Yo Mick! Call me an ambulance, I’m getting in the ring with Howard Fuller

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The school choice tent stretches broadly over a wide stretch of the philosophical turf, hanging over rich intellectual traditions on both the right and left. Any movement that can encompass people as diverse as Milton Friedman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan is going to have more its share of philosophical disagreements- and someone else’s share for dessert.

In my early years of serving as a school choice padawan I found this discord disorienting. Eventually however I grew to appreciate the beauty of the movement’s diversity. Howard Fuller, one of the founders of the modern choice movement, helped to inspire a deep appreciation of the importance of equity that I continue to carry with me today. Recently however Dr. Fuller took a position against the new Nevada Education Savings Account program. It’s time for a good ole fashioned rumble under the tent.

Dr. Fuller recently came out against the Nevada ESA program due to the near universal eligibility in the law. It is with no small amount of trepidation therefore that this school choice middle-weight will step into the ring with a school choice heavy-weight to explain why I think Dr. Fuller’s critique fails. I’ll do my best to give Dr. Fuller a good fight to defend Nevada’s honor. Win, lose or draw I am confident we will walk out of the ring friends, although I may be a more than a bit worse for wear.

Dr. Fuller delivered a blistering synopsis of his viewpoint in a podcast interview for the RedefinED blog. I am fearful to report it to you, as it is incredibly compelling. Here goes:

The thing that I most worry about is that people will forget the importance of protecting poor people in this. Because one thing I found about movements, and particularly as we begin to talk about we got to protect the middle class – all of which I’m not opposed to – what I learned over time is that there’s not some group of people, and I hope BAEO is going to at least be that group, that consistently and unapologetically says we’re in this to protect the interests of a lot of the poorest people.

Because I found that if that doesn’t happen, that somehow their interests will be put aside. And we get all kinds of reasons why and this and that. So I just want people to know … when folks move towards universal, just know that some of us are going to fight it. And we’re going to fight it because our history has taught us what happens when you establish a program that’s allegedly for poor people and then all of a sudden we all got to get in it and this and that and all lifeboats get lifted and this and that. I have found that all the life boats don’t get lifted.

And so I just want everybody to be clear that there’s some of us in this room that will never give up on the notion of standing for the poorest people in our society. And we will not let people just lightly go on as if America has proven that it cares deeply about the poorest people. Because to me the opposite is true.

That’s the thing that worries me about this movement and it’s something people don’t always like to hear. Why is he saying that? I’m saying it because I just want people to be clear where we are. And why we are where we are. Because every day, I see our poorest children dealing with issues that most of us will never even contemplate, let alone live.

Okay so that does look like a knockout- but let’s assume for the sake of argument that Howard put me on the canvass but I got a standing 8 count and my corner is administering to my impaired vision. Cut me Mick!

I agree with Dr. Fuller that expanding opportunity for poor children is vitally important. I also believe that Nevada’s very limited supply of seats in existing private schools will go quickly and much of that limited supply of seats some of those seats will be beyond the means of those utilizing ESA funds alone. I also believe however that this is of limited significance to the bigger picture: NVESA can and will expand opportunity for the Silver State’s poor children.

Nevada begins its private choice journey with a very small private school sector-about half the national average (see page 25) at 5.5% compared to a national rate of 10%. The number of private school seats in existing private schools will therefore prove limited. The tuition at some of these existing schools will exceed the maximum subsidy amount for either low or high-income kids. The interests of the vast majority of Nevada students choosing to participate in the program- both poor and non-poor-must focus primarily focus on the options outside of private schools and in the creation of new private school seats.

First let’s discuss equity. NVESA provides 12% greater funds to low-income and students with disabilities than to middle and high-income students- $5,700 to $5,100. The modesty of these funds was not driven by ideological fervor on the right, but rather by an instinct to protect school districts-which receive far more than either of these figures in total funding. NVESA is only accessing state funding, whereas districts get a great deal of funding from the local level. It may be possible to supplement the ESA for disadvantaged children with the state’s also new tax-credit program, but with a $5m statewide cap it can only do so much.

A $600 advantage for poor children under the ESA program may look small in isolation, but huge compared to the way Nevada finances public schools. Current funding per pupil in Nevada districts varies between around $8,500 per pupil in Clark and Washoe districts (Las Vegas and Reno areas) to as much as $38,284 in one of the small rural districts (see page 86). The vast majority of kids-and poor kids-find themselves clustered in the two large districts with more modest per pupil funding.

Even more important than equity issues between districts are those within districts. Dig around a bit into the finances of fancy public schools in Nevada and you’ll find that they spend vastly greater amounts than average for the district. Spending per pupil, for instance, in the posh Incline Village High School stood at $13,248 per child compared to a statewide average of $8,274.

Should we worry that some in Incline Village may give up their spot at their $13,248 per year public school for a $5,100 ESA? I’m not going to lose sleep over it for two reasons. Only 48% of Nevada’s middle and high income Anglo students scored proficient or better on the 2013 NAEP 8th grade reading test. You read that correctly- less than half. Perhaps Incline High could use a little competition. Second, to the extent that Incline parents do take advantage of the program, it may open spots for transfers among students whose parents work in Incline but who cannot afford to live there.

The Nevada public school system gives the most to the kids who start with the most. This should come as a shock to no one- the taxpayers in Incline Village almost certainly pay more tax than average to go along with their higher levels of spending. John Rawls might imagine a world in which Incline parents pay their big tax bills but send their children to public schools with below average funding. It’s not however the public school system of the world we live in.

The ESA program on the other hand gives the most to the kids who start with the least- making it far more progressive than the public school system itself. Granted that both Drs. Fuller and Ladner would like to see it do still more for disadvantaged kids (I’m especially anxious to add a system of special education funding weights that Nevada currently lacks even for public schools to the program). “Better than the public schools at equity” may not mean adequate mind you. Unless however either of us is going to call for the dissolution of the Nevada public school system on equity grounds for poor children, we should both support the ESA program.

Dr. Fuller could still oppose private choice programs that he fears will not benefit poor children, even if it involves applying a bit of a double and/or higher standard. I believe the Nevada ESA will create such opportunities. Let’s again focus on those preexisting private schools. They educate 5.5% of Nevada’s school children, which amounts to around 24,000 students. Let’s make the heroic assumption that they can squeeze and increase enrollment by 50%. That’s around 12,000 students. The United States Census Bureau currently projects Nevada to add almost 300,000 5-17 year olds between 2010 and 2030, with a total school aged population of 765,000 in 2030. One should view the current private schools, in other words, as of limited relevance to the ultimate success of NVESA. The game in Nevada will be won or lost based upon making options outside of traditional schools work for kids, and in the creation of new school seats.

Let’s discuss the non-traditional options first. NVESA allows for an a la carte approach through the use of private tutors, online programs and individual courses from various providers. Homeschooling serves as the obvious model for study for an a la carte approach. Homeschooling has been the fastest growing parental choice option, which ESA parents should regard as a decades long learning experience to examine.

“Do it yourself” education is obviously not an option that fits every child or every family’s schedule, but decades of experience has led to the development of co-ops that makes the practice more accessible including the need for custodial education. Cooperative education moves “do it yourself” to more of a “do it ourselves” voluntary association, making this option less intimidating for many people. What can low-income parents make of this experience and $5,700 in a use-restrict education account? I’m not sure, but I am anxious to see how they proceed with their new freedom. This much is for certain: every low-income child in Nevada will have opportunities which they lacked before the passage of ESA, even if there were not a single private school seat available. ESA is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

In the more traditional custodial private school space, the challenge will be to open new schools that can deliver a high-quality education at a $5,700 per pupil or lower price point. Can this be done?

We can’t be sure, but the stage is set for innovation. The price point is very low by today’s standards, but we do have people experimenting with new schooling models in the private sector space that aim to deliver good results at low costs. The grandfather of these efforts would be the Cristo Rey schools- which began the process of having low-income students share an office job in order to keep their costs down. Cristo Rey serves 9,000 students nationwide, 96% of whom are children of color and they charge an average tuition of $1,000 per year. All of Cristo Rey’s 1,400 graduates were accepted into college in 2014. Fire up the Bat-Signal over Vegas and put the pedal to the metal on reaching scale in Nevada!

Cristo Rey began an experiment with blended learning in 2014. Other private school operators have begun exploring blended models school models as well. While the academic results from the blended Cristo Rey school demonstrated strong early promise (students averaged a year and a half sized mathematics gain during a summer preparatory camp) the ultimate goal of these experiments will be to find an appealing mixture of in-person and technology based learning that increases academic return on investment.

Philanthropic effort will almost certainly focus on the Las Vegas area, where the vast majority of Nevada low-income students reside, not on Incline Village. This is a huge challenge, and a great deal of work lies ahead in implementing this law if it is to realize anything close to its full potential. Banish any thought that NVESA is a “fire it and forget it” type of program- the devil lies in the details of implementation.

Nevada’s low-income children will have new opportunities as a result of this program. The advantages created for the already advantaged pale compared to those already offered to them in the public schools.  Unlike the public school system, the ESA program creates an advantage for the poor. Finally Nevada’s ESA program will live or die on innovative education strategies and new private school seats. The school choice supporting philanthropists who Dr. Fuller and I have worked with for decades will have a heart for the poor in that process. I’ve thrown almost all my punches, but I’ve got one left that I saved for the final round.

My last punch is a question of fairness and soundness of strategy. I do not believe that there would be a public school system today if Horace Mann had labored under a notion that high-income people should pay school taxes but should not be eligible to send their children. I have yet to hear anyone seriously propose to means test public schools-the mere thought of it is outlandish. Some very wealthy people choose to pay private school tuition above and beyond their school taxes, but try to take away their child’s eligibility to attend public schools and you will have a fight on your hands-and rightly so. Wealthy people pay their taxes just like poor people do, and in most places they pay far more taxes. Rather than make the well to do enemies of public education, our forefathers decided (wisely in my view) to allow them to attend like everyone else.

We have universal access to district schools, charter schools and digital education programs and public universities. Everyone helps to pay for them, everyone deserves access stands as a guiding principal. Everyone pays Social Security and Medicare taxes; everyone is eligible for the programs. Defenders of those programs treat means-testing proposals like a mortal threat because they understand that universal access stands as the foundation of broad public support. Perhaps until recently, school choice programs operated at such a small scale that it might be possible to avoid the elephant in the room: everyone pays for school choice programs so on what basis would we deny them to anyone?

The poor do have among the biggest problems in Nevada education, but they do not have the only education problems. The Nevada ESA program strikes an appealing balance of near universal eligibility with a funding advantage to the poor. Policymakers can improve upon the equity in the program. I and many others will activity support such improvements. I think the program merits Howard’s support however as it stands as a huge improvement in the opportunities available to Nevada kids.

Yo Adrienne! I’m all punched out and the final bell has sounded. Let’s go to the judges. They (meaning you dear reader) can decide whether this is Rocky where Apollo wins and is still the champ, or Rocky II where our raw-egg chugging everyman scrapes himself off the canvass faster than the champ and pulls the upset. Either way, if Dr. Fuller takes the time to respond, I am up for a rematch.

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17 Responses to Yo Mick! Call me an ambulance, I’m getting in the ring with Howard Fuller

  1. George Mitchell says:

    By definition Matt can’t get a unanimous verdict. But he clearly wins a split decision.

    • Leslie Hiner says:

      This may be copyrighted, but I think I can say it anyway in response to this article – BOOOM!!! Well done, Matt. Thank you. Now, if I can be an assistant coach, Matt, consider this…

      Dr Fuller is right. The poor get screwed routinely, as hundreds of years of recorded history proves. He’s also right that self-righteous reformers whose aims may be mostly self-serving, often for political/corporate gain, can talk a good game. Whenever someone in our movement says, “I just want to help the poor,” that’s when I walk away. It’s a red flag. Trouble ahead.

      As I see it, Dr Fuller doesn’t speak to helping the poor. He speaks of equity, and power, and providing opportunity for people to rise up. His message is not about charity; it’s about the nature of power, and its natural tendency to be very unbalanced.

      So now you may ask why I support your arguments, Matt. Wait for it… here it is…

      Dr Fuller’s argument against NVESA, or any universal education reform, is inconsistent with his own beliefs. If we would actually follow Dr Fuller’s advice, the poor he seeks to empower would become nothing but a collection of anecdotal stories of the few who thrived, thanks to some sort of scholarship. The many would continue to live in their current position. School choice that decides who may or may not participate based on the income level of a child’s parent, a level set arbitrarily by people who think they know what is, and what is not, “enough” money to survive without school choice, allows the current unbalanced system to continue (albeit uncomfortable for the monopoly, it continues nonetheless).

      Nevada State Treasurer Dan Schwartz said it best at last week’s workshop on NVESA regs: the NVESA will “create a disruption in our education system”.

      “Disruption” in the system! Yes! Power to the People! This is the moment when unbalanced power can be readjusted, when a monopoly designed to keep people in their places can be knocked off its high horse so that people can decide for themselves what place they want to occupy in this life.

      Anyone who wants to see poor children in Nevada exercise the power they will soon have in 2016, should get moving. Move to Nevada. Build schools. Offer distance learning specifically tailored to meet specific needs – go to the poor and find out what they need, what they want. Act. Now. And help policymakers find ways to get to a fully universal ESA as quickly as possible, because this is what is driving the disruption and breaking down the walls of the old monopoly that jealously guards its power.

      Matt, you’ve been getting my attention, lately – keep it rolling, I greatly appreciate your arguments, and your willingness to jump into the ring. You’re more than prepared, Rocky.

  2. Just like a wonk to bring logic to an emotion fight. 😉 Can we all just acknowledge the elephant in the room and say it out loud? Dr. Fuller says “poor” when what he means is “black.” It’s a free country and he’s welcome to his prejudices. However, I hope to be proven wrong about the goodwill in his heart when Idaho gets ESAs, and he comes out in support of a program that will help plenty of poor people who happen to be white.

    • matthewladner says:

      I don’t agree. I don’t think Howard would support ESAs for either Michael or Vernon Jordan’s kids for instance.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    A rumble “under the tent” implies we’re all under the same tent. That may still be just barely true for now, but I wonder for how much longer. The disappointing results of Howard-Fuller-Style choice in Louisiana, which will damage the cause of choice, are going to contribute to a crisis. It will be important whether Fuller is willing to admit that his “POOR ONLY! POOR ONLY! POOR ONLY!” program design obsessions contributed to the problem in Louisiana. If not, this won’t be a rumble “under the tent” for much longer.

  4. matthewladner says:

    I think the Louisiana program has problems bigger than means-testing, but certainly prefer the NV universality for the reasons outlined in the post.

    • Greg Forster says:

      The problems are all of a piece. The Fuller mentality stands behind the unreasonable restrictions on schools as much as it does behind the means testing. Gotta protect those poor people from hypothetical boogyman con artists, even at the expense of denying them real educational opportunities!

      • matthewladner says:

        I can’t blame Howard for Louisiana’s problems- much more of a cool kid problem. Plus there aren’t too many people who have logged SEVERAL times more air miles than me pushing school choice, but Howard is certainly one of them. As long as I have a tent, he is welcome to my shade.

      • Greg Forster says:

        How is Louisiana a cool kid problem?

        And I didn’t say the problem in LA was Howard Fuller personally, but the approach to school choice he promotes.

      • matthewladner says:

        If LA lawmakers went to universal eligibility it would be a better and fairer program in my view, but the problems that the Wolf revealed in his survey of private school leaders would still be there.

      • Greg Forster says:

        But how are those “cool kid” problems as opposed to products of the impulse to overprotect the program clients (i.e. poor parents)?

      • matthewladner says:

        It just seems like blaming George Lucas for the making of Twister to me.

      • Greg Forster says:

        If the problem with Twister had been the special effects (instead of the actual problem with Twister, namely the fact that neither of the leads went to Yale Drama School) blaming Lucas would be the correct response.

  5. pdexiii says:

    This is where I see Fuller’s concerns played out at my level:
    At our school the poorest parents are the ones that have the hardest time doing the things the working-class or above parents do: submitting applications on time, volunteering at school, wearing the uniform completely, etc. As a school we have to do more for those families than for others. We don’t serve lunch, but make sure those kids we know who need something to eat get it. Being relatively small and getting to know our children well we don’t mind it, but it is extra work and sometimes there are parents/families we cannot help as we’d like.
    It is the responsibility of the implementers of such a ‘disruptive’ program to actively protect the interests of the poor, and as Dr. Fuller points out that doesn’t always happen. While Nevada’s program seems to be an amazing step in the choice direction, it’s not the complete transfer of power a voucher provides. Hopefully Dr. Fuller’s comments will encourage Nevadans(?) to focus their energies on those folks who need the most help to make the ESA program work for them.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I agree with you – but it’s one thing to say we have to carry this out in a way that serves the poor, and it’s a totally different thing to say we shouldn’t create the program because it might not serve the poor.

      In my experience people like Fuller end up hurting the poor more than helping them in the long run.

  6. […] be able to receive education money in an account. Matthew Ladner drove this point home in a recent blog post about Nevada’s ESA […]

  7. […] the inequity in funding for choice programs – it’s real, and it deserves more attention – but inequity is relative. The funding streams available for low-income students today would have allowed Bethune to park the […]

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