Fear the Win-Win!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

At the beginning of a very kind column praising my new report on the empirical evidence on vouchers, Jay Mathews indicates that for some strange reason, he’s afraid of me and my school-choice posse:

Do I really want to get beaten bloody again by school vouchers devotees?

Come on, Jay. I’m not a dangerous man. I would never beat anyone bloody. I’m soft and harmless. I’m a perfectly ordinary bunny rabbit. A cute, fluffy, harmless bunny rabbit.

Well, okay, I have been known to bite. With big, sharp, pointy teeth. But just to stretch my repertoire, I’ll take the soft approach this time.

Jay acknowledges the evidence:

Greg Forster, a talented and often engagingly contrarian senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, has expanded a previous study to show that nearly all the research on vouchers, including some using the gold standard of random assignment, has good news for those who believe in giving parents funds that can be used to put their children in private schools. Students given that chance do better in private schools than similar students do in public schools, the research shows. Public schools who are threatened by the loss of students to private schools because of voucher programs improve more than schools that do not have to worry about that competition, the research also shows.

Yet he thinks we shouldn’t support vouchers because . . . well, I’ll let him explain:

I see nothing morally, economically or politically wrong with vouchers. I have never thought that they drained public schools of vital resources. I think a low-income family that gets the chance to choose a private school that suits their child should do so.

But I think such programs have limited growth potential because there are never going to be nearly enough empty spaces in private schools to help all the students who need them. Forster and other voucher advocates say this will change when voucher programs become universal. Then, entrepreneurs will be able to convince investors that they can create a new generation of private schools with the new wave of voucher students.

I think they are wrong about that. The young educators who have led the robust growth of charters prefer to work in public schools. Many voters will continue to resist sending their tax dollars to private schools, particularly with the pressures to cut back government spending that are likely to be with us for many years.

So that’s two arguments. Entrepreneurial startups won’t attract talented education refomers, and voters won’t support the programs.

It’s true that the leading-edge school reformers, the people Matt calls “the cool kids,” prefer to work in public schools. As I’ve written before, you can already see how that strategic choice is leading to dead end after dead end. The school choice movement needs to start building bridges to these people and showing them that in the long run, only school choice can provide the institutional support they need to sustain the kind of reforms they want.

As for politics, school choice has always polled well (for a discussion of the research and methodological issues, see here). The American people are not, in fact, uncomfortable with allowing religious institutions to participate in publicly funded programs on equal terms alongside other institutions. There was a time when they were (see “amendments, Blaine”) but that bigotry has receded.

Oh, and as for pressure to cut spending, school choice saves money. Tons and tons of it. That has always been one of our biggest assets in the political fight – that’s why the Foundation for Educational Choice produces state-focused fiscal studies year after year, to show each state how school choice would save taxpayer money while delivering better education.

The political obstacle to choice has never been the public at large. It has always been the blob, with its huge piles of cash fleeced indirectly from taxpayers, and (perhaps more important) its phalanx of highly disciplined volunteers and voters. A minority of the voters can control the outcome if they are single-issue voters when the rest of the public takes into account the whole panoply of problems confronting the body politic. And when you threaten to derail a gravy train, it tends to make the passengers into single-issue voters.

But the tide is changing. The cynical selfishness of the blob is more and more visible to more and more people. Reform has already won the war of ideas. That does not mean the ground war is won. The unions are still big, rich, and powerful. But they are no longer sacred. They have lost their mystique. No one thinks the unions speak for kids anymore; no one even thinks the unions speak for teachers anymore. And in the end, that’s what counts.

As Jay has put it, the unions are now the tobacco lobby. Or, as I have put it, they’re Bull Connor. That’s why school choice is now poised for a series of big political wins.

Jay is skeptical – pointing to the greater success of charters, he thinks vouchers won’t make big gains this cycle. As readers of JPGB know, the answer to the charter argument is that vouchers make the world safe for charters. As for whether vouchers make big gains this year, we’re about to find out.

Tell you what, Jay. Let’s make a bet. You say there won’t be “a wave of pro-voucher votes across the country.” Me and my posse at FEC will go back and count up the number of school choice bills (private choice, not charters) that passed state chambers in 2008-2010. Then we’ll set a mutually agreed on bar for the number of voucher bills passing chambers this year. If we hit the bar, you have to buy me dinner at a Milwaukee restaurant of my choice. But if we don’t hit the bar, I buy you dinner at a DC restaurant of your choice. That’s pretty lopsided in your favor, dollar-wise. How about it?


11 Responses to Fear the Win-Win!

  1. Minnesota Kid says:

    Great post Greg. Why not bet Jay a dinner of his choice in Fayetteville? The food is both better and cheaper than in DC. It’s a win-win.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Because I live in Wisconsin. The plane ticket and hotel room in Fayetteville, not to mention lost time, would negate the advantage.

  2. matthewladner says:

    It is not clear to me that “the cool kids” prefer to work in public schools. Many TFA kids I talk to, for instance, can barely stand to finish their tour of duty at their utterly dysfunctional public schools. True, many go on to work and even found charter schools, but one cannot assume that this is due to some sort of preference on their part. I know plenty of “cool kids” coming out of the Notre Dame ACE program who enjoyed teaching in a private school.

    Second, the “vouchers are too hard, let’s settle for charter schools” attitude is antithetical to the noblest ideal of the cool kids, namely: we need to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to deliver a quality education to poor students. I don’t know any serious person that thinks that charter schools alone are going to get it done. School vouchers won’t be doing it by themselves either, but they are another important tool which Greg rightly notes, have made the world safe for charter schools. With African American and Hispanic American 10th graders scoring comparably to their peers in Mexico despite having four times the money spent “on their behalf” in the system, we need every tool we can get.

    Mathews is right that our fight is a difficult one, but the civil rights movement didn’t win by settling for integrated lunch counters. I am planning on celebrating substantial progress by the time I retire (I am 43) and when I do, I predict that it will be in large part because liberals joined the cause and didn’t give up:


  3. Patrick says:

    Money enters into an economic market and service providers say “no thanks” to the potential customers?

    Yup, that happens ALL the time… -_-

  4. Patrick says:

    I also love the title of Jay Matthew’s column “Vouchers work, but so what?”

    It is kind of like saying “Students learn, but so what?”

    or “Schools improve, but so what?”

  5. Daniel Earley says:

    Being one of the “cool kids” (given that I founded a charter high school a few years back), today I’m firmly in Greg’s camp on this. Anyone up for odds and margins on vouchers? 🙂 To be fair, perhaps ESAs that open private school doors over charter schools should also count.

  6. Chan S. says:

    Sorry, not yet, at least not in Wisconsin (see WisconsinEye’s archive of this week’s SB22 hearing). Ed reformers in Wisconsin right now are Browncoats without a Captain Mal.

  7. Cara J says:

    I agree that these programs have limited growth potential, though I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that to the preferences of young educators. They have limited growth potential partly because we haven’t put the kind of money into them that would be necessary to support a true market-based educational system – ensuring that all families receive comprehensive information about every choice available, and providing transportation as well as tuition. And if we did, I’m not sure the statement that “School choice saves money. Tons and tons of it” would still hold true.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    1) So you’re only saying that they have limited growth potential in their current form. Everyone agrees on that. The question in dispute is whether they would have growth potential if you expanded the policy structure. Would the education market respond?

    2) Private school tuition plus transportation and other incidental expenses is still significantly cheaper than the cost of the public system. So yes, choice programs would still save big money.

    3) I’m increasingly persuaded that Matt’s new “ESA” idea is the way to structure voucher finances. You proivde parents with a pot of money that is less than what the public system costs (so it saves money) yet more than large enough to cover robust private education costs, but – and this is the important innovation – without incentivizing cost inflation in the private sector.

  9. […] programs, Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenged Matthews to a wager, which Mathews accepted: Forster would win if at least seven new or expanded private school choice […]

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