PJ Media

Only School Choice Will Keep Them Honest

The Obama administration has just announced a major new education policy initiative that’s discombobulating two decades’ worth of education politics. As the twenty-year run of the great school accountability movement — which I supported and still remember with more affection than regret — grinds to a halt, I think two lessons are clear: until parents can choose their schools, no other type of school reform will work; and a critical mass of people on the political left are realizing that.

Although school accountability was always primarily a state and local movement, most people associate it primarily with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. For years, I’ve kinda-sorta defended NCLB using basically the following argument: I’d rather have the federal government throw a bunch of money at the education blob and extract at least one useful concession from it in exchange than have it throw a bunch of money at the education blob and not get anything useful in exchange. I think just having the requirement that all students be tested and the results for every school be published (along with a bunch of other data that used to be much more difficult to collect) does an enormous amount of good just by creating transparency and enabling better statistical research on what works, even though the “accountability” aspect of the law is more or less a sham.

And for years, NCLB critics have come back at me with basically this argument: We had to greatly increase the amount of money we throw at the blob in order to get that concession you like so much. It’s not worth it. Useful as the test data may be, we’d have been better off without them.

Well, be careful what you wish for. The Obama administration has just announced — almost in so many words — that it’s going to go through NCLB and rip out everything the blob doesn’t like.

There’s still some chance that the testing may be preserved even as the “accountability” provisions are dropped. But I’m not optimistic. It would just be too easy for them to gut the testing and pay no political price for doing so. They don’t even have to openly stop the tests; they just have to stop requiring every student to take them. Once you do that, the results are worthless.

Now, do you think that when the testing requirements and other things the blob finds odious are removed, the amount of money the feds throw at the blob every year will go down?

Although federal education spending is still only a small portion of the whole school budget, NCLB did increase it pretty sizably. It did that because the blob wailed and howled that it couldn’t possibly live up to NCLB’s supposedly burdensome requirements without lots of new money. But when the requirements are gone, will the spending levels be reduced?

The accountability testing movement accomplished a lot of good in the 1990s. If you look outside the Beltway to states and cities, you’ll see why in 2001 people like me thought NCLB would end up doing a lot more good than it actually did. NCLB was drawing inspiration from state and local reforms that had really worked. In places like Florida, where test-based accountability systems were well implemented and the politicians were willing to stand up to the blob, they got great results.

But even at the state and local level, at this point we more or less have to pronounce the accountability movement as a whole to be yesterday’s news. I don’t think anyone in any legislature in the country is proposing any serious new reforms based on testing.

What went wrong? Some will blame NCLB, and there’s something to that. With a federal “accountability” regime in place, political capital to support state and local accountability reforms was reduced.

But I now think accountability was always going to stall out anyway. Not because it’s a bad reform in itself; I still think it’s a good idea when it’s designed right. However, there’s an underlying political problem when looking past the short run to the long run.

Voters can only pay attention to any given issue for a short period. That’s just the nature of politics: people have other things going on in their lives and they can’t spend their whole lives policing the school system (or any other area of government activity).

So school reformers have to play a short-run game. They have to wait until circumstances create momentum for reform and then seize it and get their reforms passed before the moment passes.

But the education blob is playing a long game. They can afford to lose a legislative battle against something like testing. Because in a few years, or at most a decade, the political coalition that made rigorous reform possible will have faded into the background. If they just lie low, before long the reformers’ moment will pass and the field will be clear. They’ll be able to make their move, subverting whatever reform you enacted so that it becomes toothless — or worse, it serves their agenda, not yours.

The only answer I can see is school choice. Voters can’t be paying attention to education policy forever, but parents never lose interest in looking after their children’s education. Once parents can choose schools, the schools can’t take their students for granted. They have to shape up or watch their students ship out.

That’s why school choice has such an amazing track record of improving public schools. It puts parents in charge.

That’s also why the biggest political winner in education by far in the past year has been charter schools. I’ll admit I was skeptical at first, but the Obama administration’s pro-charter rhetoric has been more than just talk. Charter caps are being lifted because the administration really does support charters.

Why? I think it’s mainly because a critical mass of their political base on the left has embraced the principle that parents should be put in charge through choice, and I think that has happened precisely because they want a reform that will keep the system honest. More and more people on the left are sick and tired of the empty promises they’ve been peddled for decades: that this time, throwing another huge chunk of money at the blob will fix the schools — and this time, we really, really, really mean it, cross our hearts and hope to die.

The social justice folks on the left just don’t buy it anymore. They now see that the blob has been pulling the wool over their eyes for generations. You can imagine how they’re feeling about that right now. And woe betide you if the wrath of the social justice folks falls upon you; they’re not known for being gentle with those whom they perceive as enemies of social justice.

Case in point: Did you know that the same team of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, scruple-at-nothing propagandists who produced An Inconvenient Truth has now made a hard-hitting documentary bashing teachers’ unions and advocating charter schools? And it was the very first film picked up for distribution at the Sundance Film Festival?

But in addition to the turning of the tide among the social justice folks, there’s one other reason for charters’ success. And it points to a reason for conservatives to hope that the success of charters will ultimately lead to bigger and better things down the road.

The recent surge in the political fortunes of charter schools has been fueled by the less dramatic but steadily growing success of private school choice: school vouchers and similar policies that allow students to attend private schools using public funds. There are now 24 private school choice programs serving 190,000 students nationwide, up from just five programs in 1996. And private school choice is continuing to gain ground every year with the creation of new programs and expansion of existing programs, even in tough years like 2009.

As my friend Jay Greene likes to put it, vouchers make the world safe for charters. That is, it’s because of the more modest success of vouchers that charters have exploded. As long as vouchers are on the march and are thus a credible threat, triangulating legislators who need the blob’s support can embrace charters without paying too high a price for doing so. If the blob cuts off its support for legislators who back charters, it won’t have anyone on its side when vouchers are on the agenda. Because vouchers are out there, the blob has no choice but to suck it up and pretend to be OK with charters.

The next question, though, is whether charters alone are going to be sufficient to keep the system honest. Charters have ridden to success with the help of a lot of new supporters, but those supporters are a demanding constituency. The social justice folks expect results.

The whole point about charters — their reason for existing — is that they’re a compromise with the blob. Charters are privately operated, but they’re government-owned and accountable to government-appointed authorities. They’re free from some of the onerous regulations that are hobbling education in regular public schools, but not from all of them.

This compromise approach means charters succeed in extracting something from the blob. But it also means the extractions they exact are inherently limited. By their very nature, charters are able to resist the blob, but only so far.

There is actually a shocking level of ignorance about these facts. A majority of Americans think charter schools are not public schools (they are). Even more — 57% — think that charter schools charge tuition (they don’t). And a whopping 71% believe that charter schools are allowed to select their own students (they can’t; they have to take all comers and admit by lottery).

By the same token, charters are not a scalable approach to creating more parental choice. The amount of parental choice you get from charters is fixed. Oh, it will fluctuate somewhat as the political winds blow favorably or unfavorably to charters. But ultimately the scope of parent choice you get from charters is never going to be very much more than what you get from them right now.

That means the educational improvement you can get from charters is also limited. The empirical evidence does show that charters outperform regular public schools. But that’s damning with faint praise; they’d have to work pretty hard to avoid outperforming public schools (especially in the particular neighborhoods where charters are typically allowed to operate).

But the size of the educational impact from charters is moderate. It’s not radically transformative. And because charters are based on compromise, it’s never going to be radically transformative.

Even in the relatively modest and restricted programs we have now, school vouchers deliver substantially more educational improvement than charters. But, more important, vouchers are scalable. By expanding the scope of choice (removing limits on who is allowed to choose, the value of the voucher, and what kinds of schools parents are allowed to select) you can create more choice and get even better results. And by implementing a universal voucher program, you could really take the shackles off and unleash a transformative revolution in the quality of schooling.

And the more choice you have, the more you keep the system honest. Private school choice delivers much stronger accountability for the public system, because it empowers parents much more.

People on the left are turning to charters because they don’t trust the blob any more and they want a reform that doesn’t rely on the honesty of politicians. Charters do create some of that kind of pressure to keep the system honest. But because charters are beholden to government — maintaining a strong element of government control is a core part of the whole concept of charters — they don’t perform that function nearly as well as vouchers.

A few years down the line, will the newfound supporters of charters on the left still be satisfied with the level of accountability for the public system charters create?

Well, let me ask you two more questions that might give you the answer to that one. Just how much vigilance does the government system need in order to be kept honest? And are social justice activists easily satisfied with marginal change or do they tend to prefer policies with revolutionary potential — like vouchers?

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