Center for Educational Progress Newsletter – Jan. 26, 2012

1. Killing the Golden Goose

By Daniel E. Witte

Sometimes it is easy to overlook a good thing when you have it. Perhaps the most misguided variant of taking something for granted is to actually hasten the demise of one’s own prosperity through greed and shortsightedness.

Prosperity is more fragile than most of us care to contemplate. More often than not, the road to civic implosion is paved with complacency, greed and self-indulgence. History, properly taught, underscores such object lessons as the fall of the Roman Empire, the decimation of the Aztecs, the end of the British Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and the current economic implosion of the European Union.

As exceptional as the United States may be, neither its people nor its institutions are impervious to entropy, decay or calamity. Detroit, for example, once had the mightiest automobile industry in the world. But decades of shortsightedness from unions, industry leaders and government officials destroyed Detroit’s once-overwhelming advantage. New Orleans, as another example, neglected basic issues essential to its physical survival until Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and relocated a third of its populace.

Meanwhile, a decade after the largest terrorist attack in our nation’s history, downtown New York still bears the massive scar that resulted from a bipartisan failure to deal proactively with a threat to America. Unfortunately, American democracy has shown some aversion to the kind of long-term planning needed to face tough issues and fend off cataclysmic crisis.

For decades, many American public educators thought their sector was immune to competition or accountability. After all, K-12 education is dominated by government actors with a politically potent sense of entitlement. Governments can compel revenue collection through forcible taxation. Government educators relied upon the political size and power of the education lobby to make ever-increasing demands on the public treasury while delivering steadily diminishing results.

In Utah and other states, education grew to consume more than half of the entire state budget due to politicians who were more interested in cutting backroom deals than protecting the enlightened long-term interest of the general public.

But government educators are now precariously close to killing their own golden goose. The financial and real estate sectors, the private job market, and the private economy in general have suffered a tremendous blow, resulting in a diminishing tax base for support of government in general and government education in particular. Further significant tax increases are not politically or economically viable in most locales. Local, state and federal governments have maxed out their practical economic ability to borrow.

At the same time, America’s private workforce is struggling to compete against international competitors. Many adults who once attended America’s high schools are woefully unprepared for today’s competitive challenges. Many of America’s brightest minds have been stifled by a myopic contemporary culture adverse to creativity and exceptional performance. American families, ravaged by years of hostile public policy and government education, are succumbing to a rapidly aging population dependent upon massive entitlement programs.

Good will has faded; the public has grown tired of the familiar excuses offered in defense of the poor educational performance and ideological imbalance within government schools. Policymakers are open to new approaches in education like never before.

Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but also of conservatism. Human society will always be challenged by certain immutable principles of natural law and economics. The human condition compels a continual choice between a controlled and gradual accommodation of cranky truths on the one hand, or, on the other, a brutal, chaotic, cataclysmic reprimand from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Across the nation in states like California, New York and Illinois, tax bases have shriveled, revenues have dried up, and credit lines have maxed out. Years of profligate government budgets, unrealistic pension plans and sweetheart public contracts have come home to roost. Dazed residents in jurisdictions known for progressive politics are feeling the bite of deep cuts to local government services. These cuts are often far more draconian than any elected conservative politician would have imposed during more prosperous times.

In the Southern California city of Costa Mesa, for example, half of all government workers have been laid off and various government departments completely eliminated. Other California municipalities have begun closing schools, downsizing courts, eliminating firehouses, outsourcing legal work performed by city attorneys, and so on. The state is granting early prison release to thousands of inmates.

California politicians, like civic leaders in many other states, have been so preoccupied with concerns outside their proper role that they have lost the ability to perform the essential functions of government. The resultant accumulated problems are structural and show no sign of abatement in the near future.

Due to the fiscal tsunami engulfing our nation, government education is at a crossroads. It can survive if it embraces reform. Utah, in particular, still has the freedom of movement to avoid what has happened to public schools in some other states. Sutherland Institute has provided a blueprint for how to do this, including Jefferson Charter Schools; ideas for enhancing flexibility, accountability, representation, and modularity; a system of tax credits; and an approach that would grandfather current educators into a reformed system to prevent drastic economic, social and political disruption.

Utah can have a public education system characterized by long-term viability, excellent performance, and quality job opportunities for educators. Utah can have a system affording quality access to both practical vocational training and classic liberal education. Utah can build bastions of learning for consideration of matters both routine and abstract without erecting ivory towers. Utah can forego social engineering and focus on the needs of students and taxpayers. We must face down the current headwind now or else reap the whirlwind.

Sutherland Institute does not seek to destroy public education, but to restore and preserve it. Any system, group or person refusing to proactively adapt will eventually be marginalized to irrelevance. That is what is currently happening to government education at a rapid pace, to the detriment of conservative and progressive youth alike.

The author, Daniel E. Witte, J.D./M.O.B., is director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Educational Progress. Mr. Witte has an extensive background in issues related to parental liberty, educational choice, and organizational reform. He has worked with the Utah Supreme Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Utah, the 10th and 7th Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the U.S. Senate, law firms in Korea, Puerto Rico and California, and as associate general counsel for an insurance company.


2. Sutherland Daily Updates From the Hill Begin

During the 2012 legislative session, Sutherland Institute will provide insight and analysis of votes, meetings, debates, legislation and policy from a conservative perspective. The goal is to provide our readers with in-depth coverage of issues vital to them that might not be covered as closely by other media. We hope you enjoy Sutherland’s Capitol Daily video and written coverage of the session posted each day to our blog.

3. Capitol Daily Memo: Online Testing Bill SB 97 Advances

By Dave Buer

Speaking to the Senate Education Standing Committee today, Senator Aaron Osmond proposed funding the implementation of summative and adaptive online testing for Utah’s K-12 public schools. SB 97, which passed out of committee with a vote of four in favor and three abstaining, is requesting $15 million of one-time grant funding and $5 million in ongoing funding to implement adaptive and online assessments.The funds would cover software, computer and networking costs, and staff training. The State Board of Education would oversee the use and implementation of the funds, and grant recipients would be required to implement the assessment system by the 2014-15 school year.

4. Capitol Daily Memo: Harvard Professor Wants Utah Higher Ed to Adapt

By Dave Buer

Renowned Harvard business professor and acclaimed author Clayton Christensen addressed the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee this morning in the Senate building at the Utah Capitol. A Utah native, Christensen is a world-renowned expert on how disruptive technologies alter entire industries.

Drawing instructive comparisons with the steel and technology sectors, Christensen specifically addressed the disruptions taking place in higher education and how legislators can work with higher ed to help it adapt and better educate students. Christensen said online learning is an essential component in the disruption that is taking place in education, an industry that has been highly resistant to disruption previous to the fairly recent advances in online learning.

For example, Christensen explains how the current model of education is integrated from top to bottom, meaning if you want to change one part of the model, you have to change the other parts of the model to fit.

Using technology, education can move to a modular model in which a student can take a particular course, taught by the best professor in the world, and get credit for that course. Instead of accrediting only institutions, accreditation organizations would accredit individual courses. The student thereby receives the best, most appropriate education without the limitations and burdensome requirements of a linear, integrated education.

Christensen encourages higher ed institutions to become hybrids, offering both on-campus and online courses, noting that this move would “extend their runway” and help them to enhance their effectiveness and maintain their competitiveness in an increasingly open and à la carte education environment. Increasingly, the focus will be, as it should, on helping students meet their individual needs instead of requiring students to follow a rigid factory model.

You can view the entirety of Professor Christensen’s fascinating presentation on Sutherland’s YouTube channel here.