000 to ACLU

The Hastings Fund was created with the mission of ensuring that every child in this country can attend an amazing school.

While we remain focused on this mission, we know that education is not the only issue affecting families in this country.

The recent executive orders signed by President Trump threaten to break American families apart, as well as deprive child refugees from seeking opportunity in our nation.

Future executive orders may do immense harm to the Dreamers who are already striving in our schools.

To help fight against these attacks on our country’s values, we’re donating $50,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union.

This is the Hasting Fund’s first non-educational donation.

Post election reflections

On this blog, I’m going to keep my post-election reflections focused on education, save for one thought: continued progress in the realization of the American dream is extremely important for our nation and the world as a whole, and I look forward to continuing to play a bit part in this vitally important endeavor. I hope you do too.

On to education.

#1: MA and GA Drive Home that Traditional Public School Support is Boosted by Populism 

In Massachusetts, a populist blue state, the charter school cap was not lifted because unions effectively portrayed this expansion as something that would harm traditional public schools.

In Georgia, a populist red state, a state takeover entity was rejected because opponents effectively portrayed the intervention as something that would hurt local public schools.

In populist politics, communications messages that focus on preserving local, traditional public schools appear to be very effective.

Interestingly enough, it’s not clear to me that these results demonstrate a significant antipathy toward charter schools; rather, they seem to indicate a deep protectionist instinct for traditional public schools.

For charters to be successful, we may need to communicate in a fashion that reduces fears that existing traditional schools will be harmed.

#2: In Cities Where Charters are Normalized, Elections are Producing Pro-Reform Results

In New Orleans, Indianapolis, and Oakland – all cities with 25%+ high-performing charter sectors – reforms either held or expanded majorities.

Generally, reformers prefer top-down quick wins like ballot initiatives; however, we have emerging evidence that, in cities with higher charter market share, elected school boards can tip into modestly sustainable pro-reform majorities.

This is more evidence that market share drives everything.

#3 What Will Ideological but Not Constituent Support Deliver? 

The federal government is now fully controlled by Republicans, a party that is highly ideologically aligned with choice and charters.

However, many Republicans represent states without large charter sectors. As such, there is not uniform constituent demand for more charters.

An open question to me is how much Republicans will use this moment to expand thoughtful, sustainable choice reforms.

#4 The Status of Within District Reform will Rise 

Given the populist rise of traditional school protection, reforms that disrupt within districts – such as technology – will likely see in increase in philanthropic support.

In Sum

There is much to be learned by listening to how people express themselves through voting.

It’s a noisy signal, but in a world of communication bubbles, it’s a signal nonetheless.

The Politics of Populism, Identity, and Charter Schools

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Over the past few weeks, both the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have publicly supported a moratorium on charter schools.

Hilary, of course, has separated herself from Obama’s education reform agenda.

So where are the politics of charter schools heading?

History

First, it’s worth remembering, that charter schools had left-ish origins, though the break with labor happened quite quickly after the first charter law was passed.

Since then, charters have mostly maintained bi-partisan federal support (Clinton -> Bush -> Obama) and generally bi-partisan state support, save for rural red states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc.) and very left leaning states (Washington, Massachusetts, etc).

This has led to charters achieving national ~10% year over year growth for much of their existence.

Present Day Populist Politics 

We are clearly in a populist moment. Bernie, Hilary, and Trump all have veered toward more populist agendas, and for good reason: widening income inequality, pressure from globalization, stagnating wages, and other difficulties have increased the popularity of populist policies.

Present Day Identity Politics

Additionally, on the left, we’ve seen an increase in explicit identify based politics, with Hilary (smartly) courting minorities who feel (rightly) excluded from the Republican agenda.

The Values of Charter Schools, Populism, and Identity 

Historically, charters have not benefited from either populist or identity politics.

Populist politics is born out of protecting what we have – or returning to a past golden age – while charter schools are about creating new options that can displace existing institutions and staff.

Identity politics is born out of affiliation – not efficiency – and charters schools have historically been advocated for on the basis of efficiency, merit, and innovation.

In short, charter schools are not well situated for either populist or identity politics.

The values associated with charters schools – choice, freedom, efficiency, innovation, etc. – are simply not the values of populism and identity.

This is not to say that the values of populism and identity are wrong (some of the values, such as community and dignity for all appeal deeply to me). But they are undoubtedly different than the values often associated with charter schools.

Charter School Enrollment Only Moves in One Direction 

In the long-run, charters will continue to grow. As I’ve written before, charter market share only goes in one direction: up.

Charter schools, unlike many reform efforts, have both a teacher and a family constituency, which means that their political power grows with every additional school that is opened.

Of course, the pace of growth will be affected by political conditions, but I’m highly skeptical that the sky is falling.

Growth will continue.

And, if recent trends, continue, overall quality will continue to improve and charters will continue to deliver academic gains for low-income children.

Is There Anything To Do? 

Perhaps. Both populist and identity politics present openings for charter advocates to broaden their coalition.

On the populist side, there is room to build bridges with those who distrust elitist authority. The idea of a group of citizens working together to form a school for their children harkens back to periods of American history that are viewed favorably by many populist.

On the identity side, African-American and Latino families continue to choose charter schools in large numbers, and the charter community could do more to build bridges with race based organizations that consist of, or serve, these families (which are generally poorer than the constituencies of more middle class identity based organizations).

I’m less optimistic that there are bridges to be built with teacher unions. Their support of the charter cap in Massachusetts, which is home to the highest-performing charter sector in the nation, seems to clearly signal that teacher unions are fighting a zero-sum market share game. If this is the case, no bridges will be built.

Keep Your Eye on Growth, Not Press Releases

While reading the headlines of Hillary’s latest press conference, or the NAACP’s latest press release, can provide a temperature check on the national mood – ultimately, the day-to-day actions of dozens of states, hundreds of charter authorizers, thousands of cities, and hundreds of thousands of educators will determine whether or not charter schools continue to grow.

Headlines will always be more fog than flashlight.

Lastly, don’t be surprised if Hilary shifts to the center as she has to govern.

Draft Text for a State Constitutional Amendment to End the Education Wars

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If the United States could adopt the educational regime of any country in the world, I would not choose Finland or Singapore or South Korea.

I would choose the Netherlands.

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In 1917, the Dutch had a national education battle about what types of schools deserve public funding.

This battle, as well as other policy battles, was settled with a constitutional amendment which was passed during what is known as the “Pacification of 1917.”

The constitutional amendment established a fundamental right to open a school and receive pubic funding.

What a remarkable way to end the education wars!

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Since the Pacification of 1917, the Dutch government has built a set of regulations to manage the implementation of the constitutional amendment.

Depending on where you are on the freedom axis, you might find these regulations reasonable or tyrannic.

I find some of them to be reasonable (national academic objectives) and some not (negotiating teacher salaries at the national level).

The Dutch have blazed one trail on how to regulate the freedom to open publicly funded schools; surely, other experiments would teach us much.

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So here is proposed text for a state constitutional amendment in the United States of America:

“The right to found a school or enroll in a school shall not be abridged by government or any entity receiving government funding. All schools that meet basic education standards shall receive public funding based on a per-pupil allotment that is weighted based on student need and uniform across schools.”

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I don’t think every state in the United States of America should pass this amendment.

But I think it would be great if a few states did.

I imagine each state would blaze its own path in determining how to manage a system where citizens had a constitutional right to open schools and where families had a constitutional right to choose amongst these schools.

I also think this approach – passing a constitutional amendment – has much more moral and legal force than pushing for ad hoc funding programs, such as education savings accounts or limited vouchers.

A right is a fundamental, a program is not.

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Oh, and for whatever it’s worth, the Dutch rank number 10 in the world in student achievement based on the 2012 PISA results (they’re actually #7 if you throw out Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau, which last time I checked aren’t countries).

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NOLA Return Bill: Is it Good?

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So far, many articles focused on the new bill have concerned themselves with raising or lowering the status of specific players – but what about the bill itself?

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Overall, I think the bill is strong on equity, democracy, and protecting existing academic gains.

I worry about what the future holds for maintaining a sense of urgency on increased academic performance and innovation. A cementing of structure will likely favor the incumbents.

But a law can only do so much.

A good framework has been set. The return bill enshrines much of what has led to NOLA’s gains in equity and performance.

In a world of toxic national politics, it’s heartening to see complex and important legislation being crafted and adopted by a politically and racially diverse coalition.

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More reflections:

  1. This is nationally important: we now have a law on the books that clearly defines how a portfolio district can be implemented. A debt is owed to Paul Hill.
  2. The bill is strong on equity: the weighted student funding, enrollment, and expulsion provisions are extremely important. As I’ve written before, I think NOLA’s greatest innovations have been in equity.
  3. The bill is sticky: with fairly broad support, the bill codifies 10 year’s worth of work – this should make it stick. Moreover, the marketshare limits and charter autonomy provisions should prevent roll backs to a one best system.
  4. The return is really a rebalancing: the school board now has much more power, and the state has much less – however, the state still has the RSD as a check on the local school inaction on underperforming schools. Democratic power exists at both local and state levels, and this is a readjusting rather than a jettisoning of state power.
  5. Who will be the leaders? Many of the local leaders in education reform have been unelected: non-profits and civic organizations have held a lot of power. This will shift as the local school board gains more power, but with elections happening this fall, we don’t yet know who this slate of leaders will be. The first wave of local leaders post-return will set a vision and culture for what local control means…
  6. Incumbents are protected – but what about future schools? The bill outlines clear powers for the school board, superintendent, and existing schools, but less ink was spilled on ensuring there is a continually pipeline of new (and hopefully innovative) schools. I think this amongst the biggest risks in NOLA over next decade: will the incumbents of the system (government, charter schools, non-profits, etc). utilize their hard and soft power to block new entrants?

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Lastly, here are what I think to be the most important parts of the bill – with excerpts of the exact language for those who want to understand the mechanics.

Equity Provisions 

Student based budgeting w/ weights for specific needs: “…establishes a process to determine the district-level funding allocation to be effective beginning July 1, 2017, and as revised in subsequent years as appropriate, based upon student characteristics or needs…”

Unified enrollment and expulsion: “…shall require all charter schools under the board’s jurisdiction to participate in the parish-wide enrollment system and student expulsion process, according to policies established by the board…”

Allows for some (but not exclusive) neighborhood preference: “May provide a lottery preference for enrollment at elementary middle schools under the board’s jurisdiction for students residing with defined geographic zones as one of the factors to determine student assignment, according to policies adopted by the board. Such preference shall be applied to not more than one-half of the seats available in each grade level…”

Promotes integration: “…so that such schools shall be exempted from the minimum enrollment percentages…”

Performance Provisions

Prevents monopoly / too big too fail: “shall adopt a policy establishing a process which allows the local superintendent to limit the percentage of system enrollment that any single operator of schools or charter governing authority may serve to ensure that a diverse system of schools led by multiple high quality operators exists at all times.”

Empowers superintendent as portfolio manager: “superintendent shall present recommendations to the local school board regarding the approval, extension, renewal, or revocation of the charter for any charter school under the board’s jurisdiction…Unless vetoed by a two-thirds vote of the full membership of the board, the local superintendent may implement any such recommendation submitted to the board.”

Protects charter autonomy: “the local school board shall not impede the operational autonomy of a charter school under its jurisdiction.”

Promotes test security: “each charter school under the local school board’s jurisdiction shall provide for independent test monitoring from third-party entity approved by the school board for the testing period immediately preceding the board’s consideration of renewal of the charter school’s contract.”

The Folly of Voucher Advocates?

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A new study just came out showing that the Louisiana voucher program had negative effects on student achievement.

It’s one year of data on a new program, so I would caution against any grand proclamations on the usefulness of vouchers. There’s a much richer literature from which one can draw conclusions.

Perhaps more interesting is how voucher advocates reacted.

Jason Bedrick’s piece – The Folly of Overregulating Vouchers – criticized the Louisiana program for:

  • Not allowing tuition in excess of the vouchers.
  • Not allowing private schools to use selection criteria for admitting students.

I feel like I’m missing something.

The logical extension of Jason’s argument is that an all voucher education system would lead to a public education system where all schools would be allowed to reject students based on wealth, academic performance, and behavior.

Is this right?

Either voucher proponents have very different views of equity than most citizens, or they don’t really view vouchers as a replacement model for the current public education.

I’m curious – which is it?

Overall, I’m sympathetic to lowering barriers to entry (you have a crazy idea that parents will sign up for, go for it) and to reducing test based accountability (you and families think there’s a better way to measure school performance, go for it).

I understand the risks involved with this type of deregulation, but I think it’s worth trying and seeing what we learn. I don’t know if it would work, but it might, and the potential the upside seems high.

I also think there are things you can do to solve for equity (significantly weighting vouchers for at-risk students), that will lead to higher performing private schools enrolling hard to serve kids.

But, ultimately, I’m not ok with taking the public out of public education.

A system where every school can systematically discriminate based on wealth is not one that I want to be a part of.

Is this is where the voucher movement is heading, count me out.

If, on the other hand, the voucher movement is really about innovation, entrepreneurship, and family empowerment – then count me in.

Lastly, I have a ton of respect for people on all sides of this debate, so if I’m mischaracterizing anyone’s views, I’ll update the post.

But, admittedly, I found some of my voucher friends making arguments that, to me at least, were pretty unconvincing.