Greg in PJM Keeps ‘Em Honest With Choice

February 14, 2010

Greg has a great post today on Pajama’s Media about how school choice is the secret sauce that keeps all other reforms honest.  Think of it as a love letter to education reform. : )

Here’s a highlight:

… the biggest political winner in education by far in the past year has been charter schools. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but the Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support charters.

Why? I think it’s mainly because a critical mass of their political base on the left has embraced the principle that parents should be put in charge through choice, and I think that has happened precisely because they want a reform that will keep the system honest. More and more people on the left are sick and tired of the empty promises they’ve been peddled for decades: that this time, throwing another huge chunk of money at the blob will fix the schools — and this time, we really, really, really mean it, cross our hearts and hope to die.

The social justice folks on the left just don’t buy it anymore. They now see that the blob has been pulling the wool over their eyes for generations. You can imagine how they’re feeling about that right now. And woe betide you if the wrath of the social justice folks falls upon you; they’re not known for being gentle with those whom they perceive as enemies of social justice.

Case in point: Did you know that the same team of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, scruple-at-nothing propagandists who produced An Inconvenient Truth has now made a hard-hitting documentary bashing teachers’ unions and advocating charter schools? And it was the very first film picked up for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival?

… The recent surge in the political fortunes of charter schools has been fueled by the less dramatic but steadily growing success of private school choice: school vouchers and similar policies that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. There are now 24 private school choice programs serving 190,000 students nationwide, up from just five programs in 1996. And private school choice is continuing to gain ground every year with the creation of new programs and expansion of existing programs, even in tough years like 2009.

As my friend Jay Greene likes to put it, vouchers make the world safe for charters. That is, it’s because of the more modest success of vouchers that charters have exploded. As long as vouchers are on the march and are thus a credible threat, triangulating legislators who need the blob’s support can embrace charters without paying too high a price for doing so. If the blob cuts off its support for legislators who back charters, it won’t have anyone on its side when vouchers are on the agenda. Because vouchers are out there, the blob has no choice but to suck it up and pretend to be OK with charters.

The next question, though, is whether charters alone are going to be sufficient to keep the system honest. Charters have ridden to success with the help of a lot of new supporters, but those supporters are a demanding constituency. The social justice folks expect results.

The Heathers Think-Tanks

July 15, 2009

DC-based think tanks run the risk of being obsessed with the latest policy fashion rather than searching for the best long-term solutions.  In the DC bubble, sticking to one’s principles and the evidence is difficult when there are no near-term prospects for advancing policies that are supported by those principles and evidence.  It’s tempting instead to switch one’s policy focus so that it is line with the the current administration and congressional majority.

I was reminded of these hazards of DC think tanks when I received an invitation to the latest Thomas B. Fordham Institute event: “With charter schools ascendant, is there still a future for vouchers?” 

There’s nothing wrong with organizing a panel to consider the relative policy merits of charters and vouchers.  What’s weird is the suggestion that if one policy is currently popular, another might not have a future.  It’s like having a panel that addresses the question:  With Democrats ascendant, is there still a future for the Republican Party? 

Things change.  The current dominance of the Democratic Party won’t last forever.  It may not even last more than a few years.  Similarly, the current popularity of charters relative to vouchers may not last very long.  Rather than assessing the future of policies based on their current popularity, shouldn’t we assess their substantive merits so that we can advocate for the policies that are the most effective?

And if we must obsess on the political prospects of policies rather than their substantive merits, it’s weird to pit the two policies against each other.  Wouldn’t it seem more reasonable to think that as school choice becomes more common, whether with charters or with vouchers, all forms of choice will become more politically palatable?  As I’ve argued before, vouchers have helped make the world safe for charters, so the two policies may work well together. 

Just because the current congressional majority is hostile to vouchers doesn’t mean that the idea has no future or that we have to pit it against other, similar policies that are currently more in fashion.  Dismissing policies because they aren’t on the agenda of the current majority is like the type of argument heard in the 1988 film, Heathers:  “Grow up Heather, bulimia’s so ’87.”

I Want A New Civics Teacher

May 18, 2009

Kevin Carey offers a Civics 101 lesson on his blog.  All I can say is that I want a new civics teacher because this one doesn’t even have basic facts right. 

For example, Kevin writes that DC is “the one place in America without representation in Congress.”  The people of Guam, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico will be thrilled to learn that they’re not part of America or that Kevin has decided to give them representatives. 

But this is a bit of a distraction from the main issue, which is whether charters are good because they are allegedly accountable while vouchers are bad because they allegedly are not.  And here Kevin makes yet another bold, false assertion saying that vouchers schools are “currently unaccountable.” 

In what meaningful sense are DC charters more accountable than vouchers?  Both are subject to market accountability so that if they fail to perform to parental satisfaction they can lose students and the revenue those students generate.  In this sense both charters and vouchers are far more accountable than D.C. district public schools, which receive ever more revenue even as they perform miserably and lose students.  The only “currently unaccountable” schools are the district public schools, not the voucher schools.

But I imagine that Kevin only understands accountability to mean directly accountable to a public authority.  Even with that narrow meaning of accountability vouchers are accountable because they are subject to Congressional regulation and oversight.  Just watch the excellent hearings on DC vouchers held last week if you want to see what accountability looks like.

Perhaps Kevin has an even more narrow understanding of accountability, meaningful compliance with a particular set of rules regarding testing and reporting of results.  But even then DC vouchers are truly more accountable.  DC voucher students are required to take a standardized test and an independent evaluator is assessing whether students are benefiting from having access to the voucher program.  It’s true that DC charters must report test results by school, but that doesn’t make them any more accountable.  Knowing raw test results does not tell parents or public authorities whether those students would have done better had they not gone to that school or had access to the charter program.  The only way to know that with high confidence would be with a random-assignment evaluation, which many voucher programs have had and charter programs almost never have.

By accountability maybe Kevin means checking boxes on some regulatory check-list regardless of benefit to parents or the public.  Kevin would be right about that one.  Charters do have more meaningless and even counter-productive regulation with which they have to comply in the false pursuit of accountability.  The net effect of those mindless regulations is to undermine charter effectiveness and help preserve the unionized traditional district stranglehold.  That’s the kind of false accountability that I’m glad vouchers don’t have.

(edited for typos)

Are You Asking for a Challenge?

April 17, 2009

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli found the opening paragraph of my WSJ op-ed unpersuasive:

“On education policy, appeasement is about as ineffective as it is in foreign affairs. Many proponents of school choice, especially Democrats, have tried to appease teachers unions by limiting their support to charter schools while opposing private school vouchers. They hope that by sacrificing vouchers, the unions will spare charter schools from political destruction.”

Has Mike become a fan of appeasement and declared that he has reached “education reform in our time”?  No, but he believes that his anti-voucher/pro-charter beltway buddies are principled in holding their views:

“I challenge Jay to name one person he knows who supports charter schools but opposes vouchers because he or she hopes to appease the unions. I hang out with a lot of these folks and it’s clear to me that most of them oppose vouchers either because of queasiness over church/state issues or because they don’t want public funds going to schools that don’t face any public transparency or accountability requirements. ”

Of course, there is no way to prove who’s right about this because it involves knowing people’s motivations.  If people are willing to let vouchers die because they are eager to protect charters, they won’t exactly go around telling people (or even themselves) that their views are based more on political calculation than principle.  They’ll invent reasons for their views, like being uneasy about church/state issues or having concerns about accountability, even if those are not their true motivations.

So why do I believe that the anti-voucher/pro-charter view is largely a political calculation rather than a principled position?  Well, because most people who hold this view are not consistent in their principles.  If church/state issues are the problem for the anti-voucher/pro-charter crowd, why don’t they oppose Pell Grants or the Day Care Tuition Tax Credit, both of which are vouchers that include religious schools?  If their objection is principled, then we would expect them to be consistent in applying that principle.

And if their objection is the lack of public transparency and accountability, why don’t they advocate for whatever regulations on vouchers they believe are necessary and desirable?  It is simply untrue to say that current voucher programs “don’t face any public transparency or accountability requirements.”  And if people thought even more regulations would be beneficial, the principled position would be to support vouchers with those regulations.  After all, there is nothing magical about the word “public” that makes schools accountable or transparent, so whatever regulations people prefer could be imposed on vouchers as easily as on district or charter schools. 

Of course, I think much of that regulation is unnecessary for accountability and undesirable for schools whether they are district, charter, or voucher schools, but there is nothing in principle that makes one type of school more impervious to accountability regulation than another.  A principled position for believers in choice and competition would be to support charters and vouchers and advocate for a particular regulatory regime, regardless of whether it applied to charters or vouchers.

So if the objections to vouchers among some charter supports are not based on principles, it is reasonable to suspect that they are based on political calculations.  We’ve already rehearsed this argument in an earlier post and I’m too polite to name names, but if you think hard it won’t be a challenge to come up with a the names of a bunch of people.

(edited for typos)

Add a Little Salt

March 20, 2009

(Guest Post by Jonathan Butcher)

Last week, a South Carolina education blog called “The Voice for School Choice” posted links to an article on the worst schools in the U.S.  South Carolinians should be particularly irked with the article because 11 SC schools made the top 25.  All is not what it seems, though; below is a touch of salt to be added to the results of this article (“25 Worst Performing Public Schools in the U.S.”).  At issue is not the intelligence of the authors nor their ability; however, they make very strong claims as to the significance of their findings, and readers should be aware of the foundation on which the authors make these claims regarding student achievement.

“Worst Schools” was composed by a website called “Neighborhood Scout” and published on a financial blog operated by AOL called “WalletPop.”  Neighborhood Scout specializes in “nationwide relocation software, retail site selection, and real estate investment advertising.”  They are not an academic department at a university nor a policy research institution, and their founders do not have backgrounds in education or education policy research.  The founders’ specialty is geography, computer mapping and web design (there is no evidence that the authors are different from those described on Neighborhood Scout’s web page).

Neighborhood Scout created their own methodology for the “Worst Schools” article.  They subtracted the percentage of students who “passed” NAEP in a particular state (I am assuming they mean students who scored at proficient or above—though it could mean basic or above) from the “average percentage” of students in the same state who scored at the proficient or advanced level on the state’s mandatory test.  Their objective was to find schools in states where there is a large difference between the percentage of students proficient on a state test and the percent proficient on NAEP in order to make judgments about the difficulty (or lack thereof) of a state test.  The article does not compare similar student populations—as does NAEP—or at the least this methodology section does not indicate such disaggregation.

Of note is that the study gives no indication of being peer-reviewed, and peer-review is a robustness check even among research reports not submitted to journals.  In addition, the study is a snapshot of test scores.  It does not take into account improvement over time, student population changes, or compare scores to some baseline indicator.  For example, in the past three years, 6th graders at W.A. Perry (one of the SC schools in the bottom 25) have gone from 48% meeting or exceeding state standards in math to 66%.  They are still below the state average, but more students are meeting or exceeding state standards now than three years ago.  Similar results can be found in English/Language Arts. 

Admittedly, W.A. Perry’s 6th graders’ scores are below the state average; however, they are making progress.  My aim is not to defend schools that may be low-performing, but a snapshot of a school’s test scores at one point in time does not a failing school make.  NCLB agrees with me, as a school must be in need of improvement for three years before significant intervention takes place.

Additionally, no indication is given by the article as to the student populations served at these schools.  For example, Milwaukee Spectrum School (#25) has a total population of 90 at-risk students who had a record of truancy at other schools.  The school is often a last stop for students ready to drop out of high school all together.  Of course the school is struggling; it is intended to serve struggling students.

In the article, different grades are represented for each school.  For example, high schools are not compared to high schools, but to elementary, middle, and high schools.  This presents a problem because the trend in NAEP (generally) is that more elementary students score proficient than middle school students, and more middle school students score proficient than high school students (this is true across subjects).    

Further, scores are not reported for every grade in every subject.  So a high school with low-scoring 11th graders may be on the “Worst Schools” list right before a middle school who has low-scoring 8th graders but a class of 6th graders with scores closer to a state’s average. 

In the end, of course, readers will decide if this list of worst performing schools is convincing.  However, before sinking your teeth in, take the article with a grain of salt.

The Charter/Voucher Extended Dance Remix

March 16, 2009

My post last week on why supporters of charter schools don’t also support vouchers generated a large amount of discussion.  Here are some tidbits on the same topic:

First, Doug Tuthill, the former teacher union leader and now head of Florida’s choice advocacy group, Step Up For Students, emailed me to say:

In Florida we have adopted the same approach to charters and vouchers you advocated in your recent exchange with Andy Rotherham.  Given the idealized status of “public education” in our culture, getting into a public versus private school debate is a losing proposition.  Therefore we argue that  publicly-funded private schools are part of our public education system and the real issue is how best to regulate all publicly-funded education.   Our approach is aided by the reality that public education in Florida is expanding to incorporate a variety of publicly-funded private providers.  Many of the state’s best secondary magnet programs are run by private providers (my favorites are two aeronautic magnet programs run by Embry-Riddle University in Okaloosa County), the K-5 portion of our state online school, the Florida Virtual School, is run by a private provider, the overwhelming majority of our charter schools are run by private providers, and of course all the schools providing services through the McKay and Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships are private providers.  To arbitrarily label some of these public-private partnerships as “voucher” programs and therefore suggest they are bad is nonsensical.  The goodness or badness of any publicly-funded education program should be determined by its effectiveness and efficiency, not by how it is labeled.


Andy and President Obama, among others, are caught in the old “public-versus-private-school” paradigm, which is why they support “charters” but not “vouchers.”    But as you pointed out in your exchange with Andy, this is an illogical distinction unless one is stuck in the “public is good, private is bad” mindset and possesses a myopic view of what constitutes public and private. 


And here is an interesting item about how Orthodox Jewish groups have come out against secular charter schools as a substitute for a Jewish education.  The Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School in Florida focuses on Hebrew language and Jewish history but has no religious instruction.  And it is drawing students away from Jewish private schools in part because the charter is free to students while the private schools have to charge tuition.  The huge expansion in charter schools may be posing an even greater competitive threat to established private schools than to traditional public schools.


Leaders of the Orthodox movement recognize this threat to their efforts to focus on religious instruction.  A spokesman for the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Avi Shafran, commented: “We are not pro-charter schools. They are not replacements for a yeshiva education, and anyone who can imagine they could be are fooling themselves… There is no end around the fact that Jewish education is a Jewish education and that can only happen in a Jewish institution with a Jewish curriculum. And because our nation does not permit religious instruction in public schools, there is no way to avoid the need that Jewish parents have for yeshivas.” 

Pay No Attention To My Legislative Agenda

March 11, 2009

President Obama gave a great speech yesterday in which he strongly endorsed charter schools and merit pay.  He also emphasized the need to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms and to expand access to pre-school.

The problem is that these words bear almost no resemblance to the education priorities contained in Obama’s legislative agenda.  This is really strange.  I’m accustomed to presidents exaggerating the attractiveness of their proposed policies.  But Obama is the first president that I can think of who pushes the attractiveness of policies that he is hardly pursuing in legislation while concealing the bulk of his actual efforts.

I’ve previously written about how the bulk of Obama’s increased education spending goes to status quo programs, such as Title I, special ed, Pell Grants, school construction, and generally holding localities harmless against losses in tax revenue.  Almost no money has been devoted to charter schools, merit pay, efforts to remove ineffective teachers, and even pre-school (which received only $4 billion of the $800 billion stimulus package, and most of that was for propping up status quo Head Start programs).  All of the great (and not so great) education policies that Obama talks about are almost completely absent in legislation that he has backed.  And he hardly says a peep about all of the education policies that he does throw money at. 

Obama just distracts us from his actual efforts with pretty words about things that he is hardly doing.  Of course, the most obvious thing he was distracting us from with his speech yesterday was the Senate vote to begin the execution of the DC voucher program.  He didn’t say a word about yesterday’s actions, knowing that all of the headlines would be about the reforms he did endorse (but has done almost nothing to actually enact).

But I Won’t Do That

March 10, 2009

There’s an awful Meatloaf song where he declares that he would do anything for love… but he won’t do that.  It’s isn’t entirely clear what Mr. Loaf (as the New York Times calls him) won’t do for love.  But it is clear that there is something he will not do even though he has just declared that he would do anything

This incoherent, cheesy awfulness reminds me of the argument that we should support charters but oppose vouchers.  I’m sure that’s what you were thinking as well.  It’s like they would do anything for choice… but they won’t do that.

If one supports the view that expanding choice and competition help students who choose and either helps or does no harm to traditional public schools, why limit that support to charter schools?  I know people say that at least charters are still public schools, but why exactly does that matter?  There is no magic pixie dust in the word “public” that makes things good or serve the public interest.  If we add the word “public” to vouchers so that we now call them “public vouchers” does that make them acceptable to pro-charter/anti-voucher folks?

I know that some suggest the important part of charters being “public” is that they can be regulated so as to assure public goals.  But whatever regulations are really necessary for public goals can be attached as a condition to vouchers as easily as to charters.  If we think teachers need to have certain credentials or students have to take certain tests, that can be (and has been) required of voucher-receiving private schools.  It’s not clear what about the publicness of charter schools, or even traditional public schools, make them better suited to serving the public good or being regulated for that purpose.

I suspect that some of the real rationale behind supporting charters but opposing vouchers is an unstated uneasiness with vouchers supporting students in religious schools.  But the U.S. Supreme Court has settled this issue as a matter of constitutional law.  And if the objection is one of desirable public policy, why is there near universal support for vouchers (Pell Grants) to attend BYU or Baylor but not St. Thomas Aquinas High School? 

This leads me to suspect that the real REAL reason for folks supporting charters but opposing vouchers is the political desire to appear moderate regardless of how incoherent and irrational it is.  Today President Obama is going to tout his support for charter schools.  And he’s going to tout his support for Pell Grants.  But he will not support vouchers.  Holding all of these positions make no logical sense, but they are thought to have some political appeal. 

I guess I understand why politicians take these incoherent positions, but why do people in academia, think tanks, and the blogoshpere do this?  Unlike politicians we don’t have to lie or make false distinctions for a living.  So I challenge anyone to explain exactly why, other than for the political advantage of triangulation, people should support charters but oppose vouchers.

My bet is that any argument will resemble the “look at the silly monkey” argument.  It’s even more powerful than the Chewbacca defense because it makes your head explode.

Andy’s Just Plain Wrong

March 5, 2009

Andy Rotherham is a great guy.  And he’s often right.  But I’m afraid that on vouchers he’s just plain wrong.

Andy responded to my post, which was a response to an earlier post he wrote on vouchers.  Let me just run through his arguments:

First, Andy wants to argue that vouchers have stalled politically.  I pointed out that there are now 24 voucher or tax-credit programs in 15 states serving more than 100,000 students.  And two new programs were adopted last year and a third significantly expanded. 

No fair, Andy cries, including tax-credit programs “creates a false sense of scale for intentional choice plans.”  What’s false about counting tax credit programs, like the one in Florida which functions as the largest voucher program in the country?  The program gives vouchers — excuse me — “scholarships” to students from organizations that are funded with dollar for dollar tax credit donations from corporations.  This is virtually identical in financing and effect as the state simply giving vouchers to students.  The only difference is that the tax credit is treated better by the courts (don’t ask why) because the money never enters the state treasury before going right back out the door as a voucher.

But let’s say we grant Andy his odd position that tax-credit programs don’t count.  We still have 13 voucher programs in 10 states serving about 50,000 students.  And the two new programs adopted last year were both voucher programs.  Wish as he might, Andy still can’t show that vouchers have stalled politically.

Second, Andy rightly says, “Reasonable people can review the cumulative literature about choice plans and disagree on how substantively significant or transformative these effects are (or could be at scale) and what that means for vouchers as a policy. ”  While reasonable folks could disagree about the magnitude of the effect of expanded school choice on public school performance, no reasonable person could disagree with the observation that the research literature supports at least some positive impact.  Given how hard it is to find any policy intervention that raises student achievement, consistently finding a positive impact from the systemic effect of vouchers should be treated as a big deal.  It isn’t to Andy. 

Third, Andy concedes that the more frightening prospect of vouchers helped spread charters, at least in the early stages of the charter movement.  But now that charters have reached critical mass, they may well do just fine without the viable threat of new and expanded voucher programs.  Folks who are really sincere about charters shouldn’t get so comfortable.  Just look at the unionization of the KIPP charter in NY or the constant effort to regulate charters to death in many states.  Dropping vouchers from your arsenal would be like confronting a resurgent Russia after dismantling all of your nuclear weapons.  You may think your conventional forces are up to the task, but ask the Poles how they would feel about it.

I’ve never understood why people would support charters but oppose vouchers.  The theory that expanded choice is good for the participating student and helps spur improvement in traditional public schools is required for both reforms.  Yes, charters are more easily subject to regulation than private schools receiving vouchers, but healthy charter programs require light regulation and states have not been shy about applying similar light regulation to voucher programs. 

The only reason I can imagine that folks would support charters but oppose vouchers is for political gain since the theory and evidence for both are essentially the same.  And I understand why politicians invent these false distinctions to prove their moderation and good sense by opposing the one they artificially dub as radical.  But we aren’t politicians.  We don’t have to lie or invent false distinctions to please constituencies.  Universities, think tanks, and the blogosphere should be refuges for reasoned inquiry and dispute, not rhetoric for political advantage.  As it says on the great seal — Veritas.

UPDATE — Andy’s a nice guy.  I tried to make my post as hyperbolic as possible and he responds kindly and reasonably.  Damn, he’s good.

UPDATE TO UPDATE — Just to be clear, I still think Andy is just plain wrong.  The fig leaf that Andy uses to be pro-charter while anti-voucher is the concern that vouchers sever “the connection between avenues of democratic input into schooling decisions and those decisions.   In other words, for some people the issue isn’t choice, rather it’s accountability in a broad sense.”  The reality is that there is as much opportunity for democrat input in the  design and operation of voucher programs as charter schools or traditional public schools for that matter.  The public can place whatever regulations it deems necessary on voucher schools as a condition of receiving those funds, just as it does with charter and traditional public schools.  Of course, all of these systems would operate best with minimal regulation.  If regulation were the answer to school effectiveness our public schools would already be fantastic.

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