Yes, School Choice *Is* Local Control

March 21, 2018

homer-nodded

(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.


Hitt, McShane and Wolf Meta-Analysis leads to a call for humility

March 19, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My favorite quote from Hitt, McShane and Wolf’s new study:

Even with these caveats in mind, the policy implications from this analysis are clear. The most obvious implication is that policymakers need to be much more humble in what they believe that test scores tell them about the performance of schools of choice. Test scores
are not giving us the whole picture. Insofar as test scores are used to make determinations in “portfolio” governance structures or are used to close (or expand) schools, policymakers might be making errors. This is not to say that test scores should be wholly discarded.
Rather, test scores should be put in context and should not automatically occupy a privileged place over parental demand and satisfaction as short-term measures of school choice success or failure.

P.S. Letting parents take the lead on which schools expand and/or close can work out fine on the types of tests schools have almost no ability/incentive to game:

The implications of this meta-analysis of the research literature could stretch far beyond the choice sector in time. If test scores continue to show a weak and inconsistent relationship with long-term outcomes, broad rethinking will be required. Let’s see what happens next.


AEI on ESAs

May 13, 2016

AEI

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We had a wonkapolooza on ESAs at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this week! What- you had a friend in from out of town and couldn’t make it? Ah well not to worry the video is here:

On the first panel, our discussant MI’s Max Eden advised tapping on the expectations brakes, noting a number of practical difficulties. The biggest of these difficulties was summarized by Adam Peshek’s slide:

ESA expenses

So, yeah, this slide basically shows 70,000 ish Florida tax credit students using approximately 1,500 vendors (private schools). Meanwhile the Gardnier Scholarships programs had south of 1,600 students, but those 1,600 students made **ahem** almost 11,500 purchases.  A new set of practices and techniques will be necessary to administer such a system.

Fortunately we have practices from other policy areas to draw upon and companies highly adept at account management and oversight from Health Savings Accounts and others. It’s going to take time. In the paper and presentation I referenced the Greek myth regarding the birth of Athena- who sprung from the skull of Zeus not only fully grown, beautiful and powerful but also clothed and even armed for battle!

Alas outside the realm of myth we have little choice but to engage teams of people to grind on problems over time, as ESAs did not emerge fully formed from the mind of some mighty being as a finished product. Evolutionary improvement and innovation may not make for as good of a story as the goddess of wisdom springing forth, but for us mere mortals it will have to do. I’m anxious to see what happens next.

Anyway- great event and thanks especially to our friends at AEI for hosting it. Also make sure to see Anna Egalite’s guest blogging on RHSU on ESAs and also Jonathan Butcher’s new report on mobile payment systems and ESAs for the Goldwater Institute. Also Heritage President Jim DeMint tells a Texas suffering from parental choice dehydration to jump on in, the school choice water is fine!

 

 


Learning from our mistakes in expanding parental choice

January 21, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Kisida, Wolf and Rhinesmith survey of attitudes of private school leaders in Florida, Indiana and Louisiana released today by AEI has a ton of important information. I commend the authors for releasing it, as the data gathered reveals the cost of attempting to regulate private schools participating in private choice programs.

In particular, the evidence seems to point in the direction of requiring schools to give a test tied to the state curriculum, requiring a great deal of paperwork, and only making low-income students from the lowest performing school eligible represents creates a powerful incentive for schools not to participate. In other words, Louisiana should examine the results of this study carefully and make some significant adjustments if they would like more of the 70 percent of private schools that chose not to participate to make seats available. Let’s just go ahead and put it on the table that the 30 percent of participating schools likely have financially desperate organizations over-represented, and the 70% of non-participants probably have higher percentages of stable organizations and high quality seats.

One of the charts deals with schools already participating in the choice- notice the enthusiasm for increasing participation in reasonably regulated Florida as opposed to the disinterest in Louisiana. A net 55% of Florida participating schools plan to increase participation, against 8% in Louisiana.

 

FL IN La 1

 

Florida does make provision for standardized testing, but allows schools to choose their own test. Florida law has an ongoing third-party academic evaluation of the trends in scores for the program. Indiana also mandates state testing, but had effectively done so years before the creation of the choice program. Every state has varying levels of regulation and laws that apply to private schools irrespective of whether or not they have a choice program, meaning that the impact of a heavy-handed will vary from state to state based on this and other factors.

The authors also surveyed non-participating schools. Let’s look at the gory details from Florida and Louisiana. First Florida:

FL Private schools 1

Take a look at the fourth item down from the top. Ok- now Louisiana:

La private schools 1

 

So 23 percent of Florida non-participating schools said that concerns about independence, character and identify played a major role in their decision to keep out of the program, whereas 46% of Louisiana schools said it played a major role. Eleven percent of Florida schools said it played a minor role, whereas an additional 26% of Louisiana schools said the same. Overall 72% of Louisiana non-participants expressed concerns about their independence under the program.

Notice the first item as well- Florida private school leaders seem relatively confident that Florida lawmakers won’t go off the deep end in the future. Louisiana private school leaders seem to think that their lawmakers have already gone off the deep end. Most Florida private schools participate in the choice program, and seem anxious to provide more seats for low-income students. Many Louisiana private school leaders meanwhile have (understandably) adopted the stance of “thanks but no thanks.”

We create these programs in order to expand opportunities for students. Policymakers must carefully balance the public’s interest in academic transparency with the interest in private schools in maintaining their distinctive character and independence. Opinions of this subject are diverse, but far too many in my view have been consumed with a simplistic notion that giving the state’s (often subpar) test somehow equates with “accountability.” The word means being held responsible, but there is a whole bunch of state testing going on, but precious few being held responsible for much. Private schools already commonly use tests like the Stanford 10 and Iowa Test of Basic Skills and I’ve yet to see anyone make a convincing case that these tests won’t do just fine in providing transparency without saddling private schools with a state mandated curriculum.

Just as a quick thought experiment, suppose every state in the union ditched their state test (some of which are decent and some of which may as well be He-Man and the Masters of the Universe coloring books) and replaced it with one of the national norm tests. How would “accountability” be diminished? If you have a coherent answer please leave it in the comments. If you have an undying irrational attachment to the eternal beauty and truth of state tests uber alles, don’t bother unless you can explain why.

I know a few of the decision makers in Louisiana, and can attest that the road to this hell was paved with good intentions. No one woke up in the morning, stretched and yawned, and said “I want to create a choice program for disadvantaged kids that 70% of the private schools in the state won’t touch with a ten-foot pole.” That is not at all what happened, but the end result has been the same.

You live and learn- it is time to learn.

 


Welcome to Weimar!

November 14, 2014

minaj11f-2-web

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s been a while since we had a post on union goons shutting down debate by force. It happened again yesterday at AEI.

In other news, the central bank has spent years flooding the economy with cheap money, and fascist imagery is now cool and transgressive.

Willkommen . . . bienvenue . . . welcome!


Only Mostly Dead

November 17, 2008

princessbride11

Reliance on markets and the idea of limited government are not quite dead — only mostly dead.  They (mostly) died on October 3, 2008 when Congress passed the ginormous (giant + enormous) bailout bill, greatly expanding the scope and authority of the federal government to own stakes in businesses and financial assets.  And if you are looking for accomplices in the (mostly) murder of market-reliance and limited government, you should probably investigate the DC based “market-oriented” think tanks.

George Will correctly warns that this expansion of government by the partial nationalization of large sections of our economy is unlikley to be either temporary or benign.  (Now he tells us!)

The way back from (mostly) death for supporters of markets and limited government is to undo the bailout as quickly as possible.  Let businesses that made unwise decisions go into bankruptcy (I’m looking at you, GM).  Let their assets be reorganized by their credit-holders so that they move forward with a more efficient structure and more competent management.  Unless people experience the consequences of their mistakes, they can never learn from those mistakes and do better in the future.

I made this exact argument in defense of allowing companies to fail on September 18Mike Petrilli made the same argument on the same day.  But we’re just a bunch of lowly education analysts.  Where were all of the limited government Republicans?  Where were the market-oriented think tanks?

Let’s take a look at the period between September 15 and September 22 to see what the national, market-oriented think tanks had to say.  Remember that this was the pivotal week that began the (mostly) death-rattles for limited government and market-reliance.  Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt on September 15, but AIG received its first $85 billion bailout offer on September 16The first proposed $700 billion bailout was circulated around midnight on September 20

This was the time when the folks at think tanks could have been standing athwart big government yelling STOP!  They could have bolstered anti-bailout Republicans in Congress, steered the McCain campaign against the bailout (which would have been risky but probably a better hail Mary pass than picking Palin as VP), and they could have laid the foundations for a future defense of markets and limited government.

For the most part, the “market-oriented” national think tanks failed to yell STOP.  In the culminating act of complicity with big-government conservatism, they rationalized and defended a large government intervention in the economy.

Here is what people affiliated with AEI wrote during that period:

Glenn Hubbard called for a Resolution Trust approach of a bailout on both September 15 and September 19, advocating “putting in place a clean-up agency like the 1930s’ Homeowner’sLoan Corp. or the 1980s’ Resolution Trust Corp. would help…. The fiscal costs of inaction would be significant, both in lost tax receipts and in larger ‘crisis’ bailouts down the road.”  This Resolution Trust idea was the foundation for the $700 billion bailout plan of September 20.

Lawrence Lindsey called for a lifting of any cap on depositor insurance at banks on September 17 and then on September 21 endorsed the idea that the government had to provide credit to distressed financial institutions: “But by far the most inevitable economic development will be an expansion of the balance sheets of the government and its central bank.  When credit bubbles burst an enormous hole is formed in private-sector balance sheets…. Government, and only government, inevitably fits the bill as it can both tax and print the resources it needs.”  More support for the bailout.

Vincent Reinhart urged the administration to have “backbone” and resist more bailouts on September 16, but by September 22 he wrote in the New York Times: “The Congress should authorize the Treasury to purchase asset-backed securities in the secondary market and mortgages through auctions. For assets where it might not have all the information it needs, the Treasury could demand a slice of equity in the selling firm as well.”  More support for the bailout.

Alex Pollock wrote on September 17: “When government financial officers–like Treasury secretaries, finance ministers and central-bank chairmen–stand at the edge of the cliff of market panic and stare down into the abyss of potential financial chaos, they always decide upon government intervention.  This is true of all governments in all countries in all times. Nobody is willing to take the chance of going down in history as the one who stood there and did nothing in the face of a financial collapse and debt deflation. Put in their place, you would make the same decision, and so would I.”  More support for bailout.

Desmond Lachman wrote on September 17: “If Main Street is to be spared the painful economic consequences of a financial market meltdown on Wall Street, policymakers have little alternative but to resort to unorthodox interventionist policies to put a floor under the housing market and to prop up the banks with taxpayers’ money.”  More support for the bailout.

Newt Gingrich, writing on September 21, took a very skeptical position on the bailout.  But David Frum strongly went in the other direction, writing on September 22: “What should a free-market believer think about the plan for a government bailout of the U.S. mortgage market? Try this analogy: You have a white carpet in your upstairs hall. The normal rule is that nobody can wear shoes on the carpet. But the house is on fire–and the baby is upstairs. Will you tell the arriving fire department to wait and kick their boots off before dousing the flames?”  Notice that in this analogy, reliance on markets and belief in limited government are just the aesthetic nicety of clean carpets, not the principles that lay the foundations for the house or materials that resist fire.

It’s true that some of these folks called for “smarter regulation” (don’t make me get all Dr. Evil on them!) and advised about how best to conduct a bailout. But the bottom line is that 6 out of 7 AEI fellows who wrote during the pivotal week of September15-22 came out in support of a government bailout, with the 7th expressing skepticism but not outright opposition.

What about The Heritage Foundation?  They supported the bailout.

They issued four policy briefs during the week Sept 15-22.  The pieces all had the same basic message in support of a bailout: “Congress needs to act carefully but quickly in passing this legislation, knowing that it can correct any flaws when it reconvenes next year. Quick action is needed because financial markets remain deeply stressed, and the stress continues to spread to the rest of the economy.”

And what about the Manhattan Institute? They didn’t support the bailout.

Nicole Gelinas expressed even more doubts about the bailout than Newt Gingrich.  Writing in the NY Post she said, “Thing is, it’s not clear this is a solution. There’s no guarantee that even this much cash can buy us out of a systemic financial crisis. Even if it does, we probably face years of necessary financial and economic readjustment.”  And on September 26, just outside of the time period we are examining, she began to actively oppose the bailout, worrying that it might actually delay recovery.

And how about Cato? They also didn’t support the bailout.

Cato behaved more in-line with expectations than AEI or Heritage.  A September 15 piece by James Dorn was typical:“When the US Treasury is raided to defend the government’s credibility to guarantee GSE debt, it may calm markets for a time. Yet, in the long run, the drifts towards socialism and increased government borrowing requirements discourage foreign investment, decrease private saving, increase interest rates and slow US growth. That is a high price to pay for ‘stability.'”

For those of you keeping score, AEI and Heritage were actively in support of a large government intervention in the economy.  The Manhattan Institute and Cato were not.  But AEI is by far the most active and influential market-oriented think tank on this matter, so their support was crucial in shaping events and contributing to the (mostly) death of limited government and market ideas. The Manhattan Institute had only one expert on economic affairs active during the period I examined.  AEI had seven.  I believe that Heritage has, by far, the largest operating budget of any of these think tanks ($39 million as of 2006).  That is more than three times as large as the Manhattan Institute’s $12 million annual budget.

Donors pay for those seven AEI fellows and provide Heritage with its ginmormous budget.  If those donors really do wish to support huge expansions in government involvement in the economy, then I guess they are giving to the right organizations.