Tag: voucher program

School Choice Murder-Suicide in Pennsylvania

A huge school choice opportunity has been lost for the moment in Pennsylvania. But that lost opportunity is not the voucher program that has  drawn so much attention.

The political conflagration touched off by the push for a targeted, failing-schools voucher program incinerated along with it a massive expansion of an existing, popular, successful, bipartisan-supported, and better program; the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). The House passed this expansion of credit program by a massive margin. And when I say “massive,” I mean 96 percent in favor to 4 percent opposed. Unfortunately, a stand-alone credit bill was not considered in the Senate, and the expansion fell by the wayside as the voucher battle raged.

In the next session, it would be good policy and politics to consider vouchers and credits separately. They are substantively different means of fostering choice, and the public deserves a clear debate and vote on both policies in separate bills.

The Educational Improvement Tax Credit program is vastly superior to all of the voucher bills. Vouchers are open to credible legal challenges, afford no accountability directly to taxpayers, and government money brings stifling government regulations. Furthermore, giving vouchers only to kids in or around “failing schools” won’t produce a dynamic market because there is an ambiguous, limited, and potentially shifting customer base. A failing-schools voucher program is a terrible policy design.

The EITC should not be legislatively handcuffed to vouchers. Vouchers are an inferior policy and a proven political liability. For once the popular, politically smart, most principled, and most effective thing to do are all the same; drop the voucher drama and expand the education tax credit program.

Indiana Voucher Law a Defeat for Educational Freedom

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an expansive new voucher law today. It’s a disaster for educational freedom. Read the full explanation here.

The voucher program has been widely praised as a momentous victory for school choice and Gov. Mitch Daniels on the brink of his long-awaited presidential campaign announcement. In reality, the voucher program is a tactical victory for highly constrained choice won at the price of a broad strategic defeat for educational freedom. This program will greatly expand state regulation of and authority over participating private schools.

In our efforts to expand educational choice across the country, we can’t lose sight of what makes that choice valuable: educational freedom and the diversity of choices it allows to develop. School choice is meaningless if all the choices are the same.

Just a teaser … ever heard of Chief Seattle? Private schools in Indiana will know him well if they take a voucher.

Read the piece for these and other shocking details!

Ensuring that Indiana’s New Voucher Program Lives up to Budgetary Expectations

A new voucher program in Indiana looks likely to be signed by Gov. Daniels soon, but without a slight modification it may not have the benign budgetary impact that is expected.

As written, the program could have a significant negative impact on state finances if families claim both the vouchers and funds from the state’s existing education tax credits.

There is nothing that precludes children who receive a voucher from also topping off that amount with private funds from the existing education tax credit program. That means a voucher student could accept, for example, $4,500 in government funds and then apply for a tax credit scholarship that reduces state revenue by, say, $2,000. The voucher student would cost the state $6,500, not the $4,500 that would be counted on the books. If state funding is 100 percent sensitive to enrollment, the state would save $5,000 on that student switching, and the net impact on state finances would be a $1,500 loss. In other words, the program could have a negative net impact on state finances due to double-dipping.

From a fiscal standpoint, the state would show an apparent “savings” based on the $4,500 voucher, but this would fail to take into account the reduced revenue due to the credit. And the law requires these on-paper-only savings to be passed out to public schools districts. The result? The state government could be out $7,000 on the student in this example, not the $4,500 it paid out in a voucher. The net impact wouldn’t be neutral, it would be a $2,000 loss.

This scenario looks only at how the vouchers might impact state finances. At the local level, the program is likely to have a strongly positive impact on the resources available for each student. But a school choice program’s impact on state finances – ensuring financial transparency, certainty, and a neutral or positive impact – is a critical concern in its own right.

Critics of expanding educational freedom always claim, incorrectly, that school choice programs are a drain on public resources. But the double-dipping that is allowed under this program could inadvertently prove them right – it would also make Indiana’s existing education tax credit program a mere appendage to the new government voucher system. In short, it’s an unforced error, and worth fixing.

I’ll Take “Whatever Evidence I Like” for Hundreds of Billions, Alex

Right before the President’s 2012 budget proposal was released, I wrote a bit about what I was hearing the administration would call for with Pell Grants. Notably, ending year-round Pell on the grounds that the cost was too high and “there was little evidence that students earn their degrees any faster.” I found this argument a bit odd because eligibility to get more than one Pell award annually started in just the 2009-2010 academic year – way too recently to have any conclusive evidence on its effect one way or the other.  I was also surprised because, well, evidence of success has never been important in decisions to keep or kill programs.

Take the embattled – and near dead – Washington, DC voucher program. There is currently a concerted effort to revive the program, but the Obama administration and most congressional Democrats evinced no qualms about killing it despite its well-documented success with graduation rates and parental satisfaction. Documented, in fact, using “gold-standard,” longitudinal, random-assignment research methods. That documentation is why Cato Center for Educational Freedom director Andrew Coulson last week testified to the House education committee that “there is one federal education program that has been proven to both improve educational outcomes and dramatically lower costs. That is the Washington, DC Opportunity Scholarships Program.”

Sadly, the administration – and, to be honest, pols of all stripes – are as happy to ignore the evidence of success in programs they dislike as the very common evidence of failure in programs they support.

Take the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which funds after-school activities intended to keep kids off the streets and provide them with social and educational enrichment.  A series of studies – the last published in 2005 – found that not only didn’t the program appear to provide many positive results, it might have had overall negative effects:

Conclusions: This study finds that elementary students who were randomly assigned to attend the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after-school program were more likely to feel safe after school, no more likely to have higher academic achievement, no less likely to be in self-care, more likely to engage in some negative behaviors, and experience mixed effects on developmental outcomes relative to students who were not randomly assigned to attend the centers.

 
In light of its (at-best) impotence, did the program go away? Of course not! In FY 2010 it was appropriated $1.17 billion, and the Obama administration has asked for $1.27 billion for FY 2012. And this despite not just poor performance, but a pesky $14 trillion national debt.

This is small potatoes, though, compared to some other programs. Take Head Start: Run by the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start is supposed to give poor kids an early boost in life. In reality, however, it has proven itself to be largely worthless, with benefits disappearing after just a few years. It’s a finding that was repeated in a federal evaluation released in 2010, which reported that “the advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.”

Despite this fecklessness, the administration wants to increase funding for Head Start from $7.23 billion in FY 2010 to $8.10 billion in FY 2012.

Clearly, “evidence” doesn’t drive budgeting decisions – it’s just a term that’s invoked when it’s politically expedient to do so. But maybe one more bit of evidence is in order to illustrate this. Compare increases in overall federal spending on K-12 education to the academic performance of 17-year-olds, our schools’ “final products”:

In light of this, if federal policymakers really cared about evidence, would they still be spending money on education at all? The evidence on that, unfortunately, is almost indisputable.

New Report: DC Voucher Program Still a Success

The latest and final scheduled report on the DC voucher program is out.

Conclusion?

Even a tiny, restricted program that’s only been around for six years increases graduation rates, has a positive impact on at least some groups of students, harms no groups of students, and does this for less than a third of what the DC Public Schools spend.

DCPS spends around $28,000 per student. The last report pegged the average voucher at just $6,620. The maximum voucher cost is just $7,500.

Huge sums of money saved, student performance increased, parents happier … why is this program being killed?

Oh, right.

School Vouchers vs. Tax Credits

NRO editor Robert VerBruggen has weighed in a couple of times this week on the relative merits of school vouchers and education tax credits, raising interesting and important issues.

In response to my earlier post today about an education tax credit case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, VerBruggen writes:

If the Supreme Court buys this logic — which I suppose is sound on its face — it could lead to some very interesting programs. Any time it’s illegal for a government to fund something directly, it could simply make a dollar-for-dollar “tax credit” program for it, allowing sympathetic taxpayers to technically “donate” — but actually just redirect the taxes they’d otherwise have to pay — to the cause.

This is actually an argument presented by critics of the program in their brief asking the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal that it… just decided to hear. The fact that this argument is fallacious is no doubt one reason that the Supreme Court decided to reject critics’ request. Here’s where it goes wrong:

Under a constitutional tax credit program such as Arizona’s, the state has no power to pressure/encourage taxpayers to do anything that the state could not do directly. Taxpayers can choose to give no money to religious charities, or to give all their money to them. The state is unable to affect their decisions in any way.

As Ilya Shapiro and I pointed out in Cato’s amicus brief in this case, this is identical to the law pertaining to federal charitable tax deductions. Religious charities get more tax deductible donations than any other kind of entity, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld their constitutionality because the decisions regarding such donations are left entirely to the unfettered choices of private citizens.

While it would be unconstitutional for a tax credit program to only allow donations to religious charities, it is perfectly consistent with the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent for a tax credit program to be religiously neutral, leaving the donating decisions to private citizens.

But there’s much more to it than this. Credits are not just constitutional, they offer an important advantage over vouchers. Under voucher programs, all taxpayers must support every kind of schooling, which can be a source of social conflict in a diverse society. [Think liberals being forced to fund religious-conservative-capitalist schooling; or conservatives being forced to fund schools supporting homosexuality as natural and without any inherent moral implications]. While this doesn’t violate the U.S. constitution (see Zelman v. Simmons Harris), it’s still a less-than-ideal outcome, as was observed in all three dissents in the Zelman case.

Tax credits, as I explained in the last section of our amicus brief (p. 21), avoid this source of social conflict. Not just families but taxpayers enjoy the benefits of free choice and voluntary association. Tax credits are thus a way to ensure universal access to a free educational marketplace without putting citizens into conflict with one another on matters of conscience. For this and many other reasons, they are the best realistic policy for advancing educational freedom yet devised.

More on Milwaukee Vouchers

Joseph Lawler and Philip Klein of the American Spectator have some helpful comments on my earlier post about the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of a recent report on Milwaukee’s voucher program. I had stated that the city’s public schools cost taxpayers about 50% more than the voucher program, and Lawler and Klein note that it’s really more like 100%. They’re right. The approved FY2010 budget is $1.073 billion and enrollment is 82,444 – for a per pupil figure of just over $13,000/pupil. The voucher is worth only $6,607.

My mistake was to rely on my recollection of the MPS spending figure used in a 2009 fiscal impact analysis of the voucher program, which turns out not to have included all the district’s revenue sources.  

But while I’m following up on this, I’d like to re-emphasize the final point of my earlier post, to which the Spectator writers did not draw particular attention: the Milwaukee voucher program is not a test of free market education. As I noted earlier, its total enrollment is legislatively limited to about 20,000 students, and in the past that limit was much lower. Additionally, there is a rigid price control on voucher schools – the voucher must be accepted as full payment, even though it is worth only half as much as public schools spend per pupil.

Think carefully about this. What entrepreneur would enter an industry whose total customer base is confined to a few thousand families in a single U.S. city and which has a rigid price control set at half the spending level of a government protected monopoly operating in that same city?

That is not test of market forces.

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