Charters v. Private Schools: Urban and Suburban Differences

August 28, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Cato has new research out from Richard Buddin, examining where charter schools draw their students from. Adam Schaeffer offers a summary, emphasizing the dangers of charter schools: “On average, charter schools may marginally improve the public education system, but in the process they are wreaking havoc on private education.”

I agree with the basic premise: charters don’t fix the underlying injustice of government monopolizing education by providing “free” (i.e. free at the point of service, paid for by taxpayers) education, driving everyone else out of the education sector. As Jay and I have argued before, vouchers make the world safe for charters; that implies you can view charters as a response by the government to protect its monopoly against the disruptive threat of voucher legislation.

But what interests me more are the urban/suburban and elementary/secondary breakdowns of these data. It appears that charters are only substantially cutting into private schools in “highly urban” areas. In the suburbs, the charter school option is framed much more in terms of boutique specialty alternatives (schools for the arts, classical education, etc.) rather than “your school sucks, here’s one that works.” If you’d asked me, I would have guessed that would also cut heavily into the private school market – it would appeal to parents of high means who are looking for something out of the ordinary for their children, and that demographic would be most likely to already be in private schools. Yet the data show otherwise; apparently the families choosing boutique suburban charters weren’t much impressed with their private school options. And what’s up with this weird distribution on the elementary/secondary axis? Apparently public middle schools really stink in urban/suburban border areas.


Clousseau vs. Cato (Institute)

April 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So in the old Pink Panther movies, Inspector Clousseau had this butler named Cato. Apparently, at some point, Clousseau had ordered Cato to conduct surprise attacks in order to keep his fighting skills sharp. Cato took to this role with relish, and Clousseau was unable to get him to stop. Clousseau did not seem to think that the value of the practice outweighed having his apartment destroyed on a regular basis, but Cato certainly seems to have thought it to be the case.


My pals at the Cato Institute hold a strong preference for tax credits over vouchers. They have some reasons to do so- tax credits have thus far proven more durable to court challenge, and so far operate with fewer regulations on private schools. We’ve lost voucher programs in the courts in Colorado, Florida and Arizona and no tax credits yet.

Voucher-only supporters (I am not of this camp) usually about now would note their preference for programs that provide a meaningful level of subsidy to low-income people, and then would recite a litany of perceived deficiencies in existing school tax credit programs. The Illinois personal tax credit program, for instance, can certainly be justified given that taxpayers sending their children to private schools are suffering a double payment penalty.  With a maximum subsidy of $500, however, it doesn’t help anyone much and does very little to put private education within reach of the poor. They would also note that there is less to this less regulation business than meets the eye, given recent tax credit programs in Arizona and Florida which (gasp) require students to take a nnr exam.

Personal tax credits cannot address the needs of poor, especially of the poor with multiple children, or children with disabilities. There are two possible fixes- refundable credits, and scholarship credits. Under a refundable credit, the government would provide you a payment for private school expenses even if it exceeds your tax liability. Cato opposes refundable credits, and we don’t have any examples of them in any case. Scholarship credits involve having non-profits pool donations from tax-donors (either personal or corporate donors depending on the program) and giving scholarships to kids.

Arizona lawmakers passed a school voucher program for children with disabilities in 2006. Edu-reactionaries sued against it and killed it with a Blaine Amendment. We passed a corporate tax credit program in an effort to save the kids on the program, but it debuted during a national financial collapse that impacted housing-crazy Arizona especially hard. The program has helped some students, but I don’t think it is unfair to say it underwhelmed, and had a $5m cap in any case. There was zero possibility that this program could grow into something like the fully scalable, elegantly operating McKay program, which funds special needs children on demand.

The Arizona Supreme Court did repeatedly broadly hint that a program with multiple possible uses for funds would not violate the Blaine Amendment. Nick Dranias and I researched the matter carefully and proposed a system of public contributions to ESAs as a solution. School choice champions in the Arizona legislature crafted a bill, which has now been signed into law by Governor Brewer.

Out jumps Cato from behind the leftovers in the fridge to the attack!

I could go into full OCD point by point refutation mode, but I will spare you by making a few brief comments. First, Adam’s discussion about “third-party payers” is odd to say the least, given Cato’s support of scholarship tax credits. Scholarship tax credits don’t just have third-party payers, they also have fourth party payers- donors and scholarship organizations.

Perhaps the Cato Institute only supports personal credits these days, although I doubt it. Such a preference would constitute utter indifference to equity concerns.

I also think Adam should not rush to jump to any conclusions regarding constitutional issues. When an Arizona Supreme Court justice gets a teacher union attorney to admit that a program with multiple uses solves a Blaine problem in open court, I’m willing to bet that ESAs are constitutionally distinct from vouchers in some circumstances. Further, Adam may be premature in concluding that deposits into these accounts remain “public funds.” Payments to individuals under contractual agreements with the government are not considered public funds- otherwise someone could sue to prevent the state from hiring anyone. Some of the money will end up paying for private school tuition, verboten under Blaine! Some of the top Constitutional attorneys in the country contributed to the development of this proposal including the crack team of Dranias and Bolick at the Goldwater Institute and Tim Keller at the Institute for Justice. I’ll take my chances with them in any court.

I encourage my friends at Cato to give equity concerns some serious consideration. Personal use credits are weak tea when dealing with poor children, children in large families, and children with disabilities. Some families are large, poor and have children with disabilities. This is not to say that personal use credits are bad- in fact, I say that they are a good but limited tool. The same applies to scholarship credits- they are good as far as they go.

Nor finally are choice mechanisms mutually exclusive, and we need every tool we can get.

The Hits Keep Coming, Friday Night Massacres Just Couldn’t Bury This Story

April 23, 2009

Despite Obama and Duncan’s best efforts to conceal their steps to kill the D.C. voucher program by acting on Friday afternoons, they have utterly failed at burying this story.  The hits just keep on coming.

In the latest round we have Morton Kondrake picking up on the appeasement metaphor I used in my WSJ piece:

“In a demonstration of obeisance to union power, however, Congressional Democrats refused to re-fund a private school voucher program in the District of Columbia and the administration swallowed the decision. Obama and Duncan say they have hopes to “work with” the unions rather than openly confront them and capitulation on D.C. vouchers may have been a goodwill offering. Whether appeasement will buy cooperation remains to be seen.”

George Will seems to be channeling  Juan Williams’ fury:

“As the president and his party’s legislators are forcing minority children back into public schools, the doors of which would never be darkened by the president’s or legislators’ children, remember this: We have seen a version of this shabby act before. One reason conservatism came to power in the 1980s was that in the 1970s liberals advertised their hypocrisy by supporting forced busing of other people’s children to schools the liberals’ children did not attend.

This issue will be back. In a few months, the appropriation bill for the District will come to the floor of the House of Representatives, at which point there will be a furious fight for the children’s interests. Then we will learn whether the president and his congressional allies are capable of embarrassment. On the evidence so far, they are not.”

Peter Roff writes in U.S. News and World Report:

“Former North Carolina Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards liked to go around talking about the “two Americas.” Where education is concerned, he may have been on to something. There’s one America for the elites, like members of Congress and the President and Mrs. Obama, who send their children to private schools; and there’s one for everyone else, the regular people who, at least in the District of Columbia, are seeing the educational dreams they have for their children shattered on the altar of politics.”

And Adam Schaeffer over at Cato has given Arne Duncan an award.  Unfortunately for Duncan it is the Chutzpah Award.

All of this is on top of the greatest hits collections, volume one and two, as well as a bunch of other hot singles from the Washington Post and others too numerous to mention in this 30 second commercial.

How can Obama, Duncan, Durbin, and the rest stop this pain?  One easy solution is to do the right thing, follow the evidence, and renew D.C. vouchers.