Private Choice and the Disruptive Technology Model

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Christensen has made the case that online learning is a disruptive technology: competing against non-consumption, filling niches, and on the way to becoming a much more prevalent practice. I have been thinking lately that a similar model may apply to the private school choice movement.

One big difference: private choice often competes against demonstrable failure in the public system rather than non-availability of schooling at all. Inner city students in Cleveland, for example, have access to public schools. The problem isn’t that they don’t have access to schools at all; it is that the schools they do have access to often perform outrageously poorly.

Thus we experience political difficulty in promoting private choice. It would be much easier to compete against non-consumption. Ironically enough, a Democratic State Senator in Texas proposed just this sort of bill last year: a school voucher bill for dropouts.

The modern choice movement began in Milwaukee in 1990 when a group of frustrated inner-city Milwaukee Democrats teamed with Republican Governor Tommy Thompson to create the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Since 1990, we’ve seen the creation of Milwaukee-like programs in Cleveland and Washington DC, failing school vouchers in Louisiana, Ohio and Florida. Lawmakers have created broad eligibility tax credit programs in Arizona, Illinois, Georgia and means-tested tax credit programs in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Voucher programs for children with disabilities have passed in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Utah, and Arizona passed the nation’s first and (as yet) only voucher program for foster care children.

Some in the movement would look at this list and say the movement needs to refocus on inner city programs. Some resentment towards the success of the special needs programs (5 and counting) has been expressed. These sentiments reflect deeply held value preferences.

I however disagree with them.

The passion of the progressive private choice movement is to provide the opportunity for low-income inner city children to have the chance to attend a high quality school. This is a passion I share, obsessively. Low-income inner city children are too often trapped in schools so dysfunctional that no one reading this would even think having their own children attend. Using the Rawls criteria of justice- if those schools aren’t good enough for your children in theory, then they aren’t good enough for disadvantaged children in practice.

Children with disabilities, however, have an equally compelling case for choice, and may in fact be the most poorly served children and frustrated parents in the public school system. Pop quiz: would you rather be born to a low-income family in an inner city, or the son of a billionaire with autism? The current IDEA system promises an “Individualized Education Plan” for children with disabilities, but all too often involves simply filing out the paperwork to prevent a successful lawsuit. Children- especially minority children- are often mistakenly shunted into special education due to poor reading instruction and effectively if not purposely left to rot academically in the most blatant and vivid example of the bigotry of low expectations imaginable.

In case for foster children is also compelling- having already rolled snake-eyes in their opening roll in life, children in foster care bounce from home to home, and thus because of attendance boundaries, from school to school. Ultra-frequent transfers between schools effectively destroy any chance they have to make academic progress.

Anyone for giving these kids a chance to attend a stable set of schools over time free from the disruption of attendance boundaries? Good- me too.

Thinking again of the disruptive technology model- inner city poor children are a niche that we should passionately seek to aid through parental choice. They do not however constitute the entirety of students extremely poorly served by the public school system. Children in failing schools, dropouts, English language learners, foster care children, free and reduced lunch children, functional illiterates, and special needs children are all demonstrably poorly served in the public school system.

One argument made used to be that special needs programs could not demonstrate systemic effects on public schools. This is no longer true. Nor is the case for the failing schools model. Don’t get me wrong: I prefer larger and broader programs to smaller ones, every day of the week. I’m most interested in helping as many poorly served children to get as much access to a broad array of school choices as fast as possible.

The passage of special needs bills were followed by choice bills with a broader set of eligibility in both Utah and Georgia. From a disruptive technology perspective that is a good thing.

From a disruptive technology perspective, the problem with say, Wisconsin would be that they haven’t moved on to new aid disadvantaged children in different niches. There are low-income children in places like Racine, for example, moving through dropout factory schools. Children with disabilities around the state could benefit enormously from a special needs voucher bill.

Ohio, on the other hand, started with a means-tested bill focused on Cleveland, and then moved on to a bill for children with autism and a statewide failing schools bill. Choice efforts in the state now focus on moving to a full blown McKay bill. Bully for them.

Florida’s programs focused on free and reduced lunch eligible children (Step Up for Students Tax Credit), special needs students (McKay Scholarship Program) and students in failing schools (Opportunity Scholarships). That’s a good start to build on, and Florida has overcome a very contentious debate on choice to develop bipartisan support and strong statewide public school improvement.

Once again: I’ll have what Florida is having.

(edited to correct typo)

3 Responses to Private Choice and the Disruptive Technology Model

  1. Parry says:

    I really like the insight you present at the beginning of this: voucher efforts focused on non-consumption (e.g., dropouts) may be more politically palatable, and allow for the path of incremental improvements that Christensen describes in his model of disruption.

    Extending Christensen’s analytic lens, however, brings up a point that I often struggle with. I am an admitted fence-sitter when it comes to vouchers. One of my real concerns about vouchers as an approach toward educational improvement is that you’re not really making changes to the core “technology” of a child’s education when you take a child out of a public school and put them in a private school. From a cynical standpoint, you’re just moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    Sure, there are some differences between public and private schools, but is the core experience of sitting in a private school classroom really that different from the core experience of sitting in a public school classroom? You have 20-25 students, a teacher, textbooks, tests and quizzes, lunch, maybe a little recess. And in some private schools you might see incrementally higher levels of learning than in public schools serving the same students (which is something, don’t get me wrong), but the essential model is the same. I think Christensen would likely argue, if you don’t change the fundamental model, you’re not going to get fundamentally different results.

    To create a Christensen analogy, it’s like Samsung saying, “Buy our TVs, they have a 2% sharper picture than Sony’s TVs!” Well, 2% sharper is kinda good, but don’t you really want to step up to a flat screen with high def, DVR, and surround sound? Private schools have been competing with public schools for students for decades, and it just doesn’t seem like they’ve made the jump to flat screens with high def, DVR, and surround sound. Doesn’t Christensen’s argument suggest that voucher programs, as traditionally defined, won’t help them do that?

  2. matthewladner says:


    Your question is a good one, but I disagree with an important assertion- that private schools can’t be more than a marginal improvement for students. I disagree for two broad reasons.

    First, there are wide swaths of students that we know are often extremely poorly served by the public school system. Inner city children and special needs children are the most obvious examples. Have a look at just how ga-ga Florida parents whose children are using the McKay program in Jay and Greg’s MI survey:

    Second, although what you say about public and private schools generally following the same basic model is true, there are important differences: requirements for parental involvement, discipline policies, curriculum, hiring and retention practices etc. The most important difference, however, comes from the fact that every last parents sending a child to a private school is there by choice. This was the broad conclusion of sociologist James Coleman’s investigation into why inner city Catholic schools have been so much more effective than inner city public schools. Coleman believes that an effective school- whether public or private- must have a shared culture controlled by the staff and focused on academics. There is a great deal of variety that can occur under that umbrella, but any school that has it will succeed.

    It is simply easier that have such a culture in a situation where all parents have made an active, affirmative choice to enroll their children in a particular school. The school is selling a certain culture, the parents are buying into it, at least provisionally.

    The converse is also true: schools with enrollment determined by attendance boundaries are prone to having nothing more in common than a zip code. It is more difficult to have a focused culture in such a situation, especially if the principal effectively has little control over the hiring and retention of his or her team of teachers.

    I believe therefore that there are significant differences between public and private schools. Don’t get me wrong- there are excellent public schools, and terrible private schools. On the whole however there are extremely large segments of the public school population that would benefit from access to public schools, and all schools could profit from healthy competition.

  3. andar909 says:

    hi, andar here, i just read your post. i like very much. agree to you, sir.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: