Andy’s Just Plain Wrong

Andy Rotherham is a great guy.  And he’s often right.  But I’m afraid that on vouchers he’s just plain wrong.

Andy responded to my post, which was a response to an earlier post he wrote on vouchers.  Let me just run through his arguments:

First, Andy wants to argue that vouchers have stalled politically.  I pointed out that there are now 24 voucher or tax-credit programs in 15 states serving more than 100,000 students.  And two new programs were adopted last year and a third significantly expanded. 

No fair, Andy cries, including tax-credit programs “creates a false sense of scale for intentional choice plans.”  What’s false about counting tax credit programs, like the one in Florida which functions as the largest voucher program in the country?  The program gives vouchers — excuse me — “scholarships” to students from organizations that are funded with dollar for dollar tax credit donations from corporations.  This is virtually identical in financing and effect as the state simply giving vouchers to students.  The only difference is that the tax credit is treated better by the courts (don’t ask why) because the money never enters the state treasury before going right back out the door as a voucher.

But let’s say we grant Andy his odd position that tax-credit programs don’t count.  We still have 13 voucher programs in 10 states serving about 50,000 students.  And the two new programs adopted last year were both voucher programs.  Wish as he might, Andy still can’t show that vouchers have stalled politically.

Second, Andy rightly says, “Reasonable people can review the cumulative literature about choice plans and disagree on how substantively significant or transformative these effects are (or could be at scale) and what that means for vouchers as a policy. ”  While reasonable folks could disagree about the magnitude of the effect of expanded school choice on public school performance, no reasonable person could disagree with the observation that the research literature supports at least some positive impact.  Given how hard it is to find any policy intervention that raises student achievement, consistently finding a positive impact from the systemic effect of vouchers should be treated as a big deal.  It isn’t to Andy. 

Third, Andy concedes that the more frightening prospect of vouchers helped spread charters, at least in the early stages of the charter movement.  But now that charters have reached critical mass, they may well do just fine without the viable threat of new and expanded voucher programs.  Folks who are really sincere about charters shouldn’t get so comfortable.  Just look at the unionization of the KIPP charter in NY or the constant effort to regulate charters to death in many states.  Dropping vouchers from your arsenal would be like confronting a resurgent Russia after dismantling all of your nuclear weapons.  You may think your conventional forces are up to the task, but ask the Poles how they would feel about it.

I’ve never understood why people would support charters but oppose vouchers.  The theory that expanded choice is good for the participating student and helps spur improvement in traditional public schools is required for both reforms.  Yes, charters are more easily subject to regulation than private schools receiving vouchers, but healthy charter programs require light regulation and states have not been shy about applying similar light regulation to voucher programs. 

The only reason I can imagine that folks would support charters but oppose vouchers is for political gain since the theory and evidence for both are essentially the same.  And I understand why politicians invent these false distinctions to prove their moderation and good sense by opposing the one they artificially dub as radical.  But we aren’t politicians.  We don’t have to lie or invent false distinctions to please constituencies.  Universities, think tanks, and the blogosphere should be refuges for reasoned inquiry and dispute, not rhetoric for political advantage.  As it says on the great seal — Veritas.

UPDATE — Andy’s a nice guy.  I tried to make my post as hyperbolic as possible and he responds kindly and reasonably.  Damn, he’s good.

UPDATE TO UPDATE — Just to be clear, I still think Andy is just plain wrong.  The fig leaf that Andy uses to be pro-charter while anti-voucher is the concern that vouchers sever “the connection between avenues of democratic input into schooling decisions and those decisions.   In other words, for some people the issue isn’t choice, rather it’s accountability in a broad sense.”  The reality is that there is as much opportunity for democrat input in the  design and operation of voucher programs as charter schools or traditional public schools for that matter.  The public can place whatever regulations it deems necessary on voucher schools as a condition of receiving those funds, just as it does with charter and traditional public schools.  Of course, all of these systems would operate best with minimal regulation.  If regulation were the answer to school effectiveness our public schools would already be fantastic.

10 Responses to Andy’s Just Plain Wrong

  1. Parry says:


    In your own research (or in the research of others on voucher programs), is there any analysis as to why voucher programs appear to lead to positive results? Outside of big-picture, broad-label answers such as “choice” or “competition”, are there any substantive analyses of differences in children’s educational experiences in the two settings (traditional public schools and voucher-funded destination private or charter schools) that might suggest causal mechanisms?



  2. Parry,

    There have been some “inside the black box” studies. See for example for ana analysis of what Florida public schools did to improve in response to pressure from the state’s accountability/voucher program.

  3. CodyPT says:

    Jay….Why do you feel the need to kiss up to Andy Rotherham? Why don’t you simply make your points and skip all this “I hope he takes my comments graciously because he’s such a wonderful guy” stuff. What is that?

    Long ago, I stopped reading Mr. Rotherham largely because I thought Mr. Rotherham had a bad case of Mr. Rotherham. Perhaps somewhere in all of his voluminous self-important writings, there actually was a kernel or two of wisdom. Who knows? One had to plow through 300-400 words when only less than 50 were needed. I think Mr. Rotherham suffers from a bad case of opinion-bloat.

    I also think most of what Mr. Rotherham writes could be subtitled “Look at how smart I am.” His ego needs to be packed in ice to reduce further inflammation.

    Even if you disagree with me, and you truly believe Mr. Rotherham is indeed all the wonderful things you say..why are you sucking up to him publicly?

  4. “The public can place whatever regulations it deems necessary on voucher schools as a condition of receiving those funds, just as it does with charter and traditional public schools. Of course, all of these systems would operate best with minimal regulation. If regulation were the answer to school effectiveness our public schools would already be fantastic.”

    Recall the original title of the Brookings study by Chubb and Moe: “What Price Democracy? Politics, Markets, & America’s Schools”. They argued that “democratic” regulation is a cause of poor school performance. Given government control of an industry, democratic control is better than undemocratic control. But why suppose that government control of any sort, in any industry, will outperform an unsubsidized, unregulated market? Do we conduct nation-wide referenda to determine the next week’s lunch menu? Imagine the glorious battles we could have over religious dietary taboos. How many times must I chew my next bite of apple? Do we vote on this? Democracy is hardly an unalloyed good.

    Milton Friedman expressed a preference for vouchers over charter schools. He argued that the shorter leash on which charter schools operate would invite political intrusion. This was prescient. Consider KIPP. Perhaps “the public” can intrude on any system, but with vouchers or non-voucher private schools, the unions and their bought politicians must do so in broad daylight.

  5. Parry says:

    Very interesting study. Thanks for the link!


  6. Greg Forster says:

    Chakrabarti also did an “inside the black box” study:

    Click to access sr306.pdf

  7. […] Like President Obama, Mr. Carey seems to want this issue to just go away. It’s hard to understand why the fact that vouchers aren’t going away can be so disturbing to someone who makes such a strong case for charters — when the same evidence and rationale support both policies. […]

  8. Diane says:

    Here is a study showing florida’s voucher system failed to produce better learning in its voucher students. Google such words, Nortwestern University, and David Figlio.
    Given such results, doesn’t that call into play the foolishness of many aspects of the A+ plan?

    • Greg Forster says:

      The Figlio study only compares the starting point the kids are starting from. It’s in its first year and it hasn’t yet gathered multiple years of data, so it is unable to measure whether kids in the voucher program are learning more over time than other kids. It can only measure where they start from.

      This is explicitly stated over and over in the study’s text. The study says no conclusions should be drawn about the effectiveness of the program.

      Meanwhile, in this post Jay has linked to a summary of all the studies that do provide information on the effectiveness of voucher programs. Guess what they find?

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