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School Choice & Charters Opinion

School Choice Is Not a Cow to Be Milked

By Rick Hess — April 14, 2010 3 min read
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The piece I penned last week on the new University of Arkansas findings on the Milwaukee voucher program has drawn a fair bit of reaction in the blogosphere. I observed that the unimpressive results from the Milwaukee voucher evaluation (touted as the most ambitious evaluation of a U.S. voucher program yet conducted) are not all that surprising and that the bleak results ought not be taken as evidence that vouchers don’t “work,” but as a reminder of how little attention choice proponents have devoted to creating the kinds of oxygenated ecosystems that can support dynamic markets. (For a lengthier discussion on this, check out my new book, Education Unbound).

As controversial as this stance has been with choice enthusiasts, and as inclined as choice skeptics are to regard it as an apologia or an attempt to move the goalposts, I have always thought it a rather unremarkable and commonsensical attitude. After all, it was Milton Friedman who once famously opined that the “market is not a cow to be milked” but is simply a powerful mechanism for channeling human ingenuity, energy, and talent. If markets are dysfunctional, corrupt, or inhospitable to law-abiding enterprises (think of post-Gorbachev Russia), they are more likely to lead to venality than socially productive work.

A terrific debate on a related point is brewing right now among my friends Mike Petrilli, Greg Forster, and Jay Greene on the question of how one ought to think about the merits of school voice vis-a-vis efforts to reform teacher tenure. Mike’s suggesting that abolishing tenure is a more “direct” route, while Greg and Jay are suggesting that they’re complementary strategies in terms of politics and substance. On this one, I’m much closer to Greg and Jay, as I’d simply argue that tenure reform is one strand of the effort to escape industrial-model schooling and create a more dynamic sector, and that choice-based reform is another.

What we have seen in Milwaukee, at least up until quite recently, is the same thing we have seen in states like Texas and Ohio when it comes to charter schooling--a worrisome lack of intention to the rules of the road, hospitability of the environment, presence of formal and informal barriers, incentives for performance, or attention to smart quality control by public entities or private actors. The results have disappointed.

So, I think my pal Kevin Carey of Education Sector gets two important things wrong when he writes:

Vouchers aren't a teaching method or curriculum or instructional intervention. They are, as Hess notes, purely structural, shifting control over resources toward parents and widening the range of institutions that can receive those resources... One might argue that vouchers created the opportunity for educators to create such schools and educators didn't take advantage of it, but what's the difference? The whole point of structural reform is to change incentives and conditions; if the change was insufficient to create desired behavior then ipso facto the reform failed... Hess then suggests that vouchers (or school choice programs more generally) are better understood as a necessary but not sufficient condition for improvement that also requires "quality control, support, talent, investment, infrastructure, and the rest."... All in all, I think this lends credence to my theory that... half-measures, of which even the Milwaukee vouchers are an example, will never produce satisfactory evidence either way."

First, it’s not necessarily the case that vouchers, in and of themselves, substantially change incentives all that much. As I’ve noted before, various protections and buffers in place have largely insulated the Milwaukee Public Schools from any consequences. Meanwhile, the degree to which choice players recognize and reward performance, the existence of rules and regulations governing everything from eligible providers to opportunities for school expansion, the value of the voucher, the conditions for accepting students, and the rest all play a role in determining how much a voucher program actually changes incentives. In Milwaukee, I’d argue that the dearth of nontraditional or for-profit providers is merely one piece of evidence that the incentives for providers have not changed all that much.

Programs like the Milwaukee Public Choice Program certainly can yield dramatic changes in incentives, but whether they do so is largely a question of program design and the local ecosystem (e.g. are foundations steering dollars to high-quality, expansion-minded providers in Milwaukee? Is there “consumer reports"-style reporting that makes it more likely participating parents will be able to identify academically proficient programs?). I’d argue we’ve tended to substantially underweight the import of such considerations.

Okay, this has run pretty long. Will make the second point in response to Kevin’s posting and then finish this discussion tomorrow.

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