Data Wonk

Marching Towards Ideological Conformity

Ideology prevents Republicans from offering real solutions. Ditto for liberal charter school haters.

By - Oct 20th, 2015 11:30 am

Models of various kind have proven useful in helping people understand the world we live in. Modern science, for instance, has developed through the development of successive models which have been tested in a series of experiments and as a result have been refined, accepted or modified.

Although useful, models come with dangers. One is that the model’s fans cease to recognize that the model is a representation of reality and not reality itself. The model then becomes ideology. Rather than attempting to describe what is going on, models become proscriptive—what should be done. Rather than asking what is most effective in dealing with a problem, the test becomes whether or not a solution conforms to the given ideology.

This is the trap that various interest groups have imposed on conservative thought in recent years. Rather than asking whether a policy is good for America, the test becomes whether or not it is “conservative” enough. Groups like Americans for Prosperity and individuals like Grover Norquist with his no tax pledge have been extraordinarily successful in marginalizing conservative thinkers who might hazard a fresh thought.

Republican office-holders who think for themselves live in fear they will be branded RINOS (Republicans in Name Only) and draw an opponent in their next primary. As a result, Republicans have largely stopped offering real solutions to real problems. The ideological purge has limited the ability of Republicans to come up with solutions to the country’s challenges. Here are some obvious examples:

  • Health care. Despite Republicans’ promise to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare, they have been unable to come up with the “replace” part. As I noted in an earlier column, they are so bound up with ideological constraints that there is no “conservative” replacement that does not substantially increase the number of people without health care insurance, as was clear from the plan offered by Scott Walker during his short-lived race for the presidency.
  • Climate change. Rather than offer conservative solutions to climate change—like a carbon tax—science denial-ism is the order of the day on the right. Surveys of conservative parties in other countries have been unable to identify any that, like the American Republican Party, denies the reality of global warming. By denying the problem, the Republican Party abdicates any role in designing a solution. In fact, they oppose any solution.
  • Growing income and wealth inequality. It is unclear whether the right believes this is not a problem or that it will be solved by throwing more money at rich people by reducing marginal tax rates.
  • Job Growth. The right continues to push so-called “supply side economics” which holds that lowering taxes on the wealthy brings prosperity. Never mind that the evidence does not support this theory. They seem to have learned nothing from Wisconsin’s failure (see the 250,000 new jobs promised — and yet to be delivered — by Walker). Similarly, Kansas has doubled down on its tax cuts that succeeded only in cutting funds for education and other services, but did nothing to stimulate job growth. This theory also does a poor job of explaining events at the national level—e.g., why the Clinton tax increases were followed by strong growth or the Bush tax cuts by mediocre growth.

Given the present ideological rigidity on the right, you might conclude that close-mindedness is inherent to conservative thinking. There was a time, however, when conservatives were offering fresh ideas for many challenges facing America. Solutions embraced by liberals today may have had their origin with thinkers on the right.

When originally proposed, pollution taxes were denounced by many environmentalists as a “license to pollute,” but supported by many conservatives for harnessing the power of the market to get a bigger “bang for the buck” than direct government regulations. The effectiveness of pollution taxes was shown by the sulfur tax on emissions from coal-burning plants. Yet when it comes to counteracting global warming a carbon tax is often viewed as a “liberal” solution.

A recent column in the New York Times by conservative economist and Romney adviser Greg Mankiw attempts to reclaim the carbon tax for conservatives. More likely it will help make him persona non grata in any future Republican administration. After all, if there is no global warming, there is no need for a carbon tax.

Another example is the Earned Income Tax Credit established under the Ford administration as a way to help people move out of poverty while not undermining their incentive to work.

Finally, ObamaCare’s individual mandate originated with the conservative Heritage Foundation as a way that health insurance could be expanded to those without it, particularly people at high risk, while not uprooting the existing health insurance market.

The right’s instinct for ideological purity has echoes on the left, including in Milwaukee, where there’s a similar reluctance to consider a free exchange of ideas, particularly in public education debates.

In common with most other cities its size, Milwaukee faces the question of what to do with schools in which most of the students are not mastering the skills they will need to prosper in today’s economy. One approach pushed by the past three MPS superintendents and advocated by the Obama administration is to convert some of these schools to charter schools, particularly charters with a record of success.

DPI Accountability Score -- Milwaukee High Schools

DPI Accountability Score — Milwaukee High Schools

Recently the MPS administration proposed that Carmen High School be allowed to share space at the Pulaski High School building. A glance at student achievement suggests one reason this proposal would be attractive. The first graph plots the 2013-14 DPI Accountability Scores for the two schools, as well as all other Milwaukee high schools, including other charter schools. Carmen ranks much higher than Pulaski.

While Wisconsin is skipping the reporting of school achievement scores for 2014-15, it has reported average ACT scores for the previous year. These are shown on the next graph for the two schools and the statewide average.

In addition to addressing the achievement gap, this building-sharing proposal is attractive to MPS because Carmen is authorized by MPS, so that its students are included in the MPS students, helping the MPS budget.

Past proposals by the MPS administration to turn some of the schools with a concentration of such students into charter schools have often been rejected by the Milwaukee School Board under pressure from the teachers’ union. In response, the state legislature passed a law to have a several low-performing schools converted to charter schools under the control of the county executive.

Average ACT Scores

Average ACT Scores

The latest proposal has come under fire from an organization called Schools and Communities United. Its membership includes a variety of organizations on the left, but the power seems to rest with the MTEA. Its mission seems to be protecting the status quo in education.

The opposition to the building-sharing plan offers a striking parallel with current arguments on the right. One is the lack of interest on offering alternatives that address the problems. For example, on the right it has become increasingly obvious there is no interest in addressing the challenge of people without health care coverage.

Similarly, there is no discussion of student achievement on the Schools and Community United web site nor is it mentioned in a Shepherd Express article that is highly sympathetic to the organization. Instead the concern that comes through is all about power–which adults get to make the decisions.

Both the far left and far right have other similarities. Both are hostile to testing and measurement. The SCU site includes a petition to encourage parents to opt out from testing. And the reason there is no 2014-15 DPI Accountability Score is that Walker and the Republican legislature, in trying to appeal to the Tea Party, put the state’s testing program on hold.

Another similarity is the emphasis on local control over considerations of effectiveness. The right wing accuses the Obama administration of federalizing education. For the left, attacking Obama would be politically untenable, so it finds other scapegoats, such as Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.

Americans for Prosperity finds its local analog in something called the Working Families Party. A very sympathetic article in the Shepherd Express makes it clear that its prime mission is to purge Democratic office holders who dare to disagree with some of its positions.

Any effort to impose ideological purity threatens those trying to develop solutions that actually work. This is true whether the effort comes from the right or the left. That the pressure for conformity is more advanced on the right does not remove the threat on the left. Political fundamentalism serves to close down discussion and makes finding solutions more difficult. You can see its impact on the Republican Party in Congress, on the presidential trail, and in Wisconsin. It’s hardly something to be emulated.

3 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Marching Towards Ideological Conformity”

  1. folkbum says:

    Bruce, legitimate question, because I don’t know: Did Carmen give the ACT to all graduating seniors in 13-14? Traditional MPS schools like Pulaski did, but it was not required statewide until the 15-16 graduating class. In that way, comparing Pulaski to the state–or to Carmen if Carmen didn’t require it of all students–is somewhat apples to oranges.

    Not that I think Pulaski students outscored the state or Carmen; surely, Pulaski’s numbers were worse. But I fully expect to see a big drop in statewide ACT scores for this year’s graduates as non-college bound students everywhere take it as has happened in MPS for years.

    Further, I do think it bears repeating that Carmen’s students demographically simply do not look like Pulaski’s. The special ed population is dramatically lower, the stability rate is dramatically higher. Again, I’m not saying Carmen isn’t doing good things or that Pulaski is some kind of great school–I would never send my kid there–but in this case just looking at the data is misleading.

    And, my last point which has naught to do with data: If there’s something Carmen does pedagogically that would “benefit” Pulaski, why not do something like simply hire the Carmen team to take on the reins of Pulaski? or buy the magic beans and sew them in Pulaski? Why the need to remove more students from the traditional public schools in order to multi-plex Pulaski, when multiplexing has been proven a failure everywhere in MPS. Last month the Board finally undid the last of Andrekopoulos’s multi-plex adventures by splitting Morse and Marshall again.

  2. Bill Sell says:


    Your sweeping condemnation of “the left” on charter schools misses the fine points in one area that Folkbum ably addresses. But who is this “left” that you believe marches lock-step with anyone? We are a fractious lot and we spend energy getting elected officials to pay attention, sometimes to one issue at a time because that is the alternative to money.

    First, yes, I know you are talking “charter” here, but voucher schools hide behind the skirts of our best charter schools. Leaving the words “voucher” and “private” out of your essay is the skirt. And since you don’t mention voucher schools, I will, if only because on the level of popular perception the two are seen as “the same.”

    Hostility to private schools using public money arises from issues that are not merely ideological – but enough to keep parents on edge.

    It is the ever-increasing urban classroom size; it’s the gilded suburban school rooms with an assistant; it’s that private schools got to keep the voucher money if the child stayed for three weeks; it is the burial of arts and music; it’s the $50 million in Milwaukee’s property tax siphoned off to private schools; it’s the testing that shows voucher-funded schools do not show the benefit from “competing” with public schools – on the contrary. It’s voucher schools registration selectivity, forbidden by law for public schools. When will our “system” get back to the kids in poverty, from gunfire neighborhoods, with parents working minimum wage jobs – the kids that need us?

    Taking note of your worthy comments, I submit that these parental concerns are not ideologies; they are facts on the ground. They are on the minds of people who are not wonky but worried.

    We understand how private school choice has built a political power on the conflation of church and state that is now tearing up our State. We are left to weigh the “right’s” ideology – the supremacy of parent’s choice over any other value – with the other not-so ideological violation of the first Amendment and our freedom of (and from) religion. Yes, we disagree with the Supreme Court decision that permitted this. Surprise!

    And when test results bear out that public schools do better, we gather round the wagons to protect working class families from schools for profit, our kids as widgets. Still, what is so hard to understand about us being on edge, about politicians and MTEA who diagnose this wound and promise to heal it? I tell you, I’m grateful. Not that I agree with everything from the left, but I see the discussion we need to have – one issue at a time, as befits the “left” – rising to the level that politicians are concerned – finally.

  3. Bruce Thompson says:

    On your first point, on ACT participation rates, generally charters are expected to have their students take the same tests as other public school students. More specifically the DPI page shows participation at 103.1% (!) and Pulaski at 87.1%.

    On the demographic issue, there are several factors. One is that the law from federal on down insists that no student can be assigned to a charter school, so the demographics reflect choices by students and parents. Another argument from the schools is that they are less likely to classify a student as special needs than MPS (so far as I know no one has tried to quantify this but there is certainly anecdotal evidence.

    On your last point, the MPS administration is treating the proposal as a “partnership” in the hopes that something that Carmen does will rub off on Pulaski.

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