L⁠i⁠s⁠t⁠en: A M⁠i⁠ndse⁠t⁠ for Embrac⁠i⁠ng Educa⁠t⁠⁠i⁠onal Freedom

November 2, 2023

November 2, 2023

Andrew Clark, president of yes. every kid., joined the CATO Daily Podcast for a conversation with host Caleb Brown about a vision for transforming education, where the movement for education freedom is headed, and the importance of implementing new school choice programs with families in mind.

Read a transcript of their conversation below:

Caleb Brown: This is the CATO Daily Podcast for Tuesday, October 31st, 2023. I’m Caleb Brown. This year has been a big one, not just for school choice, but for universal school choice. But implementation remains a stumbling block for many states, and political opportunities from cracking down on some of the choices families might make with their newfound educational freedom may be too tantalizing to turn down.

Andrew Clark is president of yes. every kid. We talked about implementing educational freedom without political strings attached last week.

The last few years have seen sort of a tidal wave of new and expanded educational freedom options school choice broadly and where I live in Kentucky, of course, it’s basically nonexistent, but people did recently get the opportunity to choose adjacent district schools if they want to.

So even that is an improvement, but I think it’s helpful to understand better the mindset of parents in those two environments. The environment where your preferences don’t matter and you’re not wealthy enough to exercise what’s known as choice by realtor. By moving to a district that will be able to better meet your needs and a wide variety of options from which you can choose, or you can, you can still remain disengaged if you want to, but having a wide variety of options Different focal points for various schools, be it arts or science or sports or any number of other things that, that schools can focus on what’s the difference between parents in those environments.

Andrew Clark: It’s like anything else, right? When you have a dependency on government, you tend to lose self-confidence. You lose a sense of self-worth, and then you tend to accept all sorts of things that you would never accept in an otherwise rational situation. And so you see this a lot in places like Arizona and Florida that are more mature when they have some optionality and they say, “hey, I can go to the school of arts or I can go to the school of coding,” the demand for more specialization, for the more things that improve the lives of them and their children, that demand gets really high.

Whereas when you’re in a place that has almost no freedom, and we could pick on Kentucky as a place that has long had that problem, or at least very small constrained amounts of freedom. The desire to look to the government, to the state capital and say, “how can you solve my problem” becomes a lot higher.

And then, you know, I can’t think of a worse idea of how to get to the right answer than to ask for consensus among a bunch of politicians, but that is the state that we tend to find ourselves in. And so to me, that’s the big contrast.

Caleb Brown: So there have been a lot of concerns expressed, I think, among people on the school, the pro school choice side of the aisle that.

Even under a system in which parents have a wide variety, robust set of choices to send their kids to school, that the implementation matters incredibly. Politicians, especially in the last few years, have tried to make hay. About how public schools conduct themselves and I have heard less about this, but it’s still a concern of mine that even in a system where choices are robust, politicians will try to make hay regarding the choices that parents are likely to make that is, you know, either you respect parents or you don’t and respecting somebody at the, at a bare minimum means not interfering with their choices, right?

So how do you think about that?

Yeah, I’m in vigorous agreement with your point of view. I think the unique thing about education in terms of public policy is this idea that the government is trying to control the system to be optimizing for social good, as opposed to optimizing for what families want or what people want.

And so in any other aspect of our lives, we say, what improves my life? What makes it better? That’s the thing I want to demand. And then we have an endless amount of choices to pick from and whatever improves our lives the most, that’s where we put our money. And then life improves in education. We don’t have that view.

We think what improves society the most, and then we try to manipulate everything that way. So I think the school choice movement and the waves of bills that have passed are really exciting because they’re trying to change that paradigm to say, no. Education can work just like the rest of our lives and that we can make choices and have freedoms.

I think one of the challenges you have is the legacy of “no, no, we know what’s best. The experts know what’s best.” You need to do, you know, best practices that continues to linger on. And so you can look at all sorts of school choice programs. But you get situations where a mom will apply to buy a 30 blender and it will go into a six week long debate amongst a series of, of administrators and the department of education on whether that’s allowable or not, or they want to buy a TV or they want to buy religious curriculum or whatever it is, there’s still this strong feel that the government needs to be in charge.

And so even though you’ve opened up a wide range of options. There’s this huge regulatory impulse to control every purchase you make. And I think if we allow the government to do that, we’re in deep trouble. And so I think it’s imperative for those of us who believe in freedom to really work on implementation, to spend a lot of time and money talking to the government and say, no, the point here is to transfer the, the decision making, the rights and the responsibilities back to the families.

That’s where it always belonged in the first place. You guys usurped it. We’re trying to give it back. What we’re not trying to do is have a bunch of government-controlled choices that you get to pick between. And so we’ve got to get the government out of that middleman role to the greatest degree possible.

Alright, so if you were designing a program, you go and hit one big red candy like button to get your idealized arrangement that respects families the most and gives them the broadest range of options with the money that they are responsible for making use of for a child’s education. What does that look like?

Are there examples that exist in the real world?

Andrew Clark: Yeah, I’ll give you a non-educational example. And I’ll give you an educational example. A lot of times with legislators, I’ll make the contrast between social security and snap the food welfare program in social security. We just send you a check straight up and down, right?

Like you pay into it for a long time. You get old, we put a check in the mail. It shows up, you spend it however you want. If grandma takes it down to the casino, we just kind of say, look, it’s grandma’s responsibility to take care of herself. If that’s how she’s going to spend it, we’re fine with it. I think if you look at social security as a measure of trying to get rid of senior poverty, it’s one of the few social programs that’s ever worked.

And so there’s all sorts of problems with social security that we could nerd out on another time. But to the extent the government’s going to be involved and going to subsidize things, at least that’s doing its intended purpose, as opposed to SNAP or the food welfare programs that regulates everything, right?

If you want to take your EBT card and go to Chick fil A, it’s going to deny you. It’s going to say, “absolutely not.” They control what you can buy and purchase there. And as a result, my argument isn’t that heavily regulated welfare space. It doesn’t really matter how much we spend on food insecurity in the country.

It basically never has any impact on the rates. And so I would argue that even inside a public policy, the greater the freedom, the more likely it is to work. And so in an education sense, I think a policy like Oklahoma’s tax credit policy that passed last year, Is more likely to work where it just said, look, we’re going to give you your money back, whatever you paid property tax, income tax.

We’re just going to give it back to you. It’s going to be a check. You’re going to check a box on your tax form. Say, I’m not sending my kid to a public school. They’re going to say, great. Here’s seven grand. You know, like any other tax credit, we’ll reserve the right to audit you. But otherwise this is your responsibility.

We wish you the best of luck. I think if that actually works the way it was intended by the legislature, I think Oklahoma is going to have perhaps the most free and the most dynamic education environment over time.

Caleb Brown: Government’s hire contractors and in education, it’s, it’s no different than hiring a road contractor, necessarily.

You might put it out for bid. You have some requirements that you want to put down before you hire any contractor. What is the risk here of allowing contractors to, at scale, administer some sort of government run choice program.

Andrew Clark: It’s sky high, just like any other government program, the people who are receiving government funding suddenly have a giant impulse to continue to receiving government funding.

And so instead of serving the customer, which in education should be families, they then serve a customer who’s the government and they start to take those resources and reallocate them back to lobbying the government to have more resources. And so on the one hand, it’s really critical to have. Good government vendors should help implement these school choice programs because they’re not going to work absent that.

But on the other hand, there’s definitely a danger that if, those middlemen are given too many resources and too much freedom to operate, that what their impulse will be is to turn around and regulate the government to say, I must be the middleman. These parents are incapable. I have to regulate it and to create a whole regulatory regime.

And a whole bunch of regulations that, that mandate their involvement in order for these programs to work. And if that happens, I think, I think it’ll stifle the space. And I, I love the charter movement in general, but I think that’s one of the problems you’ve seen in the charter movement is very similar impulse where the, charter operators in a lot of cases, many of them have started to espouse regulations that start looking an awful lot like public schools in order to protect the, the enclave that they’ve created.

And I think that’s, that’s slowed down the growth of the charter movement and it’s dynamism and, and ultimately its ability to service people is because they’ve allowed that regulatory creep to happen with the middleman. So I hope the school choice community learns from that experience and says, Hey, we’re just going to do it differently this time.

And we’re going to opt to, to be on the side of families, not on the side of third party vendors. Yeah,

Caleb Brown: the point of educational freedom, the point of school choice, the, you know, we’ve decided as a society, I suppose that it is in the public interest to provide for education for young people because some of those benefits accrue to the rest of us.

They, of course, overwhelmingly accrue to the benefit of the young person who’s being educated. The point is not to make every school like currently existing public schools. It’s to give families the widest range of options for the education of the people that they love more than anyone else loves.

Andrew Clark: You got it.

And I think that’s probably one other thing to think about in this whole space is We think a lot about implementation in terms of like, how do I effectively govern the government’s money? And, and that’s, I think an important aspect of this and a key driver. But the other part of it is the impetus here is that as you give families more freedom, we’re going to create a more dynamic marketplace.

There’ll be more appetite for private pay out of system schools to develop and specialize. But a lot of times the regulations that exist around those are still cumbersome. Or they’re undefined because the, the private market’s been such a relatively small slice, the government hasn’t really cared to make it more efficient or to bring competition into there.

And so you have these really antiquated sets of regulations that we spend a lot of time talking to, to departments of ed saying like, Hey, what does it take to get accredited as a school? Why does it have to become so cumbersome and expensive? How can we get that down? Because if we’re going to reduce the barriers to getting in there, obviously then you can start getting all sorts of really interesting models in schools.

And I think that’s, what’s going to, it’s going to take that level of pluralism for families to look and say, like, wow, what’s going on there is way better than what I have. And so I’ve. I said, you see this in athletics happening already. I’m a huge hoops fan. Anybody who’s good at hoops in the high school level is playing for a new basketball.

They’re not playing for the public school or if they are, it’s just for vanity sake. But they can look at it as a consumer and say like, man, the education that I can get playing AU basketball is vastly superior. I’m much more likely to get into college and the NBA playing that way than I am if I play high school hoops, just because the quality is different and they’re willing to pay even most of the kids that are hooping or some of the poorest kids in America, they’re willing to pay money out of pocket to do that rather than take the free service.

I think that’s really important. Like we just need to figure out, okay, that’s happened in athletics to a huge degree amongst a variety of sports. It’s happened in mathematics increasingly at a crazy rate. How do we get it into science? How do we get into reading? How do we get into much broader range?

Because I think as people see just a better quality in the alternative, a lot more people are going to adopt and take that. And so I think that’s probably an understated part of this whole implementation game is how do we make it easier for private pay providers to get into the marketplace?

Caleb Brown: There was a lot of talk of fads in education in the K 12 level, particularly in public schools.

There have been waves of fads that have been adopted in, I hate to keep going, coming back to Kentucky, but that’s where I live. There was a, you know, new way of teaching reading that ultimately didn’t pan out very well and private schools, different sort of education models, they’re not immune to fads, but they are Going to be much smaller and it will be easier to identify when those things aren’t panning out.

Andrew Clark: Yes, for sure. Well, and you know, you try to cram everything into one building and say, “this one building needs to provide learning in the way that works for every single kid.”

I wish you the best of luck with that. It’s not going to happen. You might, at the best-case level, get to 70 or 80 percent of kids who can learn in the way that you can produce, even, even if you provide a range of options inside of that school.

So the best way to get there is – let’s take Uncommon Construction which is a educational activity that kids can go and learn by building a house. So for somebody like me who learns hands on, a construction project like Uncommon Construction would be a really smart way to learn math because you could see it as it’s applied right there.

Now that’s not going to work for every kid. It may not even work for more than 10 percent of the kids. But for those kids, for whom it works, those kinds of opportunities in your neighborhood would be life changing. And I think that’s where we want to get to.