School Choice Dead?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A couple of weeks after Greg Anrig proclaimed the death of the school choice movement we see an expansion of the Step Up for Students program pass with strong Democratic support in Florida, and today, the Governor of Georgia signed a similar tax credit into law, and a voucher program for New Orleans passes with a large bipartisan majority 60-42 in the LA House.

Don’t look now, but a choice bill is out of committee in New Jersey.

Andy Rotherham predicted that Anrig would regret writing the article. Let none doubt the prophetic powers of the Eduwonk.

7 Responses to School Choice Dead?

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Matt, you’re not being fair. Anrig’s declaration that school choice is dead was every bit as accurate as everything else in his article!

  2. Hobart Milton says:

    Andyseemed to agree with you on his 13 May Posts also.

    Here’s an excerpt from one about Greg’s recent article on Sol Stern:

    “My view has generally been that part of the problem with the debate about vouchers is that people are using research findings about student achievement (that for practical purposes are pretty small effect sizes) as clubs in the debate. If you really think that people should be able to send their child to any school they want at public expense, a view I don’t share, then what do you care about a few randomized studies in places like Milwaukee or Cleveland? Likewise, stridently anti-choice advocates are not really arguing an empirical point either. In both cases the viewpoints are ideological and also perfectly legitimate. The debate is really about how to organize education in our society. “

  3. Greg Forster says:

    He also had a great post drawing attention to an article on the many Democrats who supported the recent expansion of school choice in Florida, as well as the defection of Marion Barry. The post was titled “Greg Anrig Set Me Up” and it said “I was clearly told there would be no more of this!”

    As for his response to my article, I’m just glad he posted a link and recommended that people read it. Anyone who wants to know what I think of his response can find out by reading the original article; everything I want to say on the subject, I’ve already said.

  4. Greg Anrig says:

    Guys, My article focused on the school vouchers idea, not the much broader assortment of choice-oriented initiatives. In the fifty-three years since Milton Friedman put forward his idea, only three cities have implemented voucher plans for an extended period of time similar to what he proposed (he opposed tuition tax credits, by the way): Milwaukee, Cleveland, and DC. In those cities, the best available evidence shows that the students who moved to the private schools did not appear to perform significantly better than the students who remained behind in the public schools. Or that the competition associated with vouchers induced meaningful improvements in the public schools relative to cities without voucher programs. I’m aware of the studies linked to in the posts on this blog, but they have weaknesses relative to those highlighted in my article.

    The piece emphasizes five points: 1) some former voucher supporters have softened their enthusiasm for the idea based on the poor results in those cities, based on recent, compelling studies; 2) voucher referenda have been trounced without exception, most recently in Utah; 3) leading funders of the conservative movement have shifted their focus to the much less radical and widely pursued idea of charters; 4) state court decisions in Colorado and Florida struck down voucher plans; and 5) Blaine laws greatly reduce the terrain on which vouchers can be contemplated. Based on those facts, I think it was a reasonable conclusion to say that the voucher movement “may not long outlive its founder.”

    The “choice” initiatives that have come up since my article went to press aren’t really full-blown Milwaukee-style voucher programs oriented on promoting the competition that Friedman viewed as the central basis for his idea. That said, it’s certainly true, as I wrote in the article, that whether the issue is vouchers, supply-side economics, health savings accounts or what have you, some conservatives don’t allow hard facts to the deter them.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    As I pointed out here…

    …the supposedly “compelling studies” and “best available evidence” you refer to are at best methodologically inferior to the large body of rigorous studies I cited, and at worst just flat bogus (like the WPRI report, which you erroneously describe as providing evidence on the impact of vouchers in Milwaukee even though the report didn’t even use Milwaukee data).

    The methodologically legitimate research consistently finds that vouchers improve public schools. As to the claims about how the voucher kids perform, the randomized studies in Milwaukee (which are the only ones in that city methodologically worth considering) find that the voucher kids improved. No methodologically sound studies have been done in Cleveland; the official “studies” there are junk (the public school comparison group is not remotely similar to the voucher population, especially in terms of self-selection).

    In DC the positive finding for the first year just barely missed statistical significance. In previous studies of voucher programs, every time the positive findings missed statitical significance in the first year, they became statistically significant in later years, when more data were available. So I wouldn’t bet too heavily on that program showing null results again next year. But I suppose by that time your book will already be out.

    And all this is not even looking at the large body of randomized studies on privately funded voucher programs, which consistently find benefits for voucher students.

    I do congratulate you for doing a better job than people on your side usually do of collecting all the methodologically unacceptable “studies” in one place and then brazenly claiming that they’re superior to the scientifically legitimate research. It puts us in the position of having to say that your “studies” are scientifically no good, which makes us look bad. But what can I say? The research you’re citing does not meet the basic requirements of science, or at best it is vastly inferior to the stuides you dismiss, and your claims to its methodological superiority are unfounded.

    As for your other claims, Milton Friedman did not “oppose” tax credits, he just thought vouchers were preferable to tax credits. The Friedman Foundation, which he founded and on which he served as board chairman until his death, has always considered tax credits to be a form of school choice essentially equivalent to vouchers. I personally heard Dr. Friedman explain his position on tax credits at a fundraising dinner in late 2005.

    For that matter, Dr. Friedman was never satisfied with the programs you erroneously set up as exclusively representing his preferences. He hated the narrow restrictions imposed on the Milwaukee voucher and other early programs. Since school choice programs are growing less and less restricted over time (witness the program just enacted in Georgia), the main reason you can say that programs like the early ones are dying out is because now we get programs that are, from the Friedman perspective, much better than those early programs.

    Yes, the movement has lost a handful of programs, but it has won many more programs than it’s lost. Every year new programs are enacted and expanded. This is disguised only by arbitrarily declaring that any program that doesn’t look like the Milwaukee voucher (which Dr. Friedman himself was never satisfied with) doesn’t count as school choice.

    In other words, the programs that give the lie to your article “aren’t really full-blown Milwaukee-style voucher programs” because they’re much better than Milwaukee-style programs. Contrary to your claim, these programs do a better job of “promoting the competition that Friedman viewed as the central basis for his idea” than the narrowly restricted Milwaukee program ever did.

    And anyone who’s read your article knows that there was much more to it than you’re letting on. You seem particularly interested in the sinister influence of the Bradley Foundation, even going so far as to dismiss Howard Fuller as a paid stooge for Bradley. Anyone who knows anything about Fuller knows how offensive that is, but your audience isn’t encumbered with that knowledge.

  6. matthewladner says:

    Mr. Anrig-

    Thanks for posting. I believe that Friedman espoused vouchers broadly, rather than just vouchers for inner city children. Friedman also supported vouchers more than tax credits, but supported tax credits as well I believe (GregF-correct me if I am wrong).

    I don’t therefore think it is fair to say there are “only three” voucher programs (i.e. Milwaukee, DC and Cleveland) when in fact there are many more (for instance special needs vouchers in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Utah, foster care vouchers in Arizona, failing schools vouchers in Ohio).

    The private choice movement does face challenges, but it has always faced challenges, many of which were far more serious than having my friend Sol Stern temporarily fall off the wagon (I haven’t given up on you Sol). What happened in Florida this year is historic- half the African American caucus, and all of the Hispanic caucus voted for an expansion of a private choice program. In 2001- precisely one Democrat voted for the original bill.

    These Democrats didn’t vote for this bill, risking the wrath of the unions, because they’ve been fooled by right-wing think tanks. They voted for it because they’ve had the opportunity to see what the program is doing in their communities, and who it is helping. In short, because it was the right thing to do.

    Change is difficult in the American, especially when powerful interests oppose you. So while the challenges are real, so is the progress.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    The question of what Dr. Friedman “supported” is easily misunderstood, because he spent a lot more time talking about how he definitely preferred vouchers over tax credits (if it had to be a choice betwen the two) than he did talking about how tax credits were a form of school choice and an important step forward from the status quo.

    But the more important point is that his real interest was in separating government funding of education from the question of who owns the schools. Tax credits clearly accomplish that. It doesn’t change anything to point out that it sometimes made Dr. Friedman irritable (I do recall the edge of irriation in his voice as he explained his position to a tax-credit supporter who was, shall we say, aggressive in the way he phrased his question) that some people preferred tax credits over vouchers, when he thought that was clearly not the preferable choice.

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