Fordham’s Confusion Over Means and Ends

On Tuesday, the Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” proposing that all private schools accepting students participating in school choice programs be required to administer the state test. Low-performing schools would be forbidden to participate in the school choice program. As I explained then, that would de facto entail forcing almost all private schools into the Common Core regime, thereby stifling innovation and diversity. The Friedman Foundation pointed to a recent study showing how parents hold private schools accountable already. Matt Ladner highlighted Fordham’s own previous research that exposed state accountability measures as fradulant “illusions.” Greg Forster cast a gimlet eye on Fordham’s assurance that existing private schools don’t really mind the state tests:

Once again, Fordham is operating out of a top-down, anti-entrepreneurial mindset. Existing private schools are not the voice of entrepreneurial innovation. They are the rump left behind by the crowding out of a real private school marketplace; they are niche providers who have found a way to make a cozy go of it in the nooks and crannies left behind by the state monopoly. They are protecting their turf against innovators just as much as the state monopoly.

Milton once used the analogy of hot dog vendors. If you put a “free” government hot dog vendor on every street corner, the real hot dog vendors will all vanish. The same has happened to private schools. If we extend the analogy, we could say that a few hot dog vendors might survive by catering to niche markets – maybe the government hot dog stands can’t sell kosher hot dogs because that would be entanglement with religion. But the niche vendors would not be representative of all that is possible in the field of hot dog vending.

And the private schools that don’t participate in choice programs are probably the least entrepreneurial. Notice, for example, that their top complaint is that choice isn’t universal. Why would that prevent them from participating in choice programs? Wouldn’t they want to reach out and serve the kids they can serve, even as they advocate for expansion of the programs to serve others? The private schools participating in choice programs are doing so; they may not be paragons of entrepreneurship, but they are at least entrepreneurial enough to want to help as many kids as they can. The demand for bigger choice payments is also not a sign of hungry innovation on their part (even if the choice payments are paltry in may places).

In response, Fordham’s new president, Michael Petrilli, acknowledges (some of) these concerns, but oddly claims that since we don’t share his proposed government solution, we also must not share his concern about poorly performing private schools. It’s as though Petrilli proposes dousing a burning building with gasoline but when others object that this is a bad idea, he accuses them of thinking that the burning building is a not really a problem.

Sure, as Petrilli notes, there are poorly performing private schools just as there are poorly performing government schools. The question is which system is more likely to reduce the number of bad schools and increase the number of good ones: a system of uniform accountability to the government or a diverse and innovative system where accountability is directly to parents? We believe that the evidence supports the latter and demonstrated why the evidence Fordham relies on lies somewhere between flimsy and non-existent.

Petrilli has at least shown a potential willingness to back down from the worst elements of his proposal:

Maybe the tests that voucher students take need not be the state tests so long as they’re solid measures of achievement. Perhaps we need to let schools point to alternative measures of student outcomes before they are kicked out of choice programs. Possibly we need an accountability regime that’s completely separate from that which governs the public schools. Such compromises might help to ensure that the educational diversity of the private school marketplace isn’t inadvertently diminished.

Unfortunately, he still clings to the notion that what we have now is somehow a “market” in education, concluding: “But the answer cannot be ‘let the market figure it out.’ Because it hasn’t, and it won’t—and somebody must.” But as Forster noted, a system where 90 percent of the “market” is consumed by the “free” government schools is not really a market. If we really want more accountability, then we need more choices. Even Petrilli admits that sometimes families choose a poorly performing private school because it’s the only alternative to a worse performing (or unsafe) government school. Eliminating that alternative by forbidding the private school from participating in a school choice program won’t do any good for those low-income families who will then be shuffled back to the government school.

Instead of government-induced conformity, let’s push for broader education choice programs that give the private schools the space to innovate.