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The Reform Debate: Charters vs. Vouchers and the Role of Regulation

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We are almost to holiday season when many families get together, have dinner, and debate the issues of the day. In the school reform family, the holiday conversations this year seem likely to focus on the level of regulation in the various reform models. While everyone else's eyes might glaze over, this is actually a big debate. In what sometimes feels like a Hatfields versus McCoys (traditional versus reform) world, we sometimes forget that the McCoys have their own disagreements.

In a recent series of posts, Matt Barnum, Jay Greene, and Neerav Kingsland--the McCoy family--take on the regulation question. They also recognize that this has important implications for charter schools and vouchers as reform strategies since charters are almost always the more heavily regulated of the two. If the higher-regulation argument wins out, this would seem to push the reform movement more toward charter schools.

The recent back-and-forth seems a bit jumbled, however. In this post, I'm going to break down the logic of the debate. (This will be a brief hiatus from my series on the arguments being made for and against the reforms in New Orleans, although this conversation is related.)

Jay Greene lists regulations intended to improve average school performance (standardized testing for students and setting limits on which schools can participate and receive public funds) and other regulations to help ensure that the reforms are equitable (limiting admission requirements). The final two regulations also pertain to equity, though they apply mainly to vouchers: whether private schools have to accept the voucher as full payment and whether the voucher eligibility is targeted to disadvantaged students.

Jay's argument is fairly simple and can be boiled down to one quote from his blog: "the cardinal sin of the high-regulation school choice folks is that they believe that heavy regulation is the ideal and should be the starting point for political compromises." What this shows is that, for Jay, the burden of proof is on the regulator--that anyone who would take the choice decision out of the hands of families had better have a good reason. So, the only way to convince Jay that the above regulations are warranted is to show beyond a reasonable doubt that regulation improves schooling options. His main concern is that regulation will drive schools operators out of the market and reduce options for families, which, given his strong value for choice, is almost automatically harmful.

If we buy that the burden of proof is on the regulator, then there is almost no way for the free-marketers to lose the debate. It's extremely difficult to use evidence to show anything about education policy beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence is almost always somewhat mixed and that's certainly true about the specific regulations in question here. (I've made the same case about Race to the Top.)

But why should we accept the free market solution as the default? Jay has written on this for many years. My sense is that his position is as much philosophical as empirical, or is at least rooted in evidence about free markets in general as opposed to specific studies related to education. In contrast, my sense from Neerav Kingsland and others favoring more regulation is that they came to this conclusion based on personal experience and evidence about the effects of the reforms. (I'm speculating a bit here and will be interested to see their responses on this point.)

New Orleans figures prominently in this because Neerav was deeply engaged in school reforms here for many years. The New Orleans charter model--a form of the portfolio management approach to school regulation--has arguably the most intense regulation and the strongest supporting evidence of any reform-minded city in the country. Since the New Orleans model seems to have generated such large academic gains, it's not surprising that those in the New Orleans branch of the reform family (Neerav as well as Macke Raymond) tend to view regulation more positively.

I was a little surprised, however, that Neerav ended his last post with the title "The [Reform] Family Is Not Too Far Apart." While I agree with most of the main text of his post, this title seems off. Consider these contrasting quotes: Jay ends one of this posts with "I'm pretty confident that the high regulation strategy being pursued in LA and New Orleans is a really bad idea." Neerav, in contrast, writes "I'm open (but not very confident) that a more deregulated voucher system could lead to even better results in New Orleans and elsewhere." That's a reasoned and measured response, but it doesn't sound like agreement. It sounds like the part of the holiday dinner table conversation where people get tired of disagreeing and instead sit down to watch the football game.

It's good to keep peace in the family, but the disagreements often linger. And this debate about regulation is at the core of the debate about charter versus voucher strategies, as well as the larger role of government in all aspects of public education. That debate is also going to get a lot more interesting as we prepare to release a series of studies on vouchers after the new year. At that point, we'll have the first head-to-head comparison of charter and voucher regulation in one place.

There's much more to the recent back-and-forth than what I've covered here. In the next post, I'm going to argue that, when considering the effects on the supply of alternative schooling options, the regulation debate needs to be different and separate for charters and vouchers. Then, I'll write about the evidence on how test scores figure into the regulatory conversation, which all of the above writers have been talking about.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education: Lessons From New Orleans 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.

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