Restoring public policy sanity

Restoring public policy sanity

The hallmark of sound public policy, of course, must be sanity. But far too often, legislators promulgating public policy don’t look before they leap. And that’s a surefire way to make taxpayers weep.

Take for instance, the mess of the 2007 law that allows “The State” to siphon money out of the coffers of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and use it to fund mass transit and other highways.

That legal form of skimming, challenged in the courts and upheld, has forced the commission to borrow billions and continually raise tolls to service a massive debt not of its own doing.

As The Associated Press reported this month, more than half of the turnpike’s $1.2 billion in annual revenues now goes to pay off that strong-armed debt. The debt stands at about $12 billion – that’s “billion” with a “b” – with half of that attributable to “The State’s” shakedown.

By any rational accounting, that’s an insane public policy.

Turnpike tolls should be dedicated solely to the highways whence tolls are collected. Period.

In the mumbo-jumbo of contemporary educratic nomenclature, it’s known as “restorative practices.”  Or as the Post-Gazette puts it, “an educational alternative to traditional punishments that include reflection and dialogue.”

It’s designed, proponents say, to reduce suspension rates and racial disparities in how students are disciplined for misbehavior. Pittsburgh Public Schools has adopted the practice.

And while the P-G reports that suspensions have fallen in some schools, others say the practice has led to chaos in other schools, alleging misbehavior goes unaddressed.

After several years of declining suspensions – was it because the program worked or because misbehavior went unchecked? – Pittsburgh district officials report a slight uptick in suspensions in the 2018-19 academic year.

And just this past May, The Hechinger Report offered this, based on a Rand assessment of the district’s “restorative justice” program, as it called it:

“In the Pittsburgh study, published in December 2018, suspension rates fell at the 22 schools that tried restorative justice. But suspension rates also fell at 22 comparison schools in the city that didn’t adopt restorative justice, echoing the dramatic decline in suspensions across the nation.

“During the second year of the Pittsburgh experiment, 12.6 percent of the kids at the restorative justice schools had been suspended during the 2016-17 school year, compared with 14.6 percent of the students at traditional discipline schools.”

Teachers in the treatment schools were trained in restorative justice techniques and encouraged to talk with students instead of punishing them but suspensions were still a discipline option, the report noted.

That said, The Hechinger Report also notes how the “academic performance of middle schoolers actually worsened at schools that tried restorative justice. Math test scores deteriorated for black students in particular.”

So, are “restorative practices” bad old-fashioned bafflegab – messy and wordy educratic jargon bordering on incomprehensible gibberish?

The Hechinger Report’s Jill Barshay concludes that such programs are “a challenge for schools to implement” and “also a tricky thing for researchers to study because too many students and teachers make decisions that are beyond a researcher’s control.”

Which will make more than a few readers pine for the days when a thick piece of pine drilled with ample holes was the only “restorative practice” or “justice” required.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).