Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww . . . FREAK OUT!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Adam Schaeffer is freaking out over the Indiana Triple Play. It’s the largest school choice program ever enacted, and thus the biggest threat to the government school monopoly ever to achieve fruition – but apparently Indiana also has a handful of silly regulations that private schools will have to follow if they want to participate.

For example, participating schools will have to own a copy of the “Chief Seattle letter” from a 1972 movie.

♪♫♪ Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww . . . FREAK OUT!  ♪♫♪

And they’ll have to take the state test.

♪♫♪ Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww . . . FREAK OUT!  ♪♫♪

And they’ll have to provide “good citizenship instruction.”

♪♫♪ Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww . . . FREAK OUT!  ♪♫♪

All this may be a very effective way for Cato to frighten its hardcore libertarian base for purposes of product differentiation in the market of ideas, but it’s not sound analysis.

  1. Most private schools in Indiana already give the state test. This is partly because it’s required for accreditation, but even many non-accredited schools give it. (By the way, the percentage of private schools in Indiana that are accredited is 50% according to the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, not 40% as Adam claims.) Since not all schools will participate in the new program, and the schools that don’t give the state test are overwhelmingly going to be more likely to be the ones who don’t participate, the new law represents no important change from the status quo. Obviously it would be better if the state’s accreditation requirements were changed, but that’s just not the same issue.
  2. Schools don’t have to participate. If they don’t like these rules, they’re as free as they were before. Now they also have the option to participate if they want to.
  3. Where’s the beef? Adam describes the “good citizenship” curricular requirement as “extensive and detailed,” but doesn’t produce much to support that. From what I can make out in his post, it looks like a lot of not much.
  4. The state already has virtually unlimited authority to regulate private school curricula, especially in the name of “good citizenship.” The Supreme Court has given states more or less a blank check to control private school curricula, and the state has especially strong authority to require, and control the content of, “citizenship” education. The existence of a voucher program changes little in this regard.

Concerns that regulations on school choice programs not be allowed to become onerous are perfectly legitimate. But to call the enactment of a voucher program for 600,000 students a “defeat” is going way too far. This isn’t just making the perfect the enemy of the good, it’s making the perfect a nuclear bomb that destroys everything.

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16 Responses to Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww . . . FREAK OUT!

  1. matthewladner says:

    CATEAUX!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I rescind zee ordeur!!!!

  2. Patrick says:

    On point 4 I was going to make that point to Adam and Andrew but didn’t. It is very true. In Nevada private schools are heavily regulated, at least more so than I thought they would be, including requirements for class sizes, teacher certifications and the minimum square feet per student.

    • Patrick says:

      this is also the reason why private schools for the poor are in the black market in the developing world. Burdensome regulations drive them out of the legal market. The risks are too steep here so we just don’t get those private schools at all.

  3. Daniel Earley says:

    Great point, Patrick. Fact is, there is only one true protection against regulation: building a very large voting constituency, even a majority constituency at some point. With any issue, that requires generating or awakening self-interest in the middle class. I’ve had this discussion with Adam and he gets it, as I believe Andrew does. Of course, there’s also a reasonable argument for tax credits doing a better job of accomplishing this among such key “likely” voters — those who pay taxes — although barriers to most people wrapping their minds around tax credits tend to thwart that benefit.

    My own opinion is that the true bottleneck impeding the awakening of middle class voters has not yet been addressed adequately by our movement — whether by vouchers, tax credits, or charters. Historically, we already know through economics how the middle class becomes stakeholders in ideas. A potent, simple and direct approach for strategically awakening their appetite must arise, and this can only occur credibly and irreversibly from the marketplace itself. Hence, facilitating THAT process will yield fruit unlike we’ve seen before in this movement, and that’s what some of us are presently investigating.

    I can’t say more here, but your point is worth underscoring — that regulation can indeed be quite independent of funding mechanisms — which means that the only unassailable safety comes from keeping the threat in check by growing the constituency. After all, majority constituencies can even amend constitutions. Hence, the shortest path to a larger voting constituency for private school choice should be the top priority. I believe that Adam and Andrew are warning primarily of the long-term risks if that never happened or if it took too long. In such case I would possibly agree. Of course, my entire effort is to address the constituency size deficit so that a generation from now, the public’s majority demand for choice and fewer regulations on their own schools shapes the public debate. If that sounds overly optimistic, contact me privately. :)

  4. matthewladner says:

    Daniel-

    I agree with you, but would note that you can become a pretty salty group in terms of defending your interests without majority status. The NRA are a good example of this, as are the teacher unions. In fact, the homeschool movement has done an outstanding job in organizing their families, and for the most part state legislators leave them alone.

  5. Daniel Earley says:

    I agree, Matt. Indeed, the constitution is designed with that in mind — the preservation of rights for minority factions. However, knowing the broader “progressive” aims of societal engineering that our opposition possesses in the education realm — and regulation being their preferred instrument — I do believe they will always treat this issue differently as their sacred cow. After all, we’re dealing with the determined Dewey mindset. This is a different game than most minority group issues, and I’m confident that homeschooling will eventually be reigned in as well if at least a constituency of parity is never achieved by those defending choice.

  6. Daniel Earley says:

    That said, you’re also absolutely right that there’s certainly a need for the vigilance of salty groups like IJ, Goldwater, AFC and the like. Otherwise, the Borg would assimilate the dissenting minority in the span of what historically would amount to a lunch break.

    BTW, I just noticed my misappropriation of “reigned in” for “reined in.” Oddly enough, it seems fitting. After all, aren’t progressives really just unwittingly building a kingdom?

  7. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Wow, I’m late to the game here. I blame the inadequacies of GoogleAlerts.

    More is in the works, lest it be thought that I have no reply to this, ah, argument.

    But for now, a few brief replies.

    First, I thought that we were all supposed to be researchers, which, last I checked, required that one do research.

    Greg, it looks like you just copied your talking points from Enlow on this . . . either that or you’ve both done the same shoddy “research.”

    On Point 1, you’re just wrong . . . less than 40% of KNOWN schools are accredited, and they remain less than a majority even when you remove the Amish ones. You might want to check on facts such as these with the DOE, which has a list and employees willing to talk about the issue, rather than with a private school assoc, which represents primarily accredited schools.

    On Point 2, did you actually read my article, or was that too much research? Just curious, because you don’t actually address my argument for why the freedom not to participate is no argument against the destructiveness of the regulatory framework.

    On Point 3, again, did you read the article my blog post referenced? Again, you’re supposed to be a researcher, not Perez Hilton. I have more details there. Of course opeds are a limited vehicle. I can send you a complete review of the code if you’d like to actually find out what the law requires before you write on this again.

    On Point 4, this is just a ridiculous non sequitur. The state can regulate curriculum in any way it wants to, therefore it doesn’t matter if it does so or not. Do you feel that way about healthcare? Oh, the state can require whatever it wants for health insurance, so it really doesn’t matter whether or not they have a state agency review them for adequacy or detailed coverage requirements!

    The level of debate in the school choice community on these vital issues is positively sorry. By all means, argue. There are valid points on many sides of this issue, and everyone makes errors in fact or logic sometimes. But please don’t make me respond to this kind of junior-high sophistry again.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    I did read your article.

    You didn’t cite a source for your 40% datum, so I didn’t know where you were getting it. If I see an unsourced datum and I happen to have a sourced datum in front of me that differs from it, I feel free to proceed with some skepticism toward the unsourced datum. I don’t think a lot hangs on this, and now that you’ve provided a source for your datum I’m happy to drop the issue.

    As for the rest, blog posts are an even more limited medium than op-eds, so I’m happy to acknowledge that this post was not a scholarly engagement with the issue, and wasn’t intended to be. If every blog post had to provide the kind of full analysis you’re looking for, no one could blog – except people who do nothing else but blog full time, and before long they wouldn’t have much of interest to contribute because they’d be doing nothing but blogging.

    I think blogging does contribute value, but in other ways from the ways scholarship does. By offering partial or truncated portions of our thinking to the public, or offering our thoughts when they’re still only partially developed, we can accelerate the process of developing them to a more fully worked-out and articulated form.

    So while I still hold the positions that I took here, I’m happy to admit that those positions are not fully defended here. It’s pretty normal for blog posts to state the author’s position on something without fully defending it, so I don’t think I’ve committed an offence against scholarship by doing so here. But if there was any ambiguity, I’m happy to formally stipulate your point that this blog post does not constitute a contribution to scholarship, and I would add that it was not meant to be such, and if there was any lack of clarity about that, I’m sorry for it.

  9. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Greg, my problem is not that this isn’t a scholarly treatment of the topic. As you point out, neither was my oped. But it was a serious analysis with an argument, abbreviated though it was.

    You took issue with one fact, which you didn’t ask me or the DOE about before you challenged it. You engaged none of the points I make in a substantive way, which doesn’t require great length. I specifically address your points 2 and 3 in the article, yet you simply list them as if I hadn’t . . . and point 4 just hand-waives the entire issue away.

    I agree that blogging has a point, but I can’t see the point in this post unless it is to spread misinformation and dismiss serious issues.

    And I can’t understand why you hold the positions you do when you seem to have no rationale for or evidence in support of them.

    I realize that I’ve stepped far outside the bounds of polite collegiality here . . . frankly, I thought the breezy glibness of this post on a deadly serious matter required it.

  10. matthewladner says:

    Adam-

    I agree with you that the potential homogenization of private schools is a serious issue. If you are correct and the legislation contains what a reasonable person would find to be too much regulation (I have not read the legislation) then isn’t it reasonable to expect Indiana private schools not to participate?

    My memory of your Huff Post piece was that you posited the voucher program as a financial black hole that would suck schools in and place those not going in a financial spiral.

    It’s not clear to me that this assumption is justified. Notice for instance the relatively small number of private schools which have converted to charter status. Charter schools typically receive a level of subsidy substantially larger than what the Indiana voucher program will pay out, but also what is clearly an intrusive and burdensome level of regulation.

    While there have been and will continue to be conversions, I think the percentage of private schools nationwide which have done so pretty small. My impression is that they get a good deal of attention when they happen precisely because they are unusual.

    Isn’t it the case therefore that if the regulations really go too far, that Indiana’s lawmakers will have cause to revist them when the private schools decide to stay out of the program? The vast majority of Indiana private schools have, after all, already resisted whatever temptation there is to become a charter school at a higher level of subsidy.

    Finally on the issue of collegiality, since you raised it, I have a suggestion to make. Individuals with a seat at the table tend to have a great deal more influence over the granular level of policy details of the sort discussed here. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but seats at the table must be earned.

    In short, if you make yourself useful on the front end, you usually have less to complain about on the back end.

  11. [...] blog response, of sorts, to my recent piece explaining why the Indiana voucher law is a defeat for educational [...]

  12. Adam Schaeffer says:

    Matt, thanks for your thoughts . . . last things first, I don’t know how one “earns” a seat at the table. For my part, I can force anyone to listen to my arguments or find them valuable. But I can and will hold them to account when I think they are wrong.

    On the financial pressures, you’ve overstated things, but yes, over time this will drive independent schools largely out of business. It has happened elsewhere.

    As for charter schools, it is already happening. You’re right that the shift through conversion is typically too radical. Which is why most, for instance, Catholic schools faciing this pressure simply close their doors. Hence, an expansion of government schooling.

    Charter schools in Michigan were found to pull almost 20% of their students from private schools. A nationwide study on this impact is in the works.

    In short, charter schools prove my point rather than undermine it.

    Regarding vouchers, I expect the process to be more gradual if the program survives, with participating schools expanding at the expense of independent ones and many accepting the regs, which then become progressively more onerous over time. The whole frog in warm water thing.

    The alternative, quite possible, is that the program is so frightening to so many schools right off the bat that few pariticpate. It sputters for years as a crippled and marginal program that feeds evidence to opponents for their claims against vouchers . . . See! Schools choose the kids, not the other way, and private schools don’t want “those” kids. See! The kids in voucher schools do no better than those in public (of course, why would they in a homogenized, regulated, static “market?”). See! The program is a drain on state finances. And meanwhile, the credit program has become a mere appendage of the crippled voucher, a top-off rather than a policy alternative. And the whole sorry mess becomes a roadblock for further reform.

    I see no good outcome here.

    Of course, its always possible, against all political history and logic, that the ball will roll uphill and the regulations will be rolled back over the years, leading to a truly independent, dynamic market in education. Possible, although I think bordering on fevered fantasy.

    And in the meantime, regardless of the outcome in Indiana, legislators across the country can take the regulations in this new, celebrated voucher program as the baseline for their work. And why not? Very few people in the school choice community seem to have a problem with it. So why not a few more regulations?

    My question to all of you is precisely that . . . why not? How much is too much? How much government control over private education are we willing to accept? At what point does a victory such as Inidana become Pyrrhic if it isn’t already?

    If you haven’t thought about these questions, perhaps you should. And if you can’t answer them, perhaps you should try to come up with some. I’m still in the process myself. But I think this its important to hash out as we look at new program around the country.

  13. matthewladner says:

    Adam-

    I wrote a paper for the Journal of Catholic Education addressing the Michigan example, which is concerning. Michigan is a bit of an unusual case given that it has a stagnant K-12 population, and strong charter school law, and an air-tight Blaine amendment. In the paper I outline the more hopeful example of Arizona, which has a vibrant and growing private school market despite a far larger charter school sector in a significantly smaller state.

    In Arizona, private school scholarships averaging a mere $2,000 a year have been enough to allow private schools to resist the temptation to convert to charter schools and receive $7,800 in public funds. Moreover, the percentage of all K-12 students attending private schools has increased despite the existence of 500 charter schools.

    This leads me to believe that there are plausible non-apocalyptic scenarios with regards to Indiana, even if you assume that the regulations on the voucher program go to far (I haven’t had a chance to read the legislation yet). The two differences are student population growth and the tax credit program. Indiana is probably closer to Michigan in terms of population growth, but the tax credit puts closer to Arizona.

    The question of accountability in a private choice program is a difficult one, and it is an art more than a science. I haven’t seen an example yet of a voucher program in the United States swallowing up the private school sector and homogenizing them, but I agree that it is possible and a grave concern.

  14. [...] Ladner replied to my concerns recently with some interesting qualifications and questions. He notes, “I [...]

  15. [...] Greene offers a rebuttal to his earlier concerns.  While I understand Adam’s concerns – I think tax credits and deductions are a much [...]

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