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Managing School Choice...and the Hypocrisy Around It

John White oversees 1,400 public schools as Louisiana State Superintendent of Schools. He also supports school choice, leading a charter school expansion in New York City under then-Chancellor Joel Klein and running the Louisiana Recovery School District before being named state superintendent by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2012. We caught up with White at an Urban Institute event in Washington, D.C., and talked to him about the government’s role in school choice, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and his own “My Dad’s a Lawyer” private school voucher.

We are hearing a lot these days about the power of the marketplace to improve educational quality. What do you see as the proper role of government in school choice systems?

The government's role is to fundamentally distribute resources that are fair, to provide fair access for all children to schools and to judge schools fairly. And in doing that, you don't give every resource that you would want to a school, you aren't able to evaluate every positive aspect of a school, and not every child finds exactly the right school for themselves. But government can have a positive effect on all three of those things: fair resources, fair access, and fair accountability.

Does this create a tension between school autonomy and accountability, especially in the choice conversation?

Well, there's a natural tension to a degree, but to imply that those two things are anathema to one another runs counter to just having a government in the first place. I mean, most individual actors want greater levels of determination, but that doesn't mean they don't see the collective wisdom in playing by a set of rules. And the question then is, what are reasonable rules to play by?

And I think the principles that I've articulated before of: fair access for kids, especially the most disadvantaged, fair resources to every school, and fair accountability and measurement, those things are non-negotiables. So the role of government is to achieve those three values, in spite of whatever protestations there are toward autonomy. Now the government has a correlative responsibility to not then intervene in the stuff that schools ought to have autonomy over. This is not just about defining what government can do, it's also about defining what a government can't do.

You credited accountability for the results of research released showing that students using private school vouchers in Louisiana saw scores drop in their first year, then rebound by the third year. Do you feel like those schools weren't accountable before?

Well, accountability systems are a long-term proposition, and children growing and organizational change, these are also long-term propositions. So when you place a school under a system of measurement, especially one that measures four subjects on an entirely new set of standards, you're going to have a shock to the system. And that happens in traditional public systems just like it happens in private systems. It happens in other industries.

The question is, do they learn? And I think the evidence here is that the schools have learned something. And there is value in that because they're teaching kids to read, and at higher levels. And that's a good thing.

I was struck by what you said about the politics of vouchers and the hypocrisy on both sides. Where do you see the flaws in the politics, and what do you think our emphasis ought to be?

Well, the conservative objection to the kind of regulations around accountability and admissions that we have put into place is that it’s government encroachment, and that there is some limiting effect on the school's effectiveness.

But I've not seen any evidence that the most disadvantaged kids, the kids who in every respect are least likely to be able to access a high-quality school, will be availed of one through a private school choice system—unless there is some mechanism for assuring those families that they'll be accepted when they select a school.

Similarly, I've seen no evidence that schools' academic achievement is somehow inhibited by being placed within an accountability system. So I think conservatives undermine what is a very legitimate moral case, a moral case that I happen to agree with, when they are averse to clear controls that allow serving every child, and that allow for a statistical base of evidence as to whether or not a school is a good school or not.

On the left?

On the left, I think that you have a greater moral hypocrisy. If you have a good school, they're willing to serve all kids, they're showing that they're effective on the same tests as every other school is taking. What is your problem, at that point, with letting that family make the choice? That's a particular brand of hypocrisy, given how many leaders on the left who advocate this position, have themselves or have had family members who are the beneficiaries of a private education. I got a private school voucher when I was a kid. It's called the My Dad's A Lawyer private school voucher. So it's hard for me to understand how social liberals can square that fact with people of lesser means not being able to exercise the same liberties.

Has Secretary DeVos sought your perspectives on school choice?

I've known Secretary DeVos for years. But since she's become secretary, I've not chatted with her at great length. I've made no secrets of my perspectives.

And if she asked I would tell her, I think it's time for a third way on this issue. We can't afford to be consumed in a never-ending fight between ideologies.We have to find a functional way where we come together under a shared mission. And I think that shared mission is identifying verifiably, and that's an important word, verifiably quality schools for the students who are least likely to access them: the most disadvantaged students.

So should the federal government promote school choice?

We talk about this president or this secretary bringing school choice to the U.S. School choice exists. It exists in every community. There are tuitions that are paid to private schools. There are zone lines that are drawn around specific schools by neighborhood residents. There are district lines that have been drawn.

We have a uniquely carved-up system in the United States. And those rules are meaningful rules that are meant to control the choices of families. And they are exercised. Families use them, those who can, to their advantage on a regular basis, either by relocating and using geography; real estate is the most used voucher in the country. Or less commonly, but nevertheless often, to pay tuition to different types of schools.

So the question really isn't should school choice exist? The question is, how should government, or should government create an environment in which choice is more accessible to low-income families? And I think that the answer is, ‘Yes it should, but it should only do so provided that it can verify, to some reasonable extent, that what is being offered is of a reasonable standard.’ Because when the taxpayer gets involved, it is different. It is part of the public trust.