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.

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Monday Links

August 14, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andy Smarick turns in an interesting article on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions and education reform in National Affairs. Great article, although I believe Smarick’s article would profit by acknowledging almost catastrophic flaws in school district democracy, including often extremely low voter turnout rates and resulting opportunities for regulatory capture.

Kate Walsh on K-12 progress that is going unnoticed. Before this college success of charter school meme gets entirely out of hand, I want to suggest that we should get the comparisons between control group and experimental group studies on long-term success nailed down before going to town on this. We do have reason to suspect those applying to charters are different from those that don’t.

Interesting article on Why Education is the Hardest Sector to Automate by Raya Bidshahri.

Yours truly on Arizona Horizon debating ESAs with SoS leader Beth Lewis.

 

 


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

democracy-is-two-wolves-and-a-sheep-voting-on-whats-for-dinner

(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!