Common ground to advance choice: Miltonite means and Coonian ends

Editor’s note: Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice, and Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, provided the following response to a post from redefinED columnist John Coons.

In a recent redefinED blog post, school choice icon John Coons proposed finding common ground between two groups of education reformers whom he calls the “Miltonites” or “marketeers” (supporters of a free-market approach to educational choice with universal eligibility in the mold of Milton Friedman) and the “voucher left” (those, like Coons, whose primary concern is improving the well-being of the poor). His point is that what unites the two groups is much more—and more important—than what divides them, so they should find ways to work together as “happy co-conspirators” to advance educational choice.

As two staunch Miltonites, we couldn’t agree more.

Advancing choice and opportunity requires a broad and ideologically diverse coalition, as when the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, worked with Democratic legislator Polly Williams to enact the first voucher program of the modern era. More recently we’ve also seen a largely successful coalition of staunch conservatives and ardent liberals working together to advance criminal justice reform.

As with any diverse coalition, however, there is bound to be some healthy disagreement, particularly over the means to achieve shared ends. In the choice coalition, the fault lines have often been over access (universal vs. targeted) and regulations (libertarian vs. equalitarian).

First, the common ground. As with many on the social justice wing of the school choice movement in recent years, Coons now appears ready to support Miltonite universal access—so long as the financial support for the disadvantaged is greater. On this front, today’s Miltonites are already pretty much in agreement in principle though there may be some disagreement over the details.

When it comes to regulations, however, the differences over means are more profound. While well-intended, the regulations Coons proposes are likely to stymie the ability of choice programs to benefit the very people Coons wants to help the most. Instead, we propose that Miltonite means are best to achieve Coonian ends.

Universal Choice

Whereas in the past, Coons and Friedman ran dueling proposals that differed sharply over eligibility, now Coons proposes a universal approach in which “at least a trophy amount to the well-off in recognition of their civic role as parent, while awarding the poor the full economic reality of that same parental responsibility and authority.” It’s not clear what a “trophy amount” means in practice, but while we think it is important that everyone receive a substantial scholarship, we support giving additional aid to disadvantaged populations, such as students with special needs, English Language Learners, and children from low-income families.

Universality is essential for both policy, political, and personal reasons. In terms of policy, targeted choice programs may fill empty seats in existing schools, but only the widespread availability of educational choice will lead to the systemic transformative change that our K-12 system needs.

Universality is also more politically sustainable. There is significantly higher public support for universal programs than targeted ones. EdChoice’s latest Schooling in America Survey found that 81 percent of Americans support universal choice policies while only 17 percent oppose them. By contrast, only 59 percent supported making choice programs available based on financial need while 39 percent opposed doing so.

Moreover, as Milton Friedman often observed, “Programs for the poor are poor programs.” Welfare is often on the chopping block, but Social Security never is. Likewise, programs that serve upper-middle-income families who have political capital tend to be better-run than those that serve only the poor. One need look no further than the district schools serving well-off families compared to those that serve lower-income families. The poor are best served by being in the same boat as the more advantaged.

On the personal level, low-income families don’t want to feel like or be seen as charity cases. Families who send their children to a public school are receiving a government subsidy, but they don’t feel like a charity case because everyone gets access. No wonder then that our recent poll found significantly higher support for universal choice among low-income families. Among respondents earning less than $40,000 annually, 92 percent supported universal access while only 66 percent supported means-testing.

As we noted above, we support giving additional aid to disadvantaged families, but we should be clear-eyed about the tradeoffs and wary of pitfalls. Families who must prove their income face additional barriers, including intrusive questions and a significant amount of paperwork. Also, we must be careful that we don’t create a poverty trap that takes away benefits as a household’s income rises. Educational choice programs should assist low-income families by expanding opportunity but should not ever be designed in such a way as to create a disincentive for families to improve their financial situation.

Ultimately, universal access to educational choice is about erasing the invisible but all-too-real lines that divide our nation’s education system into haves and have-nots. A Friedman noted in Free to Choose:

The tragedy, and irony, is that a system dedicated to enabling all children to acquire a common language and the values of U.S. citizenship, to giving all children equal educational opportunity, should in practice exacerbate the stratification of society and provide highly unequal educational opportunity.

Ending this stratification—ending the lines between us all and creating opportunity for all especially the most vulnerable—is the true goal of the Miltonite view of educational opportunity.

The Role of the Market

A well-functioning market is necessary to provide families with a diverse array of educational options and to spur systemic innovation and improvement. Coons is open to the importance of the market to educational choice but takes Friedman to task for taking a “let the market rip” approach, claiming:

It was to [Friedman] an economic sin to favor lower-income families in either the amount of the subsidy or the design of regulation for participating schools. The focus for him was not on the role of the parent, but rather the achievement of simplicity and laissez-faire in the economy.

This does not do justice to Friedman’s views, which were considerably more nuanced.

What Coons calls Friedman’s “let it rip” approach is really Friedman’s sincere belief in parents and their ability to choose. As Friedman wrote in Free to Choose:

Parents generally have both greater interest in their children’s schooling and more intimate knowledge of their capacities and needs than anyone else. Social reformers, and educational reformers in particular, often self-righteously take for granted that parents, especially those who are poor and have little education themselves, have little interest in their children’s education and no competence to choose for them. That is a gratuitous insult. Such parents have frequently had limited opportunity to choose. However, U.S. history has amply demonstrated that, given the opportunity, they have often been willing to sacrifice a great deal, and have done so wisely, for their children’s welfare.

Moreover, Friedman’s opposition to certain regulations stemmed not from a sense that they were a “sin” against a free-market religion but rather from his empirical studies of how markets work and how certain well-intended regulations can have unintended consequences.

As Friedman himself wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2000:

I have nothing but good things to say about voucher programs, like those in Milwaukee and Cleveland, that are limited to a small number of low-income participants. They greatly benefit the limited number of students who receive vouchers, enable fuller use to be made of existing excellent private schools, and provide a useful stimulus to government schools. They also demonstrate the inefficiency of government schools by providing a superior education at less than half the per-pupil cost.

But such programs are on too small a scale, and impose too many limits, to encourage the entry of innovative schools or modes of teaching. The major objective of educational vouchers is much more ambitious. It is to drag education out of the 19th century – where it has been mired for far too long – and into the 21st century, by introducing competition on a broad scale. Free market competition can do for education what it has done already for other areas, such as agriculture, transportation, power, communication and, most recently, computers and the Internet. Only a truly competitive educational industry can empower the ultimate consumers of educational services – parents and their children.

Coons claims that the Miltonites have “succeeded largely in giving subsidized parental choice the image of Friedman himself,” meaning universal programs that have “nearly zero regulation of the chosen providers.” In reality, the Miltonites have been all too willing to settle for small, targeted programs that often come with regulations that undermine their effectiveness.

As we highlighted in a recent essay for the American Enterprise Institute, markets are essential for creating a feedback loop that organically expands options and improves quality over time. In the words of AEI’s Yuval Levin, markets enable the channeling of “social knowledge from the bottom up” rather than “impos[ing] technical knowledge from the top down” via a Hayekian three-step process of “experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.”

Markets are ideally suited to following these steps. They offer entrepreneurs and businesses a huge incentive to try new ways of doing things (experimentation); the people directly affected decide which ways they like best (evaluation); and those consumer responses inform which ways are kept and which are left behind (evolution).

This three-step process is at work well beyond the bounds of explicitly economic activity. It is how our culture learns and evolves, how norms and habits form, and how society as a general matter “decides” what to keep and what to change. It is an exceedingly effective way to balance stability with improvement, continuity with alteration, tradition with dynamism. It involves conservation of the core with experimentation at the margins to attain the best of both.

Policymakers should be careful to avoid policies that unduly interfere with this process. As Jason Bedrick and Lindsey Burke explained in greater length in chapter nine of School Choice Myths, some of Coons’ proposed regulations have unintended consequences that undermine the ability of choice programs to aid the very people they’re intended to help. For example, as Bedrick and Burke explain, such open-admissions requirements can restrict the diversity of options available to scholarship students:

Open-admissions mandates prevent families from using vouchers at schools with certain missions or those that are oriented around voluntary communities, such as religiously affiliated schools or single sex schools. They also discourage participation among schools that are designed to serve certain types of students, whether the academically gifted, students with particular special needs, or those with a penchant for STEM or drama and the arts.

College voucher programs, like Pell Grants, are publicly funded without imposing open-admissions requirements out of a recognition that the purpose of the public funding is to expand educational opportunities for students to enroll in the learning environments that are the right fit for them. That requires a diversity of options, including schools that are geared toward particular student populations or that have particular missions or religious affiliations.

Such regulations can also affect the quality of available options. Louisiana’s voucher program is the most regulated in the country, imposing open admissions, the state test, and price controls to guarantee low-income families access to high-quality schools. What happened is that most private schools refused to participate, and Louisiana’s voucher program became the first in the nation to produce negative effects in a random-assignment study.

How did that happen?

Well-intentioned regulations are the likely culprit. In a survey by the American Enterprise Institute, three out of four Louisiana private school leaders who opted not to have their school accept voucher students cited concerns about the effects of the open-admissions requirement. As Bedrick and Burke explained, there were important differences between the participating and non-participating schools:

These concerns [about regulations] appear to have dissuaded many of the higher-performing schools from accepting [Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP)] students, so participating schools were of lower quality, on average. One of the initial LSP studies contained some suggestive evidence of this. In the decade before the LSP was expanded statewide, the non-participating schools experienced modest enrollment growth (about 3 percent, on average). By contrast, over the same period, the participating schools experienced a significant decline in enrollment (about 13 percent, on average). In other words, private schools that had been able to attract students before the LSP expansion tended to reject the vouchers, while voucher-accepting schools tended to be those where enrollment had been falling.

These concerns are not confined to Louisiana. Another multi-state study found that admissions mandates significantly reduced the likelihood that private schools would participate in a potential school choice program. The number of private school principals who were “certain to participate” in a school choice program dropped by around 17 to 21 percentage points, or 70 to 84 percent, if the program had an admissions mandate.

By contrast, Florida eschews admissions mandates and other Louisiana-style regulations yet more than 130,000 low-income students are now attending the schools of their families’ choice. Moreover, far from “creaming,” studies show that Florida private schools are admitting scholarship students who were lower-performing, on average, than their demographic peers before receiving a scholarship. In other words, as Louisiana and Florida show, open-admissions mandates are neither necessary nor sufficient to expand access for lower-income families—and may even have the opposite effect.

Better Together

Miltonites and Coonians are united in a shared desire to improve the lot of “the least among us.” We should also share a commitment to learning from what has and hasn’t worked. The past three decades of experience with educational choice show that Miltonite means are the surest path to achieving Coonian ends.

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BY Special to NextSteps