Andy Smarick on K-12 Paradigm Shift

March 13, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Smarick has a new paper out from AEI discussing Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift framework and the current context of American K-12. Everything he describes is very apparent in the discussion of K-12 out here in the Cactus Patch, especially the discussion about “Incommensurability.” Smarick describes the process by which adherents of the old and new paradigms stop making sense to each other:

According to Structure, the perspectives of adherents of the new paradigm are, in many respects, permanently and irrevocably incompatible with those of their predecessors. It is not just that the paradigms take different positions on particular issues; it is that they ask fundamentally different questions, look for different types of answers, and prioritize different things. Kuhn described it as talking past one another and “practic[ing] their trades in different worlds.

Just yesterday an unsigned editorial in the Arizona Republic read:

This year’s ESA budget is about $40 million according to the Arizona Department of Education. That is more than the state provided to fix things like lead-laced water and mercury in public schools.

In the same edition, Jeb Bush wrote a guest editorial:

ESAs will not cause a mass exodus from public schools. Instead the result will be improved public schools. An enterprise that can take its customers for granted behaves much differently than one that risks losing them.

In the Republic’s paradigm the state is responsible for flooring installed in some district campuses in the 1960s and 1970s and should cease giving students further choices until everything is all clear in district land. Obviously this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but the billions in funding that state taxpayers gave districts every year can be used on facilities, not just any additional emergency assistance. Moreover, the state was going to fund the ESA kids whether they went into the ESA program or not, and in fact the majority of them are special needs children, and the consistent claim of the districts have been that they must divert local funds for each child. It’s not like the budget for the ESA program in other words prevents districts and the state from addressing mercury-vapor inducing flooring in other words.

Under Governor Bush’s paradigm, the districts will continue to improve as long as parents have the ability to vote with their feet-whether it is to get away from toxic mercury vapors or a toxic academic or cultural climate etc.

And so it goes…


Good Listen/Reads

January 26, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay goes full podcast with Nick Gillispie, putting the Secretary of Ed debate in context and revealing an “anarcho-socialist” youth. Congrats on keeping the more desirable half btw! Reason also covered the ESA push in Texas:

Andy Smarick presses the attack on the massive failure of the SIG program and sees an opening for choice. Mike Petrilli asks you to please ignore the evaluation disasters as he courts the technocratic tribe on the bossy nature of the Louisiana voucher program.

Finally the most interesting thing you will read this month just might be “What Do You Do if a Red State Moves to You?”  Editorial comment on the latter: there are obviously disturbing trends afoot but democracy is designed to develop compromises that people can live if not love. If the Presidency devolves into whose team gets to make imperial diktats from on high to govern by pen and phone expect unending backlash from all sides of every issue.

Smarick on the Quiet Revolution of Charter Schooling

October 14, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Good read from Andy on charter schooling at the quarter century:

All these particular issues, however, underscore a basic point: Chartering has quietly revolutionized public schooling. It didn’t happen through clever, technocratic administrative fixes or a gigantic, rapidly passed omnibus legislative package. Nor did it humbly take for granted longstanding arrangements or merely tinker with the mechanics of existing programs. Instead, chartering took the long view. It trusted families and communities, carved out space for a new approach, and then allowed civil society to slowly create and change the new system. The result has been more individual empowerment, educational options, respect for pluralism, competition, civic-sector activity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

That is indeed how charter schooling looks like out here in the Cactus Patch- a long term bet on self-determination that paid off in an absolutely spectacular fashion. Well, I mean, if you consider getting a large majority-minority student population to score near the average student in Massachusetts for about half the per pupil funding given to schools in that high-income and pale complected state spectacular. I mean I guess it really depends on where you put the bar and all.  Little Ramona for instance doesn’t like it because the sector isn’t as prone to regulatory capture in ultra low turnout elections dominated by organized employee interests governed by school districts.

I also see much wisdom in the incremental gradualism that has marked the first 25 years of charter schooling, but also a ton of reasons to speed things up.

Bending Spoons with Andy Smarick

July 11, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Following up on Greg’s post on Andy Smarick’s great post on accountability and how our current systems are based upon premises on their way to being out of date. It brings to mind this scene in the Matrix:


You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Andy took the red pill- welcome aboard the Nebuchadnezzar!

Is Political Control Over Charter Schools Wise?

June 29, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In a recent essay, Andy Smarick proposed democratically controlled charter authorizers:

If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district.

Smarick’s “middle path” approach is an interesting idea that’s worth consideration, but education reformers should have serious reservations about it. In particular, it’s not clear what the problem is that this approach is trying solve or why this approach wouldn’t lead to the same problems that political control over traditional district schools has caused.

Smarick’s case rests on the claim that “communities” are “demanding more democratic control.” But are they? Which communities? Or, more precisely, which voices in those communities? After all, it’s exceedingly rare that everyone in a given community speaks with one voice. And what are these voices saying? Smarick name-checks a few cities but cites no evidence that would answer any of these questions. He merely asserts that “authority that is both local and democratic has also been in demand.” Okay, sure, maybe. But it’s still not clear why ed reformers should accede to these (anonymous) demands.

Smarick continues:

A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected.

Are any of these claims necessarily true?

  • Is it true that democratic control is necessary for communities to pass on their culture and traditions? Aren’t most mediating institutions — churches, private schools, non-profits, sports leagues, museums, farmer’s markets, small businesses, professional organizations, etc.  — decidedly not subject to political control? And to the extent that some of these organizations employ some measure of democratic decision-making, isn’t it only the members of those organizations (and not the community at large) that have the right to vote?
  • Is there such a thing as “the public will”? At best, this means merely the will of the majority, which often comes at the expense of the will of the minority (or several types of minorities). Moreover, as Terry Moe and others have detailed, political control often means control by well-organized special interests like teachers unions. In any case, political control entails citizens fighting against each other to have their preferences reflected rather than each being able to have their preferences met in a market. To the extent that a “public will” exists,  it is multi-faceted, hence a system of decentralized choices better reflects the public will than a centralized system.
  • Is it true that there is more transparency when institutions are subject to political control? Forget Clinton’s emails — elected school boards regularly lack transparency.
  • Do people feel more agency in political systems? Perhaps the majority does, but do the minorities? Wouldn’t those minorities prefer options that weren’t subject to majority control?
  • Is it true that political decisions are “more respected and durable”? 2016 is an odd year to be making that argument.

On Twitter, Smarick claimed that a democratically controlled charter board’s “incentives [and] ability to interfere [with] schools drop dramatically when board authorizes but does not operate schools.” Possibly. But as Jay pointed out yesterday, traditional school boards don’t “operate” the district schools either, yet there is plenty of room for mischief. After all, Smarick himself argued that these boards should decide what “types” of schools exist and what constitutes a “good” school. That’s an awful lot of control.

As Smarick himself recognizes, elected boards shift power away from families to “the community” (i.e., whichever group can seize political control). As he explained:

Today’s decentralized systems of choice empower families and enable a wide array of options, but they inhibit the community’s ability to shape the contours of the local school system.

It seems that Smarick — who is generally quite conservative — is embracing the progressives’ preference for political control over mediating institutions that Yuval Levin has so insightfully described:

Progressives in America have always viewed those mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the government with suspicion, seeing them as instruments of division, prejudice, and selfishness or as power centers lacking in democratic legitimacy. They have sought to empower the government to rationalize the life of our society by clearing away those vestiges of backwardness and putting in their place public programs and policies motivated by a single, cohesive understanding of the public interest. This clearing away has in some cases consisted of crowding out the mediating institutions by taking over some of their key functions through direct government action. In other cases, it has involved turning elements of civil society and the private economy into arms of government policy — by requiring compliance with policy goals that are foreign to many civil-society institutions or consolidating key sectors of the economy and offering protection to large corporations willing to act as public utilities or to advance policymakers’ priorities.

I hope that Smarick will reconsider his support for empowering the government at the expense of school autonomy and families’ preferences. Perhaps the angel on his right shoulder will whisper Yuval Levin’s counsel into his ear:

Conservatives have always resisted such gross rationalization of society, however, and insisted that local knowledge channeled by evolved social institutions — from families and civic and fraternal groups to traditional religious establishments, charitable enterprises, private companies, and complex markets — will make for better material outcomes and a better common life. The life of a society consists of more than moving resources around, and what happens in that vital space between the individual and the government is at least as much a matter of character formation as of material provision and wealth creation.

As I noted above, I do believe that Smarick’s proposal merits serious consideration. Although I don’t think he has made a strong case for a democratically controlled charter board, I do think he’s onto something when he says that there is strong demand for democracy, at least in some quarters. That said, I think the more viable “middle path” is down a different road. There are numerous mediating institutions in society that engage in democratic decision-making, but only members have a vote. Instead of giving a vote to everyone in the community — wolves and sheep alike — perhaps charter schools could give a vote to parents of students who are enrolled there. This way, parents who want democratic agency can enroll their children in democratically run charters, while other parents can choose schools that have different missions, and in no case will outside special interests be able to seize control.

I’m sure there are other arrangements that could also achieve the balance that Smarick seeks. But please: don’t give power to the wolves!

Why Relinquishment Would be a Good but Insufficient Idea for DCPS

March 7, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Smarick has written about the next phase of reform for DC, calling for a relinquishment model. Given that DC charters receive a lot less revenue per pupil than DCPS and get substantially better results, this idea has merit.

Ladner DC 4

So scoring about a grade level worth of average progress higher for considerably less money constitutes an impressive accomplishment. However when we rank both DCPS and DC charters against the other urban districts in TUDA (for students with parents having similar education backgrounds) we find:

Ladner DC 5

The same pattern appears if you slice by family income etc. Not only to DC charters have a clear advantage over DCPS- they also demonstrate the only impressive gains for free and reduced lunch eligible students to be found in the NAEP data. Don’t go diving too far into the punch bowl however because those overall scores, even for charter students, are still trying to catch up to Mississippi:

Ladner DC 6

So- I agree with Andy that DC policymakers should consider pursuing an achievement district type strategy. DC policymakers and students should not turn their noses up at any strategy with a clear theory of action for improving outcomes at a lower cost. It’s not as if $29k per child in revenue will last a lifetime, but these terrible DCPS results will.

The data however seem to strongly suggest the approximate limits of such a strategy. We have no evidence as yet for instance suggesting that DC charter schools can produce a 20 percent boost in graduation rates the way DC OSP managed. Moreover, the status quo in DC is heading straight towards the extinction of private schools rather than utilizing their potential as partners. An achievement district approach would not have to finish this sad job as it looks likely to be finished long before.

DCPS has lost half of its students. It receives an unsustainable amount of revenue per pupil and does very little with it.  The appearance of improvement in the first figure above is mostly a mirage driven by gentrification. That same gentrification has helped to make DC the achievement gap capital of the nation as the one thing that DCPS has seemed to master is educating kids born on third base. Even if one mistakenly takes DC gains at face value, it still leaves DC ranked near the bottom as seen in the second figure and chart above.

As a resident of a distant patch of cactus, I don’t get a vote on any of this. DC residents will ultimately work this out for themselves. Call me crazy-it’s been too long since anyone has- but I would not be looking for incremental change.




Attack of the Wonks!

June 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As the Fordham Institute’s ESA Wonk-a-thon is coming to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As JayBlog readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. (If an author thinks I missed or misconstrued something, please yell at me in the comments section.) The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure all ESA students take NNR tests and track student outcomes. The state treasurer must ensure the application process is user friendly, distribute restricted-use debit cards, and conduct annual audits. Otherwise, providers should be free to innovate and parents should be free to choose among them.

Matthew Ladner (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should ensure financial accountability through restricted-use debit cards and the whitelisting of vendors and eventually of individual products. The market can foster quality through platforms where users rate providers (as happened informally in Arizona). The state should aggregate NNR test scores and hire an academic researcher to report on the data, but otherwise avoid trying to regulate quality.

Jonathan Butcher (Goldwater Institute): The state should ensure the ESA funds are being used for eligible educational purposes by reviewing receipts before issuing the next quarterly installment. Students should take NNR tests and the state should commission an academic researcher to report on the results. Otherwise, policymakers should rely on the market to ensure quality.

Tracey Weinstein (StudentsFirst): The state should “set a high bar for the quality of services offered by providers” and “eliminate providers who consistently fail to meet the mark.” The state should also provide ESA families with information about providers.

Andy Smarick (Fordham Institute): The state should “prioritize transparency, continuous and small-scale course corrections, and research” and “collect and publish information on providers, participation rates, student outcomes, and more.” In the long term, researchers should “study how the public’s interests are and are not being met by these increasingly private choices.”

Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans): Nevada should increase public funding to $7,000 per student with more for low-income, ELL students, and special needs students, and that educational institutions should be prohibited from charging ESA families additional tuition beyond the amount the state deposits in the ESA. 

Lindsey Burke (Heritage Foundation): State regulators should stay out of the way of the market. The state should primarily concern itself with ensuring taxpayer dollars are used only for eligible expenses and making the application process transparent and user friendly. Responsibility for academic outcomes should lie primarily with parents, though the state’s NNR testing requirement is appropriate.

Jason Bedrick (Cato Institute): Policymakers should resist the urge to overregulate. Quality is best fostered through the market process: provider experimentation, parental evaluation, and organic evolution. A robust market ensures quality by channeling expert knowledge (e.g. – private certification and expert reviews) and user experience (e.g. – platforms for user ratings). The state should limit its role to ensuring that ESA funds are spent only on eligible expenses and serving as a repository for information. 

Adam Peshek (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should primarily concern itself with providing financial accountability (restricted-use debit cards, auditing), but responsibility for academic outcomes should rest with parents. We must “remain vigilant against death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education): Nevada must recruit a “new breed” of bureaucrat that will “learn how to regulate choice without squashing innovation,” “develop creative and better approaches to fiscal and performance accountability,” “coordinate with non-governmental agencies to develop a strong supply of high-quality providers,” ensure transparency, and “build a dashboard of indicators of a healthy market and government regulatory structure” (among other objectives).

Travis Pillow (redefinED): Regulators should give providers the freedom to experiment (even though some experiments will fail). However, the state should ensure the health and safety of students and prevent financial fraud. The results of NNR tests should be reported to parents and the public. The state should provide an online forum for parents that would help catch administrative problems and could serve as a Yelp-like provider rating system. The state should give more money to low- and middle-income families and students with special needs. 

Robert Tagorda (SoCal education reformer): To operate at scale from the outset, the state treasurer’s office and state department of education must collaborate effectively. The state must broker information to ensure the marketplace functions properly, but it can’t do it alone. The state must foster organic solutions and exchanges of information such as platforms for user reviews.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen (Agudath Israel): “Almost universal” eligibility isn’t good enough. The state should expand eligibility to all students, not just those who attended a district school for 100+ days in the previous year.

There appears to be some consensus around financial accountability. The state must ensure that ESA families are only using taxpayer funds for their intended educational purposes. To that end, most of the wonks who addressed the matter called for utilizing restricted-use debit cards and/or auditing.

The primary area of contention is the role of the state in guaranteeing educational quality. Some want the state to set standards, measure performance, and perhaps even “eliminate” providers who don’t meet those standards. Others (myself included) respond: “Get your regulatory paws off me, you dirty technocrats!” are concerned that such efforts would stifle the very diversity and innovation that the ESA is intended to foster.

It’s an important debate. I commend both the Fordham Institute for hosting it and the participants for offering their insightful analysis. Differences in means aside, we all share the same end: fostering an education system in which all children have access to high-quality providers that meet their individual needs.