Yes, School Choice *Is* Local Control

March 21, 2018

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(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.

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The Rise of Indiana Open Enrollment

February 26, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ed Choice’s Drew Catt created this open enrollment map of Indiana. For those squinting at their iPhones, bright yellow signifies a district taking in 0-25 open enrollment students, while dark green denotes a district bringing in 501 to 1,680 open enrollment students.

So let’s contrast this with the Fordham Ohio open enrollment map:

The Fordham map denotes participation/non-participation by districts in open enrollment. Suburban non-participation jumps off the page of the Fordham map, so let’s contrast Indianapolis with Columbus. The Indiana map has a lot of green around Indianapolis, signifying open-enrollment participation by the suburbs.

Now let’s compare Indiana to the open enrollment data available from Arizona.

Much larger numbers in these Arizona districts, but also a broader definition of open-enrollment being utilized for the Arizona data that includes students transferring within district boundaries. Nevertheless, we know from a separate source that Scottsdale Unified has 4,000 students from outside of district boundaries, which is more than twice the number of any of the Indiana districts in the Ed Choice map.

So here is my provisional take, subject to your challenge in the comments: Indiana’s combined choice programs have coaxed the state out of the Ohio-like geographic segregation. Private choice program design may have contributed to this- Ohio’s voucher programs focus almost exclusively on urban students, while Indiana’s are more inclusive. Indiana has had the nation’s fastest growing voucher program in recent years. Although means-tested, Indiana’s private choice programs create empty seats in suburban districts more than is the case in the Ohio programs, which reach only suburban special education students.

The open enrollment boulder has been rolling down hill for a longer period of time in Arizona. Open-enrollment students outnumber charter students 2-1, and charter students outnumber private choice participants by 3-1. In other words, in Arizona school choice is being done primarily by school districts themselves. This of course did not happen exclusively through a process of spontaneous enlightenment whereby Arizona school districts threw down the drawbridge over the moat to welcome in thousands of out of district transfers out of the goodness of their hearts. Rather it was the product of incentives- hundreds of charter schools opening in suburbs and towns and a couple of decades of geographically inclusive private choice programs.

Charters and private choice do not deserve all the credit, as some suburban districts relatively unaffected nevertheless chose to participate in open enrollment. Chandler Unified for instance watched their enrollment grow by a third despite a large increase in charter schools and has been rocking academic growth to boot. I’m told that there is not a non-district charter in the Vail Unified district south of Tucson, but there are a many students from Tucson Unified. I doubt they are sweating choice much, but they have nevertheless chosen to participate, and Arizona’s students are the richer for it. Nevertheless, it seems self-evident that a main reason that Scottsdale Unified took in 4,000 students is due to the 9,000 students that live in the district boundaries and do not attend school in the district.

It may be no accident that the state with the highest access has also been leading in NAEP gains…

The defection of early open-enrollment adopters increases the pressure on other districts to participate, creating a virtuous cycle. I’m thrilled to see evidence of this in Indiana. The School Choice 1.0 failed urban students insomuch as it failed to unlock the suburbs. It’s time for the movement to embrace an inclusive “Social Justice Plus” strategy that aims to give urban students access to private, charter and suburban schools.


Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)

January 25, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As a part of Education Week’s recent series on 10 BIG Ideas, businessman Mark Barnes made the case for eliminating grades:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Imagine! It’s easy if you try!

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

It’s no secret that I have libertarian sensibilities, so I certainly don’t want the state mandating that schools give grades (or not give grades, for that matter). Schools and educators should be free to pursue what they believe is the best system of assessment, and parents should be free to choose the learning environments they think best for their children.

That said, while I’m all in favor of abolishing grade levels (a.k.a., Carnegie units), the drive to abolish objective assessments of students’ work that makes it relatively easy to compare their level of proficiency to other students gives me great pause. It’s not just that competition be a great motivator for students, or that grades help students and their teachers and parents identify and correct their deficiencies, although those are crucial functions. As champion educator Doug Lemov recently explained, grades are essential for social mobility:

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

The role grades and standardized assessments have played in social mobility in America, particularly for people of color, is an area where some libertarian educator reformers have sometimes had a blind spot (mea culpa). Much of the anger among black education reformers toward the opt-out movement stems from the fact that it was those very standardized tests that helped shine a spotlight on just how badly America’s district school system was failing students of color.

I still firmly believe that the unintended consequences of mandating a single test outweigh the benefits, but that’s only because I am also confident that there are less onerous means of objectively assessing students and schools (e.g., a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests) that would still reveal unjust racial gaps without the downsides of a single test. Eliminate testing altogether, however, and those racial gaps won’t disappear — they’ll just be rendered invisible again. As Lemov explains, that wouldn’t be so bad for the elites, but it would be terrible for low-income minorities:

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste — you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.


The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!

July 25, 2017

Logomachy

(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.


The Beginning of the End for Blaine?

June 27, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from excluding otherwise eligible religious organizations from benefitting from publicly funded programs merely because they are a religious organization. (I discussed the implications here.) However, Footnote 3 said:

This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.

So, does the case have broader implications beyond playgrounds? Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts “delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to footnote 3,” and two additional justices, Gorsuch and Thomas, concurred in the opinion but not in the footnote, explaining:

Of course the footnote is entirely correct, but I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only “playground resurfacing” cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion. Such a reading would be unreasonable for our cases are “governed by general principles, rather than ad hoc improvisations.” […] And the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.

Today, SCOTUS has indicated that its ruling in Trinity indeed does have implications beyond the playground. The Court has vacated the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision that struck down the Douglas County voucher program based on the state’s Blaine Amendment, and ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider the case “in light of [the] Trinity Lutheran” decision.

If Trinity Lutheran indeed does apply to school vouchers (Footnote 3 notwithstanding), then it could spell the beginning of the end for the odious Blaine Amendments.


Two Court Cases Plus Two Voucher Studies Equals Four School Choice Wins

June 26, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

There’s so much good news for school choice today, it’s hard to know where to begin.

A Legal Victory in the Peach State

I woke up this morning to the news that the Georgia Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that private donations to private nonprofit scholarship organizations that help children attend private schools are (shocker!) private funds, even if the donors receive a tax credit:

We also reject the assertion that plaintiffs have standing because these tax credits actually amount to unconstitutional expenditures of tax revenues or public funds. The statutes that govern the Program demonstrate that only private funds, and not public revenue, are used.

I discuss the case and its implications in greater detail here.

SCOTUS Strikes Down Discrimination Against Religion — But Saves Blaine for Another Day

A couple hours later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Trinity Lutheran v. Missouri that it is unconstitutional to exclude religious organizations from benefiting from secular aid programs that are otherwise neutral with respect to religion. As Neal McCluskey explains, the court didn’t go as far as many school choice advocates would have liked, but it is unambiguously a step in the right direction. Writing for the majority, Justice Roberts wrote:

It is true the Department has not criminalized the way Trinity Lutheran worships or told the Church that it cannot subscribe to a certain view of the Gospel. But, as the Department itself acknowledges, the Free Exercise Clause protects against “indirect coercion or penalties on the free exercise of religion, not just outright prohibitions.” […] As the Court put it more than 50 years ago, “[i]t is too late in the day to doubt that the liberties of religion and expression may be infringed by the denial of or placing of conditions upon a benefit or privilege.” […]

Trinity Lutheran is not claiming any entitlement to a subsidy. It instead asserts a right to participate in a government benefit program without having to disavow its religious character. The “imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deter[s] or discourage[s] the exercise of First Amendment rights.” […] The express discrimination against religious exercise here is not the denial of a grant, but rather the refusal to allow the Church—solely because it is a church—to compete with secular organizations for a grant. [citations removed]

The Court made sure to note that it was not overturning Locke v. Davey, in which the Court held that it did not violate the Free Exercise Clause for the state of Washington to deny funding to a student who was attending a post-secondary religious school to pursue a “devotional theology degree.” Although the “selective funding program” generally allowed students to attend both religious or secular colleges, the funds couldn’t be used to pursue a purely religious education for the purposes of becoming a religious minister. In Trinity, SCOTUS clarified that “Davey was not denied a scholarship because of who he was; he was denied a scholarship because of what he proposed to do—use the funds to prepare for the ministry.”

Left open is the question of whether the state can prohibit families from using school vouchers at religious schools. If the voucher program is intended to give parents more choices among schools that teach reading, math, science, etc., then seemingly it shouldn’t matter whether school that teach those subjects have a religious affiliation. Indeed, Justices Gorsuch and Thomas clearly indicated they wished the majority had gone further (“the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else”), while Justice Breyer likened the playground resurfacing program at issue in the case to churches benefiting from police or fire protection, but saw no need to address the question of private school tuition. Tomorrow SCOTUS will announce whether it will consider the Douglas County, Colorado voucher case, which would give it the opportunity to answer that question.

Louisiana and Indiana Voucher Studies: Neutral to Positive Outcomes After a Few Years

I’ve already run long and I know that others will be writing about them soon, so I won’t dive deep into the Louisiana and Indiana voucher studies today. In short, they each find that the negative impacts on test scores that voucher students experience in the first couple years of participating in a voucher program disappear by the third year. Indeed, Indiana finds some positive effects in years three and four.

Given that states spend significantly less per pupil on voucher students than at district schools, performing as well or better after just a few years in the program should be exciting news for choice supporters. However, I confess that I am uneasy. Both Indiana and Louisiana mandate that private schools administer the state test to voucher students and I am concerned about how that mandate might warp how schools educate children — a concern I have about both district and private schools. Test scores measure only a small slice of the value that parents want schools to provide their children, and as Jay pointed out yet again yesterday, there’s a disconnect between educational measures and life outcomes. It’s great if school choice improves test scores, but the ability to choose shouldn’t be predicated on raising test scores — especially if doing so creates perverse incentives that distort education.

In summary: Three cheers for the court victories and one cheer for the voucher studies.

 

 


“Public Schooling” Is a Myth

June 5, 2017
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The answer is the same for the question: “Do ‘public schools’ serve all students?” Image credit: Snopes.

(Guest Post by Robert Enlow)

Some urban legends just won’t die no matter how many times they are disproven. My favorite is the one that sucked me in during college—the one where Phil Collins wrote the song “In the Air Tonight” after watching a friend refuse to help someone drowning. I admit that one had me going for a while.

In K-12 education, there is an even greater urban legend: that public schools accept all students. This legend is a huge porker that has been repeated so many times that almost everyone believes it is true.

But it isn’t, and it never has been.

First, people in power have always gamed the system. The powerful do it in our nation’s capital, according to a  report released recently by the U.S. Inspector General. The report found that the former D.C. Public School Superintendent, Kaya Henderson, regularly helped her wealthy constituents and friends game the public school lottery.

They do it in New York, where Deputy Mayor Richard Buery used every trick in the book to get his son into a prestigious public school.

And they are doing it like crazy in Chicago, where some public schools regularly over-inflated their enrollment numbers so they could get more money.

I can hear the wailing chorus now: There may be problems with some schools showing favoritism, but every public school really does accept every kid who comes to their doors. That’s the public school way.

But is it? What about the massive increase in selective admission public schools or magnet schools? In Chicago, selective schools enroll kids based on test scores, and they are now a huge chunk of the high school marketplace. Across the country, according to data at the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of selective enrollment magnet schools grew from 2,722 in 2010-11 to 3,254 in 2013-14. That is an increase of more than 500 schools in just three years.

And what about some of our most vulnerable special needs students? Surely, every single public school accepts every single student with disabilities. Think again. Public schools often contract with private schools or private companies to serve children who they can’t serve. According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics almost 260,000 children in America, or 4 percent of all special needs students, fall into this category.

Moreover, any quick review of the headlines will show numerous stories showing that not every public school is adequately serving every child with special needs even though they have a legal obligation to do so. The simple fact is that not every public school is equipped—or required—to serve every type of disability. Public school districts can build public schools that specialize in children with specific disabilities such as autism. Or they can create alternative schools.

So, let’s not forget what most of us know but won’t admit: that it’s okay to choose private schools as long as the public schools do the choosing.

The legend says that public schools accept all comers. That is simply not true, and it never has been.

In fact, the entire system is set up to ensure that public schools don’t really accept all comers. That’s because attendance in public schools is based on geography—on where people live. What this means in practice is that public schools accept all kids who look like each other or who live in similar types of houses and whose family income is the same. K-12 public schools are more segregated by race and income than ever before.

And do you know what happens when a parent tries to cross the public school line or lies about where they live to go to a better school? The school districts use public dollars to hire private investigators to tail parents to check where they actually live. Then they send them to jail.

Not every student can actually attend every public school, and not every public school accepts and serves every child.

It’s time for a serious debate on how we can best serve all kids, regardless of where they live or where they go to school. And it’s past time for the urban legend that public schools serve all to die.

Robert C. Enlow is President and CEO of EdChoice.