Tag: education policy

School Choice, Realpolitik, & Brookings

Jay Greene has responded to my review of the new Brookings Institution school choice report which he co-authored, raising a crucial issue for the education policy and research communities. Jay points out that the report is a work of realpolitik rather than scholarship, and as such contends that it must find a compromise between the policies best supported by the evidence and those that have a real chance of being implemented. He makes the related argument that incrementalism is the only realistic path to success.

I agree with Jay that it’s good for analysts to find ways of improving current policy even when the ideal policies are not politically feasible. But these realpolitik recommendations must be clearly distinguished from the ideal policies themselves. Analysts should report both viable compromise reforms AND ideal policies, explaining to policymakers the likely costs and risks associated with the compromises–the reasons why they are inferior. Failing to do this leads to two serious problems:

First, presenting only the compromises robs the public and its elected representatives of crucial information, making it more difficult to build support for the ideal policies and leading to guilt by association when the compromise policies prove disappointing for reasons that should have been – but were not – clearly laid out in advance.

Second, when analysts don’t present their ideal policies and the evidence (if any) on which they are based, there is no way for the public or policymakers to judge the wisdom of their realpolitik compromise recommendations. This is particularly problematic when the analysts’ recommendations conflict with what the available evidence shows to be ideal policy.

As to the need for incrementalism in U.S. policy reform, the evidence is not entirely one-sided. The Emancipation Proclamation did not give slaves a 50 percent share in themselves, rising gradually to 100 percent over time. When women won the franchise, it was not at a discounted rate – one female vote equal to 1/3 or 1/2 of a male vote. They won the right to vote outright. Prohibition was not undone gradually, with beverage categories being re-legalized in order of alcohol content.  I’m sure we could think of other major policy shifts in U.S. history that were not incremental.

In all of the above cases, major social movements were necessary to win the day, and if scholars and advocates who knew better had championed only half-measures instead of the policies they knew to be right, it surely would have delayed the eventual victories. Scholars who know what kind of school choice is necessary to best serve children should clearly advocate such policies, especially in any context in which they also offer any interim recommendations they deem more politically feasible. 

And even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that all school choice policies must be incremental, there are incremental policies already in existence that are highly consistent with ideal policy. Existing scholarship donation tax credits such as those in PA, FL, RI, etc., and personal use education tax credits such as those of Illinois and Iowa, are expanding organically over time. Eventually, as that expansion continues, they could be combined and thus ensure universal access to the education marketplace without needing to impose regulations on private schools that the research shows to be intrusive and counterproductive. By contrast, it is hard to see how introducing federal regulation of virtual schools (a Brookings Report recommendation) moves us close in the direction of the minimally regulated parent-driven markets supported by the evidence.

So, yes, let’s be realistic in our policy recommendations, but let’s also be clear about the ideal policies indicated by the empirical evidence, so that policymakers and the public hear a consistent message about where we need to go.

School Choice Advocates: Beware Washington

The Brookings Institution will release a new school choice policy guide on February 2nd, and from the sound of it, children, parents, taxpayers, and the authors themselves should be concerned.  The guide will provide:

a series of practical and novel recommendations for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, including national chartering of virtual education providers; expanding the types of information collected on school performance; providing incentives for low-performing school districts to increase choice and competition; and creating independent school choice portals to aid parents in choosing between schools.

The goals these recommendations are meant to achieve are entirely laudable, but there are three reasons for serious concern:

1)  The Constitution delegates to the federal government no power to provide or regulate education services, except in the execution of its explicitly enumerated powers. So the Supreme Court can ensure that state education programs abide by the Fourteenth Amendment, for example, but Congress cannot “charter virtual education providers.” Of course the federal government has been transgressing the limits on its education powers for more than half a century, but no one who supports the rule of law can condone that transgression, much less its expansion.

2)  From a regulatory standpoint, Washington is the worst level of government at which to implement an education program. National education programs impose a single set of rules on every participating provider in the country. Get those rules wrong – either up front or down the road – and you not only hobble the effectiveness of every single provider, but you eliminate the possibility of comparing outcomes between providers operating under different sets of rules. In essence you lose the ability to distinguish between different “treatments” – to determine what helps and what is harmful to the service’s overall success.

3)  We have ample evidence about the quality of education programs implemented by the federal government. For example, after 45 years and $166 billion, Head Start has just been proven entirely ineffective. (See also the NCLB paper linked to in “1)”, above). Once again, this problem is exacerbated by the all-encompassing nature of federal programs. Get them wrong and you get them wrong for every participating student, everywhere in the country. With variation in programs among states, by contrast, we not only have the ability to compare the merits of alternative approaches, we have powerful incentives for states to get their programs right. Just as tax competition drives businesses from one state or nation to another, so, too, can education policy competition. States with better policies will attract businesses and more mobile residents from states with worse ones, eventually compelling the inferior policy states to redress their errors.  We’re just beginning to see the prospects for this now, as school choice programs proliferate and grow at the state level, and introducing national programs that might well interfere with this process would be a disastrous mistake.

I hope that school choice advocates, including those who have contributed to the forthcoming Brookings report, will weigh these concerns.

Education Tax Credits the Choice for Independents in Virginia

My last post focused on the general results of a school choice poll in Virginia. Contra conventional wisdom, education tax credits are significantly more popular and less opposed than are charter schools.

Even more interesting is the stability of support for donation tax credits across party identification. A stunning 64 percent of Democrats support credits, with only 21 percent opposed. Independents support credits 65 percent to 22 percent.

Charters are supposed to be the poster child for policies targeting Independent voters. And yet charters draw 59 percent of support from independents and 23 percent opposition.

That’s a swing from a 43 percent margin of support for credits to a 36 percent margin for charters. And vouchers run even further behind with a 22 percent margin of support from Independent voters.

Smart politicians looking for cost-saving and effective education reform would do well to take note of these numbers.

More to come …

What’s the Most Popular Choice Reform in Virginia?

Pop Quiz: What’s the best education policy a moderate politician in Virginia can pursue?

  1. Vouchers
  2. Charter Schools
  3. Education Tax Credits

Conventional wisdom says go with charter schools, because they are a bipartisan, moderate compromise reform that will get you the largest number of Independents and the least opposition. Vouchers are too hot to touch. And what’s an education tax credit … oh, right, they’re too controversial as well

Conventional wisdom is WRONG.

The Friedman Foundation has released another in their invaluable series of state education polls, this time for once-purple Virginia. Their findings are consistent with other polls, and the pattern is worth highlighting.

Charter schools draw 59 percent in support and 26 percent in opposition. Vouchers find 57 percent in support and 35 percent in opposition. Personal-use credits get the support of 59 percent and are opposed by 32 percent.

Donation tax credits are supported by 65 percent of voters and opposed by 23 percent.

Charters, vouchers, and personal-use credits, in other words, are equally popular, with credits and vouchers drawing a bit more fire.  And donation credits are wildly popular with only a rump of opposition.