Can Higher Education Learn from Charter Schools? Interview with Andy Smarick

Dan:     My guest today is Andy Smarick, who researches and writes for R Street, a Washington DC think tank. He writes about civil society issues including localism, governing institutions, education, and social entrepreneurship. Before joining R Street, Andy was a Morgridge Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as President of the Maryland State Board of Education. Prior to that, he worked at the White House as an aide in the Domestic Policy Council and was a deputy assistant secretary at the U. S. Department of Education. He was also the Deputy Commissioner of Education in New Jersey and a legislative assistant at the U. S. House of Representatives. Andy has authored or edited four books: The Urban School System of the Future: Applying the Principles and Lessons of Chartering, Closing America’s High Achievement Gap, a Wise Giver’s Guide to Helping Our Most Talented Students Reach Their Full Potential, Catholic school Renaissance: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Strengthening a National Asset, and No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America. Andy earned his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude and with honors in government and politics, from the University of Maryland, and his master’s in public management from UMD’s School of Public Policy. He lives in Stevensville, Maryland with his wife and three kids. Welcome to the show, Andy.

Andy:   Thanks so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.

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Dan:     I appreciate your being here. Maybe you could begin by telling us a little about the R Street Institute and your work there.

Andy:   Sure. We are a right of center think tank based in DC. Some people would call themselves libertarians, more are traditionally conservative like I am, but generally free-market oriented, right of center. Like I said, DC-based, but also we have some folks out in a number of states because state-level policy is important to us as well. And then I lead a team that works on these issues related to civil society work, K-12 postsecondary education. We try to figure out how governing principles, things like decentralizing authority and utilizing mediating bodies, respecting American pluralism, how principles like that can be applied to real-life challenges that are faced every day by public service professionals.

Dan:     Andy got onto our radar when he published an article for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal entitled “A New Schools Strategy to Fix Higher Education.” Andy, I’m going to talk to you primarily about that article, which I enjoyed a great deal. I thought it was certainly very thought-provoking and I’d like to give you a chance to sort of drill down into the concepts in that article. In the article, you write that the current approach to higher education and here, by the way, I’m going to give a somewhat substantial quote from the article from you, “devalued non-college postsecondary tracks enabled higher education institutions to increase costs, saddled students with substantial debt loads, and left tens of millions of people with some college but no degree and others with a degree that didn’t match the employers’ needs. Worse, because these problems are systemic in nature, their consequences may linger. The inflation of costs shows no signs of correction, bloated administrative ranks preserve aggressive politically progressive campus policies. Many debt-ridden adults possess credits, untethered to future jobs, and public opinion has soured on higher education.” In the article, you further argue that although we could attempt to solve these problems in a piecemeal fashion, you say, “there is a systemic approach that could drive down costs and make the sector more dynamic and responsive.” You call this a “new schools strategy.” So let’s begin. What is a new school’s strategy?

Andy:   Great. Thank you for that opening. So first if you don’t mind, I just want to back up a little bit. If I had been able to name or give the title to the article, I probably wouldn’t have used ‘fix’. I would have used ‘compliment’ because that is related to this idea of a new school strategy. I think lots of postsecondary institutions, maybe even most, maybe even close to all, are doing a quite a good job. They are doing what they were designed to do. So the idea of “fixing” higher education or postsecondary probably isn’t right. The idea here is that it’s probably the case that all of the things that we hope to accomplish through post-secondary or higher education aren’t necessarily being accomplished or aren’t best accomplished by the existing institutions that we have today. And so the idea behind a new school strategy, which is something I’m just lifting from 20-25 years of work that lots of people across America have done in K-12 education, largely thanks to philanthropic efforts, but mainly the charter school sector, is this idea of saying if it’s the case that we know generally what needs to be done, how do we create the kind of atmosphere such that a wide array of people can solve that problem.

And so the idea behind a new school strategy is can you create the conditions such that a range of schools, providers, operators, programs, emerge such that a nimble dynamic sector can come into being then constantly adjusting to meet the demands of students and families and employers and communities more generally. So a new school strategy is creating an environment so new schools can emerge to complement those we already have.

Dan:     Thanks. So moving from the general to the specific, could you for us sketch out a say an imaginary school for us that is of the type you’re advocating, and by the way, I don’t mean to suggest sort of what, when you sketch that out that that that school is sort of the solution you’re proposing, but rather more sort of the type of school that you’re proposing. What would that school look like and how would its outcomes be different?

Andy:   Great, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to do the thing that most people hate – I’m going to challenge the question, but I think you’ll see why it’s totally fine. The reason why is that I like to think when I’m doing this kind of policy analysis of the formulation of ideas, I like to think less like an engineer and more like a gardener. The point is, I don’t know what the precise right answer is. So I’m not looking to just turn a couple knobs or levers to accomplish a very specific outcome. Instead, what I’m aiming to do is create this environment such that lots of people who know way more than I do in America’s infinite number of communities can figure out these solutions for themselves. So it might be the case that in Tulsa they need a boot camp that is related to a new industry that’s forming. It could be the case that in Poughkeepsie they need a two-year program that is aligned with industries. I don’t want to appear cagey on this, but had someone told me at the beginning of the charter school sector, “tell us what great K-12 schools will look like and should emerge” I probably would have guessed this set of things 20 years ago that don’t match at all with what it turned out New Orleans and New York City and Annapolis and Baltimore and Sacramento and Boise, Idaho would have needed, much less what all the different communities within those communities would need. So I’m always hesitant to say this is what ought to be accomplished specifically with this kind of policy intervention. It’s more along the lines of, let’s allow social entrepreneurs and employers and students and community members, parents, civil society, local leaders to decide this is the kind of thing that our neighborhoods or our County or our state needs.

Dan:     Great. Thank you. So you mentioned that you weren’t going to sort of describe turning a couple of knobs and creating change, but that brings us to the regional accreditors. Although it’s not quite fair to say that accreditors turn knobs and things specifically change at institutions, in fact, you could see it that way. That is, over time, accreditors make decisions about processes and outcomes at individual schools and at types of schools. They mandate those, and so schools change. So I guess what I’m thinking is from what you’re describing, what role would regional accreditors play in these new types of schools?

Andy:   Great question. And okay, one way to think about this, and forgive me if this gets too philosophical, is to recognize that when we’re dealing with this kind of provision of, let’s just call it a public good, we need to separate out the ideas of operations and what I’ll call oversight or authorization. So I’m just reasoning by analogy here. What happened in K-12 education is that we had for a hundred years what are often called exclusive territorial franchises, traditional school districts that owned and operated all public schools within a geographic area. So in that sense, we had conflated the idea of who was operating schools and who was overseeing them. A local school board would both own the school and oversee it. When chartering came into being, the government separated those two functions and said, we’re going to have a set of organizations, run public schools, nonprofits, but we’re going to then have the government in the role of not running them, not even micromanaging them, but having a very different mindset of saying how do we incubate new schools? How do we generally shape the contours of the public education system? Had we set up a number of metrics and indicators to make sure that the public money that’s being used for these purposes is being well spent and that they were generally accomplishing the outcomes that we want? But this kind of accountability body is going to be as light touch as possible, but as from touches necessary to get the job done.

So this then brings us to the role of the accreditors. This is kind of similar in higher education, like the analogy to a K-12 with authorizers, these bodies that are related to the government, but more industry-controlled, saying we’re not going to run higher education institutions, but we’re going to do some kind of quality control. So I like that model, but I’m skeptical or at least I have questions of whether it is the case that existing accreditors that have probably built up generations of experience, let’s call it muscle memory, of how to deal with traditional two-year, traditional four-year schools. With their checklists and regulations and just habits and practices, none of which I necessarily disagree with, but they have been built and they’ve been honed to do a particular thing related to a particular set of institutions. I am just not sure that those bodies will be the right bodies to incubate and foster an entirely new, dynamic, nimble sector of schools that are accomplishing different things. Maybe they can be repurposed to do that, but generally, my experiences, if you want an entirely new different type of task being done, often you need a new institution. This is why there are things like skunkworks in the private sector or Greenfield type approaches. And so it might be the case that we have regional accreditors continue to deal with the existing portfolio of higher education institutions and we create a new set of oversight bodies to deal with this new sector of different types of diverse providers.

Dan:     How would you envision transitioning to something like that? Let me what I’m getting at. If we assume that there is a separate body that is evaluating these newer types of schools, I’m wondering how we address the decades-old requirement that schools be “accredited.” So for example, if I open the want ads right now in higher education, every single one of them that’s advertising a job is going to say that your degree needs to come from an accredited institution. For example, at every school I’ve worked at, our internal human resource policies for hiring faculty state that that person has to be, that whatever degree they have, has to be from an accredited institution. So how do you envision referring to these oversight bodies in ways that somehow allow higher education to incorporate them as a new category of schools where you can receive a legitimate degree?

Andy:   Great questions. Let me approach this in two different ways. One is to concede your point, but to also recognize that there is a bunch of gray area between no accreditation and accreditation, and this is the field which is dynamic and changing and probably necessarily so of what often are called credential certificates, licenses, badges, which don’t necessarily go through the formal accreditation process. But because of industry standards or just recognition over time, they start to have some market value. They’re appreciated even though they may not have the seal of approval of an official body. So we’ve already been experimenting with this for quite some time. Going back to apprenticeships and lots of other things, this is not totally new. So there is this domain we can think about. The other way I would approach this is to say that if we do something along the lines that I have in mind, which is in a nutshell, a state government says that we love our institutions of higher education and we love our university’s state system. We love our coordinating bodies, but it might also be the case that we need to incubate, maybe across our state, 50 new providers over the next decade to do different types of things. Therefore, we are going to reorient our funding streams so some amount of money can go to both the startup and ongoing costs of new providers, and we’re going to set up some sort of authorization, new accreditor, new oversight body that is going to be responsible for approving these new entrants, monitoring their performance and giving them some kind of seal of approval, whether we call it accreditation, whether we call it in some kind of state blessing, whether we call it licensed by, approved by, the state. It could be in the same field, the same domain as accreditation, but recognizing that the state has given these regulatory bodies the power to approve and oversee, but just using a different mindset than maybe the checklist or visit type of approach than an accreditor might do.

Dan:     Actually, I’m glad you raised the issue of funding because I’m thinking, how would this new school strategy affect current funding for current schools? You know that in inflation-adjusted dollars, public funding for higher education has been shrinking steadily for decades. It’s one of the major drivers in increased tuition because something has to pick up the slack. And so these costs often are passed along to the student in increased tuition. So given that the funding pie is a smaller pie each year, how do you envision reapportioning that money for all the entities in the higher education system?

Andy:   Good question. I would start by trying to break down into different categories, the streams of funding that go into different types of, let me say this differently, break down into categories, the different streams of funding that ultimately find their way into postsecondary institutions. So one of them is just grants from the state or the federal government to do research. Another could be a formula-based program by a state or a county that every year just provides a certain amount of money to a two-year institution, a technical institution or a four year institution. Then you have the dollars that are tethered to students either through grants or loans or other types of devices, and those are the dollars that are the most flexible, where if the federal government is giving John $15,000 a year so he can choose some sort of school to go to –  John’s decision, not my decision or not the government’s decision – actually then dictates what kinds of programs are most in need and demand, deserving a future support, deserving of attention. And so in K-12 we’ve been able to adjust these kinds of funding streams when everyone went to their local public school, funding looked a certain way. But when there’s a diverse array of providers and types of schools, you have to have student-based funding or what people call some version of backpack funding where the dollars that are tethered to students follow them to the institutions they care about that. The last piece of this I would say is start-up dollars. One thing we learned in the K-12 space and early childhood probably with the new school strategy, both from the philanthropic and government point of view is there are, and I’m smiling when I say this, nontrivial costs associated with starting any new institution, but especially at school. And by non-trivial I mean substantial. With K-12, you’ve got to get a building, you’ve got to get educators, you have to get a curriculum, you have to get buses. But higher education, it might be even more, you have to get labs, you have to get research assistants, you have to get hardware, all types of equipment if you’re doing technical training. And so the idea of startup dollars or incubation dollars almost certainly would have to be new funding, that the state decides we need to be incubating a new sector of schools. We need to give some accelerator dollars, some startups, some seed money to get it up and running. Those dollars can be short-term, and they can be tethered strictly to the startup of an institution, not long-term operational. But one of the lessons learned in this is if you assume that a new school can survive just based on per-pupil operating dollars, you are going to inhibit the creation of new schools, because getting it up and running actually takes a couple of years and some amount of money.

Dan:     I’m glad that you mentioned the difference between K-12 and higher education in terms of cost. Of course, there’s lots of other differences as well, and I’d like to talk not about specific differences, but instead I’d like to ask you a question about the fact that they are different and why they’re different. So if in K-12, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that with the exception of charter schools, which of course are designed to be different in some way, often what you find is that if you go to a high school in Wyoming and you go to a high school in New Hampshire, there are amazing similarities. There’s obviously some cultural differences, but there are far more similarities than there are differences from even, you know, from the physical appearance to the curricula, it’s amazing how much overlap there is now. In higher education, it’s a different story. The schools tend to be more varied, so very obvious, basic things like size, you have some that are just unbelievably immense. There’re no high schools, you know, with 30,000 students, but there are universities with 30,000 students. There are completely online universities. There are universities that allow students to design their own curricula. There are colleges that have far more hands-on work, and others that are more theoretical. Some use a great books approach, some don’t. I’m just giving examples, you know what I mean? The variety is endless – not endless, but it’s considerable. And the only real constraints, for the most part, are money and the ability to maintain accreditation. So given that the variety exists and that there’s more diversity in higher education than in K-12, I guess what I’m wondering is why there isn’t already sufficient permission to be diverse to create the outcomes you’re seeking. That is, why it that we already don’t see the kinds of differences that you’re after, versus the kinds of differences we’re currently getting.

Andy:   Good. So if you don’t mind, I want to, if not object, then at least raise questions about your thesis, which is the diversity within K-12 education. I think this becomes material with the second part of my answer, which is I would concede the point that 50 years ago that K-12 education was homogenized. Even going back to let’s say, the turn of the 20th century, because we decided that public education was going to be delivered through these local monopolies run by the government. And so they literally called schools PS1, PS2, public school three, public school four, and central administration would decide everyone who got hired and the curriculum that was going to be used, and the schedule, and so on. And then because of habit and practice and experience both like the bad stuff of habit and practice, but also the wisdom that comes with that.

There’s a certain set of, let’s call it traditions and customs, developed that made people realize that a school is the best if it looks a certain way. And if you have one school per geographic area, it has to be a comprehensive high school, so it has to have certain types of features to it. So a lot of those characteristics that led to the homogenization of K-12 were, I believe, a function of our decisions about how K-12 would be delivered; that is, through these exclusive territorial franchises, school districts that were the monopoly public provider of public education. But over time we have developed, not just thanks to charter schooling, but because of homeschooling, online schooling, dual enrollment, micro schooling, the wide array of private school programs like vouchers and tax credits and education savings accounts, an astonishing array of different types of approaches to schooling. So yes, it could be the case that you could go to two high schools in different states and they would look quite the same. But once you get into those schools today, you would recognize, oh, this one has AP, the other one has IB. This one is doing 50% of their work remotely, or online using a hybrid model. This one is mostly still brick and mortar. This one has a send-receive relationship with the local community college. This one doesn’t. This one has an inter-district school choice policy, that one doesn’t. This one is using a Great Books or Outward Bound curriculum. This one is using a college prep curriculum. So the diversity within the system has been expansive and I think that it has been fostered by these subtle things that government has done to move away from the unified district model to a more pluralistic incubation, new types of models.

So these different kinds of programs that allow dollars to flow differently, allow new startups to emerge and then allow both public and private accountability to guide the system. And a lot of those mechanisms were already existing within a postsecondary education long before K-12. I mean, there were the Harvards and the Yales and the Holy Crosses and there were the Notre Dames and public universities and community college that got started. But we also have to recognize that the set of state and federal policies that we currently have shape and form the contours of that system. If we are willing to concede that it might be the case that there are older adults who have lost their jobs and need to be re-skilled and current institutions are doing that perfectly, if we are willing to say because of our offshoring and automation and the cost of college, a bunch of 18 year-olds don’t want to invest in a four year, but they want some kind of other type of program that maybe does some work in some liberal arts. If we just concede that there are things not being met by the current postsecondary universe of institutions, and if we believe that our current side of the state and federal policies created the system as we currently have it, I’m suggesting if we adjust some of these policies, we might be able to have a sector of schools that can meet some of these unmet needs.

Dan:     What kind of response have you had to the ideas in the article? I’m curious if, if anyone from higher education has given you feedback.

Andy:   Yes. So I would say that there are three or four different categories of reaction. One is for some reason there are just a bunch of people out there who are frustrated with the higher education industry who think that it’s too expensive, or it’s too progressive, or that it’s doesn’t care about work, it’s just people doing philosophy. So some people, anytime you read anything that suggests a different path in postsecondary, some number of people are excited by it. Another set of people who have been working in CTE career and technical education or apprenticeships or these kinds of bootcamps, were excited about the idea because I think they’ve been looking for a path forward for how do we think about public programs, public investment in a way that isn’t going to be heavy-handed from the state, that allowed this new system to emerge but kind of gives it some support. And so, especially for a few people working in philanthropy who care about this, and I don’t even know what to call it, it’s postsecondary, but not traditional higher education. It’s like skills, licensing, re-skilling certifications, maybe AA degrees, something in that field. People are just interested in the idea that policy can be used as a mechanism to foster that. And then the last category is from people who work inside of higher education who are interested in just the mechanics of this; the tactical, like some of the questions you asked, what would this mean for our dollars, or what would this mean for the value of a degree or a lot of institutions have been seeing their enrollments shrink over the past decade. They are worried like a lot of traditional K-12 school districts are, if you create a new universe of school that’s just going to accelerate the enrollment and funding pressure on us. If some number of our students are being diverted to other kinds of institutions, what does that mean for us? And I’ll just put kind of in parentheses that I have to acknowledge that anytime you talk about an industry and suggest that something else or something new or something different could be done, some number of people in that industry immediately take offense to it because it does implicate their work. They automatically react, by virtue of your saying that something ought to be done differently or something new or something complimentary, you’re saying that we’re not doing enough. And I’ve been trying to have conversations about, no, what you’re doing is great. Public universities, community colleges, private universities, a lot of them are doing precisely what they were meant to do, when they’ve been adjusting over time. This isn’t to say that what you’re doing isn’t valuable. In fact, it could be terrific, but that’s different than saying that everything that needs to be done is currently being done. So I’m trying to have conversations to just do the let’s call it the emotionally intelligent thing of saying, how do we reform an institution realizing that good people are trying to do good work, and any kind of reform necessarily starts to raise questions in their minds of whether or not they’re valued or whether I or other people are criticizing everything that they’ve been taking on for years or generations.

Dan:     My guest has been Andy Smarick, who researches and writes about civil society issues, including localism, governing institutions, education and social entrepreneurship for the Washington think tank, R Street. You can follow him on Twitter @smarick. Andy, thanks very much for taking the time with us today.

Andy:   Oh, it’s been a treat. Thank you.