Last week, Corey DeAngelis and Lindsey Burke released a study that has important implications for policymakers interested in the impact of regulation on the performance of school choice programs. They examined three school choice programs around the country that vary in the extent to which face state-level regulation (Louisiana, Indiana, and Washington D.C.). The Louisiana program is considered to be one of the most heavily regulated in the country, while the D.C. and Indiana programs are less heavily regulated. Examining the period before and after the enactment of a voucher program in these cities, they looked for the changes in the amount of homogeneity in the schools along dimensions of gender admission, religiosity, and the overall mission of the school through school self-reporting in national surveys of private schools.
They found that significantly more homogenization occurs in the more regulated Louisiana program than in the less regulated D.C. and Indiana programs. Specifically, they found a 3.6 percentage point higher likelihood that school would describe themselves as “regular” and a 1.5 percentage point decline in the likelihood of describing themselves as “non-traditional” or “alternative.” In other words, the opportunity for differentiated education declined under heavier regulation.
This research is important as we consider factors like increased accountability for school choice participating schools. In many ways, traditional public schools represent a “one-size fits all” educational system. Public schooling is the default choice, and no affirmative action required on the part of the parent to select into the school. In contrast, school choice programs are meant afford parents the opportunity to tailor their child’s education environment to that which best fits their needs. If accountability leads to a homogenization of educational options outside of public schooling, those ostensible options are rendered inconsequential.
This blog does not represent a call for no regulation whatsoever. There are ways to increase the speed at which poor performers exit school choice without a heavier hand from the state. For example, information about the performance of various schools could be made more readily available to parents. Particularly for parents in the lowest income brackets which predominate in choice programs, the time available for seeking information about school options may be limited. Easing that information flow is one important way to improve sector performance.
In Milwaukee, the relevance of this research is perhaps even more obvious. Our recent research has shown, despite the talking points of choice opponents that accountability does exist in Wisconsin’s parental choice programs. Schools with poor academic performance are more likely to leave the program and lose enrollment, and the regulatory regime of the state regularly removes schools with poor fiscal management that correlates well with academic performance.
We also already have evidence for the problems that can occur when schools meant to be laboratories for innovation are turned over to propagators of the status quo. In Milwaukee, our research has found that charter schools run by Milwaukee Public Schools perform no better than traditional public schools. In contrast, charters that are run in a more independent fashion produce higher test scores, and a greater “bang” for the taxpayer buck.
We can ill afford to replicate the MPS charter experience with Wisconsin’s choice programs. Top-down regulation of choice schools may create a private school system that functions much like the public school system under a different name. To the extent that there is a need to address the continued poor performance of certain poor performing choice schools (of which there are a significant number), this research represents a call for policymakers to remain cognizant of the dangers of top-down reform.