Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dishonest Voucher Arguments

There are many arguments to be made for a school voucher program-- lord knows we've been hearing them for decades now. Some of them reveal a different concept of what public education is for, or a values system that gives more weight to entrepreneurial opportunity than actual education (it's more important to open markets than make sure that all children are getting an education). I disagree with these value choices, but I can at least recognize arguments that are built on those foundations.

But some voucher advocate build their arguments on smoke and unicorn farts and yeti holograms. There's a good display of this style of voucher advocacy at the National Review site this morning, courtesy of Will Flanders. Flanders is Research Director at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a way-right Bradley-funded thinky tank; he has a PhD from Florida State.

Flanders wants us to know it's time to stop pussy-footing around with vouchers and just use "the language of their intellectual progenitor, Milton Friedman." Because vouchers are not a form of welfare (because if they were, that would be awful).

Flanders opens that by arguing for vouchers based on fairness, voucheristas have short-circuited their case for vouchers vouchers everywhere, and if they want to expand, they will have to take a new rhetorical tack. (Because the education debates are not about education, but about PR strategy). If vouchers are to level the playing field for poor families, then we'll never be able to expand vouchers for wealthy families.

Then Flanders tries to make his This Is Totally Not Welfare argument.

There is a critical difference between school choice and most welfare programs. Social-welfare programs are redistributive — taking from those of means and giving to those without. School-choice programs are different. In their purest form, they take money that is earmarked for a student in a public school and transfer it to an alternative private school that the student’s parents believe will provide a better education. The money is spent regardless of where a student’s parents decide to send him to school.

There are several levels of high-grade baloney here.

One is a standard choicer sleight-of-hand. We're taking the students' money, the family's money and giving it to the choice school. Except we're not, because that money is taxpayer money. This is a dishonest argument because conservatives already know the counterargument because they unleashed it against the Bernie Sanders Free College for Everyone Plan. 

But Flanders can't admit that vouchers spend tax dollars because that would mean this IS welfare-- Wealthy McGotbucks pays his school taxes and the government gives a chunk of that money to a poor kid so that the poor kid can go to a private school. Voila-- redistribution of dollars. 

So to avoid the problem of arguing for what they hate, voucheristas have to pretend that the money is"spent regardless," like a pile of money that just magically appears wrapped up in a bag marked "school." But as anybody from Wisconsin can tell you, schools are paid for with tax dollars, and just like all other tax dollars, the extraction of school tax dollars is open to argument, negotiation and general circumvention. No conservative anti-tax folks are looking at the pile of school tax dollars and saying, "Well, clearly that's a cost we have to just keep paying and there's nothing we could do about it by way of lobbying or legislation or electing a governor bent on crushing the public sector."

Then Flanders is back to arguing that Friedman's ideas are really good. And from notions such as the idea that parents will be rational actors who pick schools based on hard data, and not folks making highly emotional decisions about their children while floating in a market clogged with asymetric information where the only "hard data" they have is marketing fluff from private schools-- well, Milton was full of it on that one. 

Nor is there any reason to accept, as Flanders does, the notion that having to "compete for students" will somehow create better schools, when the very notion of treating students like prizes to be collected rather than human beings to be served is a disastrous notion (for so many reasons, but consider this one-- in a system where students are prizes to be collected, some will be more valuable than others, and the ones who are least valuable will be the ones who most need the help of the school). 

As advocates, we cannot and should not abandon the fairness-based argument for school choice. But if we are to realize Milton Friedman’s vision of an educational free market, we must couple our appeals to fairness with appeals to the economic liberty on which his vision was based. American parents of all classes and income levels deserve nothing less.
I give Flanders credit for one thing-- at no point does he try to argue that achieving Friedman's goal would provide a better education for every student in this country. But he also fails to state the obvious-- that a voucher system would be, in effect, a federally-funded free market, which is its own special kind of oxymoron. Not that we don't have such things. 
To make sure that people don't go hungry, we collect a bunch of tax dollars and redistribute them, voucher-like, to some folks who then go buy food in a free market store. Flanders and his colleagues suggest that we collect tax dollars and redistribute them to some folks who then go buy school enrollment in a free market. Flanders seems to want to distinguish between these two by not means-testing recipients of school vouchers on the theory, I guess, that when you redistribute tax dollars to non-poor folks, it's not welfare. Which is one more reason that Flander's argument is not only wrong, but intellectually dishonest.


  1. Greene basically makes two arguments - and it's strange because he leaves out what is perhaps the strongest argument against vouchers:

    1. Families aren't taxpayers - First, he criticizes the that families are simply redirecting tax dollars by saying that it's the family that chooses while the taxpayer who pays. And this is true - but it's a strange point. For the most part, families ARE tax payers. But let's take the exception - a poor single mother earning $15k/yr. The US has long argued that students should be able to attend K-12 regardless of ability to pay. Does Greene really want to reject that idea ?

    2. Difficult kids - " in a system where students are prizes to be collected, some will be more valuable than others, and the ones who are least valuable will be the ones who most need the help of the school". Greene has long made the argument that the private sector simply allows the producer to choose their customers (as if Coke cares who purchases their soda ?). In some sense, I accept his argument. Consider Special Needs kids where the law requires additional services notwithstanding the expense. The solution here seems to simply allow those kids to be allocated the higher dollar figure that they already spend in district schools.

    3. Voucher Insufficiency - The best argument against vouchers (it seems to me) is simply that many voucher programs violate the basis tenet outlined above - "The US has long argued that students should be able to attend K-12 regardless of ability to pay." And charters fulfill that mandate since that poor single mother doesn't need to spend additional dollars whether she chooses a district school or charter. But most voucher programs only cover a fraction of the cost of the private school chosen. To make the family responsible for the remainder provides more choice for those with more income - exactly the opposite of the choice movement. To me, the improvement (though expensive) would be to charterize it ... to say to every school participating in the program that they must accept as full payment the voucher that the parent has to offer. Given the expense involved, this would probably require means testing the program also - which Greene suggested and where I agree.

    Bottom line - The argument in favor of vouchers is the same as the charter argument - with one twist. In many areas of the country, there simply does not exist the population density to support a charter. Instead, you've got to use what already exists - which is usually district schools and private schools (often with religious affiliation). I recognize the church/state issue - and this needs to be addressed. But the idea is simply to allow rural families to have the same choice as their urban peers.

    1. Where does Greene make the argument that families are not taxpayers? That's really disingenuous on your part and I'm surprise he posted this strawman argument.

      Of course families are taxpayers. They're just not the *only* taxpayers. All of us are in this together (contrary to what you righties believe), so all of us have a stake in how the money is spent. Taxes are not some kind of bank account where you personally take out what you personally paid in. Tax money is never spent for individual benefit, but for the benefit of the whole, or at the very least the greater part of the whole.

      If you're going to make the argument that individuals should have the right to direct the spending of their tax dollars, then do I have the right to not pay for the U.S. military? How about my share of that money gets spent on hiring my own personal security force?

  2. "...in a system where students are prizes to be collected, some will be more valuable than others...."

    Students as Pokemon. Some are Snorlaxes, some are Woopers. What can you do? Gotta catch 'em all!

  3. It's funny that this should come out today, the day after a SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN article, written by veteran journalist Peg Tyre, came out stating that the voluminous data and studies show that vouchers don't work, and asking ...

    ... so why is Trump and Devos pushing them?

    Here's that article:


    Dr. Ravitch wrote about this piece here:


    DIANE RAVITCH: "Veteran journalist Peg Tyre reviews the research on vouchers in Scientific American and finds little reason for the Trump administration to add federal support to a national voucher program. Despite any sound evidence, Trump and Betsy DeVos have made vouchers the centerpiece of federal policy.

    “Because the Trump administration has championed vouchers as an innovative way to improve education in the U.S., Scientific American examined the scientific research on voucher programs to find out what the evidence says about Friedman’s idea. To be sure, educational outcomes are a devilishly difficult thing to measure with rigor. But by and large, studies have found that vouchers have mixed to negative academic outcomes and, when adopted widely, can exacerbate income inequity. On the positive side, there is some evidence that students who use vouchers are more likely to graduate high school and to perceive their schools as safe.” [Voucher schools have very high attrition rates, so the weakest students are gone before senior year in high school. See here.]

    “Until now, only a handful of American cities and states have experimented with voucher programs. Around 500,000 of the country’s 56 million schoolchildren use voucher-type programs to attend private or parochial schools. The results have been spotty. In the 1990s studies of small voucher programs in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, found no demonstrable academic improvement among children using vouchers and high rates of churn—many students who used vouchers dropped out or transferred schools, making evaluation impossible. One study of 2,642 students in New York City who attended Catholic schools in the 1990s under a voucher plan saw an uptick in African-American students who graduated and enrolled in college but no such increases among Hispanic students.” [A higher proportion of the mothers of the African-American students in the study, critics found, had attended college, had a full-time job, and had a higher income, compared to the mothers of African students who did not use the voucher. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=, p. 16.]



    Tyre reviews the voucher research in various cities and states. Here is a recent study:


    “In a 2016 study of Ohio’s Educational Choice (EdChoice) Scholarship program, which has used public money to supplement the tuition of 18,000 students at private and parochial schools, researchers used longitudinal data from 2003 through 2013 to examine academic outcomes of students who used vouchers and those who were eligible but did not transfer to a private school. (Because the Ohio voucher program requires children who use taxpayer money to take state tests, apples-to-apples scores were readily available.) They found that when children transferred out of their public schools through the program, their math scores—and to a lesser extent, their reading scores—dropped significantly and stayed depressed. “I was surprised by the negative—it’s a big negative,” says study co-author David Figlio of Northwestern University. He speculates that the negative outcome might have occurred because top private schools opted out of the voucher program because they did not wish to make students take state tests. As a result, voucher students were left with mostly subpar options. “A lot of the reason that parents are interested in sending kids to private schools is that there is too much testing in public,” he says.

    “Better-performing students were the ones who used the voucher program, the study found. Interestingly, students who were left in Ohio public schools actually did better on standardized tests once the voucher program got under way, suggesting that public schools might have responded to the increased “competition” by teaching a curriculum aligned to the standards to be tested—or by doubling down on test preparation.”

    After looking at the spectrum of voucher research, Tyre concludes:

    “Voucher proponents say parents, even those using tax dollars to pay tuition, should be able to use whatever criteria for school choice they see fit. A provocative idea, but if past evidence can predict future outcomes, expanding voucher programs seems unlikely to help U.S. schoolchildren keep pace with a technologically advancing world.”

  5. I do not see a great deal of difference in giving a high school student a voucher to attend the University of Chicago Laboratory school and giving that very same student a voucher to attend the University of Chicago the next year.

    1. Apparently you don't understand the distinction between K-12 as universally mandated, publicly provided education vs. higher education being a choice that individuals/families pay for themselves.

    2. Dienne,

      First I should point out that Illinois requires students between the ages of 7 and 16 to attend school, so in all likelihood the senior at the University of Chicago Lab School is there by choice, not by force of law. Individuals and families pay part of the cost of higher education, but the federal government also provides vouchers to low income students.

      The more important question is why this distinction is important for the argument. Why does a mandate to attend school mean that government vouchers to pay for education not be used, but it is perfectly fine to have government vouchers are a good idea for education that is not mandated.

    3. "Why...."

      Do you want me to believe you're this dense, TE?

      The government is not mandated to provide higher education as a public service. The government does, in fact, provide that service for K-12. You are not usually required to partake of any particular government service, but the government is not then obligated to pay you a voucher to provide your own. If you're not keen on your local public library, the government does not owe you an Amazon gift card. Get it?

      There are, however, certain things that the government does not normally provide directly but nonetheless there is a certain argument for the government paying or helping to pay for it for certain people who can't otherwise afford it. Food, for instance. Health insurance. Higher education.

    4. Dienne,

      I see your argument as a reason to fully fund vouchers, but not that the only way to educate a child is to have the government do the actual education.

      I certainly agree that the government does directly produce education, but that is not and argument that the government should directly produce education, it is just privileging the status quo. After all, I have been led to understand that you are happy with the private school your children attend, so clearly a great education could be produced privately or publicly.

      I am confused about your example of health insurance. It is certainly mandated (at least as of my writing this comment), yet, as you say, the government does not cover all the costs of buying health insurance. If it is permissible to offer partial vouchers to offset some of the costs of mandated health insurance, why is that not permissible with mandated education?

    5. It's tough to talk to you when you're being intentionally obtuse, TE. A sane person might wonder why I do so.

      First, the fact that my daughters go to private school is irrelevant and a red herring. We pay for that ourselves and have never asked that their funding for their school (which we chose in spite of having a publicly provided option available) come from the public schools that others in our community choose to send their own kids to.

      Anyway, the point is (as, again, I know you understand), there are many services that the government provides - roads, libraries, military protection, police protection, etc. With most of these services, one is not necessarily obligated to use them, but we the public pay for them through our taxes, so they are public goods, which are available for any to use. That you may not like the services provided by the government does not obligate them to provide you the funds to find other services. Your portion of taxes that cover police protection, for instance, cannot go toward a voucher for your own private security force. Your portion of taxes for libraries cannot go toward a gift card to the private book vendor of your choice. I know you understand this. If you don't want to use the publicly provided option, you are free to use your own money to pay for your own choice, but you are not free to demand that public money be used to finance your choices. Conservatives understood this perfectly well when they railed against Sanders' "free college" idea. That you pretend not to understand now is evidence of your disingenuity.

      Anyway, done with you TE. I don't know if you think you're cute or clever or what, but I assure you, you are none of the above.

  6. Follow the money. Block grants for vouchers offer states less money. Why? So billionaires can pocket the rest through lower taxes. Then financial starvation will force public schools to fold to charters that educate on the cheap.
    Art and music? Modern textbooks? Certified, literate staff? What's that?

    Also through public funding, religious schools will proliferate, backed by nakedly political churches.

    What could go wrong?