Ed Reformers are Not a Smarter Version of the Government

Ed reformers all agree that the current system of public education is horribly broken.  But many are pursuing reforms that are likely to re-create the same dysfunctional system they oppose.

When they observe a problem their inclination is to fix it by prohibiting or regulating it.  If parents might pick bad schools in a choice system, the solution is to  impose regulations that prevent schools from being bad and prohibit those that are nevertheless bad from participating.  The regulations impose paperwork burdens on schools.  And so that officials can judge school quality, some reformers favor requiring participating private schools to take the state test based on the state curriculum.

If regulating schools to success were the solution, our public school system would be wonderful.  They have no shortage of regulations and prohibitions, all designed by well-meaning people to make those schools perform well.  So, why do some reformers believe it will turn out differently with heavily regulated choice systems?  Well, because they’ll be in charge and they are smarter.  They’ll design the regulations more appropriately.  They’ll implement them more judiciously.  They’ll only impose the regulations we really need.

A new study by my colleagues Brian Kisida, Pat Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith gives some indication of how things go wrong when you impose a heavy, public-school-like regulatory burden on private choice programs.  In Louisiana, which provides exceptionally low funding for choice students, imposes a heavy regulatory burden, and requires students to take the state test based on the state curriculum, only a third of the state’s private schools are willing to participate in the choice program.  In Florida’s more lightly regulated program that requires schools to administer a standardized test of their choice, around 60% of the private schools are willing to participate.

Kisida, Wolf, and Rhinesmith surveyed the private schools and found that the heavy regulatory burden and state testing requirements were major factors in deterring schools from participating.  And in Louisiana few private schools expressed an interest in expanding the number of students they are willing to take, while in Florida the majority are looking to add students.

If you offer schools a heavy regulatory burden, little money, and the requirement to administer a test based on a curriculum they do not normally teach, you drive two-thirds of them away.  And it isn’t a randomly selected one-third that is willing to put up with this bad deal.  They are more likely to be the worst schools that are most financially desperate for students and revenue.  The better schools are attracting privately paying students, so why should they take publicly funded students for less money and with more hassle?  Louisiana’s regulations were intended to prevent bad schools from participating in the choice program, but they are having the opposite effect.

With a higher private school participation rate, Florida is attracting better private schools and getting better results.  Quality research shows that the Florida’s tax credit supported choice program is improving achievement for the students who participate as well as improving the performance of traditional public schools with whom they compete.

If we impose public-system-like regulations on choice programs we will end up with choice programs that look a lot like the public system, including their dysfunction.  As Orwell warned us, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”




6 Responses to Ed Reformers are Not a Smarter Version of the Government

  1. Adam Hawf says:

    Jay, I appreciate your analysis but I think you are missing a key point here. The Louisiana Scholarship Program may be flawed in many respects but it isn’t bureaucratic burden or testing that deters the best private schools from participating in the program – it is the obligation to accept and serve all students through an open-enrollment lottery. However unattractive this feature may be to some schools, this isn’t a matter of bureaucracy or flawed design in the program – it is a matter of mission and values.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Adam. Control over admissions may well have been a factor but we don’t have to guess whether bureaucratic burdens and testing requirements played a major part in the decision by private schools in FL and LA not to participate. The study asked them. And the answers make clear that bureaucratic burdens and testing requirements were much greater negative factors in LA than FL. In LA 79% of the schools that chose not participate reported that “future regulations that might come with participation” played a major or minor role, compared to only 43% in Florida. “The amount of required paperwork and reports” was offered as an explanation by 71% of the non-participating schools in LA compared to 39% in Florida. On the matter of testing,68% in Louisiana reported that “concerns about required testing” played a role in their decision not to participate compared to 29% in Florida. And 60% in LA offered “requirements to teach the state’s curriculum standards,” compared to 32% in FL. Clearly, bureaucratic burdens and testing requirements were important differences between the FL and LA programs.

    • Adam Hawf says:

      I appreciate your point, and I have enjoyed reading the detailed survey results; I think we may have to agree to disagree as to whether these survey results accurately reflect the motivation of school leaders. I believe this is a case of people, perhaps subconsciously, putting forth a rationale for their actions that matches their preferred self-image rather than reality. It is certainly easier, and more fashionable, to blame hypothetical bureaucratic burden than it is to admit that you are only willing to accept publicly funded students if you can screen them at the outset.

  3. matthewladner says:


    The La non-participants answered a direct question on admission standards, and 45% of them said it was a major factor and 55% did not. That 45% number is fairly large but there are bigger ones in evidence.

    On what basis would you conclude that this factor was decisive?

  4. […] what exactly government’s role should be. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene recently cautioned, education reformers must avoid “pursuing reforms that are likely to re-create the same […]

  5. […] what exactly government’s role should be. As University of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene recently cautioned, education reformers must avoid “pursuing reforms that are likely to re-create the same […]

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