Attack of the Wonks!

June 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As the Fordham Institute’s ESA Wonk-a-thon is coming to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As JayBlog readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. (If an author thinks I missed or misconstrued something, please yell at me in the comments section.) The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure all ESA students take NNR tests and track student outcomes. The state treasurer must ensure the application process is user friendly, distribute restricted-use debit cards, and conduct annual audits. Otherwise, providers should be free to innovate and parents should be free to choose among them.

Matthew Ladner (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should ensure financial accountability through restricted-use debit cards and the whitelisting of vendors and eventually of individual products. The market can foster quality through platforms where users rate providers (as happened informally in Arizona). The state should aggregate NNR test scores and hire an academic researcher to report on the data, but otherwise avoid trying to regulate quality.

Jonathan Butcher (Goldwater Institute): The state should ensure the ESA funds are being used for eligible educational purposes by reviewing receipts before issuing the next quarterly installment. Students should take NNR tests and the state should commission an academic researcher to report on the results. Otherwise, policymakers should rely on the market to ensure quality.

Tracey Weinstein (StudentsFirst): The state should “set a high bar for the quality of services offered by providers” and “eliminate providers who consistently fail to meet the mark.” The state should also provide ESA families with information about providers.

Andy Smarick (Fordham Institute): The state should “prioritize transparency, continuous and small-scale course corrections, and research” and “collect and publish information on providers, participation rates, student outcomes, and more.” In the long term, researchers should “study how the public’s interests are and are not being met by these increasingly private choices.”

Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans): Nevada should increase public funding to $7,000 per student with more for low-income, ELL students, and special needs students, and that educational institutions should be prohibited from charging ESA families additional tuition beyond the amount the state deposits in the ESA. 

Lindsey Burke (Heritage Foundation): State regulators should stay out of the way of the market. The state should primarily concern itself with ensuring taxpayer dollars are used only for eligible expenses and making the application process transparent and user friendly. Responsibility for academic outcomes should lie primarily with parents, though the state’s NNR testing requirement is appropriate.

Jason Bedrick (Cato Institute): Policymakers should resist the urge to overregulate. Quality is best fostered through the market process: provider experimentation, parental evaluation, and organic evolution. A robust market ensures quality by channeling expert knowledge (e.g. – private certification and expert reviews) and user experience (e.g. – platforms for user ratings). The state should limit its role to ensuring that ESA funds are spent only on eligible expenses and serving as a repository for information. 

Adam Peshek (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should primarily concern itself with providing financial accountability (restricted-use debit cards, auditing), but responsibility for academic outcomes should rest with parents. We must “remain vigilant against death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education): Nevada must recruit a “new breed” of bureaucrat that will “learn how to regulate choice without squashing innovation,” “develop creative and better approaches to fiscal and performance accountability,” “coordinate with non-governmental agencies to develop a strong supply of high-quality providers,” ensure transparency, and “build a dashboard of indicators of a healthy market and government regulatory structure” (among other objectives).

Travis Pillow (redefinED): Regulators should give providers the freedom to experiment (even though some experiments will fail). However, the state should ensure the health and safety of students and prevent financial fraud. The results of NNR tests should be reported to parents and the public. The state should provide an online forum for parents that would help catch administrative problems and could serve as a Yelp-like provider rating system. The state should give more money to low- and middle-income families and students with special needs. 

Robert Tagorda (SoCal education reformer): To operate at scale from the outset, the state treasurer’s office and state department of education must collaborate effectively. The state must broker information to ensure the marketplace functions properly, but it can’t do it alone. The state must foster organic solutions and exchanges of information such as platforms for user reviews.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen (Agudath Israel): “Almost universal” eligibility isn’t good enough. The state should expand eligibility to all students, not just those who attended a district school for 100+ days in the previous year.

There appears to be some consensus around financial accountability. The state must ensure that ESA families are only using taxpayer funds for their intended educational purposes. To that end, most of the wonks who addressed the matter called for utilizing restricted-use debit cards and/or auditing.

The primary area of contention is the role of the state in guaranteeing educational quality. Some want the state to set standards, measure performance, and perhaps even “eliminate” providers who don’t meet those standards. Others (myself included) respond: “Get your regulatory paws off me, you dirty technocrats!” are concerned that such efforts would stifle the very diversity and innovation that the ESA is intended to foster.

It’s an important debate. I commend both the Fordham Institute for hosting it and the participants for offering their insightful analysis. Differences in means aside, we all share the same end: fostering an education system in which all children have access to high-quality providers that meet their individual needs.

Who’s “We,” Fordham-Sabe?

January 20, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before he had a sitcom, Bill Cosby used to have a series of Lone Ranger jokes in one of his old stand-up acts. In one part of the routine, the Ranger tells Tonto something like, “They outnumber us ten to one, so we’re going to ride down the hill full speed, we’re going to cut across right through their sights, then we’re going to engage them hand to hand. Any questions?”

“Just one, Kemo Sabe.”

“What’s that?”

“Who’s ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

That’s also the right answer to Fordham’s insistence that choice students must take state tests because, as Jay summarizes it, “we’ve got to do something!” That’s an accurate summary of the presupposition coming out of Fordham – you aren’t in favor of reform unless you think that you are the one to dictate what a good education looks like.

Yes, “we” have to do something to invent better ways of educating students. But who’s “we”? Having government standards to measure the government’s school system can be good, even if Common Core is not. However, even when government standards are good, and even when they’re applied only to the government system, they are not the way to reinvent education, because government – by its very nature – is not well designed to 1) innovate effectively, 2) persuade people that the innovations are effective, or 3) build institutions where the institutional culture accepts the innovations as good.

What government does do well is to create the structures of social transaction within which effective innovators and entrepreneurs can operate. The key strategy for education reform should not be to devise the innovations we need but to create structures that enable innovators and entrepreneurs to do so. The more we get caught up in devising the innovations ourselves, the further we move away from creating the conditions necessary for those who really can devise the innovations to do so.

Choice programs today are very poorly designed to support entrepreneurs. They ought to provide universal choice, a generous allotment of funds (though less than what we spend on the behemoth of government schooling) and freedom to innovate with minimal interference. Entrepreneurs need three things to succeed: clients, capital and control. You need a customer base of people who want your service because it makes their lives better. You need those customers to be willing and able to pay you; that’s what sustains the organization that delivers the service. And you need to be free to provide the service according to your own entrepreneurial vision and the needs of your clients, not according to standards devised by politicians and bureaucrats.

See the study I did for Friedman on The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice for much, much more, including data on the impact choice programs are having (or, more frequently, are not having) on the composition of the private school sector.

It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

January 15, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Responding to Fordham’s latest straddle, here on JPGB Matt has pointed out that we shouldn’t trust the job of judging school quality to government, and no one knows this better than Fordham (some of the time, anyway). At Cato, Andrew Coulson and Jason Bedrick point out that the existence of school choice programs inevitably crowds out non-choice-participating private schools, so if choice programs become engines of uniformity, we can kiss educational entrepreneurship and innovation goodbye. First Fordham demands state tests must bow to Common Core, then it demands private schools must bow to state tests, all the while insisting Common Core both is and is not a powerful tool for reshaping curriculum!

At the Friedman Foundation’s blog, Robert Enlow points out that Fordham is also playing both sides of the fence on whether the tests will have to be given only to choice students or to all students in the school:

Fordham even implicitly shows how its testing approach will eventually impact non-voucher private school students: “[i]f a private school’s voucher students perform in the two lowest categories of a state’s accountability system for two consecutive years, then that school should be declared ineligible to receive new voucher students until it moves to a higher tier of performance (emphasis added).”

If a private school accepting voucher students loses those students because of their low performance on state tests, how can it rejoin a school choice program without forcing all of its students to take, and perform well, on the state test?

Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen raised yet. Fordham backs up its position by pointing to the results of a survey of private schools that don’t participate in choice programs. State testing requirements came in seventh on the list of reasons why they don’t participate; demand for universal eligibility and higher choice payments were the top answers.

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

Basically the attitude revealed by the Fordham survey of non-choice-participating private schools is “we want choice, but only if it doesn’t require us to change.” Funny thing; the public monopoly blob gives us pretty much the same line.

Fordham vs. Fordham on Private Choice Transparency

January 14, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Fordham Institute has a new white paper out on accountability in private choice programs.  The headline will be that Fordham supports requiring students participating in voucher and tax-credit programs to participate in state accountability testing.  Adam Emerson, the author of the study and the new charter school chief in Florida (congrats btw Adam) wrote:

Surely there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that
downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in choice programs of this kind.

The two key words in this sentence: risk and if.

Emerson believes that the risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available to parents can be managed by state officials being smart. Even the most insulated policymakers on the planet (say the Federal Reserve Board, which can more or less print its own budget) make decisions on far more than a technocratic basis. Even to the extent they do stick to their best judgement, they sometimes get things wrong in a spectacular fashion. Democratically elected lawmakers drift in and out of what Edmund Burke described as delegate and trustee roles of representation. The results, far from smart, are sometimes very messy and even counterproductive.

To gain an appreciation of the limited influence of technocrats in K-12 testing policy, I would suggest reading some of the Fordham Institute’s voluminous work making the case of what a complete hash a great many states have made of their testing systems for public schools. Here is a useful quote from the Proficiency Illusion:

Standards-based education reform is in deeper trouble than we knew, both the Washington-driven, No Child Left Behind version and the older versions that most states undertook for themselves in the years since A Nation at Risk (1983) and the Charlottesville education summit (1989). It’s in trouble for multiple reasons. Foremost among these: on the whole, states do a bad job of setting (and maintaining) the standards that matter most—those that define student proficiency for purposes of NCLB and states’ own results-based accountability systems.

Something far more than the I.Q. of policymakers seems to be at work here. The theme goes on in another brilliant Fordham report, the Accountability Illusion (emphasis added by yours truly):

As currently implemented, NCLB is not a discriminating system. A tremendous amount of money and energy has been spent to create the impression that there is accountability, and there are large numbers of schools throughout the United States that are in some phase of sanctions. But the accountability is not coherent. We found states where most schools failed to make AYP and others where nearly every school made it. We found demonstrably good schools that failed to make AYP far too often, and some pretty mediocre ones that slide by in some states.Thus what seems like accountability is an illusion. Good schools get sanctioned, bad schools get off, and ultimately students get shafted, since maintaining this illusion has a cost. When good schools get sanctioned, resources are wasted and we risk causing quick-fix, panic driven, counterproductive change in schools that may ultimately hurt students. When bad schools get off, their students are denied opportunities (what we unfortunately now call “sanctions”) that might lead to a better education, including the chance to attend a different school, or receive supplemental services, or simply obtain assurance that the workings of a perennially dysfunctional school will be addressed and corrected.

If those policymakers had been “smart” then thing may not have turned out this way. Many of the state testing systems that Fordham is now anxious to impose on private choice students have been previously described as costly frauds by, well, Fordham itself.

I don’t have a problem with private schools choosing to take the state test if it is done voluntarily.  Personally I wouldn’t want anything to do with a private school that lacked the self-confidence to have their own curriculum, but to each their own.  I like national norm reference testing as a light-touch method of providing transparency while leaving curricular choices up to schools.  If policymakers are so inclined, using such data to exit bottom-feeder schools could be undertaken without imposing state tests.

The whole idea of creating a parental choice program however is to provide parents with the broadest possible array of meaningfully varying options so that they can choose a great fit for the needs of their child. Accordingly, we should never make the mistake of viewing the job of a private school participating in a choice program as teaching the state’s curriculum or giving their tests. Rather their job is to satisfy the individual needs of the student to the satisfaction of parents. Parents will find schools following the state’s curriculum and giving the state’s test in abundant supply.  The whole purpose of private choice options is to create a diversity in the menu of choices available to parents and students.

It isn’t the lack of I.Q. that created the mess in state testing systems, rather the natural limitations of technocrats operating within a pluralistic democracy.   We would be wise to recognize these limits and to craft our choice programs accordingly.

Defending the Ohio Reading Guarantee

October 31, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Tracy Craft from BAEO, Terry Ryan from Fordham and yours truly from the Foundation for Excellence in Education have teamed up to push back on attacks on Ohio’s reading guarantee policy. Just as a quick reminder of just how radically successful this effort has been in Florida, the chart below shows the trend of students reading at the lowest level of reading achievement (FCAT 1) at the 3rd grade level:

Edited for Clarity

The Fordham Report is Here. Time to Party!

April 19, 2011

The Fordham report on renewal of ESEA has been released and it is time to party!

Following the rules of our Fordham report drinking game you will have to consume 7 shots of your choice; one for each time “tight-loose” is used in the report.  33 times you will need to consume whatever the Gates Foundation and U.S. Department of Ed mandate while declaring “I do this of my own free will;” one for each usage of “Common Core” in the report.  You need to shotgun a Pabst Blue Ribbon for the 1 usage of “race to the bottom” in the report and consume 8 Milwaukee’s Best for the 8 times “Race to the Top” is used.  That’s 42 total “consumptions.”

I whiffed on predicting the usage of “smart-[blank].”  I’m sorry to say that there was nothing very smart in the report.  I also entirely failed to expect the repeated usage of the phrase, “reform realism.”  It has alliteration!  What could be more persuasive than that?  I guess that is why it appears 21 times in the report.

Greg did accurately anticipate a slew of hemisphere fallacies, where they compromise between the view that the world is a sphere and the world is flat by saying that the world is a hemisphere.  The particular manifestation of the hemisphere fallacy in this report is that they repeatedly frame the debate as saying that some people think that the federal government should mandate something (standards, cut scores, etc…) and some people think that the federal government should mandate nothing in exchange for the resources it provides.  Fordham takes the middle ground of saying that the feds should mandate standards, cut scores, etc… or allow states to prove to a panel of experts that their alternative approach is at least as good.

Where to begin?  First, in practice the Fordham approach is equivalent to the feds mandating standards, cut scores, etc… If I told you that you had to eat the food the government provides or prove that your choices were equally nutritious, most people would end up just eating whatever the government provided.  The burden of proving the merit of your alternative choices would effectively compel you to comply with the mandate.

Second, if there is one thing we do not need in education policy, it is more committees of so-called experts.  Fordham proposes a bizarre procedure by which the expert panelists could be selected.  States would choose two members, the secretary of education would propose two more, and those four would choose an additional three panelists.  And if that is not convoluted enough, the panels would need 5 votes to decide anything.  This doesn’t sound like a committee of experts.  This sounds like politics by other means.  And given how complicated and bizarre this procedure is, it is even more likely that states would simply comply with the mandate, as suggested above.

Third, as is usual with hemisphere fallacies, Fordham frames the alternative “extremes” as caricatures so that their middle position seems like the only sensible alternative.  It isn’t.  I support a limited role of the federal government in education to facilitate the education of students who are significantly more expensive to educate, such as disabled students, English language learners, and students from very disadvantaged backgrounds.  Only the federal government can ensure this type of “redistributive” policy in education because if localities attempted to serve more expensive students they would attract those expensive students while driving away their tax base.  As Paul Peterson described in his classic book, The Price of Federalism, this is the only appropriate role of the federal government in education.  So, the federal government mandates that schools serve these categories of students while also providing additional resources to facilitate that the services will be provided.  This redistributive effort describes the bulk of what the federal government has done (and should do) in education.

If we are concerned that local schools are failing to serve these categories of students adequately we can address (and have imperfectly addressed) that through legal remedies.  Families, at least in special ed, can go to the courts if their schools fail to provide an appropriate education with federal funds.  We could expand that model to the other categories of federal involvement, but I think that approach is unwise.  Instead, I would favor providing the federal funds directly to students in these redistributive categories so that they would have economic leverage over schools to ensure the provision of appropriate services.  If schools fail to address student needs, they should be able to take those federal funds to another school, public or private.

The other phrase that I should have included in our drinking game is “college and career readiness.”  That concept is referenced 44 times in the new Fordham report.  It is the criterion by which expert panels need to judge standards, cut scores, etc… It is the goal of the entire Fordham approach (and remarkably in sync with the Gates Foundation in using a phrase dozens of times that was virtually unheard of a decade ago).

The only problem is that I have no idea what “college and career readiness” means.  The Fordham folks have no idea what that phrase means.  No one knows what college and career ready means.  It has no clear, technical, objective definition.  It is yet another political slogan substituting for an idea with actual substance, sort of like “reform realism” or “tight-loose.”

And yet this empty slogan is the entire purpose of the nationalization project on which Fordham-Gates-AFT-U.S. Dept of Ed are embarked.  Only in the D.C. bubble of  power-hungry analysts who provide no actual analysis could we launch a radical transformation of our education system with little more than a series of empty slogans.  It’s enough to make you drink.  Er, I mean consume.

(edited for clarity)

Tight-Loose Travel Agency

April 18, 2011

To illustrate how repeating a slogan like “tight-loose” does not necessarily mean that a policy will be tight on the ends while loose on the means, we are featuring ads for our new Tight-Loose line of businesses.

In this post we feature the Tight-Loose Travel Agency.  When you are required to get from New York to London in less than 6 hours, we can arrange to get you there in any way you like.  You can take a ride on a rocketship, jump through a kink in the time-space continuum, ask Scotty to beam you there… whatever you prefer.  When you are tight on ends, we make sure that you are loose on means.

Think about this as you read the new Fordham report, being sure to “consume” each time tight-loose is repeated.  If we nationally mandate standards, curriculum, and assessment, how much meaningful choice over means will people really have?

UPDATE — Or, as is more likely, if you are required to walk across the street rather than travel to London, the Tight-Loose Travel Agency can still handle all of your travel needs.  We know that you’ll voluntarily and without reward or compensation want to travel around the entire world before arriving across the street.  Our rocketship, time-space continuum kink, and Star Trek beam will all be here at your disposal.  Remember even with really low ends we are still loose on means.


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