School Choice Improves Education

As a parent of two school-aged children and a resident of Arlington County VA, I am pleased and impressed with the choices the county offers to parents. Truthfully, it's almost an embarrassment of riches. I sometimes think about my siblings in Colorado. In their case, their children either go to the neighborhood school or can choose to go to a private school. There is little option to choose among the public schools within their district. Nor do the schools offer differing programs from school to school anyway. From my viewpoint, I believe this surfeit of choice can make a positive difference in how schools perform, and I would encourage every school district, and even Arlington County, to expand on this model.

Arlington, offers a number of choices to students at all three levels: elementary, middle and high school. Because my daughter is in 5th grade, we are currently making our decision about her middle school for next year. So this post will look at middle schools in particular. (Future posts may cover other aspects of Arlington's school system.)

Arlington has five middle schools: Gunston, Kenmore, Jefferson, Swanson and Williamsburg. It also has a special program at H-B Woodlawn, which for all intents and purposes, is another middle school/high school combined. Four of these offer special programs of some kind. I think the other two should also, as I discuss below.

- Gunston offers the Spanish Immersion continuation program for students who attended one of the Spanish Immersion elementary schools (Claremont or Key, which is the school my daughter attends as did her brother before her). Our experience has been that the majority of elementary school immersion students continue at Gunston. The immersion students make up about 1/3 of the student body, with the rest coming from the neighborhood. This choice is really only available to those who participated in the elementary immersion program--or possibly students who live in Spanish-speaking households.

- H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program is a countywide program which selects students by lottery. It's unique in more ways than can be described here; you may click on the link for more details.

- Jefferson Middle School is an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IBMYP), having received authorization from the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) in the spring of 2007. (Note that Washington-Lee High School also offers an IB program.) Although this program is not specifically designated as available countywide, it is possible for parents to transfer in from elsewhere in the county, because Jefferson currently has the smallest enrollment of the five middle schools. However, the county does not provide transportation for out-of-area students.

- Kenmore is an arts and technology focus school, which serves as both a neighborhood school and is also open to students from across the county?space permitting. It integrates the arts (drama, music, dance, etc.) into the learning process.

- Swanson and Williamsburg are pure neighborhood schools with no special programs. Students could theoretically transfer in--space permitting--but it's not clear why they would, unless, say, a family moved within the county and wanted to stay at the same school. We live in the Swanson area.

We have now had two occasions, once with each child, to attend middle school informational sessions. By and large, they are impressive: Arlington Schools are excellent. My wife and I have both noted, though, that the presentation from Swanson--our home school--was decidedly less noteworthy than the others. Both of our children were underwhelmed by those presentations but truly impressed with Gunston and Kenmore presentations. I have a theory about this.

I believe that the schools with specialized programs perceive themselves as special. Swanson and Williamsburg perceive themselves as the neighborhood school striving to be the best they can be, but no different than any other middle school that is serving its neighborhood. When I attended the Swanson presentation for my son, about 90% of what was presented was about middle school in general and about 10% was about Swanson in particular. For Gunston, though, it was about 25% middle school oriented and 75% about Gunston and how it is unique. The pride they took in their special status oozed from the principal, the teachers and every student.

In a similar vein, a friend of mine with a 5th-grade student recently took a required tour of one of the two neighborhood middle schools with the principal. If you want to transfer your student out of your home school to one of the others, you have to get a form signed by your home school's principal and attend a tour and orientation. He was there to get that done, so he could move his daughter to another school. He told me that the principal spent most of the time trying to convince the attendees to not leave for another school. But without some sort of special status or program, she didn't have much to offer.

I believe that giving a school a special mandate or program creates an environment that spurs that school on to do more and aspire higher. I think Arlington would benefit from creating special programs at the remaining two middle schools, Swanson and Williamsburg. Give them a special status and they will make themselves even more special. They'll strive to attract students through their achievements and programs rather than just their geography. Every middle school in the county would be available to every student, with each providing a special program of some kind. There would be even more choices but also better results and outcomes, I believe.

Obviously a system would have to be devised to even out attendance with capacity, but I think that is doable. Arlington benefits from its compact geography, making it easier to provide transportation to students countywide--something that would clearly be more difficult in places like Fairfax, Loudoun, Montgomery or Prince George's Counties or even the District.

School Kids Getting Smarter

Swanson bikes 3 Last year about this time I posted on the bicycles at Swanson Middle School. On the day I took that photo in 2008, there were thirteen bikes parked at the school. The picture here was taken in mid-October 2009, and shows fourteen bikes (and a scooter that you can't quite see). So that's a slight uptick from last year. I was pleased to see that there are still kids who are smart enough to know that riding a bike to school is probably the quickest way--allowing them to sleep in longer in the morning and get where they want to go sooner in the afternoon.

A couple of days later I was walking by again, and there were eighteen bikes! Swanson bikes 2I guess they are getting smarter. Now it's time for the school to install a couple more racks, because there are only ten racks with room for two bikes on each--twenty total capacity.

(Click on photos for larger versions)

Demographics: Friend or Foe?

The Economist published an article recently about falling fertility rates in many developing countries (Falling Fertility, Oct 29). I found this article to be one of the more straightforward looks at how demographics fits in with environmental issues--particularly climate change.

I've written on demographics before (here related to environment and here related to transportation infrastructure). Many articles I see associated with low fertility in countries like Italy and Japan focus on how that is a problem because of how it strains their economic structure. Other demographic articles that deal with environment focus on how our large and growing population has overstrained our planet. Agreed.

What this article points out is fertility rates are dropping amazingly fast in many countries. For instance from 1984 to 2006 it dropped from 7 to 1.9 in Iran. They accurately use the word "astonishing" to describe that. Fertility rates are anchored in social norms, so it's difficult to imagine social trends changing faster than that. In fact, I have a difficult time imagine them changing that fast period.

I am going to quote the last three paragraphs from the story directly, because it articulates our position here on the earth better than I ever could:

"In principle, there are three ways of limiting human environmental impacts: through population policy, technology and governance. The first of those does not offer much scope. Population growth is already slowing almost as fast as it naturally could. Easier access to family planning, especially in Africa, could probably lower its expected peak from around 9 billion to perhaps 8.5 billion. Only Chinese-style coercion would bring it down much below that; and forcing poor people to have fewer children than they want because the rich consume too many of the world’s resources would be immoral.

If population policy can do little more to alleviate environmental damage, then the human race will have to rely on technology and governance to shift the world’s economy towards cleaner growth. Mankind needs to develop more and cheaper technologies that can enable people to enjoy the fruits of economic growth without destroying the planet’s natural capital. That’s not going to happen unless governments both use carbon pricing and other policies to encourage investment in those technologies and constrain the damage that economic development does to biodiversity.

Falling fertility may be making poor people’s lives better, but it cannot save the Earth. That lies in our own hands."

Carbon Offsets Not a Mirage Post 2

Last week I posted in response to an article in the Washington Post by Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel entitled Cap-and-Trade Mirage.

I countered their contention that employing cap and trade would not result in the required emissions reductions to get us started down the path to a low-carbon economy. They opined that cap and trade would not jumpstart a revolution in renewable energy; I countered that it would spur efforts in energy efficiency, which represent a significant untapped opportunity.

The larger point they made in the op-ed was that the inclusion of carbon offsets in the proposed climate legislation in both the House and Senate would "guarantee failure" of the bills. That's a pretty strong contention: "guarantee failure." I could not disagree more, and I am supported in this opinion by Dan Lashof, director of the climate center of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here's a quick primer on carbon offsets:
Carbon offsets represent emission reductions that occur in one place but are credited somewhere else, generally because they are paid for by the entity in the "somewhere else." For instance, landfills that are not required to capture the methane their waste produces as it decomposes generally will vent that methane (a potent greenhouse gas), because it's cheaper than putting in place the technology to capture it. However, an outside investor could help finance that technology in exchange for the emissions reductions that will result. Those emissions are "carbon offsets," and they can be used to "offset" emissions reductions that would otherwise be required by the financing entity.

It is easy to find criticisms of carbon offsets. Some people have compared them to Medieval Indulgences--just a way to assuage guilt. Others, including Williams and Zabel, claim that they don't actually result in any emissions reductions because of "additionality" problems or poorly designed or regulated projects. Both of these are issues worth addressing, but they are wrong that these issues will result in failure. On the contrary, by instituting strong offset provisions, these bills will accomplish more emissions reductions faster while potentially helping to build momentum for greenhouse gas reductions across the economy.

Let's take "additionality" first. What is "additionality?" Simply, it's the term used to describe whether a project would have happened anyway. . ."additional." This is a simple idea, but fairly difficult to pin down in any particular circumstance, since it requires the ability to know what would have happened instead. In many cases, that might require mind reading. The fact that additionality is difficult to know perfectly does not mean that every project is worthless or that it's not possible to make intelligent judgments. Quite the opposite, in fact. Every carbon offset certification organization has well thought out additionality requirements.

While I was at we partnered with a not-for-profit organization called Paso Pacifico on a project that was certified by the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA), called Return to Forest. This project is about as additional as one can imagine. Former pastureland that was lying fallow was restored to forest through carbon offset financing from's donors. Without this funding, the forests that are growing there now would not exist. They are "additional;" they could not have possibly occurred otherwise. Better even is that CCBA has additional requirements to benefit local communities and biodiversity. So this project, which was financed through carbon offsets, provides significant ancillary benefits at no additional costs. CCBA, as well as other certifying organizations, also has strict requirements to make sure plans and finances are in place to manage projects for decades into the future.

I personally like forestry projects even though there are dissenting views on this subject--even from other environmentalists (like Joe Romm). My reasoning comes down to one simple idea. Half of all the forests that existed 8,000 years ago are gone. We have to put them back as one of the key strategies in our battle against climate disruption. We have to put them back. If carbon offset financing helps us do that (and it does), then let's go! If we're worried about permanence (they might burn down or be killed by disease), we can compensate by underestimating the climate benefits for each project such that in total the climate benefits are still better than originally estimated. (Also, project insurance--which doesn't really exist yet--could help overcome this issue.) Listen, no one is investing the kind of money needed to reforest the planet on the scale required just through charitable efforts or even national and international government investments. Well designed carbon offset schemes can help.

Return to Forest is just one example of a project that is clearly additional. Additionality can be somewhat subjective and has been the topic of much debate for years in offset circles. That's why offset certifying organizations have worked so hard to put in place additionality requirements. Perhaps they are not perfect, but by dealing with this issue, they have helped solidify confidence in the markets for carbon offsets.

I used a forestry example, but projects of all types can meet additionality criteria. In fact, Joe Romm himself, who has generally been against most offset schemes, comes out in favor of offsets in Waxman-Markey, because they meet both additionality issues and are fraud resistant.

Which is the other issue Williams and Zabel bring up. They point out a couple of examples of dubious projects that don't actually reduce any emissions or are fraudulent. Well, sure, I can find examples of fraud everywhere, but that doesn't indict the entire system. Just because some bad mortgage loans were made doesn't mean we scrap mortgages entirely as a way of financing homes. No, we just improve our systems to reduce the problems and keep the benefits. Same with offsets. Williams and Zabel say that these problems "cannot be solved by certification or verification processes." They offer no evidence of that; they just baldly assert it. Well, I can say au contraire--we have the tools to overcome issues of fraud, measurement and additionality, and they are already being used in the offset markets and are continuously being improved.

So I must respectfully disagree with Williams and Zabel. Offsets will help meet our reduction targets at lower costs while also putting money towards a wider variety of projects and strategies than would occur without them. Insomuch as international offsets are also allowed, that will help spur investment in other places in the world, too--which is a good thing for fighting climate change.

Carbon Offsets Not a Mirage, But an Important Tool

On Halloween, the Washington Post published an op-ed article by Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel entitled Cap-and-Trade Mirage. Williams and Zabel are EPA employees, as I once was, too. The article made a couple of assertions about strategies for addressing climate change that are, in my opinion, wrong. The major point they attempt to make is that our cap-and-trade legislation is doomed to failure because it includes carbon offsets. Tomorrow I will counter their assertions about offsets, but today I will address an earlier point they make in their article.

Here's a quote:
"Confidence in the certainty of declining caps is based on the mistaken assumption that cap-and trade was proven in the EPA's acid rain program. In fact, addressing acid rain required relatively minor modifications to coal-fired power plants... In contrast, the issues presented by climate change cannot be solved by tweaks to facilities; it requires an energy revolution through investments in building clean-energy facilities. The biggest obstacle to this revolution is that uncontrolled fossil fuel energy remains much cheaper than clean energy.

Cap-and-trade alone will not create confidence that clean energy will become profitable within a known time frame and so will not ignite the huge shift in investment needed to begin
the clean-energy revolution."

The energy revolution they claim is needed is required--eventually (and, I would agree, the sooner the better). But right now we already possess the tools and technologies to reduce our carbon emissions by up to 40%--and at a profit. It's called energy efficiency. Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, has reduced the energy use in his house by almost 50% with relatively small effort (as he blogged on Huffpost). Similarly, with a lesser effort than he, I have reduced the energy use in my house by an estimated 20-30% with relatively minor investments. And there's lots more I can and should do. Most buildings can reduce their energy use by 30% or more at a net-zero cost. Buildings alone account for 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions, so we can get 12% reductions in total emissions without doing anything else than profitably improving efficiency in buildings. California has held emissions per person constant for almost 30 years while it's rising everywhere else in the US.

The United States emits about double the greenhouse gases per dollar of GDP as Japan. That's not because Japan is a generation ahead of us in clean energy generation. It's because they are a generation ahead of us in using the currently existing energy efficiency opportunities that are right in front of us. Because energy is more expensive there, they have learned to be more judicious and smarter with it.

Cap and trade will make energy more expensive here--although probably not by as much as Williams and Zabel (and I for that matter) would like it to be to force a truly rapid revolution. However, the cap will compel companies to find ways to reduce their emissions. It's true that if the cap were declining rapidly and the only solution were renewable energy, that the concept might fail, but that's not the case; renewable energy is not the only solution. We can easily meet the emissions targets in Waxman-Markey or Kerry-Boxer with technologies and practices that are already widely available. At the same time, these bills contain additional incentives to help push investment towards the development of more renewable energy above and beyond what the cap-and-trade component of the bills might drive by themselves.

So Williams and Zabel are wrong that we cannot take the lessons from Acid Rain and apply it to carbon emissions. In fact, at the time the Acid Rain Program was put in place, many industry studies assumed that it would require very expensive scrubber technology to meet the emissions targets required. The power plant owners discovered that, in many cases, they could meet those targets more economically by switching to a different fuel, or shutting down the dirtiest plants. The costs, it turned out, were much lower than even the most optimistic predictions of environmentalists and only 10% the costs that the industry had predicted. Not only that, but for much of the history of the program, the utilities have actually emitted far less than the cap required, because they were able to find other ways to do so that were cheap.

Williams and Zabel are similarly assuming that there is only one solution and that solution is untenable. The beauty of using cap and trade is that other solutions will also be found, in many cases ones we may not have thought of. In this case, we don't even have to be surprised, though, because the most obvious and cheapest solution is already staring us in the face. Put the cap and trade in place so we can unleash the energy efficiency revolution.