Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Choice Advocates Argue: How Far Is Too Far?

Amidst all the choicer crowd crowing over voucher victories, there are some other stirrings in the choicer camp, some disagreement about just how far education savings accounts should go. 

Education savings accounts have emerged as the favored form of super-voucher, a stack of money handed to parents to be spent, in turn, on the education-ish product of their choice. In many states it is a deliberately wild west marketplace, with most of the newest laws not just without oversight or accountability, but expressly forbidding oversight by the state. 

It's a hell of a way to throw around taxpayer money, and some of the more seasoned players in the choice world are expressing some misgivings. 

Chester Finn (Big Cheese Emeritus of the Fordham Institute) has expressed concern about the corrosive nature of the culture wars being use to fuel choicey advances:

We’ve known—I’ve surely known—for years now that pure market forces in K–12 (and higher) education do not reliably yield more effective schools and better-educated children. Sorry, Milton F and Corey D and a host of other living colleagues. Too many things go awry in that marketplace, from parents who make bad (if understandable) choices to greedy school operators who don’t care about outcomes, not to mention kids who lack competent adult guides.

Michael Petrelli (Current Big Cheeses at Fordham) has been drawing fire from his colleagues on Twitter by suggesting that maybe "We shouldn't subsidize junk education either, ESA fans." And when Finn expressed his concerns and "wariness" about ESAs, Robert Pondiscio expressed some cautious optimism about the vouchers, seasoned with conservative restraint:

A common talking point among proponents is that ESAs give parents control of their money to customize their child’s education, spending it on private school tuition, tutoring, and other educational products and services. But it’s not “their” money. It’s our money that’s being put under parental control. This is not mere pedantry or a difference of semantics. The cost of education is socialized; we have a shared stake in the education given every child in America and pay school taxes whether or not we have kids in our local school or have kids at all.

This distinction—“their” money versus “our” money—holds the key to thinking about ESAs that may assuage your misgivings, Checker. To my way of thinking, an ESA is not a new form of education funding, it’s a different form of education accountability. States like Arizona, Iowa, West Virginia, and Utah that have enacted universal ESAs aren’t giving parents money heedlessly. They’re making a public policy wager to put accountability into the hands of those who “nurture and direct” the child. They’re betting that parents will discharge their “high duty” with more attentiveness, care, and diligence than the state can possibly provide through its districts and schools.

This is its own kind of choicer heresy--it's a standard claim of voucher fans that we're talking about their money, not anybody else's. And Pondiscio has made his case for ESAs as a sort of middle ground:

These all represent a comparatively nuanced view of ESAs. It's not a view I agree with, but it at least recognizes the issues that surround taxpayer dollars and the accountability for how they're spent. They're a little late coming around, but it's still welcome.

But it's not a point of view shared by other folks in the choice camp. Rufo and DeAngelis are pretty clear about their passion for either burning it all down or converting it to a culture war indoctrination camp. As anyone on Twitter who has run afoul of DeAngelis and his troll army can attest, there's no room for nuance or conversation there.

Over at Permissionless Education, the blog run for Stand Together (the rebranded Koch Trust), Adam Peshek also responds to Finn. Checker's ideas for a “judicious phasing-in and monitoring of universal ESA programs,” where “regulators and managers can set and enforce clear guidelines as to what is and isn’t allowable.” But to Peshek, this just sounds like charters, and he says (very politely) to hell with it. He lays out his own take on the different choicer camps.

On one side of the debate are those who are mostly fine with the structure of education in America. They just want to reform some parts of it. The goal is to increase student test scores, increase graduation rates, get more kids accepted into college. They wait with bated breath for the release of NAEP scores and consider it a position of honor to get a sneak peek before the results go public. There are heated debates about whether Calculus or Data Science should be in the scope and sequence of what high schoolers learn.

It’s a vision that is largely planned by experts to minimize exposure to what they would deem low quality. It’s called controlled choice for a reason.

That's not what Peshek (and presumably his employers) wants.

I support ESAs as a means to an end – to provide as many students, parents, and educators with the tools (financial, regulatory, socially) to create new and unique learning environments that are responsive to their needs — not the needs of regulators or some vague idea of “society.” A great school for one kid may be a terrible school for another, and vice versa.

This echoes perfectly the Koch dream. If you have seen Stand Together mini-videos pop up on your social media, you'll notice a theme-- here's a plucky person working at a job and hampered by red tape. Wouldn't the country work better, Koch argues (as they have for decades), if government just didn't do anything? 

Why should individuals be held back by "some vague idea of society," when it's so much more fun to live in the Land Of Do As You Please (or at least, Do As You Can Afford To Do, Because You Shouldn't Tax Me To Make Up For Your Poorness). 

The aim for some ESA fans is to simply do away with government-managed school, to privatize not just the providing of education, but the responsibility for it. Is it bad for some vague notion of society to have people learning to be great little nazis or to believe in a flat earth? Do children have a right to a decent education that some vague notion of society ought to help preserve and protect for them? In a Koch-style universe, that's not my problem. It's not anybody's problem, except the parents, and if they aren't up to the challenge, that is also not anybody else's problem.

A while back, free market fans made a deal with social justice folks to create a bipartisan vision of school choice. For a variety of reasons (including, but not limited to, the election of Trump) that alliance came apart. Now they're tied to the culture war crowd, whose interests dovetail nicely with those of the Libertarian burn it all down crowd. 

It's entirely possible that the traditionally conservative nuance-friendly responsible grown up-ish wing of the choice movement is just going to get rolled over this time. While I know we'll disagree with much about improving education in this country, I'd welcome the continued return of actual conservatives to the conversation, but I'm afraid that, like others, they are going to be shouted down by the Rufo DeAngelis Moms for Liberty crowd (Pondiscio regularly annoys them by pointing out that public schools aren't going away any time ever.) It would be interesting to sit back and watch this all unfold if the stakes weren't so high. 

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