Raising the Bar on the Forster-Mathews Bet

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Thus far I am aware of a tax-credit improvements in Alabama and Arizona, new special education scholarship programs in Arkansas and Mississippi, and many other measures pending in many other states. I think it is safe to say that Greg will once again defeat Jay Mathews in the over/under of 7 enactments.

WSJ choice


While we celebrate yet another Greg victory, it may be a good time to pose a different question for ourselves: how many states have enacted a choice program or a combination of choice programs sufficiently robust to see a growth in private education in the face of a strong charter school law? A Rand Corp study found private schools will lose one student for every three gained by charter schools in Michigan.  We would not expect to find an exact match for this nationwide, but charter schools do by definition draw upon the universe of would-be choosers: parents who are looking for alternatives outside of their zoned district school. It makes sense that they would have a larger impact on private education.

If we assume the Michigan finding to be roughly equivalent to a national average, then we can proceed to check the tape. First charter school enrollment by state:

Charters school enrollment

Next private choice program enrollment by state (from the Alliance for School Choice Yearbook):

Private choice students 1



Private choice students 2

So how many states have one-third or more as many private choice students as charter school students? Indiana is matching private choice students with charter school students despite a strong charter law thus far, and so is the leader in the clubhouse. Florida barely met the 1 private choice for 3 charter school students standard between the combination of the corporate tax credit program and the McKay Scholarship program. Without new revenue sources however growth in the Florida tax credit will stall in the next few years even as statewide student growth continues. Moreover Florida charter schools have almost certainly drawn a relatively advantaged group of students from private schools (charter schools have universal eligibility). The private choice programs have been aiding only low-income and children with disabilities and providing significantly fewer resources than those students receive in public schools (smaller tax credit scholarships in the case of low-income children, no local top-up funds in the case of McKay students).

Florida lawmakers have been busy improving the ability for high quality charter operators to open new schools (as they should) but balked last year at providing new tax credit revenue sources. Absent some large policy changes Florida will soon slip below the 1 to 3 ratio.

Iowa met the standard because of a healthy and growing tax credit program and a weak charter school law (3 total schools), so give them an *. Wisconsin meets the bar with the combination of private choice programs and a charter school program that (last I heard) is still bottled up in Milwaukee, so kind of an * too.

The Illinois and PA programs would require some sort of estimate regarding the price elasticity of demand for private schooling, but I’ll just heroically guess that charter schools have the better end of the deal in those states. Arizona and Ohio have more than three charter students for every private choice student. Other states like California, Michigan, New York and Texas seem content to watch their charter school sector batter their private school sectors into gravel.

Bear in mind that this comparison would look even more lopsided if we counted dollars rather than students. For instance the average tax credit scholarship in Arizona runs around $2,000 while the average charter school receives around $7,000 per pupil. Very few of the private choice programs come near to matching the per pupil level of subsidy provided to charter, much less district schools. Emblematic of this failure was the choice of 12 Catholic schools in Washington D.C. to give up the ghost and convert to charter schools after a (poorly designed) voucher bill had passed.

The goal of the private choice movement should not be to preserve a preexisting stock of private schools per se, but rather to allow parental demand to drive the supply of school seats. Those District of Columbia Catholic schools did not convert to charters because the parents were clamoring for it, but rather because the Congress had offered almost twice as much money per pupil to do it. States like Texas invest hundreds of millions of dollars per year into a charter sector that draws disproportionately from private schools while providing parents who would prefer a private education for their child nothing but the prospect of struggling to pay their school taxes and private school costs simultaneously.

Seen in this context, many private choice victories seem worthy but incremental. Incremental change is the equilibrium point of American politics, but the choice movement needs more Indiana style successes. Once more unto the breach dear friends…

7 Responses to Raising the Bar on the Forster-Mathews Bet

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Great idea for a metric, Matt. And amen to your call for more Indiana style victories. If only because more Indiana style victories would no doubt prompt more entertaining AWWWWWWW FREAK OUT! moments from our libertarian friends in Washington.

    In a 2012 study I looked at various ways of roughly examining whether choice laws were impacting the composition of the private school sector other than merely growing enrollment. Were we opening doors for entrepreneurs or merely extending the monopoly into a cartel? The results were grim:


    • Jason Bedrick says:

      For someone who has been so prescient in his critique of Common Core, you’re surprisingly blase about the regulations that the Indiana voucher program imposed.

      If by “Indiana-style” we mean “near-universal choice,” then I’m on board — and I would assume that’s your primary goal. But if you mean to impose the state test (which is the reason a lot of schools didn’t participate, at least for now), then that’s problematic.

      Also, you write in your “freak out” post that the schools still have a choice whether to participate or not. That’s technically true, but as we’ve learned from Chile, the non-subsidized sector shrinks dramatically over time.


      Also, FYI, I’m not in Washington.

      • matthewladner says:

        I’m with my Arizona home-boy Jason on the subject of state testing:


        Things are going better in IN than La. for a variety of reasons, but I don’t believe that there was a broad constituency pushing for state testing during the initial IN debate and that it would be wise to introduce flexibility in testing.

      • Greg Forster says:

        I agree that programs shouldn’t impose the state test. The context for that post was that a certain person was hysterically declaring that the enactment of the Indiana program was “a defeat” for school choice. Lots of stomping on the floor and pounding his sippy cup on his high chair about what a disaster this was and how the world was going to end.

        If we took that seriously, there could be no progress, because getting a program that dramatically expands the scope of choice is going to involve giving something up.

        The subtext here is that someone from one branch of the school choice movement was trying to delegitimize a victory won by another branch of the movement. The victory of his faction over another faction within the school choice movement was more valuable to him than the victory of school choice. And that was well worth mocking.

      • matthewladner says:

        While I don’t like state testing etc. etc. you are not going to find me contacting private schools in Louisiana and trying to persuade them not to participate in a choice program for instance. Letting the evidence speak for itself with the occasional Wile E. Coyote blog post will have to suffice…

  2. matthewladner says:

    Yep- viewed from that standpoint even the Indiana combo of programs would look pale. They are basically designed to move kids into a preexisting stock of private schools, the funding levels are much lower, and they are not universally available. It will be telling to see whether or not we see new schools opening up to meet demand, but even if so there should be more than one way to use the funds and a savings mechanism if we really want to get this as close as possible to genuine voluntary exchange.

    Arizona has the incentives better but our program is limited to a smaller portion of the population and we still have a lot of work to do in creating awareness of the program.

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