Even educators are special interests: Research shows academia's blind spots

Even educators are special interests: Research shows academia's blind spots
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Despite its annoying virtue signaling, with free buttons saying “Respect,” “I Am Political Science,” and offering one’s third-person pronoun of choice, the American Political Science Association remains my favorite academic conference, and not just for the free beer at receptions.

APSA’s 2019 annual meeting, just concluded in Washington, brought together more than 6,500 political scientists from across the world to examine topics ranging from the roles of President Trump’s (so far) three chiefs of staff to how Chinese efforts to fight corruption had the unintended consequences of making bureaucrats more timid and less efficient — just like their American counterparts.

For me, the highlight was lunch with longtime Stanford professor Terry Moe. Though there are those like me who love it, political science generally has little social utility. If some unlikely tsunami or woefully ill-informed terrorist erased me, my conference and all my peers, the chief social cost (or perhaps benefit) would involve thousands of pre-law students switching their majors to philosophy or history.

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Professor Moe is a rare exception to the rule that if every political scientist died, only our loved ones would grieve: Moe had impact.

After doing widely cited research on interest groups, John Chubb and Terry Moe co-authored “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools,” first as a convention paper, then as an article in our field’s leading journal, American Political Science Review, and finally as a book published by the Brookings Institution in 1990.  

Their argument was novel. Previously, political scientists assumed that elections, lobbying and administrative rulemaking keep public schools accountable. In reality, interest groups push legislatures and bureaucracies to impose rules cementing their influence, marginalizing principals and parents. There is nothing nefarious about this — it is simply how democracy works. Yet this “democratic accountability” expands bureaucracy to the point where those inside public schools have little power over them. Personnel, curricula and budget all are determined elsewhere.

In contrast, private schools face accountability not from politicians and bureaucrats representing special interests, but from parents representing their kids. Private-school principals control their schools, knowing that if they fail to please parents, their schools close; private schools, therefore, can spend less and educate better.

“Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” was a social science sensation, reflecting the quality of the research and publication by the center-left Brookings Institution. It sold over 50,000 copies — an academic bestseller. Masses of follow-up research aimed to augment or, more often, contest Chubb and Moe’s findings; that is how science should work.

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Three decades after publication, the key insights of “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” remain. The book even changed public policy. As Chester Finn writes in “Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik,” Chubb and Moe sparked years of pro-school choice legislation. Many of America’s charter schools and school voucher programs owe their existence to these two political scientists. 

Moe followed up with a solo effort — “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools” — in which he explained why teacher unions formed and detailed the extent of their power. Union contracts often take hundreds of pages, essentially preventing principals from terminating ineffective teachers. Contracts codify the interests of adults, not children.  

“Special Interest” is wonderful scholarship but had less impact, naturally, because of special interests. The left preferred not to acknowledge union power, and Moe offended the right by lauding Obama administration efforts at reform. Liberals and conservatives are, after all, special interests.

Recently, Cambridge University Press published Moe’s “The Politics of Institutional Reform: Katrina, Education, and the Second Face of Power.” Here, he explains that for decades Louisiana policymakers knew that New Orleans public schools failed to serve students, but they proposed only modest, ineffective reforms for fear of offending unions, and bureaucrats and school boards who profited off kids. The FBI actually put an office in the school district’s administration building, winning nearly 30 convictions for corruption, including that of a school board president who took more than $140,000 in bribes.

After Hurricane Katrina dislodged those vested interests and ended their power, formerly timid policymakers chose bold change, replacing traditional public schools with self-governing charter schools that close unless parents choose to trust them with their kids — much like private schools.

The results have been impressive but not widely copied because, in the absence of disruptions like Katrina, organized interests have the power to block reform. If they have their way, few will review “The Politics of Institutional Reform.” Similarly, education professors avoid studying malfeasance in public schools — even in extreme cases such as New Orleans — perhaps to avoid offending the school administrators who provide consulting contracts.

Notwithstanding claims of objectivity, we social scientists also are special interests.   

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and for the Clinton administration in the 1990s. He serves on his local school board and edits the Journal of School Choice. Follow on Twitter @ua_edreform.