In today’s EdChoice Chat, Drew Catt talks with Dr. Greg Forster, an EdChoice Friedman Fellow, about why he joined the school choice movement, what challenges he sees for the future of the movement and more.
Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt EdChoice’s director of state research and policy analysis. Today, I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to Greg Forster who is one of our Friedman Fellows. Welcome to the podcast Greg.
Greg Forster: Thanks. Appreciate you having me.
Drew Catt: So Greg, would you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what attracted you to issues in K–12 education and school choice.
Greg Forster: Well, I’m tempted to say I got attracted to these issues because when I got out of grad school I really needed a job and Jay Greene was hiring, but that would be a little too flip. I think people get attracted to K–12 for a few different reasons. So, for example, my friend Matt Ladner is really attracted to K–12 education, because it’s a driver of equal opportunity. Matt really cares intensely that everybody out there gets to start as close to an equal shot at life that we can give them and that K–12 education is essential to an equal opportunity.
While I value an equal opportunity, I think the thing that really got me hooked on this at first is the challenge of designing an education system for a pluralistic society.
America really is an experiment. Just the other day, a friend of mine who’s kind of on the other side of these issues opened a blog post he wrote with, “I always get annoyed at the phrase, “the American experiment.” America’s not an experiment.” I appreciate that he’s trying to create some stability. He’s asking for a country in which things are not up in the air and everything. The rug can’t be pulled out from under you.
But honestly, America is an experiment. It’s always been an experiment. If you read Federalist 1, right? Go back to the Federalist Papers. Paper No. 1 is all about how America is not going to be like all the other nations in the history of the world, where the purpose of power systems is to guard the privilege of those who are already powerful and where we keep doing things because we’ve always done them a certain way. That if you take rights seriously—if you think that human beings have rights—it requires a rethinking of the whole social order.
What I love about America is it’s a place that takes rights seriously and is prepared to accept instability. It’s prepared to accept an unknown future, because we have to rethink the way we organize society and K–12 is at the heart of that. John Stuart Mill once said, “Government should not be concerned with whether people are churchmen or dissenters. It should only take care that they be educated churchmen or educated dissenters.”
I think a society in which people can be either churchmen or dissenters, to use that 19th century language, has to be a society in which government does not impose a one size fits all education system on people. That’s why John Stuart Mill was for vouchers. John Stuart Mill actually proposed policies that we today would say, that’s a voucher program.
So, God bless Milton, he’s the father of modern vouchers, but we actually, if you go back it’s these long-haired, wild-eyed radicals like John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine, are in favor of what we today would recognize as school vouchers.
So, I think what’s attracted me to K–12 the most, over the long-term, has been this challenge of redesigning the education system so that we can have genuine freedom and diversity and a society where people, nonetheless, value each other and have shared public commitments. We don’t just sort of Balkanize and all go our separate ways. That’s a really difficult tension, and it’s kind of a tightrope that America’s always been trying to walk.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s a lot to digest and think about at the moment.
Greg Forster: Well, you look at EdChoice’s mission statement, which is on the wall in the hallway I just walked down to get to this studio. It’s talking about pursuing school choice, but pursuing school choice as a path to successful lives and a stronger society. I think that, when I was a full-time employee here at this organization, we didn’t have that mission statement. I really appreciate this increased clarity that school choice is not an end in itself. School choice exists in order to provide individuals with a path to success, but it also exists to provide America with a path to a strong future as a country as a whole.
That’s what to me, this is at the heart of the American experiment. That we’re gonna take people seriously in their diversity, but also take community seriously, because schools form in communities and for communities as well as by individual choice. Part of the great challenge is, in the last century the language of community has all been monopolized by people who are against individual choice. So, we’ve put people in this impossible bind where you’re either for individual choice, or you’re for strong communities. Honestly, respecting people’s rights and giving them choice in their lives is the actual only way to hold community together because it allows people to freely associate with each other.
Drew Catt: So, speaking of community, let’s drill down to what I see is the smallest unit of community, which is your family. What about your family, Greg? What about your kids? What kind of educational decisions have you made together as a family unit of community?
Greg Forster: Right. I’m married and we have a beautiful 12 year old daughter. We have had difficult decisions to make about schools. We have sent our daughter to the local public school. We did that in the, in several places where we’ve lived, since we’ve had our daughter. I think that we have been very blessed to live in communities with great public schools and communities where the political situation is such that the local public schools are able to provide a good education.
I think we have avoided some of the really difficult challenges of trying to provide a school for communities with different beliefs. In some places that has been an impossible challenge for public schools to navigate. We are confident that our local school has a similar value system to the value system that we want our daughter to have. So, we have not felt it necessary to seek schooling elsewhere.
Honestly, while in general, private schools are better academically than public schools, that’s what the data show. The difference is generally modest in size and the primary reason for that is we don’t have universal school choice that would allow a really bustling marketplace of schools to develop and offer better alternatives. So, you’re not sacrificing that much and the private schools where we live have not made all that compelling a case. We look at them and we say, “The public school looks just as good or better on many metrics.”
So, school choice for me is not about bashing public schools. It’s not about trying to undermine a strong public school system. It’s actually in the research, school choice is the only policy that consistently improves public schools. There’s a huge body of literature looking at how public schools are affected by the presence of school choice programs and consistently shows that public schools have better outcomes where there’s school choice, because schools respond to the presence of options by providing better services.
Drew Catt: So, let’s go back a little bit, you did mention about when you were here. So, to all of our listeners who aren’t necessarily familiar with the history of our research team, would you mind filling them in?
Greg Forster: Sure. I joined EdChoice in 2005 and for the next three years was the director of education. At that time we did a lot of fiscal policy studies. We also were doing a number of, what we call, systemic studies. Those are the studies that show how do public schools get affected by the presence of school choice programs. That was at a time when the research on participant affects was still coming out, but it was kind of the tail end of the big burst of participant affect studies. So, we were in a process of collating and digesting those responses and filtering them to a wider audience.
So, I worked here for three years, I did a number of studies of my own and oversaw a bunch of EdChoice research. That was when we started ramping up the ABCs of School Choice publication. I don’t think we started it while I was here. I think it was already in existence, but we kind of expanded and refined the process for that pretty significantly. Then that went through another round of expansion after I left.
Since 2008, I’ve not been a full-time employee of EdChoice, but I’ve continued to be a fellow. Currently I’m a Friedman Fellow, so I still do research for EdChoice and I comment regularly, both on JP Greene’s blog and on EdChoice’s blog from time to time. Just had a blog post on EdChoice’s blog last week on how heavy regulations on school choice programs push minority-run operators out of the market. So, I still do a number of things with EdChoice.
Drew Catt: It’ll be interesting to see how we, as a movement, start maybe rethinking regulation.
Greg Forster: That’s a major challenge for the movement right now, because for the past 20 years or so there has been something that we called the education reform movement. Increasingly you don’t hear that language as much, because people are less and less sure that we have goals in common. They’re have always been two branches of the education reform movement. There’s a standards, or accountability movement. Now we in the school choice side have always said the real accountability comes from school choice, because parents are the best accountability you can find. Standards, testing, and accountability are the words for one.
The other side of the movement has been choice oriented. Ten years ago, 15 years ago, we used to say, “Well, choice and accountability work great together.” I remember we used to talk about standards and choice are like chocolate and peanut butter, they make each other better, because you want tough standards that demand public schools perform well, but if those standards don’t align with any particular parent’s vision of education you want them to have alternatives. You want them to be able to go seek a different way if those standards are not what they want, or not what works for their child.
The problem is, in my opinion, the standards people never really got on board for that account of why we work together that I think, in the last 10 years and particularly in the last five years, we’ve seen the standards side of the education reform movement was not willing to create space for choice. They tried to impose standards on private schools and schools of choice as well and have a one size fits all standards system. I think that’s really driven a wedge into what we used to call the education reform movement. I’m not sure we have a single movement anymore.
I think school choice is really well positioned at the present moment. I think the debates over standards are starting to fade away, as I think the last round of standards reform is kinda dying out. It’s an opportunity to move forward on the choice side that I’m very optimistic about.
Drew Catt: Yeah. So, in the long time that you’ve been studying school choice programs, from working with Jay to being a director at, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, to now being a Friedman Fellow, what all have you learned in that time, other than what you’ve already been educating us on?
Greg Forster: Right. I think the other major thing, besides some of these developments we’ve been talking about, this is really blowing up right now, is the inadequacy of the quantitative measurements of educational outcomes that we have. So, we measure educational outcomes in terms of test scores, graduation rates, educational attainment, which means how far did you go in your education before you departed schooling. Did you get a high school diploma or not? Did you enter college? Did you finish college? While educational attainment continues to be a really valuable measurement, the other major measurement we have been using, which is test scores, is turning out not to be as valuable as we thought it was.
Fifteen years ago, we had relatively little information about the relationship between test scores and long-term life outcomes. Long-term life outcomes includes things like, your income level later in life, whether you’ve ever gone to jail, reported happiness levels and all sorts of other long-term outcomes. The information we had at that time indicated that there was relationship between test scores and long-term life outcomes. So, it looked to us, like higher test scores in school meant that you would have a better long-term life.
The amount of information we had was relatively little compared to what we have now. There’s a lot more studies now than there used to be. What we are finding is that short-term changes in test scores, and what I mean by that is an individual students or an individual schools test scores going up from year-to-year, those changes don’t seem to have a strong or very powerful relationship to long-term life outcomes. That’s a major paradigm shift in the making, because we have built education policy and we have built our rhetoric, including our rhetoric for school choice, around the assumption that test score changes are strongly related to life outcomes.
We’ve talked about how school choice raises test scores. Now we’re finding that while school choice is related to life outcomes through educational attainment, so school choice has a powerful positive effect on educational attainment—which we do still have confidence is related to life outcomes—those test scores really don’t seem to be contributing to life outcomes in the way that educational attainment does. Meanwhile, at the same time we’re discovering this, we’ve had the ups and downs of the last 10 years over assessment and testing and now there’s widespread parental dissatisfaction with testing that there didn’t used to be.
Ten, 15 years ago, parents were lukewarm about testing. They weren’t particularly fond of it, but they didn’t care very much about it. After the last 10 years, or especially in the last five years, there’s now widespread parental dissatisfaction with testing. These are conversations I have with my wife and with my daughter. The testing regime that my daughter is subjected to is one that none of us likes. It’s a very negative experience for us. That’s not the way it used to be 10, 15 years ago when there was a lot less testing.
We were talking about testing. We were talking about maybe taking one test a year. A test that the school didn’t care very much about. But now we get these haranguing emails from the school that there’s yet another test coming and you better make sure that your child doesn’t miss that day. It’s kind of experienced as a burden to us. Now, I value the information the tests provide, but parents are just not satisfied with that and it’s not a strong way to position school choice as an issue to talk about test scores anymore the way it used to be 10, 15 years ago.
Drew Catt: Yeah. That’s fascinating. Yeah, I’ve been intrigued, especially by some of the work coming out by Pat Wolfe, Matt Chigos, and others looking at that attainment issue.
Greg Forster: Well, and I think it’s an opportunity for us to, first of all, develop new metrics for things we’ve not been measuring very well. Also, new attention to metrics that we have looked at but we have not emphasized. So, there’s a lot of interesting work being done on character formation. This is a delicate subject, but the fact is that almost all parents value the effect of schools on the character of their children. This is a central factor in parental decision making about education and for me, too.
We have not done a great job developing ways of measuring character formation. That’s partly because the attention has been elsewhere. It’s partly because until recently the character formation discussion was kind of mostly taking place among a certain group of positive psychologists who have their own view of what character formation is all about. That’s great that they have their view, but that view is not everybody’s view. So, the language in the literature was all kinda formed within a certain set of assumptions that not everybody shares.
Now, there’s a much broader conversation going on about, “Well, how do we measure character formation?”
Meanwhile, there are other things that we have been measuring, but we haven’t been talking very much about. One of those is segregation. So, I’ve done a lot of research on segregation and school choice. Up until now, that has primarily been motivated by responding to critics of school choice who tell these stories about how if you give school choice, then the white parents will form these segregation academies, and go off, and create their own world.
Actually, the empirical experience of school choice, and there’s a pretty significant literature studying this, the empirical data are that school choice is at worst neutral. So in some cases it has just had no visible effect on segregation. Or, if it has an effect, the effect appears to be positive. Meaning that schools become less ethnically segregated.
We’re starting to look, this is very initial, but the field is starting to look at other forms of segregation like, economic segregation by income level, or by parental education, and other factors. So, I think what has been in the past, largely a defensive conversation in which we are producing research to refute a talking point from critics of school choice. I think, with the sort of collapse of our confidence in the narrative on test scores, this is an opportunity for us to delve much more seriously into the question of, “How would school choice affect the demographic mixing of students across all kinds of dimensions, whether that’s ethnicity, or income levels, or parental education, or all kinds of other things?”
I think that goes back to that, sort of, how do we create an education system for a diverse society? How do we have space for people who want a school that is highly specialized, that serves a local community or serves a group of students with a common interest, while also being concerned that the education system in general is not highly regimented demographically, so that students are not, in general, all going to school with students who look like them and think like them and have a similar experience to them? It’s a complex set of questions. I think school choice provides a lot of promise for creating an education system that both has space for community and has space for diversity and mixing across many kinds of lines.
Drew Catt: Yeah. So, brought up a nice thread that I’d like to pull. So, other than that what are some other critics that you typically hear about school choice research? Of those, which ones are legitimate, which ones are flat out not legitimate, or illegitimate? Which are just plain bizarre?
Greg Forster: Well, the critiques of school choice research generally fall into two large categories. There are popular critiques and then there are critiques from, coming from people who have learned about the research and know something about it. The popular critiques are really insubstantial. This is actually a challenge, because it’s very difficult to respond to an assertion with, “That’s just not right. That’s just not factual. The facts are just not what you are asserting that they are.”
So, you’ll hear statements like, “The research is mixed.” The research is mixed only in the sense that some of it is positive at a very moderate level and some of it is positive at a very dramatic level. So, the research disagrees about whether school choice has a modest positive affect or a large positive affect.
People will tell you, “Well, the research sometimes finds it helps and sometimes finds it hurts” But that’s just factually untrue. The other assertions that get made about school choice research: some people will assert that test scores really don’t measure anything. While we have this new question about whether short-term test score changes correlate to long-term life outcomes, it is really not in doubt that math tests do measure whether you can do basic math and reading tests really do measure whether you can do basic reading.
We constantly run into people who are just sure that the tests don’t accurately measure what they purport to measure. It’s difficult to introduce people to the fact that we’ve really looked at this pretty hard and there’s a large literature on this. Actually, it finds that the tests are testing something, cuz the results are not random. They correlate incredibly strongly.
The well-informed observers, including critics of school choice, will generally avoid saying those things. Actually, we’ve seen movement in that world. They used to say things like, “The results are mixed.” They generally don’t do that anymore. Recently we had one major voice on the research of school choice who’s on the other side, who released a big report saying the research is mixed on how big the test score gains are in a way that was designed to just elide the fact that he’s now admitting that the school choice research consistently shows improvement.
So, I had a fun little blog post kind of drawing attention to the fact that we have successfully forced critics of school choice who understand the literature, to admit that the literature’s consistently pretty positive. The challenges you tend to get there are first of all, challenges to the value of random assignment methods. So, we have emphasized looking at random assignment studies.
These are studies that divides students into those who get school choice and those who don’t get school choice by a random lottery. In research, those random lottery methods are very valuable for the same reason that medical trials will have randomly assigned placebo groups and treatment groups. When we have a situation where students apply for school choice and are randomly either accepted or rejected, we take advantage of that because methodologically it makes it super clear what the effect of school choice was, because these populations are separated only by random choice.
There’s been a lot of effort to cast aspersion on how valuable random assignment is compared to other methods. Honestly, the reason for that is because school choice is one of the very few education policies—actually, one of the very few policies of any kind—where there’s a large body of random assignment studies. That body is fairly consistently positive, which means that there’s an attempt to sort of undermine, “Well, random assignment’s not all that valuable. It’s not that great.”
I think that in spite of that, random assignment really does deserve to be treated as especially valuable. There are a handful of other methods that are also either equally valuable or almost as valuable. B most of the studies that get done, things like sample matching, where you take two samples of students that are demographically similar and you say, “Well, because they’re demographically similar, we can compare and contrast results.” There are all kinds of ways in which they can be different, even if they’re demographically similar. So, I just don’t view that as being as valuable.
Drew Catt: Although there is the caveat in many locations, and for some states, that is the most rigorous method possible, such as here in Indiana where the voucher program is more open than just the lottery assigned system.
Greg Forster: Right. This is not to say that other methods are not of any value. So, for example, I do a regular report for EdChoice called Win-Win Solution in which we go over all the research on school choice. We don’t include only the random assignment research and nothing else. We include all the studies we can find that use any empirical method.
We even include a handful of studies that I think have bad methods. The reason we include them is because we don’t want to be accused of cherry picking. We label them really well. We say, “Watch out. This study has a methodological problem.” Even casting the widest possible net, it’s very difficult to find studies with any negative effects from school choice. There are a handful.
It’s very difficult to find studies with negative effects from school choice. For example, I’ve been talking about the systemic effect studies, which show that public schools improve when they are exposed to school choice. There’s no random assignment literature on that. It’s just methodologically impossible. You can’t separate schools randomly into treatment and control groups the way students are sometimes separated by applying for a lottery. So, when we can’t have that, we do the best we can.
Drew Catt: Yeah. So, we talked quite a bit about multiple critiques and various challenges, but what do you think are the most pressing challenges for school choice advocates right now?
Greg Forster: I think school choice as an issue goes through a life cycle. Education as an issue goes through a life cycle. So, every say, 10 to 15 years, there is a huge push for education politically that we’re now going through a period where we’ve recently had one of those kind of periods of big attention to education.
Then before that was No Child Left Behind, which was another one. Then before that there was the big school reform push of the late-80s. So, every 10 to 15 years you get these big explosions of interest in education. So, one challenge is, how do you cultivate the movement in a period when education is not at the top of the agenda?
So I think, we need to be thinking more long-term. In any political movement the temptation is always to think in terms of the next political, the next election cycle. So I think, developing more long-term perspective is a key challenge for the movement.
Then within that cycle of public attention to education, school choice goes through ups and downs where other reforms will get attention sometimes and school choice will get attention sometimes. I think we are probably, just based on the history of cycles, we’re probably approaching an upswing of interest in school choice. So, the question is, how do we position that well?
I see, two, three significant challenges to the next big push for school choice. One is federal versus state. So, there’s been a lot of debate recently about using federal power for education reform. I think it’s critical to keep school choice in the states where it belongs. It belongs there constitutionally, because that’s where the US Constitution puts education policy. It also belongs there because that’s the politically smart place to put it.
Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a wise approach, because even if you win, you will then face the problem of long-term maintenance of whatever you created. Over time what you created will be undermined the next time there’s a downturn in interest in school choice, because the critics of school choice, and the special interest of education world will have more power when there’s less public attention on education policy.
If you fight a big federal fight and lose, well, you just gave yourself a major black eye. Whereas, if you’re fighting in the states, at any given moment, you may lose a battle in a state, but you’ve got six other states where you may be winning, or at least it’s still open. So, if you have a long-term view, which I think we should, then it’s smarter to keep the fight in the states.
A second issue that I think is going to be a big challenge is, right now in American politics ethnic tension is greatly increasing. We’re going through a period where the American experiment in pluralism is being drastically tested. Not for the first time and not for the most severe test that it’s ever had. I mean, if you look at the 1950s or the Civil War, this is far from the worst we’ve ever had it in terms of testing our commitment to a pluralistic society.
The basic principle of the Declaration of Independence, that we’re all created equal and all entitled to rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are entering a period of increased tension as to whether we are serious about that basic American principle of everybody being created equal and having the same rights.
I think school choice has historically struggled to help people understand the potential that school choice has to contribute to that kind of society and to be a key element in building a society where we can all live together with our differences and have social solidarity and community in spite of our differences.
There is a tendency to assume that a government school monopoly is just the natural state of things. That this is the default and that the government school monopoly is just woven into the fabric of the universe and it’s the way things always will be. We need to help people see that government school monopoly is politically created and the separation of students into demographically homogenous schools is created by school attendance zones, which are drawn by political entities. We have the freedom to create another political policy that will give people freedom to go to school wherever they want.
So, there are all kinds of tensions involved. The critics of school choice have all kinds of stories they tell about school choice creating segregation. So, I think that’s a key challenge for the movement. Then, I think disentangling school choice from narratives of test scores and accountability and standards language has become centralizing language in a way that it wasn’t 10, 15 years ago.
We talked about school choice naturally harmonizes with the desire to set high standards and hold schools accountable and we still talk that way. The problem is that the language of accountability and standards has become associated with centralizing political movements. I think we still need to say, school choice is essential to academic excellence and to making sure that schools are responsible to perform. Academic excellence is not the same as “standards,” quote, unquote. That’s language that has a baggage now and making sure schools are responsible to perform doesn’t have to be the same thing as accountability in the sense that that term is now used. How you navigate that is really difficult.
Finally, I guess, let me add a fourth on the spur of the moment that kind of ties all these together. We have had, in America for at least a century, a division of rhetoric on one side that is focused on individual choice markets freedom and rhetoric on the other side that’s about community, solidarity, responsibility to one another. I think that’s been a major deficiency in American politics for the last century, because the underlying assumption is that if you give people freedom and respect their rights that that undermines community. I think that’s 100% wrong.
I think giving people freedom and respecting their rights is the only path to build genuine community. You can’t build community at the point of a gun. We’ve been going about this all wrong for at least 100 years in the American polity by separating concern for community from concern from individual rights. The school choice movement has been as much a part of that as any other part of American politics.
So I think, finding a way for the school choice movement to embrace language of community, language of interdependence, and responsibility to one another, and social solidarity. Language of justice, I mean, respecting people’s rights and giving parents control over their own children’s education is a matter of justice. That’s language that doesn’t come naturally to us, because we have made our home in the language of freedom, rights, markets, and that sort of thing. We don’t need to unsay anything we’ve said, because the things we’ve said about that are all true. I think also, showing that school choice is essential to community and interdependence is something that the movement can be working on in the next generation.
Drew Catt: If it wouldn’t potentially deafen some of our dear listeners I would have very loudly applauded at that. So Greg, what’s on the horizon for you? Any research we should be on the lookout for?
Greg Forster: Well, we’ve been cooking up some of this segregation research here that I’m very hopeful about. I’m always reluctant to talk too much in detail about projects that are underway, because they change as you work on them. You discover that the thing you were trying to do is actually not gonna work with the data set you have or something like that.
I am very excited about a project we’re cooking up here at EdChoice to take this conversation about school segregation and move beyond the old mode of responding to a talking point on the other side, and simply showing that school choice does not increase ethnic segregation. To do some research that begins to open up a broader conversation about how the government school monopoly is structured to create demographically homogenous schools. Also, to look beyond ethnic segregation to other dimensions like income and education and all sorts of things.
Drew Catt: That’s great. Well, anything else you’d like to plug that has come out recently or even if it’s in the not so distant past?
Greg Forster: Well, I would say the thing that I do for EdChoice that I’m most proud of is the Win-Win Solution reports. We had the fourth edition of that come out. Those have evolved over the years, in fact the first one we did only looked at the research on systemic effects, which is why we called it a Win-Win Solution, because the idea was that it, school choice not only was a win for the students who get to use it, but it’s a win for everybody else as well, because public schools are improved.
Over the years we’ve added a bunch of other types of research. So, we look at participant effects. We look at systemic effects. We look at the fiscal effect of school choice. That school choice saves money for public schools and for state budgets. We look at the effect on segregation, and we look at democratic values and practices.
We look at how school choice improves students’ rates of tolerance for the rights of others, for people who believe differently than they do. School choice improves later voting rates, the students are more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer, get involved in nonprofit charity and all sorts of other things. I’m really proud of the way that that takes an enormous scientific literature and distills it in a really clear way that makes it information that people can use easily and provides trailheads if they wanna learn more it shows them where to go.
Drew Catt: Yeah and we’ve been able to convert that in a nice little SlideShare for listeners to track that I think we’ve been trying to update on a quarterly basis. So, definitely keep your eyes out for that if you’re listening today. Greg, thank you so much for sharing some time with us today.
Greg Forster: Oh, I appreciate being here. Thanks for having me.
Drew Catt: To our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast. For more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats and more. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you soon for more EdChoice Chats.