Tag: school choice

The Making and Breaking of Education Policy

Matt Ladner does a good job of explaining how his beliefs shape his education policy recommendations. It’s a quality that he shares with Horace Mann, who persuaded the people of Massachusetts to adopt a fully tax-funded state school system based on his own beliefs about how a just society should educate its children.

More than a century and a half later, we are still struggling to replace Mann’s unresponsive, divisive, ineffective, wasteful, and often cruel system with one that actually works. So, as we reflect on exactly what to replace Mann’s system with, we have to ask: how did he get it so very, very wrong, and how can we avoid the same fate?

I suggest that Mann’s great mistake was to base his policy recommendations on his belief system. To avoid sentencing future generations to a similarly dysfunctional education, we must base our conclusions on a broad and systematic analysis of the evidence. We should study school systems historically and internationally to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. We should make predictions about how different policies will unfold and then try to test those predictions empirically. We should observe how different policies play out across states rather than rushing to homogenize them before their effects can be compared.

At least that seems to me our greatest hope of avoiding Mann’s tragic mistake. And if the policy conclusions we reach do not happen to be the easiest to implement, we can take comfort in the fact that Mann succeeded in promoting a system that had no basis in reason or evidence despite strong and longstanding opposition. If a radical bad idea could triumph, why not a radical good one?

Universal Dependence or Universal Access?

There’s a rift within the U.S. school choice movement as to whether private school choice programs should cover every child or focus only on the poor. Fortunately, the cause of this disagreement is not so much that the two sides have different goals but that they have different assumptions about what will achieve those goals. And the nice thing about assumptions is that they can very often be tested against the real-world evidence. What actually works better: universal access to the education marketplace, or universal dependence on a government program? That’s the question I try to answer over at the RedefinEd blog today, in a post responding to veteran voucher campaigner Howard Fuller.

Power Yes, Trigger No

There is little question that parents have too little power in elementary and secondary education. In fact, they have almost no power: they can vote, but are otherwise usually relegated to being class moms, or holding bake sales, or some other fluffy “involvement” that gives them no real say over how their children are educated. Adding insult to injury, that doesn’t often stop professional educators from blaming parents when students don’t do so well.

To remedy the problem, the trendy thing seems to be “parent trigger” laws that would, generally speaking, allow a majority of parents at a school declare that they want to fire the staff, or bring in a private management company, or some other transformation. It’s been the spark behind some especially heated conflicts in California, as unions and parents of different stripes have been doing battle with each other. It is also the subject of a New York TimesRoom for Debate” exchange today.

While I sympathize—obviously—with those who advocate giving parents more power, I cannot help but conclude that the parent trigger is a very poor way to do this. For one thing, it is inherently divisive: what about the 49 percent, or 30 percent, or whatever percent of parents who don’t want the changes the majority demands? They’ve got no choice but to fight it out with their neighbors. It is also inefficient: individual children need all sorts of options to best meet their unique needs and abilities, but the trigger would just exchange one monolithic school model for another.

The trigger, quite simply, is no substitute for real educational freedom: giving parents control of education funds, giving educators freedom to establish myriad options, and letting freedom, competition and specialization rein.

There is, however, one gratifying thing about the parent trigger: it has made historian Diane Ravitch—who constantly decries the destruction of “democracy” were we to have educational freedom—express outrage about ”51 percent of people using a public service hav[ing] the power to privatize it.”

Um, isn’t majority rule what democracy is all about? Or do government schooling defenders really just invoke the term because it sounds so nice and is such a potent rhetorical club?

The answer, it seems, is getting more clear.

A Soft Surrender to Low Expectations

There is a problem in the school choice community … let’s call it a soft surrender to low expectations.

We are witnessing a race to the bottom on education policy, and the latest case comes from my own state of Virginia. The legislature passed an education tax credit program this week, soon to be signed by the Governor, which means I should be celebrating. Unfortunately, the Virginia tax credit program is a mockery of education reform.

I will lay out my basic list of criticisms, which include some of the program’s  inadequacies along with its grave debilitations. Read more here.

  1. It is a 65% credit, which is terrible policy and will cripple the program (see more on this issue).
  2. It places the program administration and control, including approval of SOs and schools under the state DOE rather than the proper authority for administering a tax credit program, the Dpt. of Revenue.
  3. It exempts the DOE from the Administrative Process Act, which provides for appeal and review of decisions, and explicitly states that all decisions by the DOE and Superintendent are “final and not subject to review or appeal.” In other words, they have been given a blank check of regulatory authority over the program and schools.
  4. The bill will force schools to collect and report detailed student information to the DOE.
  5. The cap is only $25 million, and has no growth provision.
  6. No personal-use credits so that families can use their own money for their own children … they must beg for charity if they are eligible.
  7. No homeschooling or non-traditional education.
  8. And the kicker … the whole thing sunsets in 2018, five years from now (see section 58.1-439.26 A, “beginning on or after January 1, 2013, but before January 1, 2018 …”).

I would celebrate the last provision, a sunset clause, as a chance for Virginia to get it right the second time, if not for the much greater probability that the looming demise of the program will enable choice opponents to make the program even worse in trade for a stay of execution.

If we will accept this, we will accept anything. It will not do what we expect or need in terms of expanding choice and freedom, and the hope that it will be appreciably improved in the next five years is slim at best.

Often, when I insist on higher standards in school choice policy, I am told that we must voice support because it will help some children now. Few seem to consider the hundreds of thousands of children who will not be helped in decades to come, indeed may well be harmed, because of this inadequate policy. Opportunity costs must be considered. All the children yet to be born must play into our utilitarian calculus if that is the measure we use to judge public policy.

And we should not pretend that obviously inadequate programs are bold reforms; it  only serves to encourage yet more inadequate policy. We should push the conversation and educate leaders and citizens about real reform. Instead, the issue of school choice will be set aside for at least four years, as politicians point to their “accomplishment” that will help so few and provide no foundation for future reform. A roadblock to real education reform has just been passed in Virginia, and it is labeled SB 131.

David Brooks, Charles Murray, and Market Education

In a recent column, David Brooks considers Charles Murray’s thesis that “America is coming apart,” and concludes that:

The country… needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires… building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

The first recommendation is reasonable. The second suggests Brooks is not very familiar with the history of education.

For the past century and a half, the biggest single intervention by the government in American lives has been our state school systems. Prior to the mid 1800s, all education in this country was local. The majority of children attended private schools, and those who attended the local “common” or “public” schools usually paid tuition. Even “common” schooling was only free for the truly destitute. Partly as a result of this direct financial responsibility, parents had ultimate control over what and by whom their children were taught.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann and his colleague in the House, James Carter, imagined and ultimately laid the foundation of the state school system we know today. They did so for a variety of reasons, one being their belief that the common man and woman could not be trusted to educate their own children. Their solution was to take educational power and responsibility out of parents’ hands and place it under the control of state-trained, state-appointed experts.

Shockingly, taking responsibilities away from people does not make them more responsible. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it, or lose it. The kinds of  “organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly” are those that actually impose responsibilities upon them. When parents must not only choose but pay for their children’s education, they expect rather more from the system than when they are assigned “free” schooling by the state. And school efficiency rises as a result.

Some parents could not afford to pay for a good education for their children even without the heavy tax burden imposed by the present bloated state school monopolies. For those parents, we could easily provide financial assistance to cover most or (as necessary) all the cost of schooling. This is already being done on a small but growing scale in 8 states, thanks to k-12 education tax credit programs.

If Brooks wants “an organization and structure” that induces people to behave responsibly, he need look no further than the free enterprise system. “Using government” to achieve that end has been tried for 150 years, and the results are not impressive.

School Choice Lowers Crime

New research by Harvard professor David J. Deming studied the crime rates of young adults who participated in a random lottery at the middle or high school level. The lotteries decided whether students were able to attend a school of their choice or whether they were forced to attend their assigned public school. Students who won the lottery committed significantly fewer crimes as young adults than those who lost it. So here is another in the long list of educational outcomes improved by market freedoms and incentives.

Send this to a friend who is still on the fence about the merits of educational freedom.