As conversations prompted by the presidential primary season devolve into name-calling and efforts to excavate every clumsy observation or error in judgment made by the candidates, it may be time to step back and point to some of the very real, very bipartisan problems Americans have understanding the public policy process.
Politically, we Americans really are bipolar: policies are either good or bad, brilliant or stupid, obvious or obviously ridiculous. Shades of gray? Middle ground? Complex? Perish the thought.
Worse still, we fail to recognize the difference between policy prescriptions and the policy process–that is, the difference between setting a goal and having a strategy for achieving that goal–a workable strategy for overcoming the obstacles and getting from wherever it is that we are to the place where we want to be.
Where we want to be and how we get there are very different questions, although listening to American political discourse, you’d never know that.
The problems with our “good vs. bad” approach are especially visible in the current, heated arguments about charter schools. To begin with, too many participants in those arguments conflate charter schools–which are public schools–with the private, mostly religious schools that have benefitted from vouchers. The issues raised by these two approaches are very different, although you’d be hard pressed to find recognition of those differences when reading angry Facebook diatribes.
But simply recognizing that charters and vouchers are different animals is also insufficient.
A while back, Doug Masson–one of Indiana’s most thoughtful bloggers and a member of a public-school board–pointed out that the difference between “what” and “how” is especially relevant to the performance of charter schools.
Advocates and critics of charters alike make a distinction between charters that are for profit and those that are non-profit. (Research suggests to many of us that educational institutions shouldn’t be run by for-profit ventures, for a variety of reasons.) Masson notes that the distinction requires a closer look. If the management company hired by a non-profit is for-profit, the fact that the school itself is non-profit is probably not very meaningful.
Masson then homes in on a very significant “how” question: what sort of regulatory framework is likely to ensure the success of a state’s charter schools?
There seems to be some evidence that charters can produce positive outcomes under the sorts of tight regulation Massachusetts has. Indiana is absolutely not going to impose that kind of close regulation and I’m guessing the charter advocates aren’t going to be supportive of that sort of regulation going nationwide.
He quotes from the Harvard Political Review:
“It appears that Massachusetts’ charter laws are responsible, at least in large part, for the superior performance of the state’s charter schools. Indeed, Massachusetts prohibits for-profit Education Management Organizations (EMOs), and its process for authorizing charter schools is particularly rigorous. According to Alison Bagg, director of charter schools and school redesign at the Massachusetts Department of Education, Massachusetts is one of the few states in which the Department of Education serves as the sole authorizer of charter schools. “You have some states that have hundreds and hundreds of charters schools, all authorized by these districts or non-profits,” Bagg explained to the HPR. In Massachusetts, by contrast, “it has been historically very difficult to get a charter,” and the state has been recognized by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers as “one of the leaders in charter school authorizing nationwide.”
The charter renewal process is also quite rigorous, according to Bagg. The state monitors charter schools closely and has the ability to close charter schools that have achieved poor results—a practice that is not universal across states.”
Of course, that’s Massachusetts.
In Indiana, by contrast, we get a school corporation like Daleville sponsoring the Indiana Virtual School charter which then takes state money for kids who are dead or have long since moved out of state.
That’s because Hoosiers don’t have a legislature that understands–or cares about– the importance of “how.”