Yes, School Choice *Is* Local Control

March 21, 2018


(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.

Terry Moe on Teacher Unions

December 21, 2011

Rick Hanushek interviews Terry Moe about his new book, Special Interest, which is the definitive, new work on teacher unions and education.

Technology and School Choice: The False Dichotomy

July 18, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Terry Moe has a great article in today’s Journal about how entrepreneurial innovation taking advantage of new technology is putting the teacher’s unions on the road to oblivion. It’s a great article, except that it draws one false dichotomy.

Fans of JPGB know that we do love us some high-tech transformation of schooling around here. Matt has been on this beat for a long time, and hardly a week goes by that he doesn’t update us on the latest victory of “the cool kids” over “edu-reactionaries” in the reinvention of the school. But he doesn’t own that turf entirely; I made this the theme of my contribution to Freedom and School Choice (as did Matt, of course).

The problem is that Moe insists high-tech transformation of schooling, and the destruction of union control it entails, is absolutely, positively a separate phenomenon from the wave of school reform victories this year:

This has been a horrible year for teachers unions…But the unions’ hegemony is not going to end soon. All of their big political losses have come at the hands of oversized Republican majorities. Eventually Democrats will regain control, and many of the recent reforms may be undone. The financial crisis will pass, too, taking pressure off states and giving Republicans less political cover…

Over the long haul, however, the unions are in grave trouble—for reasons that have little to do with the tribulations of this year…The first is that they are losing their grip on the Democratic base…Then there’s a crucial dynamic outside of politics: the revolution in information technology.

Really? The victories of 2011 – “the year of school choice” – aren’t in the same category with the long-term path to oblivion the unions are on? On the contrary, 2011 is the year of school choice precisely because it has become obvious that the unions are on track for oblivion, for the reasons Moe identifies.

Moe’s argument relies on the assumption that when Republicans are in power, they always make dramatic and innovative school reform policies their #1 priority.

Sorry  . . . lost my train of thought I was laughing so hard . . . let me pick myself up off the floor . . . there, now where was I? Oh, yes.

The GOP hasn’t touched real school reforms with a hundred-foot pole in years. Why did it all of a sudden embrace real reform this year?

Could it be because…

  1. …the unions are losing their grip on the Democratic base, meaning squishy Republicans don’t have to worry about being demonized as right-wing loonies simply for embracing real reform, and…
  2. …the revolution in information technology has made it obvious to MSM and other key cultural gatekeepers that the unions are the reactionaries, once again reassuring squishy Republicans they won’t be demonized for embracing real reform?

Obviously the financial crisis was also a factor here, as Moe rightly points out. But is that really an immediate-term phenomenon, bound to disappear next week? What really counts is whether the nation feels so rich it can afford to ignore ballooning school costs. Technically the recession ended two years ago and we’ve been in “recovery” for two years. How’s that feeling? Do we feel rich and luxurious again? Are we on track to restore a widespread national sense of inevitable prosperity by 2012? By 2014? By 2020?

Bottom line, the unions losing Democratic support and taking their stand in opposition to entrepreneurial change was the crucial, indispensable precondition for this year’s wave of school reform success.

Oh, and guess what? Sustaining those policies, especially school choice, will be the only way this wave of advancing technology will produce the results Moe is expecting. Only school choice can prevent the blob from neutralizing any reform you throw at it. If the techno-innovators turn their back on choice and competition, they’ll be dead meat. (For more on that topic, see the aforementioned chapter by your humble servant in Freedom and School Choice.)

Special Interest: Teacher Unions and America’s Public Schools

April 14, 2011


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Terry Moe has spent years carefully researching this new book on the education unions.  I look forward to seeing Terry’s research, which informed his taking of the teacher unions to the woodshed in a debate a couple of years ago. Terry’s opening statement was very powerful: 

What we are saying is that the unions are and have long been major obstacles to real reform in the system. And we’re hardly alone in saying this. If you read “Newsweek,” “Time Magazine,” the “Washington Post,” lots of other well respected publications, they’re all saying the same thing: that the teachers unions are standing in the way of progress. So look. Let me start with an obvious example. The teachers unions have fought for all sorts of protections in labor contracts and in state laws that make it virtually impossible to get bad teachers out of the classroom. On average, it takes two years, $200,000, and 15% of the principal’s total time to get one bad teacher out of the classroom. As a result, principals don’t even try. They give 99% of teachers — no joke — satisfactory evaluations. The bad teachers just stay in the classroom. Well, if we figure that maybe 5% of the teachers, that’s a conservative estimate, are bad teachers nationwide, that means that 2.5 million kids are stuck in classrooms with teachers who aren’t teaching them anything. This is devastating. And the unions are largely responsible for that.

They’re also responsible for seniority provisions in these labor contracts that among other things often allow senior teachers to stake a claim to desirable jobs, even if they’re not good teachers and even if they’re a bad fit for that school. The seniority rules often require districts to lay off junior people before senior people. It’s happening all around the country now. And some of these junior people are some of the best teachers in the district. And some of the senior people that are being saved are the worst. Okay. So just ask yourself, would anyone in his right mind organize schools in this way, if all they cared about was what’s best for kids? And the answer is no. But this is the way our schools are actually organized. And it’s due largely to the power of the unions.

Now, these organizational issues are really important, but they’re just part of a larger set of problems. Our nation has been trying to reform the schools since the early 1980s. And the whole time the teachers’ unions have used their extraordinary power in the political process to try to block reform and make sure that real reform just never happens. Consider charter schools. There are many kids around this country who are stuck in schools that just aren’t teaching them. They need new options. Well, charter schools can provide them with those options. But charter schools are a threat to teachers’ unions. If you give kids choice and they can leave regular public schools, then they take money and they take jobs with them. And that’s what the teachers’ unions want to stop. So what they’ve done is they’ve used their power in the political process to put a ceiling on the numbers of charter schools. As a result in this country today, we have 4,600 charter schools. There are like well over 90,000 public schools. So this is a drop in the bucket. And mean time charter schools have huge waiting lists of people who are desperate to get in. In Harlem, for example, the charter schools there got 11,000 applications for 2,000 slots recently.

So just to give you an idea of about how the politics of this works out, in Detroit a few years ago, a benefactor came forth and said he was willing to donate $200 million to set up additional charter schools for the kids in Detroit who obviously need it. What did the union do? The union went ballistic. They shut down the schools, went to Lansing, demonstrated in the state capitol and got the politicians to turn down the $200 million for those kids. This is good for kids? I don’t think so. This is about protecting jobs. The same kind of logic applies with accountability. Accountability is just common sense. We obviously need to hold schools and teachers accountability for teaching kids what they’re supposed to know. But the teachers’ unions find this threatening. They say they support accountability but they don’t want teachers held accountable. Any sensible effort to hold teachers accountable, they brand as scapegoating teachers. They don’t even want teachers performance to be measured. Right here in New York City, Joel Klein indicated a while ago that he was going to use student test scores as one factor in evaluating teachers  or tenure. What did the union do? Now, this is something that Obama supports, that Arne Duncan supports. It’s unbelievable. What the union did is they went to Albany and they got their friends in the legislature to pass a law making it illegal to use student test scores in evaluating teachers for tenure anywhere in the state of New York. It’s just outrageous. And makes no sense from the standpoint of what’s best for kids. The “New York Times” called it absurd. This is how the unions approach accountability. Okay, well, I don’t have a whole lot of time left here.

So let me just quickly say our opponents are going to say tonight, and Randi has already said, there is really no conflict between standing up for the jobs of teachers and doing what’s best for kids. But the thing is there is a conflict. And that’s why we can’t get bad teachers out of the classroom, because they protect them. That’s why the schools have totally perverse organizations imposed on them, and that’s why totally sensible reforms are seriously resisted in the political process. Now, what you’re going to hear, I’m sure, throughout the evening is that union leaders and unions around the country, they’re actually reformers too. They want to get bad teachers out of the classroom. They say they’re for charter schools; they’re all in favor of accountability. Well, not really. Talk is cheap. What counts is what they actually do. And what they do is to oppose reform. This is the reality.

In the MSNBC clip with Derrell Bradford a couple of posts below, you will see Derrell taking it to Randi Weingarten, and then an official for the Obama administration go into a litany of “this finger pointing has got to stop.” Derrell did not stop, nor should any of us, as this is exactly wrong. If we want a more effective system that provides the basic academic skills necessary for success in life we must first understand why we have the system we have today. The Dance of the Lemons, LIFO, charter school caps, rubber rooms, fake accountability systems with fuzzy labels and dummied downed tests- none of these things happened on accident. Nor will any of them go away by a “cuddle up to Randi and ask for reform nicely” strategy.

Borders is rushing my copy of the book to me as we speak. I can’t wait to read it.

American Legislative Exchange Council releases Report Card on American Education

September 1, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The American Legislative Exchange Council released the Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform today coauthored by yours truly, Andy LeFevre and Dan Lips. Follow the link and check out our rankings of state NAEP performance based on the overall math and reading scores and gains of general education low-income children, and our “poll of polls” grades for K-12 policy in each state.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush penned the foreward. After losing a bet Stanford Political Scientist Terry Moe gave the book a very kind endorsement:

Everyone interested in education reform should read this book. Using a method that—by focusing on the achievement of low-income children—allows for apples-to-apples comparisons across the states, the authors present a treasure trove of eye-opening performance data and arrive at a ranking of state performance that reveals both surprising success and shocking failure. The book is well worth reading for the data alone. But it also offers a good deal more, from research summaries to methodological clarifications to model legislation—and concludes with an insightful discussion of the high-powered reforms that have helped some states out-perform others, and that offer the nation a path to improvement. I should add, finally—and with genuine admiration—that the book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read: something I can rarely say about a data analysis.

JPGB readers will of course realize that this is quite a tribute to Andy and Dan, given your painfully intimate knowledge of my garbled writing. Thanks also to Jeff Reed and Dave Myslinski from ALEC (Jeff is now rocking and rolling at the Foundation for Educational Choice), Jay and my Goldwater Institute comrades.

Check it out and let me know what you think. Be nice though: today is my birthday, which makes me even more emotionally volatile than usual.

UPDATE: Here is a link to the PDF.

The Way of the Future Sighting in Yuma

August 13, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Charter School Association has calculated student learning gains in grades 3-8 for every district and charter school in the state and posted the results online. Interestingly the same school came top in both math and reading- Carpe Diem E-Learning in Yuma Arizona. They not only came in first, it was by a pretty wide margin.

So, what’s the secret sauce? They let you know right on the school webpage:

Our academic program is a “hybrid” program consisting of on-site teacher-facilitators (coaches) and computer-assisted instruction (CAI) utilizing a computer-based learning and management system. Our program offers an extensive online library of interactive instructional courseware, providing learners and teachers with access to thousands of hours of self-paced, mastery-based instruction.

Our program considers individual differences in ability, knowledge, interests, goals, contexts and learning styles. Our instructional resources and strategies give our “coaches” the power to effectively tailor their instructional practices, accommodating the individual needs of the learner with the goal of achieving student mastery.

In the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School (CDCHS), we believe that all students should have a high quality experience and technology-based education designed to help them be successful today, tomorrow and in the future.  What is “success?” At Carpe Diem, success means the student must demonstrate appropriate character and content proficiency (learning mastery), not just course completion.

Hybrid model mixing classroom instruction and technology delivered content. Teacher really serving as a guide on the side rather than a sage on a stage, only in a context where is finally makes sense. Sound familar?

Clayton Christensen has predicted that as a disruptive technology the day would come, after of years of occupying niches here and there, steadily growing like the mice at the feet of the dinosaurs, when people would realize that online learning represents a superior technology to Jurassic schools.  After reaching this tipping point, Christensen sees a rapid rise in online learning.

Terry Moe and John Chubb also see a bright future for e-learning, albeit one a bit more constrained by politics. Moe and Chubb see a chance to substitute technology for labor, providing the opportunity to provide better education for less money. Needless to say, this leads to opposition from the education unions, but Moe and Chubb see technology subtly but surely eroding the power of the unions.

Two of the most obvious possible advantages of online learning: self-paced schooling and required mastery of content to advance, both of which are featured at Carpe Diem.  I’ll be keeping a close eye on Carpe Diem’s progress, but producing the state’s largest gains in a relatively low-income area certainly has my attention.

Liberating Learning

June 1, 2009

Liberating Learning by Terry M. Moe: Book Cover

Two decades after writing Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, Terry Moe and John Chubb have done it again.  With Liberating Learning they’ve written a a compelling account of what is blocking significant improvement in public education and provided strategies for overcoming those obstacles. 

The main obstacle has remained the same across the two books: teachers unions.  Organized special interests in education as in other sectors of public policy shape the policies that are made.  In the case of education the special interests are so large, well-organized, and well-funded that their influence has distorted policy significantly to the benefit of the adults working in schools and against the interests of students and their families.

In their earlier book the solution to union dominance was choice and competition.  Interest groups can control policy but they can’t easily control markets.  But in the new book Moe and Chubb (they flipped the order of the names) acknowledge that unions have been generally successful at using politics to block the creation of effective markets.  Something has to loosen the union stranglehold to allow the markets to develop and prosper.

In Liberating Learning they’ve found what they think will break that logjam: technology.  The increasing use of technology in education will transform the operation of schools and the role of teachers in education.  In general, it will reduce the need for teachers by replacing (at least to some extent) labor with capital.  It will generate tons of data, improving the transparency of schools to the public and policymakers.  And it will decentralize the education workplace, making it harder for unions to organize and control the workforce.

There are clear echoes of Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive technologies in this new book.  But unlike Christensen, Moe and Chubb focus on the politics of public organizations rather than technology per se.  In fact, if you are looking for detailed descriptions of how technology should be used in education or hard proof of its effectiveness, you won’t find it in Moe and Chubb’s new book.  They are not trying to prove that these technologies are educationally effective or describe best practices, although it is clear that they have some ideas on these topics.  They are trying to describe the political logic of the current stagnation in education and how it might be altered.

The clear writing and tight argument will make Liberating Learning a pleasure to read for education reformers.  We might still wonder whether unions will be able to use politics to block the transformative effect of technology, but the book is sure to provoke a lot of productive discussion and thinking.

(edited for typos)

Moe and Peterson on DC Vouchers

March 19, 2009

Moe in WSJ

November 24, 2008

Terry Moe has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal today.  He suggests that the Democrats (including himself as an early Obama supporter) are the logical source of education reform.  He writes:

“If children were their sole concern, Democrats would be the champions of school choice. They would help parents put their kids into whatever good schools are out there, including private schools. They would vastly increase the number of charter schools. They would see competition as healthy and necessary for the regular public schools, which should never be allowed to take kids and money for granted.”

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