National School Choice Week: School Choice is Weak in Montgomery County

Posted 12 February 2014 by Zinzindor
Categories: charter school, Education

Tags: ,

We’re just out of National School Choice Week, and the Daily Beast is reporting on the issue as a matter of civil rights advocacy.  It’s bringing together civil rights advocates and conservatives, — for example, ultraconservative  Sen. Ted Cruz and ultraliberal Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee  —  in joint advocacy for opening up options for parents and students.

School choice, broadly, is about getting a variety of options for educational settings.  Choices include magnet schools, homeschooling, private schools, charter schools, and on-line coursework.   It’s also about getting parents to stop thinking automatically of the neighborhood school as the only place for their children.

But in order to have options available for parents, the forces that impede those options have to be cleared. School bureaucracies and teacher unions (Hello MCPS and MCEA!) fight against the interest of students, in favoring of solidifying their own power over education and school budgets.  The forces in favor of empowering the public school bureaucracy are particularly strong in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County took home a C- on the Brookings Institution’s annual Education Choice and Competition Index, released last month.   Baltimore City Schools and Washington DC Public Schools did relatively well, each earning a B minus score.

Here are some of the grading criteria, and how Montgomery County met them (poorly, or not at all):

Availability of Alternative Schools

“Alternatives to traditional public schools include charters and at least two of the following: magnets, vouchers, affordable private and tax credit scholarships [NO]

 Assignment Mechanism: A measurement of opportunity for students to get into alternative settings.

 – Students are assigned to schools through an application process in which parents express their preferences (rather than through geographical attendance zones)  [NO]

– Students receive a default school assignment based on a geographical attendance zone but parents can easily express their preferences for other schools [NO]

– Assignment to oversubscribed schools that do not engage in preferential admissions maximizes parental preference [NO]

– Assignment to schools out of the students’ geographical attendance zone is difficult, unclear or substantially disadvantages parents [YES]

 The survey looks at processes and results.  It doesn’t examine the degree to which county school administration facilitates school choice.  In Montgomery, the school board actively seeks to block and hinder school choice.  It’s probably only the high average income level which enables wealthier parents to facilitate school choice, leading to MoCo getting a grade as strong as C-.      That really doesn’t reflect how poorly the school system treats lower-income parents, who don’t have the means to overcome the impediments that the board of education and MCPS place in their way.

MoCo will likely do even worse next year, as the only charter school in the county is closing down.

 

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Voluntary? I Don’t Think So

Posted 9 February 2014 by Zinzindor
Categories: Budget and Taxes, Corporate Welfare, County government

Tags:

 

More than half the County Council is sponsoring a bill to create public financing for political campaigns in Montgomery.  The bill would mandate that tax funds go into a new pot of money for candidates to draw from.  Echoing the PR of Councilman Phil Andrews, who is introducing the bill, the Post gushes “Andrews plan is completely voluntary.”   By this, they mean that the pols don’t have to take money from it.  But it’s not voluntary for county taxpayers, who would be forced to pay more money — purely for the benefit of the candidates.

Andrews and the sponsors call it “campaign finance reform.”

I call it “Welfare for Politicians.”

 

Council and Executive Lay Higher Burdens on Montgomery Residents, Drag Down the Economy

Posted 4 June 2013 by Zinzindor
Categories: Budget and Taxes, Economy

Tags: ,

The County Council (last week) approved the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.  In a time of austerity, this budget represents a turn back to bigger government.  While the citizens are tightening their belts, this budget increases spending by 4.1% over last year.  The budget recommended by the county executive and now approved by the county council increases property taxes and increases energy taxes.  Combined with the increase in state taxes (including the jacked-up gasoline tax), this will be a draw down on the county’s economy.

There is a popular opinion that Montgomery County has not been affected by the recession, and therefore the government can increases taxes and spending willy-nilly.  But unemployment in the county is 56% higher than it was in 2008.  A report from the Sage Policy Group concludes that the 80% increase in the state’s regressive gasoline tax is likely to cause the loss of  959 jobs, and a loss of $124M to the economy.   The county budget is only likely to drag down employment and the economy even further.

Can’t Stop Spending that Cash of Yours

Posted 18 April 2013 by Zinzindor
Categories: Budget and Taxes, County government, Montgomery County

Okay, I don’t really feel all that much sympathy for the county executive.  But watching Ike Leggett maneuver is a little like watching a Buster Keaton movie;  “Oh, no, he’s about to walk under that falling piano!”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Leggett put out his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year (2014), detailing plans to (what else?) increase spending and (what else?) increase taxes.  He proposes to increase property taxes by 2.2%.  As the average tax bill in the county is about $4500, that is roughly an additional $100 per household annually.  (You’ve got that just lying around, don’t you?)

Furthermore, he’s is proposing to extend the “temporary” energy tax once again. According to legislation passed two years ago, residential energy taxes are scheduled to go back to 0.5 cents per KWH; instead, they’ll more than double.  Business rates are scheduled at 1.3 cents per KWH; instead, they’ll almost double.  Again, we’re talking hundreds of additional tax dollars to the county, which every home and business has to spare right now because we’re in such flush economic times.

Leggett also proposes to increase spending by $190 million (4.1%) this year, after an increase of $199 million the previous year.
Now comes the County Council budget analysts, who tells us that after increasing spending by $390 million over these two years, the county budget will have a $300 million deficit the following year.

Kate Jacobson, what will I do without you?

Public Service Commission Doesn’t Help the Public

Posted 15 April 2013 by Zinzindor
Categories: Maryland, Regulation

Tags: , , , ,

Nearly a year after the dreadful power outages of the 2012 derecho,  the Public Service Commission has finally taken decisive action, to show how well government can regulate utilities to protect consumer interests.  They’ve decided … to do nothing.

They did, however, note “a significant and unsatisfactory disconnect between the public’s expectations of the distribution system reliability… and the ability of the present-day electric distribution systems to meet those expectations.”

There are two basic ways to ensure that service providers are aware of the needs of their customers, and remain responsive to those needs.  One way is to promulgate and enforce government regulations on the service providers.  The other is to have market pressures and competition as the hammer to induce businesses to meet customer needs efficiently and effectively.

Once again, then, we see the impotence of government regulation when it comes to protecting consumer interests  Contrast it with the consumer sovereignty in a market system.  When products or services don’t meet their expectations, consumers don’t meet for a year to decide to do nothing.  They don’t need to become experts in the ins and outs of distribution systems and economic regulation.  Instead, they simply move their business elsewhere.  The state of Maryland should be focused on revamping the regulatory system to resemble a real market with choice, to enable electricity customers to do just that.

Damn the low-income residents and the jobless: Anybody but WalMart!

Posted 10 April 2013 by Zinzindor
Categories: local government, Montgomery County, Regulation, The War on the Poor

Tags:

The building on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Aspen Hill Road in Aspen Hill has been empty for three years.  At the same time, downcounty residents have been looking forward to a WalMart opening in the area, where heavy discounts on household goods and groceries would be available.  And to complete the confluence of opportunity and fortune, Walmart is interested in occuping the space, which would establish dozens of jobs.  Sounds like a fortuitous win/win/win situation, right?  Who could oppose this?  Councilman Craig Rice, who is often looking out for the interests of low-income residents,  is eager to see it happen.

But Councilman George Leventhal, who is often looking out for politically popular causes, is trying to stop it.  After all, criticizing Walmart is all the rage among Leventhal’s upper-income constituents.  It’s chic to oppose the lowbrow store, which doesn’t serve gourmet fair trade chai or organic truffles.  Leventhal complained that “the county has not had a chance to weigh Walmart over other potential uses for the land.”

It’s been three years, George, and no one else is moving in there.  Yet he continues to block the approval process, hoping that someone more tasteful might be persuaded to move there.

What To Do About the Bag Tax?

Posted 7 April 2013 by Zinzindor
Categories: County government, Regulation

Tags: , , , ,

What do do about the bag tax?  The County Council is currently considering the question, including options for expanding the tax, increasing it, reducing the types of retail locations which must charge it, and banning plastic bags completely.
MoCo reports that the county has taken in about $2 million from the bag tax, much more than had been expected.  This demonstrates that some combination of the following conclusions is true:

(a) shoppers find bags to be convenient, and are willing to pay for them

(b) grocery shoppers have learned that plastic bags are a more sanitary way of carrying food, and are seeking to avoid the bacterial diseases associated with reusable bags

(c) the bag tax, in the end, has just been a way to raise revenues for the cash-strapped county government.

The negative effects of the bag tax are beginning to pile up:

Retail thefts and shoplifting have surged in areas where bag taxes are put into place, as it becomes much easier for shoplifters to pilfer merchandise and slip it into the shopping bags they are already carrying.  This phenomenon seems to be found wherever bag taxes (or bans) have been put into effect.

Council member Craig Rice has noted a corollary to this problem.  As department stores have become suspicious of people walking around with roomy bags, racial profiling leads to more black men being stopped and interrogated by store security personnel.

– Theft of supermarket grocery baskets has increased. Apparently, people figure that they need a convenient way to carry their purchases, but don’t want to pay extra for bags.

– Most distressingly, researchers are finding evidence of illnesses associated with these bans.  This was predictable, as shoppers are carrying fresh meat, vegetables, and fast food fried chicken and hamburgers in these bags, over and over again.   Even beyond microbial contamination, reusable bags often have toxic materials, like lead, that leach into the food people carry. Senator Charles Schumer of New York has called for a federal investigation of this problem.

One-use bags are also more sanitary.  Since people tend not to wash their reusable bags, they increase the risk of food-borne illness.  Studies of San Francisco, which banned plastic bags in 2007, reported that after the bag ban there was a spike in the number of E. coli cases and increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses.  Another study found that 8 percent of all reusable bags contained E. coli and doubted how often shoppers actually wash their bag.

– Finally, the environmental impacts of the bag tax are at question.  There is anecdotal evidence of reduced bag litter in the county’s waterways, but increased litter from bottles and food packaging, which is harder to carry without a bag.  The bag tax, in effect, creates an incentive for increasing this kind of litter.  Not only that, but the tax increases total resource consumption.  People tended to reuse plastic grocery bags for dog waste, lining trash baskets, etc.  The National Black Chamber of Commerce notes that consumption of store-bought plastic bags increased by 400 percent in Ireland, after that country implemented a bag tax.

The bag tax is a classic example of unintended consequences of legislation.  (OK, that’s a generous term.  I’d say it is an example of a failure of policy analysis).  Unless bringing in more revenue for the county government was the main purpose,  the tax is doing much more harm than good.  Certainly expansion of the tax (or a ban) would be even more harmful.