Yes, School Choice *Is* Local Control

March 21, 2018


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Even Homer nods.

AEI’s Rick Hess and Andy Smarick both have well-earned reputations as thoughtful, insightful, and fair-minded scholars of education policy. However, in a recent piece for National Review highlighting the tension between local control and educational choice, I believe they missed the mark.

Before I get to where we disagree, I should note that I agree with most of what they wrote. Indeed, I think reformers would do well to heed the advice (and warnings) they offer at the end of their article. Choice is not a panacea, nor the be all and end all of education reform (though I do think it’s the most important element). Moreover, all policies, including educational choice, have tradeoffs. The benefits may far outweigh the costs, but there are costs, and advocates should acknowledge them.

However, Hess and Smarick are a bit too quick to dismiss the argument that the “most local of local control” is educational choice, and their description of the premises of the supposedly competing principles of choice and local control muddies more than it illuminates.

After noting the popularity of both district schooling and educational choice, the authors write:

Given its appeal, [choice] advocates have dismissed any potential conflict between choice and local control by blandly observing that parental choice is the “most local of local control.” As Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has put it, “the answer is local control. It’s listening to parents, and it’s giving more choices.” But this belies real tensions. After all, the local-district system is premised on tradition, continuity, and geography; choice on innovation, markets, and voluntary associations.

Bland or not, choice advocates are right to argue that the “most local of local control” is when the locus of control is parents, not elected officials and bureaucrats. Granted, as Hess and Smarick note, “local control” has “historically meant that an elected board oversees all public schools in a community,” and choice is in tension with the monopolistic system of local edu-bureaucracies. But choice advocates aren’t denying that. Rather, they’re exposing the reality that district schooling offers only the illusion of local control.

As Neal McCluskey has meticulously documented, our zero-sum political schooling system pits parents against each other. At best, majorities impose their will on minorities. But the reality is often even worse than that. As Terry Moe and others have shown, special interests have captured the public education system via low-turnout, off-cycle elections, collective bargaining, state and federal agency directives, and myriads of other means. The ability of parents to actually influence education policy is quite limited in this system.

Properly understood, as James Shuls has argued, local control means parents are in control of their children’s education:

De Tocqueville wrote long ago, “local assemblies of citizens constitute the strength of free nations.”  Unfortunately, our local institutions governing education have been weakening in recent decades.  On the other side of the Show-Me State, the recent school board elections in the Kansas City School District didn’t have a single name on the ballot. Only one candidate got the necessary number of signatures to run in the election and was thus automatically elected, and the three other seats had to be filled entirely by write-in candidates.

To turn a phrase of left wing activists around, is this what democracy looks like? Or, more pointedly for conservatives, what does local control mean in education today?

Local control is not simply a tyranny of the majority on a small scale. Local control, properly understood, means empowering families, those “little platoons” that another lover of local control, Edmund Burke, so valorized, to make the best educational decisions for their children. It means allowing local community organizations like nonprofits and churches to operate schools where students are free to use their state support to finance their education.  It means interpersonal networks within communities coming together to share information about what schools are doing, which ones are better than others, and where children might thrive.

In short, is has nothing to do with having a school board.

Hess and Smarick also go awry when they claim that “the local-district system is premised on tradition, continuity, and geography; choice on innovation, markets, and voluntary associations.” The reality is far more complex — so much so that their attempt at a such a clean distinction is more misleading than clarifying.

The district system is certainly about geography, and it’s also true that adults have a great deal of nostalgia about their childhood schools (and especially their sports teams), but when so many district schools are embracing the latest social justice fads (thanks in large part to ed schools),  it’s hard to claim that they’re premised on tradition and continuity.

And while choice advocates may talk too much about innovation and markets (mea culpa), the reality is that most parents participating in choice programs are choosing religious schools rooted in tradition, continuity, and community (my family included). Indeed, some of these schools predate our district school system — and even the nation itself.

Again, I think Hess and Smarick get a lot more right than they get wrong. Their thought-provoking article is definitely worth reading in full, especially by advocates of school choice. And even though I think their “tradition versus innovation” distinction doesn’t neatly align with the distinction between district schooling and school choice, it serves as a welcome reminder that choice advocates should also emphasize the ways in which choice can strengthen local communities, and how private and (perhaps especially) religious schools are already vital parts of the communal fabric.


The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!

July 25, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Will Flanders is right that school choice is not welfare (you heard it here first) and more broadly that school choice has not benefitted from appropriating the Rawlsian language of fairness (ditto). But he is wrong to think we would be better off making big investments in the free market movement’s language of markets and competition. I’m as big a fan of Milton as anyone (proof) but that language has all the wrong non-cognitive associations for the present moment. Flanders cites Jonathan Haidt but doesn’t seem to have learned the biggest lesson Haidt has to teach, which is that the non-cognitive content of language is more politically important than its cognitive content.

What we need is a new language of justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom that both Rawlsianism and the free-market movement used to have, say, fifty years ago, but that neither currently has in a very robust form. Much, much more about that here.

Would School Choice Segregate Well-Off Students?

April 12, 2017


(Guest post by Martin Lueken)

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s Secretary of Education is shining a national spotlight on educational choice. It has also drawn attention from school choice skeptics and opponents and a flurry of criticisms about choice with it.

A recent report by Halley Potter of the Century Foundation claims that educational choice increases ethnic segregation. Never mind that it misinterpreted a study on Louisiana by Anna Egalite, Jonathan Mills, and Patrick Wolf (you can find Egalite’s rejoinder here).

But ethnic segregation is not the only kind of segregation about which concerns are raised. Opponents also argue that choice policies will lead to “creaming,” in which well-off students disproportionately choose to participate in choice programs, leaving public schools worse off.

These claims are making a prediction about which students and families will respond more to the offer of an ESA or voucher. Economists use the term elasticity to describe this responsiveness. In the context of school choice, for a given change in the price of private schooling (which is what ESAs and vouchers essentially do), a higher elasticity means that a larger number of students will respond by enrolling in or leaving a given school.

The analytic challenges involved in estimating elasticities of demand for private schooling are substantial because it is difficult for researchers to obtain causal estimates. Fortunately, a team of researchers conducted a study which speaks to the issue of school choice’s probably effects on this kind of segregation, and its analysis produced some interesting findings.

Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan, Higgy winner Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Danielle Li of Harvard estimate the price elasticity of demand for private schooling. This team of researchers could observe differences in responsiveness to price among families with different backgrounds.

In a finding with huge relevance to the school choice debate, they conclude that families “with lower levels of parental education are about over four times as price elastic than other families.” In the words of the researchers:

The results indicate that vouchers would tend to increase the share of private school students who come from families with relatively low levels of parental education.


These results suggest that vouchers would increase the representation of low- and middle-income families at private schools.

Other model specifications “indicate that families with the highest predicted probability of private school attendance are the least sensitive to price” (p. 29).

The authors conclude:

These results suggest that a voucher program would disproportionately induce into private schools those who, along observable dimensions such as race, ethnicity, income and parental education, are dissimilar from those who currently attend private school. This is in marked contrast to the assumption made in previous studies… that the new students that vouchers would induce into private school would look demographically similar to current private school students.

…Overall, it is those families who (along observable dimensions) are least like the current population of private school customers that are most sensitive to price, suggesting that vouchers would substantially alter the socioeconomic composition of private schools.

While this study provides one useful data point for policy makers who are considering introducing or expanding educational choice in their states, policy makers should also consider information generated by studies that have already measured the impact of educational choice on segregation. The most rigorous studies available examined Louisiana’s voucher program, where researchers found that the program reduced segregation. Other studies found that school choice programs move students into less segregated schools in D.C. and Cleveland; results in Milwaukee either find no difference or suggest a positive effect. When one weighs the overall evidence about the impact of private school choice on segregation, a picture develops where findings from empirical research on school choice programs bolster the predictions suggested by Dynarski, Gruber, and Li’s findings.

These studies suggest that empowering parents to choose would change private schools. And empirical research on private school choice’s effects on segregation are largely positive. For those who value diversity and empowering parents, increasing educational options is a good thing.

Martin Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Education Finance and Policy at EdChoice.

Setting the Ostrich Straight on Choice and Segregation

March 31, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Anna Egalite sets the record straight on her study that was misrepresented by the ostriches at the Century Foundation:

Potter cannot refute our findings, so she seeks to obfuscate them by carefully merging categories so as to define a “tie” as a loss.

Even to call the finding a “tie” is going too far. On net, which is all that counts, it was a win, not a tie. Big gains in public schools far outweighed the trivial negative effect in private schools. As I wrote:

When you’ve been in the education research business long enough, your eyes automatically roll by reflex whenever they read the words “mixed effect.” A mixed effect is a positive effect produced by a policy that the researcher doesn’t like.

Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!

When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!

Choose Families, Choose Choice

September 30, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new OCPA Perspective carries my argument that the government monopoly on schools undermines the institution of the family, and school choice would strengthen the family:

Are schools an extension of the family, helping parents raise their children the way the parents want them raised? Or are schools an autonomous branch of the technocratic state, answering not to parents but to professional experts who know how children ought to be raised better than parents do?

The creation of the government school monopoly was one part of a general inversion of the social order going on in the 19th century:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family had been understood as the primary unit of society; larger political and economic structures existed to mediate relations between households, not between individuals as such. Relations between individuals within a household—such as the work of childrearing—were the family’s business, except in extreme cases. All that was now gone. The family was no longer primary; the technocratic state was primary.

The failure of the school monopoly has reoped the question of whom schools work for:

School choice and federal centralization of power are both responses to this failure. Some are seeking to reverse course, hoping that the moribund school system can be revitalized by putting parents back in charge. Others are seeking a stronger technocracy that will be more capable of achieving its goals.

I close with the reflection that social conservatives could bring something important to the school choice coalition not currently provided by the two factions that now dominate it, progressives and libertarians. As always, your comments are most welcome!