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.


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.