Ep. 290: Big Ideas — with Nicole Garnett

December 21, 2021

In this episode of our Big Ideas series we speak with Dr. Nicole Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. She talks about her recent report, Accountability in Private School Choice.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to Ed Choice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at Ed Choice. And this is another addition of our big idea series today.

I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Nicole Stelle Garnett, who is the John P. Murphy Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame, and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She is the author of a new report titled Accountability in Private School Choice, which is the subject of today’s conversation.

Professor, welcome to the podcast.

Nicole Stelle Garnett: Thanks so much. Glad to be here.

Jason Bedrick: In your report, you write that most people of good faith agree that when the government acquires goods or services from the private sector, it is entitled to ensure that it receives what it is paying for. So of course, this raises all sorts of complex questions about what should be measured, how it should be measured, what consequences there should be for non-performance, right? The appropriate balance between accountability and autonomy, et cetera. So, to help orient policy makers as they attempt to answer these questions, what should the goal of accountability be with regard to school choice?

Nicole Stelle Garnett: Right? So as you point out, there’s a simple question. If the government, the famous stories about ordering $10,000 to $100,000 toilets in the defense department and other things. So, if the government wants to acquire things from the private sector, which we should want the government to do, because the private sector is better at doing many things than the government, including often educating children, it’s reasonable to say, “Well, the entities receiving government funds should be held accountable. There should be a deal.”

But the question immediately becomes accountable for what? And how would you measure whether they are actually, the recipients, in this case private schools, holding up their side of the bargain. So, I articulate a couple of goals for accountability in the private school choice context in my report.

The first I think, and most important one, is that the goal of accountability ought to be to give parents the information that they need to hold schools accountable. If we go back to Milton Friedman’s original idea about why parental choice was so important in education, it was that the parents themselves by subjecting schools to market forces would be the ones that do the accountability function.

In order for that to happen, and I think that is the right idea about what accountability is, parents have to know the information and they need to hold schools accountable for the things that parents care about. And we can talk later about what parents care about. It’s not just test scores. And the second goal, so give parents the decision making power by giving them information to choose, and I say for more and better schools. So, that we should have schools participating in the school choice program plentifully so that parents can choose from a range of options, parents have different goals for their kids, different values that they take to the school choice table. And that they’re good schools, they’re better schools than the parents might have absent choice.

Jason Bedrick: Now, when people talk, especially in the education policy world, about accountability, they don’t usually mean what you mean. They have a bunch of other things that they have in mind. So just to clarify, what are the sorts of regulations that are usually intended under the banner of accountability regulations?

Nicole Stelle Garnett: Right. So, you’re totally right that lots of things are flown under the accountability banner. My paper talks about academic accountability so that we’re talking about parents being able to make good decisions for their kids about the quality of the schools that they are choosing between. Make decisions about what schools best serve their children’s needs as students. The ones that will form them as the kind of people the parents want them to be formed as.

There’s a lot of things that aren’t about academic accountability that fall under the banner of school choice. So, questions about subjecting schools to democratic control, government control. Sometimes we see a lot of this in the charter school world. Accountability means the government is controlling you. Even in the private school choice context, often accountability means control. So, really limiting the autonomy of schools to distinguish themselves, to fulfill their mission as private entities, which is the whole point of school choice is that there are distinctive providers providing distinctive products.

So, if accountability comes to mean government control and the loss of autonomy, then we lose the whole reason for having school choice to start with and just go back to a monolithic system. Another thing that obviously is, things that people who are opposed to school choice don’t like, including some things that touch on religious Liberty issues. Views that some schools may teach religious views that might be attractive to a Catholic parent or a Jewish parent or a Muslim parent, but not attractive to all people who are regulators.

And so those things. Let’s try to restrict the religious liberty of these schools so that they look more like the kinds of schools that we think should be teaching the right kinds of views in a democratic society. So, there’s that. And then I think, there’s several other kinds of control questions. Should schools have to take everybody regardless of their ability or disability status? Should schools be policed for being racially diverse or not? Should schools be held accountable for disciplinary decisions? All of these things get thrown into what I would describe as the accountability bucket, when they’re not necessarily about the quality of the schools or the parents’ choices.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And so what you argue in the paper is essentially that a bunch of these regulations are often referred to as accountability, but they can actually impede the ability of schools to provide a distinct mission. And so what you end up doing in many cases is narrowing the diversity and the number of options that are available. And that actually leads to the next question, which is should accountability regulations be focused more on weeding out the so-called bad schools, even at the cost of erecting barriers to entry to the good schools, or should policy makers lean more toward letting 1,000 flowers bloom and letting parents just choose among them?

Nicole Stelle Garnett: Right. So, I think the two questions are related. So, when we talk about accountability, often the question is what are the consequences of failure? So, if you fail to perform at a certain level as a school in the state of Indiana, I think it’s for three years in the voucher program, if you get below a certain score, D or F, then you basically get kicked out of the program. You don’t get to take any new kids. This is all also true in Louisiana.

So, we think about accountability in sort of a punitive way. And that’s not entirely unreasonable. You might say, well, why should the government be paying for kids to go to bad schools? But if we go back to my original animating principle, my goal is more and better schools. I think it’s important to keep in mind that some of these regulations, as you point out, they may not be about academic accountability, but may be about homogenizing the options among …

So, if we have lots of strict curricular rules, for example, then the schools that might have been quite distinctive and given parents good distinctive choices between the traditional nuts and bolts that you might get at a parish Catholic school versus a Montessori school. We’re going to try to make them the same so that we can say that the product is equal.

But I think there’s another reason, and it’s what you mentioned as barriers to entry, where a lot of regulation, and maybe even punitive regulations, may reduce the quality of the schools involved because the best schools need school choice the least. So, if we’re a private school and you’re trying to decide whether to enter a school choice program, and there’s a whole bunch of red tape and you’re subject to curricular requirements that are going to homogenize you and make you not be able to be the school that you want to be, and you’re full, you’re an excellent school, then you might think it’s just not worth participating. But we really want the strongest schools to choose to participate.

And so we don’t want to scare them away with regulation. So, I say in my paper, it may be that punishing the worst schools in school choice programs becomes a necessary element of an accountability, but it shouldn’t be the first element. It should be the last one. In fact, there’s actually some research that suggests that regulations can deter the participation of stronger schools.

So, the evidence from Louisiana, Pat Wolf, who’s an excellent scholar at the school choice demonstration program who has shown disappointing results in the Louisiana voucher plan. He actually says in his finds in his research, that one of the reasons why the Louisiana school choice program may not have produced the results that advocates hoped is because the strongest schools opted not to participate because they didn’t want to bother with their regulatory requirements of participation. So, by making it hard to participate, you actually deter the better schools from participating, not the worse schools.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. Actually in that paper, Patrick Wolf, who’s a fellow here at Ed Choice, finds that two thirds of the Catholic schools didn’t even participate in the Louisiana voucher program. It’s by far the most regulated all the school choice programs in the country. It’s the first one, for example, where we have a negative finding from a randomized control trial. And that’s exactly right. The schools that had increasing enrollment in the days before the program was enacted were more likely not to participate. Whereas the ones that were participating actually saw declining enrollment, which means that the parents were moving away from those schools. The schools were willing to jump through a whole bunch of hoops in order to get the money, just to get those parents back.

So for example, though, in the opposite direction, Matt Ladner from the Arizona Charter Schools Association, who is also an Ed Choice fellow, has pointed out that Arizona’s charter sector is considered the wild west of education. They’ve got 17 year charters, whereas a lot of states have a review after a few years, but in Arizona you get them for 17 years. They have by far the largest charter school sectors, but it’s the parents who are closing the schools down, not the government. And the parents are closing them down by voting with their feet. And so I think these two states really demonstrate the two different approaches that you talk about.

Louisiana’s regulations are designed to ensure quality, but they actually have the opposite effect. And then Arizona has been criticized for a supposed lack of quality and yet their performance on the NAEP, the National Assessment of Education Progress, knocks the socks out of Arizona’s public schools. They’re by far way ahead of the rest of Arizona’s traditional public schools. And so I think it’s a really good demonstration of the two approaches that you talked about.

But to get a little bit more, in the weeds in your view, what is the optimal approach to accountability on these various different question of implementing policy?

Nicole Stelle Garnett: Okay. So, I think the first point goes back to my first goal of accountability, which is arming parents with the information that they need to hold schools accountable. As you point out, if parents vote with their feet, then one of two things is going to happen. Either the schools that they’re leaving are going to improved and get them back, or they’re going to close.

And if we believe in markets, both of those things are good. So sometimes you hear, “Oh, this school closed, or this charter school closed.” Well, if it was bad school, it closed because it was under enrolled, that’s not bad. It’s just parents making good decisions. So, we have to incentivize schools to give the parents the information that they need.

Now, as you know, Indiana’s a little different because if you participate in the voucher program here in Indiana, you actually have to take the state test. It’s the only state that requires all students, all the schools participating, to take the state test. A couple of others require only participants to take the state test, which is a terrible idea because then you’re only getting maybe a handful out of an entire school taking the test.

So, private schools historically have resisted being transparent at the school level about their academic quality. I can make guesses about why that is, but if you can’t find out information about the school quality at the school level, it’s really hard to make good decisions as parents.

So, I say in the paper that we should incentivize schools to be transparent. And that might mean a couple of things. First of all, I do really believe that states should give test flexibility. So, not mandate all the same test for all the same schools. There are lots of good tests out there. Let schools make the decision about what best fits their educational program and then incentivize them to release that information. You might incentivize them to say, if you release the information, you get a little bit more money from the voucher program. Maybe we’re going to expand income eligibility. It might not be out of the range of reason to say, if you want to participate, you can take whatever test you want, but you have to at least release the information so that parents can make good decisions, to make it accessible to parents.

I don’t think it’s a good idea for the reasons we’re just discussing to wrap all the private schools participating in school choice into the state accountability systems, which is now the case with all charter schools, as well as all public schools. And the other thing I say in the paper is that it is time for us to start really thinking critically as school choice advocates, as advocates for private schools, as regulators, private school operators, for developing alternatives to test based accountability metrics.

EdChoice has some of the best reports on this, honestly. It’s about what pay parents want. Test scores matter. Academic quality matters. But it’s never first. They care about religious formation, moral formation, character formation, safety, discipline, sports, music programs. There are lots of things that parents want that aren’t captured in a standardized test and a one size fits all standard advice test metric is really not going to help really make good decisions because parents don’t care as much about tests as regulators think they should.

And I think parents know something is going on here. I’m sure you know this, but the evidence for the short term effects of private school choice is that it helps, there’s marginal test gains. But the evidence for, back to Pat Wolf’s work, the long term effects of private school choice are immense. If you participate in the Milwaukee parental choice program for example, you are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college, stay in college, become employed, stay employed, make more money, and stay out of prison. All of those things. None of those things are captured in any single test.

And so parents, I think we see their choices and sometimes experts will say, “Oh, they care too much about safety or proximity or religion.” But if you look at the long term effects of these programs, I think they know what they’re doing and it’s almost impossible for regulators in a very short timeframe to know that participating in this private school choice program makes it more likely to get married and stay married, you’ll be a productive citizen 25 years from now. It’s impossible to know that.

Jason Bedrick: Are you concerned about the release of test scores? There are those who push back on that. I’m totally with you on the state test. Mandating one single test is a mistake. This is something that we’ve talked about a number of times on this podcast, that when you mandate just one single test, you end up advantaging those schools that have their curriculum aligned to that test at the expense of schools that don’t have their curriculum aligned to that test.

And so that creates a lot of pressure for schools to change their curriculum, to match the state test, and also really to narrow their curriculum as well. So, it makes more sense to have a variety of tests. But if you do require schools to release their test scores, there’s also the case that it creates a disincentive for those schools to then admit students who are lower performing because that’s going to ding them on the state test.

Nicole Stelle Garnett: So, yeah, I think that’s a risk. That risk can be mitigated by reporting growth as well as proficiency in the task. So, I do think however, growth measures are hard. And so if you don’t have a sophisticated statistician on your staff, it may be hard for you to do that. I think one thing to think about is whether we can incentivize disclosure before we mandate it.

I do think there are ways to encourage schools to be more transparent without requiring them to be more transparent. But on the other hand, I think when I talk to school choice advocates, I talk to Catholic bishops sometimes, I often say we need to recognize the world that we live in as providers of private education. And I’m an advocate for educational choice and a legal scholar, but I’m also an advocate for Catholic schools. I’m a Catholic school mom and I very much think that faith based schools in this country are really a critical component of our civil society and that they have to recognize they’re participating in markets.

And I think sometimes the providers have failed to do so and that’s hurting them in those markets. And also if they don’t voluntarily disclose, then I think they will be made to eventually and they may be made to without the choice among what metrics to use. And so I would like for private schools to recognize the changing landscape of education. If you live in the state of Indiana, the number of people that have basically complete open choice for their kids now, charter schools, public schools, public school choice, private school choice, for one school to say, “Well, we don’t want to tell anybody whether we’re good or not.” It just doesn’t make any sense in a market environment.

And so to recognize that the landscape has changed dramatically and private providers need to recognize and play the market game perhaps better. And also to recognize if they don’t, the regulators may make things far worse than if they had just done so voluntarily.

Jason Bedrick: Well, the landscape certainly has changed and we’ve seen Arizona, Indiana, and a whole bunch of other states this past year, actually we had 19 different states passing new school choice programs or expanding existing ones. That’s why we called it the year of educational choice. And I don’t think this was just a flash in the pan. I think this is a tipping point and we’re going to see dramatic shifts going forward in how we provide education in this country.

And as we do, policy makers would really be doing themselves and their constituents a great favor by reading this excellent and very thoughtful report. Again, the report is titled Accountability in Private School choice by professor Nicole Stell Garnet, who is professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. So, professor thank you so much for joining us today.

Nicole Stelle Garnett: Thanks so much for having me.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of Ed Choice 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.