The Problem with Betting on Every Horse

Dick Komer of the Institute for Justice takes issue today with a recent series of NRO op-eds by Cato’s Adam Schaeffer. I’m sure Adam will want to address some of the legal niceties he raised, so I’m going to restrict myself to explaining why Dick and I see the big picture on school choice policy very differently.

Dick’s position, which is the norm in the school choice movement, is captured by the title of his piece: “Educational Freedom by Every Means Available.” Dick argues that it is “unnecessary” and “premature” to favor some school choice policies over others. I disagree, and here’s why:

Like parents saving for their kids’ college years, advocates of educational freedom have limited resources. And like those parents, we have many different investment options — with different returns and different levels of security. What the “any choice is a good choice” mantra implies is that we should be indiscriminate in the way we invest — that we simply don’t know enough to prefer one school choice policy over another.

That is not the case. In modern times, international experiences with various forms of school choice date back nearly a century. Other relevant precedents in comparative school governance reach back millennia. There is enough evidence – both qualitative and quantitative – to compare our policy options and determine which are most likely to yield real, lasting dividends, and which have serious and as yet unresolved problems. Because that evidence exists, I see it as my duty as a policy scholar to study it and to make recommendations based on it; just as it is the duty of investment advisors to counsel parents on the most suitable investment options for their own children’s futures. If I did anything less I would consider myself guilty of professional malpractice.

Dick is right that states differ and that the legal impediments to vouchers vary among them. In some states, the legal barriers to enacting vouchers appear to be no higher than those to enacting tax credits. But legal barriers to passage are only one of the many respects in which vouchers are more problematic than education tax credits. The central difference between the policies – that vouchers are public funds while non-refundable tax credits are not – leads to a host of substantive differences in their desirability.

As I have already argued at length, and as Adam will argue in a forthcoming policy analysis, the use of government funding has caused existing voucher programs to begin their lives with much more intrusive regulations on participating schools. Direct parent funding is also associated, in the econometric literature, with greater school efficiency and responsiveness to the demands of families. The compulsion of all taxpayers to fund every kind of government approved voucher school also creates social tension over which sorts of schools will be approved, and adds an incentive for interest groups to lobby to exclude types of schooling they find objectionable. Tax credits provide taxpayers with the freedom to direct their educational funding as they see fit, alleviating this problem. Adam has also pointed to polling data and developed political arguments and evidence suggesting that tax credits are more popular with voters and more likely to mobilize constituencies for their long term preservation and expansion.

Finally, Dick is mistaken if he believes that Adam or I want to permanently and universally foreclose on the voucher option. We wouldn’t even if we could. We respect individual freedom, the marketplace of ideas and the laboratory of federalism. States will pursue different school choice policies and will learn from each others’ experiences. But, given the wealth of existing evidence comparing alternative school governance and funding arrangements, we feel it is counterproductive for the school choice movement not to focus its resources where they can best be invested. Betting on every horse, including the ones that you can see limping around the paddock before the start, is no way to invest for the future of American children.