Is the Red Tape a Red Herring?

Many proponents of private school choice—both the voucher and tax credit scholarship versions—take for granted that schools won’t participate (or shouldn’t participate) if government asks too much of them, regulates their practices, requires them to reveal closely held information and—above all—demands that they be publicly accountable for student achievement. A recent Friedman Foundation report, for example, bemoaned testing requirements that “may force all participating schools to move in the direction of a single, monopolistic curriculum and pedagogy…” And analysts at the Cato Institute went so far as to send letters to Indiana private schools urging them not to participate in the state’s new voucher program, which it called a “strategic defeat” for school reform, in part because of its testing and transparency requirements.

But is this assumption justified? It’s surely plausible on paper. Part of what’s distinctive and valuable—and often educationally effective—about private schools is their autonomy, their freedom to be different, their escape from the heavy regulatory regime that characterizes most of public education. Insofar as they cherish that autonomy, over-regulation by government might well deter them from participating in taxpayer-supported choice programs and thereby block children from benefiting from the education those private schools offer.

Were such school refusals to be widespread, the programs themselves could not serve many kids. Voucher and tax credit programs obviously cannot do much good if their putative beneficiaries—typically girls and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or dreadful public schools—are unable to gain access to privately operated schools. If those schools shun the programs, there isn’t much point in creating or expanding such opportunities, at least not in relation to the current supply of private schools. (A separate issue, not addressed here, is whether additional pupil demand made possible by such programs will cause a “supply response,” namely the creation of new private schools.)

Private schools deciding whether to participate in a voucher or tax credit scholarship program must weigh multiple factors: Do they have room for more pupils? Is their education program suited to the needs (and, often, the deficits) that voucher- and scholarship-bearing youngsters are apt to bring with them? Is the amount of the voucher or scholarship sufficient to offset the marginal cost of enrolling such a student? How will the school handle transportation? And what about political considerations that may be important to schools, including the responses of current pupils (and parents), of alumni/ae and donors, and of influential folks in their communities?

Yes, there’s much for school leaders to ponder in addition to whatever concern they may have with government rules and red tape. And policy makers shaping education-choice programs involving private schools must obviously do their best to anticipate the schools’ likely responses. Well-designed programs will naturally strive for sufficient school participation so that they can have the opportunity to accomplish their purpose.

But policy makers must also be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars and do their best to ensure that such programs advance the public’s interest in securing a quality education for all children in safe, salubrious environments—all of which leads to some degree of regulation. And in the vast realm of regulation, perhaps the touchiest will turn out to be (or so we’ve been admonished by the critics and worry-warts mentioned above) the requirement that private schools administer state tests and be held publicly accountable for student achievement as measured by such tests.

Policy makers contemplating the creation, revision, or expansion of school-choice programs must therefore balance the impulse to regulate on behalf of the public interest against the need for enough private schools to participate so that the children for whom the programs are intended can, in reality, benefit from them.

But how to fix that balance? Is there some tipping point beyond which private schools will surely eschew the program? Are some regulations absolutely intolerable, others mildly repugnant, others bearable—even benign? Where is reality?

Fortunately, enough voucher and scholarship programs exist today that it’s possible to answer these questions empirically—that is, to gauge the extent to which regulations (and other factors) actually deter private schools from participating. Mindful that regulations come in many forms and flavors, it’s also possible to examine which kinds of regulation (if any) are particularly vexing to private schools and to investigate whether specific regulations are more troublesome to some segments of the diverse private school universe than to others. The results of such an analysis allow us to reality-test the broad cautions voiced by the Friedman Foundation, the Cato Institute, and others—in particular their warning that holding schools to account for student achievement (especially via conventional state testing programs) will surely cause them to turn their backs on such programs and thus leave needy children without good educational options at all.

We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have a longstanding interest in advancing quality school choices for kids who need them and a parallel interest in boosting educational achievement with the help of rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability systems. As an authorizer of charter schools in Ohio, we deal directly with the intersection of those twin policy goals. But we believe in private school choice, too—indeed, we believe in every kind of school choice that works for kids—and have previously mapped the touchy territory of accountability for “voucher schools” and advised policy makers on how to deal with these challenging trade-offs and balancing acts.

So it was clearly time to probe more deeply into the realities of today’s voucher (and tax credit scholarship) programs and determine how the private schools themselves view these issues of government regulation.

To conduct that investigation, we turned once again to Dr. David Stuit of Basis Policy Research who had previously done a fine piece of work for us (Are Bad Schools Immortal?, 2010). His analytic skills are superb, and his energy and diligence are unmatched. With financial assistance from the Walton Family Foundation, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation, the Randolph Foundation, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (our sister organization), we asked David and his colleague Sy Doan to examine closely thirteen extant voucher and tax credit scholarship programs (six of the former, seven of the latter) across eleven states. We asked them to describe the nature, extent, and burdensomeness of their regulations and to determine how many private schools participate in them—and how many do not. We asked them also to survey private schools in communities served by four of the country’s most prominent voucher programs (city-specific programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, statewide programs in Ohio and Indiana) to ascertain how both participating and non-participating schools view those programs and their regulations and how heavily they weigh program requirements (and other constraints) when deciding whether to sign up for and accept the programs’ students.

In particular, we asked David and Sy to investigate this quartet of questions:

• Do regulations and accountability requirements deter private schools from participating in choice programs?

• How important are regulations and accountability requirements to private school participation compared to other factors, such as voucher amounts, etc.

• Are certain types of regulations and accountability requirements stronger deterrents than others?

• Do certain types of private schools shy away from stronger regulations and accountability more than others?

And what did they come up with? Click here to find out!

—Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D., and Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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