Tag: school choice

Regulating School Choice: The Debate Continues

Last week, the Cato Institute held a policy forum on school choice regulations. Two of our panelists, Dr. Patrick Wolf and Dr. Douglas Harris, were part of a team that authored one of the recent studies finding that Louisiana’s voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ test scores. Why that was the case – especially given the nearly unanimously positive previous findings – was the main topic of our discussion. Wolf and I argued that there is reason to believe that the voucher program’s regulations might have played a role in causing the negative results, while Harris and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute pointed to other factors. 

The debate continued after the forum, including a blog post in which Harris raises four “problems” with my arguments. I respond to his criticisms below.

The Infamous Education Productivity Chart

Problem #1: Trying to discredit traditional public schools by placing test score trends and expenditure changes on one graph. These graphs have been floating around for years. They purport to show that spending has increased much faster than expenditures [sic], but it’s obvious that these comparisons make no sense. The two things are on different scales. Bedrick tried to solve this problem by putting everything in percentage terms, but this only gives the appearance of a common scale, not the reality. You simply can’t talk about test scores in terms of percentage changes.

The more reasonable question is this: Have we gotten as much from this spending as we could have? This one we can actually answer and I think libertarians and I would probably agree: No, we could be doing much better than we are with current spending. But let’s be clear about what we can and cannot say with these data.

Harris offers a reasonable objection to the late, great Andrew Coulson’s infamous chart (shown below). Coulson already addressed critics of his chart at length, but Harris is correct that the test scores and expenditures do not really have a common scale. That said, the most important test of a visual representation of data is whether the story it tells is accurate. In this case, it is, as even Harris seems to agree. Adjusted for inflation, spending per pupil in public schools has nearly tripled in the last four decades while the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been flat. 

U.S. Education Spending and Productivity

Producing a similar chart with data from the scores of younger students on the NAEP would be misleading because the scale would mask their improvement. But for 17-year-olds, whose performance has been flat on the NAEP and the SAT, the story the chart tells is accurate.

Debating the Impact of Regulations on School Choice

Over at the Brookings Institution’s education blog, Paul Bruno offers a thoughtful critique of Overregulation Theory (OT), the idea that government regulations on school choice programs can undermine their positive effects. Bruno argues that although OT is “one of the most plausible explanations” of the negative results that two studies of Louisiana’s voucher program recently found, it is not “entirely consistent with the available evidence” and “does not by itself explain substantial negative effects from vouchers.”

I agree with Bruno–and have stated repeatedly–that the studies’ findings do not conclusively prove OT. That said, I believe both that OT is consistent with the available evidence and that it could explain the substantial negative effects (though I think it’s likely there are other factors at play as well). I’ll explain why below, but first, a shameless plug:

On Friday, March 4th at noon, the Cato Institute will be hosting a debate over the impact of regulations on school choice programs featuring Patrick Wolf, Douglas Harris, Michael Petrilli, and yours truly, moderated by Cato’s own Neal McCluskey. If you’re in the D.C. area, please RSVP at this link and join us! Come for the policy discussion, stay for the sponsored lunch!

More Mixed Results from Louisiana’s Highly Regulated Voucher Program

New research on Louisiana’s voucher program revealed mixed resultsYesterday, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (Tulane University) and the School Choice Demonstration Project (the University of Arkansas) released four new reports examining the Louisiana Scholarship Program’s impact on participating students’ test performance and non-cognitive skills, level of racial segregation statewide, and the effect of competition on district-school students. Here are the key findings:

  • Students who use the voucher to enroll in private schools end up with much lower math achievement than they would have otherwise, losing as much as 13 percentile points on the state standardized test, after two years. Reading outcomes are also lower for voucher users, although these are not statistically different from the experimental control group in the second year.
  • There is no evidence that the Louisiana Scholarship Program has positive or negative effects on students’ non-cognitive skills, such as “grit” and political tolerance.
  • The program reduced the level of racial segregation in the state. The vast majority of the recipients are black students who left schools with student populations that were disproportionally black relative to the broader community and moved to private schools that had somewhat larger white populations.
  • The program may have modestly increased academic performance in public schools, consistent with the theory behind school vouchers that they create competition between public and private schools that “lifts all boats.” [Emphasis added.]

The positive impact on racial integration and evidence that competition improved district-school student performance are both positive signs, but the significant negative impact on the performance of participating students is troubling. (Ironically, the evidence suggests that the voucher program may have improved the performance of non-voucher students more than the voucher students.) That said, although the impact on student performance is negative, the second year results show improvement over the first year. 

Georgia Judge Rejects Challenge to School Choice

Great news from the Peach State, where a superior court judge dismissed a constitutional challenge to Georgia’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law. The Institute for Justice intervened to defend the law on behalf of five tax-credit scholarship recipients. Currently, more than 13,000 Georgia students receive tax-credit scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.

School choice opponents alleged that the STC violated the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the state from publicly funding religious schools, among other provisions. However, citing precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts, Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams held that tax-credit eligible donations constitute private funds, not public expenditures:

Courts that have already considered whether a tax credit is an expenditure of public revenue have answered this question in the negative. Of particular importance is Arizona Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011), where the United States Supreme Court found that taxpayers lacked standing to challenge a scholarship tax credit program under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution that was almost identical to the Program at issue here. Like Georgia’s Program, the Arizona program provided that taxpayers could receive a credit for donations made to independent scholarship organizations which then provided scholarships for students to attend private schools. […] Plaintiffs have not presented any arguments for why this Court should not follow this persuasive authority.

The fact that tax-credit eligible donations are private funds is the primary reason that STC laws have a perfect track record in the state courts thus far. It’s also why tax credits are the most liberty-friendly means of financing educational choice, as the late, great Andrew J. Coulson never tired of reminding us. In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s similar ruling five years ago, Andrew wrote:

The rationale underlying the Court’s ruling highlights a unique advantage that tax credits have over other ways of funding education: they expand both freedom of choice for parents and freedom of conscience for taxpayers.

Plaintiffs had argued that cutting a person’s taxes is equivalent to spending government money, and so taxpayers were being compelled to support religion when credits were used for donations to religious [scholarship organizations]. The Court said, “that is incorrect.”

Unlike the funding of public schools, which is compulsory for all taxpayers, participation in [a] tax credit program is voluntary. If an individual chooses not to donate to [a scholarship organization], his taxes are collected just as they have always been, and those dollars cannot be used for any sectarian purpose. Furthermore, if a taxpayer does choose to make a donation, he is free to select the STO most consistent with his own values. […]

There are other ways of funding universal choice in education, but only tax credits (either for parent’s own education expenses or for donations to [scholarship organizations]) respect the freedom of conscience of taxpayers as well as the freedom of choice of parents. If we truly wish our schools to help build strong, harmonious communities, there is no better way than to adopt such programs at the state level on a grand scale.

The opponents of educational choice are likely to appeal the judge’s decision. Let us hope their appeal meets the same fate as all of its predecessors. 

How Congress Should — and Shouldn’t — Bolster School Choice

This week, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on “Expanding Education Opportunity through School Choice.” As I’ve written before, there are lots of great reasons to support school choice policies, but Congress should not create a national voucher program:

It is very likely that a federal voucher program would lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time. Once private schools become dependent on federal money, the vast majority is likely to accept the new regulations rather than forgo the funding.

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

Are Almost All NYC Public Schools Actually Voucher Schools?

A popular knock against vouchers and other school choice programs is that private schools do not serve many students with disabilities, whereas public schools serve everyone. If that’s true, then the vast majority of public schools in New York City must actually be private.

According to a federal investigation just rejected by the de Blasio administration, the large majority of New York City elementary schools – 83 percent – are not “fully accessible” to students with disabilities. That forces many disabled students to travel far afield from their local public schools, which are supposed to serve every zoned child. The U.S. Department of Justice’s letter to the city laying all this out contains this anecdote:

In the course of our investigation, we spoke to one family who went to extreme measures to keep their child enrolled in their zoned local school, rather than subject the child to a lengthy commute to the closest “accessible” school. A parent of this elementary school child was forced to travel to the school multiple times a day, every school day, in order to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, to the cafeteria, and to other areas of the school in which classes and programs were held.

Cruz Introduces Education Savings Accounts Legislation

Yesterday, Sen. Ted Cruz introduced legislation to create an education savings account (ESA) program for students in Washington, D.C. In a press release, Cruz’s office stated that the legislation was modeled after Nevada’s ESA, and Cruz called educational choice “the civil rights issue of our era.”

“Each and every child has the right to access a quality education,” Sen. Cruz said. “Not only does school choice give low-income children the same choices and opportunities that children from wealthy families have always had, it also improves the public schools, making them stronger and more effective. This legislation ensures that every child in Washington, D.C., regardless of race, ethnicity, or zip code, has the same opportunity to choose the school that best fits their needs and will help them achieve their very best.”

Last September, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation and I explained why it’s imperative to break the link between housing and education in D.C. and how an ESA could do just that:

Sadly, access to a quality education is too often dependent on a family’s ability to purchase a home in an expensive area. As The Washington Post reported recently, the median price of a three-bedroom home in a D.C. neighborhood zoned to a public school where reading proficiency rates exceed 80 percent is about $800,000. The median price of similar homes near Eaton Elementary, where the Hills enrolled their children, is north of $1 million. Where the Hills resided in Maryland the median home prices ranged from a much more affordable $330,000 to $460,000.

There is a strong correlation between these housing prices and school performance. In nearly all D.C. neighborhoods where the median three-bedroom home costs $460,000 or less, the percentage of students at the zoned public school scoring proficient or advanced in reading was less than 45 percent. Children from families that could only afford homes under $300,000 are almost entirely assigned to the worst-performing schools in the District, in which math and reading proficiency rates are in the teens.

If policymakers truly believe in equality of opportunity, they must do more to sever the link between education and housing. The District has taken some important steps in the right direction — allowing parents to apply to charter schools and out-of-boundary district schools — but long waiting lists at the best schools have limited their usefulness for most families. […]

ESAs are restricted-use savings accounts parents can use to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services using a portion of the public funding that would have been spent on their child at their assigned district school.

ESAs are an improvement on the traditional voucher model because they empower families to completely customize their child’s educational experience. In addition to private school tuition, parents can spend ESA funds on tutors, textbooks, online courses, special education services and therapies, home-school curricula, and individual public school courses. ESAs even enable families to roll over unused funds from year to year.

These features also make ESAs more economically efficient than vouchers. Whereas traditional vouchers must be spent in their entirety at a single school each year, thereby creating a price floor, there is no minimum amount that ESA holders must spend in one place. The ability to spend ESA funds at multiple vendors or save them for future educational expenditures also gives parents a stronger incentive to economize, which should mitigate tuition inflation. […]

Because the District is under federal jurisdiction, Congress has a rare opportunity to advance a robust school choice option that is both constitutionally appropriate and would make a real difference in the lives of its young citizens by making every child in D.C. eligible for an ESA.