Tag: vouchers

How to Think & Talk About Vouchers & Ed Tax Credits

School Choice Week is here, and there are a lot of people trying to spread the good word about the benefits of increasing educational freedom.

But what benefit of choice is best to focus on?

You can make at most a few points in an oped or on talk radio. On TV, and even in print reporting, you’re lucky to get one point across. And with friends and family, and even politicians, you need to keep the focus where it will do the most good.

So, should you focus on how horrible inner-city schools are, how many lives are destroyed in a failing government system? Maybe. Depends on the person, certainly.

But the evidence suggests that the best message overall is one that focuses on the financial benefits of school choice (and this is even before the financial crisis). People think about vouchers and education tax credits differently. And be careful trying to pull at Democratic heart-strings with arguments that choice will increase educational equity for poor kids … there’s evidence that it backfires!

Take a look at this slide presentation that describes how the public thinks about private school choice, what you should emphasize, and what you should be careful with … it’s not just my opinion, it’s based on evidence from a unique message experiment:

Remarkable Interest in School Choice in Colorado?

In Douglas County, CO, a jurisdiction with 240,000 residents south of Denver, there is strong public interest in the possible implementation of a sweeping school choice program.  Here’s a blurb from the Denver Post:

Douglas County School District officials say an unexpected level of interest in a retreat exploring school choice today and Saturday is forcing them to add an overflow room and a video feed to allow the public to watch the discussion. The school board is investigating a voucher program that would allow students to use public money to help with tuition at approved religious schools and other private ones. The two-day retreat will discuss the findings of a school-choice task force that has been mulling several issues, including vouchers.

…The board will officially discuss the school-choice recommendations at a meeting Tuesday night, during which the public will be allowed to comment. No Colorado school district has a voucher program.

Here’s a link to the full proposal. I’m told that parents will have a voucher for about $4,500 per child that can be used to finance tuition at any qualifying school. This is more than enough money to cover costs at most non-government schools, and the population is sufficiently large to make this program a dramatic test case.

Keep your fingers crossed that Douglas County officials resist special-interest groups that are seeking to thwart this reform. The teacher unions have been vicious in their efforts to stop this kind of development. If Douglas County succeeds in putting kids first, this could break the logjam and lead to better education policy across the nation.

Election Results in School Choice States

While most of the election punditry to date has been focused at the national level, major gains by Republicans in states that already have k-12 education tax credits or school vouchers could lead to the expansion of such programs or the passage of new ones. To see where the action might lie, I offer the chart below, showing post-election party control of the legislative and executive branches of government in school choice states (the height of each bar represents degree of control, with the height of the executive branch = 100%). The states are sorted by the number of branches of government that changed hands (represented on the chart by the yellow circles, which correspond to the axis on the right).

There might be gridlock at the national level, but at the state level we may see some interesting school choice developments over the next 2+ years.

ObamaCare: a Downward Spiral of Rising Costs and Deteriorating Quality

Here’s my contribution to a “one-minute debate” on ObamaCare in the Christian Science Monitor:

The new health-care law’s mandates are already causing health insurance premiums to rise 3 to 9 percent more than they otherwise would. Its price controls are pushing insurers to abandon the market for child-only coverage and will soon begin rationing care to Medicare patients, partly by driving nearly 1 in 6 hospitals and other providers out of the program.

Starting in 2014, when the full law takes effect, things will get really ugly. ObamaCare’s “individual mandate” will drive premiums even higher – assuming the courts have not declared it unconstitutional, as they should. Because the penalty for violating the mandate is a fraction of those premiums, healthy people will wait until they are sick to buy coverage, driving premiums higher still. This is already happening in Massachusetts, which enacted a nearly identical law in 2006. ObamaCare’s price controls will force insurers to cover sick patients at artificially low premiums, guaranteeing that insurers will avoid, mistreat, and dump the sick, because that’s what the price controls reward. ObamaCare’s private health-insurance subsidies will expose low-wage workers to implicit tax rates higher than 100 percent, potentially trapping millions in poverty.

With real reforms like Medicare vouchers and large health savings accounts, and letting consumers purchase health insurance across state lines, a free market would reduce costs and improve quality through innovations such as integrated health systems, nurse-practitioner-staffed primary care clinics, telemedicine, and insurance that offers even sick patients a total satisfaction guarantee.

But until Congress or the courts discard ObamaCare’s mandates, price controls, and new entitlement spending, there is literally nothing that can arrest this downward spiral of rising costs and deteriorating quality.

The above link will also take you to a counter-point by Kavita Patel of the New America Foundation.

Vouchers, Tax Credits, and Social Conflict

Yesterday, I contended that education tax credits substantially avoid the compulsion inherent in school voucher programs – that vouchers compel all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling (including ones they may strongly object to) whereas tax credits do not.

In his most recent response, NRO’s Robert VerBruggen disagrees. He writes

I don’t see how [tax credits do] anything whatsoever to change this, at least mathematically speaking. Whenever someone earmarks their tax dollars for a certain purpose — in this case, by “donating” to a voucher program and being reimbursed with a tax credit — the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget. Non-”donating” taxpayers, therefore, subsidize the voucher program to the exact same degree they would have if the government funded it directly.

Let’s deal with the core of our disagreement by following the money. Under a voucher program, you pay your taxes as always, the money goes into a big government pot, and it pays for every type of schooling – including some that may violate your convictions. About this sort of thing, I agree with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that:

to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical

(Well, I agree with the tyrannical part, anyway).

Tax credit programs like Arizona’s are different. From the start, taxpayers are given a choice. If they wish, they may donate to any of a wide range of k-12 scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition, and receive a dollar for dollar tax cut to offset the cost. That portion of their money – and only that portion of their money – is then used for scholarships for private schooling. So far, there is no conviction-violating compulsion.

Alternatively, taxpayers may choose not to donate to any scholarship organization, in which case they pay their taxes as always and the money goes into the state treasury. From there, the only k-12 educational uses to which it can be put are funding the secular public and public charter school systems. In this scenario, none of the taxpayer’s money goes to fund religious instruction of any kind.

There is no intermixing of funds between these separate options. There are two different pots of money, and each individual taxpayer decides which pot will receive his money.

It is not true that “the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget,” because the government is no longer financially responsible for the education of children once they accept scholarships. To understand this, we again just have to follow the money.

For example, imagine that half of all taxpayers donate to the scholarship program, and half do not. Are the half that do not make donations “subsidiz[ing] the [scholarship students] to the exact same degree” as if it were a voucher? No. Under a voucher program, every taxpayer would be paying some portion of the cost of the program. With tax credits, the entire cost of the private school scholarships is being borne by those taxpayers who are making the donations. The taxes still being paid by non-donors do not go toward scholarships and they do not go up. On the contrary, if anything, the taxes paid by non-donors go down.

Educating students in private schools via scholarship programs costs less than placing them in government schools. The more students leave the government system for independent schools, the less it costs to operate the government schools. [And anyone out there who thinks that fixed costs are dominant in the public school sector should consult the relevant econometric literature. I and others have done marginal cost estimates of public schooling and found it to be in the 80 to 85 percent range – so when a child leaves the public school system, the system saves almost the entire average per-pupil cost.] And as the cost of the public school system goes down, the amount of revenue that needs to be appropriated for it goes down as well. In most states, state level public school appropriations are tied to enrollment, so appropriations will fall as students leave the government system.

The only scenario in which non-donating taxpayers could be said to have an “increased” tax burden due to an an education tax credit program is one in which there was never a tax-funded government school system in the first place. Then, there would be no savings from moving children out of public schools. But even in that fictional scenario, no taxpayer would be forced to pay for devotional religious instruction. They would always have the choice of donating to secular scholarship organizations, if they so wished.

So credits don’t suffer the same conviction-violating, conflict-generating, compulsion problem that afflicts vouchers.

I should add, of course, that public schools are much worse than vouchers in this regard. The conventional public school system not only forces all taxpayers to fund a single official government organ of education, sparking endless battles over what is taught, it puts huge financial pressure on all families to place their kids in that system, by virtue of its lavish funding monopoly. How a nation founded on liberty was ever lured into adopting such a compulsion-laden, Balkanizing system is a very interesting story of its own.

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.

Failures in Ed. Policy Analysis—Misunderstanding Milwaukee

To the extent education policy commentary actually affects policy, it has the potential to do great good or great harm. Several recent commentaries in this field fall into the latter camp, and it’s important to understand why – so that we can avoid similar mistakes in future.

The one I’ll discuss here is this blog post by Matthew Yglesias, in which he draws broad conclusions about the functioning of education markets from a recent study of a tiny school choice program in Milwaukee as well as from some older unspecified research [for the latter, Yglesias linked here, but the body of that page doesn’t discuss school choice]. The Milwaukee study is part of a vast literature. Over the past quarter century at least sixty-five studies have compared outcomes in public and private schools around the world, reporting 156 separate statistical findings.

The evidence of this literature is starkly one-sided. The vast preponderance of findings show private schools outperforming public schools after all the normal controls. What’s more, when we focus on the research comparing truly market-like systems to state-run school monopolies, the market advantage is found to be even more dramatic (see Figure 2 in the paper linked above). To draw policy opinions from a small, selective handful of those studies while ignoring the rest is policy malpractice, and it is dangerous to children.

Even the recent Milwaukee result described by Yglesias as a failure shows voucher students in private schools performing as well as public school students who receive roughly 50% more government funding. How is a program that produces similar academic results to the status quo at a much lower cost to taxpayers a failure? And what of the research suggesting that students in the Milwaukee voucher program graduate at higher rates than those in public schools?

More importantly from a long term policy perspective, how is a program limited to 20,000 or so children in a single city, being served almost entirely by non-profit entities, a test of market education? Would Apple have spent hundreds of millions developing the iPhone or the iPad if its market were limited to the same customer base? Of course not. The dynamism, diversity and innovation we have come to expect from competitive markets in other fields relies on the prospect of ultimately scaling up to serve mass audiences. Without the prospect of a large-scale return on investment, there is no incentive to invest in the first place.