Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Charter Schools in Washington

Friday, June 24th, 2005

It was clear that Robert Crane of FOCUS (Friends of Choice in Urban Schools) was a little uncomfortable in addressing a group of partisan Conservatives at a small restaurant outside the District of Columbia. The group meets monthly under the auspices of for the exchange of ideas and just to enjoy the company of Conservatives in a city that is not particularly hospital to Conservative. Crane did not hide the fact that he came from a different political perspective. However, it is a safe bet that he was the only person at the gathering who did not vote for George W. Bush in the last presidential election. Nonetheless, Crane bravely spoke to what could have been a hostile group. It turned out that Crane had more in common with those gathered than one might have expected.

FOCUS is a group that believes that the chronic problems of low achievement in urban schools can be addressed by proliferating the number of alternative schools, independent of the school system bureaucracy. A large number of different pedagogical approaches will more likely find those modalities that work better than the sclerotic systems many urban school systems have become. Moreover, children with different needs are likely to prosper at different types of schools.

The charter school movement in the District of Columbia seems to have fallen below the national radar. The movement was jump started during the Newt Gingrich Congress. Then Congress, over the venomous objections of the District of Columbia government, particular the school system, permitted the formation of charter schools. These charter schools would receive funding roughly equivalent in per-pupil-expenditure as the public school system. The latest figures available from the US Department of Education, lists the average per pupil expenditure in the US at $7,734 of which 61.5% is spent on instruction and the majority of the rest on support services. For the District of Columbia, the per-pupil-expenditure is $12,102 with only 49.6% spent on instruction.

At present about 20% of DC’s children are educated in charter schools. Moreover these children come disproportionately from underprivileged backgrounds. Schools, especially elementary schools, in the affluent northwest sector of the District of Columbia are doing reasonably well. It is the less affluent parents in poorer areas who are rushing to send their children to charter schools. Charter schools must accept any child for admission. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of places, the children must be randomly selected. Charter schools are not permitted to skim the easiest to educate students. For example, 73% of the high school students in charter schools are eligible for free and reduce (price) lunch, a rough proxy for family poverty. The value for regular public schools is 51%. According to FOCUS, “a close examination of the performance data … shows that, on average, students at the 11 charter high schools significantly outperform students at non-selective DCPS (District of Columbia Public School) high schools.”

Mr. Crane conceded that the impact of charter school on educational performance was yet to be determined. There needs to be more q comprehensive and systematic measures of performance. In particular, cohorts, similarly situated students, must be tracked in different schools over a period of time. This will provide a measure of how well schools have educated the students they started with.

Because the charter schools are not bound by union contracts for teachers, the National Education Association (NEA) strongly opposes charter schools. However, this may be a very short-run perspective. NEA is composed of both classroom teachers and administrators. The more efficient use of school resources may help teachers as the expense of administrators.

Consider the numbers for the District of Columbia schools system. Only 49.6% of expenditures are devoted to instruction. If the District of Columbia just devoted to instruction the same percentage as all US schools systems, far more money would be available for paying and retaining teachers. More specifically, if the DCPS devoted 61.5% (still too low a number) to instruction and if we assume 20 students per teacher, there would be about $28,000 more available to pay teachers.

One can often find the true nature of systems when they are put under stress. Now that the DCPS school system is faced with competition, the response is interesting. Since the charter schools spend more of their allotment on instruction and less on administration, Crane told the group that there are law suits against both DCPS and charter schools because of the inequitable spending. Perhaps one measure of success is the resort of others to the courts, the last refuge of those who can win neither in the market place nor at the polls.

Charter schools may be the way to wean teachers for their blind support of the NEA and moribund public school systems. They may also be a way to wean liberals from their dependence on government to the embrace of free markets and choice. Robert Crane will not soon be a Conservative, but his successors will more intuitively understand the virtues of markets and choice and not be afraid of the Conservative label.

Public Schools and Common Values

Saturday, May 21st, 2005

There used to be a less litigious time when public schools could more directly reflect local values and ideals of their community. Those times ended about the same time that Leave It To Beaver was canceled. Fifty years ago, there existed a narrower set of commonly held values and the few outliers outside the norms were certainly uncomfortable, perhaps even angry, but less prone seek court relief. People were conspicuously Christian and most at least outwardly comfortable with the Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best conventional morality where: children respected their parents; most people went to church on Sunday, the ideal family consisting of a father, mother, and a few freshly scrubbed children; and the “birds and the bees” was something you were supposed to learn about from your parents. Though these ideals many times often remained only aspirations, schools could leaven reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic with the yeast of consensus values. If a teacher made a Biblical reference in a classroom, the American Civil Liberties judicial commando team was rarely sent in.

While direct religious instruction should not be subsidized by the state, the removal of Christian orthodoxy from public school curriculum has carried along with it a reluctance to teach mainstream values and predisposition to bow to the wishes of even the smallest minority. The only permitted value is tolerance of all beliefs except Christian ones. Of course, tolerance has no meaning if one has no strong beliefs against which the beliefs of others might clash.

Nonetheless, there is a natural drive among parents to their impart values to their children. Given the fact that modern life has atomized families as the father and mother run off to work and the children head off to sometimes different schools, many families, for better or worse, rely on the local public schools to act as parental surrogates. When the values of parents and schools diverge frustration sets in, both from Conservatives and Liberals.

This frustration manifests itself on battles over school curriculum. The Kansas State School Board is now listening to testimony from advocates of “Intelligent Design” on how schools ought present the Theory of Evolution in classrooms. In 2002, the Ohio State School Board amid much controversy instituted a policy to include Intelligent Design and other critiques of evolution in instruction.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, Liberals tried to introduce a sex education curriculum that mimics the values of “progressives” in the county. The curriculum went so far in pushing its agenda that even the reliably Liberal Federal District Judge, Alexander Williams Jr. could not swallow it. He issued an injunction temporarily halting, the imposition of the curriculum. He was uncomfortable with the conflict between the First Amendment and a curriculum that specifically criticized denominations that did not look favorably upon homosexual acts. The curriculum in effect was choosing preferred religions, when it “juxtaposes … [a] portrait of an intolerant and Biblically misguided Baptist Church against other, preferred Churches, which are more friendly towards the homosexual lifestyle.”

The point here is not to argue the merits of Intelligent Design or the new sex education curriculum, but rather to recognize that people with strongly held views will try to drive school systems to teach them or to at least be sympathetic to them. One should not expect less. Parents want their values reflected in the instruction of their children. At the very least, they do not want schools to be at war with their values. Pulls from all ends will force schools to avoid all controversy, always stepping gingerly lest one group or another rushes to court. The result is that children receive a blander and less demanding curriculum.

The most straightforward solution is to remove these decisions from school boards and empower parents directly. If school districts provided vouchers to pay for education rather than provide one monolithic school system, parents would be able to select the education and moral environment they want to raise their children in. Parents can choose those schools that reinforce rather than undermine what is taught at home.

Sure, some may find it uncomfortable when the children of others are instructed with different values, but such would be the cost of living in a pluralistic society. In truth, we would probably find that there is more consensus in child raising than might be apparent at first. If parents could choose schools via a voucher system we would likely find most parents gravitating to schools teaching a fairly broad set of Leave It To Beaver values taught with a true cultural tolerance. The extremes would tend to isolate themselves. Without vouchers or something akin to them, we are likely to see a lot more conflicts that enrich lawyers while polarizing neighbors.

Frank Monaldo — Please e-mail comments to frank@monaldo.

Disciminating Against Religioius Instruction

Sunday, December 7th, 2003

James G. Blaine was a Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 1800’s who tried to amend the US Constitution to forbid the states from funding “sectarian” institutions. At that time the term “nonsectarian” did not carry the connotation of “secular” as it does now. The Protestant majority believed that “sectarian” described groups out of the Protestant main stream. Many were concerned that state funds might indirectly aid Catholics who were establishing their own schools to avoid the Protestant-centric instruction common at the time. Blaine’s amendment to the US Constitution managed to pass in the House, but then died when if failed to garner the super majority required in the Senate. Nonetheless, Blaine used his political influence to urge some states to pass similar amendments and to insist that as new states enter the union they attach Blaine amendments to their constitutions.

One such amendment is incorporated in the constitution of the State of Washington. It is far more restrictive than the US Constitution and explicitly states that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise for instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The question the US Supreme Court is taking up in the case of Locke v. Davey is whether the prohibition is written so broadly that it infringes on the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment.

This case began when Joshua Davey was granted the Promise Scholarship by the State of Washington. The scholarship was granted on the basis of academic excellence and need. The scholarship was valid for any field of study save one, the study of theology taught from a religious perspective, {\it i.e.,} instruction that “resembles worship and manifests a devotion to religion and religious principles in thought feeling, belief, or conduct.” The limitation on the scholarship was consistent with the state constitution and relevant state law. Davey was forced to forego the scholarship. Nonetheless, Davey was convinced the restrictions violated his First Amendment rights. If Davey were willing to fudge a little on his course of study, he probably could have managed to study the courses he wanted to and still retain the scholarship. Instead of sacrificing his integrity, he sued.

Davey lost at trial. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the notorious Circuit Court famous for striking down the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Circuit Court with dubious distinction of having its decisions overturned by the US Supreme Court more frequently than any other Circuit Count, surprisingly ruled in favor of Davey. Wanting to retain the prohibition against the use of scholarship funds for religious study, the State of Washington asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The case is now under consideration.

The question boils down to whether Washington’s Constitution is so restrictive that it violates the US Constitution’s free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Case law is clear. If state law is more restrictive of individual liberties than US Constitution, state law must yield.

The previous jurisprudence of the Supreme Court suggests that any law that makes any classification based on religion must pass strict scrutiny. In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Court found that the University of Virginia could not deny funds to a student religious group when it granted funds to other student groups. Indeed, treating religious groups differently in this case was tantamount to stigmatizing religion, when government’s role should be one of neutrality. The Court concluded that no reasonable person could conclude that the funding of the student led group constituted an endorsement. Will they draw a similar conclusion in the Locke v. Davey case?

The case if full of ironies. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which usually beats its chest about the necessity of tolerance for minorities, in its amicus curie brief before the Court is siding with the State of Washington and the Blaine Amendment originally motivated by intolerance of Catholics. It suggests that the ACLU position is more reflexively anti-religious than based on a principled understanding of the First Amendment. On the other hand, Conservatives who are usually sympathetic to state autonomy are seeking to use the Federal Courts to override state action. It sometimes seems that the arguments about state versus federal rights is based less on a thoughtful theory of federalism, on more on whether the state or federal government happens to be on the favored side the issue.

Not surprisingly, Court handicappers believe the case might hinge on the vote of Sandra Day O’Connor.

Imperial Judiciary Decides on Religious Instruction

Sunday, November 23rd, 2003

Constitutional democracies and their associated individual liberties can be buttressed by the force of written law, but ultimately the people and those who are entrusted with leadership in democratic institutions must respect individual liberties. No dam of written words can stand indefinitely against the perpetual force of individual and collective actions undermining individual liberties. The problem is that it is natural for human beings to desire outcomes some so badly that they rationalize ignoring individual rights. Honoring the rights of others rests on a respect and tolerance for the capacity of others to decide for themselves, even when we disagree. Tolerance can only be a virtue if practiced with respect to activities with which there is strong disagreement.

This natural tendency to ignore individual liberties in the pursuit of what some consider laudable goals accounts for the erosion of Fourth Amendment protections in pursuit of the War on Drugs and the sacrifice of First Amendment protections at the altar of campaign finance reform and abortion rights. To this we can now add circumscription of religious freedom in pursuit of the gay rights agenda.

Denver District Court Judge John W. Coughlin is probably a nice enough fellow who, I imagine, fancies himself as a compassionate modern-day Solomon adjudicating thorny issues. However, there are places that not even judges should intrude and Coughlin has taken it upon himself to control the religious instruction a parent provides her child.

It all started about eight years ago when Dr. Cheryl Clark adopted a little girl to raise with her lesbian partner Elsey McLeod. In 2000, Clark converted to Christianity and left the relationship, leaving the disposition of the child a point of conflict. Since Clark had been the only one to officially adopt the child, it would seem that McLeod had no parental rights whatsoever. Clark voluntarily offered visitation privileges, but McLeod sued for joint custody.

Judge Coughlin expanded a legal doctrine usually reserved for abandoned or neglected children who have been cared for by a third party. Clark declared that McLeod was a “psychological parent” who was entitled to share custody and equal parenting time. This decision represents an interesting issue in its own right. A principled extension of Coughlin’s jurisprudence would confer equal parental rights to a live-in boyfriend who neither sires nor adopts a child. However, for our purposes here, let us concede McLeod’s parental rights, regardless of serious reservations concerning the legal principle applied.

Given that McLeod and Clark have radically divergent religious views, Coughlin granted Clark authority over the young girl’s religious instruction. Coughlin overstepped his authority when he instructed that Clark, “make sure that there is nothing in the religious upbringing or teaching that the minor child is exposed to that can be considered homophobic.” Clark’s order was a presumptuous and vague injunction preventing Clark from exercising her First Amendment religious privileges. “Homophobic” itself is a problematic term. The term suggests fear but has been pulled and stretched to apply to anything that does not strictly conform to the gay rights agenda.

It is not uncommon in divorce cases for judges to constrain a custodial parent from disparaging the other parent. There is no indication that Clark made a point of disparaging her former partner, but even if she had, the restriction on religious instruction exceeds the judge’s constitutional authority. Consider the logic of the principle Coughlin is applying. If one parent divorces another for infidelity, does that mean that the custodial parent cannot attend or provide religious instruction to the child in a church that honors religious prohibitions against infidelity, lest the non-custodial parent would be indirectly cast in an ignoble light? If a non-custodial parent is a soldier, does that give a judge the authority to instruct a custodial parent to not attend a pacifist church? How far will judges like Coughlin go in deciding upon the specific religious doctrines that are suitable for instruction?

This case is on appeal. The US Constitution can only protect us to the extent that government institutions, particularly the Courts, honor constraints on arbitrary government power. Judge Coughlin’s ruling is an example of a good person yielding to the temptation of conforming to popular prejudices.

Free Speech at Cal Poly

Sunday, July 13th, 2003

It doesn’t happen very much any more, but stories used to surface about some isolated school or school district, usually in the South, conducting formal collective prayers. Usually, some small town, where everyone attends a few local churches, doesn’t see the harm in a modest measure of collective religious instruction and ceremony, even in a public school context. Inevitably, a newcomer moves in and complains. If a school does not adjust its policies, the courts instruct the offending school to cease conducting prayers. While it is not possible to peer with a high degree of certainty into people’s hearts, it is usually the case that these small town schools did not deliberately set out to offend anyone. It is just by living in a religiously uniform environment they had not developed the habits of recognizing that others might believe differently.

By contrast, the last place one would expect to see intolerance and the inability to recognize the peaceful existence of alternative ideas ought to be a modern university. A college or university ought to be an intellectual free-fire zone. While all ideas may not be universally accepted and certainly do not all have the same merit, they all have the right to be expressed and examined in the crucible of thoughtful debate. Furthermore, one would expect that the administration of any university would be particularly careful to insure that the ethos of open inquiry is maintained, free of intimidation. Lately it appears that at some universities an environment of intimidation prevails for ideas that are not in current favor. One such place is California Polytechnic State University.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), on November 12, 2002, Steve Hinkle, a member of the Cal Poly College Republicans (CPCP) was going around campus posting fliers inviting students and faculty to a speech by the author of It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, by Mason Weaver. Mr. Weaver is a black man whose thesis is that the reliance of black Americans on government programs creates a dependency broadly analogous to slavery. Mr. Weaver’s speech was an officially sponsored campus activity.

Apparently, Hinkle committed the unforgivable sin of attempting to post a flier on a public bulletin board in an open student lounge in the Cal Poly Multicultural Center. Other students objected to the posting finding the flier (the flier listed the name of the speaker, the title of his book and the time and location of the speech) offensive. Intimidated, Hinkle left without posting the flier. This did not stop students from calling the campus police about “a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature.” The police arrived, but by that time Hinkle had left.

Now it is clear that Cal Poly could not sanction Hinkle for posting a flier, first it was perfectly appropriate and second he was prevented from posting it. Instead, the university out of fear of offending students at the Multicultural Center charged Hinkle with disrupting a college activity. The campus police did not report a disruption and there was not any official activity going on in the open student lounge. After the fact, students at the Multicultural Center said Hinkle was disrupting student Bible study. Everyone admits that Hinkle did not approach any students, but that students approached Hinkle. Further there was no sign indicating that a meeting was being conducted in the lounge. To all outward appearances, there were just some students in the lounge eating pizza.

Rather than sanctioning students for preventing someone from engaging in protected speech, the Cal Poly Administration held a hearing on whether to punish Hinkle. Though Hinkle had a faculty advisor, he was specifically forbidden from being represented by a private attorney at the hearing. At the hearing, Cornel Morton, vice president of student affairs said to Mr. Hinkle, “You are a white member of CPCR. To students of color, this may be a collision of experience. The chemistry has racial implications, and you are naïve not to acknowledge those.” In other words, there are certain places on campus where conservative whites should know better than to visit.

Imagine the opposite, though analogous situation. Imagine if a black student sought to post a flier for a campus-sponsored speech and if some white students had intimidated him into not posting the flier and called the campus police about a “suspicious black male.” Imagine further a college administrator who would condescendingly lecture the black student that he should know better than to post such a flier in an area frequented by white students. Everyone would be rightly indignant and my guess is that Mr. Morton would have led the charge to protect the rights of a student to post a flier on a public bulletin board.

Nonetheless, Hinkle has been found guilty of disrupting a student meeting and instructed to write an apology letter or face the possibility of expulsion. Hinkle has refused and no additional punishment has been meted out. The case has received national attention and the university is obviously not comfortable defending its actions. It is quietly hoping the issue will fade away. If not for the embarrassment of the public exposure of its attempt to permit and implicitly condone the intimidation of students, Hinkle would likely have received additional punishment. It is clear that the students at the Cal Poly Multicultural Center have won. It will take a very courageous student to again attempt to post a flier at the Multicultural Center for a conservative speaker.

In many ways, some colleges have become the most intolerant places to be. One would hate to live in a world ruled with the same arbitrary iron fists that some modern college campuses are governed. Unlike small town elementary schools, universities can not claim lack of sophistication as an excuse.

Eroding the Fourteenth Amendment

Sunday, June 29th, 2003

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” — Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

In the notorious 1896 decision by the US Supreme Court, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court ruled that state-mandated disparate treatment by race did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In a desperate and convoluted effort to accommodate the social views of the time, the Court ignored the plain meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and decided that Louisiana could pass a law requiring: “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored, races” on railway cars. On the lonely side of the 8-1 decision, Justice Marshall Harlan dissented:

“Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

In Brown v. Topeka Board of Education in 1954, the Court reversed itself, establishing the principle that government decisions could not be raced based. In his brief before the Supreme Court in Brown, the future Justice Thurgood Marshall powerfully argued that “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and invidious that a state, bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not invoke them in any public sphere.”

The Supreme Court recently ruled on the application of racial preferences for school admissions. In the case of Gratz v. Bollinger et al. regarding the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions process, the Court ruled that a rigid point system that gave significant and automatic advantage based on race was unconstitutional. In a second case having to do with University of Michigan Law School admissions, Grutter v. Bollinger et al., the Court permitted racial preferences if the admissions decisions were not rigidly linked to race. This second case allowed for the application of racial distinctions to achieve a critical mass of certain racial populations so long as race was considered in a holistic view of the entire individual. The logic of the two decisions seems to be at war with one another. How can one achieve the so-called advantage of maintaining a critical mass of minority students, without adjusting the weighting in admissions criteria, however applied, to yield a given fraction of minority students?

There is a reason that affirmative action activists have almost unanimously viewed the split decisions as a victory. Since the Court now permits racial preferences to achieve diversity, advocates are confident that they can always obscure and befuddle the details of the admissions process so that potential litigants will have difficulty proving that any rigid racial preferences applied.

Let us be clear, proponents of racial preferences will find surreptitious means to systemically apply their racial criteria in the admissions process. If the nod were given to a minority students in admissions in the rare instances where the qualifications of two candidates for admissions were indistinguishable, opponents of racial preferences would not be so offended by their application and proponents would not view such preferences as so crucial in achieving their preferred mean hue of the student population.

However, in making the ruling the Court has done grave injustice to the principle of strict scrutiny when applied to circumscription of individual constitutional rites. In modern jurisprudence, the Court has applied a “strict scrutiny” to any state-sponsored distinctions based on race. To pass constitutional muster, such racial distinctions must meet a high standard of “compelling state interest.” As Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out in his dissent to Grutter v. Bollinger et al., the Court had only permitted state-sponsored racial distinctions in two classes of situations.

The first is the case of national security. The Court ruled that the state interest in restricting Japanese-Americans during World War II was sufficiently compelling to be permitted notwithstanding the protections the Fourteenth Amendment. In retrospect, it is clear that the internment of Japanese-Americans was borne more out of racial prejudice than legitimate security issues, providing additional evidence of the sorry observation in our history that it is far too easy to misapply racial distinctions.

The second category where the Court has permitted the use of racial distinction is for direct and narrow remediation of racial discrimination by an institution that has discriminated in the past. No such claim was made in the University of Michigan cases.

Elevation of the vague notion of “diversity” (of skin color but certainly not of perspective) to a compelling state interest undermines the bulwarks of the Fourteenth Amendment and other constitutional protections so that they might more easily be washed over by an unconstrained flood of government action. The jurisprudence of the Court, if logically applied, might permit racial profiling or broader search powers to address the compelling state interest of law enforcement. Thomas asks, if the Court is willing to grant deference to a school to use race-based admissions to achieve diversity, would historically black colleges be permitted to use race-based admissions to maintain the homogeneity?

Ultimately, the case can be made that race-based preferences do more to harm their potential beneficiaries by stigmatizing true excellence and achievement. However, like Plessy v.Ferguson, the recent decision to allow violations of the Fourteenth Amendment in government-sponsored school admissions will ultimately come to be viewed as a sad aberration and pathetic pandering to the conventional wisdom of the politically influential. There also remains the growing practical problem of applying racial distinctions to a population diligently, happily, and rapidly blurring those artificial categories by marriage. One can only hope that, as suggested by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the case for race-based preferences ought to disappear in 25 years. Unfortunately, there are too many people with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for such preferences to slowly whither.

In the opening of his dissent, Justice Thomas, who has suffered the stigma of being treated different because of his race by both the mean-spirited and those with noble aspirations reminded us the words of the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass:

“What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us… I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! … And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! …[Y]our interference is doing him positive injury.”

Once again, Douglass has proven prophetic.

Desperate Efforts of Anti-Choice Forces

Sunday, September 1st, 2002

It is no secret that the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest public school teachers union, opposes granting scholarships or vouchers to students and their parents to enable them to choose what school to attend. The NEA is unwilling to relinquish the effective monopoly they have secured over lower income students who have no choice but to attend publicly-managed schools. The NEA will oppose vouchers at the ballot box and in the courts. Unfortunately for the NEA and other anti-choice advocates, the avenue of the courts now seems strewn with potholes. On June 27, 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Ohio voucher program was neutral with respect to religion and, hence constitutional. The decision opens up the potential for the broader adoption of voucher programs. Specifically, the court held that:

“No reasonable observer would think that such a neutral private choice program carries with it the imprimatur of government endorsement. Nor is there evidence that the program fails to provide genuine opportunities for Cleveland parents to select secular educational options.”

Essentially, if the choice of school is exercised by the parents, not the state, a voucher program that includes religiously run institutions does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

NEA sends its newsletter, The NEA Today, to it members. Recently, the NEA has assured its members, that it is not given up hope in using the courts to win victories it does not win in the legislatures. The NEA Today promised that the “NEA is sponsoring a state court challenge to Florida’s statewide voucher program on the ground that it violates the religion clause of the Florida constitution, which provides that `no revenue of the state’ can be used `directly or indirectly in aid of … any sectarian institution.”’

This time, the NEA succeeded at the state level, when the Florida Supreme Court — the all Democratic institution that drew attention to itself when is was overruled twice by the US Supreme Court on issues surrounding the Bush-Gore election contest in 2000 — ruled that Florida voucher program violated the Florida state constitution prohibition of aid to sectarian institutions.

The little-understood irony is that the relevant provisions of the Florida constitution, which are duplicated by a number of other state constitutions, are “Blaine” amendments. These amendments were designed originally not out of religious tolerance, but out of intolerance and anti-Catholic bigotry. James G. Blaine was a Republican Speaker of the House in the late 1800s who tried to amend the US Constitution to forbid the states from funding “sectarian” institutions. However, “sectarian” did not carry the connotation of “secular” as it does now. The Protestant majority believed that the term “sectarian” described groups out of the Protestant main stream. There was a concern that state funds might indirectly help Catholics who were starting their own schools to avoid the Protestant-centric schools of the time. Blaine amendments were designed to stop this.

The Blaine Amendment for the US Constitution passed in the House, but then it died. The amendment failed to pass the Senate and was never submitted to the states. Nonetheless, Blaine used his political power to influence some states to pass such amendments and to insist that as new states enter the union they attach Blaine amendments to their constitutions.

Given the ugly history of intolerance at the core of these amendments, courts have generally invoked only the narrowest interpretation of them. For example, states have been able to give funds indirectly to religiously-run hospitals with little problem. Given that these Blaine amendments may indeed, if interpreted as broadly as the Florida Supreme Court foolishly has, violate the Federal constitution, the strategy of the anti-voucher forces may be counter-productive. The US Supreme Court may construe Blaine amendments far more narrowly and its decision would be binding over the entire United States. Indeed, in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995), the US Supreme Court showed its impatience with exclusion of religious institutions from otherwise open state programs. The court ruled there that if the University of Virginia collects student fees to fund student-run groups, it could not exclude funding a Christian newspaper.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that anti-voucher advocates are cynically exploiting eighteenth century laws based on anti-Catholic bigotry in a desperate effort to circumscribe the universe of choice available to parents. After all, their attitude seems to mimic that of the Wisconsin Teachers’ Association that in 1865 asserted that “children are the property of the state.”

* The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
* Marvin Olasky, World Magazine, 2002.

Letting Standards Fall

Sunday, May 5th, 2002

One bit of conventional wisdom holds that an academic degree from Harvard is a ticket to a life of affluence and ease. Regardless of the accuracy of that observation, it appears that admission to Harvard as an undergraduate is now virtually a guarantee of excellent grades. Students overwhelmingly accumulate A’s and B’s and a remarkable 90% graduate with honors. The honors citation has increasingly become a way to identify the few poor students who don’t receive honors rather than a means to focus particular tribute upon outstanding students.

Patrick Healy of the Boston Globe, interviewed Trevor Cox in his senior year at Harvard. Only in his last year was Cox finally challenged by the work on his senior thesis. Cox explained, “I’ve coasted on far higher grades than I deserve… It’s scandalous. You can get very good grades, and earn honors, without ever producing quality work.”

A few professors at Harvard have attempted to maintain an island of integrity in the on rushing torrent of easy A’s. Professor Harvey C. (“C-minus”) Mansfield, who teaches Government 1061, was a notoriously hard grader in comparison to his colleagues. Actually, his grading policy had remained constant over time while policies had loosened around him. Students were torn. If they took Mansfield’s course, they might be challenged but only at the cost of hurting themselves in the class rank competition among other students.

In an effort to strike a compromise, Mansfield now awards two grades. The official grade for the transcript is in keeping with the easy grading policies of his colleagues. The second grade tells students what they truly deserve. For the official record, only 27% of his students received a B or lower. The overwhelming majority were awarded a B-plus or above. For the second grade, only 15% of his students earned a grade higher than a B.

There are many reasons for grade inflation in academia, particularly at Ivy League schools. Part of it began during the Vietnam era when high grades helped students remain in school and retain an academic deferment from the draft. Interestingly, the largest jump in grades occurred when the average SAT scores dropped.

In 1969, Harvard made a bold effort to admit additional minority students. The African-American enrollment in the freshman class doubled from 60 to 120. SAT scores for entering freshman dropped, yet the fraction of grades of B or higher increased 10%. Not only were professors making allowances for a new set of less academically prepared students, out of fairness, they made it easier for other students as well.

The University of California system is preparing to embark on a similar reduction of standards in the service of attempts to change the demographics of enrollment. Richard Atkinson, the president of the university system, released a report arguing that the SAT tests should no longer be required for admission.

Atkinson frets that when he visited a private school he observed, “students studying verbal analogies in anticipation of the SAT.” Some observers might be heartened by diligent students improving their verbal skills. Atkinson, who is more astute in these matters than most of us, concluded, “America’s overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system.” Obviously, we must free students from the oppressive yoke of verbal analogies.

How about this for a verbal analogy? Atkinson is to academic excellence, what rust is to metal. Atkinson is a corrosive force that if left unchecked can undermine the academic integrity of the University of California system.

There really are two not-so-attractive reasons for eliminating SAT scores as a requirement. The first is to allow the University of California school system to make admissions decisions based on skin color and ethnic background without the interference of academic preparedness as an inconvenient constraint. Ironically, the second reason some schools have eliminated SAT’s as an academic requirement is to increase the apparent (though not actual) academic selectiveness of the university. When SAT’s are optional, the better students tend to be the only ones who submit them. The average SAT scores (among those reporting, of course) will increase. When various college ranking services rank colleges by the SAT scores of incoming freshman, schools that eliminate SAT’s as a requirement are at an advantage. Dickinson College reportedly had a 60-point increase in the average SAT score of incoming freshman when the test was made optional.

The truth is that Atkinson of the University of California and Harvard University need to recognize that no amount of fudging the results of the educational process at the tail end is sufficient. Indeed, such efforts are probably counterproductive. There is a real and urgent problem with educational opportunity for minority students. The sooner we grant such students the means to escape failed public school systems, the sooner the University of California system, Harvard University, and other schools can return to the celebration of academic excellence rather than avoiding its consequences.


  • Healy, Patrick,“Harvard’s Quiet Secret: Rampant Grade Inflation,” Boston Globe, October 27, 2001.
  • Arkin-Gallagher, Anna, “California SAT Decision Sparks Controversy,” The Yale Hearld, May 3, 2002.

Vouchers and Anti-Catholic Bias

Sunday, March 17th, 2002

Sometimes there are cases that wind their way through the corridors of the judiciary to the steps of the Supreme Court with virtually no merit. One wonders whether the justices merely want to sharpen their judicial swords by slicing up particularly pathetic arguments. One such case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, was argued February 20, 2002 before the Supreme Court. The case centers on the constitutionality of the use of vouchers in education. I suppose the judges had to accept the case since the Sixth District Court, in a split 2-1 decision, ruled that the Cleveland voucher program violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. To not accept the case would mean the ruling would stand, confusing First Amendment jurisprudence.

The Cleveland School System is experimenting with a program that grants vouchers or scholarships to economically disadvantaged students for use at alternative schools. For many, the vouchers represent the only real opportunity to escape a failed publicly-run school system. The most commonly chosen schools are Catholic schools.

On its very face, the Sixth District Court’s reasoning is inconsistent with other common state-aid and Federal-aid programs. The Sixth District Court argued unpersuasively that the use of vouchers at private schools somehow implied a state endorsement.

The notion does not even bear up to the giggle test. Governments provide resources under many programs that the recipients are free to use at a number of institutions, including religious ones, with no implied endorsement. As one wit had it, the use of food stamps to purchase cabbage does not imply a government endorsement of cabbage. A close analogy to state vouchers is Federal college aid to students. Students can use Federal aid to attend the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, or any number of religiously affiliated institutions and these arrangements pass Constitutional muster. Other people use Medicare funds to pay for stays at religiously affiliated hospitals with no violation of the Establishment Clause.

Given these other programs, why is there so much concern about the constitutionality of vouchers going to younger students? Why is aid to primary and secondary students treated differently from similar aid to college students? Part of the problem is a misreading of history. There is a long legislative history, dating back to the 19th century, where states have specifically prohibited funds to primary and secondary sectarian schools. The argument is that an early, and therefore instructive, understanding of the First Amendment is that funds could only go to non-sectarian schools. Hence, such funds, are given additional scrutiny, even if the funds go directly to students.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty researched this history and found it to be far more clouded. The term “non-sectarian” in 19th century legislation did not mean “secular,” as one might use the term today. It really meant non-denominational Protestant. Public schools in the 19th century had no problems instructing in Protestant beliefs or using the King James Version of the Bible for moral education. The prohibition of funds to sectarian schools was not an effort to avoid violating the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Indeed, in the 19th century the “Incorporation” doctrine did not exist and Constitutional First Amendment proscriptions did not apply to the states. Rather, efforts to prohibit funds to non-sectarian schools arose out of a Nativist belief that state funds should not be used to aid Catholic schools in any way.

No one argues that state funds should be used directly for religious instruction, but there is really no Constitutional prohibition preventing students using state-supplied scholarships or vouchers at schools that parents choose. One may argue that vouchers are or are not effective means to improve education, but they are Constitutional without question. In the 19th century, opposition to public funds following students to alternative schools was partially based on ugly anti-Catholic bias. One hopes that the current objections are borne out of honest mistakes and not similar anti-Catholic and perhaps anti-religious sentiment.

Diversity as a Core Requirement

Sunday, July 22nd, 2001

“Education is a weapon whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” — Joseph Stalin, 1934.

Wit has it that good students drive out bad teaching. Bright and enthusiastic students, especially at the college level, will generally avoid mediocre teachers, pedestrian courses, and unserious notions. The principle that quality attracts quality and repels incompetence protects American post-secondary education from becoming totally awash in politically correct indoctrination.Ever creative universities and colleges have responded by buoying enrollment in “diversity” courses by requiring them for graduation. Diversity Digest happily reports that 63% of colleges and universities either require diversity courses or are considering the institution of such core requirements.

If diversity really referred to the diversity of ideas, the consideration of broad areas of intellectual thought and human experience, then such requirements would enrich the curriculum. The titles of such “diversity” courses might be: World History, Philosophy from Antiquity to the Present, or Comparative Religion. These courses would be broad in scope, introducing students to the incredible variety of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom. When the National Assessment of Education Progress reports that “Fewer than half the grade-12 students in the assessment were able to reach the Basic level [in US History]” much less the “Proficient” or “Advanced” levels, it is clear that time needs to be devoted to broadening rather than narrowing educational exposure.

Instead such “diversity” courses tend to focus on the usually narrow grievances of one group or another. For example, according to the University of Maryland Schedule of Classes for Fall 2001, courses that meet the diversity requirement, “focus primarily on…the history, status, treatment, or accomplishment of women or minority groups and subcultures…” While a few of these courses may be gems, it seems doubtful that anything but a single narrow perspective is considered. Rather than offering a mountain of jewels to students, the world is portrayed through but one facet of a single gem.

It would be humorous, if it were not so sad, that all courses of study feel the necessity to pay rhetorical homage to the diversity curriculum. In describing a course cluster of Calculus I and Introduction to C Programming, in the College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Maryland, the college apparently felt compelled to begin the description with the sentence, ”The science and technology leaders of the future will include large numbers of traditionally underrepresented groups.” The statement may be true, but it hardly constitutes the reason to study Calculus I and C Programming.

It is not that many groups do not have legitimate grievances or do not offer unique, interesting or enlightening contributions. It is not that serious study of different cultures is not important or fruitful. Rather, it is that the focus on one or a few such groups as part of a “diverse” undergraduate curriculum cheats students out the breath of exposure we expect from a liberal (small L) education.

The majority of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school and many of those that do specialize so narrowly that it can be said that for many the majority of a lifetime of intellectual capital is amassed by the end of the undergraduate years. It is truly foolhardy to squander any of this time on any but the broadest and most intellectually serious courses of study.