It Doesn’t Matter Who Louisiana’s New Secretary Of Education Is, And Here’s Why…

Prior to the news yesterday that Jefferson Parish school superintendent Cade Brumley had been tapped by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as the Secretary of Education, there had been a huge amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the selection and the prospect that Brumley, seen by some as hostile to school choice and educational innovation, would be a departure from outgoing secretary John White.

Joe Cunningham had a post here at The Hayride earlier this week endorsing White’s deputy Jessica Baghian for the job…

Louisiana needs the continuity right now. This school year ended in absolute chaos, and while there may be a gap in the data, the trends indicate that we have been on the right track leading up to this year. That will have to continue, especially given the gap that is likely to occur here, and Baghian is the right person to carry that legacy onward. Moreover, her role in the Department of Education has had her uniquely positioned to have a hand in shaping the policies already in place.

Further, in this time of pandemic-induced chaos, she would also have very little restructuring to do. The team is already in place, and the people who would be working with her to shape Louisiana’s education policies have been working on them already.

Teachers’ unions and entry-level politicians from local school boards around the state didn’t want Baghian, because they aren’t interested in reforming Louisiana’s schools or improving the education happening in them. The teacher unions are all about lowering standards of performance and keeping their people from being held accountable for results. That’s one of the functions of a union – it protects the lowest common denominator in terms of both job security and pay. In Louisiana, ranking as we do in the bottom ten states for educational performance (and that ranking is inching forward mostly thanks to educational decline in other states), nobody in that field ought to have much job security.

But the foxes guard the henhouse with respect to education in Louisiana. It’s always been that way.

We don’t have anything against Brumley. We’re told the folks in Jefferson Parish were very impressed with the competence he showed in running the schools there, and he was very well-regarded when he was the superintendent in DeSoto Parish before that. He’s got a lot of experience in how to run schools in Louisiana, and while that’s a comment which doesn’t necessarily carry an endorsement with it, we mean that in a good way.

That said, what’s happening – or more to the point, what’s about to happen – in American education, Louisiana included, is a whole lot bigger than Cade Brumley.

Last week RealClear Opinion Research put out the results of a poll they’d done which didn’t get anywhere near the attention that it should have…

A RealClear Opinion Research poll released Thursday found 40 percent of families are more likely to choose to homeschool their children or engage in virtual learning once the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

The survey asked parents, “Are you more or less likely to enroll your son or daughter in a homeschool, neighborhood homeschool co-op, or virtual school once the lockdowns are over?”

Of the 626 parents who responded, 40.8 percent said they were “more likely” to do so, while 31.1 percent replied they were “less likely.”

With political party as a factor, 45.7 percent of parents who said they would be “more likely” to homeschool identified as Democrat, while 42.3 percent identified as Republican.

Among those parents who said they were “more likely” to homeschool, 36.3 percent were white, 50.4 percent were black, 38.2 percent were Hispanic, and 53.8 percent were Asian.

The survey also questioned 2,122 registered voters on the issue of whether parents should be able to use tax dollars designated for education for the schooling of their choice.

Among the respondents, 64 percent said they support that idea, including 59 percent of Democrats, 75.2 percent of Republicans, and 60.2 percent of Independents.

Of the parents who said they support the concept of school choice, 64.4 percent were white, 67.6 percent were black, 63.4 percent were Hispanic, and 55.5 percent were Asian.

Results of the poll appeared on the website of the American Federation for Children (AFC), which promotes school choice. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was chairwoman of AFC prior to her nomination by President Donald Trump.

How many of that 40 percent will act on their preference now that they’ve gotten a taste of homeschooling their kids while the schools were closed?

It’s hard to say. People are going to need to go back to work, certainly, and it’s going to be difficult for those families in single-parent households or households where both parents work away from home to pull off homeschooling. On the other hand, homeschooling doesn’t necessarily mean a specific home. You might well have families banding together to form co-ops and other similar educational alternatives. We can foresee teachers becoming entrepreneurial and starting up private or semi-private tutoring businesses. And so forth.

If a third of that 40 percent decides they’ve had it with waking their kids up at 5:30 in the morning to get on a school bus, the financial consequences of public schools funded on a per-student basis will be devastating.

But there is more to it than that. From an American Spectator column I wrote a month ago

Understand that the changes in American life wrought by the virus, while certainly not all permanent, are inevitably significant, and they will make it impossible to fund and run public schools as they’ve been funded and run.

The funding aspect is very obvious with a small thought experiment.

How are public school districts across America funded? They catch a good deal of federal funding, but mostly it’s sales and property taxes at the local level, with state support in varying degrees supplementing their budgets.

Local sales and property taxes are about to take a massive dive virtually everywhere, and it’s going to be a long time before they recover. There are two main reasons for that.

First, numbers from March indicate what the stay-at-home orders that went out across the country did to the retail economy just over two weeks:

March retail sales fell 8.7%, a record drop, with the only sign of activity at grocery and beverage stores, which saw sales grow by 25.6%. Economists expected an 8% decline in monthly sales. The consumer accounts for 70% of the economy.

“The economy is clearly in ruins here,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank. “Nobody is buying cars, down 25.6%, nobody is buying furniture, down 26.8%, and eating and drinking places were down 26.5%.”

The economic decline, which started in the first quarter is expected to reach its trough in the second quarter. Economists anticipate an unprecedented drop of more than 30% in GDP for the second quarter. JPMorgan economists expect a 40% decline in the second quarter, on top of a 10% drop in the first quarter.

Already negative first-quarter GDP forecasts may also worsen, showing the economy began contracting at a rapid pace when businesses closed down, states ordered residents to stay home, and President Donald Trump told Americans to stay out of restaurants and practice safe distancing.

But Ward McCarthy, chief financial economist at Jefferies, said the retail sales data muddies the outlook for first-quarter GDP, since some sales categories in the data used to calculate it actually improved. They include building materials, up 1.3%, and health and personal care, which climbed 4.3%.

“The bottom line is that consumer spending has fallen off a cliff after being relatively solid for a prolonged period of time,” according to McCarthy. “There has been significant substitutions in spending habits as consumers have tried to cope with social distancing. The consumer sector will provide a drag on Q1 and Q2, but it’s going to be difficult to estimate the size of the drag.”

March retail sales also showed barely a blip in online purchases, only up 3.1%, though consumers are shopping from home. The Commerce Department acknowledged it had difficulty collecting data as many businesses have shut down.

April will be considerably worse than March. May will likely be better than April, but certainly not better than March was.

Yes, when the virus panic is over the economy will recover, and quite probably in robust fashion. But it won’t likely be a consumer-spending recovery — instead what’s more likely is that manufacturing, brought home as a function of our reckoning with China, will lead a surge in employment and drive the boom to come.

What’s more, consumer spending has likely changed to a significant extent in a way that will permanently injure local tax bases.

In the March retail numbers, the two worst performers were precisely what you’d expect — clothing and accessories fell off 50.5 percent, and furniture and home furnishings dropped 26.8 percent. Two things that clearly flow from those numbers are (1) both categories were already moving fairly quickly online, and (2) the trend reflected in both signals a death knell for department stores. Clothing, furniture, and appliances are what department stores sell.

Department stores are the anchor tenants of shopping malls all over the country. When department stores go, so do the malls. And when the malls go, there goes not only the local sales tax base but also a huge chunk of the commercial property tax base.

It’s worse than that, because a sizable chunk of the workforce who have shifted to home-officing and working from home will end up finding they can be just as productive in this new environment and also that they like it a lot better than the rat race of a long commute into town every morning. When the shutdown is over, they’ll express that preference. And lots of their bosses will agree. What does that do? It destroys the commercial office space market, and the property taxes coming out of that sector take a dive. Something else you might well see from all this home-officing is less traffic on the roads and less revenue from state and local fuel taxes.

Where is the money going to come from to fund school districts that spend $15,000–$20,000 per student per year on inconvenient, often dangerous, underperforming educational institutions populated by employees who provided Bernie Sanders with his largest donor base?

Commercial office space and commercial retail are both about to endure a significant and long-standing crash in value, and the property tax base which those sectors kick out will crash along with it. That’s what funds local public schools.

So public education in Louisiana, just like everywhere else, is about to have to undergo some very serious changes – if it’s to survive at all.

It is very, very likely you will begin to see political demand follow market demand for significant expansions of school choice. Not in the vein it was implemented when Bobby Jindal passed his reform package in 2012, mind you – those reforms are the ones the Louisiana Federation for Children and other educational reform groups are working to protect against Edwards’ desired rollbacks.

We’re talking about the state’s middle class becoming a lot more robust in demanding tax breaks for private education. So far Louisiana does some vouchers, charter schools, gives tax breaks for donors who establish scholarships for needy kids at private schools, etc., but all of those things are aimed at helping poor kids escape from failing public schools.

What’s coming is people who don’t access public education and spend their own money on schooling their kids, whether that might be homeschoolers or folks with kids in private schools, are going to realize they’re being played for suckers and they’re going to begin acting like a special interest. And there are a whole lot of those. In fact, they’re a lot bigger voting block than the teachers’ unions represent.

In a disgustingly high number of Louisiana parishes, of course, the local school board is the largest employer, which says a lot more about the putrid state of Louisiana’s economy than anything else. And in those parishes it’s going to be something of an uphill fight to blow up the educational system and rebuild it into the kind of open marketplace public opinion polls are beginning to show a preference for.

But the market doesn’t care as much about politics as you might think it does. And the more people who’ve had a taste of what it’s like away from public schools and prefer doing things differently, the less relevant those public schools will be.

There aren’t a whole lot of positives to come out of the shutdown, but this is one of them.

Good luck, Dr. Brumley. You’re going to need it.

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