How is a Portfolio District Different from a School District?

November 14, 2014

[The music festival, day 6. The crowd has grown so big the camera has to pull back a loooong way to get it all into view. The boys are again present with the college hippies. The band is playing reggae music.]
Driver: Wow, this band is so crunchy. Dude, I need more weed.
Stan: So it seems like we have enough people now. When do we start taking down the corporations?
Man 1: [take a deep drag from his joint] Yeah man, the corporations. Right now they’re raping the world for money!
Kyle: Yeah, so, where are they. Let’s go get ‘em.
Man 2: Right now we’re proving we don’t need corporations. We don’t need money. This can become a commune where everyone just helps each other.
Man 1: Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like, who like, makes bread. A-and one guy who like, l-looks out for other people’s safety.
Stan: You mean like a baker and a cop?
Man 2: No no, can’t you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?
Kyle: Yeah, it’s called a town.
Driver: You kids just haven’t been to college yet. But just you wait, this thing is about to get HUGE.

The Ed Next article by Robin J. Lake, Ashley Jochim and Michael DeArmond on the challenges facing school choice in Detroit has led to a resurgence of chatter about Portfolio Districts.  The authors write:

Detroit is a powerful illustration of what happens when no one takes responsibility for the entire system of publicly supported schools in a city. Parents struggle to navigate their many, mostly low-performing options, and providers face at best weak incentives to improve academic quality. As a result, large numbers of failing district and charter schools continue to operate.

And in an accompanying blog post Lake concludes: “What Detroit needs is a portfolio manager…”

The idea that we need a Portfolio District to decide which schools of choice are allowed to open, which must shut-down, and what regulations should govern all of them has gained some traction in reform circles ever since New Orleans adopted this approach.  Now folks want to bring that same idea to Detroit and choice systems everywhere to make sure bad actors don’t get to operate schools, that failing schools are forced to close, and that a heavy regulatory framework avoids other problems.

I’ve never understood how Portfolio Districts are expected to perform these regulatory functions any better than regular old school districts.  The whole thing reminds me of the exchange quoted above from the South Park Hippie Drum Circle episode.

Portfolio District Advocate: “Yeah, we’ll have one guy who like is a Portfolio Manager, who like can close down bad schools.”

Me: “You mean like a superintendent?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “No, man, this guy will work for an independent board that makes rules for schools to make sure they don’t do bad things.”

Me: “You mean like a school district?”

Portfolio District Advocate: “You don’t get it, dude, the Portfolio District is there to make sure that only good schools open and to provide information and reduce chaos.”

Me: “Isn’t that what school districts are already supposed to do? How is a Portfolio District any different other than that you gave it a new name and believe that good people will be in charge?”

Ed reform is plagued by people not thinking like social scientists.  School districts have institutional incentives to prevent new good schools from opening, propping up bad schools that too few parents want, and imposing an excessive regulatory framework on the entire system.  Those same institutional incentives will inevitably come to dominate Portfolio Districts.

If you want to create real change, you have to change the system of incentives — not just create new institutions that will be governed by the same perverse incentives.  Choice and market competition can accomplish the same goals without being subject to the same destructive incentives as school and portfolio districts.

Yes, I know that Robin Lake and her co-authors find continued low achievement in Detroit schools and quote several people who complain about a lack of information and other challenges.  But keep in mind that the big expansion in choice in Detroit is only a few years old and that the city is starting from an extremely high level of dysfunction.  Lake and her colleagues have not used a rigorous analysis to determine whether charter schools are having a positive effect in Detroit, they just show trends in urban NAEP scores.  And the few studies on Detroit charters they do cite — the CREDO and  Mackinac studies — both find positive results for Detroit charters.  It just isn’t fast enough and dramatic enough.

Beware ed reformers in a hurry.  Real and enduring improvement takes time.  Happily it is possible, if we have the patience to let it happen.  A new study by Patrick L. Baude, Marcus Casey, Eric A. Hanushek, and Steven G. Rivkin examines the evolution of charter school quality in Texas over time.  Here is their abstract:

Studies of the charter school sector typically focus on head-to-head comparisons of charter and traditional schools at a point in time, but the expansion of parental choice and relaxation of constraints on school operations is unlikely to raise school quality overnight. Rather, the success of the reform depends in large part on whether parental choices induce improvements in the charter sector. We study quality changes among Texas charter schools between 2001 and 2011. Our results suggest that the charter sector was initially characterized by schools whose quality was highly variable and, on average, less effective than traditional public schools. However, exits from the sector, improvement of existing charter schools, and positive selection of charter management organizations that open additional schools raised average charter school effectiveness over time relative to traditional public schools. Moreover, the evidence is consistent with the belief that a reduction in student turnover as the sector matures, expansion of the share of charters that adhere to a No Excuses philosophy, and increasingly positive student selection at the times of both entry and reenrollment all contribute to the improvement of the charter sector.

Rather than imposing a Portfolio District that is likely to re-create the dysfunction and failure of traditional school districts, let’s change the system of incentives and allow choice and competition to improve school quality over time.


Welcome to Weimar!

November 14, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s been a while since we had a post on union goons shutting down debate by force. It happened again yesterday at AEI.

In other news, the central bank has spent years flooding the economy with cheap money, and fascist imagery is now cool and transgressive.

Willkommen . . . bienvenue . . . welcome!


The Walls of Gold Entomb Us, the Swords of Scorn Divide

November 13, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

If you are in the mood for a quick and handy reminder about why most of the country despises the limousine liberal set, this video should do the trick. The media is paying the most attention to the fact that this guy holds the American public in contempt (the feeling is mutual) but the far bigger story emerges from this video. In it, one of the architects of the President’s signature domestic initiative more or less admits that the “Affordable” part of the “Affordable Care Act” was a deliberate fraud of the “yeah, yeah- we’ll get to that later” sort.

Given that we live in a nation with trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities related to preexisting entitlement programs and 10,000 new baby-boomers qualifying for these programs a day, this represents recklessness on a stunning scale. William F. Buckley once sagely noted that he would rather be ruled by the first 1,000 people in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. It’s time to add MIT to the list.

UPDATE

Obamacare supporter Ron Fournier turns in a must-read critique in the National Journal. Money quote:

And so even I have to admit, as a supporter, that Obamacare was built and sold on a foundation of lies. No way around it, unless you’re willing to accept a political system that colors its lies—the reds, the whites, and the blues.

 

 

 


Surowiecki on Teacher Training

November 10, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

James Surowiecki takes his time getting to the punchline in this sports/education analogy and makes a loose assertion or two of the journalistic sort, but is still worth a look. Cliff Notes version: sports training has vastly improved in the last 40 years, most everything has done the same, but our training of teachers still stinks.

One thought that occurred to me in reading this article. Let’s assume that teacher training is a rotten as this and many other articles assume. The former dean of Columbia Teachers College laid out in painful detail the shortcomings of American teacher training in a series of searing reports, so I can’t see much reason to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I’ve always been a bit mystified by the Finland narrative. If someone brought the Finnish Minister of Education over to the United States to run the show with the imperial power of fiat, it seems to me that the first thing he or she would do would be to close the nation’s Colleges of Education and start over. What am I missing here?

I’m all for attempting to improve teacher training, but the system we send new teachers into has plenty of other problems. It would be great to be able to train people to overcome all to often dysfunctional district systems of schooling marred by low-turnout elections heavily influenced by organized employee interests, but that sort of immunization sounds a bit far-fetched. Best to train teachers well and give them a reasonable system in which to thrive imo.

 

 

 


Reason TV: How Eva Moskowitz Outmuscled the Teachers Union

November 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Reason TV on Eva vs. AFT in NYC.


Tuthill on the Shape of Things to Come in the K-12 debate

November 7, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Generals are always fighting the last war, and in this must read piece by Doug Tuthill over at RedefinED, Tuthill makes the case that many of our current K-12 debates are already sliding towards irrelevance in an emerging multi-provider K-12 landscape.


Forster-Mathews over/under challenge- place your 2015 bets now

November 6, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Election coverage inevitably drifts to beltway drama, but I’m at more than a bit of a loss to understand why. It’s kind of like the nation’s bizarre fascination with 32 football teams running the same offense and defense when a far more interesting and gloriously chaotic brand of football rumbles along in the colleges. My memory gets fuzzy trying to remember the last positive and interesting thing to happen in DC. The action in America is out in the states.

Longtime Jayblog readers will doubtlessly recall the world-famous bet between our own Greg and WaPo columnist Jay Mathews regarding whether parental choice programs were just too politically difficult. They eventually decided to put the over/under for new school choice programs or expansions in 2011 at 7, with the loser picking up dinner.

I can’t remember whether the total got to 21 that year or not. If not, it was close. The school choice movement easily cleared the bar again in 2012. Then in 2013, it was time for a three-peat!  Finally in 2014, the pace slowed a bit nationally in an election year and the Forster-Mathews bar proved too high.

And now?

Only time will ultimately tell, but the elections of 2014 must look pretty bleak if you are burdened in life with reactionary K-12 preferences. Scott Walker for instance not only just won his third statewide election in four years, he’s talking about expanding school vouchers into new districts and providing choice to children with disabilities. Arizona Governor-elect Doug Ducey stated in his victory speech “Schools and choices open to some parents should be open to all parents.”

Out in Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott defeated Republican, Independent Democrat Charlie Crist in an epic battle. It did not escape the notice of some that the tight margin could have been swayed by the parents of the parents of the near 100,000 children participating in Florida’s private choice programs this year.

In Indiana, Republicans added to their already large legislative majorities and the same thing basically happened in Ohio. A few years ago, an observer of Nevada politics told me that the map of Nevada House were drawn such that a Democratic majority would live at least as long as the current map. Well lo and behold, Gov. Sandoval gets reelected with 70% of the vote and the Republicans capture both chambers.

The WaPo produced this handy map:

This same article notes that Republicans hold unified control over both chambers and the chief executive in 24 states compared to 6 for the Democrats.

Don’t ignore Blue states however. Out in New York, easily reelected Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed public support for tuition tax credits. From the linked story:

Mr. Cuomo echoed the assemblyman’s call for the passage of the Education Investment Tax Credit, which would help parents pay for religious schools–which the governor compared to his expansion of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program to cover yeshivas and his public funding of busing for students of Orthodox Jewish schools. Mr. Cuomo claimed such funding is simply equitable and right.

“It’s not charity, it’s not a favor. It’s justice. TAP. Public transportation and the school buses, that was justice. Education tax credit–this is a matter of justice,” he said as the crowd broke into applause. “I want you to understand that’s the way I see it. On a personal level, this is a very important relationship that I honor. And as governor, I have sworn to do justice. And there have been a number of great injustices that your community has endured for a long, long time. And it is my profound wish that we should work together and we should resolve them and bring justice to the community that we deserve.”

This is welcome news, as the private choice movement has made very limited progress overall in the mega-states of California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois aka where a whole bunch of the kids are located. Charter schools however are rolling along in all of those states, and they seem poised to crush private schools at a much higher rate than low-performing district schools. Even Florida’s nearing 100,000 private choice children in private choice programs seems small when viewed in this fashion. The Illinois $500 personal use tax credit comes across as a bit of a cruel joke when put into this context: the state will lavish many thousands of (increasingly hard to come by) dollars on you if you choose to attend a district or charter school, but will give you a $500 tax break if you choose to bear the financial burden of sending your child to a private school if you have a sufficient tax liability.

The Illinois credit may only be a small step in reducing double payment penalty, but it is more than California, New York or Texas has done to date while charters continue to surge. In the end, private schools ought not to be preserved by nostalgic state lawmakers, but rather (if it is going to happen) by the free choice of parents operating on something approaching a level financial playing field. We need both broader and better designed account-based programs.

Finally choice proponents need to be aware that even seemingly shiny legislative majorities spring on you like a bear trap if you mistake them for an actual consensus. Proponents must never forget the need to persuade a broader universe of opinion leaders and the public regarding the justice of their cause.

Okay so with all that said, I will take the over in 2015. What about you?

UPDATE:

The Friedman Foundation has a handy-dandy guide to the governors and how they stand on parental choice.

UPDATE PART DEUX:

WaPo on the teacher unions spending $60m on races and mostly getting crushed. Money quotes:

“We knew this was going to be an uphill battle,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union. “But I don’t think anybody on our side, and we’ve got some very savvy people, anticipated going over the falls like this. Tectonic plates have shifted. And we’re going to have to come back with a new way of organizing for these kinds of races.”

and…

“The surprising thing is you now have Democrats who are willing to buck the union,” said Howard Wolfson, an adviser to former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who contributed to Democratic and Republican candidates around the country who want to introduce more choice and competition in public education, and greater accountability for teachers. “You can take reform positions and be successful not only in general elections, but in primaries. It’s a major sea change in the Democratic party that you can now oppose the union and be successful.”

 

 


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