Does regulation protect kids and improve outcomes from choice?

In my last piece in this series against the high-regulation approach to school choice, I observed that accountability to the government does not automatically follow from receiving government funds.  In fact, most government programs, including Food Stamps, Social Security, Pell Grants, and the Day Care Tuition Tax Credit, have no requirements for performance accountability to the state.

Even if government accountability is not the norm for government programs, some people may still favor requiring choice schools to take the state test and comply with other components of the high-regulation approach to school choice, such as mandating that schools accept voucher amounts as payment in full, prohibiting schools from applying their own admissions requirements, and focusing programs on low-income students in low-performing schools.  Some people, including many of the most powerful backers of school choice, seem to believe that these regulations help protect kids and improve outcomes.

Let’s leave aside for now discussion of whether this set of heavy regulation negatively affects the quality of participating schools.  And let’s also leave aside whether these regulations are even effective in promoting equity of access to participating schools for disadvantaged students.  The real problem is that heavy regulation dramatically reduces the number of participating schools.  Arizona’s choice programs have light regulation and near-universal participation among private schools.  Florida’s tax credit program has more regulation, although it does not require taking the state test.  It has almost two-thirds of private schools willing to take students.  But in Indiana’s heavy-regulation program the private school participation rate drops to around 50%.  At least in Indiana, many private schools were accustomed to administering the state test as a requirement for participating in inter-scholastic athletics.  In Louisiana, where the heavy regulation and state-testing requirement were new, only about 1/3 of private schools are willing to participate in the voucher program.  Survey research by Brian Kisida, Pat Wolf, and Evan Rhinesmith confirms that heavy regulation is driving private schools away from these programs.

The only equity of access that is promoted by the heavy-regulation approach is that everyone is equally unable to access schools that refuse to participate in the programs.  In their desire to protect disadvantaged students, the backers of this heavy-regulation approach have ironically done serious harm to these students by driving away most of the supply.  And the minority of private schools that are willing to participate are likely to include many of the lower quality schools.  Who is most likely to be willing to abandon control over their admissions, accept tiny voucher amounts as payment in full for serving the lowest achieving students, and is willing to take the state achievement tests?  Financially desperate private schools with a lot of empty seats are likely to be first in line to accept these terms.  High-quality private schools may at most make a token number of seats available.  Rather than protecting access and ensuring quality, heavy regulation is having the opposite effect.  Heavy regulations are eliminating the bulk of options and especially driving away the highest-quality private schools.

It should come as no surprise to anyone if we see some very disappointing academic outcomes in Louisiana’s voucher program.  A heavy regulation program that some major backers of school choice believe represents the “ideal” approach is actually designed to give us the worst outcomes.  If we do see bad results, the first impulse of the backers of heavy regulation will be to double-down on regulation.  They’ll wonder who the bad schools are and call for regulators to remove them from the program.

If education reform could be accomplished simply by identifying and closing bad schools while expanding good ones, everything could be fixed already without any need for school choice.  We would just issue regulations to forbid bad schools and to mandate good ones.  See?  Problem solved.  But real education reform requires using the power of choice and competition to provide incentives to create more good and to reduce bad.  The whole problem with the high-regulation approach is that it falsely believes regulators can define, identify, and require good outcomes.  If that were in fact possible, we would have already solved the problem and we could have done so without any school choice.  The enduring troubles of the traditional public system tell me that is not possible.

5 Responses to Does regulation protect kids and improve outcomes from choice?

  1. Greg Forster says:

    We need to stress that private schools resist these mandates for legitimate and important reasons. They generally would prefer to be able to serve new populations of students. Even if you think elite private prep academies are heavily racist (which I don’t), such schools are a very small percentage of private schools. Far more important are legitimate educational concerns (being able to take the students who are a good fit) and the burdens of compliance.

  2. Ashley Jochim says:

    I don’t follow the logic here. The question is “Does regulation protect kids?” Your answer is that it compresses supply that doesn’t really answer the question. Regulation could protect kids while also compressing the supply – one could evaluate whether the costs outweigh the benefits but you don’t take that question on here. Further, it remains very unclear whether rates of private school participation are being driven by 1) testing requirements 2) admissions requirements or 3) voucher amounts. It’s incredibly important to understand which of these is driving participation rates, preferably by data not relying on school self reports. It’s widely acknowledged that voucher amounts are not high enough – that’s not regulation, that’s funding. I’m quite skeptical that it’s driven by testing requirements and even if it is, there are ways that this could be addressed by, for example, allowing schools to choose the type of assessment they use. I think admission requirements are a far bigger issue but again, we need thoughtful conversations about whether allowing private schools to exclude particular groups of students at their discretion is something worth pursuing. The key question is not “to regulate or not”; it’s how we regulate to ensure that the market works to serve public, as well, as private ends.

    • Hi Ashley. Thanks for the comment. I explicitly left out of this post the question of whether regulation achieves its goals among participating schools. My point is that if 2/3 of the schools refuse to participate, including most of the best schools, it does you little good even if regulation ensures equity of access among the 1/3 lower quality schools than are willing to participate. As to why the don’t participate, you want us to rely on data. I thought comparing participation rates across states with different regulatory regimes and examining surveys of schools were data. What other type of data would you like?

      My other main point is that the set of regulations found in Louisiana’s voucher program are viewed by some of the most important backers of school choice as the ideal. If you think Louisiana’s approach, which has driven away 2/3 of the private schools, ought to be changed, then we are in agreement. I’m not arguing against all regulation. And I’m open as to what might be included in a reasonable regulatory framework. I just think it is beyond question that the “ideal model” pursued in LA, with its heavy load of regulation, has been a disaster.

      • Ashley Jochim says:

        Thanks for your reply. I don’t doubt that comparisons across regulatory regimes tell us something the impact of regulation on participation. However, I do question whether it tells us something about the value of a given regulation to protecting kids or what particular regulations are the basis for schools choosing to opt in or out.

        I’m open to a discussion about whether the current regulatory regimes have unintended, negative consequences and how they could be improved. But that conversation cannot happen so long as our starting point is “regulation=bad, markets=good.” Both regulation and markets can have perverse consequences. Perhaps your next series could tackle the latter. That would put us in a good place to think about how regulatory regimes could be structured in a way to address the failures of market while preserving its dynamism.

  3. […] Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The following passages from a recent blog entry by Greene address the notion that new school options should be heavily regulated, including rules […]

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