Tag: tax credits

A Quick Round-Up on Education Policy and the 2012 Elections

Californians approved Prop 30, a $6 trillion dollar tax hike intended to save public schools from “devastating” cuts. In fact, the state is already spending around $30 billion more today on public schooling than it did in the early 1970s, after controlling for both enrollment growth and inflation—and SAT scores, the only academic outcome measure going back that far, are down. Prediction: this $6 billion will have little impact on children’s education even if it does make it to the school level. Instead, it will further slow California’s economy and drive a few more businesses out of the state.

Georgia approved a new charter school authorizer, which should lead to more rapid growth of charter schools in that state. Based on recent research published by the Cato Institute, this will increase generally mediocre options within the public school sector by, in part, cannibalizing generally better options in the private sector. Georgia can avoid a net reduction in educational diversity, freedom, and quality by expanding its existing education tax credit program.

Washington becomes the 43rd state to adopt charter schools. Initiative 1240 caps the state-wide charter school count at 40 over the next five years, however, so it will have little short term impact. If the charter cap is expanded before Washington state levels the financial playing field for private schooling through a tax credit program like Georgia’s, the existing independent education sector in the state will be largely consumed by the competition from new “free” charter schools.

High profile Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett has been defeated by his rival Glenda Ritz. Ritz not only opposes the statewide voucher program championed by Bennett, she is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn it. Indiana’s voucher legislation accords the state department of education the power to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to its implementation, including determination of students’ eligibility to receive vouchers. If Ritz does not use these powers in an attempt to hobble and curtail the program, I will be shocked.

The political balance in New Hampshire’s legislature has shifted toward Democrats strongly supportive of the educational status quo. This raises the possibility that there will be efforts to cripple or repeal a K-12 scholarship donation education tax credit in that state. Though the program is quite small, it was among the best-designed in the country and it would be an unfortunate turn of events for low-income children in that state if the program is killed.

None of these developments or possible developments are likely to derail the growing interest in expanding educational freedom in America as a whole, but they do suggest that reformers have more work to do in educating themselves and the public about what works and what doesn’t in education policy.

State Rep. Balks at Voucher Funding for Muslim School

Just as Louisiana’s legislative session was wrapping up earlier this month, state Rep. Kenneth Havard refused to vote for any voucher program that “will fund Islamic teaching.” According to the AP, the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans was on a list of schools approved by the state education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard declared: “I won’t go back home and explain to my people that I supported this.”

For unreported reasons, the Islamic school subsequently withdrew itself from participation in the program and the voucher funding was approved 51 to 49. With the program now enacted and funded, nothing appears to stand in the way of the Islamic school requesting that it be added back to the list, and it is hard to imagine a constitutionally sound basis for rejecting such a request.

This episode illustrates a fundamental flaw in government-funded voucher programs: they must either reject every controversial educational option from eligibility or they compel taxpayers to support types of education that violate their convictions. In either case, someone loses. Either poor Muslims in New Orleans are denied vouchers or taxpayers who don’t wish to support Muslim schools are compelled to do so.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Education tax credit programs can ensure universal access to the education marketplace without violating anyone’s freedom of conscience. That’s because tax credits extend choice not only to parents but to taxpayers as well. Taxpayers in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and a half dozen other states can choose to donate to nonprofit tuition-assistance organizations that serve the poor. If they do make a donation, they pick the organization that receives their funds, whether it be Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, secular or entirely indifferent to religiosity.

Similarly, direct education tax credits for parents who pay for their own children’s education compel no one to support those parents’ choices. Such personal education tax credits, which already exist in Illinois and Iowa, merely let parents keep more of their own money. Far from increasing the tax burden on their fellow citizens, parents who pay for their own children’s education with the help of a credit save other taxpayers from having to pay for their children’s state schooling.

The school choice movement does not need to throw taxpayers’ freedom of conscience under the bus to secure freedom of choice for parents.

Tax Credit Policy Design for School Choice: A Response to John Kirtley

There are few people with whom I am so much in agreement on the goals of education policy as John Kirtley. To the extent that we differ, it’s chiefly about the best ways of achieving those shared goals. With that in mind, here are my thoughts on his recent post on Education RedefinEd.

Regulation of Private Schools under Education Tax Credit Programs

I’ve no reason to think that the customary financial reporting requirements imposed on scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) are problematic, but the same cannot be said about regulations imposed on the private schools themselves. In response to an earlier post by Adam Schaeffer, John writes that “Adam is absolutely correct that you can only drive so much excellence through top-down accountability.” But Adam actually goes further, arguing that there is no evidence you can drive any excellence through “top-down accountability” (read: “government regulations”) on private schools. The purpose of noting the corruption in state schools (e.g., in Florida and Atlanta) is to show that even the vast array of government regulations imposed on public schools fails to curtail such defects. And, as I found in reviewing the worldwide literature comparing different types of government, pseudo-market, and market education systems, it is the least regulated, most market-like systems that consistently do the best job of serving families across all measured outcomes.

If there were compelling evidence that government regulations on schools could reduce corruption or boost academic achievement, there might be a case for such regulations being added to tax credit programs. But no such evidence exists to the best of my knowledge. In addition to failing to achieve its intended goals, regulation inhibits the educational freedom and diversity that are responsible for the market’s efficiency and responsiveness to families—undermining the whole purpose of a choice program.

The one and only empirically defensible argument in favor of regulations of schools under tax credit programs is political: in some states, it may not be possible to enact tax credit programs without such regulations. In that case, a judgment call has to be made on whether the regulations are so bad as to compromise the program and make it unworthy of passage, because it would fail to produce positive results and give the movement a black eye that would mistakenly be carried over to better, freer programs.

But that argument does not apply to states that have already enacted relatively free school choice programs, by definition: the bills have already passed, so the regs weren’t politically necessary.

Multi-SGO vs. Single SGO Tax Credit Program

 John also argues that a proliferation of SGOs increases the risk of a financial or other SGO scandal in any given year. It’s a plausible argument. If the probability of a scandal breaking out at any one SGO is fixed, and that probability is equal to x, then the probability of a scandal breaking out at any one of a group of SGOs would be = 1 – (1 – x)^N, where N is the number of SGOs. As N goes up, so does the likelihood of at least one scandal occurring.

On the other hand, it seems likely that the probability of a scandal breaking out at an SGO is not fixed, but rather is proportional to the number of people the SGO employs. Hiring more people raises the chance that you eventually hire someone crooked. Tempting as it is to develop a full-blown mathematical model for scandal risk based on the number and size of the SGOs, it seems sufficient to say that the two factors probably cancel each other out to a considerable extent. In other words, it is not obvious that scandal risk would be appreciably different in single SGO vs. multi-SGO environments.

But the absolutely crucial factor that the above discussion omits is that the impact of a scandal also varies with respect to the number of SGOs. If you have 200 SGOs, each of limited size, and one of them has a scandal, it’s no big deal. Donors will just stop giving to that SGO and it will go out of business unless it manages the Herculean task of convincing the public it has mended its ways. Parents that had gotten scholarships from it will then seek scholarships from one of the SGOs that is now receiving the donations that the corrupt one used to get. In fact, this is just what would have happened in the case of the errant donation that John mentions, whether or not any new regulations were imposed.

Indeed, we see this with charities in general. Charitable giving is hugely popular in the United States, but every year some charities are found to be fraudulent or mismanaged. This has had little or no effect on the popularity of charitable giving over time. The system has proven extremely resilient as former donors to the fallen charities have simply shifted their giving to better-run institutions. There has been no move to winnow down America’s charitable landscape either overtly or indirectly (such as by drastically limiting the share of donations that can be used for operational overhead, and thereby driving most institutions out of business).

John likens the probability of a scandal at an SGO in a multi-SGO tax credit program to “giving the enemy a hand grenade.” Extending that simile, the single SGO model is like giving opponents a nuclear time bomb. What happens if there is only one SGO that accepts all the donations in a state and it succumbs to a scandal? Donors have nowhere else to turn. Many will likely stop donating and poor families who were depending on those scholarships will suffer. That, in turn, will not sit well with legislators or the public, who would likely act to re-open the flow of funds to those families.

But how would they go about trying to do that on short notice? One way would be for the state to take over the corrupt SGO and promise to set it aright. As we’ve seen, state control of education does not prevent scandals, so that won’t work—but it would destroy the independence of the program. Another alternative would be for the state to create its own SGO alongside the corrupt one, with much the same effect. Yet another option would be for the state to impose a passel of new regulations on the corrupt SGO, promising that these would solve the problem—which, as we’ve seen, they’d be highly unlikely to do. And finally, the state could simply shut the program down entirely, forcing all those families back into the state school monopoly, which they had deliberately chosen to flee. Every one of those outcomes is far worse than the outcome in a state with many SGOs. Indeed, even without a scandal, a single-SGO system represents a vastly easier and more tempting target for a state takeover than a distributed, multi-SGO system.

I am both very happy and very relieved to grant that John’s organization, Step Up for Students, is impeccably run and is not likely to suffer a scandal in the foreseeable future. But, as Adam asks, what happens if/when John and the organization’s current top executives are gone? And similarly, what happens in states that don’t have a John Kirtley to create and brilliantly staff and oversee their one and only SGO? I’ve been around long enough to know that John Kirtleys do not grow on trees. The school choice movement is astonishingly lucky to have him as one of its leading lights. And because of the rarity of his invaluable qualities, it is unwise to design a policy that relies on similarly exceptional individuals to lead every SGO in every state in perpetuity.

Some SGOs will inevitably be overseen by less experienced, capable and honorable people (just as some public school districts are today) and so our education policies must systematically minimize the damage that mismanagement and corruption can do. Giving donors real choice among a panoply of different SGOs is the only mechanism yet suggested to accomplish this task, and one that has proven its value for generations in the broader charitable sector.

Preserving Parental Choice

There is another important reason to prefer the multi-SGO model, a goal that John and I deeply share: preserving real parental choice. A central conclusion of my journey through education history from classical Greece to modern America, England, Canada and Japan was that parents generally make better choices for their own children than even “expert” third parties make on their behalf. That is true whether the third parties are government bureaucracies or private institutions. And in my reading of that history I failed to find a single education system in which third parties who were paying for children’s education indefinitely restrained themselves from shaping what or how those children were taught. Ultimately, the money came with strings attached. (The G.I. Bill, sometimes presented as a counterfactual to this observation, is actually not relevant, since the pattern I’m describing is for elementary and secondary education. It is when children are young and their minds most malleable that the temptation is greatest to shape them in whatever image the third party wishes.)

We’d be wise to expect that pattern to continue. But if all third party payment ultimately comes with strings, how do you preserve the maximum level of parental choice? You prevent any single individual or organization from gaining a monopoly in third party education subsidies. By ensuring that a multiplicity of funding sources exists, you make it possible for parents to seek assistance from whichever organization most closely comports with their needs and preferences.

The freedom of donors to give to different SGOs that match their different educational ideals thus offers unique protection to families against being forced to accept strings they object to.

The alternative John suggests, legislatively forbidding SGOs from attaching any conditions to their scholarships, is unlikely to achieve its intended aim in the long run. Certainly there is no precedent for it, and it is easy to think of cases that would undermine it. What happens when schools begin to open that refuse to serve gay students? Or that exclusively serve them? What about Wiccan schools? What about “Marx’s Manifesto Middle School”? What about “Hayek High”? For each one of these schools, there is a distinct and sizable constituency that would deeply object to funding it. So what happens if all SGOs have to fund all of them? Do angry, coerced donor/taxpayers roll over and go gently into that good night of compulsion? No. They demand that their representatives impose restrictions on the eligibility criteria for private schools. But since we live in a pluralistic society, that ultimately will result in a gradual accretion of homogenizing restrictions on the kinds of education schools can offer, winnowing down the range of choices available to families—precisely the opposite of the intended goal.

Nor is this merely a hypothetical. I suspected this phenomenon would exist based on my research for Market Education: The Unknown History, but recently tested it statistically by comparing the level of regulation imposed on private schools under voucher versus education tax credit programs. Under vouchers, every taxpayer is compelled to pay for every government-approved private school. Under tax credit programs (with the partial exception of Florida’s) donors have very broad latitude in choosing the kind of SGO they will support, and SGOs have similar latitude. So, based on my theory, we would expect vouchers programs to result in more heavily regulated private schools than tax credit programs because of the compulsion that vouchers perpetuate but tax credits avoid. After crunching the numbers using two different statistical methods and allowing for thousands of different randomized ways of measuring regulatory burden, I found that vouchers do impose a large and statistically significant extra burden of regulation on private schools that tax credits do not. This evidence is not dispositive, but it is consistent with the analysis outlined above, and it’s the only evidence we have. I suggest that we ignore it not so much at our own peril as at the peril of the children we seek to serve.

One Model to Rule Them All?

In any discussion of the “best” policy, I think it’s wise to consider the possibility that any one of us (or even all of us) could be wrong. Education policy is hard. We can of course do our best to collect the widest possible body of relevant evidence, and to test our recommendations empirically whenever possible. We can and should have more discussions like this one, which are hugely valuable. But after all that, we could still be missing something.

Given that reality, there is one other step we can consider to maximize our chances of getting education policy right: we can let different models coexist side by side for a few decades and watch how well they perform, rather than trying to homogenize them up front. If one program doesn’t work quite as well as another, we will see that and be able to learn from it. But if we insist on conformity in the short term, we may never learn those important lessons. And if we settle on a fundamentally flawed model, the results could fall very far short of our hopes and expectations.

Of course, in any state that is just adopting a school choice program for the first time, there has to be a decision as to which program is best. But in states where programs have already been implemented, it seems far wiser to allow them to mature independently rather than to try to “fix” them or even supplant them with new and different programs simply because we believe that they may suffer shortcomings in the future.

Almost anything is better than the status quo monopoly, and yet we’ve had this awful monopoly for a century and a half. It’s hard to correct mistakes once a policy monoculture has established itself and crowded out the alternatives.

Ed. Policy Reality Check (Now with More Reality!)

The Orlando Sentinel published an article over the weekend titled “Education: Big reforms haven’t yet produced big results.” It seems to have been meant as a reality check, and certainly it does contain a few relevant facts, but it also leaves this statement from “critics” unchallenged: “schools won’t get better without more money.”

Slight problem: Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit is raising academic achievement at less than half the per pupil cost of the traditional state-run schools. That’s according to academic studies commissioned by the state of Florida and by the state’s own spending and enrollment data.

Figlio and Hart, 2010, found that the scholarship tax credit program improves academic performance in public schools; and Figlio, 2011, found that students using the scholarships to attend independent schools are also benefiting academically. As for cost, the average scholarship is about $4,000. For comparison, the state’s public school districts spent $27 billion in 2009-10 (bottom of page 21, first column), for 2.6 million students, for per pupil spending of just over $10,000.

Government, Education, and Freedom

I did the above interview recently with ChoiceMedia.tv on the subject of education tax credits and vouchers, in which I argued that credits are a better way of ensuring universal access to the education marketplace. Credits can either directly reduce the taxes owed by families who pay for their own children’s education (as in Illinois and Iowa), or they can offset donations taxpayers make to non-profit k-12 scholarship programs that provide tuition assistance to the poor (as in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and several other states).

The interview elicited an important question from a commenter: If financial assistance for the poor comes from scholarship programs, isn’t there a risk that those programs will impose restrictions on how the scholarships can be used, thereby curtailing poor families’ educational options?

Minimizing that problem is actually one of the many reasons to prefer education tax credits over vouchers. Any time someone other than the parents is footing the bill for a child’s education, there is the risk that this third party is going to limit parents’ choices. The worst case, historically, has been when that third party is the government. When governments pay for schooling, there is a single set of regulations on what choices parents can make, and there is no way to avoid those regulations short of rejecting the financial assistance altogether—which the poorest families have difficulty doing. Vouchers bring with them this single set of government rules (and it is often an extensive one as I discovered in this study).

By contrast, scholarship tax credit programs, like the one in Pennsylvania, give rise to a multitude of different organizations that provide tuition assistance to poor families. If any one of those organizations decides to impose a particular set of restrictions on the use of its scholarships, it has no effect on any of the other organizations. Parents looking for financial assistance are thus free to seek it from a scholarship organization that aligns with their needs and values. The multiplicity of different sources of funding is instrumental—in fact it is essential—in ensuring that poor parents’ choices are not curtailed.

I’ve made this argument in a variety of places, most recently in a U.S. Supreme Court brief in the Arizona tax credit case ACSTO v. Winn.

The Sodom and Gomorrah of Public Schooling?

I was tied up when the massive Atlanta School District cheating scandal broke last month, and so didn’t get around to blogging it. [Recap: nearly 200 teachers and principals in half of the district’s 100 schools were involved]. But, with other large-scale cheating investigations still on-going, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was asked about the problem yesterday during a video-taped “Twitter town hall” (minute 12:00). Specifically, he was asked if the high-stakes tests mandated by NCLB are to blame (minute 16:50). Though Duncan made an off-hand comment that high-stakes NCLB-required tests may have contributed to the pressure that lead to the cheating, he repeatedly blamed the cheating on a uniquely “morally bankrupt culture” in Atlanta’s public schools. That didn’t convince interviewer John Merrow, who cited several other cities where cheating investigations are underway—nor should it convince you.

The problem is not that Atlanta is the Sodom and Gomorrah of public schooling. The problem is that state schooling separates payment from consumption. The accountability mechanism of competitive markets—the only such mechanism that actually works—requires the payer to also be the consumer, because the central incentive for any service provider is to please the payer. So if the consumer isn’t paying, he or she is rendered relatively unimportant in the eyes of the provider. Atlanta parents want their children to be well educated, but a lot of work is required to meet that goal. State and federal bureaucrats just want high scores on NCLB-mandated tests—that’s much easier to achieve by cheating than by doing an excellent job teaching. So there is an incentive for school officials to cheat because they are paid by the bureaucrats, not by the parents. Not every teacher succumbs to this incentive, of course, but the incentive is very clearly putting pressure in the wrong direction.

Now consider the incentive structure of schools paid directly by parents in tuition. The incentive in that scenario is to give parents what they want, which is usually a high quality education for their children. Certainly schools could try to lie to parents about how well their children are doing, but this is much harder than lying to bureaucrats. A great many parents will notice a discrepancy if their illiterate children are awarded A’s. And parents considering a school will notice a discrepancy if the “A”-graded graduates of that school somehow cannot gain admission to, or often drop out of, the next higher level of education. Word of mouth—and now word-of-social-networking-apps—is a powerful thing. So it’s much harder for parent-funded schools to get away with cheating, even if they were predisposed to use that strategy.

This is why no system of education that relies exclusively on third-party payment will ever match the quality and progress that we have come to expect in every other field. Indeed, it argues for finding ways of ensuring universal access to education that rely, as much as possible, on direct payment of tuition by parents. Of all the currently viable education policies, the one that fits that description best is the education tax credit—particularly direct credits for families’ own education expenses. And, among third-party payment methods, scholarship tax credits also have advantages over the alternatives.

This is a reality many folks will not want to hear or accept, but reality is not optional.

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Education Tax Credits More Popular Than Vouchers & Charters

As Neal wrote about earlier, Education Next has released their new poll, and there are some interesting results.

Surprisingly, the authors buried the lede in their writeup; education tax credits consistently have more support and less opposition than any other choice policy.

This year, donation tax credits pulled in a 29-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 25-point margin of support.

The authors added a new, less neutral voucher question that boosted the margin of support to 20 points. They couched the policy in terms of “wider choice” for kids in public schools, and the implication was that it was universal. All three of these additional considerations tend to have a positive impact on support for choice policies.

The standard low-income voucher question showed a big jump this year from a -12 in 2010 to a 1-point margin of support. The last time Education Next asked a low-income tax credit question, it garnered a 19-point margin of support.

Last year, tax credits had a 28-point margin of support (that’s total favor minus total oppose). In contrast, charter schools had a 22-point margin of support and vouchers for low-income kids went -12 points (more respondents opposed).

Public opinion is consistently and strongly in favor of education tax credits over vouchers and even charter schools. And thankfully, they’re a much better policy as well.