D. Dowd Muska


The Infrastructure of Education Freedom

May 07, 2015

The school-choice movement, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Q. McShane cautions, is running “the risk of having more students with vouchers than schools that can serve them.”

For advocates of education freedom, it’s a glorious problem to have. It sure beats the alternative -- decade after decade of ineffective lobbying against one-size-fits-all learning. Today, choice is scoring regular victories. In the last few months, Nevada Gov. Brain Sandoval governor approved a program for low-income pupils, Indiana expanded its already-impressive options, Arizona extended education savings accounts to tribal students and broadened its tax-credit program to small businesses, and Mississippi enacted the Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Act.

McShane’s “Balancing the Equation: Supply and Demand in Tomorrow’s School Choice Marketplaces” argues that in this “brave new world,” there is “a lot of work to do.”

Markets don’t function well without reliable information, the author notes, and it’s “not easy” for some parents to find the institutions that are the right fit for their kids. Citing the work of other researchers, McShane explains that mothers and fathers prize safety first, followed by academics. “[E]xtracurricular activities like band and sports, particularly for high school students,” is another prime concern.

How can parents discover if a school meets their priorities? Independent sources of information are trusted. GreatSchools.org, originally focused on Silicon Valley, now rates over 250,000 institutions. With “5.4 million unique page views in February 2015 alone,” it was “the 395th most popular website in the world by traffic, according to Quantcast.”

A promising new appraisal tool was produced by the “My School Information Design Challenge,” a competition launched by the Foundation for Excellence in Education. The winner, Collaborative Communications, drafted “a brightly colored and visually appealing report card that presented an A-F grade prominently in the upper-left corner, various bar graphs of performance on relevant metrics, and letter grades for individual segments of school performance.”

Favorable evaluations are helpful, but education entrepreneurs can’t reach the point of assessment without money -- often, lots of it. “Starting a school requires a great deal of upfront capital,” McShane writes. Philanthropy provides funds, but “not every school is lucky enough” to be backed by deep-pocketed donors. “Balancing the Equation” suggests “budgetary line items at the state level” for construction of private schools as a solution, as well as “bond financing, which would dramatically decrease the cost of borrowing money for capital expenses,” and “social impact bonds.” Such measures would prove useful, but at least at this point, they’re politically infeasible. Incumbent educrats, captained by teacher unions, are fighting a brutal campaign to stomp on choice’s green shoots. Appropriating funding for construction costs would surely yield even fiercer assaults.

“If new schools of choice are going to succeed,” McShane writes, “new pipelines for teachers and leaders must be created.” One possibility is to invite “nontraditional educators” to command classrooms. (Hire “the best possible personnel regardless of background” -- imagine that.) Novel training programs, “within institutions that do not currently prepare teachers,” is another proposal. The Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program is one example, as is the Alliance for Catholic Education, housed at the University of Notre Dame.

Finally, an overhauled education system will need new types of regulations. Red tape is already a major impediment to schools participating in choice programs. The “layers upon layers of bureaucratic rules” that strangle government schools should be replaced with rules that do not stifle “the innovation that makes markets such a powerful tool to improve society.”

McShane’s vision of education with buyers and sellers is the goal of all those seeking to smash the K-12 status quo: “All parents, regardless of wealth, might see two or three schools where their children could thrive and would have little to no stress associated with getting their children a seat. Numerous, diverse options would be available in communities: religious and nonreligious, progressive and classical, STEM and arts, technology-driven and schools that do not even allow students to use computers. Fights over the politics of schooling would be toned down, as those with conflicting opinions would not have to battle to exert dominance over those with whom they disagree.”

After a half-century in the desert, choice has established momentum, and is on the march. But McShane’s warning must be heeded, if the education monopoly is to be vanquished for good. It’s not enough to pass legislation, win gubernatorial approval, and disburse funds. School choice needs a vibrant infrastructure to meet its growing demand. There is indeed a lot of work to do. Let’s get to it.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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