Tag: donors

More on Disclosure and Intimidation

Today Politico Arena asks:

Are conservatives hypocritical to argue for eliminating campaign finance restrictions and disclosure requirements, which they once supported, or does their argument regarding donor harassment carry some weight?

Roger Pilon made some good points about conservative donors facing harassment, which might explain shifts in conservative sentiment on the issue. In my own response, I tried to remind readers that people on all sides of controversial issues have reason for concern about disclosure and intimidation:

There are good arguments for disclosure, especially with regard to contributions to candidates: Let the voters see who might be influencing a candidate. Of course, there are lots of people who have influence without being major donors - mayors and governors, leaders of voting blocs and interest groups, editors and publishers. Maybe they should all be identified, too.

The case for disclosure is even weaker when it comes to supporters and opponents of initiatives. In that case there is no officeholder to influence. Once the law is passed, it’s the law. And we do know that there have been instances of bullying and intimidation based on donor disclosure. In the past both the NAACP and the Socialist Workers Party have petitioned to protect their donors from publicity and resulting abuse. Many businessmen shied away from supporting term-limits efforts to avoid offending incumbent officeholders. A couple of decades ago, people didn’t want to be known as contributors to gay-rights causes; these days, it may be worse to be known as an opponent of gay rights. In either case, disclosure has a chilling effect on political involvement.

The problems with disclosure may be greater today because of the increased polarization of politics and the role of the internet in both encouraging polarization and making it easy to identify and expose donors. Disclosure is a complex issue, but we should not ignore the chilling effect it can have on political engagement.

Does Scholar Self-Interest Corrupt Policy Research?

The New York Times recently ran a story portraying the Gates Foundation as the puppeteer of American education policy, bribing or bullying scholars and politicians into dancing as it desires. Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, feels that the story misrepresented his position on the potentially corrupting influence of foundations, making it sound as though he were referring to the Gates Foundation in particular when in fact he was referring to the impact of foundations generally.

Hess told the Times, among other things, that

As researchers, we have a reasonable self-preservation instinct. There can be an exquisite carefulness about how we’re going to say anything that could reflect badly on a foundation. We’re all implicated.

Next Monday, the Cato Institute will publish a study titled: “The Other Lottery: Are Philanthropists Backing the Best Charter Schools?” In it, I empirically answer the titular question by comparing the academic performance of California’s charter school networks to the level of grant funding they have received from donors over the past decade. The results tell us how much we should rely on the pairing of philanthropy and charter schools to identify and replicate the best educational models. Considerable care went into the data collection and regression model. As for the description of the findings, it’s as simple and precise as I could make it. I doubt it will be hailed as exquisite.

The Case of the Missing Evidence

Last fall, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit against Arizona’s K-12 scholarship donation tax credit program. Under the program, citizens can donate to non-profit organizations that help families pay for private school tuition, and in return, the donors receive a dollar-for-dollar tax cut. The 9th Circuit, ruled that the program violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because many taxpayers choose to donate to religious scholarship-granting organizations whose scholarships are only usable at religious schools. This, in the Court’s view, meant that the program unconstitutionally favored religious scholarship-seeking parents over secular ones.

Supporters of the program will soon be appealing this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They’re very likely to win, for a variety of reasons. Foremost among them, the Establishment Clause forbids only  governments from favoring religion, but imposes no similar limit on individual citizens. It is for this reason that charitable tax deductions can be claimed for donations to both religious and secular charities without running afoul of the First Amendment – even if taxpayers overwhelmingly choose to donate to religious charities.

In rereading the original complaint, I noticed something interesting: even if the 9th Circuit’s misconstrual of the Establishment Clause were correct, plaintiffs still wouldn’t have a case. That’s because the evidence they presented did not – and still does not – support their claim that secular parents have been at a comparative disadvantage in obtaining scholarships. To see why, read on….

The only evidence plaintiffs presented to show the claimed disadvantage of secular parents was that most of the scholarship funds have been distributed by religious organizations. That is not dispositive. To prove that secular parents were at a disadvantage in getting scholarships, plaintiffs would have to show that secular parents were being rejected by scholarship programs at a higher rate than religious parents, or that, at the very least, the share of religious-only scholarship funds was higher than the share of parents seeking religious schooling.

That, as it turns out, was not the case in the school year (1998-99) for which plaintiffs provided data, and it is not true today. In 1998-99, about 75.5 percent of private school children were in religious schools, but only 75 percent of (the very tiny amount of) scholarship funds distributed in that year were reserved for religious schooling. In 2007-08 (the most recent year for which data are available), 81.4 percent of private school students were in religious schools, but only 65 percent of the donated scholarship funds in 2008 were reserved for religious schooling.

There is thus no evidence that secular parents are any more likely to be turned away for a scholarship than are religious families, because the share of scholarship funds available for use at secular schools is now nearly twice as large as the share of children being enrolled in secular schools.

So even if plaintiffs and the 9th Circuit were right on Establishment Clause jurisprudence, which they certainly are not, the evidence still wouldn’t support their case.

For all the relevant numbers I used to reach the above conclusion (sourced from the Arizona Dept. of Revenue and the National Center for Education Statistics)  see this Excel spreadsheet file.