The Truth is Out There Hidden Behind Multiple Delusions

July 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mix in a few out of context quotes, make a few things up, and sprinkle in a healthy dose of confirmation bias and you get this strong with the lefty conspiracy theory side of the Force.

Milton Friedman never made his preference for universal choice a secret, quite the opposite. I don’t know what “talking points” the writer is referencing (a link would be nice unless they are in his coat pocket next to Joe McCarthy’s list of State Department spies) but ALEC has multiple school choice bills with either means-tests or sliding scales to give greater resources to children from low-income families.

A central flaw in the piece is a false assumption that school choice can’t serve kids in the inner city and suburbs at the same time, or that trying to do so cedes equity arguments. It can and it need not- lawmakers can and have structured choice programs to provide (in stark contrast to the public school systems of many states) greater total resources to low-income and otherwise disadvantaged children. I know it would be far more useful to school choice opponents if school choice supporters went around passing laws that offered greater resources to rich kids, but search the dozens of private choice programs from top to bottom and you won’t find such a thing. Dig around in public school finances for a few minutes and you’ll easily find examples of leafy suburbs spending far above statewide averages.

In a state spending an average of $15k per child, I’d be happy to offer free and reduced lunch kids an ESA of $20k. I’d offer the non-FRL kids an ESA of $10k so they could generate the savings for the economically disadvantaged. Feel free to persuade me otherwise, but if you think that offering that $10k ESA to non-poor kids shows that I don’t care about poor kids you’ll have to forgive my initial pained expression as I wonder what color the sky is in your world.





Pass the Popcorn: They Came to Help Because of Sadness

July 22, 2015

They came to help

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

For the second time ever, it’s a Pass the Popcorn too big for JPGB. If you liked my 21 word review of Inside Out, you’re going to love the 4,000 word review. Spoiler: Pixar saves American culture.

Equity Questions and Raw Egg Milkshakes…mmmmmm mmmm good!

July 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve gotten quite a bit of reaction from yesterday’s post over email. Most of it has been supportive, but some not so much-at least not yet (I haven’t given up hope on you). Some mistook the post yesterday for an assertion that equity issues are not important in private choice programs. On the contrary, they are incredibly important. My assertion is only that means testing is a self-defeating and blunt instrument in pursuit of equity. I think we can do better.

For those of you holding to a belief that means-testing is a superior strategy to varied funding amounts, please reflect upon the following questions:

1. Why should private choice programs stand as the only education option that sets out to exclude children on the basis of their parents making too much income (or is it paying too many taxes?)

2. If you support a public school system that routinely spends more money on schools in high-income areas, why would you oppose a private choice program that gives more money to low-income students?

3. If means-testing is a great idea, why haven’t you proposed applying it to district and charter schools?

Jay very helpfully added a fourth question in the comments:

4. How do you expect to win politically when you exclude as beneficiaries a majority of people, including the most politically powerful families as beneficiaries?

Let me note from the outset that I am making reference to a formula funded choice program like NVESA. I serve on the board of a scholarship tax credit organization that is proud to focus on children that qualify for a free or reduced lunch. This makes sense because of limited funds, and we want to focus those limited funds on children with the greatest need.

In a formula funded program like NVESA, scarcity of funds is not an issue. In essence, what is the case for applying a series of double standards to private school choice? I’ll hang up and listen.


Yo Mick! Call me an ambulance, I’m getting in the ring with Howard Fuller

July 20, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The school choice tent stretches broadly over a wide stretch of the philosophical turf, hanging over rich intellectual traditions on both the right and left. Any movement that can encompass people as diverse as Milton Friedman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan is going to have more its share of philosophical disagreements- and someone else’s share for dessert.

In my early years of serving as a school choice padawan I found this discord disorienting. Eventually however I grew to appreciate the beauty of the movement’s diversity. Howard Fuller, one of the founders of the modern choice movement, helped to inspire a deep appreciation of the importance of equity that I continue to carry with me today. Recently however Dr. Fuller took a position against the new Nevada Education Savings Account program. It’s time for a good ole fashioned rumble under the tent.

Dr. Fuller recently came out against the Nevada ESA program due to the near universal eligibility in the law. It is with no small amount of trepidation therefore that this school choice middle-weight will step into the ring with a school choice heavy-weight to explain why I think Dr. Fuller’s critique fails. I’ll do my best to give Dr. Fuller a good fight to defend Nevada’s honor. Win, lose or draw I am confident we will walk out of the ring friends, although I may be a more than a bit worse for wear.

Dr. Fuller delivered a blistering synopsis of his viewpoint in a podcast interview for the RedefinED blog. I am fearful to report it to you, as it is incredibly compelling. Here goes:

The thing that I most worry about is that people will forget the importance of protecting poor people in this. Because one thing I found about movements, and particularly as we begin to talk about we got to protect the middle class – all of which I’m not opposed to – what I learned over time is that there’s not some group of people, and I hope BAEO is going to at least be that group, that consistently and unapologetically says we’re in this to protect the interests of a lot of the poorest people.

Because I found that if that doesn’t happen, that somehow their interests will be put aside. And we get all kinds of reasons why and this and that. So I just want people to know … when folks move towards universal, just know that some of us are going to fight it. And we’re going to fight it because our history has taught us what happens when you establish a program that’s allegedly for poor people and then all of a sudden we all got to get in it and this and that and all lifeboats get lifted and this and that. I have found that all the life boats don’t get lifted.

And so I just want everybody to be clear that there’s some of us in this room that will never give up on the notion of standing for the poorest people in our society. And we will not let people just lightly go on as if America has proven that it cares deeply about the poorest people. Because to me the opposite is true.

That’s the thing that worries me about this movement and it’s something people don’t always like to hear. Why is he saying that? I’m saying it because I just want people to be clear where we are. And why we are where we are. Because every day, I see our poorest children dealing with issues that most of us will never even contemplate, let alone live.

Okay so that does look like a knockout- but let’s assume for the sake of argument that Howard put me on the canvass but I got a standing 8 count and my corner is administering to my impaired vision. Cut me Mick!

I agree with Dr. Fuller that expanding opportunity for poor children is vitally important. I also believe that Nevada’s very limited supply of seats in existing private schools will go quickly and much of that limited supply of seats some of those seats will be beyond the means of those utilizing ESA funds alone. I also believe however that this is of limited significance to the bigger picture: NVESA can and will expand opportunity for the Silver State’s poor children.

Nevada begins its private choice journey with a very small private school sector-about half the national average (see page 25) at 5.5% compared to a national rate of 10%. The number of private school seats in existing private schools will therefore prove limited. The tuition at some of these existing schools will exceed the maximum subsidy amount for either low or high-income kids. The interests of the vast majority of Nevada students choosing to participate in the program- both poor and non-poor-must focus primarily focus on the options outside of private schools and in the creation of new private school seats.

First let’s discuss equity. NVESA provides 12% greater funds to low-income and students with disabilities than to middle and high-income students- $5,700 to $5,100. The modesty of these funds was not driven by ideological fervor on the right, but rather by an instinct to protect school districts-which receive far more than either of these figures in total funding. NVESA is only accessing state funding, whereas districts get a great deal of funding from the local level. It may be possible to supplement the ESA for disadvantaged children with the state’s also new tax-credit program, but with a $5m statewide cap it can only do so much.

A $600 advantage for poor children under the ESA program may look small in isolation, but huge compared to the way Nevada finances public schools. Current funding per pupil in Nevada districts varies between around $8,500 per pupil in Clark and Washoe districts (Las Vegas and Reno areas) to as much as $38,284 in one of the small rural districts (see page 86). The vast majority of kids-and poor kids-find themselves clustered in the two large districts with more modest per pupil funding.

Even more important than equity issues between districts are those within districts. Dig around a bit into the finances of fancy public schools in Nevada and you’ll find that they spend vastly greater amounts than average for the district. Spending per pupil, for instance, in the posh Incline Village High School stood at $13,248 per child compared to a statewide average of $8,274.

Should we worry that some in Incline Village may give up their spot at their $13,248 per year public school for a $5,100 ESA? I’m not going to lose sleep over it for two reasons. Only 48% of Nevada’s middle and high income Anglo students scored proficient or better on the 2013 NAEP 8th grade reading test. You read that correctly- less than half. Perhaps Incline High could use a little competition. Second, to the extent that Incline parents do take advantage of the program, it may open spots for transfers among students whose parents work in Incline but who cannot afford to live there.

The Nevada public school system gives the most to the kids who start with the most. This should come as a shock to no one- the taxpayers in Incline Village almost certainly pay more tax than average to go along with their higher levels of spending. John Rawls might imagine a world in which Incline parents pay their big tax bills but send their children to public schools with below average funding. It’s not however the public school system of the world we live in.

The ESA program on the other hand gives the most to the kids who start with the least- making it far more progressive than the public school system itself. Granted that both Drs. Fuller and Ladner would like to see it do still more for disadvantaged kids (I’m especially anxious to add a system of special education funding weights that Nevada currently lacks even for public schools to the program). “Better than the public schools at equity” may not mean adequate mind you. Unless however either of us is going to call for the dissolution of the Nevada public school system on equity grounds for poor children, we should both support the ESA program.

Dr. Fuller could still oppose private choice programs that he fears will not benefit poor children, even if it involves applying a bit of a double and/or higher standard. I believe the Nevada ESA will create such opportunities. Let’s again focus on those preexisting private schools. They educate 5.5% of Nevada’s school children, which amounts to around 24,000 students. Let’s make the heroic assumption that they can squeeze and increase enrollment by 50%. That’s around 12,000 students. The United States Census Bureau currently projects Nevada to add almost 300,000 5-17 year olds between 2010 and 2030, with a total school aged population of 765,000 in 2030. One should view the current private schools, in other words, as of limited relevance to the ultimate success of NVESA. The game in Nevada will be won or lost based upon making options outside of traditional schools work for kids, and in the creation of new school seats.

Let’s discuss the non-traditional options first. NVESA allows for an a la carte approach through the use of private tutors, online programs and individual courses from various providers. Homeschooling serves as the obvious model for study for an a la carte approach. Homeschooling has been the fastest growing parental choice option, which ESA parents should regard as a decades long learning experience to examine.

“Do it yourself” education is obviously not an option that fits every child or every family’s schedule, but decades of experience has led to the development of co-ops that makes the practice more accessible including the need for custodial education. Cooperative education moves “do it yourself” to more of a “do it ourselves” voluntary association, making this option less intimidating for many people. What can low-income parents make of this experience and $5,700 in a use-restrict education account? I’m not sure, but I am anxious to see how they proceed with their new freedom. This much is for certain: every low-income child in Nevada will have opportunities which they lacked before the passage of ESA, even if there were not a single private school seat available. ESA is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

In the more traditional custodial private school space, the challenge will be to open new schools that can deliver a high-quality education at a $5,700 per pupil or lower price point. Can this be done?

We can’t be sure, but the stage is set for innovation. The price point is very low by today’s standards, but we do have people experimenting with new schooling models in the private sector space that aim to deliver good results at low costs. The grandfather of these efforts would be the Cristo Rey schools- which began the process of having low-income students share an office job in order to keep their costs down. Cristo Rey serves 9,000 students nationwide, 96% of whom are children of color and they charge an average tuition of $1,000 per year. All of Cristo Rey’s 1,400 graduates were accepted into college in 2014. Fire up the Bat-Signal over Vegas and put the pedal to the metal on reaching scale in Nevada!

Cristo Rey began an experiment with blended learning in 2014. Other private school operators have begun exploring blended models school models as well. While the academic results from the blended Cristo Rey school demonstrated strong early promise (students averaged a year and a half sized mathematics gain during a summer preparatory camp) the ultimate goal of these experiments will be to find an appealing mixture of in-person and technology based learning that increases academic return on investment.

Philanthropic effort will almost certainly focus on the Las Vegas area, where the vast majority of Nevada low-income students reside, not on Incline Village. This is a huge challenge, and a great deal of work lies ahead in implementing this law if it is to realize anything close to its full potential. Banish any thought that NVESA is a “fire it and forget it” type of program- the devil lies in the details of implementation.

Nevada’s low-income children will have new opportunities as a result of this program. The advantages created for the already advantaged pale compared to those already offered to them in the public schools.  Unlike the public school system, the ESA program creates an advantage for the poor. Finally Nevada’s ESA program will live or die on innovative education strategies and new private school seats. The school choice supporting philanthropists who Dr. Fuller and I have worked with for decades will have a heart for the poor in that process. I’ve thrown almost all my punches, but I’ve got one left that I saved for the final round.

My last punch is a question of fairness and soundness of strategy. I do not believe that there would be a public school system today if Horace Mann had labored under a notion that high-income people should pay school taxes but should not be eligible to send their children. I have yet to hear anyone seriously propose to means test public schools-the mere thought of it is outlandish. Some very wealthy people choose to pay private school tuition above and beyond their school taxes, but try to take away their child’s eligibility to attend public schools and you will have a fight on your hands-and rightly so. Wealthy people pay their taxes just like poor people do, and in most places they pay far more taxes. Rather than make the well to do enemies of public education, our forefathers decided (wisely in my view) to allow them to attend like everyone else.

We have universal access to district schools, charter schools and digital education programs and public universities. Everyone helps to pay for them, everyone deserves access stands as a guiding principal. Everyone pays Social Security and Medicare taxes; everyone is eligible for the programs. Defenders of those programs treat means-testing proposals like a mortal threat because they understand that universal access stands as the foundation of broad public support. Perhaps until recently, school choice programs operated at such a small scale that it might be possible to avoid the elephant in the room: everyone pays for school choice programs so on what basis would we deny them to anyone?

The poor do have among the biggest problems in Nevada education, but they do not have the only education problems. The Nevada ESA program strikes an appealing balance of near universal eligibility with a funding advantage to the poor. Policymakers can improve upon the equity in the program. I and many others will activity support such improvements. I think the program merits Howard’s support however as it stands as a huge improvement in the opportunities available to Nevada kids.

Yo Adrienne! I’m all punched out and the final bell has sounded. Let’s go to the judges. They (meaning you dear reader) can decide whether this is Rocky where Apollo wins and is still the champ, or Rocky II where our raw-egg chugging everyman scrapes himself off the canvass faster than the champ and pulls the upset. Either way, if Dr. Fuller takes the time to respond, I am up for a rematch.

Your Own Money on Yourself

July 17, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Just a quick note on Jason’s post from earlier today– I totally agree that it is premature to draw firm conclusions concerning the potential of voluntary exchange in education from our charter school experience.

So the traditional public school system sadly falls in the lower right hand quadrant- little market discipline to go along with an all to often captured governance structure. Charter schools certainly qualify as a quasi-market mechanism that attempts to realize gains through voluntary association. However on the above chart they are basically trying to move K-12 education from the bottom right quadrant over towards the bottom left- and imperfectly so. Voucher programs basically attempt to do the same.

We are trying to nudge things towards the upper-left with multiple uses and college savings in an ESA program. In other words, we are trying to create an incentive for parents to exercise the same care with ESA funds that they would with their own money.

Keep your fingers crossed.

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.

Scenes from the Seattle Waiver Riots

July 16, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A reporter caught this gripping moment from the Seattle Washington riots following the state’s decision to drop their NCLB waiv…what? Seattle police don’t carry shields with Greek words written on them? Few in Seattle took any notice of the waiver business?

Sorry my bad.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,877 other followers