Monday, June 12, 2023

Koch's West Virginia Voucher Mountain

In Education Next, Garrett Ballengee offers a metaphor for the pursuit of vouchers, and in doing so gives us some practically-honest hints about what a voucher-based education system would look like. The summit of Mount Everest, he says, saying that passing a universal education savings account (aka voucher) law is just setting up the base station. 

Well, no.

First, a little background on Ballengee himself, and the outfit he's attached to. 

He's the inaugural grand poobah of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. The right wing thinky tank was founded in 2014. Board chairman is Keith Pauley, an engineer who has worked from Beijing to Houston. Vice chair is Karen Bailey-Chapman, who has worked for Americans for Tax Reform (Grover "Drown government in the bathtub" Norquist) and the Center for Individual Freedom (she commutes between WV and DC, which is where LinkedIn lists her home). She's a coms and lobbying pro. 

The board also includes former senator Bill Cole, the guy who made West Virginia a right to work state, Jim Shaffer, who led WV welfare "reform," and Ed Gaunch, former senator and secretary of the WV Department of Commerce. You can see which way this wind is blowing.

The actual staff includes Adam Kissel, senior fellow. Kissel was a deputy assistant secretary for higher ed under Betsy DeVos, defense director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and a senior program officer at the Charles Koch Foundation. He's also a visiting fellow in higher ed reform for the Heritage Foundation these days, as well as the chairman of the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board.

Policy Analyst Jessica Dobrinsky Harris only graduated from WVU in 2020 (Bachelor's in Criminology), but she's been busy-- Charles Koch Institute internship and healthcare reporter for the Washington Examiner.  Kyle Hanlin, director of development, has worked for the North Carolina Republican Party, Nevada Policy Research Institute, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Comms and Social Media guy Nathaniel Phipps has a 2021 MBA from Regent University (formerly known as Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network University) where he worked in admissions before getting into campaign work. He just started in May. Amanda Kieffer, communications director, was another Koch Associate after she graduated from Liberty University.

Jesi Troyan, Director of Policy and Research, is about the only staffer who wasn't hire in the past couple of years. The rest were hired in the last three years; back before 2018, Sourcewatch found Ballngee as the sole employee. Why did they go on a hiring spree? Where did they get a bunch more money? Their 990 forms report that in 2021 they took in $786,037--roughly double of any previous year since 2017 (prior to that, they took in even less). But I will note that West Virginia's education savings account voucher program, one of the most massive in the country, was approved in 2021-- and their origin story is all about pushing ESA vouchers

Ballengee has the kind of conservative credentials one would need to run with this crowd. American Enterprise Institute Leadership Network. BS in Finance from WVU. Former KIP and KAP (that's Koch Internship and Associate Programs) and a Stand Together Fellowship (new brand name for Koch Institute) alum. Here he is plugging choice in an op-ed co-written by the Stand Together executive director. And what book does he say "opened my way to a different way of thinking"? Why, Atlas Shrugged, of course.

So we've got the picture now-- Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy (which belongs to the State Policy Network) is a Koch organization. 

Cardinal Institute is all for the usual Koch version of liberty. They are pushing a West Virginia Miracle, and the four pillars are "Economic Freedom, Labor Freedom, Education Freedom, and Montani Semper Liberi - a culture of freedom." They would like to promote "limited government, economic freedom, and personal responsibility." They've got a podcast-- "Forgotten America." And they promise a "new paradigm"--

An “island” of poverty in the wealthiest country the world, West Virginia’s brighter future depends on a new paradigm – a new way of looking at the world with new ideas and a philosophy built on innovation, human flourishing, and a recognition that freedom is the greatest alleviator of poverty the world has ever seen. Ours is a philosophy built on the entrepreneur, the tinkerer in the garage, and the idea that small government means more room for people to create and build their own futures.

It's a curious pitch in a state that is not exactly known for government overreach. West Virginia is a state with a history of labor struggles and a history of state government that exerts its power mostly to aid guys like Charles Koch. Regular people have always had plenty of room in this state that is renowned for its poverty-- worst health, worst education levels, worst employment, and geography that makes it hard for basic infrastructure like roads and water and electricity and internet to reach some citizens. (And at least one community gutted by the departure of its WVU college campus--but hey, they're free now.) It's hard to imagine that any of these problems would be solved by less government, but libertarians gotta libertarian.

So what does Ballengee say about Mount Everest?

In his Education Next piece, Ballengee comes close to honesty about the larger goals of his particular arm of the school voucher movement. 

There is a common misconception among education reform advocates that passing universal choice legislation is akin to summiting Mount Everest. Upon universal choice’s enactment into law, it is done. Time to exhale and pop the champagne, for the mountain has been scaled.

In other words, voucher laws are not the end game. Simply making a voucher program available is not enough.

Next, the program has to be pushed and promoted. There will be a surge, then a steady growth "as families become aware of the program and hear from neighbors, fellow church attendees, and other connections about their new options" (just in case you had doubts about voucher ties to religion). But awareness must be built and PR must be provided to popularize the program.

Failure for an education choice program does not often come in the form of mistakes, fraud, or incompetence. More frequently, the problems are apathy and ignorance.

I don't know. There's an awful lot of fraud and incompetence in the school choice world. Nor am I sure how the lack of interest in a choice program is not the same thing as a lack of market demand. But of course modern marketing means creating a demand for your product. So, Ballengee asserts, somebody will need to work on that.

Someone will also need to build/attract a supply of educational "providers." "Help private schools sign up," he says, skipping over the question of why a successful private school would want to sign up. Somebody has to reach out to edupreneurs and get them signed up, too. Basically, be an education broker.

Now that choicers need to spend less time lobbying legislators, "the nexus of a successful program [he means a privatizing program, not an educational program] will shift somewhat from legislative considerations, lobbying, and bill design towards family outreach and relationship cultivation, specific government agency relationships, and broad marketing campaigns."

Also, you'll have to prepare for those "legions of entities" looking to "besmirch" the program (public education establishment, unions, union-friendly media). 
And this--

You have to figure out how – not if – to help the families about to embark on this journey for the first time...

You must figure out how to manage each “case” not only for the sake of the family and child but also for the overall health of the program.

There will be grandparents who have never used a computer now asked to upload a birth certificate on their grandchild’s behalf. There will be parents with limited education who know only one thing when it comes to navigating this fresh bureaucratic concoction: “my child needs something different.” Be sympathetic, but, more importantly, develop competence.

Learn the law and accompanying statutes backwards and forwards or find someone who does. You must have a path or contact for families to use. “I don’t know the answer, but I know someone who might” will become one of the most useful phrases in your reform handbook.

In short, Ballengee is outlining all the new business opportunities available on the mountaintop voucher peak. The only one he left out was the booming business in K-12 education loans for all those parents for whom state's voucher won't cover the cost of their education provider. Not only will government stop providing public education, but there are many opportunities to make a buck or ten in the newly free and unregulated marketplace of education stuff.

The Koch mountaintop

Because here's what "freedom" means on Koch mountain-- you are free to try to get to the top if you can, and I am free to ignore any of your problems (unless you pay me to help you), because the dream remains a world in which I have no responsibility to my fellow travelers on the earth (and certainly don't have to pay taxes to provide services for Those People). 

Ballengee isn't going to have any discussion of how well vouchers work as far as education goes (hint: not very well). But that's okay, because, as he says, "education choice is good and a moral necessity." I'm of the opinion that guaranteeing each child a decent education is the moral necessity, and, as always, I question the assumption that "education choice" must somehow involve the free market, one of the great unexamined assumptions of the modern choicer movement. Are choice and freedom important values in life? Damn right they are--which is why we as a society bear a responsibility for getting every child an education that will help them freely access more choices.

In the end, Ballengee's mountain is one that Ayn Rand would probably approve of.

Though the last few steps up the mountain are the steepest and most difficult, they are also closest to what we are looking for when we embark on our journey: helping children find their own path to their own personal summit.

In other words, I've got my summit, Jack. Go find your own. 

"Helping" I suppose could mean choice advocates just helping out of the goodness of their hearts (though their hearts, bless them, don't know much about actual education). But I suspect that help will be provided, for a price (or a cut of your voucher), to those who can find it and access it while navigating a sprawling unregulated complicated marketplace. It's funny, because another thing we could do is collect all the experts in delivering education under one roof, where they'd be easy to find. And we could pay them with public tax dollars, and recruit and hire them with the understanding that they are there to help students climb their own personal mountain. But then some of us would have to pay taxes to fund it, and they might not be willing to make it all about christianist ideas. 

So instead, Koch-trained folks imagine a mountain, an Everest. By the way, do you know what Everest looks like these days? It's a crowded mess of wealthy, resource-rich tourists who are hiring someone else to guide them. Well, that's Everest.

The peak of the school voucher mountain looks a lot like wealthy, well-resourced folks looking down at the folks struggling on the slopes of other mountains and saying, "Well, don't they look free. I wonder if they'll make it."

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