What Went Right?

July 6, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was one of the people who decided to read more about Islamic history after 9/11. Half way through Bernard Lewis’ book What Went Wrong? it occurred to me that Lewis had asked the wrong question. Lewis explored the question of why the Islamic world had gone from arguably the world’s leading civilization to a relative backwater. By the time this had happened however most of the world was a relative backwater in relation to western Europe. The more relevant question therefore in my mind is not “what went wrong” everywhere else but rather “what went right in the West?”

This thought came to mind when reading David Griffith’s paen to regulation in choice programs. David asked “Is there a state in the union with strong oversight, robust market supports, and a low-performing charter sector?” Actually yes there is- NACSA’s top ten state charter sectors are nine miles of bad road interrupted by a unique one-off in Louisiana towards the bottom of the ten.

Griffith writes “Yes, there are a few states where charters have achieved strong results despite a weak framework for intervening in low performing schools, or a dearth of quality authorizers, or limited parental supports. There is an exception to every rule.” Arizona, Colorado and Utah all display the high NAEP/low NACSA score combo. They are not alone btw. By “high NAEP” I mean “near or above Massachusetts scores.” By “low NACSA” I mean a score of 8 or 9 on the NACSA rating before the most recent NAEP. Other flourishing charter sectors, which display either some of these same types of rock star scores in the case of Florida, or else significant advantages over district performance in the case of DC, also dwell outside the top 10 NACSA rated charter laws.

Griffith seems to have mistaken the exception for the rule. It is a simple matter to point to multiple examples of the high NAEP/low NACSA score combo. The high NACSA/high NAEP combo is actually very rare. This is either because top rated states have charter sectors too small to meet NAEP reporting standards-like Indiana and Nevada- or just still struggling after all these years despite the benevolent regulation of the state like Texas.

Now it might be a coincidence that we see high NAEP/low NACSA combos aplenty in the 2015 NAEP. The 2017 NAEP will be released in October. I expect the data to show us more of the same, but time will tell. It could also be a coincidence that voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana experienced unusually low private school participation rates and struggled academically in the early year evaluations. Some of us started sounding alarm bells on the participation rates before the test score evaluations became available. You don’t need a random assignment study to tell that something is wrong with a voucher program that 70% of private schools choose to avoid, just a bit of common sense. The random assignment studies then did tell us something was indeed wrong, and then a helpful survey of schools pretty much nailed down why it happened. Griffith seems to believe that the problem with LA vouchers is under-regulation. There seems to be an abundance of evidence however that the opposite is true.

So getting back to Lewis, I am convinced that the right question is “what went right in Arizona, Colorado, DC, Florida, Utah etc?” rather than just “what went wrong in Ohio?” Under what set of circumstances can parents take the lead in putting down undesired schools with brutal efficiency? What factors lead this to working in some jurisdictions, but flopping in others? Texas went down the high regulation road in 2001, and well…let’s just say it does not bode well for Ohio.

Even if my friends with a preference for high levels of regulation had evidence to suggest that their approach has benefits (currently lacking) their yearning to apply a one-size-fits-all approach on 50 states with wildly varying needs would still be unwise. Nevada for instance can take little comfort from their high NACSA rating as they continue to suffer extreme levels of public school overcrowding with only a few dozen charter schools. There are hundreds of thousands of children on charter school wait lists in neighboring states with more welcoming charter school laws-why would operators in the surrounding states give Nevada a second thought? This is not a game, and these policies have very real consequences. This fall I will be sending the three Ladner children back to two fantastic charter schools. If either of these schools slips I have other options. Also this fall uncounted thousands of Nevadans will be sending their kids to portable building to meet the first of what will be a series of substitute teachers for the year. These parents have little in the way of other options. What is the case for keeping things this way in Nevada?