Vouchers and Low-Income: Reality Check

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Have school vouchers moved away from their historic focus on low-income students? The political hacks at the Center on Education Policy think so. And as we know, whenever CEP weighs in, that’s reason enough to check the facts.

Paul DiPerna of the Friedman Foundation did a headcount and found that as of now:

  • 11 of 17 existing voucher programs have no income limits
  • 7 of these are statewide special-needs programs (FL, GA, LA, OHx2, OK & UT), 3 have geographic caps (ME, VT & OH) and one has a numeric cap (CO)
  • Of the 6 programs with income limits, 5 have limits that are above 200% of the poverty line

What do you know? CEP is right!

Of course, other kinds of limitations can be equally problematic. If our goal is to create a thriving marketplace of innovative options, the key is to provide enough students with enough choice to support new entrants – educational entrepreneurs – so we get beyond just moving kids from existing public schools to existing private schools. We don’t really have any existing programs that do that.

On the other hand, even among poorly designed programs there are better and worse forms. The income limitation was worse for educational entrepreneurship than, say, a straight numeric cap or a straight geographic limitaiton. As Milton always said, show me a program for the poor and I’ll show you a poor program. The hard reality is that lower-income people are not the population that throws its support behind truly innovative ventures. They have too much at risk. It’s the well-off, educated parents who are most likely to feel secure trying newer or more specialized schools. (Programs like EdChoice that are not “straight” geographic limitations but shift eligibility areas from year to year based on public school performance are another matter – they’re hugely problematic from this standpoint.)

The quickest way to unlock educational innovation and deliver better education to low-income students is to give vouchers to everyone. That way the innovations will, you know, actually happen.

Since I know you’re wondering, here are the tax-credit scholarship numbers for comparison purposes:

  • 3 of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs have no income limits
  • One of the three (AZ) is a statewide special-needs program
  • 6 of the 7 programs with limits have limits that are above 200% of the poverty line

13 Responses to Vouchers and Low-Income: Reality Check

  1. ninerfan says:

    This is a helpful summary.

    Income limits, geographic limits, and reimbursement levels that often are well below cost combine to diminish greatly the reform potential of choice. Not to mention “accountability” restrictions.

    The pending PA initiative would add yet another shackle, the “failing schools” threshold. The cave-in restrictions by Gov. Corbett on (low-income and failing school) are a move in the wrong direction. Rather than paving the way for expanded choice, they set the bar low and make it harder for more aggressive leaders such as Scott Walker.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I’m convinced the failing schools model is the type of restriction that most strongly excludes educational entrepreneurs from taking advantage of vouchers to enter the space. I’ve written at length on the deficiencies of the failing schools model here.

    • ryan gingerich says:

      Vouchers are unconstitutional

  2. […] Vouchers and Low-Income: Reality Check JPGB: The quickest way to unlock educational innovation and deliver better education to low-income students is to give vouchers to everyone. That way the innovations will, you know, actually happen.  […]

    • ryan gingerich says:

      Vouchers are unconstitutional. Public funds should not be allowed to go to private schools. I do not want my tax dollars going to catholic schools or muslim mosques. Indiana has public school choice so parents can choose the best public schools.

  3. Stuart Buck says:

    Income limits seem harmful, as implemented thus far. With strict cutoffs, that puts in place a huge disincentive to earn a marginal dollar over the cutoff — earn a dollar, lose several thousand.

  4. Matthew Ladner says:

    Very nice Inception reference. Why didn’t you write an Inception review Greg- it was a Nolan flick afterall!

    • Greg Forster says:

      I didn’t see it until it was on video, alas. But I might not have reviewed it anyway – it’s a fantastic movie, but unlike Nolan’s other work, I’m not seeing much in the way of depth. It’s really no more than an exceptionally well executed heist flick. I enjoy well executed genre fiction as much as the next guy, but what’s to write about? If the heist movie genre were under attack I might have used Inception as an opportunity to stand up for its defense, as I did for the melodrama with Speed Racer. But it isn’t.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Hey, Ryan: if the church is burning down, don’t call the fire department! If someone spray-painted swastikas on the synagogue, don’t call the police! If allowing religious organizations to participate in public programs (such as school choice) on exactly the same terms as secular organizations is a tax subsidy to religion, then so are these other cases.

    • seasaw6499 says:

      the supreme court already ruled that religious organizations don’t partcipate in public programs on exactly the same terms as secular organizations, they have a ministerial exemption that exempts ministers (and from the case, quasi or pseudo ministers, who are really mostly just teachers) from employment discrimination laws.

  6. baughan says:

    Until school vouchers for all is the norm, public school districts will never cut the fat and stop spending billions on useless flavor-of-the-month fads which fail to help children learn. Why would staff-bloated public schools even want to seriously improve student learning? After all, if kids were effectively taught, there would be no need for remedial programs, experts, staff, professional development and associated travel. Vouchers put parents in the drivers’ seat and public schools would be forced by free market competition to either do their job effectively and efficiently… or someone else will.

    • George mitchell says:

      Thanks to Scott walker, even the Milwaukee public schools have taken steps to cut outrageous fringe benefits

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