Vouchers, Testing-Driven Education Reform on a Collision Course?

Conservative approaches to education reform may in the next few years encounter a fateful fork in the road. One long tradition of conservative educational theory has stressed the value of vouchers as a way of decentralizing education and providing state subsidies directly to parents (rather than routed through local school systems) for their children's education. A newer movement on the right has embraced standards-based accountability, where students and, increasingly, teachers will be evaluated according to the measures of certain standardized tests and complicated (and unproven) statistical models. At the moment, these twin strategies have been used to reorient radically local public school organizations. Louisiana has become ground zero for these twinned approaches, having recently approved a massive expansion of vouchers (HB976) and new reforms making teacher employment contingent upon student performance on standardized exams and opaque value-added modelling (HB974). However, there is an increasingly obvious tension between these two approaches. The voucher movement emphasizes pluralism; current "accountability" models emphasize uniformity. Eventually, one tendency will have to win out.

Under the old model of education funding, federal and state government provided various subsidies to various school systems based on student populations and certain legal mandates. Under this model, the case for vouchers is relatively straightforward: if the government provides $8000 for a student to go to an unaccountable public school, why not give the parents this amount to send their child to an unaccountable private school? (Yes, there are numerous interesting reasons why this may not be a good idea, but let's leave those to the side for the moment.) If not entirely persuasive, this case is at least understandable. It puts power directly in the hands of the parents and encourages competition between various scholastic enterprises in something resembling an educational marketplace.

The rise of testing-based accountability measures immeasurably complicates this argument for vouchers. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, public schools have to demonstrate their performance on certain standardized measures in order to receive funding. Race to the Top further centralizes educational affairs by encouraging states to adopt a nationwide core curriculum and by emphasizing a testing-driven component for teacher evaluations. The argument on behalf of such measures is that public dollars demand proof that they will be spent in a valuable way, and standardized testing is, apparently, the best way to establish this value. (Yes, this argument may be flawed in many, many ways, but let us leave that to the side for the moment as well.) If one wants to establish a centralized, federally-run public school system, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top provide a sturdy foundation for that enterprise.

If, however, one wants to support a pluralist, voucher-driven kind education reform, this movement toward standards-based accountability could prove much more problematic. If the premise of this accountability is that public dollars require proof of effectiveness, what is the reason for demanding that a school run as a public institution (that is, a public school) should be held to any different standard than a school run as a private institution? Both would receive tax dollars from state and potentially local and federal governments: why should they be held to two different standards?

For the moment, many on the right have chosen to ignore this pressing question. Louisiana's latest round of "reforms," for instance, specifies the standards for granting teachers tenure and for removing teachers. However, these standards only apply to public schools; they do not apply to the charter and private schools that could receive voucher money. The state is effectively giving public schools less flexibility than it provides private schools on matters of personnel.

However, the Louisiana voucher bill also opens the door to further bureaucratic burdens on private schools. This bill has a provision that mandates that the state superintendent devise an "accountability system" for students at voucher schools. This aspect of the bill suggests a tendency for the future: to start to hold out to private schools the promise of government money with an increasing number of strings attached. Once you've bought into the idea that standardized testing establishes a school's quality, it becomes harder to resist the idea that public money ought to go only to those private entities that have demonstrated their effectiveness in teaching.  Moreover, these standards for accountability will, as both Louisiana and federal reforms demonstrate, tend to come from bureaucrats working in central government offices.

Under a universalized voucher program and homogenous standards system, the federal government, which would be the engine that de facto drives education policy under this "reformist" vision, would have increasing control over private schools. Why? Over a period of years, private schools would become increasingly dependent upon government tax dollars, and he who pays the piper picks the tune. Maybe not now, maybe not a few years from now, but eventually legislators and regulators could start placing further demands upon these newly dependent private schools. After all, if education is truly in a state of crisis, shouldn't government be demanding the best from schools in exchange for the taxpayer's hard-earned dollars?

This would be a dangerous road to go down from a conservative perspective. It could lead to a near-nationalization of most of the nation's schools, private and public. A proliferation of educational models has been one of the strongest parts of American education; the conversation between these models has led to new innovations and intellectual achievements. It would be no great exaggeration to say that the American university system, envied by many across the world, is the product of this conversation between various scholastic models.

Conservatives need to be careful. George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind has done more to nationalize education than any other policy measure in recent memory. By placing impossible demands upon schools (e.g., continual progress toward perfection culminating in 100% proficiency for all students), this policy laid the groundwork for the power-grab of Barack Obama's Race to the Top and federal waivers that allow states to opt-out of No Child Left Behind's requirements if they give away further local control of education to the federal government. Purportedly "conservative" policy led to thoroughly "progressive" results. Some on the right may see a combination of standardized testing and voucher systems as a way of striking at teachers unions, but conservatives may soon find this anti-union weapon turned against themselves and small-government aims. For the past decade or so, numerous "conservatives" have chosen big bureaucracy over smaller, local government when crafting education policy. As the price of this choice becomes clearer, perhaps some on the right will change their minds. At the moment, centralized, testing-driven education "reform" seems on a collision course with educational pluralism.