(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
I was one of the people who decided to read more about Islamic history after 9/11. Half way through Bernard Lewis’ book What Went Wrong? it occurred to me that Lewis had asked the wrong question. Lewis explored the question of why the Islamic world had gone from arguably the world’s leading civilization to a relative backwater. By the time this had happened however most of the world was a relative backwater in relation to western Europe. The more relevant question therefore in my mind is not “what went wrong” everywhere else but rather “what went right in the West?”
This thought came to mind when reading David Griffith’s paen to regulation in choice programs. David asked “Is there a state in the union with strong oversight, robust market supports, and a low-performing charter sector?” Actually yes there is- NACSA’s top ten state charter sectors are nine miles of bad road interrupted by a unique one-off in Louisiana towards the bottom of the ten.
Griffith writes “Yes, there are a few states where charters have achieved strong results despite a weak framework for intervening in low performing schools, or a dearth of quality authorizers, or limited parental supports. There is an exception to every rule.” Arizona, Colorado and Utah all display the high NAEP/low NACSA score combo. They are not alone btw. By “high NAEP” I mean “near or above Massachusetts scores.” By “low NACSA” I mean a score of 8 or 9 on the NACSA rating before the most recent NAEP. Other flourishing charter sectors, which display either some of these same types of rock star scores in the case of Florida, or else significant advantages over district performance in the case of DC, also dwell outside the top 10 NACSA rated charter laws.
Griffith seems to have mistaken the exception for the rule. It is a simple matter to point to multiple examples of the high NAEP/low NACSA score combo. The high NACSA/high NAEP combo is actually very rare. This is either because top rated states have charter sectors too small to meet NAEP reporting standards-like Indiana and Nevada- or just still struggling after all these years despite the benevolent regulation of the state like Texas.
Now it might be a coincidence that we see high NAEP/low NACSA combos aplenty in the 2015 NAEP. The 2017 NAEP will be released in October. I expect the data to show us more of the same, but time will tell. It could also be a coincidence that voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana experienced unusually low private school participation rates and struggled academically in the early year evaluations. Some of us started sounding alarm bells on the participation rates before the test score evaluations became available. You don’t need a random assignment study to tell that something is wrong with a voucher program that 70% of private schools choose to avoid, just a bit of common sense. The random assignment studies then did tell us something was indeed wrong, and then a helpful survey of schools pretty much nailed down why it happened. Griffith seems to believe that the problem with LA vouchers is under-regulation. There seems to be an abundance of evidence however that the opposite is true.
So getting back to Lewis, I am convinced that the right question is “what went right in Arizona, Colorado, DC, Florida, Utah etc?” rather than just “what went wrong in Ohio?” Under what set of circumstances can parents take the lead in putting down undesired schools with brutal efficiency? What factors lead this to working in some jurisdictions, but flopping in others? Texas went down the high regulation road in 2001, and well…let’s just say it does not bode well for Ohio.
Even if my friends with a preference for high levels of regulation had evidence to suggest that their approach has benefits (currently lacking) their yearning to apply a one-size-fits-all approach on 50 states with wildly varying needs would still be unwise. Nevada for instance can take little comfort from their high NACSA rating as they continue to suffer extreme levels of public school overcrowding with only a few dozen charter schools. There are hundreds of thousands of children on charter school wait lists in neighboring states with more welcoming charter school laws-why would operators in the surrounding states give Nevada a second thought? This is not a game, and these policies have very real consequences. This fall I will be sending the three Ladner children back to two fantastic charter schools. If either of these schools slips I have other options. Also this fall uncounted thousands of Nevadans will be sending their kids to portable building to meet the first of what will be a series of substitute teachers for the year. These parents have little in the way of other options. What is the case for keeping things this way in Nevada?
Today I was in our gym as one of our PE teachers was conducting one of his basketball training sessions. One of his newer clients played on a team that opposed our 8th graders this year, and gave us our toughest challenge; this school was the neighboring local public middle school. We asked him about his school experience last year, and he said, “many teachers quit, we had lots of subs, and some times we had no class at all because they couldn’t get subs.”
This is why we have wait lists that are 30-50 students deep per grade (6 – 8); if they’re lucky maybe 10-15 of these students total next year will get to enroll. A local CMO organization, a very famous one at that, just opened another high school in our same city; it will fill up fast, too, because the demand is there. Our city and LAUSD are facing severe budget crises, simply because parents have spoken about what they want for their children, and it’s not these school districts.
I don’t think this comparison between Islam and tight regulation of charter schools is fair to Islam. Lewis’ title is inspired by the fact that at one point in the middle ages the Islamic world really was on track to surpass Christian Europe. Yes, Lewis’ analysis of what went wrong in the Islamic world needs to be paired with an analysis of how Christian Europe rallied to meet the challenge. But tight regulation of charters has never produced the kind of success that would lead anyone to ask “what went wrong?” The question is rather “why do we keep making the same dumb mistakes over and over?” A question that admits some intriguing answers.