I'll Stick My Toe into the Fordham-Cato School Choice Argument… for Five Minutes

There’s nothing quite like taking a step into no man’s land, wandering into an argument between friends. A lot of us are on the school choice bandwagon together, but that certainly doesn’t mean everyone has the same views of what a program should look like. The Fordham Institute this week unveiled its “public accountability and private-school choice” toolkit. It called for administering state tests to all voucher / scholarship recipients, and reporting school-by-school test results if at least 10 kids participated.

It took very little time for the argument to begin:

Trust me. You aren’t actually going to find Cato’s Jason Bedrick in that video sketch. But if you’re like me, you will probably find his response to Fordham quite compelling. He effectively undercut the argument that mandatory participation in high-stakes testing would lead to better learning results for choice students. There just isn’t enough evidence to stand solidly by that claim.

Where the rubber really hits the road is Bedrick’s argument that “uniform testing mandates stifle diversity and innovation.” I am much more comfortable with the idea of having all public scholarship recipients taking one of a selection of national norm-referenced tests rather than the state assessment. That blends choice, accountability, and transparency well.

After all, Fordham did make a great point from their survey of private schools that chose not to participate in a voucher program. What would change their minds? The top two answers warmed my heart: Make the vouchers universally available to students regardless of income, and increase the voucher amount to match actual tuition costs more closely. Coming in at #7 was the request to eliminate the state testing mandate. Wouldn’t another kind of testing requirement help solve that problem?

I also kind of like Fordham’s idea (though they’re not the first) to implement a “sliding scale” of transparency and accountability for participating private schools, depending on the number of public scholarship students they have enrolled. The real debate is in the details of what exactly those requirements should be based on what number of students.

Responding from Florida’s scholarship tax-credit program experience, Doug Tuthill at redefinED makes an excellent point to beware pushing too heavily with the regulations on highly-subscribed schools. His insights are very valuable, particularly that an effective program has to thoughtfully balance the broadest possible range of consumer choice with the demands for public accountability.

It’s just that, from my (admittedly short) point of view, Fordham’s proposals weigh a little too heavily on the prescriptive side. Even though this kind of argument can be fun, I hope we all still can get along–especially as National School Choice Week rapidly approaches.

What? My 5 minutes are up? That was never 5 minutes…!