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Out of Control Policy Blog Archives: 5.13.12–5.19.12

CA High-Speed Rail and Positive Train Control in the News

During the past few weeks, High-Speed Rail (HSR) and Positive Train Control (PTC) have both been in the news. 

First, last Thursday Secretary of Transportation LaHood warned California lawmakers to take action on high-speed rail. According to The Sacramento Bee:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned California lawmakers Thursday not to wait until fall for a vote on high-speed rail, urging its approval in a budget vote next month.

"We need to make sure that the commitment is there to obligate the money," LaHood told reporters at the Capitol, where he was meeting with lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The state's commitment, LaHood said, will be demonstrated when lawmakers "put it in the budget and take a vote on it."

Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority want to start construction on a $68 billion rail project by early next year, proposing initially to use $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.3 billion in federal funds.

Lawmakers remain skeptical, however, and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended against it.

Not only has the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended against it, so has every other independent research group and government watchdog. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has criticized the project for relying on uncertain federal funding. Of course there are a multitude of reasons to dislike HSR in California:

  • The new line is not true high-speed rail and will not connect Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours forty minutes or less (as required by the state ballot initiative). The 600 mile circuitous route is at least 200 miles longer than the route would be if it were a direct line.
  • HSR will not reduce pollution dramatically. The California business plan fails to account for the greenhouse gas emissions of building the rail-line or the reduced greenhouse emissions from new cars and airplanes.
  • The slower speed will attract fewer passengers. Most high-speed rail lines attract passengers primarily from airplanes. A slower speed means fewer air travelers will switch to high-speed rail.
  • California is relying on revenue from an untested environmental cap and trade system. The revenue is supposed to support environmental causes, which HSR is not.
  • No serious private investor would touch this project. Private investors rely on making money. Almost all HSR lines throughout the world have been publicly financed because governments outside of California realize no private sector group would be interested.
  • State revenue could be better used on transit repairs, or school improvements or…

The current California high-speed rail plan is a classic government boondoggle. California should decline its federal grant. If it takes the money it will be required to build the line and operate the service. California does not have the additional $55 billion it needs to build the system. And the first part of the line will travel between Merced and the San Fernando Valley instead of starting in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco. If the Obama administration is committed to HSR, it should use the California money to begin work on a true high-speed train in the Northeast corridor. That project will not be cheap but at least it makes sense. Of course if the Obama administration understood or cared about transportation in the first place they would have started with the Northeast corridor but that is a discussion for another day.

For more on HSR in Fantasyland see my blog post here and my colleague Adam Summers excellent commentary here.

Meanwhile the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has modified its rule on positive train control; unfortunately the changes are minor in nature. The new rule requires PTC on 63,000 miles of track as opposed to 73,000 miles. The FRA changed its ruling since the 10,000 affected miles of track are not expected to transport hazardous materials in 2015. The new rule is displayed in its entirety here.

First, the positive, railroads will not be required to install PTC on routes that do not transport poisonous materials or are used for transporting passengers. Now, the negative, the change does not go nearly far enough. The FRA should be congratulated for using a little common sense to modify the rule. However, PTC is still required on most tracks. As I mentioned in a commentary here requiring PTC on any track by 2015 is problematic:

  • Railroads are one of the safest forms of transportation with a fatality rate of 0.2 per 100 million passenger miles.
  • PTC will prevent only 4% of current railroad accidents at a cost of $14 billion.
  • PTC can prevent accidents but so can many other technologies. The FRA failed to require PTC in 2005 because it miserably failed any cost-benefit comparison. Senators, most of whom know very little about transportation, decided they knew better and passed a law in 2008 mandating PTC on all class 1 tracks.
  • PTC may make rail travel more dangerous. As the railroads have to spend $12 billion implementing the technology in three years, track maintenance and ofter safety issues may be ignored.
  • PTC will make train travel slower and less efficient by prematurely slowing the train. Humans are much better at breaking than today’s PTC systems.

While the FRA decision is a step in the right direction, it is only one baby step. Congress needs to delay PTC implementation until the benefits outweigh the costs.

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Transportation Policymakers Need to Use Congestion Pricing More

Earlier this week I was at a congestion pricing workshop hosted by the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, and consulting firm ICF in Providence, Rhode Island. Four of these workshops have already been held around the country and although this workshop was intended primarily to attract participants from the New England states, participants came from as far away as California, Florida and Iowa. The workshop included Planners and Engineers from Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington D.C. 

In congestion pricing highway operators charge a variable price based on congestion to manage demand on an expressway or arterial. Although some projects generate revenue, this is not the primary purpose of congestion pricing. 

There are at least five different types of priced facilities. Priced lane facilities charge for some but not all lanes on an expressway. California State Highway 91 was the first project with variable priced lanes. Priced expressways include charging for all the lanes on a facility. Washington State Highway 520 over Lake Washington is an example of a priced highway. In priced zones or cordon zones drivers are charged either a fixed or variable fee to enter a certain area of a city. Central London is an example of a cordon zone. A priced road network uses a network of variably priced highways or a network of priced lanes on an expressway network. The Dallas metro area is developing such a network. Finally, pricing involves other transportation-related resources including performance parking: prices are adjusted to ensure a certain number of curbside parking spaces; pay as you drive insurance: drivers are charged for the number of miles they drive instead of a flat fee; carsharing: people rent cars for a short period of time from an hour to a day; and dynamic ridesharing: people who travel to a certain location are matched in one vehicle using technology (informal carpooling). 

Many U.S. metro areas have experienced the benefits of congestion pricing. The Los Angeles region reduced travel time by 10% and was able to decrease congestion sufficiently so that 132,000 additional people, 1.2% of the overall employment in the region, entered the workforce. While other factors were clearly in play, most of the growth can be traced to congestion relief. Another example is the Dallas region in which Planners and Engineers brought the public, business community, transportation agencies, elected officials and legislative leaders together to agree on a network of variable priced lanes. Dallas’ system has several innovative features including a rebate if speeds in the managed lane drop below 35 miles per hour. A third example is Chicago. Before the variable priced lanes, the average expressway speed during rushhour was less than 10 miles per hour. Commuters needed to multiply the time it would take them to reach downtown Chicago in off-hours by six to reach downtown Chicago during rushhour. San Francisco has also demonstrated how pricing reduces congestion and improves bus service. Additionally, since the proceeds from such a system are reinvested in transportation improvements, there have been no major equity issues in San Francisco. 

Congestion pricing is not one size fits all; different metro areas need different solutions. While Atlanta could benefit from a priced road network, Austin may need only a priced lane on I-35. While a cordon zone may be appropriate for New York it would not work as well in New Orleans.

Whichever systems a state or metro area chooses, congestion pricing can decrease traffic congestion, improve transit services, offer a guaranteed consistent commute time and improve safety. Unfortunately, many leaders are unaware of congestion pricing, do not understand it or are reluctant to try the concept. 

I hope that FHWA, FTA and ICF continue these congestion pricing workshops. While they require resources the workshops present a fact-based understanding of this concept. Additionally, political leaders, Planners and Engineers need to push for congestion pricing. With fiscal austerity the new reality, and a growing importance placed on improving and maintaining infrastructure, congestion pricing is one of the best tools to solve congestion. 

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Polling Metro Denver Voters' Support of Tax Hikes for Public Transit

Last month I wrote on Reason Foundation's Out of Control Policy Blog about the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) Board's decision to abandon a proposed tax hike that would have doubled the current transit-dedicated, 0.4 percent regional sales tax along the Northwest Corridor.

For context, the new revenue would have specifically gone towards FasTracks, a regional transit program approved by voters in 2004 projected to cost $4.7 billion and be complete by 2017. According to the latest estimates, FasTracks costs ballooned up to $7.4 billion and won't be complete until 2042. For more on FasTracks see my previous posts here, here and here.

Two major factors behind RTD's decision were uncertainty over voter support and ambiguity over the proposed use of funds. A reader recently sent me a poll conducted by Ciruli Associates, a Colorado-based research and consulting firm, which sheds light on metro Denver voters' attitudes towards tax hikes for FasTracks. This poll was released prior to RTD's decision and likely played a role in their decision.

According to Ciruli Associates:

The Ciruli Associates question in this survey used a historical context of the revenue provided for the project since its 2004 inauguration.  Previously, polls have shown people like transit, especially light rail, and would like the system built out quicker.  But, the decline in trust in government makes RTD and its ability to manage finances and the project an issue in this election.

First, the broad numbers. 49 percent of voters support the tax increase, while 46 percent of voters oppose it. Only 17 percent of voters definitely support the tax increase, while 30 percent (almost one-third) definitely oppose it.

FasTracks Support and Opposition Denver Metro Area

Next, a breakdown by party affiliation. A majority of Democrats (65 percent) support the tax increase, while a majority of Republicans (57 percent) and independents, or unaffiliated, voters (56 percent) oppose it.

FasTracks and Party Support and Opposition Denver Metro Area

Finally, a breakdown by geography. Ciruli Associates note that interestingly, "Voters in the two counties that should receive the most benefit from the next phase of transit expenditure, Adams and Boulder, are among the least supportive of the tax increase. Even Denver is only mildly supportive."

FasTracks and Counties Support and Opposition Denver Metro Area

This poll was conducted from April 6-10, 2012 in the seven-county metro area known as the Northwest Corridor by Ciruli Associates for The Buzz. Ciruli Associates used RDD probability sampling with 500 voters and calculated a margin of error of + 4.4 percentage points.

This poll was not widely cited in the lead up to the RTD Board's vote and only came to my attention today, however its results remain informative. Most Colorado transportation observers recognize that the relevant question is not if RTD will seek voter approval for another transit-dedicated tax hike, but when?

For related research, see Reason-Rupe's December 2011 national poll on transportation and public transit here.

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Private Sector's Increasing Role in Infrastructure Investment

Today my colleague Leonard Gilroy and I published a piece on Real Clear Markets entitled, "States and Cities Going Private With Infrastructure Investment," which explains "...that new infrastructure financing models and sources of capital will be the only viable option to support and sustain growth." The challenge is simple: while governments at all levels are strapped for cash and continue to feel the effects of the Great Recession, they face pressing infrastructure needs.

Enter the private sector, where investors are demonstrating a willingness and capability to partner with governments to modernize and expand infrastructure, according to Reason Foundation's recent Annual Privatization Report 2011. The report finds that the amount of capital available in private infrastructure equity investment funds reached a new all-time high last year. And since 2006, the 30 largest global infrastructure investment funds have raised a total of $183.1 billion dedicated to financing infrastructure projects; the bulk coming from U.S., Australian and Canadian inventors. In fact, eight major privately financed transportation projects were under construction in the U.S. in 2011 totaling over $13 billion.

Historically, U.S. policymaker interest in public-private partnerships has been in surface transportation, however 2012 ushered in a wave of new social infrastructure considerations (along the lines of what is already seen across in the developed world.)

For a preview of the future, just look to Puerto Rico, where innovative infrastructure financing has been a priority of Governor Luis Fortuño's administration. Prior to his tenure, massive budget deficits and weak credit ratings left the territory with a limited ability to finance infrastructure. In fact, public infrastructure investment (as a share of GDP) had been on a steep decline in Puerto Rico since 2000.

Put simply, if Puerto Rico was going to maintain-much less expand and modernize-its infrastructure, it was going to need outside help. Policymakers proactively adopted a 2009 law authorizing government agencies to partner with private firms for the design, construction, financing, maintenance and/or operation of public facilities across a wide spectrum that includes transportation, ports, schools and other asset classes. The law also established a Public Private Partnership Authority (PPPA), a new unit of the Government Development Bank, to conduct due diligence on these infrastructure partnerships and take worthy projects to market in competitive procurements.

The piece goes on to highlight promising new efforts in Chicago, Texas, Connecticut and elsewhere, continuing:

Puerto Rico isn't alone though. For example, Chicago Mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel stood with former President Bill Clinton last month to propose an ambitious $7.2 billion infrastructure program that will rely heavily on public-private partnerships and private financing for a broad spectrum of projects including roads, water, transit and more. To implement this program, city policymakers recently created a new Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a nonprofit infrastructure bank that can package deals and blend public and private financing to advance projects. Early pledges of up to $1 billion in private capital from several financial institutions, including Citibank, Macquarie and JPMorgan suggest the model may be viable.

Elsewhere, both Texas and Connecticut enacted broad-ranging laws to authorize private sector financing for state and local assets in 2011. In New York, The Yonkers Public Schools recently hired a team of financial, legal and technical consultants to evaluate the potential to tap private financing to help deliver a $2 billion K-12 school modernization program. Like Puerto Rico, Yonkers has a number of aging facilities over 70 years old that need reconstruction, yet lacks the ability to undertake large-scale renovation through traditional taxes and bonds given current fiscal and financial constraints.

We ultimately conclude that, "Infrastructure represents the arteries and capillaries of our economy, and if we let those deteriorate, the heart itself will soon follow." Read the full piece available online here. For more on this policy area, read my colleague Leonard Gilroy's previous post on Puerto Rico here.

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Federal Public School Food Police Fine Utah School $15k for Leaving Vending Machine Plugged in During Lunch.

As "The Blaze" reports: 

A Utah high school is learning the hard way that the government is serious about nudging students away from food it doesn't want them to consume. Davis High School in the Salt Lake City area is having to fork over a whopping $15,000 in fines to the Feds because it accidentally sold soda through a vending machine during lunch.

Federal law requires the school to turn off its soda machines during the lunch period, which is 47 minutes a day. And Davis High school did turn off the machines in the lunch room. However, the school didn't realize that there was another machine in the school bookstore that wasn't being turned off. And when the food police realized it, the school was hit with a $0.75 fine per student for the duration of the offense. 

And this is especially unfair because all the evidence suggests that soda and snack bans in schools don't work. As the Washington Post and many others have reported:

 

Jennifer Van Hook and Claire Altman looked at a sample of 20,000 students who began kindergarten in 1998, and checked in on their height and weight in fifth and eighth grade. They couldn't find any significant link between higher obesity rates and schools that allowed vending machines selling snacks and soda. "The results suggest that the sale of competitive foods [which compete with traditional school foods, such as soda and snacks] in school is unassociated with weight gain among middle school children," they write.

Policies that limit the availability of candy bars, chips and soda have become popular in recent years; 23 states place some kind of restriction on what foods can be sold in schools. Why does this study find that such policies don't necessarily reduce childhood obesity? A lot of factors could be at play. Students that don't have access to soda in schools tend to increase their consumption of sugary drinks at home, a 2011 study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found.

In addition, it turns out that like everyone else school kids are good at developing black markets when soda and snacks are banned. As this article explains: LA school district lunch program spawns thriving junk food black market. 

 

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School Districts in Wisconsin Saved $30 million on Health Insurance Costs Since Collective Bargaining Relief

A competitive environment for health insurance is already saving school districts money in Wisconsin.

As the Wisconsin State Journal reports:

WEA Trust, the not-for-profit insurer that covered about two-thirds of Wisconsin school districts last year, has seen its revenue decline almost $70 million after the state gave districts more freedom to switch insurers. . . .

The data, from 52 school districts that changed health insurance carriers, show total savings of more than $30 million. Walker said the savings are good news for taxpayers, and also free dollars for teacher wages and classroom development.

And even those districts that did not switch health insurance plans are now getting a more competitive deal:

However, other districts said even with the increased freedom to switch, they preferred to stay with WEA Trust. They said the insurer offered them a competitive price along with the secondary benefit of strong customer service.

One example is the School District of La Crosse, which insures about 1,000 people. Its premiums actually went down 3 percent last year.

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Senate Transportation Bill Uses Creative Math

It has been three months since the Senate passed its Transportation bill, MAP-21. This has given analysts time to examine the bill in more depth. Unfortunately, the more transportation analysts research the bill, the more non-transportation spending they find. Since the House passed a shell bill, the eventual bill that becomes law will have many similarities with the Senate bill. Ken Orski who publishes Innovation NewsBriefs has highlighted many of the problems with the bill. I want to detail a few of his insights:

The non-transportation provisions that are raising eyebrows include the creation of a new National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes to be housed in the Department of Commerce (Sec. 1603(4) of MAP-21), and a seven-year reauthorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund which is a National Park Service program within the U.S. Department of the Interior (Sec. 1701 of MAP-21). Indeed, the Senate bill includes over $6.8 billion in new non-Highway Trust Fund spending that has nothing to do with the core purpose of the bill. 

Creating an endowment for Oceans, Coasts and Great Lakes may be a good program. The same is true for the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Two other unrelated provisions, the Restore Act and Rural Schools, each received more than $1 billion each in dedicated funds. The Restore Act sends money to the four gulf states affected by the BP oil spill. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act reimburses counties for tax-exempt federal lands. However, both are environmental programs that have nothing to do with transportation. If Congress wants to fund these four programs, it should do so through a subject-related bill. While all four of these programs have some merits, none is transportation-related. These programs have no place in a transportation bill. 

The Republican House has been criticized for trying to include the Keystone Pipeline in its transportation bill. While the Keystone Pipeline is badly needed, it is not transportation and should not be included in a transportation bill. However, it is hypocritical for Democrats in the Senate to complain about Keystone when they have funding for non-germane programs in the Senate bill. 

This is Washington politics at its best; stick a program in at the last minute and hope that nobody notices. A total of $6.8 billion in new non-Highway Trust Fund spending is a substantial amount for a two-year bill. 

Further:

Critics are also paying close attention to changes that were quietly slipped into the Senate bill and approved on the floor by unanimous consent without debate on March 13, one day before the final passage of the bill.  They include, notably, an amendment affecting the treatment of transportation "enhancements" (Sec. 1113 of MAP-21). This provision shifts the flexibility to decide how to spend the enhancements set-aside money from the state DOTs to local government agencies, thus substantially modifying an earlier agreement reached by the leaders of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. As the Committee's chairman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and its ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) agreed at the November markup of the bill, it was only a compromise on that contentious issue that allowed the parties to move forward on the entire bill.  

Transportation enhancements funded by the gas tax and included in the highway section of the transportation bill fund non-highway related provisions such as acquisition of historic battlefields, rehabilitation of historic transportation buildings and establishment of transportation museums. Of all the wasteful non-highway spending in the transportation bill, Transportation Enhancements may be the most egregious. The last minute change slipped into the Senate bill shifts program administration from state DOT’s to local government agencies. While Senate Republicans should have eliminated Transportation Enhancements, the Senate bipartisan approach is a welcome change in DC. But Republicans should not accept wasteful programs in the name of bipartisanship. Under the original Senate agreement, state DOT’s would have controlled enhancement funds. At least in this scenario, program funds could serve some sort of statewide purpose. If local governments control the purse, the funds will be used for local piecemeal projects making a mockery of a national bill. If local governments want to support transportation museums they should do so with local funds. It is doubtful they would since spending for actual roads, schools, hospitals, etc. is far more vital. 

Additionally:

Other MAP-21 provisions that have raised questions include … authority to revoke passports of tax delinquents (which the bill estimates would raise $743 million over ten years to help cover the $12 billion shortfall in transportation spending).

Finally, the bill is supposed to find offsets for new spending. It is doubtful the Senate could have offset the entire amount, but the authors could have made a better effort. The bill relies on provisions such as raising $743 million from revoking passports of tax delinquents. However, these types of provisions only total $3.1 billion. Where is the other $9 billion? How can the Senate justify that the bill will not increase the deficit? The Senate will be using offsets over the next 10 years to fund a 15-month bill. These future year transportation funds will not be able to support future transportation needs. Further, it requires a great deal of “imagination” to tote a bill as balanced when much of the funding for this two year bill comes from tax revenue projected over the next 10 years. 

Most transportation types want a new transportation bill. We are now on the 9th extension of SAFETEA-LU that expired 2 ½ years ago. Hopefully the conference committee will eliminate much of the non-germane funding from both the Senate bill and the House proposal. But if this is the best we can do, maybe we need a 10th extension to get serious about creating a transportation bill that actually funds transportation within our current budget. 

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Puerto Rico's Infrastructure Renaissance Continuing in 2012

Under the leadership of Gov. Luis Fortuño, Puerto Rico continued to emerge as a leader in attracting private investment in public infrastructure in 2011, with public-private partnerships (PPPs) undertaken or underway that include a modernization of 100 K-12 schools, a $1.5 billion toll road lease and an ongoing procurement for a long-term lease of San Juan's international airport. As I wrote in Reason Foundation's recently released Annual Privatization Report 2011 (see Puerto Rico excerpt here):

In two short years, the administration of Governor Luis Fortuño has turned Puerto Rico into a privatization leader among its state peers. To address the territory's chronic deficits and unsustainable debt, the administration has advanced a range of reforms that include major spending reductions, optimization of government operations and the enactment of a new law in 2009 inviting private investors to modernize or develop new infrastructure across a variety of sectors.

That law, Act No. 29, is now bearing fruit. It authorized government agencies to enter into public- private partnerships (PPPs) with private firms for the design, construction, financing, maintenance or operation of public facilities, with a set of priority projects that include toll roads, transit, energy, water/wastewater facilities, solid waste management and ports. The law also established a new Public Private Partnership Authority (PPPA), a new center of excellence within the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank responsible for identifying, evaluating and selecting PPP projects and for monitoring and enforcing the terms of PPP contracts.

Despite its short life, the PPPA has built a world-class PPP program utilizing global best practices, and it has already seen some major successes advancing projects through the procurement pipeline.

Read the rest of the Annual Privatization Report 2011 article here for more on Puerto Rico's schools, toll road and airport PPP initiatives that advanced in 2011.

I'm pleased to report that momentum has continued into 2012. Earlier this year, Puerto Rico's Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Authority announced what will become the next PPP project in their infrastructure pipeline—a design-build-finance-maintain project for a new 600-bed, privately-financed juvenile correctional detention and treatment facility, a project estimated to potentially save the commonwealth over $4 million annually. This will be Puerto Rico's first social infrastructure project in corrections, and upon completion, operations of the facility will remain in the public sector (though the private developer will continue be responsible for ongoing facility maintenance). The PPP Authority decided to move forward into procurement for this project based on the results of a feasibility and value-for-money analysis prepared for the project, available here. Statements of qualification from interested bidders were due last week. More information on this project is available here.

Also, earlier this month, the PPP Authority and the Ports Authority announced two consortia— Grupo Aerpuertos Avance (a team combining Ferrovial and Macquarie) and Aerostar Airport Holdings (a team combining Aeroportuario del Sureste and Highstar Capital)— as finalists for a long-term lease of San Juan's international airport. Six consortia were shortlisted last September out of 12 applicants, and the winning bidder is expected to be announced next month.

For more on Puerto Rico's robust and impressive PPP program, see:

For more of the latest in state and local government privatization, see the full Annual Privatization Report 2011.

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Join Reason On an Alaskan Cruise

Reason's Alaskan cruise will depart from Seattle on August 11, 2012. We'll visit Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, and Ketchikan, Alaska, before visiting Victoria, British Columbia. Join Reason's Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, Jacob Sullum and Peter Suderman, plus featured guests:

  • Nadine Strossen, professor at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union 
  • Thaddeus Russell, author of "A Renegade History of the United States" 
  • Eli Noam, professor of economics at the Columbia Business School 
  • Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University 
  • Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, co-directors of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara 

For more information about the Reason cruise, please click here.

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Green Dot Charter Schools Raise Performance for Long-Suffering Locke High School

Reason first told the story of the struggle of Locke high school parents and teachers to have their school run by Green Dot charter schools in the Drew Carey piece: Education Revolt in Watts.

Now there is good news out of Locke high school. Students are doing much better on multiple indicators under Green Dot management. As this new UCLA study reports:

Students at historically low-performing Locke High School in South Los Angeles, which recently was transformed into five smaller charter schools, are now performing better than their traditional-school peers in a number of key academic areas, according to a multi-year study conducted by the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at UCLA (CRESST). 

CRESST's evaluation, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, looked at two groups of ninth graders who started in 2007 and 2008 - just after the charter-school group Green Dot Public Schools assumed operational control of Locke from the Los Angeles Unified School district and initiated a series of major curriculum and faculty changes. The UCLA researchers followed the students for three years. 

The study found that the Green Dot Locke students were more likely to stay in school, to take and pass important college preparatory classes, and to score higher on the state high school exit exam on their first attempt than students at demographically similar high schools in the LAUSD. The study authors called the transformation of Locke "an impressive success story" and found that the charter had achieved "consistent, positive effects on a range of student outcomes." The UCLA CRESST evaluation is ongoing. 

The full UCLA report is here.

And Fast Company has an extensive story on the news and other positive results at Locke:

Rather than centrally manage every school, each Green Dot charter is run like a startup: the staff is given broad discretionary powers over finance, faculty are given the reins to innovate with new curriculum, and the union contract is performance-based rather than a guarantee of minimum work requirements. To maintain its unusual level of collaboration, a Green Dot overhaul physically splits schools into autonomous units of around 500 students (in some cases, by using chicken wire for temporary walls).

A UCLA-Gates Foundation study released today shows that Green Dot's prescription is paying off, with 25% higher graduation rates (80% vs. 55%) and 35% higher college readiness (48% vs. 13%). Green Dot even managed to bring sanity to one of LA's worst schools, Locke, where rival gangs maintained control over bathrooms and students regularly set hanging artwork on fire.

Green Dot was able to achieve these positive results without cherry picking students and they were able to have better outcomes while enrolling students in more challenging classes. 

And as Dr. Jay P. Greene recently argued when we look at gold standard randomized studies charter school benefits are proven by the best evidence.

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24 High-Performing Los Angeles Unified Schools Plan to Become Charter Schools

In "The School District is Dead, Long Live the Schools," I wrote about the emerging trend of high-performing traditional schools converting to charters schools  to get more flexibility and control of their financial resources. This growing trend is distinct from the traditional trajectory of charter schools that have developed to serve students in poor performing public schools. Los Angeles Unified is embracing this trend. As the Los Angeles Times reports:

Two dozen high-performing Los Angeles schools are seeking to become charter campuses in search of more money and increased flexibility.

The list reads like an honor roll of academic excellence. Every school has surpassed the state's target score of 800 on the Academic Performance Index, which is based on standardized tests.

Although many of the schools considered the move in hopes of greater funding, campus officials said they also began to see the benefits of increased freedom over such things as curriculum, testing and schedules. "Finance is one key factor but not the only one," said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, who directs the charter school division of the L.A. Unified School District.

The interesting twist is that Los Angeles Unified appears to be encouraging these schools to become charters. This again begs the questions are central offices and school districts going to become obsolete?  Why not have all charter districts like New Orleans? As I said in the earlier Reason piece:

The bottom line is that charter schools give school leaders, teachers, and parents much more control over staffing and finances while also freeing them from the economic consequences of belonging to a district that has been in financial distress for decades. A school district may become financially bankrupt, but individual schools can live on through the charter school process. It raises the question: As a nation, should we continue to support large school districts at the expense of individual schools and students?

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