Kids in places with lots of choices… but now what?

(Guest Post By Marty Lueken)

Parents in Milwaukee, home to the oldest school voucher program in the nation, are fortunate to have access to a variety of educational options. But many, including education reformers, would agree that school choice is not a silver bullet for solving the problems that Milwaukee and many other parts of the country face today.  But choice is certainly, and must be, a significant part of the solution.

The struggling Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system and its inability to meet the needs of their students’ families in Milwaukee has led to parents leaving district schools to attend charter schools and private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and, in turn, created an abundance of buildings that are vacant and public schools that currently operate at significantly below capacity.

This is the subject of a recent report by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which describes how the district (and city) has historically blocked the sale of vacant facilities to private and charter schools widely regarded as among the best in the city. Such behavior isn’t surprising, given the institutional incentives in place for districts to prevent good schools from expanding.

The analysis also estimates the utilization rates of every public school in the city. It identifies over two dozen buildings that are operating at below 60 percent capacity. Many of these schools are the most at-risk schools in the city, with declining enrollments, and among the lowest performing in the city.  They have twice as many 9-1-1 phone calls per student and a much higher habitual absenteeism rate than other public schools.

Put simply, a school with lots of unused space is a solid signal for identifying struggling schools.  Imagine walking by an almost-empty restaurant on a crowded street at dinner time on Saturday – some people might interpret the scene as a signal about the quality of its food or service is not good.  That restaurant is likely on its way out of business unless it takes a different approach to find effective ways to draw customers.

And although schools like these are prime for turnaround and reform, a lack of accountability allows them to continue operating.  Unlike restaurants (or private schools), public schools don’t go “out of business.”  So what can be done to improve struggling schools like these?

An interesting option for reform is the recovery school district (RSD) – the turnover of chronically failing schools to another entity such as the state or an independent board – and it will likely come up for public debate in the Wisconsin Legislature pretty soon. This is a novel approach that is currently implemented in Louisiana and, recently, Tennessee and Michigan. The idea behind it is that the bottom x% of schools close, re-organize, and re-open under the auspices of an independent authority. This body has the authority to grant an operating agency, such as a charter school, authority to run the school.  In New Orleans, takeover by charter schools is the hallmark of the RSD in New Orleans, ground zero for this relatively new reform.

Evidence of its effectiveness and promise is emerging.  Most recently, an NBER study on charter takeover in Louisiana and Boston found large gains in learning by students “grandfathered in.”  In the Boston case, these students, who essentially were passive choosers, benefited as much as students who were assigned seats through lotteries (i.e. students who were active choosers).

Public schools in New Orleans were in dire shape prior to Hurricane Katrina, with 67% of its students attending low-performing schools.  Then Katrina wiped out the city and sank the public school bureaucracy in its swamp of inefficiency. This allowed changes to be made which facilitated smoother takeovers. By 2010, after the RSD took off, the rate of students in schools failing to serve them was cut in half to 34%. The RSD is also closing the gap between their students and the rest of the state – its students experienced the fastest growth than any other public school district in Louisiana.

These results signal that RSD may be an effective policy. But it’s still a fairly new program, and important considerations remain. Does RSD policy simply replace one layer of bureaucratic oversight with another? The long-term outcome may just be that the RSD gets hijacked by special interests, as with public school districts.

The RSD may be a possible short-term solution for turning around failing schools that have no chance of succeeding within the public school system. But a long-term solution? And what should be done, if anything, after a school in the RSD turns around?

These questions remain up in the air, but there may be reason to give pause. RSDs depend on mission-driven, highly talented people willing to close schools. As Jay once pointed out before, it may be a matter of time before those people leave and the RSD begins to look more like the regular school district. We shouldn’t expect RSDs to be an enduring reform strategy like school choice.

In the meantime, the Louisiana experience so far is indicative of a highly minority, poor urban school district on its way to becoming an “A” system. And it may be worth experimenting with in other places with a large number of declining schools. Will Milwaukee become the next RSD laboratory?

Martin F. Lueken is the Education Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a nonprofit law firm and policy center based in Milwaukee that advocates for individual liberty, constitutional rights, limited government, the rule of law, and a robust civil society.

16 Responses to Kids in places with lots of choices… but now what?

  1. matthewladner says:

    Jay’s concern about RSDs being hijacked by special interests is well founded, but the same could be said of any charter or private choice program. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

    • Yes, but we also need to think about incentive systems and whether they are facilitate political cooptation or not. RSDs are not governed by basic political incentives that are very different from those of school districts, so they are fairly likely to begin behaving in the same way — namely protecting existing school operators and employees and keeping out new ones.

  2. matthewladner says:

    I’m curious why you assume that RSDs are as prone to regulatory capture as traditional districts. Nothing of course is immune, but as far as being prone to it, super low turnout board elections coupled with a tradition of non-partisan elections is essentially rolling out the red carpet for it.

  3. The difference you appear to be attributing to RSDs is that districts are elected (in low turnout elections) whereas RSDs are somehow appointed and only indirectly accountable to democratic governance. As it turns out, we also have many large districts that have also been appointed. Think of the various mayoral and state takeovers. The pattern with them is that they do not behave dramatically differently over time from elected districts. Eventually there comes a De Blasio who knows not Joseph.

    The same will very likely be true for RSDs. Existing school operators and their employees have a very strong incentive to control the agency that oversees them, whether it is an elected board, appointed board, or RSD. The fact that appointed boards and RSDs are more insulated from democratic control does not stop the status quo forces from figuring out how to get their own people in charge. To believe in the superiority of RSDs is to believe in perpetually benevolent dictators. Why would you think that a less democratic form of control would be better than a more democratic one?

  4. matthewladner says:

    The “more democratic form of control” has a long track record of being wide open to regulatory capture in an all too common scenario of low voter knowledge, low turnout, widespread apathy and intense interest by a consistent set of employer related special interests and contractors.

    If you applied your RSD standard to other choice programs, you would oppose school vouchers and/or charters under the theory that eventually their overseeing agency will be captured.

    In the past you have explained that you don’t view this as inevitable because vouchers create a constituency that will defend the program. Thus de Blasio gets crushed in NYC when he moves against three charters, Governor Doyle is compelled to lift the Milwaukee cap etc.

    Might it not be the case however that the New Orleans RSD has itself developed an defensive constituency, such that when some would be de Blasio tries to capture the district or restore a standard school district that he or she will meet with resistance from those with a stake in the RSD?

    • I agree that charter programs help create their own constituency who can fight against destructive regulation, but these are constituents of charters, not RSDs. In fact, they would be fighting against co-opted RSDs, just like they fight against co-opted mayoral takeovers (a la de Blasio). So your argument supports my contention that RSDs are basically the same as mayoral takeovers or appointed boards and do not by themselves change the long-term interests of the authority controlling schools. They may be checked by well-organized choice constituents, but the long-term interests of RSDs, just like traditional school districts, mayoral takeovers, and appointed boards, is to protect existing schools and employees.

      Nothing in your story suggests that RSDs would have a long-term interest in correctly identifying and closing bad schools or forcing under-used buildings to be made available to new entrants, which is the whole argument for RSDs over other board arrangements.

  5. matthewladner says:

    In the long term, we are all dead, life on planet earth goes extinct etc. NYC passed their first Seldon Crisis, and they would be a rounding error presence in the city had Mayor Bloomberg failed to make space for them.

    It sounds to me like if the selectively cynical Greene of 2015 had been advising Mayor Bloomberg of circa 2000 would have told him not to bother. If your advice had been vouchers would have been better, I agree.

    • Greg Forster says:

      That’s deeply unfair, Matt. Jay has already explained why charters are different from RSDs in a way that makes his different assessment of their prospects appropriate. You only demonstrate the weakness of your position by smearing him instead of responding to his arguments.

      • matthewladner says:

        I don’t think I have smeared him at all. I am simply making the point that the possibility of regulatory capture is present in everything, including things like charter school authorities, agencies overseeing private choice programs, etc. Whatever board has led to 43% of DC kids going to charter schools could be captured at some point. That doesn’t mean that Congress ought not to have passed charter schools in 1994 in my view.

        The fact that RSD could be captured at some point is true but the line forms to the left. The parents and philanthropists that have bought into the very robust choice system can fight to stop it from happening like the rest of us.

      • Greg Forster says:

        You were unfair because you suggested Jay is speaking in bad faith (“selectively cynical”) merely because he holds the very reasonable opinion that parent choice structures are less susceptible to subversion than. I agree with him; am I also speaking in bad faith?

      • matthewladner says:

        No bad faith, I’m sure Jay sincerely believes his point, it just doesn’t compute for me. Bloomberg for instance ran a benevolent dictatorship in making space available for charter schools. It’s very clear that the number of charters in NYC would have been severely constrained due to the price of real estate had he not done so.

        Of course at some point the unions recapture the mayor’s office and move against charters. This was inevitable. What was not inevitable was their losing- charters won the round in big way, and the game goes on.

        If you and Jay believe that there were better strategies for a Bloomberg to employ circa 2000, I’m totally open to the possibility. If you view what Bloomberg accomplished as naive, unworthy or somehow inevitably doomed, I don’t agree. In my book, it is a huge significant victory in the movement to expand parental choice in NYC, and the war goes on.

  6. Ashley Jochim says:

    The long-term problem with the RSD is that is relies on the benevolent dictator model, which is not sustainable. The solution is simple – make the RSD accountable to voters. Democracy is the best, however imperfect, check against regulatory capture. For an exposition of a similar model, I encourage you to read the latest by Paul Hill and myself.

  7. Eric Gonchar says:

    Eric Gonchar

    Kids in places with lots of choices… but now what? | Jay P. Greene’s Blog

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