The High-Regulation Approach to School Choice

Many of the most powerful backers of school choice are embracing a high-regulation approach.  Their interests have shifted from promoting choice as the goal to using choice as a mechanism for obtaining more quality schools.  They don’t trust that choice produces quality.  They want a fairly heavy dose of regulation to prevent bad schools from being included among the options available to families.  They want to control key aspects of school operations to prevent schools from becoming bad.  And they want a powerful regulator — a portfolio manager or harbor master — who will identify and remove bad schools from choice programs.

I think this approach is deeply flawed.  I understand that political reality requires some amount of reasonable regulation.  But the view that regulation, not choice itself, is the main driver of quality improvement is completely wrong.  My fear is that just when school choice is achieving escape velocity as a self-sustaining and expanding policy, the love for high-regulation may do serious harm to these programs and the children they intend to help.

Over a series of blog posts I intend to describe the arguments folks have for high-regulation and why I think those arguments are mistaken.  First let me describe the high-regulation approach to school choice.  Their ideal model has the following central features:

  1. Choice programs should not allow private schools to use their regular admissions standards and procedures.  Instead, they should be requires to accept all applicants or use a lottery if over-subscribed.
  2. Participating schools should be required to accept the voucher amount as payment in full even though that amount is almost always less than their regular tuition, less than their cost to educate each student, and far less than what is provided to students in traditional public schools.
  3. Choice programs should focus on low-income students in low-performing public schools.
  4. Participating private schools should be required to administer and report results from the state achievement tests.

This model is not a program that powerful backers of school choice would be willing to accept.  It is their ideal.  It is the starting point for their political negotiations, not what they would be willing to accept after compromises to win political support.

Why do they favor all of these regulations?  I think they have four main arguments:

  1. State funds require accountability to the state for performance.
  2. Regulation protects kids and improves outcomes from choice.
  3. Regulation improves the political prospects for choice.
  4. Achievement tests are a reasonable proxy for school quality that a regulator could use to decide which schools should be included or excluded from the set of options available to parents.

I think all four of these arguments are mistaken.  In subsequent posts I’ll consider and rebut each of them.

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4 Responses to The High-Regulation Approach to School Choice

  1. George Mitchell says:

    One hopes this series of commentaries will spur a good debate. Jay is correct in identifying the core issue and problem.

  2. Patrick says:

    One of the legitimate problems I’ve seen is that bad private schools rarely close (neither do bad public schools). Is it the fault of not enough information for parents to wisely choose? Not enough choices (school may be bad but at least it is safer than other options)? Both? Or are parents willing to keep their kids in bad schools because the school is nearby, or run by a family friend or the family’s pastor? If the answer is to regulate then I also worry that while we can see the bad private schools that persist, we will fail to see the good private schools that are never created (or never join the program).

  3. matthewladner says:

    Writer’s block defeated!

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Jay, on your list of regulations the other side likes, #1-3 are not motivated by school quality but by (misplaced) concerns about justice. One (correct) argument *against* these regulations is that they undermine school quality. But school quality is not the argument for them.

    At a broader level, the problem with the other side is not so much that they have changed the main goal from choice to good schools, but (as you go on to say) that they no longer believe choice improves schools. School choice is not an end in itself for anyone; even our libertarian friends have a higher end (a free society) that justifies school choice.

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