Tag: fordham institute

The Real Problem with Highly Regulated “School Choice”

A Fordham Institute paper released today seeks to answer the question: do private schools really refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs? Its authors tell us that “many proponents of private school choice… take [this] for granted,” citing two examples—one of them being the Cato Institute, whose Center for Educational Freedom I direct. The authors even cite a relevant commentary by former Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer.

The only problem is that the cited commentary says precisely the opposite. Describing Indiana’s voucher program, Schaeffer writes: “Because participating schools will have a significant financial advantage over non-participating schools, lightly regulated [non-participating] schools will face increasing financial pressure to participate.” This captures Schaeffer’s concern as well as my own (which I expressed over a decade ago in the political economy journal Independent Review): We do not fear that private schools will refuse to participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. We know that they ultimately will participate, or be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts.

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished. The Dutch enacted a heavily regulated nationwide voucher program nearly a century ago. Unsubsidized private schooling remains legal, but has been reduced to a statistical asterisk—now making up less than one percent of enrollment, compared to roughly 70 percent for subsidized private schools.

Our reason for concern over this pattern is also grounded in empirical evidence: it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. That is the consensus of the worldwide within-country research, which I reviewed and tabulated for a 2009 paper in the Journal of School Choice. The Fordham paper does not discuss this evidence.

Despite imputing to Cato scholars the exact opposite of the view we hold, the paper does include some interesting data. In particular, it offers a new corroboration that voucher programs are more heavily regulated than tax credit programs (a difference whose magnitude and statistical significance was previously established here). This will make it even harder for objective observers to cling to the notion that vouchers and credits are functionally equivalent.

NCLB Is ‘Voluntary,’ Too

Why the big concern about the Common Core? For many it’s about the quality of the standards, which is a topic well worth delving into. But the real problem is that – continued protestations of supporters notwithstanding – adopting the standards has been anything but truly voluntary, and they are very likely to lead to complete federal control of education.

First, the sham voluntarism of today. Did your state want federal Race to the Top money? It had to adopt the Common Core to be fully competitive. Did it want out of the irrational, failed, No Child Left Behind Act? It had to have signed on to the Common Core to have a decent chance. Oh, and the tests that will go with the Common Core? The consortia creating them were selected by the federal government, which is also paying the bills.

And here’s something interesting: States didn’t technically have to sign on to NCLB, either. They “volunteered” to take federal dough and got NCLB with it. So why don’t you hear many people crowing that adopting NCLB was voluntary?

Because they know that it’s almost impossible for state policymakers to turn down hundreds-of-millions of federal dollars. It looks like a whole lot of money to state citizens, and those citizens had no choice about paying the federal taxes from which the money came. So neither signing on to NCLB nor the Common Core were truly voluntary, and the only reason the nation has fallen slightly short of Common Core unanimity is that, unlike NCLB, neither Race to the Top money nor NCLB waivers were guaranteed for every state. Nonetheless, most found it impossible not to take a gamble.

That said, the biggest threat is down the line. With almost all states having adopted the Core, there’s a huge chance that when Congress reauthorizes NCLB the Common Core – and the federal tests to go with it – will become the backbone of federal accountability, with schools rewarded or punished based on how they score on the tests. The rationale many policymakers will offer is easy to anticipate: “States have already signed on to shared standards, so it makes little sense not to base accountability on them.” Classic slippery slope.

From the vantage point of Common Core supporters, that is actually the only outcome that makes sense. As Fordham Institute folks have complained on numerous occasions, the vast majority of states will not on their own raise standards and maintain strict accountability. But if states won’t do it, the federal government – their boss – must.

But even if Common Core supporters achieve that which is the logical end of national standards and testing – federal control – it almost certainly won’t give them the educational outcomes they want.

Ultimately, the groups that have the most influence over any government policy are those most directly affected by it – they are the most motivated to be politically involved – and in education that’s the teachers and administrators whose very livelihoods come from the system. And because they are normal human brings – no better nor worse than the rest of us – what they ideally want, and fight for, is as little accountability to others as possible. That’s why so few states have ever had much success with standards and testing, and why it’s irrational to think that Washington will do any better. Indeed, at least to a limited extent states compete with each other for residents and businesses – Washington doesn’t face even that minimal upward pressure.

So what will the Common Core most likely get us? Red-tape driven federal control without rigorous standards and testing. It will also move us farther from the reform that actually makes sense: School choice for all, which would overcome disproportionate political power by forcing educators to respond to parents. And that’s not all it would do. It would also give educators new freedom to employ different pedagogies and curricula; enable children with diverse interests and needs to link up with teachers specializing in them; and unleash crucial competition and innovation. It would, basically, stop ignoring the fundamental realities that all children are different, and no one actually knows what are the ultimate, “best” curricula.

Unfortunately, not only are we moving away from what we need, we’re stuck fighting over what really isn’t even a question: Adopting the Common Core hasn’t been truly voluntary at all.

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

Common Core Supporter: Maybe Opposition Not Paranoia

Two years ago Fordham Institute President Chester Finn called people like me, who saw the move toward national curriculum standards as a huge lurch toward federal control, “paranoid.” Well it looks like he might be catching a little of the paranoia, too. Or, at least, while still calling Common Core adoption “voluntary,” he recognizes that the Obama Administration keeps on proving that the paranoiacs aren’t really all that crazy:

Sixth, and closely related to the blurring of national with federal is the expectation that Uncle Sam won’t be able to keep his hands off the Common Core—which means the whole enterprise will be politicized, corrupted and turned from national/voluntary into federal/coercive. This is probably the strongest objection to the Common Core and, alas, it’s probably the most valid, thanks in large measure to our over-zealous Education Secretary and the President he serves.

Let’s face it. Three major actions by the Obama administration have tended to envelop the Common Core in a cozy federal embrace, as have some ill-advised (but probably intentional) remarks by Messrs. Duncan and Obama that imply greater coziness to follow.

There was the fiscal “incentive” in Race to the Top for states to adopt the Common Core as evidence of their seriousness about raising academic standards.

Then there’s today’s “incentive,” built into the NCLB waiver process, for states to adopt the Common Core as exactly the same sort of evidence.

(In both cases, strictly speaking, states could supply other evidence. But there’s a lot of winking going on.)

The third federal entanglement was the Education Department’s grants to two consortia of states to develop new Common Core-aligned assessments, which came with various requirements and strings set by Secretary Duncan’s team.

This trifecta of actual events is problematic in its own right, not because the federal government is evil but because Washington has become so partisan and politicized and because of angst and suspicion that linger from failed efforts during the 1990’s to generate national standards and tests via federal action.

What’s truly energized the Common Core’s enemies, however, has been a series of ex cathedra comments by President Obama and Secretary Duncan. Most recently, the Education Secretary excoriated South Carolina for even contemplating a withdrawal from the Common Core. Previously, the President indicated that state eligibility for Title I dollars, post-ESEA reauthorization, would hinge on adoption of the Common Core. Talking with the governors about NCLB waivers earlier this week, he stated that “if you’re willing to set, higher, more honest standards then we will give you more flexibility to meet those standards.” I don’t know whether he winked. But everybody knew what standards he was talking about.

It will, of course, be ironic as well as unfortunate if the Common Core ends up in the dustbin of history as a result of actions and comments by its supporters. But in March 2012 there can be little doubt that the strongest weapons in the arsenal of its enemies are those that they have supplied.

When what someone predicted actually occurs, it’s a lot harder to assume him delusional. It’s more accurate to call him “right.” And on national standards, even supporters are starting realize that Common Core opponents have been right all along.

Punish Me? I Didn’t Do Anything—and Johnny’s Guilty, Too!

It’s hard to pin down what’s more frustrating about Michael Petrilli’s response to my recent NRO op-ed on national standards: the rhetorical obfuscation about what Fordham and other national-standardizers really want, or the grade-school effort to escape discipline by saying that, hey, some kids are even worse!

Let’s start with the source of aggravation that by now must seem very old to regular Cato@Liberty readers, but that  has to be constantly revisited because national standardizers are so darned disciplined about their message: The national-standards drive is absolutely not “state led and voluntary,” and by all indications this is totally intentional. Federal arm-twisting hasn’t just been the result of ”unforced errors,” as Petrilli suggests, but is part of a conscious strategy.

There was, of course, Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring Students Receive a World-class Education, the 2008 joint publication of Achieve, Inc., the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers that called for Washington to implement “tiered incentives” to push states to adopt “common core” standards. Once those organizations formed the Common Core State Standards Initiative they reissued that appeal while simultaneously — and laughably — stating that “the federal government has had no role in the development of the common core state standards and will not have a role in their implementation [italics added].”

Soon after formation of the CCSSI, the Obama administration created the “Race to the Top,” a $4.35-billion program that in accordance with the CCSSI’s request — as opposed to its hollow no-Feds “promise” — went ahead and required states to adopt national standards to be fully competitive for taxpayer dough.

The carnival of convenient contradiction has continued, and Fordham — despite Petrilli’s assertion that “nobody is proposing” that “federal funding” be linked “to state adoption of the common core standards and tests” — has been running it. Indeed, just like President Obama’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — better known as No Child Left Behind — Fordham’s ESEA “Briefing Book” proposes (see page 11) that states either adopt the Common Core or have some other federally sanctioned body certify a state’s standards as just as good in order to get federal money. So there would be an ”option” for states, but it would be six of one, half-dozen of the other, and the Feds would definitely link taxpayer dough to adoption of Common Core standards and tests.

Frankly, there’s probably no one who knows about these proposals who doesn’t think that the options exist exclusively to let national-standards proponents say the Feds wouldn’t technically “require” adoption of the Common Core. But even if the options were meaningful alternatives, does anyone think they wouldn’t be eliminated in subsequent legislation?

Of course, the problem is that most people don’t know what has actually been proposed — who outside of education-wonk circles has time to follow all of this? — which is what national-standards advocates are almost certainly counting on.

But suppose Fordham and company really don’t want federal compulsion? They could put concerns to rest by doing just one thing: loudly and publicly condemning all federal funding, incentivizing, or any other federal involvement whatsoever in national standards. Indeed, I proposed this a few months ago. And just a couple of weeks ago, Petrilli and Fordham President Chester Finn rejected that call, saying that they ”have no particular concern with the federal government … helping to pay” for the creation of curricular guides and other material and activities to go with national standards.

So, Fordham, you are proposing that federal funding be linked to adoption of common standards and tests, and denying it is becoming almost comical. At least, comical to people who are familiar with all of this. But as long as the public doesn’t know, the deception ends up being anything but funny.

Maybe, though, Fordham is getting nervous, at least over the possibility that engaged conservatives are on to them. Why do I think that? Because in addition to belching out the standard rhetorical smoke screen, Petrilli is now employing the’ “look over there — that guy’s really bad” gambit to get the heat off. Indeed, after ticking off some odious NCLB reauthorization proposals from other groups, Petrilli concludes his piece with the following appeal to lay off Fordham and go after people all conservatives can dislike:

We might never see eye to eye with all conservatives about national standards and tests. But we should be able to agree about reining in Washington’s involvement in other aspects of education. How about we drop the infighting and spend some of our energy working together on that?

Nice try, but sorry. While I can’t speak for conservatives, those of us at Cato who handle education have certainly addressed all sorts of problems with federal intervention in our schools. But right now in education there is no greater threat to the Constitution, nor our children’s learning, than the unprecedented, deception-drenched drive to empower the federal government to dictate curricular terms to every public school — and every public-school child — in America. And the harder you try to hide the truth, the more clear that becomes.

Tight on Standards, Loose Grip on Reality

As promised (actually, a week later than promised) I have read the Fordham Institute “Briefing Book” for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act. As expected, it’s big on trumpeting national standards, and squishy on almost everything else. Perhaps most aggravating, though, is how loose it is in characterizing the views of those of us at the Cato Institute, who apparently are part of the big group of education analysts who love the idea of Washington lavishing money on education but are, presumably, too blinkered to want to get results for it:

 

The local controllers. These folks, led by conservative and libertarian think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, want Uncle Sam, for the most part, to butt out of education policy—but to keep sending money. They see NCLB as an aberrant overreach, an unprecedented (and perhaps unconstitutional) foray into the states’ domain. Many within this faction also favor reform, particularly greater parental choice of schools, but at day’s end their federal policy position resembles that of the system defenders. They want to keep federal dollars flowing, albeit at a much more modest rate than those on the left; but they want to remove the accountability that currently accompanies these monies. They have given up on Uncle Sam as an agent for positive change, period. And they have enormous confidence that communities, states, and parents, unfettered from and unpestered by Washington, will do right by children.

Where, exactly, has someone from Cato written that Uncle Sam should keep dropping ducats on education? Certainly not here, where I call for complete elimination of federal involvement in education save civil rights enforcement, and a return of all federal education funds to taxpayers. You won’t find it here, where Chris Edwards calls for eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and zeroing out all its spending. And you won’t discover it here, where Andrew Coulson and I propose that “NCLB not be reauthorized and that the federal government return to its constitutional bounds by ending its involvement in elementary and secondary education.”

Sadly, reporting the truth doesn’t appear to be as important to Fordham as producing a strawman — some group that’s portrayed as totally irrational, allowing Fordham to show how ”realistic” they are by coming up with relatively reasonable sounding policy proposals. It’s a grating, superficial tactic employed by Fordham that Jay Greene and his gang have long harped on.

The funny thing is, in the end there isn’t anything particularly realistic about Fordham’s proposal. Basically, Fordham would have the federal government force all states to adopt the Common Core standards — while adding science and history standards — to get back money that came from their citizens to begin with, or adopt standards that some state-federal hybrid panel of “experts” deemed “just as rigorous as the Common Core.” This would somehow prevent “an unwarranted intrusion by the federal government in state matters.” Because, of course, it is much less intrusive to have an option of having some federally mandated Frankenstein’s panel tell you if the standards you came up with are as good as the federal standards, or just having the feds set one standard.

Then there’s Fordham’s accountability — er, “transparency” — proposal, which would force states to annually spit out “reams” of data on outcomes “sliced and diced in every way imaginable.” Once the tons of data confetti are dumped, Fordham would rely on public pressure from seeing the mess to force reform. And how would the public force said reform? Don’t worry about it — “realism” dictates that all we need are national curriculum standards, testing, and data, data, data!

So, sadly, Fordham’s “realism” fails where it always seems to fail: In ignoring actual reality. Thanks to the phenomenon of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs that is a basic part of representative government, the people who benefit most directly from specific government policies will be most heavily involved in the politics behind those policies, and will bend them to serve themselves, not the “public good.” In the case of education, the people employed by the schools — the teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, etc. — have the most power, and will gut anything used to hold them accountable, just as they have for decades. And there is nothing — nothing — in the Fordham proposal that will keep this from happening again, no matter how centralized the standards or humongous the data dumps. Indeed, centralized standards provide one-stop shopping for special interests!

Only one thing breaks the concentrated benefits, diffuse costs conundrum, and it is taking government out of the equation and forcing educators to earn the money of customers. But for Fordham and others who, ultimately, seem to want to dictate what every child must learn, that is a bit of realism much too far.

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.

Not Possible in This Dimension

Over at the Fordham Institute, Senior Fellow Peter Meyer continues the assault on logic that Fordham has insisted on perpetrating when it comes to national curriculum standards. Writing about a New York Times story on the deceptive curriculum “guidelines” manifesto released by a number of national-standards supporters earlier this week, Meyer declares that:

Contrary to popular belief (especially in some Tea Party circles), a national curriculum, done properly, does not threaten local control.  As we learn in this story, plenty of folks, including Randi Weingarten and our own Checker Finn, have signed on to a “common curriculum,” which its proponents say will constitute only about half of a school’s “academic time.”

Maybe I’m missing some very small but incredibly powerful wrinkle in the logic here, but it seems to me that by definition forcing local districts to use national standards must threaten local control. Indeed, it must not only threaten it, it must actually defeat it. And this is in no way changed by the curriculum having to account for “only about half” of a school’s time: Hours formerly controlled locally are now controlled nationally, which is inescapably a major incursion on local control.

Maybe in some dimension white is black, black is white, and ants are really walruses. But in this dimension, as far as I know, the laws of reality and logic must still apply – even to national curriculum standards.