The Folly of Technocracy


[Guest Post by Jason Bedrick]

Yesterday, Matt addressed the “very bitter lesson” of the recent NBER study’s first-ever finding of a negative impact from school choice. I concurred with Matt over at Education Next today. It’s also worth noting that the results should not have been surprising. Jay, Matt, Greg, Andrew Coulson, Robert Enlow, Rick Hess, and others warned that a rigid test-based accountability system could have serious unintended consequences. Indeed, here is a recap of this very debate two years ago:

For years, factions within the school choice movement have argued over the effectiveness and wisdom of numerous regulations. For example, when the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” praising Louisiana for mandating the state test, among other regulations, it launched a vigorous debate. Andrew Coulson and I argued that, while well-intentioned, uniform testing mandates would stifle diversity and innovation. Matt Ladner warned that Fordham failed to recognize the “natural limitations of technocrats” in their overconfidence about the ability of policymakers to guard against the “risk of self-defeating homogenization of the school offerings available.” Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice cautioned that governments are “prone to politicial decisions and special interests,” and that accountability should be primarily to parents, not bureaucrats. Jay Greene noted that “testing requirements hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools,” and that “highlighting a measure that severely under-states performance puts those programs in jeopardy.” AEI’s Rick Hess expressed skepticism that “policymakers have a Goldilocks-like ability to find the ‘just right’ solution” and called the Fordham report “surprisingly naïve about the realities of the legislative process and regulatory creep.”

Ultimately, the Fordhamites dismissed these concerns. Future Fordham president Michael Petrilli waved them away as mere “hypotheticals” whereas his concerns—such as parents making bad decisions and the long-term impact of crummy schools on kids—were “all playing out, right now, in the real world.” Noting that “we have to work hard to get the policy design right,” Petrilli “applaud[ed] Louisiana and Indiana policymakers for doing a darn good job on this front with their statewide voucher programs.” Then-president of Fordham Chester Finn, went further, arguing that “it’s insane to expect [the] marketplace to yield quality control, efficiency, and accountability for educational outcomes.”

(Ironically, Petrilli also expressed his fear that “bad private schools will get lots of media attention, which will drive down public support for school choice and strengthen the hand of those who opposed such programs in the first place.” Sadly, the negative findings in the NBER study stemming from Petrilli’s preferred policies are likely to do more damage to the public support for school choice than any one bad school could ever do.)

Petrilli’s concerns about crummy schools are perfectly reasonable. Indeed, all his interlocutors share them. In this debate among friends, everyone wants what is best for children. Where they differ is over the best means to improve educational quality. Given that there is no perfect system, the question is what sort of system is most likely to produce the best outcomes.


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