Ep. 219: Big Ideas – “Advanced Opportunities” with Max Eden

November 4, 2020

Max Eden, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, joins us to discuss his recent report, Advanced Opportunities: How Idaho is Reshaping High Schools by Empowering Students, which was featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas Series. Today, I’m grateful to be joined by Max Eden, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, who is the author of a recent report, Advanced Opportunities: How Idaho is Reshaping High Schools by Empowering Students, which was also featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article titled ,“An Education Innovation That Beats Learning Pods.” This is the subject of our discussion today. Max, welcome to the podcast.

Max Eden: Yeah thanks so much for having me.

Jason Bedrick: Of course. Now, micro-schools and learning pods obviously have been all the rage lately especially, with the pandemic closing down in person instruction in so many schools nationwide, your op-ed promises something even better than learning pods, which is a very high bar, might even be fighting words on this podcast. So tell us what’s going on at Idaho?

Max Eden: Well, hopefully I can defer any potential fisticuffs between the two of us by assuring you that with all due respect to their editorial wisdom it wasn’t my title idea.

Jason Bedrick: Very good.

Max Eden: A lead-in of the learning pods there was more of a—how do you make an evergreen something cool that’s happening in some state story available for Wall Street Journal readers. So the argument of the piece and in my argument isn’t necessarily that this is better than learning pods. It’s not necessarily that it has something to do with learning pods, but I know it has done something very interesting, unique, not quite like anything else we’ve seen in school choice or education policy and a reform seen more broadly. And so when you have a situation where there’s only one place this reform is happening, but it looks like it could catch fire I thought it’d be worth highlighting in a report and the journal agreed.

So, nothing against learning pods. They can coexist very peacefully, but I’ll give you the short version of it, which is that there’s this tension in the school choice debate where one side typically… If I’m going to state our side says the money should follow the students’ education will be better if students and parents can direct the resources that the state gives them. And the other side says, you don’t take resources away from our public schools. That’ll be less money for the schools, that will hurt the schools. Idaho has in a way split the difference by providing what your viewers might recognize as effectively an ESA that can be used within the public school system, right? So the way that this program operates is when students at seventh grade, all of a sudden they have an ESA account that has $4,125 in it.

And they are told by their guidance counselors, “Hey, now you have this money at your disposal. Here are the things that you can do with it.” And the things that it can be used for are limited, but varied enough to make the potential for students to really customize their public education experience, right? Students can use that money to pay for “overload” courses. They want to take extra courses during the summer, they want to take an extra course during the school year, there’s some course that the school might not be able to offer ahead, or thought about offering until all of a sudden it turns out there are 20 students who had one school at top queue wants to learn more about aviation. And the public school can the money that’s provided to them through this program to work with the local airport to educate the students about who want to go above and beyond and their career technical.
This is what the aviation industry looks like class in high school. So it can be used by public schools to vary their offerings along those lines. It’s can be used by students to pay for AP courses, to pay for club courses, to pay for any advanced coursework tests like that, it can be used to pay for professional certification examinations. So the student wants to demonstrate that they have a particular competency that is a saleable skill. If they’re not necessarily the college bound type of student, this can as of now pay for them to demonstrate their competency in that profession. And the hope is moving forward, all those haven’t fleshed out yet can be used to help pay for apprenticeships and more traditional offsite career and technical development courses in conjunction with community colleges. Most of the money, and most of the action on this however, has been used for dual credit enrollment courses, right?

Basically Idaho has a fixed price for dual credit enrollment. I think it’s $165 a credit at this point and so if it’s $165 of credit you have $4,000 in your pocket. All of a sudden you have the ability to, if you really go above and beyond and use public funds to finance up to even two years of college credit and graduate high school with an Associate’s degree. So it has been a program that’s only been in place for about four years now, but it has almost quadrupled the number of credits taken for colleges. Some high schools have really taken advantage of it and are branching out to offer different courses they haven’t traditionally been able to do. And it’s one of the very few examples we typically attend to amongst our school choice brother, and say intrusion on public schools, aren’t that responsive, don’t adapt, don’t have any need to meet the preferences of the families they serve because they’re a monopoly provider. But this actually gives schools a reason to meet those needs by empowering the students to direct their education as they go through the public system.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So they don’t call them ESAs, right? They’re not called education savings accounts, though they do seem to operate somewhat like them in a more limited capacity. I believe they’re called the Advanced Opportunities accounts?

Max Eden: Yes.

Jason Bedrick: Is that correct? The Advanced Opportunities program, you couldn’t just say, take these dollars and say, “Okay, I’m going to go take a class at a local private school.”

Max Eden: No.

Jason Bedrick: Or, “I’m going to go to a hire my own private tutor,” right? Those are things that you could do with K-12 ESAs let’s say in Arizona or Florida. But it certainly tremendously expands the number of options that are available through the public system, right? How did this policy come to be adopted? I mean, I would have expected, let’s say, Arizona and Florida, I would have expected the public schools in those states to have responded with something like this: “Idaho does not have a private school choice program, at least not yet.” And yet they were really forward-thinking in creating a choice microsystem in their district school system. So how did this happen?

Max Eden: Yeah, it’s a fun story. The key architect of the legislature is a guidance center. Steven Thayn has been there before. He’s in the state Senate no. He was in the House Representatives. Before that he was a Spanish teacher, and a dairy farmer before that. And he is not your typical education reform type of politician, right? Most education politicians think to themselves, how do I do the most for the students who are most disadvantaged? In what ways can we change the system? His mentality, his philosophy is: there’s a huge flaw in the direction of public school idea. The plies that we expect families to hand over their students to a system and we expect the system to take care of them. And he thinks that’s not really how families work, how society should work like humans truly do work. So he had been spending several years looking for ways to inject more agency into the traditional public school system.

And he had a few ideas to do this, right? One idea was to give the students the ability to take advanced course offerings, and to take dual credit enrollment courses and subsidize them in different ways that they meet different criteria, right? So there was one program and I might not be getting all the details correctly because they’re somewhat confusing and I’ll explain why that’s the fact that they’re confusing is important a second. There’s a program for students who earn all of their credits by junior year. It can take up to X, many courses, their senior year and students who do this well on this earn access to this many credits and students can if they want to, use some funds to take courses more quickly and graduate early, and if they graduate early, then they can take some of the money that was left over for them from graduating early from the traditional public school on with them to college.

And he had created four of these programs with a course of about six years, with this idea of just how do I help kids who want to get ahead and want to take ownership, take ownership. And as he was doing it, there was a woman who was overseeing the programs, the Idaho Department of Education. And she was going around to school districts, training them in the various programs. And she got this consistent feedback from school administrators like, “This is a nice idea, but I’m not an accountant. There are too many requirements, these requirements are overlapping, students don’t even necessarily know which they are enrolled before, and how and why is this also complicated? And I’m a guidance counselor and what. This is harming my ability to help these students.” And she was taken aback by these ideas, all of which I would before in themselves.

And I think many people with stands on choice in general, and that would before, ‘that sounds like a nice program, and that sounds like a nice program, but you put them all together and it couldn’t be administered effectively.’ So she was reflecting on just the complaints that she was getting from local school officials about it. And she thought to herself it’d be a lot simpler if instead of setting all these terms and conditions and making the school districts responsible for reimbursing the students after students families pay after a delay contingent on performance and everything else. If we just had an account and they could direct them on it, and that idea occurred to her and she took it to one of her superiors who said, “Oh, that’s a nice idea, but I don’t think for legislature we’ll go for it.” She took it to another superior who thought, “Oh, that’s a really cool idea. You should talk to Steven Thayn, I think he might really like it.”

And they had a conversation and he thought, wow, that is a really good idea. This is what my philosophy actually is. And all my earlier programs were just efforts to get at it by reforming the system, but really I want to give these families and these students agency. This is a much cleaner, simpler way to do it. And fortunately for the students of Idaho, the State Legislature is single product controls. Most aid people know people. There was still some satisfaction with these programs that had seen some growth, but after they implemented it this program just took off. They expected there to be none of these numbers precisely correct, but they expected there to be about $5.5 million in student spending in the first year and there were $14 million of students spending in the first year. They found that geez, once you just say to students here, this is yours, this is what you can do with it. It created a change in American high schools that I don’t think there’s really any analog too in any other states.

Jason Bedrick: One of the fascinating things about this for me is that it creates a feedback mechanism, right? This is one of the reasons that we argued that having a system of choice is better than having a top-down or monopoly system, right? Is because the people in that system needs some mechanism to express their preferences. And that’s very hard when you have a system that’s basically governed by elections. So you’ve got a school board race every few other years; most people have no idea who’s on their school board, most people don’t vote in school board elections even when their children are going to school. There’s obviously the problem of capture by special interests. And then even then let’s state that you have some idea that you wanted to get through, to be successful. You’ve got to get a majority of people to agree with you that this is something, right?

And that’s very very hard to do. So, at best in a politically governed system, or democratically governed, at best you’re going to have the wishes of the majority expressed, but not the minority. And very often what you have is actually a vocal, or politically connected minority having its views expressed, but even at the expense of the majority. What you get in a market is each family has a way to express their desires in the market. And then the market responds to those aggregate desires. They have found a way here in Idaho to combine these two systems to offer these individual choices. So as you mentioned before Eden, you might have let’s say, you may have 50 students somewhere that decide that they want to study AP Mandarin Chinese, which the system had no idea, right? They weren’t offering this, but all of a sudden you’ve got a critical mass of students.

And it’s far from majority. It’s actually a very small minority of students that want to do it, but it’s enough of them that you can actually start offering that class either online, elsewhere. As I believe you mentioned it in the article, there’s a whole bunch of these students that are using the Advanced Opportunities program for online courses, or you might have enough students that you could hire somebody local that is able to fulfill this need. So they’re actually able to combine the two. I mean, do you think this is something that we might start seeing in other states?

Max Eden: I would like to think so. I mean, before the pandemic hit I had pretty high hopes for this paper and its possible effects. And granted Idaho is a deep red state. It’s not necessarily representative politics everywhere, but it was bipartisan and the Democrats didn’t particularly object to it. And there isn’t that strong of a reason to object to it because from a public education perspective, it is an added investment in the system that the system itself benefits from, right? And different players within the system can benefit from. So a public school that chooses to, can take advantage of this to add those courses on, add more money coming through to their teachers to teach different things. It’s just a net plus to them. Community colleges and the higher education sector in Idaho’s haven’t covered as much yet, but the money passes through the schools to them in large part, right?
So you have a different education establishment that have a very strong vested interest in seeing something like this happen because all of a sudden they can expand their enrollments. And typically the way it’s been done in Idaho, and it is done in other states although, I know this point is I think the number one state is in a dual credit.

The teacher is commissioned as an agent of the university. The curriculum is aligned, the quality is monitored, and the high school teacher is essentially teaching a college course on behalf of the college within the high school while he or she is picking up a full-time teacher salary and also a stipend from the community college. So part of that money flows through the students to the community college and comes back to the teacher where we’re the losers of that, right? Politically people encounter more friction than I would like to think even the best of places certainly in equal blue states, there was one article about dual learning in general, by a guy in the AMT Magazine who just decried the fact that it’s blending the difference between high school and college which they think is a terrible thing. Turns out a lot of parents think that’s a great thing. It turns out a lot of parents would love for their kid to graduate from high school with a semester, or a year’s worth of credits and so—

Jason Bedrick: The AFT union is not particularly excited about non-unionized college professors moving in on their students essentially.

Max Eden: No, but the hope is that in places where they’re less strong, or more enlightened they would not be enthusiasm about the prospect of their members making possibly a few thousand dollars extra a year by going above and beyond. So before the pandemic hit I had in mind like, yeah this could be adopted in a handful of more states in the next two or three lots that is cycles. With the budget crunch I’m slightly less optimistic about its immediate potential, but the argument that I’ve made to policymakers, legislators and think tank groups and the implicit argument of the piece, bringing it back to pods, right? Is that if traditional public schools want to show that they’re actually committed to quality and wanted to draw parents back into the system and give them confidence, it would behoove them to provide something that they couldn’t get at home.

And in Idaho right now, they had to build to try to extend this to students who are in private schools and councils that they’ve failed. But you could see a pro public school argument for this thing. We need to add this benefit because we really might start losing people altogether. But if the value proposition now is stay in the public school system and you can graduate with a head start in college, or you can graduate with us, subsidizing your efforts to gain a career saleable skill. A better value proposition, Jason, to keep kids in the public monopoly system.

Jason Bedrick: And actually one of the things that excited me about this politically was that point. So first off in states where the political environment is just not ripe for educational choice in a robust way to pass in the near future. And I’m thinking let’s say, California, New York, right? They’re not going to get most likely I mean, who knows. But most likely, I think it’s not on the horizon right now that there’s going to be a robust educational choice program, like an education savings account in those states.

Nevertheless, because the money is staying in the public system this could be a way that you could bridge that right-left political divide. And for those who want more choices and essentially a market that provides a feedback mechanism, this does that. For those who want to keep the money in the system this also does that. So maybe this is a way of really improving the system and providing more choice within the system in those states that can’t have those types of more robust educational choice programs.
On the flip side though, states that already have robust private education options, this would be a great way for the public school system to be more competitive, right? To say, “Hey, you know what? You don’t have to leave us. We’ve got these options here. You can stay here in the system. And that’s what we want to.” I mean, I know there’s always the critique out there. Oh, you guys just want to display the public school system. No, no. I want all kids to have access to a wide variety of options. I don’t really care at the end of the day, if that’s a government-run system, or a private-run system, I just want as many options as possible and I want access for as many kids as possible. I want those public schools as we’ve seen in Arizona, we’ve seen tremendous improvement in the public school system.

In the last decade Arizona, has the most robust educational choice environment in the country in Maricopa County, which is about 60 percent of the state you’ve got more than half of students attending a school besides their zone school. They have the highest EdChoice share in the country of students using education saving peans? Or tax-based scholarships. Highest number of kids in the country going to a charter school, it’s about 18 percent now. So, what we’ve seen over the last decade is Arizona, as the fastest improving state on the NAEP. I could definitely at least see this in other states helping to expand options and really expand opportunity.

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, and just the other day offline we’re talking about folks who are trying to find ways to get college courses democratized for high school students and how can we provide an opportunity and an option for students who have the ability and the desire to get that head start. And it’s frankly something that the public school system, is at a great position to be able to immediately grab and offer as a differentiation point, right? How many students could be drawn back into a traditional public high school, if your miracle, the county school district decided, Hey, we maybe even as a school district thing, we’re going to give the students $2,000 they can use in the course of their high school careers to take courses at local community college and sponsored. And so if you attend our public high school, you have the chance of shaving a year or two off college.

It’s a great proposition. It could attract people back to the system. I think the part of the unspoken, or not yet articulated argument against it that I fear it will be fielded and this is one of the places where I really worry about and fret about the direction of how ideas of equity are jumping around in the education space, is an argument against it that I’ve heard which was stated not emphatically. But as a matter of fact up there is at this point in time this program is primarily benefiting students who are advanced and it was designed to do so, right? It was designed to be the Advanced Opportunities program, which some people think is great, so I tend to believe that mind is great, but there are other people who have a lot of sway over public education that they think that’s a, if we have to spend more money that’s the last place we should spend it, right? The last thing we need to do is to help the kids who are already ahead get further ahead.

So you might see that counterargument made with success in the states, California, or New York. However, and it’s still untested you can’t point to Idaho and say it’s a success for the career and technical education side. But if they can pull off with… just a shadow of what they’ve done with dual credit enrollment, then there becomes a very very strong social justice equity case too. This is a way to help public schools, help kids who aren’t college bound, who don’t want to be college bound and you don’t need to be college bound graduate not just with a high school diploma. That’s meaningless because everybody has one, but actually with a saleable skill that then goes straight into the job market for, and some of the folks I talked to at the Boise School District, which is the most advanced career and technical education program of any of the districts out there. Those guys are like, ‘it’s really sad because when kids are like K-6, even K-8, we always ask them, what do you want to be when you grow up?

And then when they hit high school, we start asking them, where do you want to go to college? And the beautiful thing about this program for the past few years is we can really start having that college conversation with kids quicker because, Hey, do you want to start getting courses next year, you can start accumulating college credits next year. And the hope is, and it’ll take a few more years to see if it will be good on that note, but that you could also start to have the conversation; more serious conversation about what do you want to do when you grow up and how can the school will help you do that? I didn’t spell it up. You be something that you want to be.

And if you want to become highly trained welding technician, who can in many cases make much better than the white collar work that you’d have to go to college to get. And we can put you in a position to have a union job, solid benefits, pension, retirement trajectory. They can put you there at age 18 and it’s not going to cost you anything and it’s going to, but it requires you going down this path which we’re now going to be able to build.’

Jason Bedrick: Has the program seen any challenges so far? Any hiccups, difficulties implementing?

Max Eden: I hesitate to say not really, because it sounds like a flip dancer, but the biggest challenge that was articulated to me and I had spoke to a range of people, including people who could or should have been critical of it. It just has… Its cost a lot more than it was expected to cost, which was a challenge and little friction within the Idaho State Legislature. And that’s been overcome, but-

Jason Bedrick: It cost still a lot more because there was a lot more interest in it than they had anticipated?

Max Eden: Yeah, no, a lot more demand. I mean, would you have guessed that more than half of high school students want to take a college level course? Frankly, I don’t know that I would have guessed that. I personally might’ve guessed going back to your democratic process of deliberation versus market revelation. I might’ve guessed that 15 percent want to, and if I were a policymaker, I might say, okay, let’s have a program designed to allow up to 15 percent and we’ll build all of our assumptions around that. And that’s something very much, that is what they built their budget projection into. They expected first year’s expense to come in at about 5.4 million. That’s what they told the Legislature would cost, and it costs 16 million because three times as many students as they thought wanted to, wanted to.

Jason Bedrick: So if you were giving advice to policymakers and other states that are thinking of copying Idaho, in some sense, what would that be?

Max Eden: I mean, first and foremost, it would be to do it. It’s an incredibly attractive proposal to make to a variety of stakeholders, right? To schools the proposition is, ‘Hey, we’ll help your teachers get more money if they go above and beyond. We’ll also help you have the flexibility to build out programs that you don’t have the free resources to build.’ To community colleges it’s, ‘we’re going to funnel enrollment in dollars to you’ and to students it’s, “We’ll give you $4,000 to direct your career.” So I would almost just say, copy it wholesale and see if it gets the same results in your state has got in Idaho. Even if the career and technical side of it doesn’t come to fruition the fact that a lot of high school advanced credits, and in some cases normal courses have been budded to be effectively deliveries of community college level and four year college level curriculum and itself represents a pedagogical advance.

Teachers that have better material have more training around it. We don’t really track high school progress in standardized tests the same way that we do in elementary and middle school. But I think there’s a strong case that at the very minimum, this will just help high schools teach students better curriculum better. So I would just say, look at it, do it, read the report, reach out to the people there they’re very friendly and very fun, smart folks. And as soon as you see a budget opening pitch it if you’re a Legislature.

Jason Bedrick: My guest today has been Max Eden, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, the author of the recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “An Education Innovation That Beats Learning Pods.” Max, thanks for joining us today.

Max Eden: Yeah thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Max Eden, senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, who is the author of a new report, Advanced Opportunities: How Idaho is Reshaping High Schools by Empowering Students. This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media @edchoice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.