Vouchers were no Chuck Norris but Megan McArdle Should Hang in There

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Megan McArdle wrote a lament for school vouchers at Bloomberg. I’ll briefly lay out why I think a stronger case for optimism is warranted before trying to beat back insomnia with a youtube documentary of ancient Egyptian engineering (I wish I was making that up).

The first problem involves an over-reliance on studies of short-term test score trends. Our ability to study student test scores within the confines of a random assignment study usually lasts about three years.  During the early part of those three years students are dealing with negative transfer effects in the early going.

So if we take the available evidence from Milwaukee, within the random assignment window the evidence looks to me like this: the normal trajectory for a low-income urban child is to fall further behind over time. The control group of voucher users does not follow suit.  By the time the random assignment study falls apart some of the differences in test scores are statistically significant and in favor of the voucher students.

Is this a failure? It depends largely upon your expectations. If you had expected Milwaukee vouchers to heal the world’s pain, this is indeed disappointing. If you however gather some longer term evidence, find that the voucher kids have meaningful long-term attainment benefits and realized these benefits at a much smaller cost per pupil than the public system, you take a different view. I see Milwaukee vouchers as a success in an evolutionary process and want to find ways to make it more successful.

Milwaukee type programs suffer from design limitations and have hit a ceiling politically. They were basically designed to give families the option to move children into a preexisting set of private schools with empty seats. That’s a wonderful thing for many families, until you run out of empty seats. This doesn’t make these programs bad, just limited. Compared to the district that spends twice as much, has lower test scores and lower graduation rates, it is a bit of a triumph at least until your supply of empty seats runs out.  If we want more than that (and we should) we need more robust programs.

By “more robust” I mean programs with more equitable funding levels, enough to spur the creation of new schools. Programs that allow parents options outside of just private school tuition into a wider array of colleges, tutors, and service providers. Programs open to all children and communities that address with equity issues through funding weights rather than self-defeating exclusion.

Parental choice 2.0 (ESA) programs emerged from the unconstitutional ashes of an Arizona voucher program for children with disabilities just six years ago. Governor Napolitano signed a voucher bill for students with disabilities in 2004, but the Arizona Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Lawmakers subsequently replaced it first with a scholarship tax credit law, and then the first ESA program. How is that whole crazy freedom and opportunity and ability to vote with your feet thing working out for AZ students with disabilities? Thanks for asking:

The ESA concept remains a work in progress with young programs operating in AZ, FL, MS, NC and TN. For a number of reasons, I believe that this model has a much higher academic and political ceiling than version 1.0, but caution is warranted. Part of the reason we see articles like McArdle’s is because we promised that the tears of vouchers would cure cancer like tomorrow.  School vouchers were a vitally necessary step in a process of unpredictable pacing, but they were more like your father’s Oldsmobile vis-a-vis your great grandfather’s Model T. We all want our flying car and we want it now and I can only tell you we are working on it, and the status-quo is both undesirable and unsustainable. The tears of ESAs won’t cure cancer tomorrow either, but the best is yet to come in the evolution of putting families in charge of the education of their children.



11 Responses to Vouchers were no Chuck Norris but Megan McArdle Should Hang in There

  1. If I may put in a request to the real policy gurus among us, I’d like to see more acknowledgment and research-quality work unearthing the disadvantages potential voucher schools have been at compared to, say, charter schools. Just given the barriers to entry in the private market it’s essentially impossible to start new private schools that are able to accept vouchers, not only because the funding levels are low but more importantly because things like private accreditation and IRS nonprofit approval take years to earn, while charters are given provisional accreditation and have an array of available startup grants, access to code-approved facilities (building codes for schools are insane!), and a cost to families of zero compared to costs to potential voucher families of typically several thousand per kid. Etc.

    The startup-adverse environment for vouchers is, I think, a major reason voucher programs have grown so slowly (besides of course other things like caps) and mostly served to fill empty seats in existing private schools that, quite honestly, are typically not models of academic excellence but more along the lines of “safe, religious environment” for their main value-added promise.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      This would indeed be a worthy research project.

    • Ben DeGrow says:

      Astute article, astute comment. This further fuels many of the questions at the heart of my recent thinking:
      1) So while we are championing the next state to adopt vouchers or tax credits (or even ESAs), what state provides the fertile environment to create a more robust, equitable choice market?
      2) What’s the approach to improving the private accreditation game?
      3) And how much energy do we put there, as opposed to fueling the changes at the margins: micro-schools (a la Acton Academy), apprenticeships (a la Praxis), and making homeschool co-ops more attractive and accessible?
      4) Stepping back further, how quickly and effectively can we advance needed policy changes without influencing the needed cultural changes that come along with it?
      5) Where is the Education Freedom Movement getting it right and having the most success? Besides passing school choice laws, what are the reasons?
      6) Who among the movers and shakers are having these important conversations?
      …And perhaps the most important question…
      7) Are most or all these questions merely evidence that Michigan is driving me slightly crazy? 🙂

      • matthewladner says:

        1. Rapid population growth is an enabling condition for rapid growth in choice, but there are rapid growth hidebound states (Texas) and choicey not so fast growing states (IND).
        2. Need to study this, probably varies by state.
        3. Microschooling and homeschooling are big deals, and they seem to be doing well on their own.
        4. Policy can change culture, and culture can change policy. I can’t imagine an Arizona in which the districts say “sorry bub take or leave it” but it existed before I moved here in 2004.
        5. Keep an eye on North Carolina in the 2017 NAEP.
        6. You and me in the comment section, obv!
        7. I feel your pain.

      • Greg Forster says:

        I can’t imagine an Arizona in which the districts say “sorry bub take or leave it” but it existed before I moved here in 2004.

        Matt Ladner is a panacea!

      • matthewladner says:

        Oh no- it all started a decade before I arrived with the passage of charter schools and open enrollment in 1994 and then the tax credit program in 1997. There are a huge number of people that deserve credit for getting the ball rolling on choice in AZ but I am not numbered among them.

      • matthewladner says:

        What I meant was- there was an AZ school system in 1993 (and a good while later while the policies got going) where the only choice was of the checkbook variety. It is really, really hard to imagine that now.

      • Ben DeGrow says:

        Recently, I was taking a look at data that would help tell me which state has the highest % of school-age kids who are exercising choice in some form (other than residential) — i.e., schooling outside their government district of residence. Private school and charter school data is pretty solid, but homeschooling #s and inter-district choice #s are less universally available. Still, my best estimate based on what’s available is that Arizona ranks number 1 in the rate of those drawing from the choice menu. Believe it or not, Michigan probably ranks 2 or 3. Still, I think in some educational respects, the two states are worlds apart.

      • Greg Forster says:

      • Matthew Ladner says:


        Word has reached my ears that a doctoral student has found that more than half of Maricopa County students attend a school outside of their zoned district school. The state stopped tracking open enrollment over a decade ago but if this is accurate it will be quite a suprise.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Are we already back at the “vouchers are SO dead!” stage of the cycle? So soon?

    Let’s see, by my watch, that puts us on schedule for a huge voucher boom in . . . spring 2018.

    This cycle is so reliable, Immanuel Kant times his daily walks by it.

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