WOULD THAT WHAT IT CONCEALS WERE NOT UNIFORM

Earlier this week, Florida’s Supreme Court struck down the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provided vouchers to kids in failing schools. The ruling turns on Article IX, Section 1 of the state’s constitution, which stipulates:

(a) The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.

The court’s logic here is that since private schools are not, in point of fact, “uniform,” a program that attempts to provide for the education of children by means of such schools runs afoul of that provision. As the court puts it:

It diverts public dollars into separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools that are the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Floridax92s children. This diversion not only reduces money available to the free schools, but also funds private schools that are not x93uniformx94 when compared with each other or the public system.

Far be it from me to claim expertise in Florida law, but this is hard to make much sense of. First, those free uniform public schools are plainly not the “sole means” offered—the very same clause refers to “other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.” More generally, it seems odd to read that second clause as limiting the first. It’s a well settled point of federal constitutional law that parents must be permitted to send their children to private schools, so Article IX can’t be read in a way that suggests the state has failed to meet its “adequate provision” obligations unless all children are educated by means of these free, uniform public schools. And an ordinary reading of a mandate of the form “The state shall provide for X. In service of X, the state shall establish Y,” does not entail that the state may not also do Z in service of X.

You can make the argument work a little better by stressing the “diversion” of public funds from the state system to private schools—but not much better. For one thing, it would prove too much: Since money is fungible, any of these “other public education programs” are, in essence, competing with public schools for funds. Moreover, there’s at least some good empirical reason to believe that subjecting poor public schools to competition from voucher schools imposes pressure for improvement. If you look at the net effect instead of focusing myopically on cash flows, there’s a case to be made that the OSP is, among other things, a mechanism to raise the quality of those underperforming public schools.

DOUBLE ENTRY ACCOUNTABILITY: Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly and Greg Anrig at TPMCafe both harp on putative contradiction between conservatives’ infatuation with standardized testing as an accountability mechanism and the lack of some equivalent requirement for private schools receiving voucher funds. Now, I’m not all that wild about standardized testing in the first place, but I don’t think this is much of a contradiction.

If we had a state quasi-monopoly on shoes, with shoe factories run directly by the government and the shoes distributed to citizens, you’d need some kind of elaborate accountability mechanism to provide quality oversight on the shoes—some combination of public inspectors, maybe focus groups and surveys of shoe wearers. But that’s self-evidently (I hope) a second- or third-best form of “accountability.” The best sort of accountability is direct accountability to the shoe wearer. Shift to a private market in shoe provision, maybe coupled with higher public assistance benefits or refundable tax credits so the indigent have some extra cash with which to buy shoes, and the oversight becomes largely otiose. That’s because you’ve suddenly unleashed the dispersed information—what Hayek called “local knowledge”—that had been suppressed in the absence of a viable exit option under the state quasi-monopoly. So when Anrig asks “How are parents supposed to discover good schools in the absence of any reliable, systematic source of information about them?” one answer is that they already have some excellent sources of information about the relative quality of schools for their children, in the form of direct observation of their kids’ performance and informal conversations with other parents.

That’s not to say you don’t want more systematic data, both to assist individual parents in their decisionmaking and to get some threshhold assurance that we’re not just funding finger painting lessons in some basement. But it’s not clear why that requires some kind of one-size-fits-all standardized testing regime. There are a plethora of public and private accreditation agencies to which the federal government refers in determining eligibility in programs like the Montgomery G.I. Bill.

IF THE SHOE FITS: I think Anrig is right to say, though, that “the whole theoretical reason for vouchers disintegrates if the private schools are subject to the same oversight and requirements as public schools.” Uniform shoes for diverse feet aren’t going to provide uniform satisfaction. But to measure schools by a single common metric, you need not just “uniformity” in the sense that kids aren’t unfairly assigned to much poorer schools than their peers the next town over, but a kind of standardization of curricula that clashes with the kind of dynamism that may be the best argument for educational choice.

The real genius of entrepreneurial markets lies not just in making old production methods more efficient (a cheaper, sturdier horse carriage) but in finding innovative new ways to serve old needs (the Model T). Making schools as we now know them better is clearly a worthy goal. But I’m also excited by the possibility of greater experimentation with things like, say, student-directed learning or some kind of middle-ground between homeschooling and the factory-model school—maybe small overlapping but shifting clusters of students working with a series of hired tutors.

Doubtless there are some bare-bones criteria any school is going to have to satisfy for it to be doing something we’re willing to call adequate education. But, to keep the shoe-fetish a moment longer, think of the immense variety of functions a simple commodity like a shoe is supposed to serve. Do you want something to play basketball in? Something to match your Armani suit? Maybe a nice pair of Birkenstocks to let your toes breathe? Something quirky that makes a statement about your personality? Something leather-free, because you’re committed to animal rights? Something to wear out dancing? To pad around the house?

How much more varied, then, are the functions education serv
es? The virtue of dispersed accountability is not just that (to borrow A.O. Hirschman’s lingo) the option to exit enhances the voice of those with the best direct experience of a school’s capacity to further given ends. It also expands their power to give the ends. In some cases, admittedly, that will mean fundies deciding that a good school looks like a madrassa with more Jesus. But it also makes it less likely that we’ll see schools producing students as standardized as their tests.

—posted by Julian

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