Gravity wins again.

BN-XE716_0721VO_M_20180126115744It has been a long-time conceit on the right that private schools would out-perform those ordinary, “government” schools. And charters, too, one supposes. That is, the problem in American education and in particular the failure to thrive by inner city youth could be attributed to the system. The problem was that their potential was being squelched, that given the right structure they could actually thrive, overcome their surroundings.

So vouchers were introduced.

Two general theories have been advanced about how vouchers would work. The first is borne from the ideas of Milton Friedman and generally of public choice philosophy. When you reduce the transfer costs for schools through vouchers, parents pick the school most suitable for their child. In doing so, the school gets a more committed parent, the student finds a more suitable learning environment, and the community enjoys greater overall achievement.

That’s one theory.

The second looks at education as a means of confirming communal identity; the school is an agent of parents, of a localized group. Vouchers are a means of recognizing theses communal schools, schools typically religious  in nature. Educational outcomes are advanced through the social capital of these communal schools — faith practices can orient children, overcome dysfunction elsewhere and help even poor children thrive. And the experience of Catholic urban education seems to uphold this very idea.

However, as the Wall Street Journal reports, both these theories may not be the golden key they first seemed.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of the data suggests vouchers worked best when enrollment from voucher students was kept low. As the percentage of voucher students rises, the returns diminish until the point when there is little difference between the performance of public and private institutions. The vast majority of private schools participating in the program today have high percentages of publicly funded students.

The article details quite well what vouchers have meant for Milwaukee, and how for some students it has provided a need lift up. Note that when one has large numbers of publicly funded students, students from poverty environments, achievement looks like every one else’s.

All this only confirms what folks like Richard Rothstein have argued, that the problems in our urban schools are structural in nature. It is not the failure to teach, or the failure to lead per se. Rather what we face are a cluster of social and economic difficulties that will require, yes, social capital, but also a lot more in terms of innovative programming.

With this has also come the understanding that when students of low socio-economic status are mixed with middle class peers, they do better. Th middle class environment provides what the students lack: social capital.

In this light the outcomes of the WSJ study are not surpassing. When students are reasonably mixed (up to, it seems, forty percent or so), then achievement blossoms. When schools have a larger percentage of their students from lower SES, then their performance looks much the same as the urban schools they left. It is not the institution, but the mixing of classes that matters. Unintentionally, the study does not so much validate the role of private education or charters, as it does the necessity of integration.

You can’t beat poverty. Gravity wins.

Do School Vouchers Work? Milwaukee’s Experiment Suggests an Answer


More (Charter) School Politics

Justin Swan calls out the Wall Street Journal’s editorial about the feckless Democrats and their lockstep opposition and hysterical hollering to Betsy DeVos. Is it a case of biting the hand that feeds you? Perhaps. But turn to Dan Henninger to get the better  sense of the politics of the DeVos nomination. This is about the nature of the urban (and largely minority) school districts, where the teachers play such an important role. In Michigan, it’s more than that, too.

Ever since the days of John Engler there’s been this blood feud between the MEA and the GOP — if anything it’s been a liability to our state, promoting overreaction on both sides. BDV has been part of that in many ways, particularly in her role as an activist, a very active activist. There are other dimensions, too. Her engagement with GRPS is not something to pass by, and that accounts for much of the relative silence of leadership. It’s less bought silence than known collaboration.

 The DeVos Apocalypse

Another Day at the Office

It’s no surprise that the President follows the same path as he had in business. After 50+ years, you go with what has worked for you. The challenge is learning that the skills that served one so well elsewhere, the entrepreneurial, relational, and certainly the hyperbolic are insufficient for leading a large enterprise like the national government. It is something of the distinction Max Weber makes between charismatic and bureaucratic leadership.

Two takes on the challenging first week reveal problems.

Trump’s government looks an awful lot like a badly run business, Catherine Rampell,
Washington Post

Trump’s First Week: Governing Without a Script,




The Fruit of Calvinism

Is environmentalism?

This at least, is the take from Mark Stoll in Inherit the Mountain (Oxford, 2015).

Thomas Cole, “The Oxbow.” Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
While D.G. Hart’s review covers the core notion, that environmentalism is a product of Calvinism, or more specifically the views of the Puritans and the American Presbyterians. This is a push-back to the long-standing critique by Lynn White Jr. (“The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”) that asserted that  Christian (and especially Calvinist) views of the Genesis notion   of dominion and the general dis-enchantment of nature led to its exploitation.
Hart wonders if Stoll and White are looking at the same Christianity. In doing so, he also ponders the role of religion and the degree to which religious affections touch policy.
At the same time, contemporary scholars have good reasons for discounting the influence of religion in peoples’ lives. Sometimes religion is not the sole motivation for a position or policy; at other times, circumstances lend themselves more readily to taking actions based religious idealism. Creating national parks in remote territories is one thing, but regulating the oil industry at a time when the nation’s economy depends on fossil fuel is an altogether different challenge that religion may not happily resolve.
The mystery may be solved by considering the broader structures of Reformed thought. Its high theology places an emphasis on the sovereignty of God; historically this has repeatedly walked over into broader understandings, ones emphasizing immanence. This intellectual deterioration clearly feeds the Transcendentalists, John Muir and others. The Immanent God, is the shadow of the Reformed, Electing God. A second aspect, answering the second part of Hart’s quote above, is the role of Presbyterians in shaping the American regulatory state, with its notion of law and common good. The regulatory apparatus developed at the turn of the 19th Century (see Theodore Roosevelt) is deeply grounded culturally and philosophically in the notion of ordered human relationships and the desire to build for the common good. It is the Reformed thought’s emphasis on the corporate and public dimension of religious life which feeds and shapes the emerging regulatory State.

Rise of the Plutocrat, chapter 1: Influence peddling

Arthur Levitt states it as baldly as possible:

I would hate to imagine what would happen if we applied the same kind of sliding scale to the many people who have received job offers by way of their familial relationships. If that happened, there aren’t many people in finance who would escape the accusation that their hiring was the byproduct of influence peddling.

Oh, the horror.

While one may sympathize with the overall thrust, the essay nonetheless presents a basic defense of hiring within one’s social class. This is deeply anti-meritocratic, as he notes

Lines on a résumé can’t substitute for certain qualities.

That would be contacts.

The overall point is this is one more story about the rise of the plutocrats (aka the One Percent). With the rise of great wealth, the earlier standards of meritocracy get pushed aside. Essays like this knowingly or not, are about the raising of the ladder.

Free Speech v. Slavery

Fergus Bordewich reviews a rather interesting book by Jefferson Morley, Snow Storm in August (Doubleday, 2012),  about an incident in ante-bellum Washington. In the clash of slavery and the abolitionists, Bordewich comments

The author rightly underscores the fact that, throughout the antebellum period, “the need to defend the slave system overwhelmed the protections written into the Bill of Rights.” In Francis Scott Key’s case against (abolitionist Rueben) Crandall, the slave-owning district attorney charged, for instance, that the mere possession of abolitionist publications was “always indictable” because they were intended to “produce excitement, tumult, and insurrection.” In other words, even white men were not to be allowed to own, read or distribute documents that offended slave owners.

Wall Street Journal, July 16 2012.

Book ‘Em!

The home library as theatre. Of course. The Wall Street Journal tells about the latest in designer rooms: your library. Such  a move reflects the ambivalent approach to books and reading generally. As the article makes clear, these are generally not libraries assembled from personal shopping, but bought by the foot. (Quick! give me something in white Venetian vellum! Jane Austen in pink! matching covers!)

Not surprising, the typical customer is “the 35- to 55-year-old hedge fund manager, Hollywood mogul or technology executive.” Of course. Books have always had their place as aesthetic objects and even as decoration.  Like other aspects of conspicuous consumption, these new rooms function as simply one more signifier of success, and to a lesser extent who one wants to hang with.

Such rooms are oddly lonely. The library — the collection of books on the far wall and flowing over my file cabinet– represents a set of conversations, voices. It is not their looks, but the words inside, the potential to spark something new, the recollection of something already (well) said. They hold and are held, not as information but as companions.

And at the end of the day? Well they  do it for the kids “I hear a lot that homeowners want their children to be familiar with the great authors,” says one book dealer. Osmosis, perhaps, but only if you open them. If these children of privilege are like any other, likely as not they will be pulling down the books for the cool images (I couldn’t get enough of the Time-Life WWII books, myself), or the sexy parts, or for that matter something completely random. You open a book, and find that some one else, some where else, some how knoew what your were thinking and dreaming.

Works every time.

Shame of the Working Class?

Discussion on Charles Murray’s essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. He writes

It is condescending to treat people who have less education or money as less morally accountable than we are. We should stop making excuses for them that we wouldn’t make for ourselves. Respect those who deserve respect, and look down on those who deserve looking down on.
And Paul VanderKlay responds
Now of course we’re into our “ought” voice. I’ve been thinking a lot about stigma, shame and culture lately. Wish I had more to say.

The entire  shame thing carries with it an assumption of a common culture. Jonathan Haidt‘s work illumines how different our actual cultures are;  what binds us is the sacred.  Now here is the interesting aspect, Murray assumes that these working class folks belong to his tribe (and in his book, his “Fishtown” is rather ethnically or at least racially homogeneous).  Given his other work, such a position could be reasonably read as a kind of lament for the decline of white (maybe ethnic) culture.

Also, the emergence of a “why bother” culture, independent of its origin, would seem to reflect a certain conviction about economic stasis: it’s same as it ever was, thus one does not change. The driver of shame is aspiration. But what if you have the sense that things are basically stacked against you? then the culture of poverty takes over. There is an obvious point of engagement for the Church here: not to mark the shame, but to claim the possibility. Might even be a bit of the political there, too but I’ll leave it for now.

On Negative Advertising

Bill Vis calls attention to Peggy Noonan’s essay, this ending line especially stood out:

I wish someone would make this ad and show it across the country and say at the end: “Cheer up, have faith, greatness is possible, sometimes it’s there but you only see it in retrospect. Not everyone’s a bum.”

“It’s halftime, America.”

Here is the ad community’s thinking.

“Negative” ads are part of the drawing of bright lines between the two sides. They can be done with fun or not (most of us prefer the fun ones).

What Noonan does not get to directly, or only touches on, is the structure that generates such ads. When you have your Super PACs out there, funded by a rather small set of extremely wealthy individuals (a fraction of the fabled 1 % ), you end up with pretty much this sort of stuff. Why? Because a PAC cannot go out and advocate FOR a candidate, thus its easiest media path is to go after the other guy.

This is the genie Citizens United let out of the bottle.

As to the antidote? Well those with skin in the game want to keep their voice, so I am doubtful of any legislative action. But for the christian community that does mean that we can be part of building civic and civil discourses. This turn will be seen by activists as one to the apolitical, a pulling back from cultural engagement. It probably is. A second difficulty will be nurturing communities that provide local civic leadership. Once this was relatively easy, when Calvin essentially served a regional audience. her poli-sci grads then went off and worked in their communities. The national shift at Calvin has meant that those same poli-sci grads aspire to more national status and so zombie-like, get infected.

In short, if we want a better community, then we will need to be about the task of creating a better culture.

Art gives voice to what?

More from the WSJ

Now that the boutique atheism of such aggressive secularists as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens has become chic, you might well ask yourself why any unbelieving artist would bother to turn his hand to the making of religious art.

Terry Teachout explores how non-believers produce sometimes extraordinary, transcendent art. It’s not just that the unbeliever creates transcendent art (and they do) but also what the significance of that transcendence is. Is this merely a trick of narration,a ventriloquism aping the language of the faithful? Or does the art itself point to something beyond itself, a Truth that makes this true. As Teachout notes this latter seems to be Ralph Vaughn Williams’ view,

 “Now to assert that these things are exactly as I have described would not be reasonable. But that these things, or something like them, are true concerning the souls of men and their habitations after death, especially since the soul is shown to be immortal, this seems to me fitting and worth risking to believe. For the risk is honourable, and a man should sing such things in the manner of an incantation to himself.”