Do state funds require accountability to the state for performance?

October 2, 2015

Yesterday I promised to rebut the case for high-regulation of school choice programs over a series of posts.  In this first post of that series I address the argument that state funding of programs requires accountability to the state for performance.  It’s the taxpayers’ money, the argument goes, so the public deserves to know if students are doing well.  That’s the price — if you take the government’s money, you are accountable to the government.

Unfortunately, the people who make this argument are just repeating a political slogan.  If they bothered to think about it, even for a few minutes, they would quickly realize that the vast majority of government programs do not require accountability to the government for performance.  When the government provides food stamps it does not require recipients to submit BMI measurements or other indicators of adequate nutrition.  Yes, food stamps have some restriction on the items that may be purchased, but the program does not require accountability for performance.  Social Security was developed to ensure that senior citizens would be able to buy necessities, like housing and food.  But we do not demand an accounting from seniors of the use of those funds.  If they want to blow it at the casino and not pay their rent or buy groceries, they are free to do so.

Even in the area of education, government funds do not typically require accountability for performance.  We do not require recipients of Pell Grants to take a state test.  Beneficiaries of the Day Care Tuition Tax Credit similarly do not have to demonstrate progress toward school readiness in exchange for the government subsidy.  Repeating that government funds require accountability to the government is just mindless sloganeering, not an accurate description of how government programs typically operate.

Why do most government programs not require accountability for performance?  The simple answer is that in most cases we trust that the private interests of program participants are aligned with the public interest in providing them with the benefit.  We trust that food stamp recipients want to avoid being malnourished, which is why we provide them with this assistance.  We trust that seniors don’t want to be homeless or go hungry, so are unlikely to blow their money at the casino if a rent payment is due.  We trust that college students want an education.  And we trust that families with children in pre-school want them to be prepared for later schooling.

We don’t demand performance accountability in any of these programs because we believe that people are likely to use funds in ways that are consistent with the public purpose in providing them with assistance.  Of course, that is not always true.  Some people would rather trade food stamps for drugs and go hungry.  Some people will spend their Social Security checks foolishly and fail to pay the rent.  Some college students would rather embark on an alcohol-fueled journey of self-discovery than receive an education.  And some families just want their pre-schoolers to be warehoused conveniently somewhere while they go to work rather than improve their children’s school-readiness.

While we are fully aware that some people will abuse these programs and fail to use the funds efficiently in a way that is aligned with the public interest, we recognize that demanding performance measures would undermine the public purpose of these programs even more.  Requiring performance measures distorts and narrows the behavior of program participants.  It is also costly, burdensome, and highly intrusive.

The same is true for school choice programs.  As long as we believe that most program participants have interests that are aligned with those of the taxpayer, let’s design school choice programs like we design most government programs — without performance accountability requirements.



The High-Regulation Approach to School Choice

October 1, 2015

Many of the most powerful backers of school choice are embracing a high-regulation approach.  Their interests have shifted from promoting choice as the goal to using choice as a mechanism for obtaining more quality schools.  They don’t trust that choice produces quality.  They want a fairly heavy dose of regulation to prevent bad schools from being included among the options available to families.  They want to control key aspects of school operations to prevent schools from becoming bad.  And they want a powerful regulator — a portfolio manager or harbor master — who will identify and remove bad schools from choice programs.

I think this approach is deeply flawed.  I understand that political reality requires some amount of reasonable regulation.  But the view that regulation, not choice itself, is the main driver of quality improvement is completely wrong.  My fear is that just when school choice is achieving escape velocity as a self-sustaining and expanding policy, the love for high-regulation may do serious harm to these programs and the children they intend to help.

Over a series of blog posts I intend to describe the arguments folks have for high-regulation and why I think those arguments are mistaken.  First let me describe the high-regulation approach to school choice.  Their ideal model has the following central features:

  1. Choice programs should not allow private schools to use their regular admissions standards and procedures.  Instead, they should be requires to accept all applicants or use a lottery if over-subscribed.
  2. Participating schools should be required to accept the voucher amount as payment in full even though that amount is almost always less than their regular tuition, less than their cost to educate each student, and far less than what is provided to students in traditional public schools.
  3. Choice programs should focus on low-income students in low-performing public schools.
  4. Participating private schools should be required to administer and report results from the state achievement tests.

This model is not a program that powerful backers of school choice would be willing to accept.  It is their ideal.  It is the starting point for their political negotiations, not what they would be willing to accept after compromises to win political support.

Why do they favor all of these regulations?  I think they have four main arguments:

  1. State funds require accountability to the state for performance.
  2. Regulation protects kids and improves outcomes from choice.
  3. Regulation improves the political prospects for choice.
  4. Achievement tests are a reasonable proxy for school quality that a regulator could use to decide which schools should be included or excluded from the set of options available to parents.

I think all four of these arguments are mistaken.  In subsequent posts I’ll consider and rebut each of them.

New Arizona Board of Regents Report on AZ High Schools

September 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Board of Regents has released a new study utilizing the National Clearinghouse to track the college success by high school for the public school Class of 2008. Specifically they rank district and charter schools by the percentage of kids earning a BA in six years.

The statewide numbers did not improve much from the analysis of the Class of 2006- 19.4% finished a BA instead of 18.6%. University High- a magnet program in Tucson-comes out on top. As mentioned previously their program utilizes entrance exams, minimum grade point averages, etc. so while it is swell it does not qualify as a general enrollment school. Tempe Prep- the ur-Great Hearts prototype- ranked first among general enrollment schools, followed by Veritas Prep- the first of the Great Hearts schools to get a 12th grade cohort into the analysis. Among general enrollment schools, charter schools took 7 out of the top 10 spots, but let’s just say they could a spot more competition from the districts.

The Pew Center’s book The Next America presented polling data showing that the Baby Boom generation was wealthy but miserable. One of the two main reasons for their misery related to their twenty something year old children living in their basement. Er…welcome to the education reform movement!





NYT on Education and the Sharing Economy

September 11, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Words like “market” and “competition” or — worst of all — “profit” are considered dirty words in some circles, particularly in education. Perhaps that’s why some people prefer the more anodyne (if less accurate) term “sharing economy” to describe how online platforms and apps are enabling people to monetize resources they own by connecting them directly with potential buyers.

Uber and Lyft empower people to earn money from driving their own car. Airbnb enables people to rent out their spare bedroom. And as the New York Times explains, the website TeachersPayTeachers is a virtual marketplace where teachers can buy and sell lesson plans:

…[W]hen Ms. Randazzo heard about… she was curious to find out whether the materials she had created for her own students would appeal to other educators.

A couple of years ago, she started posting items, priced at around $1, on the site. Her “Whose Cell Phone Is This?” fictional character work sheet has now sold more than 4,000 copies.

“For a buck, a teacher has a really good tool that she can use with any work of literature,” Ms. Randazzo said in a phone interview last week. “Kids love it because it’s fun. But it’s also rigorous because they have to support their characterizations with evidence.”

She clearly has a knack for understanding the kinds of classroom aids that other teachers are looking for. One of her best-selling items is a full-year collection of high school grammar, vocabulary and literature exercises. It has generated sales on TeachersPayTeachers of about $100,000.


Teachers often spend hours preparing classroom lesson plans to reinforce the material students are required to learn, and many share their best materials with colleagues. Founded in 2006, TeachersPayTeachers speeds up this lesson-plan prep work by monetizing exchanges between teachers and enabling them to make faster connections with farther-flung colleagues.

As some on the site develop sizable and devoted audiences, is fostering the growth of a hybrid profession: teacher-entrepreneur. The phenomenon has even spawned its own neologism: teacherpreneur.

To date, Teacher Synergy, the company behind the site, has paid about $175 million to its teacher-authors, says Adam Freed, the company’s chief executive. The site takes a 15 percent commission on most sales.

TeachersPayTeachers rewards creative teachers with more income and gives them a financial incentive to produce more. It also reduces the amount of time and effort other teachers must expend to create or acquire great lesson plans. And with better lesson plans proliferating, children benefit the most.

Teachers tend to be less enthusiastic about market-based reforms to education, but perhaps some experience with the “sharing economy” will show them how the best teachers stand to benefit greatly from Uber-ized education.

Florida Virtual School End of Course Exams

September 4, 2015


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I missed this little gem in August, but the Florida Virtual School released figures on end of course exams, and guess what, their students scored higher than the Florida average on every exam, varying from a passing rate 4% to 18% higher.

Now admittedly this is not a Campbell and Stanley random assignment study. It could be the case that FLVS got more academically motivated students, etc. It’s also possible that these would prove out to be significant differences, some significant some not, etc. in a proper experimental comparison. Perhaps someone will do us all a favor and do a sophisticated analysis.

Given that the state saves money on FLVS courses, it’s looking great for now.

Jeb!’s Time Machine

September 2, 2015

[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Education Week really buried their lede in this story:

The voucher program was originally part of [former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s] most notable education reform, the A-Plus Plan, which also required schools to be held accountable using A-F letter grades, and established a new series of standardized tests to measure students’ academic performance.

But the Florida Supreme Court struck down the vouchers as unconstitutional in 2006. Then, in 2001, Bush signed into law a tax-credit scholarship program that has grown into the largest single school choice program of any state in the country as measured by the number of participating students, with about 70,000 low-income students using them in the most recent school year.

How did EdWeek not highlight the fact that Jeb! has a time machine?! I mean, how else did he do something in 2001 in response to something else that didn’t happen until 2006?

I’m generally not one to pick on mere sloppy editing, but the EdWeek piece’s framing repeats a myth peddled by opponents of the scholarship program (one that apparently even accurate chronology cannot dispel). Last month, lawyers for the teachers union that is challenging the scholarship program claimed in a legal brief: “The challenged program is the successor program to the Opportunity Scholarship Program previously invalidated by both this Court and the Florida Supreme Court.”

“Successor” is an odd way to describe something that was enacted five years before the thing it is supposedly succeeding.

The unions and their lawyers know the true chronology but they apparently do not feel bound by things like “facts” and “accuracy” (or perhaps they really do believe Jeb! has a time machine). The disinformation is a part of a deliberate campaign to undermine the legal case for the scholarship program. As Jon East of Step Up for Students explains:

The claim is similar to those made publicly over the past year by Florida Education Association attorney Ron Meyer, and unfortunately has seeped its way into the broader media narrative around the program. Even in recent presidential campaign stories about former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education record, outlets from The 74 to the New York Post have reported versions of the claim as fact. The Post wrote, without attribution, that: “When a state court nixed the program in 2006, Bush created a new voucher system, funded by private businesses, that withstood a court challenge from teachers.” A column in the Florida Times-Union last week also chimed in: “It became a government program, diverting tax dollars in the form of ‘tax credits’ into a tuition-granting organization only after the voucher portion of Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ program was stricken by the courts.”

The teachers union is trying to sell its lawsuit as a type of police action for Bush v. Holmes, the 2006 Supreme Court decision that overturned publicly funded school vouchers for students who were assigned to district schools judged to be failing. Meyer wants judges to believe lawmakers made a fast end-around on the Holmes decision.

I share East’s amazement at “how easy it is to refute [the union’s creative chronology] and yet how prominent a role it continues to play in the FEA’s lawsuit narrative.” Media outlets like Education Week shouldn’t let them get away with it.

[h/t Patrick Gibbons for the story and the “time machine” quip, which I shamelessly stole]

ACLU v. Nevada Children

August 27, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is filing a legal challenge against Nevada’s new education savings account program. The ACLU argues that using the ESA funds at religious institutions would violate the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever…shall be used for sectarian purposes.”

What “for sectarian purposes” actually means (beyond thinly veiled code for “Catholic schools”) is a matter of dispute. Would that prohibit holding Bible studies at one’s publicly subsidized apartment? Using food stamps to purchase Passover matzah? Using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the payroll? Would it prohibit the state from issuing college vouchers akin to the Pell Grant? Or pre-school vouchers? If not, why are K-12 subsidies different?

While the legal eagles mull those questions over, let’s consider what’s at stake. Children in Nevada–particularly Las Vegas-–are trapped in overcrowded and underperforming schools. Nevada’s ESA offers families much greater freedom to customize their children’s education–-a freedom they appear to appreciate. Here is how Arizona ESA parents responded when asked about their level of satisfaction with the ESA program: Parental satisfaction with Arizona's ESA program

And here’s how those same parents rated their level of satisfaction with the public schools that their children previously attended:

Parental satisfaction among AZ ESA families with their previous public schools

Note that the lowest-income families were the least satisfied with their previous public school and most satisfied with the providers they chose with their ESA funds.

Similar results are not guaranteed in Nevada and there are important differences between the programs–when the survey was administered, eligibility for Arizona’s ESA was limited only to families of students with special needs who received significantly more funding than the average student (though still less than the state would have spent on them at a public school). By contrast, Nevada’s ESA program is open to all public school students, but payments to low-income families are capped at the average state funding per pupil ($5,700). Nevertheless, it is the low-income students who have the most to gain from the ESA–and therefore the most to lose from the ACLU’s ill-considered lawsuit.

(First posted at Cato-at-Liberty.)


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