Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"The Message of Christ" and New Jersey's Education Wars

As his state’s landmark Opportunity Scholarship Act moves inexorably toward passage in the legislature, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is ratcheting up his battle for education reform centered around parental school choice. On the opposing side, defenders of the government-run public school monopoly are resisting Christie’s initiatives with everything they’ve got.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act is tax credit-based in order to conform to the constitution requirement to separate church and state. There are no direct government checks going to any private religious school.

Yet NJ Star-Ledger columnist and steadfast opponent of the school choice bill Bob Braun doesn’t see it that way. In a recent column entitled N.J. vouchers would wrongly use taxes for schools with religious affiliations, Braun correctly and lucidly defends the “wall of separation” doctrine. He concludes with this ringing endorsement for freedom of ideas:

At recent Sunday masses, churches in the Newark Archdiocese showed a film urging parishioners to donate money to Catholic ministries, including schools. The voice-over on the film noted that Catholic education "conveys the message of Christ."

But no Catholic — neither I nor Chris Christie — has the right to expect Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and non-believers to support our causes, convey our messages, involuntarily through their tax dollars.

So, how does that statement square with his staunch defense of the education status quo? I’ve left the following comments:

"I am Catholic. A graduate of a Catholic elementary and a Catholic high school. I contribute weekly to my parish, monthly to a Catholic hospital, and annually to my high school.


"It is just plain wrong to use taxes to promote a religious message."

The irony here is monumental.

Why isn’t it just plain wrong to use taxes to promote any non-religious message? Education is fundamentally about promoting ideas, beginning with basic philosophy. Should education be about molding students to conform to the group, so as to promote social agendas, as progressive educators believe? Or, should education be about training children to become independent-thinking adults, their minds trained to operate objectively so as to deal with reality in service to the furtherance of their own lives? When you are forced to pay taxes toward the public schools, you are forced to pay for ideas – a “message” – that you may or may not agree with.

Braun promotes voluntarism on one hand, while on the other unwaveringly defending a system based solely on the antithesis of voluntarism - force. Worse still, he dismisses those taxpaying parents seeking to gain control over a bit of the lifelong flow of their own money into the government-run establishment, and redirect it toward a better education for their own children! Instead, he demands the initiation of still more force in order to extract even more money from unwilling taxpayers to pour into the public schools.

Yes, no one should be forced to financially support religious schools and their teachings. Likewise, no one should be forced to support any school through taxes. No one should be forced to pay for the education of anyone else’s children, but should be free to voluntarily pay, with their own money, for the best education they can find for their own – or voluntarily contribute to the education of others. This is possible only in a free market – the “free” meaning free from physical coercion. Considering Braun’s voluntarist premise, he should be an unabashed promoter of free market education, since the free market is based solely on the premise of voluntary contract and voluntary association among men.

What, exactly, is “the message of Christ”? Is it voluntarism, or force? To Bob Braun, the teachers union, and all other reactionary defenders of the status quo, I ask: Why do you insist on maintaining a public system that collects its revenues and students by the legalized force of compulsory taxation and compulsory attendance laws? Don’t you believe that parents exercising their moral right to act on their own judgement with their own money would voluntarily choose your schools for their children, and voluntarily pay for them?

Friday, February 11, 2011

NJ State Senator Tom Kean Jr. on the Opportunity Scholarship Act

New Jersey’s Opportunity Scholarship Act, the tax credit-based, private education voucher bill that sets up a program of school choice for low-income parents whose children attend schools that are “failing”, is marching toward apparent passage into law.

State Senator Tom Kean, Jr., the Republican senate minority leader and co-sponsor, has published an editorial in the NJ Star-Ledger in support of the bill entitled, Give New Jersey kids a chance to escape failing schools. Unfortunately, his support is rather tepid and I believe not consistent with Governor Chris Christie’s radical reform plans. He writes:

The act is in no way an assault on public education. It creates a five-year trial program that allows a select number of children in the 13 worst-performing school districts to choose another public school, or a private or parochial school. That can hardly be classified as an assault on public education.

An “assault on public education” – i.e., government-run schools – is precisely what parental school choice can and should be about. I’ve left the following comments:

Why should only corporations be free to fund only a limited number of children’s educations? Why shouldn’t every taxpayer be free to claim tax credits to fund any child’s education? On what basis can anyone claim that the “best” schools provide a good education across the board? Parents of those schools have no less of a right to choose an alternative than the parents of those “failing” schools in Newark or elsewhere, if their judgement tells them they can do better.

Last May, Governor Christie told the American Federation for Children in Washington, DC that the Opportunity Scholarship Act is only a start that will lead to school choice for every parent in the state. I hope he follows through, and that Senator Kean will support him. Universal tax credits for school choice can and should be implemented, and “financed” by applying the nearly $14,000 per child per year NJ currently spends on public K-12 to cover the “cost”. This is not an assault on “public education”, but on government-run schools, as it should be. The existing public system has no inherent claim on those education tax dollars – those who earned the money in the first place do, and have a moral right to spend it as they see fit. And the public system has no inherent claim on the children – the moral right to determine the course of their children’s education belongs to the parents. We have a government of, for, and by the people – not the other way around.

Empower the parents to choose the education best suited to their children’s needs, and liberate the educators from the oppressive state and union regulations so they can compete for the parents’ business, and NJ will become a beacon of educational excellence. And to those reactionary defenders of the government-run public monopoly, I ask: Why do you insist that the public system continue to collect its revenues and students by force of compulsory taxation and compulsory attendance laws? Don’t you believe that parents armed with choice would voluntarily choose your schools for their children, and voluntarily pay for them?

Let’s find out! Christie has courageously gone on record for tax credit-based universal choice. Tom Kean Jr., his Republican friends, and forward-looking Democrats and Independents should get behind his revolutionary ideas to make it a reality.

Christie’s speech can be accessed @

-Mike LaFerrara, Flemington

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Charter Schools – Good, but Not the Long-Term Answer

New Jersey recently approved a record 23 new charter school applications, as its Republican Governor Chris Christie launches his promised efforts to majorly reform education in his state. Charter schools are institutions that operate outside of the mainstream public schools, relatively free from regulation and teachers union influence. Although they are publicly funded, they enjoy much more freedom to innovate, and generally offer superior educational services compared to the traditional public schools in their respective districts.

What the Charter school experiment tells us is that more freedom from government controls yields higher quality over time in education. The reason is simple: Throwing off central planning in favor of even limited freedom liberates the minds of parents and educators who are then freer to act on their own judgement. Free markets – even a limited version – unleashes an intellectual division of labor, and the explosion of ideas that goes with it.

The value of freedom in education has gotten a most dramatic chance to demonstrate itself from an unlikely source – Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans, which had one of the worst public school systems in the nation prior to that storm, is now boasting one of the best. How did this happen? Holly K. Hacker of the Dallas Morning News reports:

When Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago, it displaced families and destroyed schools. And the storm unwittingly provided a chance to reinvent public education in a failing school district.

So was launched the nation’s biggest charter school experiment.

One early lesson: The relative freedom of charter schools — they’re independently run and exempt from many state education laws — appears to have been key to an overall boost in student performance in New Orleans. But the charter school setup alone did not guarantee success. The best ones have strong leaders, capable teachers and a relentless focus on learning.

In other words, freedom in the right hands works.

Hacker goes on to describe how “the right hands” use their freedom to act quickly to further the education of the children. As she points out, “the charter school setup alone did not guarantee success”. Nothing can guarantee “success”. What the relative freedom of the charter schools does guarantee is that the best, most motivated educators are free to flourish.

Charter schools have their detractors, especially among the entrenched establishment. And they can trot out statistics from standardized test scores and the like to “prove” that charters are at best equal in quality to the public schools. But there is nothing like the market – i.e., individuals acting on their own judgement – to tell us what the real truth is. The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s Julie O’Conner describes the force behind the charter school movement:

[F]or all the talk about urban parents not being interested in their children’s education, each year thousands … line up in districts all over the state in a desperate bid to get them into better schools.

New Jersey’s suburban schools are among the best in the nation, judging from test scores. But in the cities, many of the districts are disasters, failing students year after year. The most notorious ones become dropout factories, churning out hundreds of students each year who are unable to read, do basic math or function at a community college.

Pent-up demand is growing among an army of urban parents who want to escape that. Gov. Chris Christie has pounced on the issue with an aggressive plan to expand choice. He wants to expand the alternate public school system — charters — and supports a bill to provide vouchers for poor children to attend private schools.

Overall, charters show mixed results. But some are vastly outperforming urban district schools. Students are chosen by lottery, and an estimated 20,000 are on waiting lists across the state.

However those “mixed results” are determined, those 20,000 waiting to escape the public schools trumps the experts, in my mind. While bean counters pour over test scores, the “army of urban parents” who actually know their individual children are telling us that there is no contest between the traditional public schools and the charters: The charters win hands down. Or, at the very least, the traditional public schools are failing their children miserably, and those parents are looking for an alternative.

But for all of the success of the charter schools, they do not constitute a long-term solution to our widely acknowledged educational problems. The reason is simple: They are publicly funded and therefor ultimately subject to being smothered by special interest politics and the entrenched establishment. In other words, they will eventually morph into the public schools they are designed to be an alternative to. There are already danger signs. In an article entitled Unions knocking on charter school doors, Steve Gunn reports:

For years, our nation’s powerful school-employee unions, like the AFT and the National Education Association, opposed the very concept of charter schools and pressured state governments to cap their numbers or shut them down altogether.

They simply didn’t want the competition.

But now that charter schools are obviously here to stay, the unions have adopted a new strategy. Their goal is to aggressively recruit charter school teachers into their ranks, so that charters will be burdened by the same type of labor problems that plague so many traditional public schools.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, was honest when he wrote the following in a recent union newsletter:

“It is reasonable to believe that as more charters are faced with having to be more like traditional public schools, many of them will dry up.” One of the most compelling features of charter schools is their lack of a union and collective bargaining agreements.

Let me state, for the record, that I am not against unions, as such. Indeed, I am a life-long union man myself. But, unlike my private sector trade union, the teachers union has monopolistic powers: In other words, it is backed by government’s legalized coercion. Specifically, the power of the teachers union stems from the nature of our government-run public school system. It is backed by compulsory taxation and compulsory attendance laws. The teachers union draws on that compulsion. Add to that the lack of competition due to the inability of parents to choose their children’s schools. Hence, the union’s inordinate powers to shackle education.

The problem is not the union, per se. It is the compulsory nature of public education. The success of the charters will not be enough to sustain them, as long as the compulsion remains. Because they are publicly funded, the teachers union and the establishment rules will combine to smother them. Gunn goes on:

Perhaps the Houston Chronicle summed up the situation best when it wrote: “Allowing unions to infiltrate too many charter schools will eventually lead to the death of the innovative conditions that led these campuses to prosper. Successful charter schools need less regulation, not more — and efforts to impose more are really just thinly veiled attempts to undermine the entire concept.” Thus far only a small percentage of charter schools across the nation have union teachers.

But the number will continue to grow as more students flee to charter schools, and the unions increase their efforts to organize the teachers at those schools.

This movement could effectively destroy the very qualities that make charter schools different, and eventually kill the charter schools themselves.

The only long-term solution to our educational problems is a free market. That would entail the elimination of tax supported schools altogether, and empowering the parents to direct their childrens education with their own money. Anything short of that will ultimately prove Keith Johnson to be right. The charters will be “faced with having to be more like traditional public schools, [and] many of them will dry up.”