Quinnipiac Poll Finds that Parental Choice is the most popular element of Andrew Cuomo’s K-12 Agenda

September 22, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Very interesting poll results– the unions seem to have convinced New York that Cuomo is wrong on K-12 reform- except on choice. On charters and tax credits New Yorkers seem to be resisting,


The 123s of the ABCs

February 3, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

We are now up to an astonishing 51 school choice programs in 24 states plus DC. We are one state short of having private school choice in half the states. Who wants to put us over the top?

Check out all the latest stats on all these programs in the 2015 edition of The ABCs of School Choice, just released from Friedman.


Third Edition of “Win-Win” Adds a Third Win

April 17, 2013

Win-Win 3.0 cover

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, the Friedman Foundation releases the third edition of my biannual report summarizing the empirical research on school choice. As in previous years, I survey all the available studies on academic effects – both for students who use school choice and for public schools. Hence the title “A Win-Win Solution” – school choice is a win for both those who use it and those who don’t.

New in this edition of the report, I also survey the impact of school choice on the democratic polity in three dimensions: fiscal impact on taxpayers, racial segregation and civic values and practices (such as tolerance for the rights of others). Guess what it shows? School choice is not just win-win, it’s actually win-win-win. It not only benefits choosing families and non-choosing families; it also benefits everyone else through fiscal savings and the strengthening of social and civic bonds.

Here’s the most important part of the report – that unbroken column of zeros on the right remains as impressive as it ever was. Do please read the rest if you’d like to know more!

Win-Win 3.0 chart


2011 NAEP: Florida Finally Hits a Wall

November 3, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Florida Age of Public School Improvement hit a wall in the 2011 NAEP. This should not be terribly surprising, as Florida’s improvement seemed certain to plateau in the absence of additional reforms.

Governor Jeb Bush relentlessly pursued a dual strategy- transparency with teeth from the top down, parental choice from the bottom up. Together these reforms drove improvement in the public schools for a number of years.  Accountability measures included school grading (A-F) and earned promotion in the early grades. Parental choice measures included Opportunity Scholarships for children attending F rated schools, the nation’s first special needs voucher program (McKay Scholarships), the nation’s largest scholarship tax credit program (Step Up for Students), a decent charter school law and the nation’s most robust system of digital learning. Florida lawmakers also attempted to thoughtfully incentivize success.

Governor Bush took office in 1999 and left office in 2007. It would be nice if these efforts could indefinitely push progress forward, but there have been plenty of bumps and problems along the way. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court rendered a logic-free ruling abolishing Opportunity Scholarships (failing school vouchers) for private schools, and followed that up by ruling against a state authorizer for charter schools. Tax-credits, McKay and digital learning continued to incrementally advance, but not at an earth-shattering rate.

The larger problem may have come in the top down measures. The chart below presents the distribution of district and charter school grades, with one line being the A/B grades and the other D/F grades. The dotted lines represent instances when the state board raised school grading standards.

The setting of these standards represents far more of an art than a science. Set them far too high and disaster follows (this happened in Arizona). Set them too low, and you remove the tension in the system needed to drive improvement. Even after the last increase in grading standards, more than 10 times as many Florida schools received A/B grades as D/F grades.

Florida’s policymakers raised standards four times, and last year (wisely) put in an automatic trigger to raise standards by a preset amount when a certain ratio of schools get A or B grades. In addition, a fresh set of reforms passed the Florida legislature in 2011, revamping teaching and increasing charter school and digital learning options.

Just as it is impossible to exactly pinpoint how much of what caused the gains, it is likewise impossible to say exactly what made them stall. Note however that one of the favorite explanations of the anti-reform crowd, the pre-school, finally saw the advent of children old enough to have participated in the program and age into the 4th grade NAEP sample. I hope that someone is carefully studying variation in participation and corresponding trends in FCAT data, but the results at the aggregate level thus far seem underwhelming.

Plenty of other things, however, have been going on- including the collapse of a housing bubble, cutbacks in public school funding (including of some of the incentive funding programs) and a variety of other very bad things. My advice to Florida policymakers: roll up your sleeves and get back at it. Despite the enormous amount of progress seen on NAEP (and no one loves celebrating it more than me) too great of a gulf lies between a state system awarding ten times as many top grades as low grades but still  suffering from large minorities of students scoring below basic on the NAEP exams.

Governor Bush has consistently said for years that success is never final, and reform is never finished. The 2011 pause in progress demonstrates that he called it correctly.  Moving the needle on student learning on a meaningful scale and at a sustained basis represents one of the greatest public policy challenges of our times. Governor Bush has passed the torch to a new generation of Florida reformers, and they must now find new ways, and fine-tune the old ways, to push academic progress forward.

Edited for typos


The Race is On: Indiana is the new Florida, but who will be the next Indiana?

September 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The 2011 legislative sessions set a new standard for K-12 reform, can 2012 hope to compare? The logical response would be something along the lines of “not bloody likely.” The electoral calendar, the fact that many of the reform states are likely to be distracted by policy implementation, and the fact that the molasses states and likely to stay in their torpor all point to a diminished of expectations for next year.

Taking a step back from questions of the pace of reform, it makes for good bloggy fun to speculate where large breakthroughs might occur.

Looking regionally, Big 10 country clearly led the way last year. Indiana engaged in incredible soup to nuts reform, with big reform undertakings in Ohio, Wisconsin and even (gasp) Illinois with tenure reform. The Minnesota legislature passed transformative reforms, but settled for some incremental steps this year. Big things are under discussion in Michigan. Iowa is discussing reform, while Pennsylvania seems to be searching for their sea legs, which I expect them to find.

By comparison to the Big Ten, the South seems stuck in neutral, outside of Florida, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Texas and North Carolina used to be reform leaders, but they faded after plucking the low-hanging fruit of reform (standardized testing). North Carolina shows some signs of rousing. Tennessee has entered into a serious discussion about reform. Reform is on like Donkey Kong in Oklahoma- special needs vouchers followed by school grading and 3rd grade retention and a tuition tax credit program.

The Northeast features some interesting dynamics in Maine, and fascinating struggle between Democrats for Education Reform and the AFT in New York. Lots of small rural schools in the northeast will eventually benefit from digital learning.

When you look out West, you see a clueless giant surrounded by more nimble neighbors. All three states bordering California-Arizona, Nevada and Oregon -have taken steps to enact reform. Yes- even Oregon! Governors Sandoval of Nevada and Martinez of New Mexico have brought a new energy to reform discussions in their states. Arizona, Utah and New Mexico have adopted A-F school grading, with Utah also passing a far-reaching digital learning bill.

Florida enacted comprehensive reform in 1999. Indiana did it in 2011.  Which states will be next? I could tell you, but then I might have to kill you. Feel free to speculate in the comments section.


Did Milton Friedman Support School Choice Tax Credits?

October 15, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Did Milton Friedman support school choice programs where the financing runs through the tax code rather than the treasury? He always made it clear that if he had a choice between them, he preferred vouchers (funded through the treasury) over either of the two alternatives forms of school choice that use the tax code (direct tax credits for families to offest thier tuition costs or scholarships distributed by charitable organizations and funded by donations that make the donor eligible for a tax credit). But that doesn’t mean he didn’t support the tax-code alternatives or didn’t consider them to be “true” school choice programs.

I bring this up because Robert Enlow of the Friedman Foundation has dug up a letter that Milton wrote in support of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. The letter was written on May 17, 2005 and was addressed to a Florida corporate leader who was considering whether or not to support the program.

Milton wrote:

I agree with you completely that the tax code should be used solely to raise revenue to fund necessary government spending and not to create social policy. Unfortunately, in schooling, the tax code is already being used to create social policy, by devoting tax funds to maintaining a socialist education system. If the state decides to subsidize the schooling of children, the straightforward way is to provide a voucher to each parent and let the parent choose the school that he believes is best for his or her children. Let the private market provide the schools. If the state wants to set up schools, let them charge tuition and compete with private schools on a level playing field.

Unfortunately, for reasons we are both well aware of, ranging from unions to school administrators and religious concerns, that ideal solution is not feasible.** Where it has been feasible to any significant extent, as in Milwaukee and the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program, it has worked well. But again and again, as currently in Florida, an inferior tax credit program seems the only political option. Tax credits are an indirect, and I believe less efficient, way to do what vouchers do more directly. But they do promote the basic objective, of expanding parental choice and thereby introducing more competition into the educational industry. As a result, I have reluctantly supported tax credit programs in a number of states.

Let me just repeat, the tax system is being used for social purposes with both vouchers and tax credits.

**I think we may take it as given that he means “not currently feasible in Florida.” Any attmept to attribute to Milton Friedman the view that vouchers were “not feasible” in general would be absurd in light of his continuing active support for voucher efforts right up to the end of his life.

Milton was always completely open about his opinions, even to a fault. If he was thinking about whether to change his mind about something, but wasn’t yet sure whether to change his position, he would say so – and this would sometimes drive people to claim he had in fact changed his position.

We see that openness in this letter. He admits that his support for tax credits is only as a second-best option and even says the he supports them “reluctantly.” But if you knew Milton even a little bit – and I was only privileged to know him a little bit before he died – you know that he wouldn’t say he supported them at all unless he really supported them. The emphasis here is on the support, not the reluctance; the reluctance only comes in because (as the opening sentence makes clear) he’s addressing an audience that shares his concerns about tax credits.


School Choice Wins in 2008; Unrestricted Eligibility in Georgia

June 18, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Washington Post is now reporting that the House Appropriations subcommittee will fund the DC voucher program for another year. People are saying that the future of the program doesn’t look good, because the subcommittee chairman is blustering about how much he doesn’t like it. But read that Post article carefully. He doesn’t say that the program will be killed next year. The Post reports that he says he’s funding the program for another year “to give District leaders a chance to restructure the program.” He is quoted as saying, “I expect that during the next year the District leaders will come forward with a firm plan for either rolling back the program or providing some alternative options.”

That sounds to me like a man who’s looking for a deal. The DC program is already loaded up with monster payoffs to the District’s patronage-bloated public school system. How hard is it to make those payoffs bigger? And maybe the program will have to accept some more politically motivated restrictions on participation, so that critics will have a trophy to hang on their wall.

Whether those tradeoffs are worth it for the school choice movement – there is a real cost, and not just in dollars, associated with them – is a question I leave for another day. And of course this is just the subcommittee; there could still be more trouble ahead. And maybe next year the critics will get a better offer from the unions than the deal they’re apparently angling to get on behalf of the DC patronage machine.

All I want to do is observe that the program’s chances of survival are now looking a lot better than they did yesterday.

As the political season winds to a close, let’s survey the results:

  • A new personal tax credit for private school tuition in Louisiana
  • A new tax-credit scholarship program in Georgia
  • A new voucher program in Louisiana
  • An expansion of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, including a $30 million increase in the cap; a bump up in the value of the scholarship and a linking of the scholarship value to state school spending (which always goes up); and a relaxation of the program’s unreasonably stringent accounting rules (which used to allow not one penny of carryover from year to year in the scholarship organizations’ accounts, and not one penny from eligible donations for administrative expenses).
  • A million-dollar funding increase and guaranteed future funding stream for Utah’s voucher program.
  • Preservation (tentatively) of the DC voucher program in a hostile Congress.

That’s three new programs, two expansions of existing programs and an upset victory in DC. Pretty good for a dead movement, wouldn’t you say?

By the way, how did accountability testing do this year? How many new programs? How many existing programs expanded?

How about instructional and curricular reforms? How’s the Massachussetts miracle holding up?

Anyone? . . . Anyone?

Some of these victories did come at a cost. The two programs in Louisiana are going to score poorly when measured against the gold standard of universal choice. The tax credit is limited to a very small amount of money, which means it offers a very small amount of choice. And the new voucher program is only offered to students who are in grades K-3, low-income, and enrolled in public schools (or entering kindergarten) in a chronically failing school district located in a highly populated parish – which currently means only New Orleans. Plus it’s limited by annual appropriations (currently $10 million). A new grade level will become eligible each year (4th grade next year, then 5th grade, etc.) and Baton Rouge may become eligible if its public schools continue to fail. But this is still an inadequate program. And we can also add the prospect of more restrictions in the DC program to the debit column.

But there was also a huge step forward for universal choice. Georgia’s new tax-credit scholarship program offers school choice for all students. It has no demographic restrictions at all. Any public school student can apply. The only limit is the $50 million program cap – and experience in other states pretty consistently shows that dollar caps rise as programs grow to meet them.

Georgia’s new program is basically the same as the Arizona program funded by individual donations, except that Georgia’s program also allows corproate donations. And that makes a big difference, because it greatly expands the pool of available funds – and hence the size of the program.

Come to think of it, Georgia’s program is the first tax-credit scholarship program to include corporate donations and not place demographic restrictions on who can participate. That’s a potentially powerful combination. It will be exciting to see whether Georgia ends up taking school choice to a whole new level.


Correction on Tax Credits

May 9, 2008

(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

In this post a while back, I wrote that the potential for enacting school choice by giving families tax credits for their education expenditures would be strictly limited “until some state enacts a refundable credit.”

George Clowes wrote me to point out that the tax credit in Minnesota is already refundable. And since I’ve already pointed out that you don’t want to get on George Clowes’s bad side, I hasten to correct my error.

This doesn’t really affect my point much, since the Minnesota credit just happens to be the only one that doesn’t include tuition (only other education expenses like books and fees are eligible) and this is an even bigger limitation than the “unrefundability” (to use a totally real and not-made-up word) of the credits in other states. Tax credits for private school families won’t provide much choice until we get one that 1) is refundable, 2) isn’t restricted to a small amount of money, and 3) includes tution.

Nonetheless, I apologize for the error, and I thank George for bringing it to my attention.


Cajun Choice

April 23, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

On a much more serious note (see below), the news that America got a new school choice program last month seems to have slipped by under the radar.

On March 24, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed SB5, providing a deduction off parents’ personal income taxes for qualified education expenses, including private school tuition. The deduction is worth 50% of the total amount spent on qualifying expenses, up to a maximum deduction of $5,000. For more details on the program see here.

The tax deduction became effective as soon as it was signed, so we now have 22 school choice programs in 14 states plus D.C. All eyes are now on Georgia to see if a tax-credit scholarship program passed by the legislature becomes America’s 23rd school choice program; Governor Sonny Perdue has until May 14 to sign it, veto it, or allow it to become law without his signature.

Personal tax credits and deductions for educational expenses are an unusual way to do school choice; Louisiana’s program is only the fourth of this type. But it’s an approach with a long history. Minnesota enacted a tax deduction for educational expenses in 1955; Iowa enacted a tax credit in 1987; Minnesota added a tax credit on top of its deduction in 1997 (the credit excludes tuition but includes other expenses like books and fees – it’s the only program of this type not to include tuition); and Illinois enacted a credit in 1999.

Personal tax credit/deduction programs tend to be broad in scope but miniscule in magnitude. Only the Minnesota program has an income restriction, so the number of people eligible to participate in these programs is typically very large. Almost 650,000 families benefit from the Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota programs. On the other hand, the Iowa and Illinois programs provide maximum credits of only $250 and $500 respectively. The Minnesota program is slightly more generous, providing a maximum credit of $1,000 and a maximum deduction of $1,625 in grades K-6 and $2,500 in grades 7-12. And the maximum deduction in Louisiana is $5,000. I don’t know what that works out to in tax savings, but since state tax rates are lower than the federal rate it can’t be that much. Moreover, in most cases the taxpayer does not get a dollar-for-dollar credit or deduction for the money he or she spends; for example, in Louisiana you only get 50 cents on the dollar.

One idea behind these programs is to cut out the middleman and provide school choice as directly as possible. For example, the most important drawback of tax-credit scholarships is that they don’t create a parental entitlement to school choice. The scholarship granting organizations act as gatekeepers, generally favoring low-income parents and thus exacerbating the problem of “targeting” in school choice programs. (Of course, a corresponding advantage is that scholarship granting organizations have flexibility in the distribution of resources; one thing I discovered when I did the research behind this report is that scholarship granting organizations will often step up to provide full-ride scholarships to students facing personal crises such as the death of a parent.) By contrast, both vouchers and personal tax credits/deductions create a parental entitlement to school choice.

I have heard some argue that personal tax credits/deductions are better than vouchers because they cut out the middleman even more completely; supposedly it would be harder to add unnecessary regulations restricting the private schools. But I’ve never been able to understand why this is the case. In both voucher and personal tax credit/deduction programs, the legislature defines which private schools are eligible, and in both cases that’s where the unnecessary regulations get inserted. Why is it harder to do in one case than in the other? Is there some political reason why such restrictions are less likely to be written into the tax code than into other laws? That doesn’t strike me as plausible, but I’d be open to correction if somebody could make a case for it.

The major drawback to these programs is in the structure of state income taxes. Until some state enacts a refundable credit,** the benefit families get from these programs is limited to their total state income tax bill. That’s not a lot of money. And fewer dollars means less choice, as this report helpfully reminds us. Of course, you could in theory pass a refundable credit, but the political obstacles to that would be formidable.

For the record, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, where your humble servant is employed, has no position on whether vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, or personal tax credits/deductions are preferable. Our only goal is to provide a full choice to all students, and in theory all three types of programs can do that. They each have their advantages and disadvantages, but we evaluate each program based on how much choice it provides, not its funding mechanism.

That said, until we achieve universal choice, we’re stuck with limited programs, and in that context each of the three types has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Louisiana is a lot better off for having this program as opposed to no program. It will help a substantial number of families send their children to the school of their choice more easily, and it’s a universal program, establishing the important principle that school choice is good for all, not just for some.

That, and the passage of yet another school choice program is further proof, if further proof were necessary, that school choice is politically stronger than ever.

**CORRECTION: George Clowes has reminded me that the Minnesota tax credit is in fact refundable. That doesn’t really affect my point much, since the Minnesota credit doesn’t include tuition (only other education expenses like books and fees) and this is an even bigger limitation than the “unrefundability” (to use a totally real and not-made-up word) of the credits in other states. Tax credits for private school families won’t provide much choice until we get one that 1) is refundable, 2) isn’t restricted to a small amount of money, and 3) includes tution. Nonetheless, I apologize for the error, and I thank George for bringing it to my attention.