(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
I’ve gotten quite a bit of reaction from yesterday’s post over email. Most of it has been supportive, but some not so much-at least not yet (I haven’t given up hope on you). Some mistook the post yesterday for an assertion that equity issues are not important in private choice programs. On the contrary, they are incredibly important. My assertion is only that means testing is a self-defeating and blunt instrument in pursuit of equity. I think we can do better.
For those of you holding to a belief that means-testing is a superior strategy to varied funding amounts, please reflect upon the following questions:
1. Why should private choice programs stand as the only education option that sets out to exclude children on the basis of their parents making too much income (or is it paying too many taxes?)
2. If you support a public school system that routinely spends more money on schools in high-income areas, why would you oppose a private choice program that gives more money to low-income students?
3. If means-testing is a great idea, why haven’t you proposed applying it to district and charter schools?
Jay very helpfully added a fourth question in the comments:
4. How do you expect to win politically when you exclude as beneficiaries a majority of people, including the most politically powerful families as beneficiaries?
Let me note from the outset that I am making reference to a formula funded choice program like NVESA. I serve on the board of a scholarship tax credit organization that is proud to focus on children that qualify for a free or reduced lunch. This makes sense because of limited funds, and we want to focus those limited funds on children with the greatest need.
In a formula funded program like NVESA, scarcity of funds is not an issue. In essence, what is the case for applying a series of double standards to private school choice? I’ll hang up and listen.
I’d add another question:
4) How do you expect to win politically for programs that exclude the most politically powerful families as beneficiaries?
Many — I did not say all — supporters of means testing are driven by ideological and political agendas. They will have great difficulty answering Matt’s questions and Jay’s question. The weakness of their position is reflected by the straw man arguments that are implicit and explicit in their narrative. Consider for example the suggestion that opponents of means-testing are less committed to improving the lot of poor children.
I think that the higher education experience has been screaming a warning into the deaf ear of the parental choice movement for some time. I think that in a situation with a one-use voucher program (private schools only) with universal eligibility and nothing done to address the issue of subsidy induced cost inflation, that an equity disaster could indeed play out:
I however believe that there are better ways to address these problems than means testing. Let’s see how multiple uses work. Let’s see how multiple uses with a strong savings component will work. Let’s vary funding amounts according to student need. Let’s keep learning and working the problem.
Means tested formula funded programs strike me as unjustifiable and politically unsustainable- an evolutionary dead end.
I should have suggested this question:
4) How do you expect to win politically when you exclude as beneficiaries a majority of people, including the most politically powerful families as beneficiaries?
May I also add a question . . . or two?
5) How can choice programs attract the educational entrepreneurs we need to create new and radically better schools if the programs don’t provide a large enough reliable customer base to support the new schools?
6) Private school choice is the only policy with a solid track record of breaking down racial and economic segregation in schools; why do you want to design these programs in a way that limits that potential?
Good questions. Wonder if anyone will answer them?