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Nina Shokraii Rees: Education and School Choice

Ohanian Comment: This one is so ugly it's hard to believe. Here she is identified as an analyst with the Heritage Foundation. She is also Assistant Deputy Secretary, Office of Innovation and Improvement, United States Department of Education. Her appointment was announced on September 17, 2002, about three years after these remarks. Does a leopard change its spots? Does a hyena stop its scavenging?

MODERATOR: Everyone please welcome Nina Shokraii Rees, Senior Education Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

Arvid: What do you think, conceptually, of doing away with all federal aid to education and returning to a system that is truly state and local?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I support such a move but would prefer sending dollars to parents.

themuzicman: Would you say that the biggest problem in education lies within the government agencies, teachers' unions, school boards or the families of the children, or is there some other area that you can identify?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I think the reason the system is broke is because it's a monopoly. Monopolies are destined to fail!

themuzicman: Do you think competition is the solution to poor education?

Nina Shokraii Rees: Absolutely. The minute dollars leave with students from poor performing schools to better schools, bad schools will have to shut down!

Laur: Do you consider art and music "frills," or would you say they are necessary to a good elementary education?

Nina Shokraii Rees: It depends. If a student is attending an affluent school that has the budget to invest in such things, then I see many benefits to adding art and music courses. What I object to is focusing the attention of poor school systems on these activities. Schools should be in the business of teaching students the basics. If they fail to teach students how to read and write, it makes no sense to ask them to offer music! In a perfect world, these are decisions that I wish parents could make and pay for.

Laur: What do you believe a good, sound pre-college education should include?

Nina Shokraii Rees: Lots of Math, Algebra, Trig, and advanced literature courses. I also believe that high schools should have criterion-based high school exit exams. Does this answer your question? or do you want more specifics?

REASON: What's your view of home schooling?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I think it's a fine idea. And the number of home-schoolers has considerably increased over the years -- so it seems to also be a popular one these days.

johnd: We had a guest talk to us yesterday about how there are no excuses for the failure of poor children to learn in public schools. How is your advocacy for school choice similar or different?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I think the best way to encourage schools to offer a quality education is through offering parents the choice to pick good schools. Competition can help create better schools that believe in the No Excuses mission!

Arvid: Why all this frenzy to keep shoving ever more years of education down everyone's throat? Why not let underachievers out after junior high school and stick them in a trade institute for job training?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I think that is a fine idea. I am not a big fan of the current educational system, which presumes you have to go to school for 12 years before you graduate. I think we should have more alternative schools for people from all walks of life and different interests!

Tully: Why do so many conservatives support vouchers, which are another entitlement for the welfare class, rather than a tax credit, which would honor work?

Nina Shokraii Rees: Unless you got rid of compulsory education in this county, which requires that ALL students be educated, you have to find ways to improve the education of poor students. Tax credits are a good idea but they don't help the poor -- who happen to need a quality education more than anyone else.

dratlatl: Do you think it possible to formulate a vouchers law in such a way as to promote competition, thus obviating the previously mentioned monopoly, yet keeping curriculum control out of the hands of the Feds?

Nina Shokraii Rees: Yes. You limit the role of the state and you monitor the law closely. Quite frankly, regulators can also attach requirements to tax credits so I am not sure you really circumvent the concerns you have through tax credits.

Bobandnancy: I have many conservative friends who see voucher proponents simply as people who currently send their children to private schools and are selfishly just wanting to save money. They feel that vouchers only help middle-class people who currently send their kids to private schools, rather than low-income families. What is your response to that argument?

Nina Shokraii Rees: Most of the current school choice programs (Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida) are means tested so you have to be poor in order to apply. I personally don't think there should be a limit on who qualifies for the voucher but to circumvent these concerns, it may be best to start with students who need the help the most.

bobandnancy: Which state is doing best as far as school choice is concerned? I've heard Wisconsin has made some advances recently.

Nina Shokraii Rees: Not sure what your question is. Are you asking me which states are the best models or which states have made the most progress at offering choices to parents OR which programs are producing the best results. Research on the WI model shows that students are benefiting from the choice program (academically). There are a number of privately sponsored choice programs out there that are also showing good academic outcomes. But it's too soon to tell.

MODERATOR: New Hampshire has traditionally been known for its good and locally controlled schools. What have been the fruits of Gov. Shaheen's expansion of the state role in education?

Nina Shokraii Rees: It's hard to assess this. She has been embroiled in a school finance debacle for years now. She is anti choice and charter schools so I don't find her top down approach appealing.

REASON: When would you say American education began to deteriorate? And what would you say was the cause?

Nina Shokraii Rees: At the dawn of the common school movement -- which was an anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish movement!

Prodigal: Let's get practical for a moment. Do you see much of a chance for real reform of how education money is handled and delivered on a national scale, or is it really a pipe dream? Will education ever be privatized?

Nina Shokraii Rees: I hope so! But not in my lifetime. Though I think we've made great strides in the 90's to expand choice and get parents thinking of public schools as entities that don't need to be necessarily run by government. So the end is closer than you think!

Tully: What foreign countries, if any, can we look to for successful models of education?

Nina Shokraii Rees: None. They all have centralized school systems or curricula or tests! Germany comes close but they still have a national test.

Tully: What single public policy change would do the most to solve our higher education problems?

Nina Shokraii Rees: Privatizing the Pell Grant program!

MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us. It was a pleasure having you here.

— Nina Shokraii Rees





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