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Time to Leave Federalizing of Education Behind (Forbes.com) February 10, 2015

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Washington, D.C. has managed to take the most basic state and local responsibility—K-12 education—and federalize it at breathtaking speed over the last 12 years.  Now, with the signature piece of federalizing legislation, No Child Left Behind, up for reauthorization in Congress, it is time to put the brakes on this failed and misguided federal experiment.  In short, forget no child—what needs to be left behind is the federalizing of education.

How did this happen anyway?  Although Lyndon Johnson stuck the federal nose in the K-12 education tent in the mid-60’s, providing special federal aid for poor and disadvantaged children in his War on Poverty, the real momentum developed when President George W. Bush sought to bring his “Texas miracle” on education to Washington as the “education president.”  Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy famously got together and enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002, laying the groundwork for federal testing and accountability which now dominate the educational scene.

But wait, there’s more.  When, by 2012, it was clear that 80% of America’s schools would not meet NCLB’s goal of proficiency for every student by 2014, with resulting embarrassment for politicians and draconian penalties for schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan began issuing waivers (to over 40 states) lifting NCLB’s requirements.  If schools cannot reach the federal bar, well then the obvious solution was to lower or eliminate the bar.  But Duncan did not just waive the requirements for states, rather he did so on the condition that states agree to new conditions he sought to impose that would further change the direction of K-12 education, including strong moves toward a national curriculum (Common Core) and teacher evaluation and accountability.  These were debates properly taking shape in the states, but suddenly the Department of Education took sides and imposed a federal solution.

As South Carolina law professor Derek W. Black points out in a forthcoming issue of Vanderbilt Law Review, however, the Secretary’s conditional waivers were constitutionally problematic in two ways.  First, imposing new educational policy requirements on states through conditional waivers was a step that, under the balance of powers between Congress and an executive agency, only Congress could approve.  And second, this became a form of federal coercion on the states, essentially bribing the states with federal money to follow federal policy.  Over 40 states succumbed.  As Professor Black concludes:  “With no more power than the authority to waive noncompliance with NCLB, Secretary Arne Duncan achieved a goal that educational equality advocates had long sought, but never secured:  the federalization of aspects of public education.”

As Congress debates the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, the real conversation should be about rolling back the federal role in K-12 education.  Over half a trillion dollars in federal money has been spent on this experiment, with very little to show for it, according to the independent Center on Educational Policy and others who have studied the results.  The federal Department of Education has become, in effect, what Senator Lamar Alexander has called “a national school board” micromanaging educational policy and outcomes.  Finally states have awakened to what they have given up and there is a backlash against the Common Core, which is spreading to the NCLB reauthorization debate.

It’s time to admit a federal failure here.  Unrealistic goals were set and federal officials have done unconstitutional hand-stands to mitigate the damage.  Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent.  Teachers and students spend countless hours teaching to the new federal tests.  Plenty of children have been left behind. Enough already.

Let’s return educational policy and authority close to home, to school districts and ultimately the states.  Let’s not reauthorize No Child Left Behind and instead begin the painful and difficult shifting of both money and authority home to districts and states.

Link to Forbes.com:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2015/02/10/time-to-leave-federalizing-of-education-behind/

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Schools of Education are Part of the Problem (Townhall.com) July 16, 2013

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A new report discloses that a key part of the underperformance of K-12 education is a failure in how we train and prepare teachers. The National Council on Teacher Quality examined over 1100 schools and departments of education to see how well teachers are trained. Only 4 colleges received the highest rating—4 stars—and less than 10 percent of them received even 3 stars.

One problem is that schools lack high standards for students to enter teacher training programs. Few schools require rigorous preparation in the content they will teach, preferring softer methodology courses. Imagine a heart surgeon who doesn’t really know the heart. The report also found that few schools required a rigorous student teaching or mentoring experience.

Education is about great teachers, and our schools of education are failing to produce that.

Please click on the link to listen to the audio: http://townhall.com/talkradio/dailycommentary/675706

America’s Teachers Are Sharing Their Low Grades With America’s Children (Forbes.com) July 14, 2013

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Nobody likes bad grades on a report card, especially not educators whose life work is teaching and grading. It was an unhappy day, then, when a recent and exhaustive national study of teacher training in America’s schools and departments of education came back with grades largely ranging from mediocre to poor. Not only is this a black eye on the colleges and universities that prepare teachers, but it brings into sharp relief a key reason why America’s elementary and secondary schools are delivering such poor results educating our kids.

Your intuitive sense that teachers are crucial to student learning—based on recalling how a classroom works, or how much a particular teacher could inspire you or bore you—is absolutely right. An earlier study by Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution shows that removing or improving the bottom 5-10% of teachers would itself move American education near the top of highest-performing countries. Professor Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington confirms that teacher quality is the biggest single factor influencing student achievement.

And it is also true that how teachers are prepared is a crucial element in the quality of their performance. Unfortunately, as the new and comprehensive study by the National Council on Teacher Quality demonstrates, teacher preparation is overwhelmingly mediocre in the U.S., and sometimes downright bad. After studying over 1100 teacher training programs, experts found that only 4 programs received the top grade (4 stars) and fewer than 10% received even 3 stars. As a consequence, new teachers simply are not well prepared, and it shows up in poor classroom management by novice teachers. One study in Los Angeles showed that first-year teachers actually have a negative impact on student learning.

One problem is that schools of education do not believe it is their job to teach skills or knowledge of the content their graduates will teach. You might logically ask, if they don’t teach skills or content, what do they teach? According to the recent study, the field of teacher education feels it is their job to “prepare” teachers, but not to train them. They view their role as “forming the professional identities of teachers.” I suppose it is what we call in law school, learning to think like a lawyer. That is nice, I suppose, but not when teachers go “live” in the classroom with almost no supervision and a roomful of students who need help.

Failure to require that teachers learn the content they will teach—math or history—seems at least as troublesome, especially in the higher grades where the subject matter is more complex. When one of our children moved from public schools to a private boarding school for one year, the main difference we noticed is that the teachers were often young men and women with master’s degrees in the subject they were teaching. They often did not have the teaching credential required in public schools, but instead a master’s degree in history or science that brought tremendous knowledge and enthusiasm that the students quickly caught. Rather than some of the dull and poorly managed classrooms our child experienced at home, this school was on fire with teacher/student enthusiasm and learning.

By allowing teacher training programs to emphasize professional identity, rather than skills or content, young teachers are not ready to teach even basic skills such as reading. The NCTQ study found that teachers were by and large encouraged to find their own methods for teaching reading and, as a result, children are failing to become proficient readers. Similarly few programs help aspiring teachers learn anything as practical as classroom management skills, for which their later students pay a huge price.
Further, student teaching preparation is described by the study as rarely rigorous.

Hats off then to the 4 programs (out of 1100) that are judged to be doing a great job: Vanderbilt and Lipscomb, both in Nashville, along with Ohio State and Furman in South Carolina. If you plan to be a teacher, you should consider preparing in these star programs and, indeed, the rest of the field should be paying attention to what they are doing right. As we recently learned at nearby San Francisco airport, having pilots land airplanes without sufficient preparation can be fatal. Can we be any less committed to training the people who will educate our own children and America’s future leaders and workers?

Link to Forbes.com op/ed: http://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddavenport/2013/07/14/americas-teachers-are-sharing-their-low-grades-with-americas-children/

Our Growing Government (Townhall.com) October 25, 2011

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Even as we live through the biggest recession since the Great Depression, we 

Courtesy of Townhall.com

are also witnesses to the most expansive exercise of federal power since the New Deal.

Following massive federal intervention in the economy, and the unprecedented requirement that everyone buy health insurance, the Obama Administration continues its takeover of K-12 education in the face of Constitutional and legal constraints.

The latest is the Department of Education’s decision to issue waivers to states on some of the toughest “No Child Left Behind” requirements, but only if the states present plans the feds like for future reforms.

It’s one more step down the road of federalizing K-12 education, the one thing that almost anyone would say should be a state and local, not a federal, matter.

This growth of federal power is breathtaking and dangerous and needs to be stopped.

To hear the audio commentary, please click on this link:  http://ht.salemweb.net/townhall/audio/mp3/93d037cd-aa59-4923-8299-49db63a93d9a.mp3

Republicans’ Primary Choice: The Constitution or the Money (Washington Times) May 17, 2011

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Perhaps no issue better reveals one of the growing divisions in the Republican Party than education policy. It wasn’t that long ago – 1996, in fact – that the party platform called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education in favor of a smaller federal government and greater power for states. But in the past decade, beginning with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Republicans have seemed to be challenging Democrats to see who can win the misguided race to federalize education…

Full article available at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/16/republicans-primary-choice-the-constitution-or-the/

Schools making progress on literacy, with Jeffrey M. Jones (San Jose Mercury News) August 22, 2005

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After decades of disappointment, test scores are finally beginning to rise.

Most of us dreaded report cards. Every semester, a single slip of paper sought to summarize our successes and failures with a short list of letters: A, B, C, D or F.

This summer, the nation’s student body as a whole received an important report card. This is one educators and policy makers have come to dread because the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-term Trends, issued every few years, had essentially shown no progress. Despite huge investments in improved literacy, U.S. schoolchildren were not reading materially better than their peers 35 years ago when the testing began.

Finally, this year’s “progress” report showed some progress. Although reading scores for older students remained flat, there was some improvement in 13-year-olds and noticeable progress by the youngest group, 9-year-olds.

The 2004 NAEP report found that “9-year-olds scored higher than in any previous assessment year,” going back to 1971. The sharpest gains have come in just the last five years.

Further, the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed, not because white students are doing worse, but because minority students are reading better. Half of the reduction of the gap was in the past five years.

Already, Washington is taking credit for the positive results, suggesting that its No Child Left Behind Act is responsible. The whole story, however, is longer and more complicated.

A lot of the energy behind improving literacy policy came from a visible failure. A movement called “whole language” captured the fancy of many educators and policy makers in the 1980s, teaching students to get a whole sense of words, rather than breaking them down phonetically.

It didn’t work, but declining test scores prompted policy makers to focus on what did work.

In California, hearings focused on the failure of whole language, and conversely, on the potential of scientifically based phonics instruction, in which students learn to ready by identifying the letters of the alphabet and decoding language. When he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush led a charge for a statewide regime of mandatory testing and accountability.

Also, several Southern states renewed emphasis on all aspects of literacy. Governors such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Richard Riley of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and others understood that their states were behind in education generally and in literacy specifically and began a series of investments and initiatives. Many of the gains in the recent NAEP report were driven by improvements in Southern states. The South gained more than twice as much as the Northeast among 9-year-olds over the past 30-plus years, and accounted for nearly all the gains among 13-year-olds.

If you had asked 15 years ago for the three rules of improving literacy, the truth was that we didn’t know. Everyone had a different theory. But we are beginning to understand what works. Increased emphasis and investment in reading in younger ages is important, especially for disadvantaged kids. Phonics-based instruction has now been demonstrated as a superior method for teaching reading. And testing students is an important form of research and accountability.

The No Child Left Behind Act has codified these effective practices, but the federal law, which went into effect in 2002, is too recent to have had much influence on 2004 testing. And one can reasonably debate the wisdom of the federal government becoming so active in literacy and education, fields previously left to state and local authorities.

But for now, Americans can celebrate an improved report card. Perhaps the “rising tide of mediocrity” that a special federal commission observed in America public education in the late 20th century is moving out, making way for a new wave of educational policies that really work.

Truly higher education (Scripps Howard News Service) February 19, 2004

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For more than 100 years, America’s colleges and universities have steadily pushed religion and spirituality off the campus. Recent evidence suggests, however, that U.S. college students are deeply interested in such matters and universities that emphasize faith in learning are growing by leaps and bounds.

Though one would hardly know it today, most of America’s great private universities, and even many of its state-supported institutions, began as church-related colleges. From Harvard and Yale right on across the country, colleges were founded with religious missions right alongside their academic curriculum.

Over time the spiritual mission was pushed aside in favor of greater academic freedom. The seal of Harvard University tells the story graphically, at first containing the Latin terms for “Christ and the church” right in the center. Eventually the seal was revised to move those words to the edge and to introduce “truth” in the center. Finally the spiritual terms disappeared altogether, as has that emphasis on most college campuses.

But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? Research commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation and performed by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA suggests that students are very much interested in spiritual development during their college years and that universities are doing a poor job overall of meeting those needs.

The UCLA study surprised many in higher education with these findings among college students surveyed:

– 77 percent of students believe “we are all spiritual beings.”

– 77 percent of students pray regularly and 78 percent discuss religion/spirituality with friends.

– 71 percent of students find religion to be personally helpful and 71 percent gain spiritual strength by trusting in a higher power.

At the same time, students expressed that their college has note provided helpful resources in their spiritual quest and that their spirituality has declined from their freshman to junior years (the period surveyed). Of students surveyed, 62 percent said their professors never encourage discussion of spiritual or religious matters and 56 percent responded that faculty never provide opportunities to discuss the purpose or meaning of life.

The disconnect between students’ spiritual needs and aspirations on one hand and campus resources on the other is striking indeed. It is as though a whole generation of spirituality minded students has sneaked up on campus administrators and faculty who were raised in a more secular tradition. Or perhaps the spiritual interest has always been there but has not been discovered until these recent studies began to appear.

Addressing spiritual needs will not be an easy task for our universities. Many of them long ago closed down their departments of religious studies and removed any relics of religious symbolism. And the wall of separation that has grown between church and state seems to find its way even into private college campuses where a faculty culture finds discussion of spiritual or religious matters inappropriate. But with religious overtones to war and foreign policy, and spiritual questions abounding in people’s lives, these are matters colleges may no longer be able to ignore.

Not surprisingly, many students are voting with their feet. Unable to find spiritual resources on secular campuses, larger numbers of students are choosing colleges and universities where faith is still part of the mission. Recent figures show, for example, that the 104 colleges that are part of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have experienced a 27 percent growth rate since 1997, more than three times greater than the 8 percent growth in all degree-granting institutions during that same period.

Set against so many discouraging trends, the notion that college students are interested in spiritual and religious things comes as a pleasant surprise. Let’s hope that faith-based organizations of all kinds, along with wise mentors on college campuses, will be alert to meeting such needs. Helping its future leaders think through the meaning of life and build a core of strong values can only strengthen the future of our society.

Congressional price fixing (Scripps Howard News Service) April 2, 2003

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Washington has spawned a new breed of politician that deserves careful watching: the Big Government Republican. Elected on a free market platform, this dangerous species catches Potomac fever and proceeds to regulate and tax to fix society’s ills.

The latest Republican leader to contract the disease is Congressman Buck McKeon from California. As chair of the Higher Education Subcommittee, the influential McKeon has proposed government price controls for America’s colleges and universities, announcing he will introduce a bill to limit increases in tuition to two times the rise of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Curiously the last political leader to implement widespread government price controls was another Republican, Richard Nixon. It did not work well for Nixon in 1971 – he later admitted, “it wasn’t one of our better ideas” – and will not work in higher education today. We can only hope that Congress will listen closely to several voices of reason before using this blunt instrument on such an important driver of the American economy.

One group Congress should listen to is antitrust economists. These experts teach that price fixing – which is what the law calls price controls – has two economic consequences: It increases demand and reduces supply. You spell that “shortage,” which is the last thing we want in higher education with a tidal wave of baby boomer children already filling up limited college spaces. Fixing a maximum price also becomes a target, so that campuses will shoot for the new government-approved tuition hike.

Another voice Congress should hear is that of higher education economists. They will explain that while college tuition has gone up significantly in recent years, so have the costs colleges must pay. Higher education has always been labor-intensive, with two-thirds of university budgets going to its people. With technology they now must become capital-intensive also and staying on that leading edge is expensive. In fact, the Higher Education Price Index, which reflects the special goods and services colleges must pay for, would be a far more relevant index than the Consumer Price Index. Otherwise, capping prices will likely lead to an erosion of quality in a market where American clearly leads.

Educators and campus administrators should also be in line to speak to Congress. They will remind the regulators that, as David Warren of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities pointed out: “Colleges and universities are already dealing with significant cuts in state budgets, endowments, corporate philanthropy and alumni gifts.” At private colleges, 84 percent of students receive financial aid and, while high-priced colleges get the headlines, most students at 4-year colleges pay only $4000 per year in tuition and fees. And how will the legislation address schools with special needs, like the California community colleges that, in difficult budget times, are asked to raise tuition 100 percent, but will still be well below the national average?

Finally, Congress would do well to listen to broader voices that are not inside the system. The world market, for example, says that American higher education is of high quality and well priced, since it sends far more students to study here than any other country. Or maybe they should ask health care consumers what they think about government intervention to fix costs in that industry. The consensus is that health care prices have not been controlled and quality has declined.

Price controls are seductive but they do not work. As a free market conservative, Congressman McKeon should know better. But, as the noted economist Milton Friedman said, one of the greatest enemies of free markets is the businessman who wants free enterprise for everyone else, but seeks a special tariff or government regulation in his own market. The chair of Higher Education Subcommittee would doubtless oppose price controls elsewhere, and he should not be allowed to have them in the industry he most closely oversees. Let’s hope his bill prompts discussion of an important issue, but no price fixing.

A nation still at risk (San Francisco Chronicle) March 3, 2003

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Educational reform is a tough business to be in. Twenty years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education shocked the country with its “A Nation at Risk” report. This distinguished panel nailed its reform theses on the schoolhouse door, telling us that a “rising tide of mediocrity” in our nation’s schools threatened the “intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people” and “our very future as a nation.”

Now a new commission of 11 leading education scholars tells us that, on the 20th anniversary of that landmark report, our children are still at risk.

The Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, assembled by the Hoover Institution and funded largely by San Francisco’s Koret Foundation, has issued a 378-page report reviewing the state of American education today in light of the work of the commission 20 years ago.

Despite widespread acceptance of the “Nation at Risk” report, and considerable increases in education spending, the Koret Task Force concludes that very few important reforms have actually been implemented and almost no improvement in our schools has occurred. Much talk, a little action and few results — this is the sidetrack every reformer fears.

Of course, the road to reform is paved with good intentions. The commission told schools they needed to strengthen high school graduation requirements in the basic curriculum; adopt higher, measurable standards for academic performance; increase the time spent in school and on homework; and strengthen the teaching profession. Educators by and large agreed.

But the new Koret study concludes that few reforms were actually implemented. As a consequence student test scores show little change — slight improvements in math, returning scores to 1970s levels, and no change in verbal proficiency. The school year is no longer and homework is no heavier, through the Koret scholars did not interview my family about that. Graduation rates in the United States have actually declined during this period. Like the old saw, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.

Obviously nailing reform ideas on the schoolhouse door was not enough. As the Koret study notes, the 1983 report was stronger on diagnosis than prescription. But more than that, there are forces outside the schoolhouse that prevent major reforms within. Among these, the recent Koret report especially notes the role of teachers’ unions in blocking major reform.

A look at which reforms have been implemented and which have not seems to confirm that teachers’ unions have heavily influenced the process. For example, reforms the union favor such as spending and smaller classes have been adopted, even though the latter was not even recommended by the commission and the data in support of it is scant, at best. On the other hand, reforms the unions do not support — longer school years and pay for performance — have not been implemented.

The Koret Task Force aims its reform ideas more directly at the larger educational and political system, calling for transparency, accountability and choice. Transparency would allow parents and regulators to see results of school, teacher and student performance more clearly. Accountability would set and measure clear standards. And choice undergrids the other reforms by allowing parents to vote with their feet and send students to another public or even private school if they wish.

In California, the picture is mixed. On one hand, we are becoming far more rigorous in testing and providing reports on schools. On the other hand, we have succumbed to the temptation to reduce class size, an expensive reform in a tight budget environment that is not well supported by research. California voters have consistently rejected school choice initiatives.

Increasingly experts recognize that reform and improvement will not occur inside our schools without community and political will from the outside. In that sense, the Koret recommendations for reform, which include levers of change from the outside, may be more effective than tacking more theses on the schoolhouse door.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-5.

‘Tipping point’ reached in education (Scripps Howard News Service) July 16, 2002

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From the world of epidemics and diseases comes a term of hope for American education: “the tipping point.”

In his book of that title, Malcolm Gladwell describes how major social changes follow the path of epidemics. Small changes have little or no effect on a system until critical mass is reached and then, watch out, because a further small change “tips” the system and a huge impact occurs. Gladwell cleverly traces a variety of tipping points, from diseases to hush puppy shoes to crime waves.

The recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers is important in its own right but, when piled on top of several other notable changes, the whole school choice movement may be approaching its tipping point.

When that moment comes, not only will families across America understand that their children have real choices about education, but public schools will also recognize that they face the reality of market competition. Choice and competition will profoundly improve education for all our children.

Consider the several changes in educational choice and competition that appear to be reaching critical mass:

Home schooling is the fastest growing segment in education. The United States Census Bureau reports that between 1.6 and 2.0 million children are now home schooled and predicts that number will grow by 15 to 20 percent per year. Rapid advances in educational technology make home schooling ever more viable, and the students who are arriving in college from home schools perform extraordinarily well.

Private schools have been making rapid advances, recently taking over one-fourth of the troubled Philadelphia school system. In Michigan, 40 private companies now manage about three-fourths of the state’s 180 charter schools. Edison Schools, Inc. now runs 136 schools in 22 states and believes it is approaching a critical mass for profitability.

Charter schools are springing up everywhere, it seems, giving public school students more choices. In the 2000-2001 school year, there were 2,400 charter schools, in some cities educating as much as 15 to 20 percent of the student population. A recent study also indicates that charter schools provide a more diverse student body than do regular public schools.

Religious schools of all kinds are an important segment of the educational market, providing yet another flavor of educational choice. Catholic schools have become an option for some public school students. The evangelical Association of Christian Schools International now has 5,000 schools and is still growing. Dr. James Dobson, the influential leader of Focus on the Family, said earlier this year that he would not put his own children in California public schools, which is expected to influence many families.

Public school accountability systems have begun to provide yet another form of school choice. In California, students from underperforming schools now must be given the option of attending a different public school, with their old school obligated to pay the costs of transportation. It is not clear whether this will result in major shifts in student population, but it certainly has the attention of officials in the underperforming schools.

Academic studies of early experiments with choice validate its effectiveness. From studies by scholars at the more conservative Hoover Institution, to those published by the more liberal Brookings Institution, the early evidence is that choice improves academic quality and achievement. One interesting report indicates that in areas where there is choice, and therefore competition, there is also stronger performance within the public schools themselves.

As evidence mounts in favor of educational choice, both the White House and the Supreme Court have now weighed in on the matter. First, President Bush strongly favors educational choice, and included $50 million for trial school choice programs in his budget proposal. And now, the Supreme Court, in its landmark ruling in Simmons-Harris v. Zelman, has upheld free markets is only now discovering that they work in education. To borrow a market term, monopolies do not generally serve the public good, and public education’s monopoly on teaching our children appears to be coming to an end. Mark down 2002, with many “small changes” reaching critical mass, as a tipping point for educational choice and competition, and the beginning of an era of improved education for America’s children.