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

(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.

5 Responses to It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

  1. matthewladner says:


  2. Bob Dean says:

    Well said…. However, the foundational flaw in wanting to rate schools by tests is a false belief in the tests themselves…. amazing that people just fly right by the validity of these exams and assume they measure fairly and accurately anything…. They even believe this before the exams are have been created…. Bottom line…. One size fits all only assures one thing….constant failure! Of course the Education cartels love this because they know it insures a constant supply of money….. most of which is totally misspent.

    The public is being ripped off….. stop Common Core and stop top down education.

  3. Mike G. says:

    Good post.

    In Kenya — where there is huge market share for private schools, with widely varying price points — there is still LACK of innovation.

    Some of it precisely aligns with your thesis. There’s gov’t required curric and testing for private schools. So no variation there by law.

    But there is also no variation or innovation in teaching style, where there are no gov’t rules. It feels like the “pedagogical culture” (which is heavily rote) is just strong ingrained as the “right thing to do.”

    I’m just 7 days into the experiment of “what happens when you make curriculum less rote, and give kids lots more time for independent practice.” But the early results are promising.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’m right there with you – we need freedom from tight government controls, but that is not all we need. We need a cultural revolution in schooling that redefines innovation from something scary to something that is exciting and life-giving. Reforming policy is necessary to that, but the purpose of reforming policy is to make space for the work of educational entrepreneurs, who set the institutional culture of their schools.

  4. […] reform team, University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene, the otherwise-sensible Robert Enlow and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and Matthew Ladner of former Florida Gov. Jeb […]

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