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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School Monopoly Culture Wars

January 22, 2014

psychic-octopus-culture-war

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Neal McCluskey of Cato has long been a champion of one of my nearest and dearest reasons for favoring school choice: it defuses the culture war. When families with diverse beliefs are all (effectively) forced to send their children to the same schools, it creates a lot of unnecessary conflict.

Today, Neal announces that Cato has released a pretty cool web feature – an interactive national map of public school conflicts over religion, sexual ethics, free speech, and other cultural issues. You can search by state, by large districts (Chicago has six ongoing conflicts, New York City seventeen, Milwaukee four) by type of conflict, or by keyword. I randomly typed in the keyword “balloon” and found the case of a teacher who wasn’t allowed to do a class project on treatment of homosexuality, and held a “funeral” for his project, at which he asked his students to write their feelings down on helium balloons.

Don’t click the link if you want to get work done this afternoon. Kudos to Cato!


Hemisphere Fallacy Sighting

October 21, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In a new Flypaper post, Checker and Mike argue that the federal government takeover of schools implementation of common standards can follow one of three paths:

1.      “Let’s Become More Like France.” Here, we picture a powerful governing board—probably via a new compact among participating states—to oversee the standards, assessments, and many aspects of implementation, validation, and more.

2.       “Don’t Rock the Boat.” We keep the Common Core footprint as small as possible. An existing group is charged with updating the standards when the time comes, but everything else stays with states, districts, and the market.

3.      “One Foot before the Other.” This middle ground foresees an interim coordinating body that promotes information sharing, capacity building, and joint-venturing among participating states. By the time the Common Core needs revising, this interim body may evolve into something more permanent or may recommend a long-term governance plan.

In other words, our options are:

  1. Too big, strong, and heavy handed.
  2. Too weak, limited and complacent.
  3. Just right!

Guess which one they favor. No hints!

JPGB readers will recognize Fordham’s longstanding addiction to the hemisphere fallacy – making themselves look good by oversimplifying the landscape into two extreme errors held by the extreme extremists on either side of them, and the reasonable middle ground occupied by reasonable middle grounders like themselves.

Some people say the earth is flat and others say it’s round, so the reasonable middle ground is to say it’s a hemisphere.

Personally, I’d rephrase those three Fordham options as follows:

  1. So big and bold that the federal government takeover of schools becomes obvious, provoking an inevitable backlash from Americans who have repeatedly made it clear they don’t want any such thing.
  2. So weak and limited that the federal government won’t actually be able to take over the schools.
  3. Just strong enough to hand all schools over to federal control, but not so strong that the handover becomes obvious.

While we’re on the subject, Neal McCluskey notices something interesting in the new Fordham report:

All that said, there is one, small part of the report that I find quite satisfying. A few months ago, Fordham President Chester Finn called people like me and Jay Greene “paranoid” for arguing that national standards would be hollowed out by politics. Well, in the report, while it is not explicitly identified as such, you will find what I am going to take as an apology (not to mention a welcome admission):

How will this Common Core effort be governed over the long term?…This issue might seem esoteric, almost philosophical in light of the staggering amount of work to be done right now to make the standards real and the assessments viable. But we find it essential—not just for the long-term health of the enterprise, but also to allay immediate concerns that these standards might be co-opted by any of the many factions that want to impose their dubious ideas on American education. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to worry about this possibility [italics added]…

No, you don’t.

I’m not sure I would take it as an apology. If Checker wanted to apologize, he would. But he hasn’t.

Which leads me to wonder why he’s suddenly so anxious to make sure there’s something out there in print that shows him expressing exactly the same doubts we do. Something he could point to later, perhaps?


Politics and Schools, Part MCCXXIII

September 1, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Neal notes the connection between Arne Duncan’s now-infamous embrace of Al Sharpton and the president’s continuing his new tradition of broadcasting a back-to-school message to America’s classrooms, coming up later this month.

Duncan didn’t just embrace Sharpton in his personal role as a citizen. He mobilized the U.S. Department of Education to support Sharpton by encouraging employees to attend Sharpton’s anti-Glenn-Beck rally.

Whatever you think of Glenn Beck, Sharpton cut his teeth as a professional purveyor of incitement to murder. During the Crown Heights race riots, with blood running in the streets, he said, “if the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” He had to tone it back after the Freddy’s Fashion Mart murders, when people began making connections between Sharpton and the killings that kept following in his wake. But tone it back was all he did; he’s never repented.

Duncan spoke at Sharpton’s rally and urged his employees to attend.

A department spokesperson lamely tried to evade responsibility by saying “This was a back-to-school event.” Really? Here’s a sample of Al Sharpton’s back-to-school message for America’s youth, courtesy of the Washington Examiner:

[Conservatives] think we showed up [to vote for Barack Obama] in 2008 and that we won’t show up again. But we know how to sucker-punch, and we’re coming out again in 2010!

…and do your homework!

This is obviously intimately connected with the presdient’s decision to make it an annual tradition to use America’s government school monopoly to broadcast a message to the nation’s children. Other presidents have done so before, though none has made it an annual tradition. But it was equally wrong whoever did it, and this Duncan/Sharpton rally shows why.

Neal is trying too hard when he strains to describe Obama’s message to students as “politically charged material.” Joanne Jacobs rightly notes, “Last year’s speech raised a lot of fuss, culminating in a big fizzle as Obama told students to work hard in school.” No doubt this year the president will be equally anodyne.

[Update: Neal points out below that it was the accompanying materials sent to schools, not Obama’s message itself, that he described as “politically charged.” Fair enough! I read his post too quickly. Yet it’s worth noting that even those accompanying materials were focused on anointing Obama as a role model rather than pushing an overtly political agenda.]

The connection is rather that politics can’t be hermetically sealed. The president does have some role to play as the representative of the entire nation. But he is never just that; he is also a politician with an agenda. He will always stand for things that many Americans oppose; that’s just the nature of political life. And this president in particular seems to have more of a tendency than most presidents of associating himself with criminals and race-haters.

It doesn’t matter what Obama says. In fact, the less political his message, the worse it is. If Obama’s message really were “politically charged material,” many students would recognize it as such. The more anodyne he is, the more he gets what he really wants – to be anointed as a role model. With all that entails.

It’s wrong enough to have a government monopoly on schooling. To have the government monopoly anoint the president as a role model for our children is a hundred times more wrong. It would be wrong even if the president were relatively uncontroversial, because no president can avoid having many associations to which many parents will reasonably object. With this president – well, words just fail.


Forget “Who’s Fickle?” Who’s Paranoid?

July 26, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Earlier this year, Checker Finn went through a brief period where he was tying himself in knots, sounding a whole lot like he was both for national standards and against them. Mike Petrilli chose that moment to take potshots at Arne Duncan for being “Fickle on Federalism.” I had a little fun asking “Who’s Fickle?

Since then, Checker has finally decided where he stands (at least for now). He’s accused those of us who ask embarrassing questions about whether national standards will be hijacked by the blog blob of “paranoia.”

[Update: Hijacked by the “blob,” of course. This was totally not a Freudian slip. The blog doesn’t hijack anything – as far as you know. Nothing to see here, folks…]

Well, the game just changed. Neal McCluskey has dug up a 1997 Weekly Standard article in which Checker makes the same arguments against national standards we are now making. None of the relevant facts on the ground has changed. So today I get to ask, “Who’s Paranoid?”


Radical Customization – One Size Fits None

March 12, 2010

Nationally mandated standard pants – because it’s horribly inefficient to have everyone wear a different size

Building on the debate Jay started the other day, Neal’s got a nice column on Pajamas Media today about subject-based ability grouping. The idea that all children progress at the same rate is nonsense, but the idea that they all progress at the same rate across all subjects at the same time is nonsense on stilts.

I see this in my own daughter’s education. She’s behind in speech and fine motor skills and needs extra help, which she’s not getting in her current school, where everyone does the same thing, on the assumption that kids the same age are all at the same place in their education and have the same needs. But she’s way ahead in anything dealing with symbol recognition – letters, numbers, colors – so she has to sit there bored out of her mind while her classmates slowly and laboriously learn how to count to ten when she can count to thirty.

So starting next year we’re putting her in a private school that uses exactly the approach Neal recommends on the basis of other countries’ experience – each child gets the challenge he or she needs, at the level he or she needs it, determined separately in each subject.

The squishy-wishies will object that “ability grouping” makes the kids who are ahead vain while demoralizing the kids who are behind. The first answer is that this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if public schools were allowed to teach good moral character in addition to academics. And the second answer is that it’s not smart in the long term to deal with people’s emotional and psychological problems by encouraging them to live a lie.

But I think the third answer is that ability grouping wouldn’t have this effect if you did it by subject. You’re not singling out the person as such as superior, you’re tracking particular abilities in each subject.


Mostly Harmless

September 8, 2009

Many electrons have already been spilled on Obama’s speech today to the nation’s school children.  When news first broke of the planned speech, alarms were raised by Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck, and Neal McCluskey (among many others). 

This was followed by a counter-backlash from the left as well as folks on the right, including the Wall Street Journal and Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes, who said that the initial reaction was “overwrought” and “demented” (respectively if not respectfully).

The counter-backlash is correct that the speech is basically harmless.  Telling kids to stay in school, say no to drugs, and the like is the sort of thing that Nancy Reagan used to say (and people used to mock not because it was indoctrinating but because it was likely ineffective.)

It’s worth stepping back from this kerfuffle to wonder why the president making a speech to the nation’s school children while they are in school is such a big deal.  The counter-backlash wants to suggest that the original backlash against the speech was motivated by crazy, conspiratorial thinking.  Presidents talk to the country all the time, they note.  And if the problem is supposed to be in the lesson plan proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers can use or ignore these suggestions as they wish, just like they can regularly choose lesson plans.

But that is at the heart of the backlash and is not entirely crazy.  Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school.  This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.  Most of those lessons, just like the president’s speech, are likely to be unobjectionable to most parents. 

But on a fairly regular basis schools teach (or fail to teach) some things that are contrary to the values that parents would like conveyed to their children.  To those of us who see education as an extension of child-rearing, compulsory education privileging government-operated schools is an intrusion of the government on this parental responsibility.  To others, the intervention of the government is a positive good, protecting children from potentially dangerous values of the their parents and assuring allegiance to a common set of ideals necessary for our society to function.  As an empirical matter, government-operated schools are actually less effective at conveying that common set of ideas than are schools selected by parents.  

Amy Gutmann, in the widely read book, Democratic Education, argues that this is not really an empirical question.  The principle is that there should be some democratic input into what is taught to children, not just parental control.   But in a chapter in the book, Learning from School Choice, I dissect Gutmann’s book to show that her scheme isn’t democratic at all.  She believes that local democracies should control schools as long as they avoid discriminating and repressing.  The problem is that almost everything of importance that they do could be portrayed as discriminating or repressing.  So who, under her scheme, resolves these disputes about what is permissible for local democracies to control in schools?  Unelected judges and unelected teaching professionals.  Gutmann’s proposal is really to substitute the dictatorship of an elite for the dictatorship of parents.  As I’ve argued before, I prefer to trust even poorly educated parents to make decisions in the best interests of their own children than well-trained but differently motivated bureaucrats.

So, beneath the over-reactions and counter-over-reactions on Obama’s speech today is a real issue — Who should have primary responsibility for raising (educating) children?