Choose Families, Choose Choice

September 30, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new OCPA Perspective carries my argument that the government monopoly on schools undermines the institution of the family, and school choice would strengthen the family:

Are schools an extension of the family, helping parents raise their children the way the parents want them raised? Or are schools an autonomous branch of the technocratic state, answering not to parents but to professional experts who know how children ought to be raised better than parents do?

The creation of the government school monopoly was one part of a general inversion of the social order going on in the 19th century:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family had been understood as the primary unit of society; larger political and economic structures existed to mediate relations between households, not between individuals as such. Relations between individuals within a household—such as the work of childrearing—were the family’s business, except in extreme cases. All that was now gone. The family was no longer primary; the technocratic state was primary.

The failure of the school monopoly has reoped the question of whom schools work for:

School choice and federal centralization of power are both responses to this failure. Some are seeking to reverse course, hoping that the moribund school system can be revitalized by putting parents back in charge. Others are seeking a stronger technocracy that will be more capable of achieving its goals.

I close with the reflection that social conservatives could bring something important to the school choice coalition not currently provided by the two factions that now dominate it, progressives and libertarians. As always, your comments are most welcome!

With North Carolina expansions the book may be closed on 2015 private choice

September 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason has a useful rundown on the private choice action in 2015 over at Cato after North Carolina added some style points to Greg’s latest easy triumph over Jay Mathews. Very, very, very good year. It is still time to raise the bar on the bet.

Quinnipiac Poll Finds that Parental Choice is the most popular element of Andrew Cuomo’s K-12 Agenda

September 22, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Very interesting poll results– the unions seem to have convinced New York that Cuomo is wrong on K-12 reform- except on choice. On charters and tax credits New Yorkers seem to be resisting,

The Wisdom of the Market

July 17, 2015

Design vs Experience

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

I’m humbled that Andy Smarick thinks I “offered the most compelling philosophical explanation for a system of choice” among the recent Fordham Institute Wonkathon participants. However, he misreads me when he states that my “professed ‘humility’ (we don’t know everything) came across as agnosticism (we can’t know anything) given that we’ve learned gobs about choice over twenty-five years.”

Nowhere do I claim “we can’t know anything.” Of course we do, and of course we can learn more. But questions remain: who are “we,” what do “we” know, and is that knowledge sufficient to achieve “our” ends?

By “we” Smarick seems to have in mind “policymakers and wonks” and the “what” that “we” supposedly know is that markets alone just don’t cut it so some very, very smart people must bend schools to their will impose government regulations to ensure accountability. To bolster his case, Smarick cites a recent article in National Affairs by Chester Finn and Bruno Manno on the lessons they’ve learned from their decades of experience studying charter schools:

Both strongly support school choice, but they concede the “vexing reality” that “market forces alone can’t reliably generate academic effectiveness.” Overconfidence led to accountability getting short shrift early. “Those present at the creation of the charter bargain (ourselves included) paid too little attention to how authorizing would work.”

Throughout the article, the [Finn and Manno] explain how events played out differently than expected. Because they assumed “a barely regulated marketplace would provide more quality control than it has…we focused on quantity rather than quality.” They were excited by policies that would spur “infusions of capital and entrepreneurialism,” but “we didn’t take seriously enough the risk of profiteering.”

Smarick claims that my Wonkathon entry’s “sanguine title, ‘Let the market work,’ runs headlong into Finn and Manno’s reflections.” As Justice Scalia might say: pure applesauce.

It may or may not be true that “market forces alone can’t reliably generate academic effectiveness” but Finn and Manno cannot draw that conclusion from experience in the charter sector because charters are not operating in a free market, never mind a “barely regulated” one. Charters are secular public schools that can’t charge families tuition, can’t devise their own criteria for admission, they have to meet certain state standards, and they can be shut down by their “authorizers” even if a sufficient number of students and parents prefer the charter to make it financially viable.

In other words, charters provide more choice and competition than the status quo, but charters are not operating in a market. The lack of a price mechanism alone should make that apparent. Drawing any conclusions about what an actual market in education would or would not produce based on the charter experience is ludicrous.

There’s some truth to Smarick’s contention that “theory without experience is [mere] intellectual play,” but he’s drawing the wrong lessons from Finn and Manno’s experience. Although it’s impossible to draw solid conclusions about a market from a non-market, the charter sector has much to teach policymakers about the chasm between policy intentions and policy results.

For example, Finn and Manno lament that “charters in many places are hobbled by many operational constraints, too little money, and, often, insufficient attention both to the delicate balance between quantity and quality.” These constraints often stem from the very regulatory framework that was intended to ensure quality. A 2010 Fordham study found that “state laws were the primary sources of constraint on charter school autonomy, accounting for three-quarters of the infringement that these schools experience.” This year, an American Enterprise Institute study found that “one-fourth of average charter application contains inappropriate and onerous requirements,” and that authorizes “sometimes mistake length for rigor” and “often prize innovation less than they say they do.”

The fatal conceit of the charter school agenda was that granting schools a bit more autonomy and granting parents a bit more choice in a controlled environment would create a true “market” in education. But a market requires a price mechanism, a means of channeling dispersed knowledge. Smarick accuses me of believing that “we can’t know anything” but that’s not so. Policymakers can’t possibly ever know enough to design the education system from the top down but the market can channel dispersed knowledge to produce higher quality through experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

Smarick confuses the technical knowledge of experts for the dispersed knowledge of the entire system. Sure, technocrats have learned “gobs about choice” in a quarter-century, but they can’t possibly know enough to design the most effective possible education system. Likewise, a panel of a dozen Nobel-prize winning economists certainly knows “gobs” about how markets function, but they cannot possibly know enough to effectively set the price of tin on any given day.

The technocrats’ approach is attempt to define quality, measure it, and shut down any school that doesn’t live up to it — even against the will of parents. As Finn and Manno wrote:

Charter doctrine is clear: Bad schools should be closed (or “non-renewed”) by their authorizer. Yet it turns out to be as hard to close bad charters as traditional district schools. Hundreds of kids are affected, and the alternatives for them are often no better than the troubled charter. Furthermore, parents are almost universally hostile to the demise of their children’s current schools.

First, why are those parents “almost universally hostile” to closing down their chosen school? Could it be because “the alternatives for them are often no better” and probably worse? Could it be that the schools are effectively providing some things–safety, discipline, good values, a love of learning–that the parents legitimately prioritize over test scores in a few subjects?

Attempts to define and measure quality too often come at the cost of innovation. At present, states’ standardized testing regimes assume that all students should progress at the same pace across all subjects — a system that is anathema to reforms like competency-based learning which dispense with Carnegie units. Moreover, the focus on a few subjects both creates a perverse incentive for schools to focus on those subjects to the exclusion of others and overlooks the other, often more important areas where a school may be performing quite well. As AEI’s Michael McShane wrote:

Recently, I have been influenced by the work of Northwestern University economist Kirabo Jackson, whose fascinating NBER working paper calls into serious question policy’s recent overreliance on math and reading scores as the primary measure of the “goodness” of schools and teachers. As it turns out, teachers have important and measurable impacts on both the cognitive and non-cognitive development of students. While it’s certainly true that test scores can tell us something important about a teacher, what is troubling for the test-score types is that it looks like (1) non-cognitive scores are better predictors of later life success (completing high school, taking the SAT, and going to college) and (2) that it is not the same set of teachers that is good at raising both cognitive and non-cognitive measures.

Such has to be the same for schools, right? If there are teachers that are increasing non-cognitive, but not cognitive skills, surely there are schools that are doing the same. As a result, trying to assess if a school is “good” or “bad” relies on a complex web of preferences and objective measures that, quite frankly, cannot be taken into account in a centralized accountability system. We need something more sophisticated, and something that can respect a diverse conception of what “good” and “bad” means.

This is not to say that there should be no standards or accountability. The question is who imposes the accountability on whom. As I’ve noted previously, the absence of a government-imposed standard does not imply the lack of any standards. Rather, it leaves space for competing standards, which in turn fosters innovation and diversity. Parents can then evaluate the quality of education providers based on their own experience and the expert evaluations of appropriate external providers, and the entire system evolves as parents select the providers that best meet their children’s needs.

So yes, policymakers should be humble about what they know or think they know, but we can have greater confidence in a system that channels dispersed knowledge to produce greater quality and innovation. This is more than mere “intellectual play.” It’s the process by which we’ve seen enormous gains in productivity and quality in nearly every other sector in the last century — not top-down technocratic tinkering but bottom-up experimentation, evaluation, and evolution in a free market.

School Choice Movement Checkup

July 10, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Veteran school choice warrior Bob Holland landed a nice overview of the school choice movement in the Orlando Sentinel. One of the money quotes:

This past school year, more than 350,000 students used a conventional voucher, a tax-credit scholarship, or an Education Savings Account via 58 school-choice programs in 28 states and the District of Columbia. Ten years ago, there were only 10 voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs supporting 106,456 students.

Watch those savings accounts. An ESA is the next-generation voucher, much as Uber is the next-generation taxi service. It works like this: Parents may have a sizable percentage of their child’s share of state education dollars deposited into an ESA from which they can draw to pay for educational products, providers or services of their choosing.

This has the potential to individualize education as much as it is now bureaucratized. Families could seek and pay for courses or programs that meet a child’s particular needs — tutoring if math is tough, or advanced math in an elite private school if that is the student’s bent; a home-school co-op for a reading round table; or even an early credit literature course at an area university. Possibilities abound.

Bob’s tally of the last decade adds emphasis to a point I raised earlier on JPGB- lawmakers have passed 48 private choice programs in the last decade (which is awesome) and the number of participants has more than tripled (could be better). Many of these programs, like the new special needs program that passed in the Wisconsin budget last night, remain newborns or infants and will begin adding students soon. Still…

Nevada’s new ESA program sets a new bar for the movement. The law has what we should all recognize at this point as a highly desirable broad pool of eligibility-we don’t means test public schools, charter schools or virtual schooling programs. We should not means test private choice programs either. NVESA deals with equity issues through varied funding rather than eligibility and allows multiple uses for funds. Nevada lawmakers can improve NVESA over time by including funding weights as policymakers develop for them for the public system. NVESA is not your father’s Oldsmobile and that’s a good thing.

Nevada lawmakers passed the best school choice program to date this year, but they can improve upon it over time and we can surpass it in other states.





The Rich Get Richer under Tax Credits-Public School Tax Credits that is

May 4, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona passed individual scholarship tax credit donations for children to attend private schools, and for public school extracurricular activities, in 1997. Since that time the newspapers have felled many trees and spilled much ink printing columns and letters bewailing the injustice of the private side credits- they are destroying public education, they are going to help rich people send their kids to private school, they are engaged in dark rites to bring Cthulu back into our plane to wreak his horrible revenge on all living things, etc.

This is all nonsense of course– but I think I see now the origin of the “mostly benefiting the rich” narrative- projection. Benefiting the rich far more than the poor is in fact precisely how the public school credit operates. The public school credit goes to support sports, arts, field trips and all of the various things that Jay has been researching lately. The Center for Student Achievement very helpfully crunched the numbers in Arizona Department of Revenue reports and found the following:

So if you are having to squint at your Ipad, the chart has data from both 2005 and 2013, and calculates tax credit revenue by quartile of public school- from the poorest schools (75% and up FRL) to the lowest (< 25% FRL). In 2005, the poorest schools raised a meager $14 per child in tax credit donations, while the wealthiest raised more than 4 times as much at $57 per child.

By 2013, the poorest schools raised a smidge more per student ($16) which is not enough to keep up with inflation. Meanwhile, out in the leafy suburbs, schools collected $96 per pupil. Thus the gap went from $4 for rich kids for every $1 for poor kids, to $6 for rich kids for every $1 for poor kids.

Hmmmm…so the public credit gives to the most to the kids who have the most, gives the least to the kids who have the least.

Well the private school credit might be even worse! Except, it isn’t. All of the corporate scholarship tax credit money is means-tested in Arizona, and some of the individual credit is as well. Even among the individual tax credit money that is not means tested de jure is means tested de facto by the Scholarship Tuition Organizations (STOs). Page 49 of this Arizona Department of Revenue report shows that 70.4% of the original individual tax credit funds (the non-means tested program) go to students with a family income (family of four) of less than $79,000 and 38% of that goes to families making less than $45,000. All of the rest of the money goes to either low/middle income or kids with disabilities.

In fiscal year 2013 STOs raised about $108m from all credits, and we can safely estimate that between 80% to 90% of scholarship funds went to low and middle-income children, which beats not only the stuffing out of the public school credit, but also out of AZ public school system’s spending overall.


Go down or I’ll put you in Expendables 4!


Indiana Allows Greg to Once Again Put Mathews on the Canvass

April 30, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Indiana session has ended with both an increase in the size of the tax credit and separately an increase in the voucher program amounts. For those scoring at home:

AR: New special needs voucher

AZ corporate tax credit improvement

AZ expansion of ESA to tribal areas

Indiana- increase in corporate scholarship credit cap

Indiana-increase in voucher amounts

MS New ESA for special needs students

NV New corporate tax credit

TN New ESA for special needs students

Down goes Frazier Mathews!




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