This is the eleventh entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael Goldstein, Seth Rau, Matthew Ladner, Jonathan Butcher, Tracey Weinstein, Andy Smarick, Neerav Kingsland, Lindsey M. Burke, Jason Bedrick, and Adam Peshek.
Nevada’s new education savings account program is big news. It’s a “universal” program, meaning that any parent whose child attends a neighborhood public school can opt out of that school and instead receive access to a pot of funds that can go toward a variety of schooling services—online courses, private school, homeschool curricula etc. Unlike more limited voucher programs with restricted funds (some could only be used by poor students or those with disabilities, and most could only be used for private school tuition), Nevada’s decision to make education funds available to everyone is a potential game-changer for school choice. And it resurrects the viability of school vouchers, which have been relegated to the policy fringe for the past decade.
For years, voucher advocates and economists argued that the full benefit of vouchers would not be realized with anything less than a universal program through which markets could truly develop in response to highly diverse consumer demand. So Nevada’s bold experiment is the chance to learn whether the aggressive use of vouchers can successfully lift student achievement and empower families to exercise their preferences. For that reason alone, I’m excited to see how it rolls out.
That said, no one but the purest Friedmanites think that the magic hand of the market will automatically lead to better outcomes. Even voucher advocates grudgingly admit that some public oversight is probably required, given that these are public dollars. So we come to Mikes’ question: What kind of oversight and regulation is needed to get this right?
I want to use my five minutes of your attention to suggest that there is one thing that government can and should do to help this new program succeed, and it has almost nothing to do with regulation—at least not in the brothel-regulation sense of the word.
The word regulation implies that the aim of government is to create rules and enforcement mechanisms to keep bad things from happening, like people running off to Aruba with government funds. Regulation can therefore be seen as a necessary evil, but one whose rules restrict markets and innovation and drive away potential providers. Within this frame, we’re led to wonder how much regulation voucher advocates will admit is necessary and how we can prevent government from going too far.
But limiting the stewards of these education dollars to enforcement is the wrong approach altogether. Yes, when government dollars are in play, there has to be some fiscal accountability. But unless we believe that markets will simply work their wonders and deliver high-quality educational choices to all families, government has a much more important role to play. Regulation can’t be a stopping mechanism; it has to be an enabling and optimizing mechanism.
What does that mean, really? It means that officials in the Nevada Department of Education must have a completely different job description when it comes to overseeing the ESA and other voucher-like funds. Those who formerly filed (and hopefully read) reports, conducted audits, and responded to complaints will still have a role. But a new breed of bureaucrat will be necessary to take on a role that State Education Agencies (SEAs) have never effectively assumed before. The job description would look something like this:
Wanted: Public officials to oversee a new set of policies empowering Nevada parents to become sophisticated consumers in a messy emerging market of educational choices. Primary responsibilities:
- Help guide the department through a transformation to learn how to regulate choice without squashing innovation.
- Ensure that all departments and local education agencies think of parent-chosen education as a complement to government-provided education, not a competitor.
- Develop and implement a program and department mission statement that defines the role of government as promoting a marketplace of high-quality information and equitable options for families.
- Lead the effort to develop creative and better approaches to fiscal and performance accountability for a highly decentralized and choice-driven system of schools and educational offerings.
- Coordinate with non-governmental agencies to develop a strong supply of high-quality providers.
- Consider how school districts can respond responsibly and effectively to competition.
- Ensure transparency so that informed school choice (about providers and results) is possible and providers don't withhold information or collude to deny parents options.
- Build a dashboard of indicators of a healthy market and government regulatory structure. Work with foundations and researchers to develop great data, analysis, and info systems to figure out whether ESAs are working and to keep improving complementary state and city policy strategies.
- Help the public understand why data and testing are needed to help all parents choose wisely.
Winning candidates will bring fresh ideas and rigorous thinking to these tasks., Above all, she/he will hold the belief that government’s role is to perform tasks no other person or organization can perform, which are necessary to ensure that that all students have access to an outstanding education and limitless possibilities for career and life.
Now, I can hear some of my more conservative friends revving up their “Government is already too big!” engines. I share the skepticism but will not concede the need. Blind faith in bureaucrats is a bad idea, but markets unchecked lead to big problems, too. If not government, who will take on the job description above? Nonprofits like New Schools for New Orleans can do much of the work of building providers and supply, but they will necessarily be focused on recruiting talent and providers. SEAs will regulate this market, and if we don’t define their job around the right kind of regulation, they will fall back on what they know: regulation that undermines healthy markets rather than developing them.
I like that states like Nevada are trying a lot of bold, different approaches to providing educational opportunity, like ESAs. More choices are almost always better than fewer choices. But this initiative will be in trouble if its architects don’t proactively shift the role of government away from stopping things and toward making the most of this historic opportunity for kids.
Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education.