Education Freedom is…a Millennial

January 4, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the recent closing of BAEO has me reflecting a bit. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program passed in 1990, followed by the first charter school statute in 1991 in Minnesota. This makes the choice movement a millennial. Like many millennials, the education choice movement is still a little rough around the edges, still a little up in the air about whether she’s going to pull it all together. She does show promise, but just might be holding herself back despite some lessons learned the hard way that she does not quite, really want to confront and accept. Lessons like:

  1. It’s counter-intuitive but if you want to help poor kids with choice it is best to include everyone.
  2. Central planning efforts can and do backfire, even when your intentions are good.
  3. When you go outside and talk to normal people you learn important things away from the reformosphere bubble.
  4. Politics has some basic rules-know them.

Needless to say, there are more, which you can add in the comments. I for one am optimistic that our sometimes out of sorts millennial is going to make it after all.


The Republic is shocked SHOCKED to learn that there is PLURALISM in this democracy!

December 8, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic requested a FOIA for emails between the Arizona Department of Education and the Goldwater Institute concerning the ESA program. In those emails they found…a giant nothing-burger. I am a Goldwater alumnus and participated fully in the creation of the original ESA program. This opens me to charges of bias, but it certainly makes me familiar with the subject at hand. I don’t believe there is any bias in the case I will lay out below. That case is as follows: it is utterly routine for agencies to interact with stakeholder groups from all sides on all issues-including (dun! Dun! DUN!!!!!) the Goldwater Institute. Requesting the emails of a single group hardly begins to paint a remotely full picture of what goes on, and this article fails to make a case even within the confines of a narrow perspective provided by the emails of the single group.

You’ll have to read the article and navigate a great many assurances that there is something coming in the nothing-burger before you get to the end and are left with basically nothing. But along the way you get treated to gems like:

Special interests often write concepts for legislation or offer drafted bills and then lobby lawmakers to pass them. But Goldwater’s attempts to exert control over the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, from idea to implementation, was highly unusual if not unprecedented, experts say.

“This is almost an iron grip-level of influence from the beginning of the process on,” said Thomas Holyoke, an associate professor of political science at California State University-Fresno, who studies interest groups and lobbying.

Dr. Holyoke might need to go outside a bit more often. Let’s start with some basic facts. Arizona is a pluralistic democracy. Anyone and everyone in Arizona is completely free at any time to write emails to elected officials or agency officials. This happens non-stop and will continue to do so (God willing) for as long as Arizona exists. It is in fact one of the reasons agencies have email systems, but they also receive letters, phone calls, and various other forms of communication. They often meet with people in person. It is the gambling that goes on in the casino of American democracy, and everyone is invited to play.

I can assure you that ESA opponents have also been in frequent communication with the Arizona Department of Education officials as well, as have lots of other groups and people on this and lots of other issues. If one is inclined to create conspiracy stories, you don’t need to request emails.

Here I’ll do it now just for fun and to show how easy it is to do: one of the officials who helped oversee the administration of the ESA program was the son of a former President of the Arizona Education Association and currently lobbies for the Arizona School Boards Association. Another left the Arizona Department of Education to lobby for the Arizona Education Association. Perhaps all of those administrative problems that the Republic has documented over the years are like on purpose man! Maybe the Goldwater Institute was emailing the department because THE MAN doesn’t like kids having the ability to control their own education!!!

It’s like a CONSPIRACY!!!!

Just to be clear I don’t have a problem with either of these individuals- happy to have a drink with one or both of them on occasion when they are tolerant enough to hang out with Dr. Evil at a social event. And for the record, I don’t think that the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program has been the victim of conspiratorial administrative sand-bagging. The administration of the program has challenges to be sure. This however is true of many things in a Department that, for instance, sends Title I and IDEA funds to the wrong schools, and has had the state’s student data system in years past crash for months at a time. It’s true that there have been issues with ESA program administration, deeply infuriating ones in fact, but this is basically true of a great many things and is unfortunately par for the course.

Previous reporting from the Republic has shown that the Arizona Department of Education has not spent even close to the full amount appropriated for program administration in prior years. The Republic has documented administrative shortcomings, and recounts some of this in the current article. If the Goldwater Institute wielded all-powerful “iron grip” influence, do we imagine that the Department would leave resources lying around and serious problems with program administration unaddressed? After all, what they want is for the program to work smoothly. Parents who sign an agreement with the state only to find the state fails to fund their accounts on time for instance tend to get angry. Bully for Jonathan Butcher for trying to go to bat for them.

In short I’m having a hard time spotting a conspiracy in this, either in motive, methods or outcomes.







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

October 24, 2017

(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.



Another ESA momma bear attack spotted in the Arizona Republic letter page

August 15, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

If you are squinting  at your iPad, this letter basically asks where the calls for oversight were when her child’s district received $26,000 from the state and the district delivered an hour of speech therapy with a side order of indifference. “Before we attack and try to defund the ESA program that is doing a lot of good things for disabled kids, maybe we should look into the lack of oversight and accountability in our public schools.”

Recall Challenge for Arizona ESA expansion

August 10, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Anti-choice activists delivered 111,540 petition signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office two days ago in advance of the deadline in order to subject SB 1431 (2017 ESA expansion) to a vote of the public. Whether or not this will result in the number of legally required valid signatures remains unclear- judging from the previous history of validity rates it is very likely to be close either way. It will take weeks before we have a final answer. Only the expansion of the program, rather than the program itself, faces uncertainty. The program will continue to operate for the students eligible under the previous law without interruption.

What “Save Our Schools” group has done is both impressive and misguided. The chattering classes in Arizona, including me, were broadly skeptical regarding their chances. Gathering signatures out in the summer Arizona heat is an indicator of real passion. Their fury however were deeply misplaced. The real victims here are the hundreds of parents who had submitted an application to the Department of Education to participate and the larger number who had planned to apply.

Last Friday at a public Arizona Talks debate, Zeus Rodriguez made the point that the question of whether to have parental choice and the question of how much to spend on public schools are entirely separate decisions. Choice opponents seem to fail to appreciate that school funding decisions are reached democratically (both directly and indirectly) and that districts remain (by far) the best funded option both in absolute and on a per student basis. The fixation on the ESA program as a boogeyman is especially odd. Approximately 3,500 students participated in the AZESA program last year- we have multiple individual high schools with more students. Whether you examine numbers of students or dollars invested, the absurdity of blaming private choice for every district grievance becomes clear:

and in terms of dollars:

Funding for K-12 education is guaranteed in the Arizona Constitution and this provision enjoys the broad support of the public. It is under no threat from anyone as far as I can tell. The history of the last 22 years demonstrates that even the district portion of public education has more kids and more money than when parental choice experiments began. Fast growing states do not in other words face a zero sum game. Had Arizona choice supporters been out to “destroy public education” in the state the two charts above demonstrate that this imaginary effort would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

Fortunately, our real project is entirely different.

The evidence supporting the real project (improving variety, diversity and performance) is much stronger. Arizona has more choice options than any other state, and alone among all states made statistically significant progress on all six NAEP exams for the entire period that we can track all exams (2009-2015). When you net out significant declines from increases the typical state saw one significant increase during this period.  Arizona students made more progress on math 2009 and 2013 as 4th/8th graders, and then did it again between 2011 and 2015. This of course does not prove that choice caused the improvement, but when you take a close look at the gains, it is very difficult indeed to argue that they have hurt:

Stay tuned to see what happens next. My sympathies lie entirely with the families who just had an opportunity yanked away just before the start of the school year.



Arizona ESA Momma Bear Mauls Arizona Republic in LTE

June 29, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)


I’ll give the Republic credit for running the letter, but totally agree with Mrs. Visser.