What School Choice Supporters Can Learn from the Conservative Response to Trump

 

photo1This is National School Choice Week and Donald Trump appears poised to capture the GOP presidential nomination. What do the two have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing. But it seems the only way to get any attention these days is to talk about Trump, and who am I to argue?

Seriously though, I think there is a lesson for school choice advocates in how elements of the conservative movement are responding to the Trump phenomenon. One healthy conservative response has been self-reflection and self-criticism, particularly concerning the effectiveness of conservative messaging and the importance of understanding first principles. That’s something school choice advocates should do as well.

Perhaps the most concerning sign that large portions of the GOP base don’t fully embrace or understand conservative principles was the poll showing that GOP voters’ positions on key issues varied significantly depending on whether the pollster said that Trump supported it. Worse, the voters’ fickleness was not confined to obscure issues like the Export-Import Bank or the Federal Reserve, but rather the most hot-button issues of the Obama presidency.

In the last seven years, no issue has so unified the GOP base as opposition to Obamacare, yet when told that Trump supported universal health care, Republican respondents’ support rose 28 points compared to those who were told that Obama supported it. Now, in fairness, Democratic support for universal health care dropped 36 points when told that Trump favored it, so this problem is not exclusive to the GOP. Nevertheless, the apparent willingness of supposedly conservative voters to discard their principles so cheaply should be no less disconcerting.

Short of the wholesale abandonment of conservative principles, we also see prominent politicians who adopt seemingly conservative positions without fully understanding why. For example, when asked about the Second Amendment, Mitt Romney—who, as Jonah Goldberg noted, spoke conservatism as a second language—talked about being “a hunter pretty much all my life.” Likewise, when explaining his conversion to the pro-life cause, Trump told a story about a baby that was almost aborted but “grew up to be a ‘superstar.’”

As Hillary Clinton might ask: what difference does it make? Well, a lot actually.

If the Second Amendment is really about hunting rather than self-defense and denying the state a monopoly on power, then there should be no objection to restricting handguns or at least imposing long waiting periods. And if opposition to abortion stems from the potential of a child to become a “superstar” rather than a conviction that all human life is sacred, then there should be no objection to aborting children with mental disabilities.

Policy flows from principles. Policymakers who misunderstand the underlying principles are liable to mess up the policy. That’s why it’s so important that how we talk about the issues accurately conveys those underlying principles.

The school choice coalition is a rather big ideological tent, so it is not surprising that advocates often have very different reasons for supporting school choice. Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Freedom: A free society should have an education system that respects and reflects that freedom. The government should not have a near-monopoly over what our children learn. Rather than assigning children to government schools based on their zip code, parents should have the freedom to choose their children’s schools.
  • Economics/competition: Government services tend to be expensive, low quality, and not very responsive to the needs of citizens/customers, especially when there is a monopoly. School choice would foster healthy competition that would improve quality while reducing costs.
  • Pluralism: America is a diverse society. In public schools, decisions are made through a political process that pits citizens against each other and produces winners and losers. School choice diffuses this conflict by allowing people to select schools that align with their values without forcing those values on others.
  • Equality/civil rights: In our district-based school system, children are assigned to schools based on where their parents can afford to live. That means low-income children tend to be assigned to lower-performing schools, undermining equality of opportunity and widening the socio-economic gap between whites and minorities. School choice would help level the playing, especially for low-income minorities.

These are all noble reasons to support school choice. Some of them overlap considerably, and I believe most supporters are at least somewhat sympathetic to all of them. But again, policy flows from principles. How policymakers prioritize these principles can determine how they design the policies.

Milton Friedman, the godfather of the school choice movement, primarily emphasized the first two. However, today the emphasis is most often on equality and civil rights. Even Senator Ted Cruz, in announcing his legislation to create a universal education savings account program for Washington, D.C., called school choice “the civil rights issue of our era.”

Now, Sen. Cruz and other school choice advocates may just be following Arthur Brooks’ advice to “steal” the best arguments from one’s ideological opponents (e.g., not ceding “social justice” to the left). However, we must be careful that when importing such rhetoric, we do not also import faulty underlying assumptions.

The danger in emphasizing equality is that it often entails downplaying the importance of freedom and market competition. That, in turn, frequently leads to the adoption of policies intended to promote equality that restrict freedom and undermine not only the market process, but also the goal of equality itself. As Milton Friedman once said, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”

For example, in the name of equality, some school choice advocates larded up Louisiana’s school voucher program with all sorts of regulations. In order to prevent “creaming,” private schools that accept voucher students were required to adopt an open enrollment policy and hold a lottery when oversubscribed. In order to ensure the poor aren’t turned away for lack of funds, the private schools were forbidden from charging parents more than the value of the voucher. And to ensure the private schools these low-income students attend are good quality, the schools were required to administer the state test.

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned regulations may well have undermined the effectiveness of the voucher program. For the first time ever, a gold-standard study released this month found that the vouchers had a negative impact on student performance on the state test. Nearly every previous gold-standard study found a positive impact while one found no statistically significant difference.

What went wrong? We cannot yet tell for certain, but it appears that the regulations chased away the better private schools. Concerned about the heavy regulatory burden and low funding, two-thirds of Louisiana’s private schools chose not to participate. The third that did participate had significantly declining enrollment, whereas the non-participating schools were growing slightly on average, indicating that the participating schools may have been more desperate, and therefore more willing to jump through the state’s hoops.

The emphasis on equality came at the expense of freedom and competition. Parents are free to spend as much as they want on booze or cigarettes, but Louisiana forbids them from spending one red cent more on tuition than the amount of the voucher. And as any economist will tell you, price controls lead to shortages and obliterate the price signal that is essential to a functioning market, which is not in the best interests of anyone, especially the poor.

School choice advocates must learn from these mistakes and heed Milton Friedman’s advice. More than 15 years ago, Friedman warned that voucher programs with similar regulations were “too small a scale, and impose too many limits, to encourage the entry of innovative schools or modes of teaching.” Instead, he reminded us:

The major objective of educational vouchers is much more ambitious. It is to drag education out of the 19th century – where it has been mired for far too long – and into the 21st century, by introducing competition on a broad scale. Free market competition can do for education what it has done already for other areas, such as agriculture, transportation, power, communication and, most recently, computers and the Internet. Only a truly competitive educational industry can empower the ultimate consumers of educational services – parents and their children.

Ideas have consequences. If we want to get the policy right, we must elect policymakers who understand the principles.

Choose wisely.

There are 17 comments.

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  1. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    The best policy is to tear the federal department of education out root and branch and trust families, communities, and states to educate their children.

    Then we can have a real debate about school choice and competition in education rather than groveling in hopes the federal government will benevolently allow us to raise and educate our children.

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  2. John Russell Thatcher
    John Russell
    @JohnRussell

    Well said.  It’s nice to read a few citations of Milton Friedman’s work.  We could use more in today’s political climate.

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  3. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Jason Bedrick: a gold-standard study released this month found that the vouchers had a negative impact on student performance on the state test.

    This will lead voucher opponents to claim that vouchers don’t work. In that sense, a bad voucher program is worse than no program.

    BrentB67: The best policy is to tear the federal department of education out root and branch and trust families, communities, and states to educate their children.

    Opposition to vouchers is strongest at the state and local level and long precedes the establishment of the federal department. A more effective strategy is to tear the teachers’ unions out root and branch. A good step in that direction is right-to-work.

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  4. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    drlorentz:
    drlorentz

    Jason Bedrick: a gold-standard study released this month found that the vouchers had a negative impact on student performance on the state test.

    This will lead voucher opponents to claim that vouchers don’t work. In that sense, a bad voucher program is worse than no program.

    This isn’t the whole story on the LA voucher program.

    I can’t find the other article I read on it (buried somewhere in the Education Next archives from the last couple weeks). But going from memory — this was a one-year study of schools in their first year in the program. The “negative impact” is based solely on performance on statewide achievement tests that didn’t necessarily match the school’s curriculum.

    Agree with the larger point about overregulation, but I wouldn’t consider this report nearly enough evidence to say that particular program isn’t even worth the trouble.

    Plus, it was considered news because it was the first such result, anywhere.

    • #4
  5. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    BrentB67:The best policy is to tear the federal department of education out root and branch and trust families, communities, and states to educate their children.

    Then we can have a real debate about school choice and competition in education rather than groveling in hopes the federal government will benevolently allow us to raise and educate our children.

    Disagree, sort of. Not to defend federal involvement. But please don’t let state leaders hide behind the Department of Education (which Obama leaves weaker than he found it). It does not have quite so much actual power as all that. States absolutely can and should have those debates, now.

    You can pass pretty much whatever school choice program you can get through your state political process.

    There are a million other things states could and should do that they probably won’t — not because of the feds, but because of their own politics. Or because conservatives don’t realize they could fight some of these battles at the state — or local — level.

    • #5
  6. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    As longtime users of the charter system, I’m more convinced than ever it’s the best workaround for the system we currently have. Hillsdale has infiltrated taken the opportunity to provide quality education to anyone who “wins the lottery” and is able to get their kid(s) to school. But, there are also other quality charters using the Core Knowledge approach with an emphasis on literacy.

    My kids’ charter is located in a very poor neighborhood due to the cheap real estate prices for the property. But, it works great for the locals and for those with the means to transport their kids. And, the school inculcates values which have made western civilization a success. That’s a bargain at any price — it just so happens to be “free” (paid for by public funds).

    Talk about using the enemy’s (public education establishment’s) strength against it!

    • #6
  7. dbeck Inactive
    dbeck
    @dbeck

    It’s a matter of money.  Public Schools have the burden of ESL and other mandated programs that serve the growing immigrant population.  Public Schools have suffered lower test scores because they serve an underclass that have multiple problems. Many are not able to read in their native tongue and math and science skills are not strong suits and even though they are tested in their native language the results are dismal. The test scores lower the school’s rating, teacher salaries and general staff morale. The Charter Schools that continue to pop up in Texas take money from Public Schools and are highly selective about who they enroll. This makes it appear to be a class struggle of a kind we use to want to avoid.

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  8. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    dbeck: The test scores lower the school’s rating, teacher salaries and general staff morale. The Charter Schools that continue to pop up in Texas take money from Public Schools and are highly selective about who they enroll. This makes it appear to be a class struggle of a kind we use to want to avoid.

    I agree the public schools are expected to provide all kinds of services other than educating children, which makes it difficult (and expensive) to accomplish their supposed mission.

    However, I’ve never understood the “charter schools take money from public schools” argument. Charter schools (at least here in Colorado) are funded per pupil by the state, just like regular public schools. They are paid for students they serve and not a penny more. Their budgets are extremely lean (and would be starvation level if it weren’t for their ability to win grants and awards) and their teachers are paid only slightly better than private school teachers. Which is to say, they’re not in it for the money.

    Because they are funded by the state, they are not permitted to be “highly selective.” They have to take all comers, and students are awarded positions based on lottery.

    Their method of “selection” comes with placement testing. Students who do not test at grade-level are offered a lower grade so that they may be brought up to the school’s standards. What is “highly selective” are the standards. Imagine that.

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  9. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    Perhaps the most unfathomable failure in the entire country is our inability to wrench education away from the failed and failing state educational monopoly.   It must be that some upper income neighborhood public schools are delivering what parents want.  Is it that parents don’t know, don’t care that it could be better, are too busy to find out, or that they want what their  schools deliver, good athletic programs, tolerable education, good enough to get into good universities.   I suspect it’s the latter and if so how do we go about winning this battle?   It is the most important battle we must fight and win and it is something that can be done at the state and local level.

    • #9
  10. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I Walton:Perhaps the most unfathomable failure in the entire country is our inability to wrench education away from the failed and failing state educational monopoly. It must be that some upper income neighborhood public schools are delivering what parents want. Is it that parents don’t know, don’t care that it could be better, are too busy to find out, or that they want what their schools deliver, good athletic programs, tolerable education, good enough to get into good universities. I suspect it’s the latter and if so how do we go about winning this battle? It is the most important battle we must fight and win and it is something that can be done at the state and local level.

    Sometime I’ll have to post a summary of a chapter in Hal Barron’s book that tells about these battles that took place around the turn of the 20th century and into  the Age of Wilson. The centralizers were partly defeated that time, but they didn’t go away.

    • #10
  11. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    The Reticulator: The centralizers were partly defeated that time, but they didn’t go away.

    I heard on a podcast a while back that education reform over the years hasn’t been unidirectional. It’s been more of a tug-of-war.

    • #11
  12. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    captainpower:

    The Reticulator: The centralizers were partly defeated that time, but they didn’t go away.

    I heard on a podcast a while back that education reform over the years hasn’t been unidirectional. It’s been more of a tug-of-war.

    We just had a pretty hard tug back in the opposite direction from centralization.

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Leigh:

    captainpower:

    The Reticulator: The centralizers were partly defeated that time, but they didn’t go away.

    I heard on a podcast a while back that education reform over the years hasn’t been unidirectional. It’s been more of a tug-of-war.

    We just had a pretty hard tug back in the opposite direction from centralization.

    It didn’t move the rag very much because funding is still from the state. State funding = state control. Federal funding = federal control. But yes, it’s a tug.

    • #13
  14. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    The Reticulator: It didn’t move the rag very much because funding is still from the state. State funding = state control. Federal funding = federal control. But yes, it’s a tug.

    A big tug back from federal control, not state control, definitely.

    Which makes it a very big year for education, at the state level. And I don’t get the impression that conservatives are really tuning in. I hope I’m wrong. Because the teachers’ unions certainly are.

    • #14
  15. Jason Bedrick Inactive
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    drlorentz: This will lead voucher opponents to claim that vouchers don’t work. In that sense, a bad voucher program is worse than no program.

    Interestingly, I haven’t seen any opponents of school choice citing it yet. Perhaps they’re just holding their fire, or perhaps they’re concerned that: 1) giving credence to this random-assignment study would entail giving credence to the 11 random-assignment studies to find a positive outcomes, or 2) if the performance in Louisiana improves in future years, they will have shot themselves in the foot.

    In any case, there’s good reason to believe that the regulations had unintended consequences and that the program would be more effective without them.

    • #15
  16. Jason Bedrick Inactive
    Jason Bedrick
    @JasonBedrick

    Leigh:This isn’t the whole story on the LA voucher program.

    I can’t find the other article I read on it (buried somewhere in the Education Next archives from the last couple weeks). But going from memory — this was a one-year study of schools in their first year in the program. The “negative impact” is based solely on performance on statewide achievement tests that didn’t necessarily match the school’s curriculum.

    Agree with the larger point about overregulation, but I wouldn’t consider this report nearly enough evidence to say that particular program isn’t even worth the trouble.

    Plus, it was considered news because it was the first such result, anywhere.

    Leigh, you might be referring to this piece: http://educationnext.org/the-first-negative-effects-of-vouchers-and-the-predictable-misinterpretation/

    I responded to it (and other critics) here: http://educationnext.org/on-regulating-school-choice-a-response-to-critics/

    Yes, it was the first year of the program, and the tests were not necessarily aligned. Those facts certainly explain some of the negative impact, but not all (it was a BIG negative finding). This is a lesson for supporters of school choice that *design matters*.

    I should clarify that I’m not arguing that it wasn’t worth having school vouchers in Louisiana. I’m arguing that the voucher program should have been designed better — which is to say, less top-down regulation and more bottom-up accountability to parents.

    • #16
  17. Leigh Inactive
    Leigh
    @Leigh

    Thanks, that was one of the articles I had in mind (I also read the one by John White). I am completely on your side of the overregulation debate and don’t doubt that was at least a factor. I just wouldn’t want to see the program itself thrown overboard prematurely. What I would find interesting would be a closer look at these schools and the viewpoint of some of the people on the ground. Some of these factors are probably interrelated: did some of those regulations, by putting an unnecessary burden on leadership, unnecessarily increase the transition costs?

    I also believe we can be overoptimistic about the effect of competition alone — especially in these cities where the competition is failing.

    • #17
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