What If “Program Design” Misses the Point?

Mar 1, 2016 by


by Greg Forster –

While we’re on the subject of “Overregulation Theory,” what if that’s a misnomer? What if we’re missing the point by drawing the lesson from Louisiana that “program design matters,” because the real problem isn’t design, it’s arbitrary threats by federal and state officials? The kind of thing you can’t stop with better program design?

I can’t seem to shake these possibly heretical thoughts, so I will submit them to my spiritual directors here on JPGB in hopes of recieving guidance.

I took a fresh look recently at one of the loci classicus for Overregulation Theory in Louisiana, Jason’s post “The Folly of Overregulating School Choice.” What struck me is how the “regulations” on the Louisiana program, while they are very bad regulations, are not so different from regulations on other school choice programs that have not failed this miserably. To participate in the voucher program, Louisiana schools give up control over admissions and price – but they do the same in Milwaukee and in other voucher programs. Why is Louisiana such a big loser when other programs operating under similar hindrances have been winners – moderate winners, to be sure, but still?

Then I noticed that in the AEI survey of Louisiana private school officials, the top reason for not participating in the program was not current regulations but “future regulations that might come with participation.” This was also the top concern about the program for school leaders whose schools were participating.

And then I took a fresh look at Lindsey Burke and Jonathan Butcher’s NRO article about Louisiana vouchers, and was reminded of a couple items that helped this all click for me:

  • The federal government attempted to gain sweeping authority over private schools participating in the voucher by manipulating desegregation law.
  • The state superintendent issued vague, arbitrary threats of interference with private schools based on his personal judgment of their performance.

I have not seen as much attention to that second point as I would have expected. Lindsey and Jonathan write:

Schools risk losing access to the Louisiana Scholarship Program if results on state tests “don’t meet expectations,” according to a letter from John White, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education. And, he adds, schools “are not permitted to accept new Scholarship students until their results align with program requirements.”

Now, I don’t think – but I’m open to hearing new information – that the Louisiana voucher program authorizes the state superintendent to swagger around making these kinds of intimidating statements to participating private schools. And that seems to me like a really big deal, much bigger than any aspect of program design as such.

It’s one thing to have a set of clear rules to follow. The rules may be stupid, but if you follow them, you’re safe. It’s quite another thing to be subject to vauge and arbitrary commands from a person in authority – commands that aren’t anchored in any clear set of rules, which could therefore be expected to change at any moment and be enforced based on whim. Or, more likely, malicious design.

As Al Copeland Nominee Charles Montesquieu explains, you cannot have freedom unless you have a well-grounded, reasonable expectation that you will continue to have freedom in the future, indefinitely. If it is even just somewhat possible that your freedom may be taken away tomorrow, you are not free today. You cannot plan your life as a free life; moreover, those who might become your rulers tomorrow can start nudging you to do things their way now. Why do you think some Republicans are selling their souls to Donald Trump?

Comparing the list of formal regulations in the Louisiana program with the federal attempt to gain sweeping power by climbing in the back window of desegregation law, and the vague and arbitrary threats from the state super, I know which would scare me more if I were running a private school.

Am I missing something? Does the state super have some stronger ground in the voucher law than I’m aware of for his threats? Or might these arbitrary intimidation tactics be something we should consider over and above “regulation” and “program design” as a cause of the Louisiana program’s failure?

I leave it to you, my spiritual directors, to guide me.

Source: What If “Program Design” Misses the Point? | Jay P. Greene’s Blog

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