Who’s Afraid of Betsy DeVos?

January 17, 2017 by

Trump’s Education nominee is the top Democratic target.

Democrats are searching for a cabinet nominee to defeat, and it’s telling that progressive enemy number one is Betsy DeVos. Donald Trump’s choice to run the Education Department has committed the unpardonable sin of devoting much of her fortune to helping poor kids escape failing public schools.

Progressives and their media allies have spent the last week roughing up Mrs. DeVos in preparation for her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, which will feature the charms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Liberals claim that Mrs. DeVos, wife of former Amway president Dick DeVos, is unqualified to lead the Education Department because she’s never been a teacher.

Yet the same crowd howls that bankers shouldn’t be regulating banks. Which is it? Managing a bureaucracy isn’t like running a classroom, though both require a steely resolve. Most Education secretaries have been former teachers or school superintendents—not that student test scores are better for it.

Perhaps Mrs. DeVos’s most important qualification is that she has the courage of her convictions. Progressives are willing to brook billionaires who use their wealth to expand government or augment their political influence. Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, whose family is a major Democratic patron, served as President Obama’s Commerce secretary. But a conservative who’s dedicated her private fortune to liberating poor kids trapped in lousy public schools? The horror!

The DeVoses have donated tens of millions of dollars to charity including a children’s hospital in Michigan and an international art competition in Grand Rapids. They’ve also given to Christian organizations, which the left cites as evidence of concealed bigotry. Yet education has been their main philanthropic cause.

During the 1990s, they patronized a private-school scholarship fund for low-income families and championed Michigan’s first charter school law. In 2000 they helped bankroll a voucher initiative, which was defeated by a union blitz. The DeVoses then turned to expanding charters, which have become Exhibit A in the progressive campaign against her. Unions claim Michigan charters are inferior to the state’s public schools and that 80% are run for profit.

These claims are spurious. Detroit charters are low performing—only 19% of students are proficient in English—but they’re better than the alternative. Charter students in Detroit on average score 60% more proficient on state tests than kids attending the city’s traditional public schools. Eighteen of the top 25 schools in Detroit are charters while 23 of the bottom 25 are traditional schools.

Two studies from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2013, 2015) found that students attending Michigan charters gained on average an additional two months of learning every year over their traditional school counterparts. Charter school students in Detroit gained three months.

Eighty-percent of Michigan charters utilize a private education service provider. Yet only about half are operated by a for-profit entity, and almost all of these are mom-and-pop businesses run by Michigan residents. While unions have fought to keep failing public schools open, Mrs. DeVos backed a 2009 law allowing the state to close public schools—charters included—that scored in the bottom 5% of the state for three consecutive years. Only seven of the 54 schools with two strikes in the past two years were charters.

The real reason unions fear Mrs. DeVos is that she’s a rare reformer who has defeated them politically. Prior to being tapped by Mr. Trump, she chaired the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has helped elect hundreds of legislators across the country who support private school choice. Last year AFC and its affiliate groups spent $5 million on elections compared to the teachers unions’ $138 million. Yet 108 of the 121 candidates AFC supported won their races.

AFC has built a broad coalition that includes black and Latino Democrats, undercutting the union conceit that vouchers are a GOP plot to destroy public schools. In 2000 four states had private-school choice programs with 29,000 kids. Today, 25 states have vouchers, tax-credit scholarships or education-savings accounts benefitting more than 400,000 students.

Even if they can’t defeat Mrs. DeVos’s nomination, unions hope to leave her so politically weakened that she won’t be able to implement her agenda. The character assassinations—e.g., that she supports anti-gay groups—are primarily intended to turn the bureaucracy and public against her.

Yet their nasty campaign reeks of political desperation. You know progressives have lost their moral bearings when they save their most ferocious assault for a woman who wants to provide poor children with the education they need to succeed in America.

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The Library Lockout at Our Elementary School

January 9, 2017 by

When the librarian was let go, parents volunteered to help. But that’s a union job only, we were told.

PHOTO: ISTOCK

My 6-year-old daughter, Scarlett, is a first-grader at A.N. Pritzker Elementary, one of 600 schools in the Chicago Public Schools system. Scarlett enjoys reading, but she has recently faced a serious problem getting the books she wants. The Chicago Teachers Union is preventing her and her classmates from using the school library.

Due to a combination of budget cuts and enrollment numbers that were lower than expected, Pritzker’s librarian was laid off shortly after this school year began. Without a librarian, Pritzker students aren’t allowed to use the library. Dozens of parents have offered to volunteer in the library to keep it open. There was so much interest that the parent-teacher organization created a rotating schedule of regular volunteers to help out.

But before parents could begin volunteering, a teachers union member filed a formal complaint with the school system, objecting to the parents’ plan. Several weeks later, a union representative appeared at a local school council meeting and informed parents that the union would not stand for parental volunteers in the library. Although the parents intended to do nothing more than help students check books in and out, the union claimed that the parents would be impermissibly filling a role reserved for teachers. The volunteer project was shut down following the meeting and the library is currently being used for dance classes.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers, of which the Chicago Teachers Union is an affiliate. In response to President-elect Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department, Ms. Weingarten said in November that “we have an obligation to all children in America.” One part of getting children the education they need, she added, is ensuring that parents have a voice in their children’s education.

The Chicago union’s actions do not match Ms. Weingarten’s rhetoric. How does forcing the closure of an elementary school library square with the union’s stated mission of fighting for children? How does opposing parents who want to volunteer their time so that children can check out books constitute giving parents the voice they need?

On its website, the Chicago union expresses concern at the “extremely limited in-school and life experiences” available to many poor and minority students. The union says it is focused on closing the “opportunity gap.” But by shuttering the Pritzker library the union is limiting experiences and creating an opportunity gap for the 47% of Pritzker students who come from low-income families, as well as the school’s nonwhite pupils—74% of the student body.

If history is any guide, the union will blame budget cuts for the library’s closure. City Hall deserves its share of criticism for not resolving the public school budget crisis, but the union is hardly blameless. During recent contract negotiations the union demanded that the Chicago Public Schools both provide pay increases and continue covering pension contributions that the city wanted teachers to begin paying for themselves. To avoid a strike, the city agreed to both demands. This only reduces the pool of money available to pay additional instructor salaries and maintain head count.

My daughter Scarlett misses her library books. So do her classmates. If the union has the students’ best interests at heart, it will withdraw its opposition to parents volunteering in the school library.

Mr. Hendershot is a lawyer in Chicago.

School Choice Saves Money

December 31, 2016 by

A study from Wisconsin adds up some of the economic evidence.

ENLARGE
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Democrats opposed to school choice often claim that charter schools and vouchers siphon taxpayer money from traditional public schools. That’s rarely true because choice schools typically spend less per child. And now a study shows that Milwaukee’s landmark voucher program will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Readers may recall the story of St. Marcus Lutheran, one of Milwaukee’s top schools, which graduates about 90% of its students, more than 90% of whom come from low-income families. St. Marcus participates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and is in high demand. So when an empty public-school building came on the market in 2014 for an appraised value of $880,000, St. Marcus saw it as a chance to add a second campus for as many as 600 more students.

But the City of Milwaukee demanded a $1.3 million surcharge to compensate for what it said was the higher cost of school choice. St. Marcus had to walk away because it couldn’t afford the city’s surcharge for the building.

That’s when the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit that advocates for limited government and education reform, decided to look at the relative cost and benefits of choice schools. And, what do you know, it found that students participating in Milwaukee’s voucher program will provide the city, state and students nearly $500 million in economic benefits through 2035 thanks to higher graduation and lower crime rates.

Using data from a crime and graduation study by Corey DeAngelis and Patrick Wolf at the University of Arkansas, the Milwaukee study finds that through 2035 Wisconsin will receive a $473 million benefit from higher graduation rates by choice students. More education translates into higher incomes, more tax revenue and a lower likelihood of reliance on government welfare or other payments. Meanwhile, greater economic opportunity also prevents young adults from turning to crime, which the study estimates will save Wisconsin $1.7 million from fewer misdemeanors and $24 million from fewer felonies over the same 20 years.

Progressives typically assert that social spending yields all sorts of economic benefits, yet they refuse to see the benefits that voucher programs and charter schools provide. Why not look at the evidence?

Trump’s Education Pick: A Win for Public-School Parents

December 14, 2016 by

When Donald Trump selected an advocate for school choice, Betsy DeVos, to be secretary of education, he was acknowledging what many parents have noticed for some time: District-run public schools aren’t educating students well.

Earlier this month the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed that the performance of U.S. 15-year-olds on its Programme for International Student Assessment in math fell 18 points between 2009 and 2015. As the Obama administration was carrying out its main education initiative, “Race to the Top,” the United States was sliding further downward, falling from a tie for 26th place to a tie for 31st among the OECD’s 35 nations, coming out ahead of only Greece, Chile, Turkey and Mexico.

The news does not come as a surprise to American parents. My colleagues and I at Harvard University have uncovered a major discrepancy between the satisfaction levels of parents with children at public schools and those with children at private and charter schools as part of the 2016 Education Next survey, which is administered annually to a nationally representative sample of Americans.

Three-fourths or more of all parents with children in charter, public or private schools say they are either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the schools. But the percentages of parents who say they are “very satisfied” differ markedly across the three sectors.

According to our survey, 46% of private-school parents say they are “very satisfied” with the quality of their child’s teachers, and 32% of charter-school parents are equally enthusiastic, but only 23% of parents with students in public schools report that they are as satisfied. On the topic of schools instructing students in “character or values,” 59% of private-school parents report high satisfaction and 38% of charter parents, but only 21% of those sending their children to public schools do. Regarding school discipline, 46% of private-school parents are highly satisfied, 34% of charter-school parents and 17% in public schools. Questions about safety and expectations for students yield similar results.

Using an online survey, we were able to look at a representative cross-section of parents in the United States consisting of 774 individual parents with children in public schools, 426 in private schools and 317 in charter schools.

What we found is that parents with children in private schools are more likely to be homeowners, have higher incomes and college degrees. But charter parents, as compared with parents of students in public schools, have lower incomes, less education and are less likely to be homeowners. Twenty-one percent of charter parents are black and 36% are Hispanic, as compared with 10% and 25% in the public schools.

Public-school parents are more satisfied with the school’s location—probably because the school is typically a neighborhood institution. Also, they express greater satisfaction with extracurricular activities at the school. However, they are more likely to report as serious such problems as students destroying property, missing classes, fighting, and using drugs.

As we were completing our analysis, we unearthed a U.S. Education Department surveyfrom 2012 that posed similar questions to a nationally representative sample of parents, and we found that the Obama administration has never reported the charter-school results from this survey, although the raw data are publicly available for others to analyze.

Digging into this data, we discovered that this survey, too, reveals both private-school parents and charter parents to be more satisfied with their schools than parents with children assigned to public schools. They are also more satisfied with teachers, academic standards, discipline and “the way the school staff interacts with parents.”

Among the 9% of parents who choose for their children to attend schools such as public magnet schools and other schools that require students to pass admissions exams or show evidence of academic excellence, satisfaction levels are comparable to those at charters. But magnet and exam schools have greater resources and run more specialty programs in math, science and the performing arts. Meanwhile, most charters have more limited resources and accept all applicants unless too many people subscribe, in which case they hold a lottery.

Given the higher satisfaction levels at private and charter schools, and the hundreds of thousands of parents on wait lists for charter schools, public schools are under pressure. By appointing Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump is listening to parents and acknowledging that it’s time to begin thinking outside the public-school box.

Mr. Peterson is professor of government at Harvard University, where he directs the Program on Education Policy and Governance, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

How Trump’s Schools Chief Helped Turn Around Detroit

December 12, 2016 by

Her history of promoting charter schools goes back to 1994, when she worked closely with former Republican Gov. John Engler to pass Michigan’s charter law. These alternative public schools, free from union constraints, have flourished—especially in Detroit, where more than half of students attend charters. Only New Orleans has a higher percentage of students in charter schools.

But time and again, Michigan has resisted comprehensive reform. In 2000, Ms. DeVos and her husband funded a ballot initiative that would have created vouchers for students to use state funding at private schools. But the measure was defeated 69-31.

In 2003, a retired industrialist named Bob Thompson tried to give Detroit $200 million to establish a network of high-quality charter schools. His generous offer was originally accepted by then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrickand Gov. Jennifer Granholm. But the Detroit teachers union protested and the politicians withdrew their support. In frustration, Mr. Thompson also changed his mind.

But despite facing backlash, Ms. DeVos hasn’t given up. In 2011 a Republican-controlled legislature voted to lift the cap on the number of charters, which had been set at 150 university-authorized schools. This has helped them flourish further.

Michigan allows the schools to be chartered by a variety of institutions, including public universities, which run most of the schools, instead of making school districts the sole authorizer. Mr. Engler, with help from Ms. DeVos, designed the law this way to foster competition.

Since the mid-1990s, a dozen authorizers have opened nearly 100 charter schools in Detroit. Critics pretend this has led to a Wild West environment, where anything goes. There is indeed a need for more communication among authorizers regarding school location. But only seven new charters opened in Michigan last year. In Detroit there has been a net gain of only three charter schools over the past seven years. That’s hardly out-of-control expansion.

Michigan’s charter model has also been criticized for its purported lack of accountability. Critics claim that schools aren’t held to high standards. But more than 100 charters have been closed in the last 20 years, both for academic and financial reasons. Not a single traditional public school in the state has ever closed because of poor performance.

These arguments came to the fore early this year when legislation tied to a bailout of Detroit Public Schools was put forward that would have limited charter-school growth through the formation of a city education commission. The point of the commission was to boost enrollment at Detroit Public Schools, which is down by 100,000 in the past decade. The district was on the verge of bankruptcy.

The Great Lakes Education Project, the school-reform group funded by the DeVoses, fought hard against the unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. They prevailed, and lawmakers ultimately agreed in June on a $617 million bailout of the Detroit district, as well as some stronger accountability measures for all schools. For instance, persistently failing schools—including both traditional ones and charters—will be closed after three years of probation. About 30 schools fit that category, and dealing with the worst offenders would allow better schools to thrive.

There’s still work to be done. Detroit Public Schools have consistently scored dead last among America’s urban districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The city’s charters are doing better. In 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that Detroit charter students gain three months of extra learning a year compared with their peers in traditional schools. A 2015 study showed similar results. Detroit, it said, was one of four districts nationwide to “provide essential examples of school-level and system-level commitments to quality that can serve as models to other communities.” That’s despite the city’s having one of the highest-poverty urban charter populations.

Michigan still has in place an extremely restrictive anti-voucher constitutional amendment. When the 2000 ballot initiative flopped, it was Detroit youth who suffered. Vouchers also could have saved the city’s parochial schools, which for generations helped educate many of the poorest children. In 1985, there were 54 Catholic schools. Today, only eight remain.

Frustrated with the roadblocks in her home state, Ms. DeVos turned to promoting school choice nationally. Now half of states allow private-school options in some form. That includes Michigan’s neighbors in the Midwest—Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio—which boast both more choice and higher test scores.

Charter schools in Detroit have given parents at least one viable alternative to failing public schools. That’s thanks in large part to Betsy DeVos. Now, with the coming official title of education secretary, she has the opportunity to give parents all across the country the same kind of say in their children’s education.

Please watch this video in which Ms. DeVos speaks at the SXSWedu in Austin, TX.

Why Trump’s Education Pick Scares Unions

December 1, 2016 by

Betsy DeVos favors school choice and helped pass Michigan’s first charter-school bill.

Betsy DeVos on Nov. 19; Randi Weingarten in 2012. ENLARGE
Betsy DeVos on Nov. 19; Randi Weingarten in 2012. PHOTO: ZUMA PRESS; REUTERS

After Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to become education secretary, teachers union honcho Randi Weingarten tweeted: “Trump has chosen the most ideological, anti-public ed nominee since the creation of the Dept of Education.” Since what’s good for the unions is often bad for the schools, and vice versa, Ms. Weingarten’s apoplexy is reason to cheer.

Ms. DeVos is chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an organization dedicated to helping parents choose the best school for their kids. Ms. Weingarten leads the American Federation of Teachers, which is focused on what’s best for the adults.

Detractors say Ms. DeVos is opposed to public education. But she told an interviewer in 2013 that her definition of educational choice includes schools of all kinds. “What we are trying to do is tear down the mindset that assigns students to a school based solely on the zip code of their family’s home,” she said. “We think of the educational choice movement as involving many parts: vouchers and tax credits, certainly, but also virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and charter schools.” In the early 1990s, Ms. DeVos and her husband, a former president of Amway, were involved in passing Michigan’s first charter- school bill.

Ms. Weingarten brings a different set of priorities to the education debate. She has fought to keep persistently failing schools open because they still provide jobs for her dues-paying members. She has fought to ensure that government officials, rather than parents, decide where a child attends school. Union influence over education policy in the U.S. is unrivaled, and Ms. Weingarten prefers it that way. Her top concern is better pay and working conditions for her members. Students don’t pay union dues.

That doesn’t make her a bad person, but it should cast doubt on claims, too often swallowed whole by education reporters, that union interests are perfectly aligned with those of students and families. A union-negotiated work rule that says teachers can’t be evaluated by how much their students learn is a job-protection measure, but it obviously harms kids and school quality.Educationphilanthropists often work to accommodate the teachers unions. Ms. DeVos chose to fight them head on by backing political candidates who support school choice, the same way unions support candidates who don’t.Michael Petrilli, a veteran of George W. Bush’s Education Department who now runs the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote last week that the DeVos pick shows Mr. Trump’s seriousness. “She was one of the first people in ed-reform to understand that we weren’t going to beat the teachers unions with op-eds and policy papers,” he wrote. “She pushed the private school choice movement to invest in serious political giving much earlier than the mainstream reform groups did, and, so far, with far greater success.” In the 2016 election, the American Federation for Children invested in 121 races in 12 states and won 89% of them.

Mr. Trump clearly has tapped a fighter, and education reformers are thrilled. The school voucher program in Washington, D.C., that President Obama has spent two terms working to shut down—at the urging of the unions, natch—is likely to flourish under the new administration. Mr. Obama and his Education Department supported charter schools but not vouchers. Ms. DeVos embraces school choice writ large, and states interested in expanding educational options for low-income families will proceed knowing that Washington has their back.

Mr. Obama tended to regulate what he couldn’t legislate, and education policy was no exception. The administration imposed its will from Washington in areas traditionally left to the states—from Common Core curriculum standards, to bathroom rules for transgender students, to race-based school discipline policies. With any luck Ms. DeVos will promptly end this meddling.

Reformers are also hoping that the Trump administration learns from the past. To the dismay of many conservatives, George W. Bush greatly expanded the role of the federal government in K-12 schooling through the No Child Left Behind Act. Insisting that school districts break down test results by subgroup—low income, special education, racial minorities—increased transparency. But rewarding and punishing school districts based on yearly progress was overreach that even some who supported the law now regret. It legitimized a more muscular role in education for the feds.

Mr. Trump has proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program that students could use to attend public or private schools. But this idea presents similar hazards. Federal dollars will bring federal regulations, and reform-minded individuals like Betsy DeVos won’t forever be in charge of implementing them. Better to let the states lead on school choice. Now that Republicans control 33 governorships and both legislative chambers in 32 states, what’s stopping them?

Betsy DeVos’s School Mission

November 25, 2016 by

One promise of the Trump Presidency is that it will try to break up Washington’s political cartels. Among the worst is the Education Department, and Betsy DeVos is well positioned to take it on as Mr. Trump’s nominee to run that wholly owned subsidiary of the teachers unions and cultural left.

Mrs. DeVos is a philanthropist who has devoted years and much of her fortune to promoting school reform, especially charter schools and vouchers. She chairs the American Federation for Children (AFC), which has fought in the trenches across the country for more school choice to liberate kids from failing schools. By trenches we mean hand-to-hand political combat in state legislative races against the teachers unions.

AFC was especially successful this year, as 108 of the 121 candidates it supported won their elections. AFC candidates in Florida won 20 of 21 targeted races. The group’s biggest coup was ousting a scourge of school choice in a Miami-Dade Senate district where Democrats are a majority. The teachers union dumped $1 million into the race but still lost.

The union hoped to demonstrate diminishing public support for Florida’s tax-credit scholarships—the largest private-school choice program in the country—which is under review by the state Supreme Court. AFC ran ads with parents of scholarship recipients demanding that opponents be held accountable.

Choice advocates scored other big victories this month in what is an underreported election story. Indiana Republican Jennifer McCormick dislodged State Education Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who attacked charters and vouchers during her four-year term. Republican Mark Johnson also defenestrated a union-backed superintendent in North Carolina.

Teachers unions fanned public fury over North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law to exact retribution against GOP Governor Pat McCrory, who repealed teacher tenure, expanded charters and established vouchers. Even if Mr. McCrory loses his tight race for re-election, the legislature has locked in funding for vouchers that will escalate over 12 years.

New York Republicans maintained their state Senate majority, which is a crucial bulwark against the union-controlled Assembly. At least nine of the 10 Republican candidates supported by the pro-charter group StudentsFirstNY prevailed.

Charter groups even racked up victories in California, where many legislative races featured two Democrats due to the state’s nonpartisan primary. In an East Bay Assembly seat, Democrat Tim Grayson beat Mae Torlakson, who is married to the state’s union-friendly superintendent of public instruction. Charter groups also helped elect Democrat Anna Caballero and former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra to reclaim the seat he lost two years ago to a union frontwoman. California Teachers Association president Eric Heinsfrets that the freshman legislators could have a long-term impact.

One of Mrs. DeVos’s tasks will be leveraging her bully pulpit and federal dollars to extend this progress to the states, where most education money is spent. She will be the most pro-choice secretary since Bill Bennett in the Reagan years, and she is a particular improvement over George W. Bush’s secretary Margaret Spellings. The National Education Association union blew a gasket at Mrs. DeVos’s appointment Wednesday, which qualifies as high praise.

Mrs. DeVos will have to study up quickly on higher education, where the ObamaAdministration has done so much harm. This means revisiting rules on for-profit colleges and especially the destructive “guidance” on enforcing Title IX that has forced schools to jettison due process for accused students and faculty.

The union and progressive backlash will be ferocious, so it’s good that Mr. Trump has picked a nominee in Mrs. DeVos who knows how to fight and to make the moral case for reform.

Teachers Unions Fight to Save Georgia’s ‘Dropout Factories’

November 6, 2016 by
Voters in Atlanta, March 1.
Voters in Atlanta, March 1. PHOTO: ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Atlanta

The old saying that the states are the laboratories of American democracy certainly holds true for public education. On Tuesday, Georgia voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment designed to rescue thousands of students from failing schools.

If passed, it would create a new statewide Opportunity School District. Struggling schools that receive an “F” grade for three consecutive years could be transferred to the new district, which could then make changes, convert them to charter schools or close them.

This isn’t so much an experiment as a replication. Georgia’s plan is modeled in part after Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which spurred remarkable gains in student achievement after Hurricane Katrina. It also resembles Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which the legislature created in 2010.

That is what worries America’s education establishment. Teachers unions do not want this model of school reform to spread further. As of Nov. 1, campaign disclosures show, the National Education Association alone has poured $4.7 million into opposing Georgia’s amendment. For the most part the unions are making a conservative pitch: They argue that the Opportunity School District would create a new, unaccountable state bureaucracy that would take schools out of local control.

It’s the same case the unions made in 2012. The Georgia ballot then included a constitutional amendment allowing the state to create charter schools—a workaround if local education boards didn’t want them. That measure passed easily, 59% to 41%, and opponents’ dire predictions haven’t come to fruition. But the union effort this year is better funded, and opinion polls indicate that the Opportunity School District won’t pass nearly as comfortably. Balloting is expected to be close.

Voters who haven’t yet made up their minds ought to look hard at Louisiana’s example. Before Katrina, Democrats had already created the Recovery School District, but it had been barely used. In the crisis after the hurricane, officials transferred New Orleans’s 107 lowest-performing schools to its management. Only 16 citywide were left in the hands of the local board.

Some schools in the recovery district were closed. Over time, all of the rest were converted to charters. Families could choose which schools their children attended. Teachers and principals were given unprecedented control over their curricula, budgets and personnel.

“We hired some talented individuals. We implemented an academic model that was very strong,” says Jamar McKneely, a former teacher who is now the CEO of Inspire NOLA, which manages three charters. “In the old system, we couldn’t do that, because we had to deal with district mandates that honestly didn’t lead to academic gains for our students.”

The results have been dramatic: New Orleans’s high-school-graduation rate leapt by 21 percentage points, to 75%, between 2004 and 2015. Students in the city improved their average ACT score by almost two points, to 18.8 from 17, over a decade. College enrollment was 63% in 2015, up from 37% in 2004.

Critics claim that this success came only because Katrina drove many poor families and minorities out of New Orleans. The demographics, however, are little changed. Between 2004 and 2014, the percentage of black students dropped slightly, to 87% from 93%. But the share of students considered “economically disadvantaged” rose to 84% from 77%. Moreover, the recovery district teaches a higher proportion of children with disabilities, 13%, than the city or state as whole. The gains didn’t come from cherry-picking the best students.

Seeing sustained success, the state legislature voted this year to return all of New Orleans’s schools back to the local board, while maintaining their autonomy. A fair-minded observer would conclude that the recovery district helped break a cycle of failure. “We often ask ourselves, if it were your child, what would you want to do?” says Patrick Dobard, the district’s superintendent. “Stay on a perpetual hamster wheel, or get off the perpetual hamster wheel and hold people accountable for bringing change?”

After watching this from afar, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, made a campaign promise in 2014: If re-elected, he would seek to bring the same model here. He pushed an amendment for the new district through the General Assembly, securing the two-thirds majorities needed to place it on the ballot.

Today, Georgia deems 127 of its schools, serving almost 68,000 students, chronically failing. Many students attend only failing schools from kindergarten through high school. “I had a child that actually graduated from one of the schools on the list,” says Valencia Stovall, a Democratic state representative who voted for the measure. “For me, I saw the whole gamut of what happens when students are stuck in those schools. . . . When you have a nonresponsive school board, like we had, it makes parents and even teachers angry.”

That’s where the “local control” argument falls apart. What is more local than a charter school, with teachers and parents crafting solutions for their unique challenges? Which is closer to students: A charter serving a few hundred, or a city board of education responsible for tens of thousands of kids?

Georgia’s economic future—and America’s more broadly—depends on turning around “dropout factories” in cities like Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta. But what worries the teachers unions is that a good idea might spread—from Louisiana, to Georgia, to a dozen other states that are serious about fixing failing schools.

Mr. Wingfield is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Should Christians Vote for Trump?

October 13, 2016 by
Praying at a Trump campaign rally on Tuesday in Panama City, Fla.ENLARGE
Praying at a Trump campaign rally on Tuesday in Panama City, Fla. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

This question should hardly require an essay, but let’s face it: We’re living in strange times. America is in trouble.

Over this past year many of Donald Trump’s comments have made me almost literally hopping mad. The hot-mic comments from 2005 are especially horrifying. Can there be any question we should denounce them with flailing arms and screeching volume? I must not hang out in the right locker rooms, because if anyone I know said such things I might assault him physically (and repent later). So yes, many see these comments as a deal breaker.

But we have a very knotty and larger problem. What if the other candidate also has deal breakers? Even a whole deplorable basketful? Suddenly things become horribly awkward. Would God want me simply not to vote? Is that a serious option?

What if not pulling the lever for Mr. Trump effectively means electing someone who has actively enabled sexual predation in her husband before—and while—he was president? Won’t God hold me responsible for that? What if she defended a man who raped a 12-year-old and in recalling the case laughed about getting away with it? Will I be excused from letting this person become president? What if she used her position as secretary of state to funnel hundreds of millions into her own foundation, much of it from nations that treat women and gay people worse than dogs? Since these things are true, can I escape responsibility for them by simply not voting?

Many say they won’t vote because choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. But this is sophistry. Neither candidate is pure evil. They are human beings. We cannot escape the uncomfortable obligation to soberly choose between them. Not voting—or voting for a third candidate who cannot win—is a rationalization designed more than anything to assuage our consciences. Yet people in America and abroad depend on voters to make this very difficult choice.

Children in the Middle East are forced to watch their fathers drowned in cages by ISIS. Kids in inner-city America are condemned to lives of poverty, hopelessness and increasing violence. Shall we sit on our hands and simply trust “the least of these” to God, as though that were our only option? Don’t we have an obligation to them?

Two heroes about whom I’ve written faced similar difficulties. William Wilberforce, who ended the slave trade in the British Empire, often worked with other parliamentarians he knew to be vile and immoral in their personal lives.

Why did he? First, because as a sincere Christian he knew he must extend grace and forgiveness to others, since he desperately needed them himself. Second, because he knew the main issue was not his moral purity, nor the moral impurity of his colleagues, but rather the injustices and horrors suffered by the African slaves whose cause he championed. He knew that before God his first obligation was to them, and he must do what he could to help them.

The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by. He most infamously joined a plot to kill the head of his government. He was horrified by it, but he did it nonetheless because he knew that to stay “morally pure” would allow the murder of millions to continue. Doing nothing or merely “praying” was not an option. He understood that God was merciful, and that even if his actions were wrong, God saw his heart and could forgive him. But he knew he must act.

Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer knew it was an audience of One to whom they would ultimately answer. And He asks, “What did you do to the least of these?”

It’s a fact that if Hillary Clinton is elected, the country’s chance to have a Supreme Court that values the Constitution—and the genuine liberty and self-government for which millions have died—is gone. Not for four years, or eight, but forever. Many say Mr. Trump can’t be trusted to deliver on this score, but Mrs. Clinton certainly can be trusted in the opposite direction. For our kids and grandkids, are we not obliged to take our best shot at this? Shall we sit on our hands and refuse to choose?

If imperiously flouting the rules by having a private server endangered American lives and secrets and may lead to more deaths, if she cynically deleted thousands of emails, and if her foreign-policy judgment led to the rise of Islamic State, won’t refusing to vote make me responsible for those suffering as a result of these things? How do I squirm out of this horrific conundrum? It’s unavoidable: We who can vote must answer to God for these people, whom He loves. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

We would be responsible for passively electing someone who champions the abomination of partial-birth abortion, someone who is celebrated by an organization that sells baby parts. We already live in a country where judges force bakers, florists and photographers to violate their consciences and faith—and Mrs. Clinton has zealously ratified this. If we believe this ends with bakers and photographers, we are horribly mistaken. No matter your faith or lack of faith, this statist view of America will dramatically affect you and your children.

For many of us, this is very painful, pulling the lever for someone many think odious. But please consider this: A vote for Donald Trump is not necessarily a vote for Donald Trump himself. It is a vote for those who will be affected by the results of this election. Not to vote is to vote. God will not hold us guiltless.

Mr. Metaxas, host of the nationally syndicated “Eric Metaxas Show,” is the author of “If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty” (Viking, 2016).

A Bay State Referendum on Charter Schools

September 29, 2016 by

Boston’s charter-school students are learning twice as fast as their peers. Why vote against more charters?

Cambridge, Mass.

A half-dozen times in recent years I have participated in “book club night” at a local charter school—a not-for-credit event where seventh- and eighth-graders meet with adult volunteers to discuss a book we have all read in advance.

These nights are pretty much a charter proponent’s fantasy. The kids are wide-eyed and respectful. They not only have read the material, they are brimming with questions. Every one of them is black or Hispanic and lower-income—what is commonly referred to as “disadvantaged.” Except, they don’t appear disadvantaged.

These students have big plans for the future—including college. And why not? They are learning twice as fast as their peers in traditional schools, on average. According to a 2013 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Boston charter students “gain an additional 12 months in reading and 13 months in math per school year.” Remarkably, African-Americans in the city’s charters are progressing faster than white students at traditional public schools.

Such results have made Massachusetts ground zero for the national charter debate. Due to state laws limiting charter-school capacity, 32,000 kids—most of them poor minorities—languish on waiting lists. This year the state legislature tried to craft a compromise to ease the restrictions but failed. Now it’s up to voters: A referendum on the November ballot would authorize the state to open as many as 12 new charters each year, adding to the roughly 70 in operation now.

In one sense, the ballot measure, known as Question 2, has already proved a boon: Money is pouring in. Pro-charter groups and individuals, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have contributed more than $12 million to pass it, according to financial reports filed with the state. Local unions and the American Federation of Teachers have raised about $6.8 million to defeat it. By comparison, a ballot item to legalize pot has smoked out only $3 million.

Charters are public schools run by independent operators, unconstrained by union rules but subject to the same basic educational standards. Results vary, but studies, like one in 2011 by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, suggest that poor and minority students do particularly well in charters.Posting admission by lottery results at a charter school in Boston.

Massachusetts has been a front-runner in education since the 1830s, when Horace Mann set out to create a system of public schools. In a state that takes great pride in education, Question 2 has inflamed passions. Local Republicans, who want no part of this year’s presidential politics, are avidly in favor, with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker leading the charge. Democrats are painfully divided, as one might expect for an issue that, arguably, separates the interests of organized teachers from their students.

The Democratic state committee opposes Question 2. Seth Moulton,the freshman congressman in Massachusetts’ sixth district, is undecided. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who represents the fourth district, is against. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh supports enabling more charters but opposes Question 2, citing its budgetary impact and favoring a gradual approach.

Opponents point out that the state’s public schools, on average, consistently rank among the country’s best. True, but the “average” masks some severe underperformance, at urban schools in particular. The argument that charters cherry-pick the best students is a canard. Admission is by lottery, and charter students in urban areas retain their edge when compared against those (presumably equally as motivated) who applied but didn’t get in.

A more substantive concern is that when a student abandons a traditional public school, a pro rata share of funding is diverted from the district school to the charter. Massachusetts has a generous program to reimburse local districts but, over time, aid money goes down. “Since the majority will continue to be educated in mainstream schools we have to be sensitive to that,” says Paul Reville, the top education adviser to Deval Patrick, the former Democratic governor. But Mr. Reville, now at Harvard, adds that school districts also have a responsibility to consolidate if their populations shrink. He says, “We ought to be as vigilant about closing [failing] mainstream schools as we are about charters.”

Smaller districts can’t always consolidate: If you have only one math class and you lose 10% of your funding, you still need a math teacher. Much of the problem is one of will. In Boston, the student population has been flat or shrinking for years. City government has offset the diversion of money to charters by siphoning a greater share of general funds to education. This is less sensible than it might sound.

Boston public schools have 93,000 seats yet only about 54,000 students, according to a 2015 audit by McKinsey & Co. Along with that comes plummeting student-teacher ratios and bloated operational staffs. The real squeeze on public schools, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Boston Municipal Research Bureau, arises from the “struggle” to cut excess capacity.

Whatever happens with Question 2, most kids in Massachusetts will remain in traditional public schools. That is why the referendum gives priority to new charters in districts that are truly failing their students. Some Question 2 opponents argue suburban districts could lose control of their schools, but this is unlikely. Only 4% of the state’s public students attend charters, and high-performing suburbs would mostly be unaffected.

Paul Grogan, who runs the Boston Foundation, a philanthropy that contributes to charters and (in much greater amounts) to regular public schools, says charters fulfill a vital role as incubators of reform. Thanks to competitive pressures, public schools—famously resistant to change—at long last are lengthening the school day and giving principals more autonomy and budget discretion. Local districts that fail to respond, he suggests, deserve their fate: “The fundamental issue is should the money be chained to institutions or should it follow the children?”

Mr. Lowenstein’s most recent book is “America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve” (Penguin Press, 2015)