Ep. 20: The Homogenization of Schools with Lindsey Burke & Corey DeAngelis

November 16, 2017

In this podcast, EdChoice’s Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt chats about the effects of school choice program regulations on the diversity—or homogenization—of schools with a recent report’s authors Lindsey Burke—director of the Center for Education policy for the Heritage Foundation, an EdChoice fellow and doctoral candidate at George Mason University—and Corey DeAngelis, policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, policy advisor for the Heartland Institute and a distinguished doctoral fellow and Ph.D. student in education policy at the University of Arkansas.

Catt: Welcome and thank you for taking the time with us today.

Burke: Thanks for having us.

Catt: Lindsey, you and Corey are co-authors of a recent paper titled Does Regulation Induce Homogenization? An Analysis of Three Voucher Programs in the United States. Before we get into your findings, can you start by telling us what inspired this research? And how you went about studying this topic?

Burke: Great. Well thanks so much for having us. You know, it’s an important topic. And something that we really grew concerned about, and I think this holds true for the larger community of folks who work on school choice. But we had really grown concerned about some of the findings that had come out of Louisiana where, despite the fact that a state has a large statewide voucher program, scholarship program in place, not that many private schools were participating. Only a third of private schools in Louisiana participate in that state’s scholarship program. And so a lot of folks had been asking why that might be the case. Could it be that the overly burdensome regulations that are in place in that state have led to lower levels of participation than we would otherwise want to see.

The other thing that really spurred us to think about this, was the fact that, out of Louisiana, we saw the first experimental evaluation ever in the whole wide world, to find negative effects as a result of participating in a school voucher program. And that, I think, really caught a lot of people off guard. It was a surprising finding to come out of Louisiana, and so again that underscored: Is this a question of program design? Is it a question of the regulatory environment in which these programs operate. It may be leading to some of these negative academic effects that we’re seeing. And so that was really the genesis of our thinking. And we really wanted to not only look at Louisiana, but some other states as well to see how their contrasting regulatory environments impacted the diversity of private schools that participate in this program.

DeAngelis: And just to touch on the methods a little bit, we looked at every single private school in Indiana, D.C. and Louisiana using the Private School Universe Survey, and we picked these three locations because they differ in their amount of regulatory environment. Indiana being the most lightly regulated program and Louisiana being the most heavily regulated program. So we took every single private school and on the Private School Universe Survey they ask a specific question to school leaders. And it asks what type of school are you. Are you a regular school, a specialized school, a non-traditional or alternative type of school? And you have to check one of these boxes as a school leader, and we theorized that if the private schools are switching into a highly regulated voucher program environment, they’re going to be more likely to identify as a regular public school. So, that’s what we did. We looked at every single private school, and as they transitioned into more heavily regulated environments, we found that they were indeed more likely to identify as less specialized.

Catt: Yeah, that is a fascinating use of the U.S DOE’s Private School Universe Survey that they do every other year. So Corey, what did Lindsey and you discover? Were there any surprising findings?

DeAngelis: Right, so the most surprising finding was … What we expected to see was that as private schools transitioned into a highly regulated voucher program environment, that is in Louisiana, we found that they were about 2 percentage points less likely to identify as specialized or non-traditional types of schools. So they were less likely to highlight their specialized approach to education because of their heavy burdensome regulations. And also in Louisiana, they were about 4 percentage points more likely to identify as just being a regular type of school. One other statistically significant impact was in D.C., where they found they were less likely to identify as non-traditional types of schools. But in the most lightly regulated voucher program in Indiana, there was no statistical significance there. The private schools continued to highlight their specialized approach to education after switching into the voucher program environment.

Burke: And I’ll just add one point, when we say that Indiana is the most lightly regulated of the three, we should add that Indiana does require, there is a testing requirement in place there, as is the case with Louisiana. However, it’s pretty common knowledge, I think, within the school choice community that many private schools in Indiana were already participating and that they made assessments in order to be part of the athletic association pool in the state, and so that may not have played in to the way in which to these schools respond to the regulations in the same way that it does in Louisiana.

Catt: Yeah and I think you’ve brought up a very interesting point that I’ve looked in to a bit. It’s having these schools that have already been taking these state tests for a decade or more. Yeah, I can understand how they may react differently than schools that are exposed to that for the first time.

Burke: That’s right, that’s exactly right.

Catt: So how does your analysis clear with other research and analysis of this topic?

Burke: Well, like I said a minute ago, one of the things that really spurred our research was some of the prior research that had come out. The first ever randomized and true child evaluation in finding negative impacts of education choice programs. That really ran counter to the growing body of literature that we have that shows exactly the opposite in a regular state in which choices that are produced and over time. For the most part when you’re looking state to state (that are not Louisiana), the outcomes look great for school choice in terms of improved academics achievement level, particularly in terms of academic attainment outcome but kids who are in choice options are much more likely—all else being equal—to graduate from high school. So what really spurred our thinking was: This is strange. This is really an outlier of Louisiana and the literature, so what is it? Is it this regulatory environment? So I think that this new research that Corey and I have worked on really does add some context to some of these evaluations that have come out more recently finding negative effects on academic outcomes.

DeAngelis: Just to add to that a little bit, Lindsey mentioned earlier that one out of three private schools participate in the Louisiana scholarship program, which is not a lot of schools participating compared to the other voucher program environments, indicating that there’s a high cost for participating in the program. So my colleagues and I in a previous pre-published article looked at the schools that participated in Louisiana scholarship programs compared to those that did not, and we found evidence that the schools that did elect to participate in the program are actually lower quality score as measured by enrollment patterns and tuition rate. So it could be that the regulation is causing both of these things, causing lower quality scores to those that participate in the program, and a more homogenous supply of schools in Louisiana, which could be leading to those negative experimental results that were found in the first three years.

Burke: And of course the series there as well is that, for private schools, we’re doing really well. Beforehand, before the voucher program was introduced in Louisiana, the schools that weren’t experiencing student attrition that were really doing well financially…that the cost of participating, the regulatory burden, outweighed the benefit of participation for them. And so as Corey alluded to the higher quality: Potentially, private schools just sat it out in Louisiana, and said it’s just not worth it to us. Whereas, the schools that were not on solid financial footing because they had already been experiencing attrition prior to program creation—it was actually worth it to them to incur the regs, or at least the benefit exceeded the cost to incur the regulations in order to access students who were coming on a scholarship. So I think it speaks to this unintended consequence of government regulation generally. That yes, you might mean well and you want to ensure there is, I’m doing air quotes but, “accountability” infused in these options, but policymakers need to be really really careful. There are always constant consequences with government programs and the unintended with government regulations. And the unintended consequence here was that, it appears at least, that some of the higher quality schools just said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” And the kids who needed access to those schools the most, ultimately were limited to a pool of schools that may have been struggling to begin with.

Catt: Yeah that makes sense. Critics might say that a little homogenization of schooling options isn’t a bad thing, if it means all schools are safer, more transparent and held more accountable to the public. How would you respond to that line of reasoning?

Burke: Well, I would respond by saying the best way to get those excellent outcomes as, say, schools that are responsive to the public, is just to have vast and open school choice markets in place in states. If you really want to ensure school safety increases, academic achievement increases, all of the good benefits we hope accrue from a quality education, the best way to get there is that we have ever come up with, as a society, is to infuse a little choice and options in to the education system.

We have a system today that is incredibly homogenized because we have a near monopoly government-run school system that 90 percent of kids across the country are assigned to, and that has created a situation in which any kids, most kids, cannot access options that work for them or options that are just diverse.

We know from active research that’s out there that parents have myriad desires for what a school will do for their child, and first and foremost, particularly for parents and cities across the country, it’s school safety. Is my child accessing a school that is safe? Are they going to come home safe? Are they going to get bullied or fight? School safety is number one for these families. We know that after a few years they enter a private school, and they know that their child is safe, then it turns to academics. [Dr. Patrick Wolf] was pointing this out the other day, sort of classic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Of course parents are first and foremost going to look to school safety.

So having a diverse universe of private schools that are out there ensures that parents can select in to options that can work for them, whatever need it is that they need to have met for their child.

DeAngelis: And to add to that we need to be able to differentiate between stated intentions of a specific regulation or a type of program, and what actually happens with the children’s outcomes. But then when you’re trying to… When, officials are regulating certain programs, what they’re doing is trying to limit the number of bad choices, or low-quality choices for families to choose, and what actually happens, we’re finding that the quality of the choices or the specialization of those choices is actually lower. And then we’re also finding that Louisiana is the first experiment to find negative test score impacts. So these regulations aren’t having… They’re not leading to their intended outcomes.

Burke: Right so good intentions aren’t enough. Really, when it comes to policymaking I think a lot of these regulations are promulgated with good intentions in place but it’s not enough, and particularly when they have as, the research now suggests, some adverse effect on participants and schools, that’s really problematic. So we need to ensure that we have the most diverse array of private schools and providers participating in these options and the way that you do that is to keep the regulation low.

Catt: Well, speaking of policymaking, how should policymakers, those ultimately responsible for enacting regulations, interpret or use your findings?

Burke: Well, that’s a great question, and I think that this isn’t clearly the end of the story on the regulatory front. It’s one of the first forays in to trying to kind of quantify the impact of these regulations on schools and the nature and the structure of private schools that participate. The fact that they’ve become, in general, less specialized is concerning right? I mean the whole point of choice is to provide as many options as possible for as many families as possible, and if we are homogenizing—and these schools are becoming more generalized due to regulations—that’s the problem.

And so I think policy makers should look at this evaluation. I think they should look at the evaluation that comes out of Louisiana that are unique in that universe, so rigorous school choice studies, and really ask themselves if their intents on creating a diverse supply of schooling options, whether government regulations will achieve that goal. And all the evidence we have so far (and that evidence is mounting), suggests that government regulation is going exactly the opposite direction. That we will create a situation in which private schools are just regressing to a public school mean. And that’s not good for the choice movement, and that’s not great for kids across the country who have really, quite frankly for a century now, have been failed by this assignment-by-ZIP Code government schooling model.

DeAngelis: And just to add to that they just need to look at the potential end to these consequences of these regulations. They have noble intentions to limit bad choices, but what they’re actually seeing is that they’re limiting a lot of good choices as well and could be reducing quality overall and specialization overall for the supply of private schools. And I think that, taking into consideration that there are thoughts to these decisions, to try to limit bad choices.

Burke: Yeah, and also to add: Corey sparked something else, which is that regulations haven’t exactly worked well for the public education system either, and I think that often gets lost in the conversation. If regulations were the answer, our public education system would be doing amazingly well, and it’s not. And every year that goes by more and more regulations are added. So I think there’s a story there in the public school world that should be a cautionary tale for the private school community as well, if choice ultimately expands in the years to come.

Catt: So do you think this paper could spur more research in this area?

DeAngelis: Yes, so I think more research is needed on looking at what type of regulations are the most costly for individual private schools and… so it’d be more beneficial to look at a wide array of different types of programs and variations in types of regulations and that’ll be able to allow researchers to determine what specific types of regulations may be more or less costly. I was just talking with Marty Lueken at EdChoice a couple of days ago, and, for example, Louisiana does not allow parental co-pay.

All that means is that the individual private school needs to accept the voucher amounts as full payments and it doesn’t allow parents and families to pay anything out of pocket to make up the difference or get a private scholarship from a different organization in order to make up the difference. What happens a lot of time is, the individual private school just say, “Hey, we can’t afford this,” and they don’t participate in the program at all. So Marty Lueken and I are wondering if we can look at tuition levels in different types of programs and see if there’s a price-fixing effect of this parental co-pay type of regulation, which could have negative consequences, too.

There’s a lot of different types of research that can be done going forward on this, there hasn’t been a lot. I think Lindsey’s and my studies were the first to actually peer into this, but definitely more research is needed on the topic.

Burke: Yeah, and I think the other component of this is the quality of this component, which is actually going in and talking to principals and really learning about what their experiences have been with regulations. You learn so much when you just go and talk to some school leaders, so definitely that I’m working on now and actually hope to present some findings on that at the forthcoming International School Choice and Reform Conference in January.

Catt: Yeah, so along those lines, what’s next for each of you? Any projects we should keep an eye out for?

Burke: Yeah, well like I said, for me it’s talking to principals, it’s really kind of hearing their story up front and figuring out the regulatory burden that’s been levied on them and the extent to which (I think it’s important to know what that sort of breaking point is in terms of regulation) the cost starts to exceed the benefits for school leaders, and so really teasing that out through interviews with school leaders. That’s something I’m working on moving forward.

DeAngelis: And for me, I’m doing a lot of work looking at the return on investment for charter schools. Those should be coming out pretty soon within the next month or two. We’re doing a national study, I’m doing it with Dr. Wolf and other researchers looking at return on investments around the United States and then I’m also doing a Michigan-specific one with Ben DeGrow, should be coming out in a few months as well. Other than that I’m looking at the voting outcomes of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, so that one should be pretty interesting when that comes out, and also the effect of privates going on non-cognitive skills such, as efforts on test or efforts on surveys, so be looking out for those.

Catt: Yeah, those all sound great and you both sound very busy. So, before we wrap up is there anything else either of you would like to add?

Burke: I think that, that really covers it. I mean this is… we in the school choice community, parents, kids—we’re at such an exciting time and education reform right now, school choice policy, education choice policy, if you think about where we were 10 years ago with advancing these education options, we’ve come such a long way and that is to the benefit of half a million kids across the country at this point. And so as education choice evolves, as we refine policies, as we think about things like differences between vouchers and tax credits and ESAs and the best path forward, I think we also need to be as cognizant as possible about ensuring that the regulatory burden on participating private schools is as low as possible because, after all, parents are choosing these schools because they do offer something that’s different and distinct from the traditional public education system, and we need to make sure that, that remains safe in all years to come as we continue to see these programs evolve.

DeAngelis: Just to add to that. If we really want to regulate schools in the best way possible, we should take advantage of parent’s choices.

Catt: Yeah choice can be considered the future. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing this interesting study.

Burke: Thank you for having us.

DeAngelis: Thanks for having us.

Catt: And thanks to our listeners, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast for more of our coverage of new school choice research and education reform policy chats. Thank you for listening, and until next time, take care.