Law and policy entrepreneurs: empirical evidence on the expansion of school choice policy.

Author:Heise, Michael
Position:Symposium: Educational Innovation and the Law
 
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This study leverages event history analysis to help explain the expansion of public charter school legislation between 1991-2006. This study expands previous work in two important ways. First, while critical distinctions separate public charter school and school voucher programs, both fall comfortably within the broader rubric of "school choice." As such, it is difficult to understand the development of state legislation for one school choice variant independent of the other. Thus, this analysis includes the presence of publicly- or privately-funded voucher programs in a state as a possible factor influencing the adoption of charter school legislation in a state. Second, a methodological contribution emerges by comparing results generated by a complementary log-log model with results generated by a rare event logistic regression model. That school voucher programs' influence on the emergence of state charter schools laws is robust across both models underscores school voucher programs' salience to the emergence of charter school legislation. Understanding the emergence of charter school legislation as a defensive political move to deflect school voucher progress or a political compromise finds support in these results. Either interpretation of the emergence of charter schools' ascendance, however, needs to account for the school voucher programs' influence as well as important suburban political and economic interests.

INTRODUCTION

As Americans' impulse and appetite for school reform endure, so too does the public education system's resistance to helpful, structural change. As one leading education critic and scholar, Diane Ravitch, noted recently: "It is a well-known fact that American education is in crisis." (1) Moreover, this "well-known" fact is not new as the American education system has remained in a crisis mode (albeit in varying degrees) for at least a century. (2)

An impulse to wade into elementary and secondary school reform is broadly shared and expanded relatively recently to include the federal government. Just over a decade ago, the U.S. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (3) ("NCLB") which represents the federal government's most dramatic venture into the nation's schools and educational policy and reform. (4) With NCLB Congress sought to leverage state accountability standards in an effort to improve academic performance in general as well as to narrow the achievement chasms that separate various student sub-groups in particular. (5) According to Frederick Hess, one early legacy of NCLB is that "'achievement gaps' became (educational) reformers' catch phrase, and closing those gaps became the goal of American education policy." (6)

To be sure, concerns over American student academic achievement and nagging differences in achievement among various student sub-groups are well-founded. (7) An international vantage point is particularly instructive as it reveals that "the performance of American students on international tests is mediocre." (8) And this American educational mediocrity prevails even though the United States outspends virtually all other nations when it comes to education. (9)

With anxiety over student academic achievement (and achievement gaps) as a central current motivation for educational reform in this country, educational reform machinery continues to grind. Over the decades numerous reform strategies have come and gone. (10) Recently, perhaps owing to more specific concerns over the economic and social damage inflicted by inefficacious public schools, educational reform strategies began to soften an almost instinctive institutional aversion to market forces. Indeed, many current reform efforts now openly seek to enlist and exploit market forces, though in varying degrees, into the service of improving public schools. (11) Within the larger reform framework of subjecting public elementary and secondary institutions to increased market forces, charter schools appear to have won the battle of ideas at the moment. (12) Setting aside the merits of charter schools and other school choice policy alternatives (notably voucher programs), what is clear is that among the various school choice policy options, the charter school option is the clear preference of citizens, lawmakers, and many policymakers. As such, how charter school legislation emerged as well as how such legislation spread across state general assemblies in the United States warrant attention.

The historical narrative of education policy entrepreneurs' experience in Minnesota persuading state lawmakers to enact the nation's first charter school program is well known. (13) Far less developed, however, is an account of charter school legislation's emergence across the country. While case studies are particularly helpful in unearthing state-specific nuance and context, the migration of school choice legislation over time across the country benefits from event history analysis and a growing event history literature. (14)

In perhaps the most important and technically sophisticated study of states' adoption of charter school legislation between 1991-2006, Wong and Langevin found that charter school legislation was most likely to emerge in states with Republican governors, comparatively lower classroom spending levels, protracted school finance litigation, and a comparatively higher concentration of private schools. (15) Despite their work's contribution, Wong and Langevin noted limitations to their study, including possible omitted variable bias. (16) They also expressly encouraged scholars to expand upon their work both substantively and methodologically. From a substantive perspective, notably Wong and Langevin suggested that future scholars explore whether states may have passed charter school laws "as a political compromise to private school vouchers." (17) On more methodological and technical fronts, Wong and Langevin recognized plausible alternatives to their model specifications. (18)

This study responds to Wong and Langevin's plea for more research in two small but specific ways. Substantively, to assess the influence of school voucher programs on the emergence of charter school law across states and over time the Wong and Langevin data set was expanded to include relevant 1991-2006 school voucher data. (19) While data are ill equipped to answer Wong and Langevin's specific interpretative question about whether charter school legislation is better understood as a defensive political move designed to deflect the voucher movement, from either a theoretical or practical vantage point it is difficult to understand the emergence of charter school laws independent of public and private school voucher programs. More to the point, efforts to do so are incomplete. The policy nexus linking school voucher and charter school programs is simply too strong to assess the development of one policy independent of the other. Methodologically, this study compares results from Wong and Langevin's complementary log-log model with those from an alternative approach to rare event studies, Gary King and Langche Zeng's rare event logistic regression model. (20) Such a comparison will help assess whether the substantive results depend upon model selection in any way.

While results from this study largely comport with Wong and Langevin's earlier findings, school voucher programs' influence on states' adoption of charter school laws emerges with clarity. (21) Moreover, subtle structural variations between the two types of voucher programs proved important. (22) Specifically, the existence of a publicly-funded voucher program operating in a state exerted comparatively stronger influence than did their privately-funded counterparts. (23) Finally, the influence of voucher programs on the creation of charter school laws are robust across two leading statistical approaches designed to account for the emergence of rare events over time. (24)

The Article proceeds in four parts. Parts One and Two describe the relevant scholarly literatures as well as the data, methodology, and research design. The results, presented and discussed in Part Three, illustrate the influence that school voucher programs exerted on states' enactment of charter school legislation. One crucial--if subtle--wrinkle is that publicly-funded school voucher programs exerted comparatively more influence than their privately-funded counterparts (though both forms of school voucher programs were influential). (25) Also notable is that the main results are robust to alternative model specifications. This Article concludes by noting that while key findings from prior empirical work in this field, particularly earlier work by Wong and Langevin, persist, expanding the scope of this research to account for the influence of school voucher programs provides a richer and more textured and robust account of the growth of charter school legislation across states between 1991-2006.

  1. RESEARCH LITERATURE

    In their effort to empirically account for the expansion of charter school programs over time, Wong and Langevin created the first data set of its kind to track various influences on the passage of state charter school laws. Adopting an event history analytical framework, the researchers found that between 1991-2006 charter school legislation was most likely to emerge in states with Republican governors, comparatively lower classroom spending levels, protracted school finance litigation, and a comparatively higher concentration of private schools. (26) Despite their important and helpful work, Wong and Langevin noted important limitations to their study and expressly encouraged scholars to expand upon their work by exploring whether states may have passed charter school laws "as a political compromise to private school vouchers." (27)

    This study responds to Wong and Langevin's call for such research by expanding their data set to include relevant 1991-2006 school...

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