The Progressive Fix

A Response to the National Education Policy Center

When I saw that the University of Colorado-Boulder’s National Education Policy Center had published an 11-page review of my recent Progressive Policy Institute report, A 21st Century School System in the Mile High City, I was flattered. Then I read Professor Tarrenda White’s work and was flabbergasted.

Professor White contends that “the only data presented are in the form of simple charts.” Later: “The reader is led to conclude the efficacy of all manner of reforms based on eyeballing what is basically a scatterplot.”

This is probably the oddest criticism I have ever seen, because it is so obviously false. Here is a short list of the data presented in the report:

  • The percentage of students in Denver and Colorado scoring proficient or advanced on state standardized tests, 2009-2014, overall and broken down by race.
  • The percentile ranking of Denver schools vs. all Colorado schools on state standardized tests, 2013-2015, based on the percentage of students scoring proficient or above.
  • Dropout rates and graduation rates from 2005-06 to 2014-15.
  • Denver ACT scores vs. the state and nation, 2007-15.
  • Increases in the number of students taking and passing Advanced Placement courses.
  • College enrollment rates in Denver and Colorado.
  • The percentage of college enrollees from Denver Public Schools (DPS) required to take remedial classes, 2010-2013.
  • The achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income students and between white and African American and Latino students.
  • A 2014 study by Alexander Ooms, published by the Donnell-Kay Foundation, presenting school performance data through 2013, which concluded that the district’s “success in creating quality schools—as well as serving low-income students within those schools—resides overwhelmingly with charters.”
  • My analysis of 2014 school performance scores, which revealed little change in Ooms’ conclusions.
  • A study of test scores from 2010 through 2014, by economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University, which found that Denver’s charters produced “remarkably large gains in math,” large gains in writing, and smaller but statistically significant gains in reading, compared to DPS operated schools.

Odder still, Professor White acknowledges the MIT-Duke study on p. 5, which of course contradicts her repeated statements that the report’s only data is in the scatterplots. (These compared charter, traditional, and innovation schools in Denver based on two factors: percentage of low-income students and standardized test scores in 2015. They showed that charters generally outperformed DPS-operated schools with students of similar income levels at the middle- and high-school level but not in elementary schools.)

Then there’s her criticism of my recommendation that DPS open more charters: “Replication of charter schools that use a narrow set of practices, moreover, suggests limited options for parents seeking diverse curricular and pedagogical choices.” Did Professor White miss my recommendation that DPS “begin to recruit outstanding charter networks from outside Colorado”? Or does she think that all charter schools “use a narrow set of practices”?

One of Professor White’s central criticisms was that “causality cannot be determined, and the report did not attempt to isolate the effect of a multitude of reforms—including charters, performance pay, and a new performance framework—from larger complex forces shaping student demographics in the city.”

First, it is impossible to isolate the exact impact of specific initiatives, given how many reforms Denver has implemented over the last decade. But the report does compare the impact of charter and DPS-operated schools, using multiple sources of data (as indicated above). It also makes demographic comparisons between charter and traditional schools: by 2014-15, “charters served 3 percentage points more low-income students (those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches) and 10 percentage points more English language learners.” Then it introduces the scatterplots to provide more fine-grained demographic comparisons.

In a related point, White writes, “The report does not address whether the expansion of charter schools has exacerbated racial segregation, but this is a vital question in light of trends in other cities.” Her footnote cites a study done on New York State, which has absolutely no bearing on Denver. The city has seen a decrease in integration since the courts ended mandatory busing in 1995, but not because of charters. Indeed, the largest charter network works hard to make sure its schools are well integrated by race and income, reserving 40 percent or more of the seats for low-income students. Alexander Ooms took a look at racial and economic segregation in 2012 and found that the district’s own selective schools were the biggest offenders. His conclusion: “So is there a type of school within DPS that is systematically contributing to segregation within our public school system? You bet. But they are not charter schools, and they are not a secret. They are selective admissions schools—including many of the most popular programs in the district—and they are hiding in plain sight.”

Finally, Professor White asserts that I downplayed “the role of outside forces and moneyed groups that influenced the nature of reforms.” Did she read this sentence? “In 2013, Democrats for Education Reform and its allies raised significant money and recruited as candidates a former lieutenant governor, another former city council president, and a former chairman of Denver’s Democratic Party.” How about this one? “The reformers won in part because they had more money and in part because their approach has yielded results.”

She also criticizes me for downplaying “the vulnerability of current reforms to future protests due to embittered stakeholders and local actors concerned about the influence of outside interest groups….” But her footnote cites only one source, a blog by an embittered former board member who hates the superintendent and current board, criticizes everything they do, and has little credibility. As the report notes, reformers won a 6-1 majority in 2013 and a 7-0 majority in 2015. There is opposition, but it is poorly organized and has been wildly unsuccessful in recent years.

Sadly, Professor White did not write a scholarly review, she wrote anti-charter propaganda—something we see all too frequently these days. It’s no surprise that the NEPC is funded in part by the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association.

Rather than publishing distortions aimed at discrediting charter schools, I would invite NEPC scholars to do some research to better understand just what is driving improvement in Denver’s public schools. Why, for instance, are all 12 of the secondary schools with the highest academic growth rates charters? There is surely some fascinating “causality” to be unearthed there!

New Ruling Makes Waves in South China Sea

An international court ruled today on a challenge to China’s controversial bid to extend its sovereignty over vast swaths of the South China Sea. The Philippines brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in June 2013, but multi-national disputes over the island chains and surrounding waters date back centuries. In recent years, China has been building islands within an area it’s defined as the “nine-dash line,” and has been claiming control over a 12-mile radius surrounding each of the new landmasses.

The much anticipated ruling, however, may be moot, since China already has declared that it will not adhere to any ruling by the tribunal. Beijing’s truculence underscores the necessity of President Obama’s attempts to “rebalance” U.S. foreign and security policy toward the Asia Pacific. Moreover, the United States is obligated through defense pacts with both the Philippines and Japan to provide military assistance in the region. To vindicate the right of all nations to navigate these waters, the United States sent a missile destroyer last October within the 12-nautical mile zone China has claimed as sovereign waters. The U.S. Navy has continued to sail within the disputed waters, and it recently concluded a major exercise consisting of two carrier strike groups near the Philippines.

The islands themselves appear to be heavily militarized with ports capable of servicing naval vessels and runways long enough to support advanced military aircraft. This militarization has encouraged several countries to seek strategic partnerships with the U.S. This includes Vietnam, which has allowed U.S. naval forces increased access to its deep water ports. The Philippines has invited the U.S. forces back into several military bases for the first time since giving them the boot in the early 1990s. In addition to joint military aid, Washington is seeking to organize a vast free trade bloc that pointedly excludes China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would lower trade barriers while raising labor and environmental standards throughout the region.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has strongly supported TPP as a vital soft power complement to America’s military presence in the Pacific. “In fact, you may not expect to hear this from a Secretary of Defense, but in terms of our rebalance in the broadest sense, passing TPP is as important to me as another aircraft carrier,” Carter said. With China already refusing to adhere to any ruling made by the tribunal, the TPP is a potent tool Washington can use to assemble a regional coalition of nations to balance China’s economic and military clout.

While all the TPP countries have a common interest in unfettered access to the South China Sea’s shipping lanes, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, have competing claims on islands in the region. Additionally, the Philippines has expressed strong interest in joining the trade agreement. If Congress fails to approve the TPP, it would undermine America’s influence in the Asia Pacific and ability to act as a counterweight to China.

With more than half the world’s merchant ships passing through the disputed area, the United States and its Asian allies must not acquiesce in China’s aggressive bid to control the South China Sea. But our security strategy also needs a strong economic component. President Obama rightly envisions the TPP as a way to forge closer commercial and trade relationships with key regional partners and emerging markets like Vietnam. Not only will that make China’s anxious neighbors less susceptible to economic reprisals from Beijing, it will also give Americans access to the world’s fastest growing markets.

Sympathy for Diablo

Nuclear power is by far America’s biggest source of zero-carbon energy, providing 19.5 percent of the nation’s electricity. So why are environmental groups who profess to care about climate change working overtime to get rid of nukes?

The mystery deepens with today’s announcement by Pacific Gas & Electric that it intends to shutter California’s Diablo Canyon facility, the West’s last zero-carbon nuclear plant. The decision reflects a deal PG&E has struck with labor and environmental groups to invest more in energy efficiency, renewables and storage as it phases out Diablo Canyon.

The news comes amid a recent wave of nuclear plant closures in the Midwest, where deregulated markets flush with wind and natural gas simply make the plants uncompetitive. But Diablo’s costs are carried by rates, not competitive markets, so something else was clearly at work. And that something was extreme green politics.

Behind the Faustian bargain were big environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council and Environment California. Together with their allies in state government (Mary Nichols, chair of California’s powerful Air Resources Board, founded the state’s NRDC chapter), the groups have advocated successfully for policies that privilege renewables as the only “clean” route to a low-carbon economy. Governor Brown’s former girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, recently joined celebrities who have made a second career off opposing Diablo in sending a letter of opposition to relicensing. Not surprisingly the state’s 50 percent renewable standard—enshrined on Governor Brown’s watch–excludes nuclear.

The bargain would let Diablo’s duel reactors run until 2024 and 2025 but retire them 20 years before their useful life is up, in 2044, 2045. The groups claim Diablo’s power would be replaced by renewables and by energy efficiency, but as Rod Adams, blogging for Forbes noted:

“That’s a deceptive fig leaf; it is physically impossible for wind, solar and energy efficiency to replace the steady production of a nuclear power plant. Producing the same total number of kilowatt-hours each year is not the same as producing the same kilowatt-hours on a minute by minute, hour by hour or day by day basis.”

The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t shine at night but a nuclear reactor generates zero emission electricity 24/7. In a state where industry continues to flee (Toyota ran to Texas and Tesla opted for Reno) there just isn’t sufficient demand to manage over-generation. And for a company such as PG&E, beleaguered over the current criminal trial for a natural gas explosion, it was politics rather than economics that trumped the West’s last nuclear plant standing.

The timing could not be worse as parts of California are reeling from one of the worst heat waves to hit the Golden State at a time of year when it typically is blanketed by fog or “June Gloom.” In Southern California, grid operators are straining to meet demand in a system that both lost the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station but also placed a moratorium on natural gas from Aliso Canyon. As a result of the Aliso Canyon moratorium, the state’s grid operator for this summer has forecast at least 14 rolling blackouts.

Renewables need fast-ramp natural gas to back off generation at midday, when solar generates a surplus, and then to ramp back up at night when the sun sets. California’s grid operator throws away or curtails as much as 13,000 megawatts of excess electricity per day. For the green extreme shuttering Diablo is the path to tossing away less solar.

Reliability is an issue but the green extreme’s well-kept dirty secret is that wind and solar have severe environmental downsides. Diablo’s closure will eliminate in 10 years the state’s last, steady reliable, pollution-free electricity source. Replacing Diablo with solar will require vast tracts of land. Siting those facilities pits NRDC against staunch conservationists dead set against displacing the desert tortoise. And wind kills hundreds of thousands of birds and bats annually. But the environmental downside is that renewables need to team with fossil to keep the lights on.

California has for years been banking on an unholy alliance between renewables and load-following natural gas. Moreover, California has already blown its climate change targets because 100,000 tons of potent climate-changing methane leaked unabated into the atmosphere from the Aliso Canyon natural gas field. In a world of unreliable renewables, electricity systems require something to keep the lights on. But unlike nuclear, natural gas is a fossil fuel. California’s apparent model — Germany — has watched climate pollution increase there as decommissioning nuclear plants has led Berlin to rely more on carbon-intensive coal to backup to wind and solar.

But the green extreme is mute on rising emissions. “It makes your skin tingle,” said Damon Moglen, senior advisor with Friends of the Earth, regarding Diablo’s closure. Probably the highly-skilled and decently-paid nuclear plant workers at Diablo are feeling that way too.

Cutting the Cost of College with Three-Year Degrees

Recently a group urging free tuition at Harvard University failed to win a seat on the University’s Board of Overseers. With an endowment of $38 billion, Harvard can afford to have this debate. But the vast majority of schools in America today are too tuition dependent to offer universal free tuition. And while any plan to get the debt monkey off the back of students is welcome, the reality is the promise of free tuition is illusory – most of the proposals would only cover the cost of tuition at your typical community college, fail to reign in rising college prices, and are cost prohibitive (for example Senator Sanders proposal would run about $70 billion a year).

Fortunately, many voters have not been blinded by the allure of promises of free tuition. According to a recent poll by veteran Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz for the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), When asked to choose between free college tuition and a proposal to offer three-year college degrees, thereby cutting college tuition costs by a quarter, Swing voters picked three year degrees by a 63 percent to 29 percent margin

Three-year colleges are the norm in many European countries, and a few enterprising universities here have begun to follow suit. This proposal would require any U.S. college or university with students who receive any type of federal student aid to offer the option of earning a bachelor’s degree in three years, and to hold annual increases in the price of tuition and fees to just over inflation.

By making a three-year bachelor’s degree the norm the cost of attending college would drop dramatically. Students currently attending four-year public schools (in-state) would see savings on average of $8,893 while those at private schools would experience a $30,094 reduction.

Cutting tuition by a quarter would also reduce the amount students need to borrow. Nearly 70 percent of bachelor degree holders have taken out student loans, with an average debt burden of $29,400. Assuming someone borrows $29,400 at the going rate of 4.66 percent over four years, the interest owed would amount to $7,505. But shaving a year off college cuts that interest tab to about $5,629, a savings of $1,876. And keep in mind we are talking averages here; the many students carrying debts well above the average will reap bigger savings.

But wouldn’t shaving a year off college also mean giving colleges a financial haircut? Not necessarily. Colleges could increase the number of students in each incoming class by 33 percent given that annual class capacity would be greater with the elimination of the 4th year. While suffering transition costs over the initial three years, many schools, particularly the most attractive ones in the top two-thirds of college rankings, would eventually be made whole under the Three-Year Degree.

While some schools might be tempted to squeeze a four-year degree into three years, that approach would be unwise, given that the majority of today’s college students need six years to complete a bachelors.

A better approach would be for schools and their accreditors to rethink their curriculum. For example, reducing the number of electives, cutting back on core requirements or shifting to shorter semesters are all options that schools could use to move to a three-year bachelors and improve the educational experience.

The debate over the cost of college is long overdue. Yet the solution cannot be one that would cripple the world’s finest system of higher education nor allow colleges and universities to continue to pile debt on the backs of families and students. Shifting to a three-year degree bachelor will ensure American’s can afford college to send their children to college again while expanding access to the best schools in the world.

PRESS RELEASE: Consumers Want One Set of Rules Protecting Their Information

May 27, 2016


National Poll Finds 94 Percent of Internet Users Agree All Companies Collecting Data Online Should Follow Same Rules

WASHINGTON—When consumers go online, they want their privacy protected, and they feel that no matter which company has their data – be it Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, T-Mobile or Twitter – that company should be held to the same set of rules, according to a new national survey by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter Hart.

The survey, conducted on behalf of the Progressive Policy Institute, demonstrates that online consumers do not have different concerns based on which specific entities collect online data. By overwhelming margins, 94% to 5%, Internet users agree that “All companies collecting data online should follow the same consumer privacy rules so that consumers can be assured that their personal data is protected regardless of the company that collects or uses it,” including 82% of Internet users who say they “strongly” agree with that statement.

“Ultimately, consumers want to know there is one set of rules that equally applies to every company that is able to obtain and share their data, whether it be search engines, social networks, or ISPs, and they want that data protected based on the sensitivity of what is being collected” said Peter Hart.

Consumers believe that all internet companies have access to a lot of data about their online behavior, and they want consistent privacy rules to apply to all of these companies regarding the treatment of this data. Of those surveyed, 83% agreed that online privacy should be protected based on the sensitivity of their online data, rather than on who is collecting and using the data.

The national poll of 800 Internet users was completed by a live telephone survey. The results clearly support that consumers want clear, uniform rules that protect their privacy based on the sensitivity of the data, not based on the type of company that uses the data.


PPI WEEKLY WRAP-UP: Economic Impact of TPP, Infrastructure Permitting Reform, and Next-Gen Nuclear Energy

SPEAKER OF ALBANIA: On Monday, PPI and NLC4 cohosted the Honorable Ilir Meta, Speaker of Parliament and former Prime Minister of the Republic of Albania, for a reception and  conversation about Albanian politics,  U.S.-Albanian relations, and America’s influence in  Southeastern Europe.

 ECONOMIC IMPACT OF TPP: Yesterday, Ed  Gerwin, senior fellow for trade and global opportunity  at PPI, released a statement after the United States International Trade Commission released a new  report concerning the likely impact of the Trans-  Pacific Partnership agreement on the U.S. economy.


 “We are pleased that the Commission’s detailed  economic analysis concludes that a U.S. economy with TPP would, overall, see higher growth, employment,         and exports as compared to a U.S. economy  without TPP, and we look forward to reviewing the report in detail,” Gerwin says.


INFRASTRUCTURE PERMITTING REFORM: As part of our contribution to Infrastructure Week in Washington, PPI and Common Good cohosted a policy forum on Thursday morning at Covington and  Burling, LLP on expediting and improving regulatory reviews of infrastructure projects. The forum, “How Faster Infrastructure Can Get America Moving,” was highlighted by keynote addresses from  Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), Jason Miller of the White House National Economic Council, and Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (D-CT). The forum included panel discussions with experts from industry,  labor, government, and environmental protection—as well as a panelist from Germany, who provided examples of their permitting process. Germany puts a two-year deadline on regulatory review, without  compromising the country’s strict environmental standards.


In February, PPI President Will Marshall wrote an op-ed, “A New Kind of Public Works,” outlining four ways to bring national infrastructure policy into the twenty-first century. “The challenge goes well beyond pouring more money into repair and maintenance of existing public facilities,” Marshall says. “These are chiefly state and local responsibilities, and have traditionally been funded by municipal debt. Washington should focus instead on innovative ways to provide and pay for the new, technologically sophisticated infrastructure Americans need to compete in a global, knowledge economy…”


ARGENTINA APP ECONOMY: Last week, PPI released a new policy report, Argentina: The Road to the App Economy, at a public event in Buenos Aires. Authored by PPI economist Michelle Di Ionno and chief economic strategist Michael Mandel, the report examines the rise and future potential of the country’s App Economy—jobs, companies, and economic growth created by the production, distribution, and maintenance of mobile applications that run on smart devices. They find that Argentina had roughly 33,250 App Economy jobs as of March 2016.


NEXT-GEN NUCLEAR ENERGY: PPI recently released a policy report, Next-Gen Reactors: How Nuclear Innovation Can Support Growth and a Healthy Climate, authored by Derrick Freeman, director of PPI’s Energy Innovation Project and Will Marshall. They reason that nuclear energy should play a larger role in America’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Without more nuclear power, the U.S. won’t be able to reconcile the twin imperatives of economic growth and climate protection. What’s more, innovations in next-gen technology create a striking opportunity to revive U.S. leadership in civilian nuclear energy. This will be an economic boon for America, generating good jobs and tremendous export opportunities, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


For this to happen, the authors argue, the U.S. needs to boost nuclear reactor research and revamp its regulatory structure to support the creation of new types of nuclear reactors. The industry needs the federal government to streamline the regulatory process before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it needs to create a national testing facility for private companies to test prototypes.


#FBF TO VIETNAM: With President Obama traveling to Vietnam this weekend, we #FlashbackFriday to PPI’s visit to the country last fall. In Hanoi, we released two policy reports: Vietnam and the App Economy and TPP and the Benefits of Freer Trade for Vietnam: Some Lessons from U.S. Free Trade Agreements.


FOLLOW FRIDAYPPI welcomes David Osborne, senior fellow and director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at PPI, to the Twitterverse. His handle is @OsborneDavid. Give him a follow!