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?




Deep down in places they don’t talk about at parties, suburbanites want that wall, but broad choice can take walls down

June 12, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Important new study from the Fordham Institute on open enrollment in Ohio. The map above shows dark blue show districts not participating in open enrollment, and they just happen to be leafy suburban districts who are both higher income with student bodies that tend to be pale complected that also happen to be near large urban districts with many students who are neither of these things. Feel free to reference this map the next time someone claims that public schools “take everyone.”

Many moons ago I wrote a study for the Mackinac Center about the interaction between charter schools and open enrollment in Michigan. I found a very clear pattern among some of the suburban districts whereby charter schools provided the incentive for early open enrollment participants to opt-in. After one district began taking open enrollment transfers, and some additional charters opened, it created an incentive for additional nearby districts to opt in- they were now losing students to both charters and the opted in district. Through this mechanism, the highly economically and racially segregated walled-off district system began to:

Not every domino fell however. I interviewed a superintendent of a fancy inner ring suburb who related that they saw their competitors as elite private schools, not charter schools. When I asked him why his district chose not to participate in open enrollment, he told me something very close to “I think historically the feeling around here is that we have a good thing going, so they want to keep the unwashed masses out.”

Contrast this as well with Scottsdale Unified in Arizona, which is built for 38,000 students, educates 25,000 students, 4,000 of whom transferred into a Scottsdale Unified school through open enrollment. 4,000 transfer students would rank Scottsdale Unified as the 9th largest CMO in Arizona, and they are far from the only district participating in open enrollment in a big way. Why is Scottsdale willing to participate unlike those fancy Ohio districts? They have 9,000 kids living within their boundaries attending charter and private schools.

Why haven’t choice programs torn down the Berlin walls around suburban districts? Sadly because they have been overly focused on urban areas. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Dashboard shows that 72.6% of Ohio charter schools operated in urban areas. The voucher programs likewise started in Cleveland, and then expanded out to include failing schools (and children with disabilities statewide). More recently a broader voucher program has begun the process of phasing in slowly on a means-tested basis, but the combination of adding a single grade per year and means testing promises to unlock a very modest number of walled off suburban seats.

These programs have benefits, but they will not provide an incentive for fancy suburban districts to participate in open enrollment any time soon. Informal conversations I have had with Ohio folks related to me that Ohio suburban and rural dwellers- aka the people who elect the legislative majorities-tend to look at charter schools as a bit of a “Brand Ech” thing for inner city kids. Rest assured that the thousands of Scottsdale moms sitting on BASIS and Great Hearts charter school wait lists do not view charters as “Brand Ech.” Likewise these folks probably see themselves as paying most of the state of Ohio’s bills through their taxes and just might come to wonder why the state’s voucher programs seem so determined to do so little for their kids and communities.

A serious strategic error of the opening act of the parental choice movement was to look out to places like Lakewood Ohio or Scottsdale Arizona and say “those people already have choice.” This point of view is both seriously self-defeating in terms of developing sustaining coalitions, it also fails to appreciate the dynamic interactions between choice programs. Arizona’s choice policies include everyone and have created a virtuous cycle whereby fancy districts compete with charter and private school options for enrollment. This leads to a brutal crucible for new charter schools in Arizona whereby parents quickly shut many down because they have plenty of other options. Educators open lots of schools and parents close lots of schools-leading to world-class Arizona charter scores. Arizona’s charter NAEP score triumph was more or less mathematically inevitable once this process got rolling. Did I mention the part about Arizona leading the nation in statewide cohort NAEP gains since 2009? That too but Ohio not so much.

I’m open to challenge in the comment section from any of my Ohio friends or anyone else, but by contrast to these eyes Ohio’s choice programs look to be mired in an urban quagmire and they need the leafy suburbs to play in order to win. Current policies not only have not unlocked Ohio’s Scottsdale Unified equivalents, they likely never will. NACSA put Ohio’s revised charter school law in their top ten, but allow me to pull up a couch and heat up some popcorn for the next few years as charters lawyer up and parents resist arbitrary bureaucratic closures, and the rate of new schools opening goes glacial.

Competition is by far the best method of quality control and bringing the leafy suburban districts into the melee is crucial if you are in the urban fight to win. The districts currently largely untouched by charters and private choice overlap with those not participating in open enrollment. Regulating urban charters is not going to make your suburban districts into defacto CMOs. This.isn’t.hard.to.figure.out. While counter-intuitive to many if you want to secure improved education options for the poor, you need to include everyone.


The Education of High Performing Students

September 6, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Fordham released an interesting report last week making the case for including high performing students as a subgroup in state accountability systems. Like most of you who spend your time reading obscure blogs written by wonks on a continuing mission to entertain themselves, I am sympathetic to the needs of high achieving students. In fact, recently a person who served as an official in the administration of Janet Napolitano when she was Governor of Arizona told me that gifted education was THE issue when they took office in 2003. The parents of gifted students were up in arms that there was very little to nothing to meet the needs of their children, and elected officials were hearing about it non-stop.

Then, I was told, the parents discovered BASIS charter schools. Things quieted down.

Arizona had badly over-exposed testing items in those days, and the dreaded worksheets drilling to those over-exposed items were too much in evidence once students reached the 3rd grade (the first year of state standardized testing). I experienced this first hand as a parent, and have heard the tale repeated many times in conversations with other parents during the sad, dying days of the AIMS exam. We called it “the 3rd grade wall.”  One of the priorities for those concerned with the education of high achieving students should be to maintain the integrity of the state testing system (aggressively curtailing item exposure and excessive district test prep) imo.

So anyway, I don’t have a problem with including high-achieving students as a subgroup, but I also don’t see it as strong tea.  The NAEP seems to suggest likewise. I ran cohort gains on 4th (2011) to 8th grade math (2015) for a relatively generic group of relatively high performing students- non-FRL eligible students in the general education program. Fordham identified four states as leaders in high-achieving subgroup accountability: Arkansas, Ohio, Oregon and South Carolina.

Math general ed non FRL

So putting on my social science cap, let me note that I have no idea what drives these numbers. One can certainly speculate with some confidence that socio-economics has something to do with it. Massachusetts and New Jersey top the list for instance, and just happen to be two of the four states with an average family income for a family of four in the six figures. DC also did well, but remember this is a very select slice of DC- the part that is knocking the ball out of the park. To the extent that policy has an impact on this (unknown) we should expect lags, etc. so try not to get too excited.

It’s hard to draw many conclusions from this, other than Arkansas’ dead last ranking seems to indicate that states need to do a great deal more than put high-achieving students in as a subgroup. My advice for Arkansas from the Cactus Patch (we are nipping at the heels of MA and NJ despite being much less wealthy and spending far less per pupil than either state btw) is, ah, see about passing some strong choice programs. Also, get BASIS on line one, stat.


Fordham’s Economics Malfunction

June 9, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, Checker Finn and Brandon Wright of the Fordham Institute published an essay highlighting three “market malfunctions” in the charter school sector. What they highlighted instead were primarily government malfunctions.

The first “market” malfunction they identify is the apparent lack of congruence between supply and demand:

As rapidly as it’s grown (6,800+ schools at last count), the supply of charters has not keep up with demand in most places. (Estimates of the total waiting list go as high as a million kids.) All sorts of political, budgetary, and statutory obstacles have limited the number, size, and locations of charter schools.

Political, budgetary, and statutory obstacles… these are market malfunctions?

Skipping number two for a moment, their third supposed “market” malfunction is the problem of what they call “distracted suppliers”:

Many charters are strapped for funds. They feel overregulated by their states, heckled by their authorizers, and politically stressed, so the people running them often struggle to keep their heads above water (which includes keeping enrollments up). They have little energy or resources to expend on becoming more rigorous or investing in stronger curricula and more experienced instructors.

Strapped for funds when the law prevents them from charging their customers anything. Overregulated by their states. Politically stressed.

Again, my Fordham friends, these are market malfunctions?

Their second concern is the closest they come to identifying a market malfunction: weak consumer information.

Even where parents are mindful of school quality and try their best to be discerning, consumer information in this marketplace remains incomplete, hard to access, and difficult to understand. State report cards are ubiquitous yet lacking. Even when they adequately display academic achievement in tested subjects, they cannot begin to convey all the other information that goes into a sound school choice. What, for example, does the school truly value? Are its classrooms quiet and orderly or lively and engaged? How does it handle character development? Discipline? Disabilities? Do students and teachers like it there or flee as soon as possible? The list goes on.

Yes, the market (as well as the government) has failed thus far to provide bountiful, accessible, and high-quality information about most schools. I’ve explained how the market could accomplish this (e.g., a combination of private certification, expert reviews, and consumer reviews) and there are some organizations already trying to fill this gap (e.g., GreatSchools), but there’s still much more to do.

Of course, one reason that there are so few third-party organizations providing such information is that the government crowds them out, both by providing their own scorecards (which Finn and Wright find wanting) and by operating a massive system of “free” district schools that crowd out private alternatives.

So again: you call these market malfunctions?

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.

Who’s “We,” Fordham-Sabe?

January 20, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Before he had a sitcom, Bill Cosby used to have a series of Lone Ranger jokes in one of his old stand-up acts. In one part of the routine, the Ranger tells Tonto something like, “They outnumber us ten to one, so we’re going to ride down the hill full speed, we’re going to cut across right through their sights, then we’re going to engage them hand to hand. Any questions?”

“Just one, Kemo Sabe.”

“What’s that?”

“Who’s ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”

That’s also the right answer to Fordham’s insistence that choice students must take state tests because, as Jay summarizes it, “we’ve got to do something!” That’s an accurate summary of the presupposition coming out of Fordham – you aren’t in favor of reform unless you think that you are the one to dictate what a good education looks like.

Yes, “we” have to do something to invent better ways of educating students. But who’s “we”? Having government standards to measure the government’s school system can be good, even if Common Core is not. However, even when government standards are good, and even when they’re applied only to the government system, they are not the way to reinvent education, because government – by its very nature – is not well designed to 1) innovate effectively, 2) persuade people that the innovations are effective, or 3) build institutions where the institutional culture accepts the innovations as good.

What government does do well is to create the structures of social transaction within which effective innovators and entrepreneurs can operate. The key strategy for education reform should not be to devise the innovations we need but to create structures that enable innovators and entrepreneurs to do so. The more we get caught up in devising the innovations ourselves, the further we move away from creating the conditions necessary for those who really can devise the innovations to do so.

Choice programs today are very poorly designed to support entrepreneurs. They ought to provide universal choice, a generous allotment of funds (though less than what we spend on the behemoth of government schooling) and freedom to innovate with minimal interference. Entrepreneurs need three things to succeed: clients, capital and control. You need a customer base of people who want your service because it makes their lives better. You need those customers to be willing and able to pay you; that’s what sustains the organization that delivers the service. And you need to be free to provide the service according to your own entrepreneurial vision and the needs of your clients, not according to standards devised by politicians and bureaucrats.

See the study I did for Friedman on The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice for much, much more, including data on the impact choice programs are having (or, more frequently, are not having) on the composition of the private school sector.

It’s Not Just Government, It’s Schools, Too

January 15, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Responding to Fordham’s latest straddle, here on JPGB Matt has pointed out that we shouldn’t trust the job of judging school quality to government, and no one knows this better than Fordham (some of the time, anyway). At Cato, Andrew Coulson and Jason Bedrick point out that the existence of school choice programs inevitably crowds out non-choice-participating private schools, so if choice programs become engines of uniformity, we can kiss educational entrepreneurship and innovation goodbye. First Fordham demands state tests must bow to Common Core, then it demands private schools must bow to state tests, all the while insisting Common Core both is and is not a powerful tool for reshaping curriculum!

At the Friedman Foundation’s blog, Robert Enlow points out that Fordham is also playing both sides of the fence on whether the tests will have to be given only to choice students or to all students in the school:

Fordham even implicitly shows how its testing approach will eventually impact non-voucher private school students: “[i]f a private school’s voucher students perform in the two lowest categories of a state’s accountability system for two consecutive years, then that school should be declared ineligible to receive new voucher students until it moves to a higher tier of performance (emphasis added).”

If a private school accepting voucher students loses those students because of their low performance on state tests, how can it rejoin a school choice program without forcing all of its students to take, and perform well, on the state test?

Here’s another issue that I haven’t seen raised yet. Fordham backs up its position by pointing to the results of a survey of private schools that don’t participate in choice programs. State testing requirements came in seventh on the list of reasons why they don’t participate; demand for universal eligibility and higher choice payments were the top answers.

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

Basically the attitude revealed by the Fordham survey of non-choice-participating private schools is “we want choice, but only if it doesn’t require us to change.” Funny thing; the public monopoly blob gives us pretty much the same line.