National Affairs:

In the fraught arena of school reform, few policy proposals have been more contentious than vouchers. In allocating taxpayer dollars to children whose parents want them to leave failing public schools to attend private and parochial institutions, voucher programs have drawn the ire of teachers’ unions and church-state separatists, as well as these groups’ political allies. Of late, these voucher opponents have had some high-profile successes: In 2006, for instance, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a key component of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program was unconstitutional. And in 2009, President Obama and congressional Democrats enacted legislation to kill a voucher program in Washington, D.C., that had helped children escape the district’s dismal public-education system and improve their academic performance in private schools.

And yet, despite the discord and setbacks, vouchers seem to be experiencing a resurgence. Legislatures across the nation are once again taking up bills to adopt or expand programs that use public dollars to help students pay for private schools. In August, the Associated Press reported that at least 30 states had introduced legislation allowing the use of public funds to support students attending private schools. Twenty-eight states had considered tax breaks for families paying private-school tuition. So far this year, voucher programs in more than a dozen states have either been initiated or significantly expanded. They include Ohio, which expanded its program by quadrupling the cap on voucher recipients, and Oklahoma, which implemented a tax credit for donors to scholarships that fund education at private schools. Indiana launched the nation’s broadest private-school voucher program, which provides a voucher to any child in a family of four with income of less than $60,000 a year.

This year’s new and expanded programs reflect the great variety of voucher initiatives. They differ by the populations of students that they are designed to serve, the generosity of the voucher amount, and the manner in which the money is awarded to parents in order to pay for educational expenditures. Of course, most people associate vouchers with efforts to help low-income children, and indeed, the most common programs subsidize the educations of children from families that fall below a certain income level. For instance, the nation’s best-known programs — those in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, Wisconsin — are both means-tested.

But one of the fastest-growing types of school-choice program does not fit the typical voucher mold. Nor has it received much attention from either side in the voucher debate, as the focus tends to remain on “conventional” voucher programs serving children in low-income homes or in districts with underperforming public schools. It is certainly a mistake, however, to overlook one of the most promising avenues for advancing school choice: voucher programs serving students with disabilities.

Far more students are enrolled in special education than the average taxpayer realizes, and many of those students have disabilities so mild that they are not easily distinguished from their “normal” classmates. The pool of students who can be served by special-education voucher programs is thus both wide and deep. And such programs have a proven track record: Special-education vouchers have been around for more than a decade. In fact, they grew at a considerable pace even in the years leading up to the recent renewal of legislative interest in school vouchers.

The oldest (and best known) special-education voucher initiative is Florida’s McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, established in 1999 under the governorship of Jeb Bush. Today, the McKay scholarships constitute one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing school-choice programs, serving more than 22,000 kids in the 2010-11 school year. Indeed, several states have used the McKay approach as a template for special-education vouchers of their own: Similar initiatives are now operating in early stages in Georgia (about 2,000 students), Louisiana (1,600), Oklahoma (6 as a pilot), and Utah (624). This year, Ohio expanded a scholarship program for autistic children to include all special-education students, and North Carolina began offering parents of disabled students a tax credit for private-school tuition (or for special-education expenses in the case of home-schooling families). Several other states have flirted with similar reforms. And some members of Congress have raised the idea of legislation that would allow federal special-education dollars to follow a student into the school of his choice rather than flowing directly into state coffers.

Florida’s experience with the McKay program demonstrates the enormous potential of special-education voucher programs. Vouchers allow disabled students to attend the schools that best meet their needs. They provide a powerful market mechanism that can help save cash-strapped states millions of dollars. And my own research demonstrates that the incentives inherent in special-education vouchers have helped to improve the quality of education that public schools provide to all of their students.

Special-education vouchers are a tested public policy that leads to better education at a lower cost to the taxpayer. Especially in this difficult moment for state finances, they are exactly the sort of education policy that reformers and lawmakers should be embracing…

Read it all.


Tech Town, an innovative business incubator in midtown Detroit, showcases the power of creative thinking and cooperation between public and private entities.

According to the latest census figures, Detroit’s population continues to plummet while its public school system remains largely dysfunctional and FBI statistics report an increase in violent crime after several years of decline.

But Detroit, the buckle of the “Rust Belt,” is also a city of paradoxes. In the city’s midtown, an innovative project, Tech Town, stands out as living up to its motto, “Reigniting Detroit’s Entrepreneurial Culture.”

The city has been counted out before — “Decline in Detroit” was Timemagazine’s headline in 1961 – so talk of a comeback has a precedent. In 1999, Irvin Reid, president of Wayne State University in midtown Detroit, decided that a “business incubator” that drew from the university but wasn’t part of it could help the city and the region’s economy. Unlike many other innovation-driven incubators, which usually brought new technology to an untouched area, Reid’s Tech Town would be a “brownfield” incubator, building up in region closely associated with heavy industry.

Reid wanted to create an environment where tenant businesses could benefit from affordable rents with highly flexible leases, access the university’s technological and engineering expertise, and tap training, networking, and financing opportunities.  To further this economic diversification beyond metal bashing, Tech Town’s initial emphasis would be on advanced engineering, life sciences, and alternative energy.

Soon after, Reid negotiated partnership agreements with companies with metal-bashing roots: General Motors and Henry Ford Health System.  Start-up funding came from a public/private coalition that included local interests such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the City of Detroit, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the Wayne County Land Bank, as well as national players such as the entrepreneur-oriented Kaufmann Foundation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To attract tenants, the city granted a 20-year tax holiday to businesses located in the greater Tech Town area. Investment from all these sources totaled some $35 million.

Thanks to the involvement by these major community players, such a massive infusion into the depressed core was met with almost unanimous approval by the greater business community. While industrial migration to the suburbs has hurt the city, there is, curiously, a keen interest by many people in southeast Michigan in seeing the city revive.

As part of its involvement, GM contributed an historic but abandoned five-story building between its headquarters and the Wayne campus. Constructed during the early years of the auto industry by Detroit businessman George Richards, the structure first served as the headquarters of Oakland Motors, later known as the Pontiac division of General Motors. After being sold to GM in 1930, the building became a storage facility and a design center for Chevrolet. The early editions of the iconic Corvette were conceived in the studio on the top floor…

Read it all.

Money And Art

November 26, 2011

The New Republic:

They are selling postcards of Hitler in the gift shop at the Guggenheim Museum. To be precise, they are selling photographic reproductions of a work entitled Him, a polyester portrayal of the Führer that is one of the works by Maurizio Cattelan in his retrospective at the museum. I can imagine being outraged or at least troubled by the postcards in the gift shop, except that by the time I saw them I had already been bombarded by this exhibition in which nearly all of Cattelan’s oversized neo-Dadaist baubles have been hung from the ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda. Cattelan’s Hitler doll—like his Picasso doll, his bicycle, his dinosaur, and the rest of the 128 items in this stupefyingly sophomoric show—is engineered for offense, irony, comedy, or who knows what else. Those who are bothered by the Hitler postcards in the gift shop are naturally going to be dismissed as insufficiently hip. The same goes for those who are disturbed by the sight of one of the world’s greatest public spaces once again turned over to an art world charlatan as his personal playpen. My own feeling is that the postcards, however misbegotten, are speech we accept, although not necessarily embrace, in a society we prize for its openness. What is really disquieting is the event that has occasioned these postcards. “Maurizio Cattelan: All”—that’s the title of the show—amounts to hate speech directed at the sponsoring institution.

I’m sorry to be a party pooper. From what I could see when I visited the other day, museumgoers were perfectly content as they meandered up and down the ramps at the Guggenheim, snapping pics of Cattelan’s pixies on their iPhones. Of course, museumgoers also seemed happy—maybe more happy, I’m not sure—looking at the Impressionist and Post-impressionist paintings in a gallery off the rotunda. And everybody was definitely all smiles as they came out of the Guggenheim into a spectacularly lovely November afternoon. The truth is that Cattelan’s presence at the Guggenheim has nothing to do with what the public may or may not want. Cattelan is at the Guggenheim because the big money in the art business is behind him. The other day, one of his minor works, a miniature model of two elevator doors, sold for just over a million dollars at Christie’s. (It comes in an edition of ten, one of which is hanging on Fifth Avenue and 89th Street.) And that was one of the more modest prices at Christie’s contemporary sale on November 8, where a Robert Gober Prison Window went for $3.3 million and a 1961 Roy Lichtenstein for $43.2 million.

The collector Eli Broad was quoted, at the end of the auction, explaining that “People would rather have art than gold or paper.” To which it seems to me the only response is that people who have millions of dollars to spend on a Cattelan, a Gober, or a Lichtenstein are not what used to be known as “the people.” Never mind. What “the people” are more and more seeing when they go to museums is what Eli Broad and a few other collectors and dealers with very deep pockets think they should see. At that same Christie’s auction, the gallerist Larry Gagosian bought an early Cy Twombly for $5.2 million. Twombly, who died in July, is nowadays regarded by some as one of the giants of modern art. His reputation is so high that over the summer the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London mounted an exhibition, “Twombly and Poussin: Arcadian Painters,” that paired him with the seventeenth-century French artist who redefined classicism for the modern world. Whatever one may think of Twombly—and I like some of his earlier work quite a bit—the Dulwich show was a rather astonishing example of reputation inflation. And who, pray tell, sponsored “Twombly and Poussin”? I can’t say I was surprised, on opening the exhibition catalogue, to discover that the sponsor was none other than Larry Gagosian.

Money and culture have never been easily disentangled, nor would one want them to be, considering that culture is by no means cost efficient. But there are different forms of patronage and different kinds of entanglements. And culture is now in retreat before the brute force of money. Even the most easygoing commentators can see the writing on the wall, and some critics who might have been expected to be amused by the Cattelan retrospective have not enjoyed the show. Who knows? Maybe they’re tired of partying in a funhouse where they will never be more than dinner guests. As for the people who buy and sell Maurizio Cattelan, my guess is they don’t give a damn what critics—or for that matter museum goers—say…

Read it all.

At Ron’s Holiday Table

November 26, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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November 26, 2011


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