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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Reform May Get Chipped Away, But School Choice Is Here to Stay

By Guest Blogger — August 22, 2016 5 min read
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Note: This week, Deven Carlson, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma University, is guest-blogging. His work explores education policy and politics.

Education policy has changed immensely in the past 15 years across the United States.

We have seen explosive growth of school choice programs, with state after state expanding charter schools, implementing private school voucher programs, and providing families with education savings accounts. No Child Left Behind scaled test-based accountability from an approach to school improvement that about half the states had implemented to a uniform nationwide policy with little flexibility. High-stakes teacher evaluation and the Common Core—or any sort of common standards for that matter—were effectively nonexistent in 2000, but now exist in a large majority of states. In short, the education policy landscape is dramatically different today than it was at the turn of the century.

Given this rapid pace of change, it is interesting to think about what the policy landscape will look like 15 years from now. Which of the policy changes over the past decade and a half—many of which seem so permanent today—will ultimately stand the test of time, and which will be little more than vestiges of a past policy era? For my money, I bet we will continue to see significant growth in school choice programs. Policy debates over school choice will not be whether the programs should exist, but how expansive they should be and the optimal approach to regulation. In contrast, I think that many of the other reforms—teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and even test-based accountability—will slowly be chipped away or even eliminated entirely in some states.

At first blush, a prediction that school choice programs will continue to grow while other, more visible policies will be left by the wayside may seem surprising. After all, the evidence on the effectiveness of school choice is arguably no more positive (particularly given recent studies of voucher programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana) than the evidence on teacher evaluation or accountability, which routinely show positive effects on student outcomes. However, for better or worse, the survival of education policies enacted over the past 15 years is not going to be determined by evidence of their (in)effectiveness. No, the continuation of these policies will be determined by good old-fashioned politics. And it is here, in the political realm, that school choice policies have an advantage that the other reforms largely lack. In particular, school choice programs produce a built-in constituency that is consistently willing to fight for these programs in statehouses across the country.

School choice programs provide a tangible, highly valued benefit to families—the ability to exert at least some control over where their child goes to school. Once families experience this benefit they will be willing to fight to maintain and expand that benefit. And history has taught us that politicians are loathe to take away—or even scale back—a benefit once constituents have experienced it. This is why supporters of controversial school choice programs often settle for the introduction of a “pilot” program; they are confident that the pilot program will do nothing but grow in future years as families are exposed to the program and become political advocates.

There are countless examples of policies producing constituencies that are immensely successful in maintaining the benefits those policies provide (e.g., Social Security, Medicare), even when those policies benefit a very narrow group (e.g., farm subsidies). In education, disability rights advocates have consistently succeeded in maintaining and expanding policies that benefit this group of students. We have even seen the political power of engaged constituencies in the specific context of school choice. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program started off serving a couple hundred students in less than 10 schools. Today the program serves more than 25,000 students, which is over a quarter of kids in Milwaukee, and the state has instituted a statewide voucher program. In Massachusetts, there is a question over lifting the cap on charter schools on the November ballot. These two examples are illustrative of broader political dynamics pointing toward the continued expansion of school choice.

On the other hand, it is much more difficult to identify a broad, vocal constituency that will consistently advocate for the continuation of high-stakes teacher evaluation, common standards, or even test-based accountability. Sure, there are advocacy organizations, foundations, and other groups that support these policies and are willing to bend the ear of legislators on the issues. However, for three reasons I am skeptical about the long-term prospects of these policies.

First, speaking broadly, the initial successes of these policies are largely attributable to a level of power centralization in Washington that, in my view, will be almost impossible to replicate. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and ESEA waivers were extremely powerful instruments for getting states to adopt a number of reforms. Deserved or not, there has been a backlash to this centralization of power, and for at least the next several years there will be extreme skepticism of centralized reform efforts—we are already seeing this skepticism in the ESSA rulemaking process. Consequently, continuation of these policies will require a state-by-state effort in which reform organizations are, frankly, unproven.

Second, the track record of organizations supporting these reforms in maintaining a clear, focused agenda over a decade-plus is spotty, to put it generously. There is a temptation to search for the latest and greatest policy solution and I think this temptation will prove difficult for many organizations to resist, which will draw attention away from the current reform agenda.

Third, these other reforms—particularly teacher evaluation and test-based accountability—have generated a constituency that is likely to maintain consistent opposition to the policies. As time passes, I think it is inevitable that the dogged advocacy of these groups will chip away at these policies, particularly if supporters lose some of their focus. Indeed, we have already seen the scaling back of teacher evaluation and standardized testing in some states.

I don’t know what will take the place of these policies—my crystal ball isn’t quite that clear—but I’m confident that the policy landscape in 15 years will be very different from what is in place today. School choice, however, is here to stay.

--Deven Carlson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.