Debunking a Brazen Lie about Education Savings Accounts

July 24, 2016

pants-on-fire1

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

An article in the Texas Tribune regarding the push for education savings accounts contained an incredible whopper from the state teachers’ union lobbyist:

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said education savings accounts are worse than vouchers because there is no good way to control how parents spend the money. The states that have implemented such programs have included no provisions that allow them to reclaim money if parents spend it on “a flatscreen TV or a bag of crack,” he said.

“Who’s to say that a laptop isn’t an educational expenditure, but who’s to say that it is? Who is going to police that?” he said. “Are we going to pay someone at the state level to monitor this program, and how much is that going to cost?”

Frankly, he should be embarrassed to be peddling a lie that is so easily debunked.

*All* of the existing ESA laws in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee contain financial accountability provisions to ensure that parents are spending the ESA funds only on approved educational expenses, which are clearly defined in law.

Like any government program (e.g., district schools), there is bound to be some amount of fraud. Fortunately, due to the tight financial controls, Arizona (the first state to enact an ESA law) has been able to recover misspent ESA funds. Moreover, an independent auditor recently determined than less than one percent of Arizona’s ESA funds were misspent, as the Goldwater Institute reports:

Last year, the state deposited nearly $26 million in families’ education savings accounts. The auditor uncovered misspending that totaled less than 0.8 percent of the distributed funds—an unacceptable amount, because any fraud involving taxpayer money and children is unacceptable. But it’s a manageable amount. The department of education should follow through on the auditor’s recommendations, as the agency stated it would in its response letter, and continue to improve the ways parents and students find quality learning opportunities with education savings accounts.

Arizona parents have spent more than 99% of ESA funds on approved educational products and services, and 100% of ESA parents surveyed in 2013 reported being satisfied with their child’s education.

The Texas teachers’ union needs a new talking point.


Mississippi ESA Update: The Magnolias Are Blooming

July 21, 2016

magnolias-white

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Back in February, opponents of educational choice criticized Mississippi’s new ESA program for attracting fewer than half the number of students with special needs as there were slots available, claiming that this showed that the program was a “failure.”

Well, surely they will now issue a press release declaring the ESA program a success now that it is oversubscribed for next year. Empower Mississippi has the details:

Yesterday the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) conducted a lottery to award the remaining 175 scholarships for the Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program. This year a total of 425 scholarships will be awarded to students in Mississippi.

The lottery drawing, held at MDE’s temporary headquarters at the South Pointe Business Park in Clinton, utilized a random number generator to determine the 175 recipients. There were 304 approved applications in the lottery competing for the available slots. Those that did not receive a scholarship, along with those that continue to apply, will have their name put on a waiting list for future openings.

Last year, in the first year of the program, 251 of the 434 available scholarships had been awarded by the beginning of the school year. Because of the rolling application process, and the available slots, that number increased each quarter last year. This year the program will be at maximum capacity of 425 students at the beginning of the year.

Enrollment in the program has grown by 70 percent over a one-year period and the number of approved applications has increased by more than 120 percent during the same time period.

special-needs-esa-enrollment

Source: Empower Mississippi

Next step: raise the cap on participation!


Going bold in Missouri with Education Savings Accounts

July 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Martin F. Lueken)

Last year, Missouri was one of 18 states that introduced legislation to create an education savings account (ESA) program for families. While it didn’t ultimately become law, it’s stoked the conversation about educational choice in the state and how we can empower families to find schooling options that work for their kids.

Under an ESA program, state officials deposit money into an account for education expenses for children who sign up for the plan. Parents can spend the money on a host of education expenses ranging from books to special needs services, online education, tutoring, SAT and ACT preparation or private school tuition. Parents can also roll over unused funds and use them in the future to pay for college tuition.

Currently, there are five K-12 ESA programs operating in five states – Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee.

ESAs are a new and promising innovation with lots of potential because they move beyond just giving parents a say in what school their children attend. ESAs empower parents to tailor an educational experience that they want for their own children.

In essence, it expands on what Nobel Laureate and economist Milton Friedman’s vision of providing parents with freedom to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs. Going a step further, ESAs allow parents to unbundle educational goods and services and choose the ones that best meet their needs. School choice is getting an upgrade.

Critics of ESAs and other school choice efforts like to allege that the programs will “siphon” resources from public schools or harm students in some way. Fortunately, school choice has been around long enough to have produced a large body of research to learn from.

Researcher Greg Forster, for instance, systematically reviewed 100 empirical studies. His findings: school choice affects all of these areas mentioned above in a positive way. Students who choose score higher in reading and math, are more likely to graduate and are more likely to succeed in college. They also are more likely to learn civic values. Moreover, increased competition from school choice makes students remaining in public schools better off. When students choose, schools also tend to become more integrated. And not a single study found that school choice cost taxpayers any money.

Although greater educational freedom for Missouri families would be reason enough for many to adopt a program, some, including taxpayers and legislators, want to know how an ESA program would affect the state’s bottom line – a legitimate concern. A paper I recently co-authored with Mike McShane, Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute, estimated the fiscal impact of a broad-eligibility ESA program on Missouri taxpayers and public school districts. This program would be funded by tax credits for private donations, in which nearly all Missouri K-12 age children (88 percent) would be eligible. We considered a program that is capped at $50 million in its first year, which is a drop in Missouri’s $5.7 billion K-12 education budget’s bucket.

Using a variety of circumstances to make our estimates, we found that state government and local school districts combined would save between $8 million and $58 million per year under an ESA program. The school districts alone would save $21 million to $40 million per year. The state – which is footing the bill by issuing tax credits – could save up to $18 million annually.

What does this mean? For starters, public school districts would have more resources for each student who remains in public school (as well as other tangential benefits such as smaller class sizes and better matches between Missouri students and schools).

Overall, however, Missourians and their children would have little to worry about and a whole lot to gain. The Show-Me State has tried many things to improve their schools, especially in the areas that struggle the most, with little success. It’s time to go bold, and try something that’s already a demonstrated success. It’s time for Missouri to create an education system fit for the future.

Update: rephrased for clarity

Martin F. Lueken is the Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.


The MacKenzies Weigh in on the 2015 NAEP gain Champion

July 6, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

MM: Hows it goin eh? So I am Matthew MacKenzie, and this is my sister Lisa Graham Mackenzie…put on your touk!

LGM: <putting on hat> COO LOO COO COO COO COO COO COOOOOOOO! Good day!

MM: Good day! Sos our topic today is education…

LGM: Education? Do you need me to teach you how to open a beer again hoser?

MM: No! Ifs I didn’t learn that after the sixth lesson or so, I’da thirsted to death already!

LGM: You….learn? <snorts>

MM: Yeah….okay…..so good day, we are here today to talk about education in the United States.

LGM: They have education in the United States? I thoughts the test scores were even lower down there than yours hose-head?!?

MM: Yeah, well, they are, check out how high Canada is on this ranking eh!

MM: You may have to squint but Canada is near the top! United States, er, well but at least some American states are making progress…like getting a lot better…

LGM: Oh you mean like BEER! Remember when just a small number of breweries made almost all the beer, and it mostly tasted like stagnant pond water?

MM: Yeah- kinda like that! So’s now some states have kinda done the microbrewery thing for schools eh? Sos more people can find a school that they like!

LGM: Beauty! And hosers like you can find a beer you like!

MM: Yeah so the state with the biggest gains did microbrewery education in a big way eh? Ands you can read about in our column in the Arizona Republic!

LGM: What’s the Arizona Republic?

MM: You know, it’s like the Moose Jaw Times Herald, but even better and for Arizona!

LGM: Okay…So if they keep making gains they might be able to do advanced Canadian math problems like this one:

MM: Yeah…that’s what we call “applied math” up here in the Great White North!

LGM: Beauty! So we wrote a column and it ran, like, in the newspaper?!?

MM: Yeah!

LGM: Sos why does this post have a MacKenzie theme eh?

MM: Take off- you’ll have to read the column to find out, eh?

LGM: You take off hose-head!

MM: Okay so that’s our show for today eh…good day!

LGM: Good day!


Remarks to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce: More Than This

June 20, 2016

Friedman award

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry held an awards breakfast last Friday, where they recognized a number of worthy recipients including friends serving in the legislature like Senator Debbie Lesko and Senator Steve Pierce and Representative Paul Boyer.  They also however chose to recognize a rather dubious character with whom you will be all to familiar by bestowing upon him the Milton Friedman Award, Obviously I was deeply touched to receive an award named after one of my heroes.

At the request of the Chamber, I prepared the following remarks:

I am deeply touched to receive this honor, but I must say that I feel a bit like Jack Ryan. You may recall the scene in the Hunt for Red October when Ryan exclaims “Me?!? I’m just an analyst!”

Arizona is sailing into history!

While I am deeply appreciative of the award, it is I should honor you. The groundwork for what I am about to describe was already in place when I arrived in Arizona in 2003. You as long-time business and civic leaders in Arizona should take great pride in what I will relate.

It was recently reported that Arizona ranks number two in job growth. I am happy to relate to you that Arizona ranks number one in K-12 academic gains.  The National Assessment of Educational Progress gives academic exams to 4th and 8th graders in all 50 states every two years. When you follow the academic progress of 4th graders in 2011 to when they became 8th graders in 2015, you find that Arizona students made more progress than any other state. Given everything this state endured during the Great Recession, this is a remarkable tribute to the resiliency of our students, educators and policymakers.

NAEP Math cohort gains with AZ charters

This progress is across the board and includes both district and charter schools. In addition our charter school students did something truly extraordinary. On the same 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, Arizona’s charter school students scored comparably to the highest performing states like Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Arizona charter schools are funded far more modestly, and have student bodies far more diverse, than the schools in New England.

These results are remarkable. How did this happen? What is the secret sauce? There is no single explanation and there are many ingredients in the Arizona K-12 reform gumbo. You made the mistake however of giving me an award named after the great Milton Friedman and then the even larger mistake of giving me the microphone, so I am going to talk about parental choice. It seems clear to me that parental choice has been a major contributor to Arizona’s improvement.

Parental choice is controversial. Some people believe that parental choice is about some schools being “good” while others are “bad.” Those who believe this however are mistaken. Parental choice is about the fact that every single child deserves to have access to a school that is a good fit for them. Good fits between students and schools are very powerful, and we cannot replace it with any other source of improvement.  Without giving parents the ability to match the needs and interests of their child with the particular strengths of a school, the public education system will never reach full potential.

During the campaign, Governor Ducey quite rightly placed an emphasis on Arizona students sitting on wait lists at our high demand district and charter schools of choice. These students only have one shot at their K-12 education, but they find themselves stranded by the inadequacies of our policies, waiting for the opportunity to attend their good fit school. Meanwhile the sand continues to run through their hourglass. 

Our challenge includes this, but it is also more than this.

Tens of thousands of Arizona students sit on wait lists, but hundreds of thousands of Arizona parents never even considered some of our highest performing district and/or private schools. These schools may have been great fits for the needs of their children, but they didn’t even cross the radar screens of these parents for consideration. Why not? Because they have effectively been priced out of consideration. Parents either cannot afford the high price of real estate for the district schools, or else cannot afford to pay tuition in addition to their taxes. Many sadly see these schools as being for someone else, but not for them. It doesn’t however have to remain this way. We have it in our power to make our educational opportunities more inclusive. The blessings of liberty should not remain the privilege of the few, but rather the birthright of all.

I fell in love with Arizona because of our innovative spirit and I believe that we have been richly rewarded for it. If Dr. Friedman were still with us, I believe he would be proud of what we have done, and would encourage us to do more. Arizona is a state with big horizons, where the sky is the limit. May we always remain so.

I genuinely am deeply appreciative of both the award, and the opportunity to work with great people on these issues in Arizona.

 


Winning the Blaine Game in Nevada

May 19, 2016

case-dismissed

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As Matt noted earlier, a Nevada judge upheld the state’s ESA program yesterday. Here’s what the Institute for Justice had to say:

“Today’s decision is a powerful rebuke to the idea that school choice programs undermine education,” said Tim Keller, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice’s Arizona office, “The Nevada ESA program contains both hallmarks of a constitutional school choice program: parents, not the government, decide where their children go to learn, and the government stays entirely neutral with respect to religion.” The Institute for Justice (IJ) represents six Nevada parents who have been approved for ESAs.

ESAs are a cutting edge reform in finding ways to educate a booming population amidst strained state budgets. The ESA program deposits money into accounts controlled by participating parents, who then use it to design a customized education for their children. ESA funds may be used to enroll in private schools, hire tutors, buy textbooks and curricula, and even pick and choose among individual courses at public schools and universities.

“ESAs hand the reins over to parents,” explained Keith Diggs, also an IJ attorney in Arizona. “Kids don’t deserve to be stuck in a school that doesn’t suit them. ESAs will open up a huge array of options and create a market where parents can seek out the education their kids need.”

Over at the Cato-at-Liberty blog, I take a deep dive into the judge’s ruling:

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence, the judge held that the Nevada Constitution prohibits aiding one religion, preferring one religion over others, or aiding all religions in a manner that prefers religion over non-religion, citing in particular the state constitution’s declaration that the “free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference shall forever be allowed in this State.” The Blaine Amendment had prohibited “sectarian” instruction in the public schools, but did not preclude the legislature from enacting religiously neutral programs that would provide funding to families to educate their children in the manner they preferred, whether at a religious or secular institution.

…the Nevada judge held [that] any benefit to religious schools from the ESA was ancillary and indirect. The Blaine Amendment “was not intended to preclude any expenditure that has an incidental benefit to religion, where such is made for a primary secular purpose,” and the ESA “was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing financial assistance to parents to take advantage of educational options available to Nevada children.”

Case dismissed.

Let’s hope the Nevada Supreme Court agrees.


Sorry ACLU-Court Rejects Blaine Challenge to ESA

May 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A Nevada judge dismissed one of the two lawsuits challenging NV ESA. From the ruling:

NV ruling

 

BOOOOMILICOUS victory, but the program injunction remains in place from the other case, and this all ends up in the Nevada Supreme Court.  It is always sickening to me to see anyone attempt to use provisions created by a past wave of anti-Catholic bigots, so it is always good to see such attempts fail.

From the Las Vegas Sun:

Education insiders around the country are keeping a close eye on the Nevada program, and its success or failure could determine whether similar sweeping programs are pushed in other states.

When it comes to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the judge dismissed the group’s argument that Nevada’s constitution only tasks the Legislature with ensuring a public school system.

“The framers indicated they intended to create two duties, a broad one to encourage education by ‘all suitable means,’ and a specific, but separate, one to create a uniform public school system,” judge Eric Johnson wrote in his opinion. “The Legislature can provide for a uniform system of common schools, free from religious instruction and open to general attendance by all Nevada children, and still adopt other suitable means of encouraging education.”

Johnson also dismissed the ACLU’s contention that allowing public money to be used to pay tuition at private religious schools violates the state constitution, which has been a central argument in lawsuits against ESA and voucher programs elsewhere.

Ruling can be read here.

 


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