What Have You Spun for Me Lately?

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Look, I know Jeb did one important thing for school choice over twenty years ago, but at some point when you turn in stuff this dumb, it no longer cuts it to say, “hey, I did you a favor in 1999.”

Jeb is the nominal author of an article on NRO about how states should use funds from a new $3 billion federal education bailout. It’s adapted from a big policy report produced by his organization, which he links to.

Let’s leave aside for a moment that the article calls on states to use this cash to push really big, “transformational” changes, whereas $3 billion cut fifty ways doesn’t actually add up to much as a share of the public school budget (over $700 billion a year nationally). We spent $6 billion on Reading First and got nothing to show for it, and Jeb is now pushing early reading intervention and radical new use of digital learning and a big new “workforce preparedness” somethingorother and payouts to private schools for only $3 billion. Someone said something fifteen years ago about the uselessness of the “buckets into the sea” approach to education reform, but people who have the wrong goals just can’t see past the dollar signs in their eyes.

Where was I? Oh yeah, let’s leave all that aside.

In this article, Jeb once again drops school choice. Last time, at the height of his all-in, head-first dive into Common Core (Hey, remember Common Core? Good times!) Jeb dropped choice from his list of four must-have reforms. But he at least mentioned choice in the article, in a way that sort of suggested it might be a good idea, so long as it bent the knee to Common Core.

This time, Jeb drops choice from the list even when his own organization was trying to put it back on. And he doesn’t even mention it in the article.

The policy report, in one of its four recommended items, specifically recommends protecting, expanding and creating school choice programs. But somehow, between the report and Jeb’s article, this item on support for choice magically transmogrified into “stabilizing private schools.”

A government subsidy for private schools is not school choice, any more than a government subsidy for grocery stores would expand people’s food choices. On the contrary, it would narrow them. Just look at how government subsidies for higher education and medical care have fantastically empowered people with more and more access to more and more viable choices!

And what is Jeb’s argument that government should subsidize private K-12 schools in the same way it has so successfully subsidized universities?

Finally, governors could help to stabilize private schools, which are responsible for roughly 10 percent of America’s K–12 students. Private schools, especially faith-based schools, often operate on shoestring budgets, yet in many cases their students are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. With the impacts of COVID-19, many of these schools are at a breaking point. Families may have less money to pay tuition, and financial aid will be stretched thin. It’s worth a reminder that these schools are part of our education system. They employ teachers, buy textbooks, and educate students who would otherwise fill desks in public schools. They provide alternatives to parents whose needs aren’t being met by the public schools. Helping cash-strapped parents who were paying out of their own pockets to send their child to a great school seems like a simple way to invest in education — and it would keep a vital and successful part of our education system going well into the future.

Why, they’re part of the status quo! How could we possibly not subsidize them?

He even specifically says that his goal is to support families who were already paying for private school – “parents who were paying out of their own pockets” – as opposed to creating new choices for parents who need them!

The point is not parent empowerment that would incentivize better education. The point is to subsidize the status quo forever.

The real head-scratcher here is that school choice programs are a superior way to preserve private education, even if that’s really all you care about. That shouldn’t be what you care about; you should care about better education, which comes from real accountability, which comes from giving power to parents – and not from any other approach. But if what you care about really is just floating the status quo in private schools, why not argue for school choice programs? Why advocate direct subsidies to private schools that will only kill the one thing that private schools really have going for them to make them attractive and keep them vibrant – the fact that they answer to parents?

I can think of one possible reason.

PS Figuring out why “subsidize private schools to serve students already enrolled there!” would be a huge political loser, where “empower parents with new choices!” has been the only – the only – long-term political winner in the history of the education reform movement is left as a Political Science for Ed Reform Dummies exercise for the reader.

9 Responses to What Have You Spun for Me Lately?

  1. matthewladner says:

    I think you may be going a bit Hiroo Onoda here Greg. States have been revising their standards for years and will continue to do so in the years to come. CC is either yesterday’s news or else will be in the foreseeable future depending what state you live in. Meanwhile private schools face the threat of a near-term extinction event around the country, including states with no choice programs-California, Texas, New York. Michigan, MA etc. Even states that do have choice programs either not in session or lack the consensus necessary to expand those programs or both. I’d certainly prefer aid to go to families and to be distributed to schools according to their preferences, but it is unlikely to occur in the next few weeks.

    • Greg Forster says:

      That CC is yesterday’s news was a theme in my post (“Hey, remember Common Core?”) so I think I can acquit myself of Onodaism.

      If Jeb had written what you write here, I might not have objected. But he didn’t. He 1) identified direct subsidies to private schools not as a messy last-ditch desperate move to prevent disaster that is palatable because no better options are feasible, but as a “transformational reform” of the kind that ed reformers should take as an ideal to be pursued over the long term in the future. And he did this 2) as a substitute for his own organization’s recommendation of school choice.

      That this is not the kind of policy we should regard as a transformational aspiration seems like a point worth making emphatically.

      • matthewladner says:

        Fair enough on the “transformation” rhetoric but given the circumstances of legislatures being largely out of session, districts who ought to be digging a 1950s fallout shelter over what is on the immediate budget horizon flipping out etc. it’s not like the private choice playbook is likely to come into a lot of play this summer. A lot more than the curve is going to get flattened in this pani-demic and private schools are near the top of the list.

      • Greg Forster says:

        A supermajority of states already have choice programs! We wouldn’t be talking about this if he’d just said “States with choice should strengthen their programs, states that don’t have choice might consider these other options…” but that’s not what he said.

        Totally dropping school choice – not even working in a mention of it – even after your own organization decided to put the focus totally on school choice sends a clear signal.

        And, again, the justification offered would set the movement on the wrong road for years if we took it seriously.

        Words matter! They mean things!

  2. pdexiii says:

    We (CA) got some intriguing guidance on “Focus Standards” for next year, and beyond(?).
    My 8th grade ‘focus’ seems to be on those standards that support 8th graders prepared for Algebra 1 in 9th grade.
    Hmmm….a subtle shift away from Common Core? Noticeably absent in this discussion were the Mathematical Practices, which are the most contentious aspect of Common Core.
    Stay tuned….

    • Greg Forster says:

      Common Core! Oh, man, that takes me back. Remember Common Core?

      • pdexiii says:

        In CA, no one’s put a stake in its heart yet. CA jumped on the CC train to get Federal $$; then, like now, the issues in math instruction were driven by insufficient teacher prep leading to poor instructional practices.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Okay, fair enough. Like Dracula or the Lemon test, it will probably survive even a stake.

  3. Mike G says:

    Not FL related but I’m curious: why will private schools get flattened “in net”?

    Against the financial duress, in terms of “customer experience,” is Spring 2020 a countervailing good moment for private schools? (Even) NYT had article on that, comparing Chicago private with Philly public, and CPRE has some data.

    What if it’s 10% to 20% student loss as some privates who’d teetered on the edge for years go under, but many of those students are recaptured by other privates, and new customers for micro and home schools emerge?

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