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Two recent opinion columns authored by Robert Pondiscio and Peter Cunningham have focused attention on a long-simmering school choice debate: How much regulation should accompany government-funded school choice?

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Moderated by Bob Bowdon.

Robert Pondiscio

Robert Pondiscio

Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs, The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Let Poor Parents Choose Too

Originally printed in U.S. News.

The election of Donald Trump has fundamentally shifted the ground of the education debate. The teachers unions don’t have a seat at the table, and the arguments of anti-school choice interest groups risk ringing hollow. Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to serve as his education secretary also exposes another potential schism in the ranks of education reformers: those whose preferred flavor of school choice emphasizes charter schools, strong authorizers and performance-based accountability versus those who think the ultimate control should rest with parents – and that private schools are very much part of the mix. Battle lines are already being drawn.

“If we’re going to have a national debate about choice/vouchers under DeVos/Pence,” Thomas Toch, a longtime education reform hand, tweeted after the nomination was announced, “let’s focus on evidence, not adult self-interest, ideology.”

Not so fast. Adult self-interest is the heart of this debate, and the ideological question is whether we trust poor parents to exercise it. When well-off Americans choose a private or parochial school for their child, that choice might be driven by religious faith, ideology, self-interest or simple preference, but rarely is it driven by “evidence.” Private and parochial schools seldom administer state tests or publish results. And while limited evidence can be had on the outcomes of rival suburban public schools, that carries little weight with affluent parents who can afford to live where they like. It’s a safe bet that school culture, class size, curriculum, art programs, sports teams, facilities and the like weigh more heavily than test scores. A school’s reputation is likely the strongest piece of “evidence” that affluent parents weigh.

Adults acting in their self-interest, driving progress and quality in the bargain, is the precise case that free-market enthusiasts have made since Adam Smith’s time. It is not absurd to suggest that parents voting with their feet is at least as sound an accountability scheme as any driven by standardized tests. At the very least – or perhaps at very most – testing and other forms of “evidence” might be used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.

Are poor parents incapable of acting in their children’s self-interest? Mona Davids doesn’t think so. She’s the president of NYC Parents Union, which claims 9,000 parents as members. “Parents don’t care about politics, we just want our babies educated,” says Davids, whose children have attended both charter and traditional public schools. “And, we are capable of deciding which school will do that.”

As the school choice debate rekindles in earnest, a healthy dose of humility is in order among those of us who demand empirical proof over parent preference. Decades of rising standards, test-driven accountability and an expanding role for charter schools – all aimed at improving the life outcomes of other people’s children – have generally underwhelmed. Parents are also deeply unhappy, and not without cause, with the deleterious effects of prep-and-test school culture. Education reformers don’t have nearly as strong a case as we should. We know it and parents know it. There’s a good case to be made for ensuring that public dollars are spent on bona fide schools with acceptable results, yet the stronger moral argument belongs to voucher proponents: Why deny low-income families the ability to do exactly what affluent parents have long done: to choose schools not on “evidence” but on personal prerogative?

As for the inevitable hue and cry over tax dollars making their way into private and religious schools, that bridge was crossed long ago. Pell Grants have helped low-income students attend college – including all manner of faith–affiliated institutions – for half a century. This firmly establishes two precedents: We have already agreed to socialize direct public investment in educational opportunity for low-income students, and that shared investment is in the student, not the school. (Indeed, that’s precisely what the Supreme Court used in upholding vouchers in 2002’s Zelman decision.) If we’re looking for evidence, let’s consider that, too.

Assuming it signals that the incoming Trump administration is serious about trying to launch a muscular version of school choice, the DeVos nomination seems certain to trigger a clarifying debate on vouchers and internecine fighting among education reformers – a war that may already have begun. “I’ve realized over the last few days that the charter movement’s leaders do not support vouchers for parents,” says Davids. “Just as the unions fear charters take money from them, the charter movement fears vouchers will do the same to them,” she adds. Gauntlet thrown.

Trump’s nominee will also face predictably stiff opposition from teachers unions and supporters of traditional public schools. Within minutes of the announcement of DeVos, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten condemned her as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education,” calling instead for more “investment” in public education. But this is the song that never ends.

The more interesting debate will be within the world of education reform. If it’s education reform technocrats and accountability hawks versus parents this time, the mood, the moment and the moral argument would seem to favor parents. If this year has taught us nothing else, it’s that Americans have had just about enough of their betters deciding what’s best for them and expecting them to play gratefully along. Reformers might have to start accepting that our greatest point of leverage is to help parents choose wisely, rather than trying to police their choices by means of aggressive accountability schemes.

Peter Cunningham

Peter Cunningham

Executive Director, Education Post

Robert Pondiscio Is Creating a False Battle Over School Choice

Originally printed in Education Post.

Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio is at it again, sowing discord in the education reform community by pitting public charter and school voucher supporters against each other. Virtually every line invites argument.

He sets up a false battle line between, “Those whose preferred flavor of school choice emphasizes charter schools, strong authorizers and performance-based accountability versus those who think the ultimate control should rest with parents.” I’m pretty sure there is a lot of overlap between these two groups of people.

He frames the central question as, “Whether we trust poor parents to exercise [choice].” I think charter proponents trust parents, but some of them are justifiably less trustful that private schools share our commitment to equity.

Pondiscio suggests most people make school choices based on something other than “evidence,” listing, “religious faith, ideology, self-interest or simple preference.” Lacking any evidence, he simply asserts that, “It’s a safe bet that school culture, class size, curriculum, art programs, sports teams, facilities and the like weigh more heavily than test scores.”

I am sure these are relevant factors for many parents, along with safety, but I also know that 50 million people visit the Great Schools website each year looking for a school and one of top things they click on is test scores. Apparently, “evidence” counts for some people.

He goes back three centuries to argue that “self-interest” is the driving force behind much of society’s progress. Well, so is collective interest which goes back at least 100 centuries to the dawn of agriculture, so let’s not get carried away with the free-market argument. Even Donald Trump thinks government should intervene in markets now and then.

He suggests that, “Parents voting with their feet is at least as sound an accountability scheme as any driven by standardized tests.” I’ll half agree but if “sound” is the goal, the combination of the two is better. Plus, it’s the law.

He says, “Testing and other forms of ‘evidence’ might be used to illuminate and inform parent choice, but not to limit it.” In fact, testing does inform choice but it’s unclear how testing limits choice, except to identify low-performing charter schools to close.

Then he escalates, asking rhetorically, “Are poor parents incapable of acting in their children’s self-interest?” I’ve seen some choice opponents make this insulting suggestion but I have never seen charter advocates do it.

He calls on reformers to demonstrate a “healthy dose of humility,” before saying, “Decades of rising standards, test-driven accountability and an expanding role for charter schools…have generally underwhelmed.” Most reformers I know, with the notable exception of our incoming voucher-fan-in-chief, are positively oozing humility but might take issue with his blanket dismissal of reform.

To make the case that parents are “deeply unhappy” with test-based accountability, Pondiscio links to two of his own opinion pieces about opt-out and test prep. There’s no question many parents are frustrated with over-testing, but the opt-out movement is limited to just a few places, and surveys show that parents support testing. They want to know if their kids are on track and testing is one way to show them.

He argues that, “Education reformers don’t have nearly as strong a case as we should,” which I concede but it’s still much stronger than the opposing argument. Lately, choice opponents stopped talking about educational quality and instead make the weak case that money should not follow the child because the system can’t adjust to enrollment changes.

Just half a dozen paragraphs after guessing it’s a “safe bet” that “evidence” does not drive choice, Pondiscio declares it absolutely: “affluent parents…choose schools not on ‘evidence’ but on personal prerogative.” What changed while he was writing the piece?

He then quotes a parent advocate theorizing that some charter supporters oppose vouchers because they fear the competition for limited resources. Actually, many charter supporters also support vouchers. Maybe I missed it but I don’t recall any charter supporters opposing vouchers because of competition for dollars.

He continues with another false set-up pitting, “Reform technocrats and accountability hawks versus parents,” and ups the ante with class warfare lingo: “Americans have had just about enough of their betters deciding what’s best for them.” He’s certainly right about that but it didn’t start with this election and I’m not sure education reformers are exhibit A.

Pondiscio closes by encouraging reformers to, “Help parents choose wisely, rather than trying to police their choices by means of aggressive accountability schemes.”

Well, requiring schools to administer one reading and math test a year and to do something—anything—to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools falls far short of an “aggressive accountability scheme.” If anything, the new federal education law allows many schools to ignore achievement gaps.

And, helping parents “choose wisely” is exactly what Great Schools, Ed Navigator, Families Empowered, Innovate Public Schools, and other reform organizations are doing. Policing, on the other hand, is what Pondiscio did last spring when he tried to suppress discussion in reform circles about racial injustice.

Given President-elect Trump’s stated desire to radically expand school choice, a robust debate about charters and vouchers is needed and welcome, but let’s begin by remembering that movements grow through addition, not division. Manufacturing a battle between charter and voucher supporters doesn’t help the school choice movement or kids.

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