Portfolio Districts: One Ring to Rule Them All

January 29, 2015

We’ve been having a good discussion this week about portfolio districts and the best way to regulate choice schools.  I’ve written on this topic before, but let me try to explain more clearly why I am wary of portfolio districts, mayoral takeovers, and other proposals for a super-regulator to govern all choice and traditional schools.

I understand that all school systems, choice or traditional, require some regulation.  And I understand that all regulatory schemes are susceptible to capture by status quo interests.  But it is wrong, as Matt Ladner and others have suggested, to just throw up one’s hand and say that eternal vigilance is the price of good policy or that in the long run we are all dead. Some regulatory approaches carry more risks of capture than others and may produce fewer benefits.  We should consider the incentives created by different regulatory approaches to think about what we should prefer.

In general, centralized, monopoly regulators are more susceptible to capture than decentralized, multiple regulators.  The problem with portfolio districts is that they are trying to be one ring to rule them all.  They govern traditional, charter and (under some proposals) publicly subsidized private schools.  They decide which schools should be allowed to open, which should be closed, which empty spaces should be allocated to whom, and they impose testing, transportation, and other regulations on all.  Supporters of portfolio districts may think that Sauran was offering his hand to help, but Gandalf understood the danger of concentrating power:

Don’t… tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo. I would use this ring from a desire to do good… But through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.

Well, portfolio districts don’t quite pose the same risks as the One Ring, but the logic of the danger is the same.  The ability to control who operates all types of schools and what regulations govern them is too much power not to attract bad people to it or to corrupt those who possess it.

The solution is to decentralize power so that schools are governed by multiple regulators.  It’s better to have the entity responsible for authorizing charter schools be separate from the one regulating traditional public schools.  When school districts or a state board of education is the sole authorizer of charter schools they are likely to be captured by traditional public school interests and approve few charters or even mischievously approve bad charter operators or charters that focus only on groups of students traditional public schools don’t mind losing so much (adjudicated youth, pregnant teens, dropout recovery, etc…).  When a single authority imposes a single set of standards, single curriculum, and single set of tests, there is real danger of regulatory capture by status quo interests.

When that power is dispersed, it is too hard to capture all of them and they compete with one another to keep regulations reasonable.  This is the logic behind separation of power and federalism.  It is the virtue of Tiebout choice.  The superiority of dispersing and checking power was understood by the founders.  It was understood by Montesquieu.  It was really Woodrow Wilson who launched a full-frontal attack on the idea of dispersed power and it is his progressive descendants who continue to this day to believe that they can wield the One Ring for good.

All of this being said, I can understand the argument for temporary concentrations of power for the purpose of creating its long-term dispersion.  Perhaps the only way New York City could get a thriving charter sector was for Bloomberg to concentrate power in his own hands and create scores of charter schools within existing public school facilities.  The creation of those charter schools dispersed power enough so that de Blasio could be blocked in his attempt to close them and re-centralize power into his own hands.

Even the American Revolution required the concentration of power in the hands of General Washington so that we could be freed from the British monarchy and create our new system of separated powers and federalism.  The danger is that in temporarily concentrating power we might end up with Napoleon instead of Washington.

My concern with the portfolio district backers is that they don’t see it as a temporary measure to create a system that ultimately disperses power.  They see it as the ultimate goal.  And in that I believe they are completely mistaken.

Only 31 of 84 Archdiocese of New Orleans Schools Participate in Louisiana Voucher

January 28, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In a positive article about the role of parental choice programs on Catholic schools nationally in the National Catholic Register comes a bit of confirmation on the recent Kisida, Wolf and Rhinesmith study:

Such increases in enrollment bring with them questions. First, not all Catholic schools — even those located in the same diocese — choose to participate. In the Archdiocese of New Orleans, only 31 of the 84 schools participate.

“There are a variety of reasons that schools don’t participate,” said Jan Lancaster, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. “Many have their own financial aid and scholarship programs in place to accommodate families that cannot afford to pay tuition. Others have waiting lists and are at capacity.

“Some don’t want to participate because of the mandates that are imposed on participating schools from the Louisiana Department of Education.”

Among these demands, she said, are testing and audits.

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/vouchers-provide-much-needed-infusion-of-students-to-catholic-schools/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter#ixzz3Q94WsHqa

Kids in places with lots of choices… but now what?

January 26, 2015

(Guest Post By Marty Lueken)

Parents in Milwaukee, home to the oldest school voucher program in the nation, are fortunate to have access to a variety of educational options. But many, including education reformers, would agree that school choice is not a silver bullet for solving the problems that Milwaukee and many other parts of the country face today.  But choice is certainly, and must be, a significant part of the solution.

The struggling Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system and its inability to meet the needs of their students’ families in Milwaukee has led to parents leaving district schools to attend charter schools and private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and, in turn, created an abundance of buildings that are vacant and public schools that currently operate at significantly below capacity.

This is the subject of a recent report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which describes how the district (and city) has historically blocked the sale of vacant facilities to private and charter schools widely regarded as among the best in the city. Such behavior isn’t surprising, given the institutional incentives in place for districts to prevent good schools from expanding.

The analysis also estimates the utilization rates of every public school in the city. It identifies over two dozen buildings that are operating at below 60 percent capacity. Many of these schools are the most at-risk schools in the city, with declining enrollments, and among the lowest performing in the city.  They have twice as many 9-1-1 phone calls per student and a much higher habitual absenteeism rate than other public schools.

Put simply, a school with lots of unused space is a solid signal for identifying struggling schools.  Imagine walking by an almost-empty restaurant on a crowded street at dinner time on Saturday – some people might interpret the scene as a signal about the quality of its food or service is not good.  That restaurant is likely on its way out of business unless it takes a different approach to find effective ways to draw customers.

And although schools like these are prime for turnaround and reform, a lack of accountability allows them to continue operating.  Unlike restaurants (or private schools), public schools don’t go “out of business.”  So what can be done to improve struggling schools like these?

An interesting option for reform is the recovery school district (RSD) – the turnover of chronically failing schools to another entity such as the state or an independent board – and it will likely come up for public debate in the Wisconsin Legislature pretty soon. This is a novel approach that is currently implemented in Louisiana and, recently, Tennessee and Michigan. The idea behind it is that the bottom x% of schools close, re-organize, and re-open under the auspices of an independent authority. This body has the authority to grant an operating agency, such as a charter school, authority to run the school.  In New Orleans, takeover by charter schools is the hallmark of the RSD in New Orleans, ground zero for this relatively new reform.

Evidence of its effectiveness and promise is emerging.  Most recently, an NBER study on charter takeover in Louisiana and Boston found large gains in learning by students “grandfathered in.”  In the Boston case, these students, who essentially were passive choosers, benefited as much as students who were assigned seats through lotteries (i.e. students who were active choosers).

Public schools in New Orleans were in dire shape prior to Hurricane Katrina, with 67% of its students attending low-performing schools.  Then Katrina wiped out the city and sank the public school bureaucracy in its swamp of inefficiency. This allowed changes to be made which facilitated smoother takeovers. By 2010, after the RSD took off, the rate of students in schools failing to serve them was cut in half to 34%. The RSD is also closing the gap between their students and the rest of the state – its students experienced the fastest growth than any other public school district in Louisiana.

These results signal that RSD may be an effective policy. But it’s still a fairly new program, and important considerations remain. Does RSD policy simply replace one layer of bureaucratic oversight with another? The long-term outcome may just be that the RSD gets hijacked by special interests, as with public school districts.

The RSD may be a possible short-term solution for turning around failing schools that have no chance of succeeding within the public school system. But a long-term solution? And what should be done, if anything, after a school in the RSD turns around?

These questions remain up in the air, but there may be reason to give pause. RSDs depend on mission-driven, highly talented people willing to close schools. As Jay once pointed out before, it may be a matter of time before those people leave and the RSD begins to look more like the regular school district. We shouldn’t expect RSDs to be an enduring reform strategy like school choice.

In the meantime, the Louisiana experience so far is indicative of a highly minority, poor urban school district on its way to becoming an “A” system. And it may be worth experimenting with in other places with a large number of declining schools. Will Milwaukee become the next RSD laboratory?

Martin F. Lueken is the Education Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a nonprofit law firm and policy center based in Milwaukee that advocates for individual liberty, constitutional rights, limited government, the rule of law, and a robust civil society.

How to Nail the Pats with Stats

January 23, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It may not be Super Chart! or Son of Super Chart! but this graph of fumble rates sure doesn’t make the Patriots look good. Jack Fowler breaks it down in The Corner:

Over the last five seasons, the average NFL team fumble-to-play ratio is 1 in every 50. The Patriots record is 1 in every 73. Why such a disparity? The obvious argument: Under-inflated balls are much easier for running backs to protect, and therefore less likely to be fumbled.


Learning from our mistakes in expanding parental choice

January 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Kisida, Wolf and Rhinesmith survey of attitudes of private school leaders in Florida, Indiana and Louisiana released today by AEI has a ton of important information. I commend the authors for releasing it, as the data gathered reveals the cost of attempting to regulate private schools participating in private choice programs.

In particular, the evidence seems to point in the direction of requiring schools to give a test tied to the state curriculum, requiring a great deal of paperwork, and only making low-income students from the lowest performing school eligible represents creates a powerful incentive for schools not to participate. In other words, Louisiana should examine the results of this study carefully and make some significant adjustments if they would like more of the 70 percent of private schools that chose not to participate to make seats available. Let’s just go ahead and put it on the table that the 30 percent of participating schools likely have financially desperate organizations over-represented, and the 70% of non-participants probably have higher percentages of stable organizations and high quality seats.

One of the charts deals with schools already participating in the choice- notice the enthusiasm for increasing participation in reasonably regulated Florida as opposed to the disinterest in Louisiana. A net 55% of Florida participating schools plan to increase participation, against 8% in Louisiana.


FL IN La 1


Florida does make provision for standardized testing, but allows schools to choose their own test. Florida law has an ongoing third-party academic evaluation of the trends in scores for the program. Indiana also mandates state testing, but had effectively done so years before the creation of the choice program. Every state has varying levels of regulation and laws that apply to private schools irrespective of whether or not they have a choice program, meaning that the impact of a heavy-handed will vary from state to state based on this and other factors.

The authors also surveyed non-participating schools. Let’s look at the gory details from Florida and Louisiana. First Florida:

FL Private schools 1

Take a look at the fourth item down from the top. Ok- now Louisiana:

La private schools 1


So 23 percent of Florida non-participating schools said that concerns about independence, character and identify played a major role in their decision to keep out of the program, whereas 46% of Louisiana schools said it played a major role. Eleven percent of Florida schools said it played a minor role, whereas an additional 26% of Louisiana schools said the same. Overall 72% of Louisiana non-participants expressed concerns about their independence under the program.

Notice the first item as well- Florida private school leaders seem relatively confident that Florida lawmakers won’t go off the deep end in the future. Louisiana private school leaders seem to think that their lawmakers have already gone off the deep end. Most Florida private schools participate in the choice program, and seem anxious to provide more seats for low-income students. Many Louisiana private school leaders meanwhile have (understandably) adopted the stance of “thanks but no thanks.”

We create these programs in order to expand opportunities for students. Policymakers must carefully balance the public’s interest in academic transparency with the interest in private schools in maintaining their distinctive character and independence. Opinions of this subject are diverse, but far too many in my view have been consumed with a simplistic notion that giving the state’s (often subpar) test somehow equates with “accountability.” The word means being held responsible, but there is a whole bunch of state testing going on, but precious few being held responsible for much. Private schools already commonly use tests like the Stanford 10 and Iowa Test of Basic Skills and I’ve yet to see anyone make a convincing case that these tests won’t do just fine in providing transparency without saddling private schools with a state mandated curriculum.

Just as a quick thought experiment, suppose every state in the union ditched their state test (some of which are decent and some of which may as well be He-Man and the Masters of the Universe coloring books) and replaced it with one of the national norm tests. How would “accountability” be diminished? If you have a coherent answer please leave it in the comments. If you have an undying irrational attachment to the eternal beauty and truth of state tests uber alles, don’t bother unless you can explain why.

I know a few of the decision makers in Louisiana, and can attest that the road to this hell was paved with good intentions. No one woke up in the morning, stretched and yawned, and said “I want to create a choice program for disadvantaged kids that 70% of the private schools in the state won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.” That is not at all what happened, but the end result has been the same.

You live and learn- it is time to learn.


Ed Reformers are Not a Smarter Version of the Government

January 21, 2015

Ed reformers all agree that the current system of public education is horribly broken.  But many are pursuing reforms that are likely to re-create the same dysfunctional system they oppose.

When they observe a problem their inclination is to fix it by prohibiting or regulating it.  If parents might pick bad schools in a choice system, the solution is to  impose regulations that prevent schools from being bad and prohibit those that are nevertheless bad from participating.  The regulations impose paperwork burdens on schools.  And so that officials can judge school quality, some reformers favor requiring participating private schools to take the state test based on the state curriculum.

If regulating schools to success were the solution, our public school system would be wonderful.  They have no shortage of regulations and prohibitions, all designed by well-meaning people to make those schools perform well.  So, why do some reformers believe it will turn out differently with heavily regulated choice systems?  Well, because they’ll be in charge and they are smarter.  They’ll design the regulations more appropriately.  They’ll implement them more judiciously.  They’ll only impose the regulations we really need.

A new study by my colleagues Brian Kisida, Pat Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith gives some indication of how things go wrong when you impose a heavy, public-school-like regulatory burden on private choice programs.  In Louisiana, which provides exceptionally low funding for choice students, imposes a heavy regulatory burden, and requires students to take the state test based on the state curriculum, only a third of the state’s private schools are willing to participate in the choice program.  In Florida’s more lightly regulated program that requires schools to administer a standardized test of their choice, around 60% of the private schools are willing to participate.

Kisida, Wolf, and Rhinesmith surveyed the private schools and found that the heavy regulatory burden and state testing requirements were major factors in deterring schools from participating.  And in Louisiana few private schools expressed an interest in expanding the number of students they are willing to take, while in Florida the majority are looking to add students.

If you offer schools a heavy regulatory burden, little money, and the requirement to administer a test based on a curriculum they do not normally teach, you drive two-thirds of them away.  And it isn’t a randomly selected one-third that is willing to put up with this bad deal.  They are more likely to be the worst schools that are most financially desperate for students and revenue.  The better schools are attracting privately paying students, so why should they take publicly funded students for less money and with more hassle?  Louisiana’s regulations were intended to prevent bad schools from participating in the choice program, but they are having the opposite effect.

With a higher private school participation rate, Florida is attracting better private schools and getting better results.  Quality research shows that the Florida’s tax credit supported choice program is improving achievement for the students who participate as well as improving the performance of traditional public schools with whom they compete.

If we impose public-system-like regulations on choice programs we will end up with choice programs that look a lot like the public system, including their dysfunction.  As Orwell warned us, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”




Netherlanders over alle, of bijna alle

January 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

New Atlantic piece on education in the Netherlands, where teachers call the shots, anyone can open a school, parents have choice, and religion is treated with neutrality rather than viewed as a public menace. Any guesses on what teacher job satisfaction looks like in the Netherlands? How about student test scores? How much do they spend per pupil compared to us?

What is that Mr. DNA OECD? You can answer some of these question? Why yes, please do!



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