Tag: vouchers

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.

Taxpayer Choice + Parental Choice = Education Reform That’s Constitutional

Arizona grants income tax credits for contributions made to school tuition organizations (“STO”).  These STOs must these donations for scholarships that allow students to attend private schools.  This statutory scheme broadens the educational opportunities for thousands of students by enabling them to attend schools they would otherwise lack the means to attend. 

The Ninth Circuit held that the tax credit program violated the Establishment Clause because many of the STOs – as it happens, a decreasing majority – provide scholarships for students to attend parochial schools.  Counsel for the defendants, including the Institute for Justice, asked the Supreme Court to review the case – and indeed to summarily reverse the Ninth Circuit, based in part on a 2002 case (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) rejecting a similar challenge to a school voucher program.  Cato filed a brief, joined by the Foundation for Educational Choice and the American Federation for Children, supporting this request. 

Our brief argues that the funds received by STOs are the product of individual taxpayers’ “genuine and independent choice” – the touchstone by which the Court judges the religious neutrality of statutes allowing for taxpayer money to fund religious education.  Moreover, the tax credit scheme is indistinguishable from similar charitable tax deduction programs that the Court has previously held to pass constitutional muster.  While the Ninth Circuit reasoned that Arizona parents feel pressured to send their kids to parochial schools due to limited scholarships available for secular schools, it failed to consider that the share of STO money available to secular schools was nearly twice as large as the share of families choosing to send their children to secular schools. 

Far from being an impediment to parental freedom, the autonomy Arizona grants to taxpayers and STOs is ultimately essential to it.  More generally, should the lower court’s opinion be allowed to stand, the progress made to broaden the educational opportunities of students across the country will be stifled. 

The name of the case is Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.  The Court will likely decide before it breaks for the summer whether to take it up – and, indeed, whether to summarily reverse the Ninth Circuit.

DC Vouchers, Democrats and Teachers Unions

The Washington Post ran an incisive op-ed yesterday by Kelly Amis and Joseph Robert on the DC voucher program. As they noted, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is calling on the Senate to restore funding for the program which was terminated on a nearly party-line vote by Congress last December.

A few Democrats (Dianne Feinstein and Robert Byrd) have joined with Lieberman, but the rest of the party has apparently decided that producing better educational outcomes for poor kids at one quarter the cost of public schooling is not politically advantageous.

As Amis and Robert point out, private schools are far less unionized than the public school sector, so giving families an easier choice between the two will likely eat into to union revenues. And teachers union revenues end up disproportionately in the political piggy banks of Democrats.

The only thing that will change this situation is if voters decide they’ve had enough of such craven, Machiavellian politics, and vote the bums out. And some Democrats do indeed already seem to have had enough.

Head Start’s Impact Evanescent — HHS Study

HHS has finally released the second installment of its series of studies on the persistence of Head Start effects. Its finding (see page xiv): virtually all academic effects disappear by the end of 1st grade. There is only one positive statistically significant finding out of eleven academic outcomes measured, the size of that effect is minuscule by recognized standards (it’s half way between zero and what most social scientists consider “small”), and the confidence in the finding is low by recognized standards. (Many authors would categorize it as “insignificant” rather than “significant” – it’s only significant at a 90% confidence interval, not the more common 95% confidence interval).

We have spent more than $100 billion on the program to date (ballpark estimate from Table 375 here) and HHS’s own research shows that its results diminish to essentially nothing by the end of the first grade.

There are other government education programs whose effects actually grow substantially over time, and that are comparatively economical. Consider the federal DC voucher program. Just a year or two after switching from public to private schools, the effect of the private schooling was not big enough to rise to the level of statistical significance. But by their third year in private schools, the evidence was clear that voucher-receiving students were reading more than two grade levels above a randomized control group that stayed in public schools.  This program, as I’ve previously documented, costs 1/4 as much per pupil as DC spends on public education: about $6,600 vs. $28,000.

But Congress, and particularly Democrats, have defunded the DC voucher program while raising spending on Head Start. President Obama is at the forefront of this travesty. If you weren’t already jaded and disgusted by education politics and its domination by employee unions opposed to educational choice, start now.

DC Vouchers Solved? Generous Severance for Displaced Workers

Colbert King argues that DC should continue the opportunity scholarships private school choice program on its own dime, instead of complaining that Congress is killing it off. He starts off with a refreshing dose of realpolitik: “It should come as no surprise that Democratic congressional leaders are effectively killing the program. They, and their union allies, didn’t like it in the first place.” Too true. This is what disgusts many Americans about politics, but hey, that’s the reality.

But then he seems to descend into uncharacteristic naivete with this:

If the city likes vouchers so much, why shouldn’t the District bear the cost? The answer is as clear as it may be embarrassing to voucher proponents: D.C. lawmakers don’t want to ask their constituents to shoulder the program’s expense.

That is NOT the answer. DC lawmakers are familiar with DC’s budget. DC’s FY 2009 budget, as I show in this Excel spreadsheet file, allocated $28,170 per pupil for k-12 schooling. And the average voucher amount is not $7,500, as King claims. That’s the maximum. The average is $6,620 one quarter of what the district is spending on k-12 schooling. So operating the voucher program entirely out of the District of Columbia’s own budget would not cost a dime. And if expanded, it would save DC tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars.

So DC lawmakers are most certainly NOT afraid of asking constituents to pay for it – it would more than pay for itself. What DC lawmakers must be afraid of is that DC schools have become a massive jobs program instead of an educational program. They must fear that if the voucher program were expanded it would put many non-teaching staff out of work – including perhaps some of their own supporters.

Well how about a realpolitik solution to that problem: offer displaced workers 18 months of severance pay at something like 75% of their current salary. That would give them plenty of time to find other work, and it could be paid for from the savings of students migrating from public schools to the voucher program. This would mean that taxpayers would not see savings in the first couple of years, but after that the District would be able to offer taxpayers generous tax cuts while also offering kids significantly better learning opportunities.

Surely the details of such a deal could be hammered out by experienced politicians and negotiators. Because, really, the status quo is insane. Why keep paying $28,000 for a worse education than the voucher program is providing for $6,600? That is sheer madness.