Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!


Yuval Levin on Combating Cronyism

November 3, 2016

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

The most recent issue of National Review contains an excellent essay by Yuval Levin on why conservatives should get serious about tackling cronyism. Noting that 2016 has exposed the failure of conservatives to “take seriously some key public concerns” and to “articulate some key conservative priorities,” Levin urges conservatives to do more to address voters’ concerns that “the economy is somehow rigged against them… to the benefit of some wealthy and powerful interests.” (This is sage advice not only for conservatives, but also for education reformers of various political stripes.) As it happens, the Left has proven much more adept that tapping into this concern, although as Levin points out, they exploit it to “empower greater government intervention — ironically creating new opportunities for the wealthy and powerful to lobby and to curry favor.”

To a great extent, the failure to address cronyism stems from the fact that too many conservatives–particularly Republican elected officials–have long confused being pro-market with being pro-business. As Levin explains:

Everybody knows that conservatives in America are champions of the market economy as an engine of prosperity. But too many Americans, including too many conservatives, seem to believe that defending the market economy means serving the interests of business. That is certainly how our government has too often approached its role as steward of the economy — advancing the priorities of established, well-connected interests, sometimes at the expense of the needs of individuals, families, communities, and the nation as a whole, and claiming to do so in the name of economic growth and freedom.

But a commitment to the goals and principles of the market economy is by no means the same thing as a commitment to the interests of the businesses that compete in that economy. On the contrary, markets require a government dedicated to open competition for the benefit of consumers and citizens — which very often means subjecting powerful incumbents to competitive pressures they would rather avoid.

Such fair and open competition is precisely what makes markets engines of prosperity and innovation, and what makes the free-enterprise system well suited to helping a free society address some of its biggest problems. Providing business interests (or labor interests, or any other established, well-connected group) with special benefits or shielding established market actors from competition is therefore anathema to the ethic of capitalism and of democracy. That our government now frequently engages in precisely such preferential treatment for the well connected is a grave danger to democratic capitalism in America. And that the public identifies such cronyism with capitalism itself is a failure of the friends of the market system. It is as such a failure of conservatism, and it threatens all that conservatives hope to achieve.

Levin goes on to enumerate many examples of cronyism, highlighting its existence in areas that conservatives should be doing more to expose and correct, including the realm of education:

Self-dealing is, for instance, at the heart of our primary- and secondary-education crisis, as schools and districts are run in the interests of administrators and tenured teachers rather than students. It is a driving force behind our higher-education dilemmas, as the already accredited run the accreditation system and keep out new competitors and new models of schooling and financing. It undermines upward mobility, as established players in one industry after another use licensing and certification requirements to keep out competitors.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, particularly for Levin’s insightful diagnosis of the origins of the problem and suggested solutions, but JayBlog readers will be particularly interested in Levin’s treatment of education policy.

Noting that “parental choice is restricted by systems that protect incumbent teachers and their unions at the expense of students,” Levin argues that the state must “become a neutral arbiter of competitive marketplaces rather than a manager of inefficient monopolies.

In many large school districts, teachers’ unions use their financial and political muscle to control the election of school-board members and so effectively choose their own negotiating partners, leaving parents and the rest of their communities powerless to change things. Breaking up such monopolies, by allowing some of the public funds that now flow to school systems to be put instead in the hands of parents and by giving those parents a real choice among educational options, can help these public dollars serve the public rather than a particularly powerful pressure group.

As Jay has counseled, education reformers can’t afford to ignore politics. Reformers can’t expect to be effective unless they are speaking to the concerns that voters have. They shouldn’t expect those voters to get excited about policies that are intended to answer questions that voters aren’t asking. Education reformers must seek to understand what voters are concerned about and clearly articulate how our policy proposals would address those concerns. Sizable portions of the electorate, both right and left, are troubled by a system that appears to be rigged against them. Reformers must show them how the government-run education system is rife with cronyism and explain how choice policies will empower them to provide their children with a better education.  As Levin concludes:

The failure to advance this argument is an instance of a larger pattern in which conservatives have become disconnected from public concerns because we have forgotten the foundations of our own view of the world. A complacent repetition of vague slogans about freedom too often turns the Right into a caricature of itself. A concerted reengagement with the actual conservative case for freedom would instead let the Right offer serious answers to today’s most pressing public concerns.

Likewise, education reformers must resist the siren call of technocracy and seriously reengage with the foundational ideas of the ed reform movement in a manner that connects with today’s concerns.


Setting the Record Straight on Florida’s Tax-Credit Scholarships

August 30, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Opponents of school choice spend a great deal of time and energy perpetuating all sorts of easily debunked myths about choice programs. In Florida, the state teachers’ union has worked very hard to spread two such myths about the state’s tax-credit scholarship program, which Mark Pudlow of the Florida Education Association calls a “scheme”:

“It’s a scheme because this tax credit voucher [sic] was enacted by the Legislature to circumvent a previous state Supreme Court ruling saying that public money could not go to fund vouchers,” he said. “So the Legislature set up a scheme that would allow certain types of taxes to be ‘donated’ to the groups administering the voucher program. So instead of paying taxes to the state, they were forgiven their tax obligation if they donated the exact same amount of money to the voucher administrators.”

Fortunately, the Daily Commercial gave Ron Matus of Step Up for Students, Florida’s largest scholarship organization, the opportunity to set the record straight:

“The union kept saying the tax credit scholarships were done to circumvent the ruling,” he said. “Their timeline is off. The fact of the matter is the tax credit scholarship program was passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2001, five years before the Supreme Court ruling. The opponent keeps arguing the program drains money from public schools. Every single study that has been done over many years by multiple different parties that has looked at the fiscal impact says it does not harm public schools or drain money from public schools.”

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program saved the state $36.2 million in 2008.

Government Accountability stated that while the program “reduces the amount of tax revenues received by the state, it produces a net fiscal benefit.”

This academic year, Step Up for Students will provide more than 90,000 tax-credit scholarships to students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Additionally, they will administer nearly 6,000 education savings accounts. Florida also has a second scholarship organization, AAA Scholarship Foundation, so it’s likely that more than 100,000 Florida students will receive tax-credit scholarships this year.

As Step Up demonstrates, scholarship organizations do much more than just cut checks. They also can provide parents with vital information about their educational options, help connect parents and schools, and–when necessary–they can organize to defend the scholarships from outside attacks. As Jay noted in a recent post, politically viable policies require “constituents who can then be mobilized to protect and expand” them. School choice policies generate those constituents, and as Step Up has amply demonstrated, scholarship organizations can mobilize them.


Petrilli’s Regulatory Porridge

January 28, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Fordham’s Michael Petrilli offers new taxonomy for school choice tribes dividing the school choice world in three: Purists, Nannies, and Realists.

First, as Matt noted, this is not Mike’s first foray into Hemisphere Fallacy territory. (Or the second. Or even the third.) Like the guy who thinks anyone who is more religious is crazy and anyone who is less religious is a heretic, Mike thinks he has found the Perfect Goldilocksian Mean and everyone else is wrong. In Mike’s view, those who support more regulation than he does are paternalist Nannies, and those who support less regulation are utopian Purists, but the temperature of his regulatory porridge is just right.

Second, as I noted on Twitter, it’s adorable that Mike thinks he’s not a Nanny. He decries their “micromanagement” but he supports forcing private schools to administer the state test (de facto determining what is taught when and even how), as well as price controls that economists will tell you leads to shortages and obliterates the essential price signal (without which we may have competition, but we most certainly do not have a functioning market). He may fancy himself a “Realist” but, if these categories really mean anything, he just has minor disagreements with his fellow Nannies.

Third, Mike is engaging, once again, in the Means and Ends Fallacy. It goes something like this:

I think X is a problem. I believe Solution Y solves X. Group A opposes Solution Y, therefore Group A must not think X is really a problem.

Of course, this is a fallacy because it is entirely possible (as is the case here) that Group A agrees that X is a problem but doesn’t think Solution Y actually solves it. Mike thinks his preferred regulations solve the problem of bad schools, but we think those regulations are more likely to have adverse effects. More on that in a moment.

Mike accuses the “Purists” (those who, like Milton Friedman, conclude based on the evidence from nearly every other industry that markets spur innovation and lead to greater quality and efficiency) of being utopian. He writes:

Start with the Purists. I’m skeptical of all utopian visions, including theirs—one imagining that a full-fledged system of choice (perhaps through universal Education Savings Accounts) will yield greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction—and produce better-educated young people to boot.

But there’s nothing utopian about that. We see that ESAs have already begun to produce greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction. We don’t yet have any data on test scores or graduation rates, but we have no reason to believe that ESAs will underperform the many voucher programs that have produced positive results. No one in the free-market crowd is expecting miracles. We’re expecting the sort of incremental improvement that the market regularly brings about through the process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

(For that matter, the most utopian schemes in education come from the Nannies. Can you imagine a more fantastically utopian scheme than “No Child Left Behind”? Is there a more utopian slogan than that anywhere in education policy? And did anyone in the administration really believe we’d ever achieve 100% proficiency in any state, let alone every state? Either they set up the nation to fail or they were delusional. Or perhaps they just set up the DOE for a naked power grab. But I digress.)

Mike’s central challenge to the Friedmanite crowd is the Payday Lender Problem. What do we do about bad private schools?

First of all, Mike doesn’t have a whole lot of evidence that the government does a better job ensuring quality than the market. Indeed, the Louisiana debacle should give him great pause about that article of faith.

Second, eliminating the least-bad option doesn’t guarantee a better option. Payday lending serves an important function in the market (in the Third World, we call it “microlending,” a concept for which Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize). Poor people who need funds to cover rent or buy food while waiting for payday often turn to payday lenders. If they repay the loan on time, the fees are generally marginal. If they repay late, the interest rates can be exorbitant, especially if (misleadingly) expressed in annual terms. (The interest is so high both because the loans are so small and because the rate of default is so high, which is why banks generally just refuse to lend to the poor.) But eliminating the payday lenders can have serious unintended consequences that make the poor even worse off. The payday lender may charge a steep fee for late payment, but at least Rocky Balboa doesn’t come break your legs.

Kicking a school with poor test scores out of a voucher program doesn’t guarantee those poor kids a seat at a better school. Rather, the state just eliminates that kid’s least-bad alternative. Even in Louisiana, where the voucher schools appear to be doing much worse on the state test than the district school alternatives, the families who chose those schools may well have had good reasons for doing so. Perhaps they were safer. Perhaps they had higher graduation rates. We don’t know. But those families chose them for a reason and they may well be worse off overall if deprived of that choice.

Third, as Michael McShane explained previously, the market process has proven time and again to significantly improve absolute quality (and efficiency) over time:

Cars today are uniformly better than cars in 1950. They are safer. They are faster. They are more comfortable. They are more fuel efficient.  But it wasn’t a clear upward-sloping line to get here. People bought Edsel’s in the 50’s, Corvairs in the 60’s, Chevettes in the 70’s, Yugo’s in the 80’s, Suzuki Sidekicks in the 90’s, and Pontiac Aztecs in the 00’s. These were bad cars.

But “bad” has two meanings in this case, an objective one and a relative one. There are relatively bad cars out there today. That is, my hail-damaged ’05 Kia Spectra with no cruise control and a blown-out right front speaker is worse than Jay-Z’s Maybach on almost every calculable measure, relatively speaking. But my Spectra, which is still purring like a kitten after over 100,000 miles with darn near nothing more than oil changes, tires, and brake pads is a helluva lot better than the burn-out-after-five-years cars that automakers made for decades.  That’s absolute quality.

Markets work when the spectrum of relative quality drives improvements in absolute quality.  Someone sees my little tin can driving down the road and says “I want to buy a car that doesn’t look like it’s going to blow away in a stiff breeze” and cars get less tin-canny.  Someone buys a Ford Excursion and then gas prices go up and says, “I’m never doing that again” and cars get more fuel efficient. It’s a slow winnowing process, but over time it is superior to centralized systems, that, for example, made the Trabant in an essentially unchanged manner for over three decades.

Rather than thinking we can regulate bad schools out of existence, a better goal is to develop a system that continuously improves what we think a “bad” school is.

Mike Petrilli is right to be worried about kids who are in bad schools today, but the regulations he proposes to ensure that those students are attending relatively good schools interfere with the market process that could otherwise be driving up absolute quality for everyone (and, as Louisiana has shown, those kids may end up in low-performing schools anyway).

Imagine if government officials, following Mike’s logic, had decided decades ago that every low-income family should have access to a phone. Now, these Realist officials aren’t Nannies — they’re not going to have the government make the phones or micromanage the specs. They’re just going to ensure that everyone has access to a good phone, so they create a phone voucher but prohibit companies selling phones from charging more than the value of the voucher. What would have happened?

Well, there’s the seen and the unseen. We would have seen, perhaps, that everyone would have had access to a phone and many would have applauded that (although given the price controls, it’s likely that supply would not have met demand). But what we wouldn’t have seen was that the iPhone had not been invented. With no way to charge more than the meager voucher, there’d be no market for expensive smartphones. And that wouldn’t just have harmed the wealthy, it would also have harmed the poor. After all, Walmart now sells a $10 smartphone that has better specs that the original iPhone. Innovations that at first benefit the wealthier early adopters tend to benefit even the poor after a while.

In short, Mike’s admirable passion to help the poor immediately through state action may well harm them in the medium-to-long run without any guarantee of actually helping them in the short run. That doesn’t sound very Realist to me.