The Heathers Think-Tanks

DC-based think tanks run the risk of being obsessed with the latest policy fashion rather than searching for the best long-term solutions.  In the DC bubble, sticking to one’s principles and the evidence is difficult when there are no near-term prospects for advancing policies that are supported by those principles and evidence.  It’s tempting instead to switch one’s policy focus so that it is line with the the current administration and congressional majority.

I was reminded of these hazards of DC think tanks when I received an invitation to the latest Thomas B. Fordham Institute event: “With charter schools ascendant, is there still a future for vouchers?” 

There’s nothing wrong with organizing a panel to consider the relative policy merits of charters and vouchers.  What’s weird is the suggestion that if one policy is currently popular, another might not have a future.  It’s like having a panel that addresses the question:  With Democrats ascendant, is there still a future for the Republican Party? 

Things change.  The current dominance of the Democratic Party won’t last forever.  It may not even last more than a few years.  Similarly, the current popularity of charters relative to vouchers may not last very long.  Rather than assessing the future of policies based on their current popularity, shouldn’t we assess their substantive merits so that we can advocate for the policies that are the most effective?

And if we must obsess on the political prospects of policies rather than their substantive merits, it’s weird to pit the two policies against each other.  Wouldn’t it seem more reasonable to think that as school choice becomes more common, whether with charters or with vouchers, all forms of choice will become more politically palatable?  As I’ve argued before, vouchers have helped make the world safe for charters, so the two policies may work well together. 

Just because the current congressional majority is hostile to vouchers doesn’t mean that the idea has no future or that we have to pit it against other, similar policies that are currently more in fashion.  Dismissing policies because they aren’t on the agenda of the current majority is like the type of argument heard in the 1988 film, Heathers:  “Grow up Heather, bulimia’s so ’87.”

3 Responses to The Heathers Think-Tanks

  1. Mike Petrili thinks I’m jumping to conclusions I may have even patnted a mat on which you can jump… to a conclusion.

  2. allen says:

    I’d argue that it isn’t just fashion that’s a good reason to focus attention on charters but success.

    Whether charters have succeeded because the anti-reform crowd has chosen to concentrate on stopping vouchers or whether it’s some other, more substantive factor, charters are winning and vouchers are doing just better then holding their own. So it isn’t a question of fashion so much as it is a question of concentrating resources on the winning strategy versus treating all reform approaches as equally worthwhile.

    As a further argument in favor of what ever’s getting enacted into law, this is an evolving phenomenon.

    It just doesn’t seem all that likely to me that the desire to reform public education will achieve some of its aims and then go to sleep. With forty states having enacted charter law I’d say that the desire for change in public education isn’t satisfied.

    Also, while it’s worthwhile to worry that the establishment of charters precludes the enactment of voucher law the concern ought to have a rationale to go with the worry.

    Why would charters preclude vouchers? Certainly charters aren’t threatened by vouchers being dependent on parental approval for their existence. Charters do make life more difficult for extant private schools but there may remedies for that problem among which might be a private school constituency agitating for vouchers as a means of competing with charters.

  3. Bob Calder says:

    Why should any think tank be taken to task over its motivations? Because it’s a think tank!

    Shouldn’t that be part of the definition of “think tank” right alongside some of the other descriptive terms think tanks like to pretend they aren’t?

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