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 hands 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 Sauron 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.


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

pic_corner_012315_fumbles

(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.

Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesh.


Changing the Conversation is Not the Same as Changing the World

January 20, 2015

Last week I noted that attention is not influence.  When foundations and others reward reform organizations for clicks, tweets, hits, etc… they are not actually rewarding influence.  If foundations really want to influence policy they have to reward actions that really lead to policy change.

Today I am extending that argument by emphasizing that changing the conversation is not the same as changing the world.  There are times when everyone around us seems to agree on something and we are liable to feel a sense of accomplishment.  “We did it,” we think to ourselves.  “We won.”

But having people around you change what they say is not the same as accomplishing it in the world.  Perhaps it is a result of pervasive post-modern thinking, but our representation of the world is not the world.  Mass rallies with #bringbackourgirls or #jesuischarlie did not free girls in Nigeria or establish the right to produce images of Muhammad.  There really is a world out there and what we say about it does not necessarily lead to changing it.  We also have to do something to make our talk real.

In education reform the conversation has been dominated by discussion of Common Core.  It was amazing how easy it was for supporters to accomplish this.  Getting a bunch of DC-based organizations to write some reports, hold conferences, and engage in advocacy for Common Core doesn’t take all that much money or effort.  It’s not that these organizations are saying things that contradict their beliefs.  They just don’t have a lot of deeply held beliefs and are eager to remain relevant and active on whatever everyone else is talking about.

It wasn’t even that hard to get state boards of education to endorse Common Core.  While they don’t say it out loud, many state officials (rightly) see standards as a bunch of vague and empty words in a document that have little effect on what really happens in schools.  If someone is offering them grants from the Gates Foundation and the possibility of millions from Race to the Top in the midst of an economic crisis, why not declare fealty to these standards?  In addition, state officials regularly get drawn into fights over standards.  Why waste political capital on something that hardly matters?  It’s much easier to just join the Common Core crowd and hide behind the skirts of “experts,” national organizations, and the federal government than to defend and constantly revise their own crappy state standards.  Besides, they could always change their mind later when it came to actually doing something, like adopting tests or imposing consequences on schools and teachers based on their actual implementation of Common Core.  Even state officials who embraced Common Core understood, on some level, that what they were doing was just talk.

Don’t get me wrong.  Standards could matter.  Determining what students should learn and when could have a profound effect on education.  And the difference between excellent and lousy schools has a lot to do with whether they have high expectations for their students and seek to teach worthy content.  The problem is that in a large and diverse society we  have little agreement on what constitutes worthy content or appropriate expectations.  To obtain democratic support for state (let alone national) standards, they have to be written at such a level of generality that they are largely meaningless.  That is why multiple studies show no relationship between the judged quality of standards and academic outcomes.  And to the extent that standards actually stand for anything, they draw opposition from those who disagree.  In a democratic country that opposition has plenty of opportunities to block, dilute, or co-opt standards, preventing the “talk” of Common Core from becoming reality.

I’ve been making this point that Common Core “talk” will not result in real educational change for years now.  When I do, I hear things like, “At last count, 1 state out of 45 has repealed the standards.”  And DC-based folks take comfort from the fact that everyone they meet at receptions agrees that Common Core opposition is crazy, paranoid, hysterical, political,  [insert your preferred empty pejorative here].  They all falsely believe that they have won the conversation and therefore have won the policy.  They continue to hold their hashtag signs.

But since I am not a post-modern and still believe that there is a world out there that is not changed simply by our words, I have developed a wager with Morgan Polikoff as an imperfect indicator of whether Common Core really is changing the world:

In ten years, on April 14, 2024, I bet Morgan that fewer than half the states will be in Common Core.  We defined being in Common Core as “shared standards with shared high stakes tests-even if split between 2 tsts.”  Given 51 states and DC, Morgan wins if 26 or more states have shared standards and high stakes tests and I win if the number is 25 or less.  The loser has to buy the winner a beer (or other beverage).

Well, it didn’t take long but I think am already ahead on that bet.  Mississippi just voted to withdraw from using PARCC, one of the two Common Core-aligned tests.  In addition, Chicago is refusing to administer PARCC to all of its students.  And governor Walker in Wisconsin just re-iterated  his desire to withdraw the state from Common Core standards and testing.  A bill to that effect failed last legislative session, but the dike will only hold for so long.  It’s hard for me to find a current count of what tests states are using, but I believe we have dropped below half using one of the two Common Core tests.  If nothing changes over the remainder of our 10 year bet, I will win.  But I expect more states will abandon Common Core standards and/or tests.  The talk was easy.  The implementation is hard.


Attention is not Influence

January 15, 2015

As any parent can tell you, children will do things, including negative things, to attract attention.  Attention is the currency of childhood.  Children tend to do more of whatever attracts attention.  This is why effective parents and teachers devise strategies to attend to desirable behavior and ignore (to the extent possible) undesirable behavior.

Unfortunately, the adult world of policy analysis has become like the playground of children.  There is a competitive race for attention among a growing group of think-tankers, academics, and journalists.  They aren’t competing for attention by doing the most professional work with the most thoughtful analysis and clear-headed conclusions.  They are competing by saying ridiculous things, saying them loudly, and saying them repeatedly

Of course, these attention-starved policy analysts occupy the world of Twitter.  Where else can they satisfy their obsessive need to blurt out an endless string of superficial claims?  Unfortunately, they are not confined to Twitter.  They increasingly occupy the halls of academia, control the institutions of journalism, and dominate the beltway.

The problem is that like the poor parenting of an ill-behaved toddler, they are receiving a lot of attention for their outbursts.  Diane Ravitch tops Rick Hess’ ranking of “influential” edu-scholars not because of her balanced reasoning and careful consideration of evidence but because of her hyperbolic and outrageous claims.  Vox has 193,000 followers on Twitter despite its error-plagued, shoddy journalism precisely because of its reckless desire to offer “click-bait” instead of responsible analysis and information.

These out-sized toddlers may be attracting a lot of attention, and even a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they actually have influence.  I highly doubt Diane Ravitch has altered any policy outcome given that she is unlikely to have changed anyone’s mind about anything.  She may occasionally mobilize her army of angry teachers, but those teachers were likely to be mobilized anyway by the more grown-up teachers unions.

And Vox may get clicks and even raise large sums from venture capitalists, but who in the world cares what Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias or the rest of the Vox crew think about anything?  For the most part these people have never done anything, never seriously studied anything, and too rarely offer responsible analysis for anyone in real authority to heed their advice.

Attention, clicks, and money are not the same as influence.  If they were, Kim Kardashian would be the one of the most influential people in the world.

Real policy influence is achieved in two, much less loud and less easily measured ways.  First, people can have policy influence by engaging in serious empirical analysis that shapes elite thinking about policy questions over long periods of time.  Take, for example, how serious intellectual work shaped the policy context regarding crime and law enforcement in the 1980s.  In particular, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling wrote a series of pieces articulating the evidence and reasoning behind their “broken windows” theory of crime-prevention.  Prior to that time, policy elites thought about crime largely as a function of poverty that needed to be addressed through social programs.  But Wilson and Kelling influenced elites into thinking about crime as an issue of public disorder that could be addressed through innovations in policing techniques.  Their influence was gradual and never completely accepted, but it established the context for later policy action.

Second, people can have policy influence by quietly whispering in the ears of decision-makers about how to act within the elite understanding of the policy context.  Behind the scenes George Kelling advised Bill Bratton, who implemented broken windows policing techniques in Boston and New York City.  These approaches proved successful and the idea spread to other police departments around the country as the nation experienced a dramatic decline in violent crime.

These are examples of real policy influence, both through laying the intellectual groundwork for change and by quietly advising policymakers to pursue those changes.  Neither would be captured easily by the silly “metrics” that increasingly drive foundation and venture capitalist funding.  Foundations and VCs are paying for attention and clicks, not actual influence.


An interesting NYT column that would have been better titled “Stop Trying to Impose Good Ideas from the States on Everyone from Washington”

January 12, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Read it for yourself and see what you think. I’m struck by two things- first the assumption that it takes additional state funding to pull off reform at the state level. I think that the handwriting is on the wall that the types of reform states and the feds will need to focus on now and going forward. The focus will need to be on the “how do we get a bigger bang for the bucks we are already spending” rather than “now, NOW we are smart enough to know how to spend this new money much better than that frozen in place money, so give us more.”

The writer makes an interesting point about partisan control and policy diffusion, but failed to note that one party is in control of a much larger number of states than the other party- mostly due to one party blowing up the lab on health care btw. Given the type of reform needed (those that make better use of existing resources) and the philosophical leanings of the party in control of a large number of states, I’m expecting to see a healthy amount of policy diffusion.


School Choice News from Maranto, Van Raemdonck, Chingos, and Peterson

January 9, 2015

We do not have any additional breaking news to report on Europe once again descending into Jew-hating, illiberal fascism.  But we do have some good news to report on school choice.  My colleagues, Bob Maranto and Dirk Van Raemdonck, have a piece in the Wall Street Journal on how the US and Belgium made different choices about how to handle religious conflict over education in the 19th century.  The US chose to persecute its minority Catholic population by imposing a vaguely Protestant monopoly system on all students while Belgium created a competitive system allowing for choice across different religious and secular school systems.  The Belgian system is less repressive and has produced better outcomes.  Perhaps the US could give that approach more of a try.

Separately, Matt Chingos and Paul Peterson have an article in the Journal of Public Economics (also available without pay wall here) that supports the claim that the US would produce better long-term outcomes if it expanded school choice.  Chingos and Peterson are able to track long term outcomes of a privately-funded school choice program in New York City that gave students small scholarships to attend a private school.  As Chingos describes the results on the Ed Next blog:

Minority students who received a school voucher to attend private elementary schools in 1997 were, as of 2013, 10 percent more likely to enroll in college and 35 percent more likely than their peers in public school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Keep in mind that this is an enormous return on a very small investment.  The privately funded voucher was only worth $1,400, which is $2,080 in 2014 dollars.  And the Chingos and Peterson results are particularly important because they track long term outcomes that we know really matter, like attending and completing college.  Most studies of school choice focus on short term effects on standardized tests, which may not capture as well or as completely the benefits of a quality education.

(edited to correct typo)


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