Open Letter to David Plouffe: When Fighting an Entrenched Status-Quo, Don’t Stop at Transportation

August 20, 2014

(Guest Post by A.D. Motzen)

Dear Mr. Plouffe,

Congratulations on your new position as senior vice president of policy and strategy at one of my favorite companies, Uber.  Ever since I spent 35 minutes waiting for a cab outside of LaGuardia airport, I’ve become a dedicated Uber customer.

Before you get too settled in at your new office, however, I would like to offer you a position at my new start-up. I call it UberEd.

You were recently quoted as saying that you would work “to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation.”

Presumably you were hinting at the challenge you will face from an entrenched monopoly which doesn’t like competition. Rather than improve their product and meet the needs of their customers and employees, your adversaries will spend millions of dollars on political donations and lobbyists to ensure that laws and regulations will be written to keep out the competition.

But you and Uber CEO, Travis Kalanick, apparently believe in transportation choice. While perhaps not a Constitutional right (yet), transportation is one of the most basic needs of every American citizen, especially for those who live or work in urban areas. By providing choices and flexibility you will be able to offer a better product that meets the needs of individual customers at a lower cost. Why, even the employees will be happier! Most importantly, even the competition – those dreaded yellow taxi unions – will ultimately be forced to compete and either lower their prices or improve their service.

My start-up is based on those same principles, so it should be a good fit with your philosophy. Rather than working “to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation,” my idea would ensure that parents and children are not denied their opportunity for choice in education. My motto would be “everyone’s private or public school.”

It’s a simple concept that was already Beta tested in more than a dozen states using “experiments” such as charters, vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and now education savings accounts. In all of those vehicles, parents have a choice on how to get their child from point A to point B – traditional public, charter, or private school.

Using UberEd, a parent can check which schooling options are available for their child simply by pressing a button on a smartphone. The name of the closest schools (or alternative program) come up on the screen and by clicking on the school icons, the parent can find out information about each option. Parents don’t have to worry about tuition bills as the app is set up so that the state funding allocated to that specific child would be credited to their spending account. Just tap the payment button and the school will get the money through a third-party without having any access to your personal bank account. If a parent wants a more expensive school they can always  choose UberEd Xtra and supplement the state-allocated funds with their own personal resources. Schools could be rated by a parent based on any number of criteria so that other UberEd users would know what to expect.

I could go on, but I don’t want to give up too much information just in case someone actually goes out and files a patent (I haven’t) and raises some venture capital before I do.

Uber was recently valued at $18 billion because it will completely redefine and improve transportation as we know it. UberEd (a.k.a. school choice) is radically changing education as we know it. Education is the uber-vehicle to a brighter future for our children. Isn’t that priceless?

But as you probably figured out by now, I can’t offer you a job just yet. Parents first need more states to actually allow school funding to follow the child. Maybe I’ll give you a call at that point and you and Mr. Kalanick can help me build that app.

In the meantime, I wish you all the luck in the world.

Together with millions of parents across the country, I am hoping that your arguments of opportunity and choice will prevail against the status quo. We are hoping that your former boss, President Obama, and elected officials across the country will take heed and be forced to choose a side.

Entrenched status quo or innovation, opportunity, and choice?

Choose one. Then tap on the UberEd app.

A. D.


“Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius! Oh, Ohhhh, Dr. Zaius!”

July 24, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Andy Smarick’s proposal for private choice school authorizers deserves a closer look. I can understand why at first it might prompt smart people like Jason Bedrick to cry out, as Matt put it, “get your charter law off me, you dirty ape!” But in the original report, Smarick doesn’t flesh out the idea in detail, and we all know who’s in the details. There are certainly some ways of designing such authorizers that would lead me to join Jason’s outcry against them. But there are also possible ways of designing them that would make me say, “I can siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing!”

Authorizers could improve rather than hinder the regulatory regime of private choice schools, if a few key points were observed:

  1. The creation of authorizers must be accompanied by the removal of the arbitrary, meaningless restrictions on school startups that currently prevail in many choice programs. In Louisiana, you have to have already been operating for three years before you’re eligible! Why not just stick a sign in the window that says “No Startups Need Apply”? These restrictions are put in choice programs to protect existing private school systems from healthy competition. They’re one of the worst problems with existing school choice programs, because the ability to attract educational entrepreneurs who create new kinds of schools, not just another iteration of the same mediocre systems we have now, is the real key to advancing education through choice. If there is any kind of sanity in the process (I know, I know) the creation of authorizers must be accompanied by the removal of all these outrageous restrictions. Protecting us from fly-by-night shysters is what we have the authorizers for.
  2. While we’re at it, if we create authorizers we should also be able to get, in return, programs that are more broadly designed to attract entrepreneurs rather than simply to service the existing private school system. No more $1,000 scholarships that do no more than grease the wheels for people to attend existing private schools.
  3. It would be critical to have multiple authorizers, the more the better. School startups that get turned down by one could go to another. Meanwhile, the blob would have great difficulty neutralizing or colonizing more than a handful of the authorizers, so the majority would remain free.
  4. Combining #1-3, there should be several authorizers whose specific mission is to attract entrepreneurs who want to create new kinds of schools. By all means, let the diocese be an authorizer. But there should also be authorizers tasked with attracting and approving responsible entrepreneurs.
  5. There should also be a process for creating new authorizers that doesn’t require new legislation. That way the pool can be regularly refreshed with new choice-friendly authorizers every time the friends of choice are in power. The optimal plan is not so much to prevent the authorizers from being neutralized or colonized, though we should do that if we can, as to make it easy for people who support choice to create a raft of new authorizers every time they’re in power.
  6. Authorizers should be a locus of brand identity, and thus choice-based accountability. Everyone should know which schools are authorized by whom, so parents can reward the good authorizers and punish the bad ones. The more we encourage that, the less coercive accountability we will need.

And, of course, there is no need for the authorizer route to be strictly alternative to the traditional route. It could be both/and – schools are admitted to choice programs in the traditional way if they meet the traditional (ridiculous) requirements, but authorizers are added on as an additional way to approve schools for participation if they don’t meet those requirements.


The Atlantic Article that Should Have Been Called “Why Poor Students Should Not Have to Attend Dysfunctional School Districts”

July 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A fascinating article in the Atlantic about the lack of textbooks in Philadelphia district schools would have been even more illuminating if the author had discovered that the district spends $20k per student per year.

The blindingly obvious conclusion to draw from this article is that plenty of money exists to get these students all the textbooks they need, but that the district simply has other priorities.  The district spends the money, they just spend it on something or someone else, and mysteriously classroom learning never makes to the top of a priority list.  These are not “poor schools” but rather wealthy schools that are poorly run and victimizing poor students in the process.


Bedrick: Get Your Charter Law Off Me You Dirty Ape!

July 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Okay so the title is a bit of an exaggeration but what the heck, there is a new Planet of the Apes movie out and we believe in giving our audience what they pay for around here at the Jayblog. What’s that you say? You guys read this blog for free? Oh yeah, that’s right. We write it just to entertain ourselves, I forgot.

Anyhoo, Cato’s Jason Bedrick raises questions worth debating about the new Friedman Foundation study by Andy Smarick over at Education Next.


Fordham Continues to Advocate Playing with Fire

June 25, 2014

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Imagine the following playground scenario:

Tommy: Hey guys, I have a great idea! Let’s all go play with fire! It’ll be fun!

Cate: No way, Tommy. Playing with fire is very dangerous. Someone could get hurt!

Jay: Cate’s right. I used to think playing with fire was a good idea, but I’ve seen other kids get burned.

Milt: Yeah, plus, there are lots of ways to have fun without playing with fire!

Tommy: Friends, you’ve taught me an important lesson about the dangers of fire. Okay, here’s my new idea: let’s all go play with fire, but if other kids don’t want to, then playing video games is totally cool too. How’s that sound?

If you find Tommy’s response puzzling, then you’re likely to find the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s “revised” approach to educational choice and accountability equally puzzling.

In the debate between parental choice and top-down government mandates, the Fordham Institute follows Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Fordham supports choice, but argues that the only way to prevent parents from choosing “bad” schools is to regulate them out of existence. In January, Fordham released a “toolkit” for policymakers that advocated requiring all private schools to administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) and publish the results as a condition of accepting school vouchers or even tax-credit scholarships. Lower-performing schools would be forbidden from accepting students with vouchers or scholarships going forward.

Fordham’s proposal elicited a torrent of criticism. Andrew Coulson, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and I argued that their approach would stifle educational diversity and innovation. Jay Greene noted that standardized tests capture only a fraction of the benefits of educational choice. James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute pointed to the evidence that parents hold a range of legitimate views regarding what constitutes quality. Robert Enlow, President of the Friedman Foundation, reminded Fordham that such top-down accountability has not worked in government schools—something that Fordham itself once lamented when it called certain test-based accountability measures an “illusion.” Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute expressed concern that without any clear limiting principle, mandating state tests could easily lead to mandating “certified teachers, a state-approved curriculum, state-approved facilities, a state-approved plan of emergency services,” etc.

Last week, Fordham’s incoming Executive President, Michael Petrilli, offered what he called an “olive branch” to Fordham’s critics:

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose.

Petrilli then explained that Fordham has updated its “toolkit” accordingly. But if you expected that recognizing “the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation” would mean abandoning the push to mandate state assessments (i.e. – Common Core tests), then Fordham’s “revised” approach will leave you scratching your head. In the “revised” toolkit, Fordham recommends that state policymakers:

Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments. (While we prefer state assessments as policy, we think any widely respected test that allows for ready comparison against other schools or districts is a reasonable compromise);

In case you missed it, Fordham’s “revision” is in the parentheses. Like little Tommy, Fordham claims to recognize the risk of playing with Common Core fire but continues advocating for exactly that (unless they need to compromise for political purposes, in which case other tests are totally cool “a reasonable compromise”). If Fordham truly recognizes the “risk to private-school autonomy and innovation” that Common Core poses, then why is it still calling mandatory Common Core testing as an initial preference?

Petrilli concluded by calling for “a round of Kumbaya” and then getting “back to work on expanding great educational options to lots more children nationwide.” However, expanding educational options should mean more than just which school best teaches to the Common Core tests. By all means let’s work on expanding educational options… but let’s do it right.


Let’s Search for Sweet Spots, but with modesty please

June 5, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a number of friends who have either helped develop or have signed on to a Statement of Principles regarding a three sector reform strategy and what they view as a desirable level of state oversight of private choice programs.  This post will work better for you if you go and read the document first.

The needle starts to scratch across the vinyl for me at:

Even with the expanded choice to the private sector, they also have produced modest results.

This has become a mantra in recent years, but I believe that this statement reflects an incomplete understanding of the research results, and specifically a lack of understanding regarding our random assignment studies of voucher programs. The basic takeaway from the random assignment studies in my view is as follows: the test score impacts are modest but often statistically significant within the three year window that we can reliably study them.

So the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program offered $6,400 vouchers to very low-income inner city parents whose other options were to attend a district spending $14,000 per child and/or charter schools spending somewhere between the voucher and district spending.  We have several random assignment studies of the test score impacts that find that the experimental group basically stays on grade level (a triumph for poor inner city children) whereas the control group declines year by year.  You get to watch this process for about three years before the random assignment breaks down on you.

What happens to test scores after Year 3?  No one knows for sure- these studies fall apart over time.  We do know things however about what happens regarding high-school graduation, college attendance, college persistence, etc.  Borrowing a slide that Pat Wolf presented at the Alliance for School Choice conference:

Slide11

So basically you are less likely to graduate in 5 years (first red column) because you are more likely to graduate on time, less likely to graduate from a two-year college (second red) because you are more likely to be going to a four-year college.  The blue columns are all positive impacts from having been a choice student.

Now if you are determined to cling to the “modest” camp by saying that you wish these impacts were even larger, well, I do too.  I also wish that Chuck Norris’ tears really did cure cancer.  At this point it might be appropriate to raise the question as to just how much a positive impact we should reasonably expect from a program giving profoundly disadvantaged children a $6,400 coupon.  Although we don’t know what happens after a few years of random assignment study, those graduation figures ultimately are far more important than 6th grade math scores.

Being far more likely to graduate from high-school and college for less than half the money sounds like a triumph to me, albeit one that we could and should hope to improve upon through more robust program designs.  The standard here should not be to expect MPCP to transform every last profoundly disadvantaged inner city child into a Dean’s List Ivy Leaguers.  Rather in judging the impact of MPCP we should look at it on a return per dollar invested basis.  When you look at it appropriately through this ROI it is clear that the return on MPCP has been quite good, and that we should be looking for ways to get even more of it.

Then I got to this statement:

We know that smart accountability measures can ensure that public money and young lives are not invested in low-performing private schools.

The statement offers no evidence to support this claim, and moreover the claim itself dodges the more important question of costs and benefits to regulation.  Is it possible for “smart” accountability to keep young lives out of low-performing private schools?  Sure it’s possible.  Smart training can ensure that I could go from being a 46-year-old policy wonk to heavyweight champion of the world. I mean it is possible right? Is it also possible, even highly likely, for the whole enterprise to go south on you in a variety of different ways? Yep, that’s very possible too.

Who is going to administer these smart accountability measures and who will administer them a few years later?  What about 25 years from now?  How often will these people do something they think is smart which proves to be otherwise?  Unless we want to have the Federal Reserve administer these programs, how long will it be until politics will subvert the process of “smart” technocratic policymaking?  Also like the Fed, the costs of technocratic mistakes may prove quite costly.

Even well-intentioned efforts at “smart accountability” could easily backfire.  Let’s take Louisiana as an example.  Louisiana policymakers decided to grade all their schools A-F based upon a state accountability test tied to the state academic standards, and then decided to create a mechanism to remove low-performing schools from eligibility to take new students.  This probably sounds clever at a Georgetown cocktail party, but in Louisiana two-thirds of the state’s private schools have decided to stay out of the program, denying thousands of seats to low-income children attending relatively poor performing public schools in one of the lowest performing states in the union.

Ooops.

Let’s take things a step further. Is it possible that the one-third of Louisiana private schools that chose to participate in the program may have had a selection bias towards being more on the financially desperate side than those that have decided to stay out?  I have no data to support that this in fact did happen, but who would be surprised if it in fact did happen?  The correlation between financial desperation and academic ineptitude often proves strong.  In such a case the initial impact of the regulatory regime might have precisely the opposite of what was intended with many higher performing schools choosing to keep their distance.  Worse still, it might create an incentive for private schools to engage in the same sort of gaming strategies that have been common in states with rising state test scores but flat NAEP scores- teaching to test items rather than to standards (Arizona is waving hello!).  Finally of course it is no triumph if the schools do actually teach the state standards because the whole idea of a choice program is to provide, well, meaningfully varying choices for parents.  If you want state tests and standards in Louisiana you already have thousands of options available to you in the form of district and charter schools.

In the end of the day, policymakers must make decisions about where to draw the line in such matters. We have no wrong or right answers here, only preferences. Personally I believe that choice programs should provide academic transparency to the public in ways designed to have the lightest possible touch on the curricular independence of schools.  I’m willing to sacrifice some level of private school participation in return for transparency.  Preferences will vary and we will learn things along the way through variation between programs.  What I think I have learned however is that Arizona’s transparency-light programs represent a costly obstacle to building broad support, and that the Louisiana and Indiana model has far too many private schools saying “thanks but no thanks.”

To my friends who crafted and signed on to this statement I say only that we should continue the dialogue and gather more information.  I don’t believe in regulation free programs nor do I expect or desire for us to pass any, so I agree with you to a degree. I however strongly suspect that many of you are underestimating the cost of regulation and overestimating the capacity of technocratic regimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Fix Voucher Regulations with This One Weird Trick!

May 30, 2014

Public Rules on Private Schools

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

One of the big controversies surrounding school choice programs is whether they tend to increase government regulation of private schools. Big, sweeping claims have been easy to come by; serious scholarship studying the question, while not nonexistent, has been rare. Today the Friedman Foundation makes a major new contribution by releasing the study “Public Rules on Private Schools.” It is one of the most careful, methodical analyses to date on this question.

The big revelation for me in this study is that government regulations associated with voucher programs (as distinct from other types of school choice programs) is disproportionately made up of paperwork and other compliance requirements. Programs can largely nullify the effects of these regulations by adding some additional funding to cover compliance costs. Some programs do this already. This seems like a no-brainer for legislators to start including in future bill design.

So for the most part the war between voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs seems to me to be blown way out of proportion. Top up the voucher for compliance costs and the differences become unimportant.

Check out this awesome slideshow for tons of information plus author Drew Catt’s spot-on demonstration of what “nerd hipster irony” looks like.


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