Yes, School Choice *Is* Local Control

March 21, 2018

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(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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The Beginning of the End for Blaine?

June 27, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran that the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from excluding otherwise eligible religious organizations from benefitting from publicly funded programs merely because they are a religious organization. (I discussed the implications here.) However, Footnote 3 said:

This case involves express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing. We do not address religious uses of funding or other forms of discrimination.

So, does the case have broader implications beyond playgrounds? Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts “delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to footnote 3,” and two additional justices, Gorsuch and Thomas, concurred in the opinion but not in the footnote, explaining:

Of course the footnote is entirely correct, but I worry that some might mistakenly read it to suggest that only “playground resurfacing” cases, or only those with some association with children’s safety or health, or perhaps some other social good we find sufficiently worthy, are governed by the legal rules recounted in and faithfully applied by the Court’s opinion. Such a reading would be unreasonable for our cases are “governed by general principles, rather than ad hoc improvisations.” […] And the general principles here do not permit discrimination against religious exercise—whether on the playground or anywhere else.

Today, SCOTUS has indicated that its ruling in Trinity indeed does have implications beyond the playground. The Court has vacated the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision that struck down the Douglas County voucher program based on the state’s Blaine Amendment, and ordered the Colorado Supreme Court to reconsider the case “in light of [the] Trinity Lutheran” decision.

If Trinity Lutheran indeed does apply to school vouchers (Footnote 3 notwithstanding), then it could spell the beginning of the end for the odious Blaine Amendments.


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!


DeVos and the Education Wars

November 29, 2016

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

President-Elect Trump’s nomination of school choice champion Betsy DeVos has become the latest battleground in both the war between pro- and anti-school choice forces as well as the internecine battle between technocratic reformers and market-oriented reformers within the school choice camp. Jay’s take today is a must-read piece. I also added my two cents over at Cato-at-Liberty, defending market-oriented school choice policies from what I see as unfair attacks from the technocrat crowd while simultaneously cautioning my compatriots against pushing for a federal school choice program (e.g., Title I portability). Here’s a taste:

At the center of the panic over Trump’s nomination of DeVos is their support for school choice. Although light on details, Trump has pledged to devote $20 billion to a federal voucher program. As is so often the case, the most vocal opponents of federal school choice are right for the wrong reasons. Not only does the federal government lack constitutional jurisdiction (outside of Washington, D.C., military installations, and tribal lands), but a federal voucher program poses a danger to school choice efforts nationwide because a less-friendly future administration could attach regulations that undermine choice policies. Such regulations are always a threat to the effectiveness of school choice policies, but when a particular state adopts harmful regulations, the negative effects are localized. Louisiana’s folly does not affect Florida. Not so with a national voucher program. Moreover, harmful regulations are easier to fight at the state level than at the federal level, where the exercise of “pen and phone” executive authority is increasingly (and unfortunately) the norm.

The technocratic crowd wants to blame the mediocre results in the charter sector in Michigan (DeVos’s home state) on its supposedly “unregulated” and “laissez-faire” environment, which raises the question: Do they do know what those terms mean? As I note:

Charter schools in Michigan and Arizona may be subject to fewer government regulations than in other states, but it’s absurd to describe the sectors as “laissez-faire” or “an unregulated free market.” For example, charter school regulations in both states, as elsewhere, limit the ability of charter schools to set their own mission (e.g., they must be secular), mandate that they administer the state standardized test, forbid them from setting their own admissions standards, forbid them from charging tuition, limit who can teach in the schools, limit the growth of the number of schools, and so on.

“Laissez-faire” indeed!

Moreover, as JayBlogger Matt Ladner has frequently pointed out, in the real “Wild West” of Arizona, charter schools are knocking the socks off their district counterparts and showing greater improvement than any state average on the NAEP.

Anyway, while we’re on the topic of Trump and education reform, I’d like to express full-throated agreement with Greg Forster’s two recent posts on bigotry and the choices before us, particularly this:

Trump will be president. All of us who work on policy issues have to live in a world where Trump is president. It’s not necessarily a good idea for every decent person to shun him; that means government will be run by scoundrels like Trump.

Every movement needs its Vaclav Klauses as well as its Vaclav Havels – people who are willing to hold their noses and work for a corrupt regime. You simply can’t get anything done otherwise, because there are no non-corrupt regimes.

Milton went to Chile and advised Pinochet. When challenged, he said: “I gave him good advice.”

But if they forget to hold their noses, if they think the regime is good, the movement dies. And they will forget if no one plays Vaclav Havel and goes to jail for telling the truth about the regime.

My biggest fear is that the school choice issue will become tied to Trump. It can never be said too many times: Donald Trump is a notorious racist who discriminates against blacks in his businesses, said a judge of Mexican ancestry couldn’t judge him impartially, constantly flirted with the alt-right, and refused, three times, to repudiate the KKK when first asked to do so. (Just in case this is unclear, the KKK is a criminal organization that murders people and exists to make war on the US government in the name of white nationalism. If Trump wants to learn more about it, he can ask his attorney general, who had a Klan leader executed.)

We in the school choice movement have spent a generation building bridges between the conservatives and libertarians traditionally associated with the issue and progressives and ethnic minority communities. We can’t afford to throw all that away.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin once said that he would “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” We need a similar approach. We should pursue education reform regardless of the Trump administration’s positions on other issues — as Derrell Bradford’s moving personal account reminds us, the stakes are just too high not to. That will entail, at times, working with anyone at the Trump administration who is willing to listen, and supporting good and decent people who go to work for the administration. However, it also means calling out Trump and/or his administration when they do wrong (like, say, Tweet that people should go to jail for engaging in constitutionally protected speech, to take just one example from the last 24 hours), no matter what progress they have made on education reform.

Navigating the political waters over the next four years will be difficult. Even Odysseus only had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis once. I suspect education reformers will find themselves in the straits on numerous occasions in these coming days. I pray that we will have the wisdom to know and the fortitude to do the right thing.


Do tax-credit scholarship programs drain money from district schools?

November 15, 2016

(Guest Post by Marty Lueken)

Perhaps the most-cited criticism of educational choice policies is that they “siphon” resources from district schools. High-quality research reveals numerous benefits stemming from educational choice, including benefits for participants, positive competitive effects, and fostering civic values. Policymakers, however, are concerned about the fiscal impact on district schools. A new report, The Tax-Credit Scholarship Audit, finds that such claims about “siphoning” are unfounded.

This report follows up on an earlier report, The School Voucher Audit, which examined the fiscal impact of school voucher programs. In the report, I estimated the fiscal impact of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs in seven states (AZ, FL, GA, IA, IN, PA, and RI) on state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts combined. There are currently 21 tax-credit scholarship programs operating in 17 states. Programs with less than three years of data were not included in the analysis. This sample includes the largest tax-credit scholarship programs in the country. These programs accounted for 93 percent of all scholarships awarded in 2013-14, the final year included in the analysis.

Here’s a summary of the results:

Participation

Since the first tax-credit scholarship program was established in 1997, more than 1.2 million scholarships were awarded to students through 2014. Participation in tax-credit scholarship programs has grown every year since 1997. Participation in these programs grew, on average, by 20 percent each year since 2000.

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Tax-credit scholarship programs require time to establish. Looking at the programs by year in operation, the number of scholarships awarded more than tripled after their fifth year in operation, from 28,000 to more than 95,000.

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Educational choice programs are popular and continue to expand, though not to the detriment of the current district school system, as critics argue. Even in states where eligibility for school choice programs is expansive, we haven’t seen a mass exodus of students from district schools. Moreover, the best evidence on the effects of school choice on district schools shows that district schools improve in response to competition.

Fiscal Impact

Depending on assumptions about the number of students switching from district or charter schools to private schools and the share of students who receive multiple scholarships, I estimated that these 10 tax-credit scholarship programs saved taxpayers between $1.7 billion and $3.4 billion since Arizona enacted the first such program in 1997. That equates to between $1,650 and $3,000 in savings for each scholarship recipient.

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This paints a starkly different picture from the “siphoning” argument that school choice critics like to make. Context is useful when discussing the fiscal impacts of these programs. For all the controversy that sometimes surrounds school choice programs, the fact is that these programs make up a very small share of states’ K-12 revenues. The cost of the taxpayer subsidies for the programs covered in the report range from 0.1 percent each for Rhode Island and Indiana’s programs to 1.5 percent for Arizona’s four programs.

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When critics claim these programs are costly or drain funds, they usually focus on just the cost of the taxpayer subsidy without giving any consideration to savings. But that tells only one part of the story. It’s also true that districts are no longer responsible for educating students that leave via these programs. In the short-run, they incur variable cost savings. My analysis accounts for this and even takes a more conservative approach to estimating variable costs than in other work by economists.

These savings don’t usually show up in budget reports, however, though public officials make choices—whether implicitly or explicitly—about what they do with the savings. As I note in the report:

“When school choice programs are enacted, however, it is usually the case that savings do not automatically materialize as reductions in K–12 expenditures because public officials must actively make decisions to reduce such expenditures. When students leave public schools, officials have more room in their budgets to allocate resources for educating students that remain in those schools.” (pp. 15-16)

Government officials have many options regarding what to do with these savings. They can reinvest them in district schools, which means more resources for the fewer number of students who remain in them, or they can also reallocate those savings to other public services. They can also choose to hold all or some of the funds rather than spend them. They can subsequently lower property taxes or save and invest these funds. Typically, however, it’s not clear how these freed-up resources are used.

It is a worthwhile policy goal to provide and expand quality educational options so that parents can match their children to the education provider that works best for them. Tax-credit scholarship programs offer one way to help achieve this goal by providing avenues for states to attract capital and invest in their state’s education system without harming taxpayers or students.

 

Martin F. Lueken, Ph.D. is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at EdChoice.


The Legal Battle for Choice in Georgia

November 4, 2016

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Georgia’s tax-credit scholarship helps more than 12,000 students attend schools of their choice rather than their assigned district school. Predictably, defenders of the government education establishment sued to block parents from exercising educational choice. Thanks to the efforts of the state attorneys and the Institute for Justice, which intervened in the case on behalf of several parents of scholarship students, a lower court ruled against the challengers earlier this year. However, the challengers appealed and the case is now before the state supreme court.

Yesterday, the Cato Institute filed an amicus brief in the case urging the Georgia Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the tax-credit scholarships. Cato’s legal eagle, Ilya Shapiro, has more at the Cato-at-Liberty blog:

We urge the court to affirm the determination that the tax-credit program does not violate the state constitution, focusing on the fact that it does not involve spending public funds for any sectarian purpose. Because the program makes no expenditures from the public fisc, it cannot violate the No-Aid Clause. Taxpayers choose to donate voluntarily using their own private funds and receive a tax credit for the amount of the donation; no money ever enters or leaves the treasury.

The challengers attempt to get around this fact by claiming that the credits constitute anindirect public expenditure, but this argument relies on a budgetary theory known as “tax expenditure analysis” that finds no support as a legitimate means of constitutional interpretation under Georgia (or federal, or any other state) law. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected this type of reasoning in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn (2011).

The argument that the program constitutes an unconstitutional gratuity is likewise incorrect because the tax credits are not public funds, and the government cannot give away that which it does not own. Even if Georgia were giving up something of value, it would not be a “gratuity” because the state receives a substantial benefit in return: increased educational attainment, plus the secondary effects that increased competition and a more educated citizenry create.

The Georgia Supreme Court should affirm the lower court’s decision and uphold the state’s Qualified Educational Tax Credit Program—ensuring educational choice for Georgia families, regardless of how much money they make.

 

 

 


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.