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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Gloom and Gloomier

February 1, 2011

The editors at Education Next have two essays on the state of education reform that remind me of Woody Allen’s never-delivered university commencement speech:

More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

In one essay, Paul Peterson, Marci Kanstoroom, and Chester Finn reject my rosy assessment of progress in the war of ideas about education reform, saying “It’s way, way too early to declare victory. Atop the cliffs and bastions that reformers are attacking, the opposition has plenty of weapons with which to hold its territory…. It’s dangerous to think a battle is over when it has just begun.”

In the other essay, Frederick Hess, Martin West, and Michael Petrilli go even further in their gloom, arguing not only that the war has hardly begun, but that the reform warriors are really the enemy:

First, reform “support” resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public—one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests. And second, and more unfortunately, many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones. To quote that wizened observer of politics and policy, Pogo: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

That’s funny.  I thought the enemy was a monopolistic, bureaucratized 19th century school system propped up by teacher unions and their allies who place the interests of adults over the needs of children.  I guess I was wrong in not understanding that it is really the opponents of that system who are the problem.

In truth, I don’t really disagree with much of what either essay has to say.  It is all just a matter of emphasis and framing. In my declaration of victory I was careful to acknowledge that the war over policy has barely begun and reformers have a long and difficult road ahead:

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?

Yes, there is a danger in thinking that the policy war is over when it has barely begun.  And yes, there is a danger in over-promising and over-simplifying reform ideas.  But there is also a danger in reform burn-out.  The struggle over school reform has been going on for decades and will almost certainly take several decades more.  Donors have grown frustrated and advocates have jumped to ill-conceived quick fixes that would set the cause of reform back significantly, like adopting national standards and assessments.  If we don’t periodically note our policy progress and intellectual victories, we will have great difficulty sustaining the reform movement.

My view does not really differ substantially from the two essays in Education Next except that they see a greater danger in over-confidence and I see a greater danger in burnout.  And I don’t mind being used as the straw man for their arguments.  The Straw Man had a brain.