Tag: accountability

Does Sweden’s Voucher Program Need Stricter Regulation?

Slate recently published a badly misinformed piece about Sweden’s voucher program, which I addressed here. One of the other responses to the Slate piece was written by Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji for NRO. Sanandaji did an excellent job of showing that the voucher program cannot plausibly explain Sweden’s test score decline and usefully explored some of the more likely causes.

Though I agree with much of what Sanandaji wrote, his piece occasionally endorses heavier regulation of the program for reasons that are either not apparent or inconsistent with the evidence. For instance, he rightly observes that the Swedish government requires universities to accept high school grades as a key admissions criterion but does not permit them to take into account differential grading practices across high schools. This, he notes, puts significant external pressure on high schools to inflate grades. But despite acknowledging this, he later refers to “other problems caused by the [voucher/school choice] reform … such as grade inflation,” implying that this “corruption” is “caused by the lack of [state] control.”

And yet the evidence he presents points to the opposite conclusion: that grade inflation is particularly problematic in Sweden because of imprudent government intrusion into university admissions policy. Consider as a contrast the case of the United States, where universities are free to take high schools’ grading practices into account during admissions. We still have differential grade inflation across high schools, but it is less of a concern because universities can adjust for it. As the head of admissions at Brandeis University has observed, “It’s really not that hard [for colleges] to evaluate a school bearing in mind the differences in grading and weighting processes they employ.” In the absence of government meddling, high schools cannot secure admission to good colleges for their students simply by giving them all A’s.

Still more puzzling is Sanandaji’s criticism that “some private schools broke the rules to cherry-pick students.” This is curious because Sanandaji defends free markets on a number of other occasions, and a hallmark of free markets is that they rely on mutually voluntary exchange. So, naturally, schools in a relatively free marketplace want to enroll students they think they can successfully serve, just as families seek schools they believe can successfully serve them.

This does not mean that all private schools in a relatively free market will seek to serve only high-scoring or well-behaved students. In the United States, where the vast majority of private schools are free to admit students based on any criteria they like, many exist specifically to serve difficult-to-educate students that the typical public school is not well-equipped to teach. A study conducted in the mid-1990s found that public school districts were sending hundreds of thousands of students to the private sector for just that reason. Do some other private schools focus on serving high-performing students? Of course. But the largest share seem to place little or no emphasis on students’ prior academic performance, based on survey data from Arizona that I analyzed several years ago.

Several States Expand Educational Choice

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that expands eligibility for the Florida’s longstanding scholarship tax credit (STC) program and creates a new education savings account for students with special needs. Earlier this year, Oklahoma expanded its STC program and Arizona expanded both its STC and education savings account programs. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a new STC program, though unfortunately it is limited only to low-income students assigned to government schools that are designated as “failing” by the state’s board of education. Students in “non-failing” schools that are nevertheless failing to meet their needs are not eligible to receive scholarships.

The changes to Florida’s scholarship program were mostly positive. Florida eliminated the requirement that students first spend a year at a government school before being eligible to receive a scholarship. Also, starting in 2016-17, the income eligibility cap for first-time recipients will increase to include middle-income families (from 185 percent of the federal poverty line to 260 percent), with priority given to lower-income students. Students from middle-income families will receive smaller scholarships. Students in foster homes will be eligible regardless of their foster family’s income.

Unfortunately, the law adds new rules regulating the operation of scholarship organizations. Florida already has the most regulated scholarship program in the nation, which explains why the state has only one scholarship organization while other states have dozens or even (in the case of Pennsylvania) hundreds.

Back in March, the bill’s prospects seemed dim. The Florida Speaker of the House and Senate President battled over whether to mandate that private schools administer the state test (i.e. – Common Core) as a condition of receiving scholarship students. As a result, the bill’s sponsor withdrew the legislation. That poison pill would have severely restricted school autonomy and parental choice. Fortunately, the resurrected bill that the governor signed into law did not mandate state tests. Participating schools must still administer nationally norm-referenced tests.

Florida’s new education savings account for students with special needs is based on Arizona’s highly popular program, but with a twist: nonprofit scholarship organizations will administer the program rather than the state, though the accounts will still use public funds.

Parents will be able to use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring, online education, curriculum, therapy, post-secondary educational institutions in Florida, and other defined educational services. … The maximum amount for the Personal Learning Scholarship Account shall be equivalent to 90 percent of the state and local funds reflected in the state funding formula that would have gone to the student had he or she attended public school.  

Students qualify if they reside in Florida and are eligible to enroll in kindergarten through 12th grade who have an Individualized Education Plan or have been diagnosed with one of the following: autism, Down syndrome, Intellectual disability, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina-bifida, Williams syndrome, and kindergartners who are considered high-risk. 

Unfortunately, New York legislators ended the session without passing an educational choice bill, despite majority support in both chambers of the legislature and a promise by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Timothy Cardinal Dolan that he would support STC legislation. Given the legislative support, the New York Post faulted Gov. Cuomo for the failure to pass the legislation:

The human tragedy, of course, is who will pay the price for Cuomo’s alliance with the Working Families Party & Co.: i.e., the children of actual working families, who have no avenues of escape from rotten public schools where they aren’t learning.

Education, Standards, and Private Certification

Can there be standards in education without the government imposing them?

Too many education policy wonks, including some with a pro-market bent, take it for granted that standards emanate solely from the government. But that does not have to be the case. Indeed, the lack of a government-imposed standard leaves space for competing standards. As a result of market incentives, these standards are likely to be higher, more diverse, more comprehensive, and more responsive to change than the top-down, one-size-fits-all standards that governments tend to impose. I explain why this is so at Education Next today in What Education Reformers Can Learn from Kosher Certification.” 

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.

A Weak Defense of Disclosure

In an earlier post, I wrote about the problems with the Obama administration’s executive order to force government contractors to reveal their political activity.

The administration defends the mandate by arguing “taxpayers deserve to know how contractors are spending money they’ve earned from the government.”

For the first (and perhaps last) time, I rise to the defense of government contractors. The President apparently believes that anyone who sells a good or service to the government must account for the uses of the money received in the transaction in perpetuity? Obama’s press secretary said the President’s “goal is transparency and accountability. That’s the responsible thing to do when you’re handling taxpayer dollars.”

I do not understand this. The government extracts taxes and spends the money. Indeed, government officials should be accountable for that spending. But once the exchange is made, the money belongs to a private firm. It is no longer the property of the taxpayers.  Perhaps the use of a firm’s money should be disclosed, but you need a different argument to justify that mandate. The President seems to be proposing that anyone who does business with the government may have to account for the money they earn in those transactions. That assertion strikes me as a real expansion of government power.

The most troubling part of all this remains the President’s view that he can enact this mandate through an executive order. Americans should be wondering why a rule rejected by Congress can simply be enacted by fiat by the President. The President does not enjoy the power of a king, does he?

The President’s gambit may be in trouble. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, is questioning the content of the decree. I am glad she is concerned about the First Amendment. I would be happier if she questioned the Obama-Bush conception of executive power that informs this effort.

Let’s Not Lose Sight of a Real Education Market

Over the last few days Jay Greene, the Fordham Institute’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, and several other edu-thinkers have been arguing about whether national curriculum standards would destroy a competitive market in education, and a market that already provides the uniform standards Fordham wants Washington to impose. But let’s be very clear: We haven’t had a real market – a free market – in education for a long time.

Sadly, I’m afraid Jay started this whole mess, though he certainly knows what a free market in education would look like and I don’t think he intended to confuse the issue.  Indeed, he doesn’t use the term “free market,” but mainly writes about the “competitive market between communities.” His argument is that Americans over time picked standardized curricula and schools by moving to districts that provided such things. He is no doubt at least partially right, though the case is hardly open and shut. Indeed, there is strong historical evidence that district consolidation and uniformity was often pushed on small districts from outside, especially in urban areas. It is also quite possible that many people moved to districts with uniform offerings not in search of such offerings, but in search of something else that happened to coincide with them. Most notably, industrialization brought many people to cities in search of employment, and school uniformity often came with that. Finally, the economist whose work inspired Jay’s post notes that while he believes small rural districts died largely due to residents abandoning them, he concedes that there is a “lack of direct evidence connecting rural property values with local decisions about consolidation.”

Those caveats aside, Jay’s point is a still good one that I have made before, most notably when discussing schooling and social cohesion: People will tend to have their children learn many ”common” things because that is the key to personal success. People will learn what they need to in order to work effectively and successfully in society.  Moreover, people will simply tend to gravitate toward things that work.

So the main problem in the Greene-Fordham debate is not that Jay’s points are necessarily wrong, it’s that “competitive market between communities” is too easily misconstrued as “free market,” and it fails to acknowledge the gigantic inefficiencies that come from government monopolies, whether controlled at the district, state, or federal level. Those include the massive, expensive waste that fills the pockets of special interests employed by the system; constant conflict over what the schools will teach; and at-best very ponderous competition – if you want a better school you have to buy a new house – that quashes crucial innovation and specialization. Worse yet, it leads to the following kind of crucial, damaging misunderstanding by Porter-Magee:

For more than a decade we have been conducting a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting at the state level. The result? A swift and sure race to the bottom. A majority of states had failed to set rigorous standards for their students—and had failed to create effective assessments that could be used to track student mastery of that content. In fact, the whole impetus behind the Common Core State Standards Initiative was to address what was essentially a market failure in education.

This is wrong, as they say, on so many levels!

First, we do not have real market forces anywhere at work in the current, NCLB-dominated regime. Using the quick list of market basics that John Merrifield lays out in his Policy Analysis on school choice research, a truly free market needs ”profit, price change, market entry, and product differentiation.” None of these are meaningfully at work in public schooling, with profit-making providers at huge tax-status disadvantages; public schools artificially “free” to customers; high legal barriers to starting new institutions that can meaningfully compete with traditional public schools; and requirements that all public schools teach the same things, at least at the state level. 

Moreover, if you want to talk about competition between states – which is more in line with what Jay was discussing – under NCLB all states have faced the same, overwhelming incentives to establish low standards, weak accountability, or both: If they don’t get their students to something called “proficiency” – which they define – the federal government punishes them! In light of that, of course they have almost all set very low “proficiency” bars. But that is about as far from “a natural experiment where we let market forces drive standards setting” as you can get! Indeed, it is a brilliant example not of market failure, but government failure!

Ultimately, Jay’s point is right: People on their own will tend to select educational options that are unifying, as well as gravitate to what appears to work best, so there is no need for the federal government to impose it. Moreover, as Jay points out, there are huge reasons to avoid federal standardization, including that special interests like teachers unions will likely capture such standards. But that problem has been at work with state and local monopolies, and it, along with myriad other government failures, will not be overcome until we have a real market in education – a free market in education.

Accountability in the New Congress

Just over a week ago, Politico ran a story noting that Justin Amash, a newly-elected House member from Michigan, had already voted “present” more often than his predecessor had in eight years. The story suggested that Amash was trying to avoid electoral responsibility for tough votes by voting present. In general, the story suggested that his “present” votes were a failure in some way to meet his responsibilities as a representative.

You can read Amash’s take on all this at his Facebook page. Although I have never met Amash, I have followed his political career over the past year or so. In Michigan, he emphasized  transparency and accountability. He reported and explained his votes on his Facebook page. He is continuing to do that here in Washington. Does that sound like a politician trying to avoid accountability?

Politico also reported some of Amash’s reasons for voting “present”: when he does not have “reasonable” time to review the legislation, when called upon to choose “between programs he hasn’t been given time to study,” when he has “procedural or constitutional concerns about a piece of legislation that has desirable ends,” and when he has a “substantial conflict of interest” — a situation that has not yet happened.

Amash sounds like a representative trying to take his obligations seriously. Apparently he feels he owes his constituents his best judgment about bills before the House and, absent enough time, he refuses to delegate his judgment to party elders or to mere caprice. It says something about the culture of the capital that Amash’s sense of fidelity to those who elected him occasions complaint.

The latest from Politico on Justin Amash confirms this impression. Among House GOP freshmen, he is the least likely to vote for the position taken by a majority of his class. That might be cause for concern since the GOP freshmen seem intent on cutting government spending. But I really doubt that Amash has gone native in DC. He is voting with the other GOP freshmen 70 percent of the time. It is possible that the other 30 percent of his votes reflect a concern for liberty or what he sees as the good of his constituents. Sometimes there is a great difference between being a party man and being a friend of liberty and a faithful representative.

More than a few Washington insiders are probably saying Amash is off to a rough start in his congressional career. I disagree. What I have seen so far, including these criticisms of him, confirm what I have thought for some time: Justin Amash is one of the most interesting and potentially important representatives to come to DC in a long time.