The Political Virtue of Choice

We’ve been offering much strategic advice to ed reformers on this blog lately.  I’ve warned about the dangers of over-reach, recommending instead an incremental and decentralized approach.  Greg has warned that a national system of standards without control over implementation provides license to every quack, crackpot and anti-Semite to un-accountably pursue their own agendas while claiming that national standards made them do it.  Matt has nicely documented how heavy regulation of private choice programs, especially requiring private schools to administer the state test, defeats the very purpose of  expanding choice by driving 2/3 of private schools out of the program while forcing the remaining 1/3 to teach the state curriculum.  You can choose any McDonalds franchise you like and they will compete to make the best burger — too bad if you are a vegetarian.  And Matt has balanced my call for incrementalism with a warning that reforming too slowly fails to land a winning blow.

All of this is, I think, very sound advice.  But these may all be smaller pieces of what I believe is the big advice ed reformers need to hear — there is political virtue in pursuing choice as a reform strategy over top-down reforms, including standards, accountability, curriculum, and pedagogy.

Choice does not depend on policymakers being brilliant or benevolent.  With top-down reforms the people selecting the standards, designing the tests, setting the cut-scores, devising consequences for performance, writing the curriculum, and picking the instructional methods have to get it just right.  They also have to be right for many different kinds of kids who may need different approaches.  And they have to be right over and over again as circumstances and information change.  Oh — and they have to somehow ignore their own interests and pressure from other interested groups of adults that may pull them away from making the right decisions for kids.

People will also make mistakes in choice systems.  But when they do, those mistakes do not affect thousands or millions of kids.  They are also less likely to make those mistakes because the people choosing, usually parents, are closer to the children and more likely to know what those children need.  Parents have interests that are also more likely to be aligned with those of their own children and interested groups are incapable of capturing all of them to influence decisions.

More importantly, from a political perspective, choice has the virtue of creating its own constituency.  As families get the ability to choose, they develop an interest in keeping that ability.  So, they will fight efforts to roll-back or restrict choice.  As more people get to choose, the constituency for choice grows and the ability to protect and expand those programs gets stronger.

Top-down reforms, on the other hand, are the most popular on the day they are adopted and steadily lose their constituency over time.  To get adopted, top-down reforms usually have to maintain some level of ambiguity about what they will do to attract a winning coalition.  As they get implemented they have to make more clear what will and won’t be taught, who will and won’t experience consequences, etc….  The losers discover who they are and begin to organize against top-down reforms once they are implemented.

Elites outside of the education system may support accountability testing, merit pay, or mandated curriculum, when they are abstractions being considered for adoption.  But once they are put into place and opposition grows stronger, who remains as the champions of these top-down reforms?  This is why top-down reforms are so easily blocked, diluted, and co-opted.  They have no natural constituencies and gain none as they are implemented over time.

Choice does, however, have three major political vulnerabilities.  First, choice program may be easier to protect once they are adopted, but they are harder to adopt in the beginning.  Their opponents are fully mobilized against them when they are proposed and their potential beneficiaries do not yet know who they are.  This is why the expansion of choice has been relatively gradual.  But each new victory gets easier as the constituency of choosers grows.  And setbacks are very rare because only un-elected judges have repealed programs — politicians won’t cross the swelling ranks of empowered parents.

Second, even if choice tends to be a one-way ratchet where victories are permanent and defeats are temporary, the programs are vulnerable to slow-motion strangulation by regulation.  Rick Hess and Mike McShane had an excellent piece in USA Today recently warning about this.  But again, the natural and growing constituency of choice parents and schools can provide a useful check on excessive regulation.  This is not perfect — sometimes people are too willing to trade away their liberty for the promise of security — but freedom is very attractive and people tend to fight to keep it once they have it.

The third vulnerability is that when people get to choose, some of them will make mistakes and some providers will be bad actors.  Opponents will seize upon these bad outcomes, even if they are rare, and use them to argue for strangling regulation or even repeal.  Of course, top-down systems contain plenty of mistakes and bad actors — in fact they are more likely to have them for the reasons discussed above.  Because choice grows its own constituency, it can generally hold back calls for strangling regulation or repeal stemming from individual cases of bad decisions or bad actors.

The central political virtue of choice over top-down reforms is that choice gains more supporters as it grows while top-down reform lose supporters as they grow.

6 Responses to The Political Virtue of Choice

  1. allen says:

    I don’t want to fisk the post so I’ll limit my comments to those three, major political vulnerabilities.

    First, not all choice ideas are identical in perceived threat to the establishment. Some result in racing pulse, sweaty palms and uncontrollable trembling while others are seen as an annoyance or less immediately threatening. By properly selecting two clearly different approaches to the same goal the opposition will, quite properly, concentrate their efforts on the more threatening approach if they must.

    Providentially – since I reject the the possibility that it was by design – that’s what occurred as public education reform unfolded over the last twenty-five or so years.

    Milton Freidman’s approach, vouchers, preceded charter schools and were seen as a more immediate and dangerous threat since vouchers potentially mobilized the entire private/religious school sector in the service of education reform in an entire state. Charters, by contrast, had to be established one school at a time and were incontestably creatures of the political system. If they proved problematical it would easier to bring them to heel then all those independent private and religious schools.

    So while the public education establishment was successfully turning back one voucher initiative or legislative proposal after another charter schools were opening up across the nation. Trying to stop both charters and vouchers would have caused the teacher’s unions, the primary engine of resistance to public education reform, to appear unreasonably rigid which would have undercut their power. So to avoid that appearance of intransigence the teacher’s unions were relatively less obstinate about charters and shackled them with all sorts of limitations against the day when the public would once again lapse into disinterest in education issues and charters could be quietly and tidily done away with.

    Second is true but regulatory agencies are very much the bitches of the legislative branch and when the legislature takes a distinct interest in some area of policy regulatory agencies exist to oversee the regulatory agencies tread lightly. While regulatory agencies naturally try to expand their scope and authority their power derives explicitly from legislative action and when they are open enough and arrogant enough in their abuse of their power legislatures have a habit of reminding those regulatory agencies where their budget comes from.

    Third isn’t that big a deal. I’ll use the Second Amendment to illustratwhy.

    There was a time, not that long ago, when an outrage could result in legislative action. The Stockton school yard massacre in 1989 is widely regarded as the precipitating event that led to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. But somewhere around that time the public changed its mind and decided that exceptions were poor reasons to establish rules and subsequent, similarly tragic events have not resulted in a legislative response despite the best efforts of the opponents of the Second Amendment.

    There’s been a similar change with regard to public education.

    While previously it was an unexamined assumption that providing the experts with all the resources they demanded would resolve any problems that assumption is no longer unquestioned. Now it’s becoming an increasingly widely-held assumption that parents ought to be making the big decisions, like whether a schools survives or not. That change in the perception of where the authority ought to lie is, in my opinion, what’s driving the public education reform movement and if some charters turn out to be duds, like the rare but tragic mass shootings, they’ll be seen as the unfortunate price of a greater good.

    The issue that deserves some serious consideration is where do we go from here?

    If you go with the assumption that the current trends aren’t going to come to a screeching halt then they’ll continue. Sort of the mirror image of Herb Stein’s observation about things that can’t go on forever.

    New Orleans is nearing 100% of kids in charters. Detroit’s shot from 31% to 51% in two years as a result of a loosening cap on charters and the pent up demand that results from having to send your kids to one of the worst school districts in the country. The percentages are rising in many other municipal school districts so someone had better start considering what ought to be done when a large, municipal school district loses so many kids that it’s either no longer fiscally viable or no longer politically viable.

  2. mike g says:

    Good post.

    More narrowly: what if anything is the political virtue of trying to goose the choice marketplace? Do you see that a healthy role for policymakers?

    I.e., if you’re fortunate enough to win expansion of parent choice, should policy makers work the “supply side” to entice various orgs to enter their markets?

    Kind of like what NSNO has done (though they are not policymakers).

    • If the policy is properly structured with enough money following each student who chooses then supply will expand to meet demand without explicit supply subsidies. As more people eat out the number of restaurants expands to meet the demand. I prefer that over direct subsidies from the government or relying on philanthropy to create supply with an under-funded choice program.

  3. […] Recently I described the political advantage of choice over top-down reforms. Choice creates its own constituency to protect and expand it because people will fight to keep choice once they have it. Top-down reforms, by contrast, are the most popular on the day they are adopted and decline after that, leaving them vulnerable to being blocked, diluted, co-opted, or repealed. Who will protect and expand a system that imposes consequences for test performance? The people who are punished by it know who they are and are well organized. The beneficiaries (if any) are dispersed and disinterested. Where is the “test our kids more rally” being held? Nowhere. […]

  4. […] dispute that the opposite of mandated segregation is the freedom to choose. (See Jay Greene’s “The Political Virtue of Choice.”) Despite the continuing constraints of socio-economic realities for all too many African […]

  5. […] dispute that the opposite of mandated segregation is the freedom to choose. (See Jay Greene’s “The Political Virtue of Choice.”) Despite the continuing constraints of socio-economic realities for all too many African […]

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