Milton Friedman’s case for ESAs from 1995

June 24, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Stephanie Linn from the Friedman Foundation with a great piece on ESAs noting that the great Milton Friedman foresaw the ESA design with a proposal for “partial vouchers”

“Vouchers are not an end in themselves,” Friedman wrote. “The purpose of vouchers is to enable parents to have free choice, and the purpose of having free choice is to provide competition and allow the educational industry to get out of the 17th century and get into the 21st century.” 
 
“Why not add partial vouchers?” Friedman asked. “Why not let (parents) spend part of a voucher for math in one place and English or science somewhere else.”
A longer quote from the original Milton Friedman column is well worth consideration:
No one can predict in advance the direction that a truly free market educational system would take. We know from the experience of every other industry how imaginative competitive free enterprise can be, what new products and services can be introduced, how driven it is to satisfy the customers — that is what we need in education. We know how the telephone industry has been revolutionized by opening it to competition; how fax has begun to undermine the postal monopoly in first-class mail; how UPS, Federal Express and many other private enterprises have transformed package and message delivery and, on the strictly private level, how competition from Japan has transformed the domestic automobile industry.

The private schools that 10 percent of children now attend consist of a few elite schools serving at high cost a tiny fraction of the population, and many mostly parochial nonprofit schools able to compete with government schools by charging low fees made possible by the dedicated services of many of the teachers and subsidies from the sponsoring institutions. These private schools do provide a superior education for a small fraction of the children, but they are not in a position to make innovative changes. For that, we need a much larger and more vigorous private enterprise system.

The problem is how to get from here to there. Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system. The deterioration of our school system and the stratification arising out of the new industrial revolution have made privatization of education far more urgent and important than it was 40 years ago.

In other words, it is time for the parental choice movement to include but also look beyond the stock of private schools we have today. Friedman had this figured out long ago, it is time for the rest of us to catch up (as usual).

 


Delaware Lawmakers to Debate Broad ESA measure

June 10, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Delaware lawmakers are set to debate a broad ESA measure with a sliding scale by income.  The proposal has activated the anti-bodies of the public school establishment, and the sponsors acknowledge in the article that they do not expect the measure to pass this year. NAEP indicates that Delaware has done a good job in improving the public school system in recent years, and it seems likely that parental choice is playing an unsung role in Delaware’s improving scores.

Delaware has the second highest private school attendance rate in the nation (behind only Hawaii) at 20% of students. Note that this percentage dwarfs that in states like Arizona and Florida, whose private choice programs are essentially trying to play catch-up to the old-fashioned checkbook choice widely exercised in states like Delaware. Delaware charter schools have been heading towards a 10% of the market as well, and many Delaware charter schools have waiting lists.

The question for Delaware lawmakers to consider therefore is not whether they should have parental choice.  They already have parental choice.  The question to face: who should be exercise parental choice?  Currently Delaware’s answer to that question is: the wealthy, with others getting a less-diverse form of choice in the form of charter schools or their wait lists.

People prize stability in life, and it is clear that many in Delaware feel acute discomfort from the mere advent of charter schools. Education spending ought however to be the entitlement of the child, not of any system of education. Moreover, the Census Bureau forecasts a 90% increase in Delaware’s elderly population between 2010 and 2030, foretelling a deep battle between health care and education spending in the state. It would be wise for the state to experiment in making parents the voluntary offer of less spending in return for greater control and flexibility. Simply maintaining the status-quo does not represent a viable option even in the medium term. Our experience from other private choice programs demonstrate that there will not be a mass exodus from the public school system.

The Delaware proposal is admirable in giving the most to the children starting with the least. I look forward to the conversation.


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Demographic Time Bomb

May 22, 2014

Ladner Orlando

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present at the American Federation for Children conference in Orlando along with Pat “PDiddy” Wolf, Lance Izumi, refereed by our main man Ed Kirby.  Lance busted out depressing “Not as Good as You Think” evidence on suburban public schools  in California and Illinois.  PDiddy used Bud and Sissy from one of the greatest really bad movies of all time to tell us that school choice research is looking for love in all the wrong places, and even included the great Scott Glenn:

 

Make fun of my transparent muscle shirt and I will put you in the hospital…

I batted clean up with a talk on age demographics. Someone told me that you can save a power point as jpg files, so I gave it a try. Here is the first slide:

Slide1Here is the most relevant middle slide, showing that a number of states are set to get hit with a double challenge of large increases of young and old people by the year 2030 according to Census Bureau estimates, causing all kinds of health care, pension and education challenges:

Slide6

So some of you are wondering what your state looks like. Let me just tell you- it is bad. Stay tuned for a Friedman Foundation with the gory details by state. Oh by the way, the people who will be in their prime earning years in 2030 are in the public school system right now, and only a minority of them are being educated to a high level. Ergo the conclusion:

In short, everything we’ve done up to this point needs to have been baby steps towards what comes next.  What comes next needs to be a far deeper and more powerful policy interventions than incremental policies like our current charter and voucher programs. In an earlier panel, Derrell Bradford related that we used to buy our music at Tower Records, used to buy whole albums in order to get a single song, but that Napster and then iTunes had changed all of that for the better. Gisele Huff then made the point that too much of what we are doing in the school choice movement is dedicated to setting up new record stores.

Or perhaps in getting public funds to add a new wing on to the existing Tower Records.

I don’t want to pick on my friends in Indiana too much, as this idea of using public funds to add existing space onto participating private choice programs would doubtlessly have a higher ROI than much public K-12 spending in Indiana and would provide a better opportunity for thousands of disadvantaged children.  Having said that, it strikes me as a troubling idea. In my opinion the focus should clearly be on how to get many of the 2/3 of Indiana private schools who do not participate in the voucher program to change their minds (**cough**less regulation **cough**).

Next, let’s get the scholarship amount up to something decent, let the colleges and universities into the K-12 space, have blended learning make the jump into private schooling, see if you can get a private tutoring sector to flourish (it worked out really well for Alexander the Great and many of the founder fathers btw) etc.  In other words, let’s give parents control of the money and an incentive to consider opportunity costs and see what they come up with.  This could resolve a number of vexing questions.  For instance, how should technology be used to improve learning? I’m not sure, and if you are sure then you may need to work on humility. Perhaps we should let the parents figure that out through a system of voluntary exchange, let them change, customize and improve it over time.  How much should a digital course cost? I have no idea but we have these demand and supply curves that have a really strong track record in figuring questions like that out.

Right now we have an incrementally expanding charter school sector and few private choice programs capable of spurring new private school creation. Even if we improve our choice programs to spur new private school creation, it will essentially resemble a second charter school program incrementally adding new space year by year. This is both highly desirable and nowhere close to where we urgently need to go.

We need to be in this for the kids and the parents, not for a tiny preexisting stock of private schools. Don’t get me wrong private schools- I do deeply love you- but choice funding is the entitlement of the child not of any system of schools.  Private schools need to be a bigger part of the solution, but we should never mistake them for the entire solution.

“We’ve squeezed everything we can out of a system that was designed a century ago,” Marc Tucker, vice chairman of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006. “We’ve not only put in lots more money and not gotten significantly better results, we’ve also tried every program we can think of and not gotten significantly better results at scale. This is the sign of a system that has reached its limits.”  Personally I can think of some ways to squeeze more out of the current system, but their political sustainability will always have limits and Tucker is basically right in his assessment. “I think we’ve tried to do what we can to improve American schools within the current context,” Jack Jennings told the CSM. “Now we need to think much more daringly.”

Time to change the “current context”

Here is my version of daring- let’s give parents complete control over our K-12 funding within a system of financial oversight and academic transparency and incentives to economize and sit back and marvel as they figure out solutions of how to make the best use of limited resources.  We are going to have far fewer resources to provide in the future due to the looming battle between health care and education spending. We must go faster towards increased return on investment and customization. The Economist magazine said it better than I can after it reviewed the evidence on choice and concluded:

In rich countries, this generation of adults is not doing well by its children. They will have to pay off huge public-sector debts. They will be expected to foot colossal bills for their parents’ pension and health costs. They will compete for jobs with people from emerging countries, many of whom have better education systems despite their lower incomes. The least this generation can do for its children is to try its best to improve its state schools. Giving them more independence can do that at no extra cost. Let there be more of it.

Lots and lots more as fast as possible.

 

 


Governor Brewer signs two small ESA expansions

April 23, 2014

 

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 2014 Arizona session is winding up, and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed two bills to improve the ESA program today.  Collectively these bills will keep the dependents of military children if their parents are killed in the line of duty, will make it easier for pre-school aged special needs children to enter the program without enrolling in a public school, and will make the siblings of eligible children eligible to participate in order to make it more possible for families to send their children to the same or at least nearby schools. The 2014 session marks the last rodeo for Governor Brewer, who is term limited.

Governor Brewer signed the ESA and a number of improvements into law, several tax credit program improvements into law, called for the creation of A-F school grades and fought hard for an earned promotion policy on literacy. She also vetoed a few choice measures here and there including a small tax credit measure today. She hammered through a temporary three-year sales tax ballot measure to increase to stabilize K-12 funding, but then stayed true to her word and stayed out of it while the alphabet soup groups made a complete hash of trying to create a permanent tax increase. Governor Brewer began Arizona’s first steps towards funding results rather than just seat time.  Let’s hope that further steps will materialize.

It’s been an incredibly difficult and tumultuous five years- the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” springs readily to mind. Several of the K-12 initiatives Governor Brewer supported remain a work in progress, making it feel strange to think that someone else will be exercising the duty of governor next year.  There has been a great deal of political blood spilled over some very difficult issues, but in my book, Governor Jan Brewer got far more right than wrong in K-12 reform.


MS Governor Phil Bryant makes a powerful case for Special Education Choice

March 31, 2014

Governor Bryant 2

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Down the stretch they come in Mississippi, and Governor Phil Bryant weighs in with a powerful case for reform. The bill will pass or die in the next two days, so stay tuned….


Say It All Together Now Class: TESTING ≠ ACCOUNTABILITY

March 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I tuned into the Fordham Foundation podcast yesterday, only to find that Fordham is stubbornly holding onto a misapprehension that their own research ought to have disabused them of long ago, namely that standardized testing equates to “accountability.”

This came up in a discussion of the Arizona ESA court ruling.  Broad misunderstandings of the program were on display, especially regarding the term “accountability.”

Sigh. Let’s start with the basics. The dictionary defines the word accountability as:

the quality or state of being accountable; especially :  an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Standardized testing is widespread in education, but “accountability” is scarce indeed.  So in my state more or less every public school student takes the AIMS test, but you would struggle to find anyone who is held “accountable” for the results.  Forty percent of 4th graders in Arizona scored below basic on the 2013 NAEP reading test, but good luck finding a policymaker, superintendent, teacher or parent who was held “accountable.”  Strangely enough, no one accepted responsibility for this sad state of affairs, making this a very unique form of accountability one where no one  is ever held responsible.

So what Mike and Michelle seem to actually be talking about is academic transparency to the public.  Arizona’s ESA program is indeed lacking in any form of academic transparency to the public.  There are a variety of forms this could take, some much more sensible than others, and Arizona policymakers would do well to pick one of them.  If they don’t pick one of the reasonable models, one must assume that an unreasonable model will be imposed sooner or later.  I’ve testified on a number of occasions at the Arizona legislature that policymakers should embrace transparency in the program. I will keep on doing it in the future.

Now let’s discuss the difference between faux and vrai accountability.

Kathy Visser, the mother of Jordan Visser, an ESA student featured in the above video, testified before the Arizona legislature regarding accountability recently.  She more or less noted that for all this shallow talk of “accountability” in this particular hearing (holding the same flawed understanding of the term displayed by Fordham) that there is in fact accountability in the ESA program. Everyone who educates Jordan is directly accountable to her.

Good luck getting that level of accountability in the public school system.

I followed up with Ms. Visser in a subsequent conversation. She experienced a number of difficulties in the public school system that are sadly common for special needs families. She had an open enrollment request denied without explanation with a public school official going so far as to hang up the phone on her. She consulted a specialized attorney who helps special needs families, but found the $15,000 retainer financially out of reach.  Fortunately the attorney told her about the ESA program.

Ms. Visser first tried a private school for Jordan.  She related that Jordan did not have a terrible experience in the private school, but that she decided to try the customized education approach with private tutors and therapists featured in the video above. Ms. Visser agreed that with a school voucher like the McKay Scholarship Program, she would have been able to hold the public schools accountable for the services they provided Jordan.  With an ESA, she can hold all providers accountable private schools, tutors, therapists, you name it.

That my friends is true accountability, you know, the kind where people actually get held responsible for their results.   Not the largely phony kind of accountability where states administer dummied down academic exams with massive item exposure, dropping cut scores, and all sorts of statistical games and tricks and other problems that I have read about in Fordham reports with most states obscuring things further behind fuzzy labels whose scale almost no one understands.

The type of “accountability” that Fordham is talking about however has proven to be baloney in most states for decades now.  Even in states with the most useful testing systems, like Massachusetts and Florida, you won’t find any parents wielding the type of authority exercised by Kathy Visser. It’s long past time for us to recognize the difference between genuine accountability and mere bullshit accountability.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness please note that Mike did say he supports the ESA program in the podcast and expressed that we should let this experiment play out.  My point is not to claim that the ESA program is perfect (it isn’t) but rather that our notions of what constitutes “accountability” badly need a reboot.


Education Savings Accounts in the News

February 25, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Clarion-Ledger endorsed ESAs for Special Education children in Mississippi in a powerful editorial today:

In 1997, The Clarion-Ledger published an award-winning series of stories highlighting the problems facing special-needs students in Mississippi.

Among its findings: Parents had to battle public schools to get federally mandated services for their children; the state had few qualified teachers to provide an appropriate education to disabled students; and just 17 percent of special-needs children graduated high school.

On Feb. 2, the newspaper published another series on special education that found little has changed.

Nearly two decades later, parents of special-needs kids still battle school districts. Teachers and administrators still lack training. And despite six new state superintendents, countless different strategies and billions of dollars in federal funding since that first series ran, Mississippi’s special-needs graduation rate has risen just 6 percentage points.

Less than one in four students with disabilities leave high school with a diploma in Mississippi. It’s the worst special-needs graduation rate in the nation. Most states graduate 50 percent or more.

….

We support public schools, but we cannot support the systemic failure of certain students over the course of several decades without any signal from MDE that something will change.

For that reason, we believe SB 2325 and HB 765 offer a reasonable solution to a longstanding problem and the first glimmer of hope for thousands of parents.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!

Meanwhile NPR interviewed Oklahoma Rep. Jason Nelson on his ESA proposal. Money quote:

Q: If the students who are left in public schools are the least likely to succeed, doesn’t it almost guarantee those schools won’t do well?

I’ve got two children in public school. I’ve not yet talked to any parent that sees their child as a funding unit for the public school system. None of us see our kids that way. It’s silly to make an argument like that: “Your child needs to come to this school because they’re a funding unit and we need to have that.”

The people who are leaving are the people that aren’t getting their needs met. If you’re happy, then you’re going to stay. If the school’s not working for your child for whatever reason, you should have no obligation to stay.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!


Please Return to Your Seats and Fasten Your Seat Belts…

February 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a new guest post on RedefinED today showing that everything in Florida will be fine as the children of the Baby Boomers have children and the Baby Boomers retire. So long that is if they find a way to reformat Medicaid to keep it affordable, create 1.4 million new school spaces and somehow avoid a major drag on economic growth as the percentage of working age people declines.   

You know, just a few minor things here and there. 


Elephants are Afraid of Mice, Giant Public School Establishments are Terrified of Small Choice Programs

February 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We had a bit of a fauxtroversy here in Arizona last week as some quarters got riled up over Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal’s decision to record a message for parents whose children attend D/F rated Arizona schools about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.  Superintendent Huppenthal serves as the legally designated administrator of the ESA program- it is quite a shock that he might work with private groups to raise awareness of the program.  Quelle horreur!  This is surely going to lead to the destruction of public education in Arizona right?

Elephants are afraid of mice

Well, no actually not so much.  More on the NBC news show Sunday Square Off:

http://www.azcentral.com/video/3203027567001


The Disaggregation Era of K-12

February 10, 2014

Pay attention 007, and do try to keep up!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike McShane hosted an event last week at the American Enterprise Institute, and I had the opportunity to serve on a panel with Mike, Andy Smarick and Kara Kerwin.  During the discussion, Andy confessed that what he found the “disaggregation” of K-12 unsettling. This came up in the context of a discussion of Arizona’s ESA program and students like Jordan Visser:

“How do you assign a teacher of record?” I recall Andy asking.  For Jordan, such a question is already antiquated. Should his tutor be classified as the teacher of record? Or the physical therapists? Mr. or Mrs. Visser?  What if Jordan is taking a MOOC from Stanford is a few years? Should the state of Arizona attempt to hold Stanford “accountable” for what Jordan learns?

Personally I choose “none of the above.”

The trend towards disaggregation in K-12 predates Arizona’s still tiny ESA program.  The ESA program can in fact simply be viewed as the best vehicle for managing a customization trend as a quasi-market mechanism that gets us as close as possible to realizing the benefits of markets while preserving the public funding of K-12. The disaggregation trend however has been moving out into the bloodstream for decades. Consider the following program data from Florida:

Florida disagregation

This is a snapshot of traditional “school choice as you knew it at the end of the 20th Century.”  Most but not all of these choices are mutually exclusive such that they are something any one student does to the exclusion of others. You don’t expect to find many students for instance enrolled in a private school full-time and doing full-time virtual instruction, for instance. Most of these options are either/or propositions you are either sitting in this type of seat, or that type of seat. Major avenues of part-time education, such as dual college enrollment and virtual education, are not included, so we are just getting warmed up.

Let’s take virtual education on next:

FLVS Credits

The Florida Virtual School is not the only supplier of accredited virtual courses in Florida, so the 148,000 or so courses they provided in 2011-12 underestimates the strength of the trend. Nevertheless FLVS long ago begged the question: if a child takes an online Mandarin course from an approved online provider, just what, if anything, does this have to do with the results on the host schools’ accountability scores?

“I’ll take ‘Absolutely Nothing at All’ for a Thousand, Trebek!

Needless to say, FLVS found it necessary to develop alternative methods for measuring student achievement related directly to course content.  High-school students have been taking classes at community colleges for decades with what appears to be an entirely understandable disinterest in sorting through just how much responsibility, if any, the Community College holds for what happens on the high-school students minimal skills accountability exam.

So what happens when we mix dual enrollment with virtual education?

MOOC 1

Since we live in an age of wonders, we have over a thousand Massive Open Online Courses provided by some of the finest universities in the world available for free. Oh and the number of courses keeps growing. Did I mention that it has already been worked out for MOOC students to take third-party proctored final exams and receive college credit for them? Yes, right, that too.  Has anyone thought through the fact that the $89 cost for a third-party end of course exam may prove incredibly attractive for both families but also to schools who don’t enjoy having a portion of their budget sent off to an online provider?

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves Trebek! I’ll take ‘Months that begin with Oct’ for five hundred…

So, let us imagine a 15-year-old taking a Calculus class from, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He or she successfully completes a third-party end of course exam, he or she either is or in the near future will be eligible for college credit from a large number of universities around the world. Obviously provision for this student to receive high-school calculus credit will need to be made as well if we are to maintain any semblance of sanity.  Should authorities in Arizona disallow this because MIT’s Calculus course doesn’t precisely fit the state of Arizona’s state standards?

I’ll take “Seriously, you have got to be kidding me!” for a thousand Alex.

In short, the disaggregation genie is out of the bottle, and the trend looks set to accelerate in the coming years. As our system of education evolves it will be necessary to update our thinking regarding transparency and accountability: they are already out of date and will be increasingly so moving forward.  It would be absurd to require Jordan Visser to take the AIMS test. The AIMS has nearly played itself out for the 19th Century factory model school system in Jordan’s home state and has nothing to do with Jordan.  Regarding the ESA program, the public’s interest in transparency would be better served by collecting national norm reference exam data and having them analyzed by a qualified academic researcher.  Regarding the broader education system, Texas has already moved to replace minimal skills tests with subject specific end of course exams at the high school level. If a student takes a Physics class, shouldn’t we be curious as to whether or not they learned any “Physics”?

Creative destruction usually kills outdated ideas before outdated organizations. Our notions about how to provide transparency in a changing K-12 world have been running behind schedule.


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