The Common Coring of Private Schools

By 01/17/2014

Print | NO PDF |

This week, the Fordham Institute released a “policy toolkit” proposing private schools be required to administer state tests to all students participating in a school choice program, and publicize the results. Private schools that the state deemed persistently underperforming would be expelled from the program. Fordham argues that such measures have the potential to raise student achievement and provide parents with the information needed to make better decisions about their children’s education. Though Fordham’s plan is well-intentioned, their justifications are unpersuasive and their proposal is more likely to do harm than good.

Little Evidence to Support a Testing Mandate for Private Schools

First, there is scant evidence to support Fordham’s claim that test-based accountability measures “may boost student achievement.” Fordham rests its claim on the results of but a single year in a single study of a single school choice program: the final year of the School Choice Demonstration Project’s five-year analysis of the Milwaukee voucher program.

During the first four years of the study, voucher students took a low-stakes test, but in the final year of the study, policymakers increased the stakes by mandating that the test results be publicized and the scores improved. Fordham argues that this proves that high-stakes testing improves performance but one of the study’s authors, Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, has previously cautioned the Fordham Institute against reading too much into that finding, calling it “enticing and suggestive but hardly conclusive”:

As we point out in the report, it is entirely possible that the surge in the test scores of the voucher students was a “one-off” due to a greater focus of the voucher schools on test preparation and test-taking strategies that year.  In other words, by taking the standardized testing seriously in that final year, the schools simply may have produced a truer measure of student’s actual (better) performance all along, not necessarily a signal that they actually learned a lot more in the one year under the new accountability regime.

But even if the was no question that the higher test scores actually reflected increased performance, it would still only be one study. When Fordham cited this study as support for its proposal six months ago, Andrew J. Coulson responded:

A single study, no matter how carefully executed, is not a scientific basis for policy. Because a single study is not science. Science is a process of making and testing falsifiable predictions. It is about patterns of evidence. Bodies of evidence. Fordham offers only a toe.

By contrast, there is a significant body of evidence that school choice programs work without Fordham’s sought-after government regulation. Of twelve randomized controlled trials—the gold standard of social science research—eleven found that school choice programs improve outcomes for some or all students while only one found no statistically significant difference and none found a negative impact. None of these school choice programs studied were designed along the lines of the Fordham proposal.

In fact, Fordham’s preferred policy is undermined by a large body of evidence. A 2009 literature review of the within-country studies comparing outcomes among different types of school systems worldwide revealed that the most market-like and least regulated education systems tended to produce student outcomes superior to more heavily regulated systems, including those with a substantial number state-funded and regulated private schools. In short, the best form of accountability is directly to parents, not government bureaucrats and their tests.

Accountability Should Be To Parents

Fordham argues that school choice programs, including both vouchers and scholarship tax credits, should fall under the same accountability regimes as public schools because they utilize public funds. In Fordham’s words, “The taxpayer also needs assurances that schools are producing solid learning results for the children who participate in such programs.” This reasoning should not apply to scholarship tax credits which, as the U.S. Supreme Court held in ACSTOv. Winn, do not involve public funds at all:

Like contributions that lead to charitable tax deductions, contributions yielding [scholarship] tax credits are not owed to the State and, in fact, pass directly from taxpayers to private organizations. Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. That premise finds no basis in standing jurisprudence. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

But even in the case of direct government subsidies, it’s far from clear that accountability to government is necessary or even prudent, as Professor Jay P.  Greene of the University of Arkansas explains:

Most state funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely.  For example, the largest domestic program, social security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing.  But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their social security checks.  They could blow it at the casino if they want.  We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first.

Even in the area of education most government programs require no formal accountability.  Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds.  We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests. […]

Don’t parents need state testing requirements for consumer protection and to get information to make intelligent choices?  Most markets generate consumer information without government mandates for them to do so.  For example, I have more information than you can imagine to pick a hotel or restaurant through Trip Advisor, Yelp, Urban Spoon, etc… and other market sources of information about education are already springing up as choice expands without government mandates.  But if you still feel the need to require testing, why not just require choice schools to take any one of a large number of standardized tests?  At least that way we place fewer restrictions on the curriculum schools could pursue.

Indeed, a recent Friedman Foundation report showed that parents actively seek out relevant information before choosing a school and are less likely to enroll their children in schools that will not provide them with the information they seek. However, barely more than half of the survey respondents said that standardized test scores are “important” and barely 10% listed “performance on standardized tests” as one of their top five reasons for choosing a school.

Uniform Testing Mandates Stifle Diversity and Innovation

While the benefit of Fordham’s proposal is dubious, the harm is more certain. By forcing every school to administer the same tests, states would induce conformity and stifle diversity and innovation. Fordham partially concedes that this is a concern, noting that if there is “a downside to this proposal, this is it.” However, they minimize the concern by claiming that the standards “only provide an endpoint” but do not prescribe a curriculum.

Though the tests do not dictate curriculum per se, they create a powerful incentive for schools to teach the same concepts in the same order at the same time. This would make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to meet the needs of individual children, rather than expecting that all children who happened to be born in the same year should progress at the same rate across subjects.

Common Core is already moving the nation’s education system toward greater uniformity. If states adopt Fordham’s proposal, they would almost entirely eliminate any viable alternative to the Common Core regime. As Professor Greene explained:

Such uniformity would only make sense if: 1) there was a single best way for all students to learn; 2) we knew what it was; 3) we could be sure the people running this nationalized education system would adopt that correct approach; and 4) they would remain in charge far into the future. But that isn’t how things are. There is no consensus on what all students need to know. Different students can best be taught and assessed in different ways.

Financial Incentives Would Leave Private Schools Little Choice But To Conform

Fordham also downplays the likely effect of their proposed regulations by assuring that they “won’t scare away [private] schools,” citing a previous Fordham study which found that most private schools would participate in a school choice program even if that meant accepting such regulations. But Fordham’s finding actually reveals the gravity of the concern. Again, Coulson addressed this argument months ago:

The problem is not that private schools won’t participate in heavily regulated school choice programs. The problem is that they will. Hold-outs will be in the minority, and will gradually be driven out of business by their subsidized counterparts due to the uneven fiscal playing field (much as America’s once-dominant private schools were marginalized by the spread of “free” state-run schools).

We know this because there is extensive evidence to that effect from all over the world and across history. Everywhere that private elementary and secondary schools are eligible for government subsidies, the share of unsubsidized school enrollment falls. The higher the subsidy and the longer it has been in place, the more the unsubsidized sector is generally diminished.


If state governments follow Fordham’s advice and expand their authority over private schools, even Fordham will likely come to regret it. Ultimately, it won’t be Fordham’s friends who are always and everywhere in charge, but the teachers unions and other vested interests. As Professor Greene warned, “Minority religions shouldn’t favor building national churches because inevitably it won’t be their gospel being preached.”

—Jason Bedrick

This blog entry first appeared on the Cato At Liberty blog, and is a response to Mike Petrilli’s “The Problem With ‘Bad Voucher Schools Aren’t a Problem.'”

Sponsored Results

The Hoover Institution at Stanford University - Ideas Defining a Free Society

Harvard Kennedy School Program on Educational Policy and Governance

Thomas Fordham Institute - Advancing Educational Excellence and Education Reform