The Legacy of Andrew Coulson

February 8, 2018

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the tragically early passing of Andrew J. Coulson, the brilliant and (in the words of his beloved wife, Kay) “happy, effusive, relentlessly upbeat” education reformer, policy analyst, and director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

IMHO, the best tribute we can pay to Andrew is to reflect on his ideas. Although he didn’t live to see it, PBS ran his magnum opus documentary, School, Inc., about how and why our education system lacks the progress, innovation, and efficiency gains seen in nearly every other industry. Last year, the Friedmanesque three-part series won the Anthem Film Festival’s award for Excellence in Filmmaking – Documentary Feature, and now Free to Choose Media is making the documentary available to view for free online.

The Cato Institute has also made Educational Freedom: Remembering Andrew Coulson, Debating His Ideas, available to download as a free e-book.

Andrew’s voice is greatly missed in today’s debates over education policy, but as Neal McCluskey wrote, “Thankfully, his ideas remain, and they will always illuminate the pathway forward.”


NOTE: This post has been updated to clarify that it is Free to Choose Media that is making School, Inc. available to watch free online.

The Three Bees release New Study on Tax Credit Funded ESAs

January 21, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jason may have not yet developed the shameless self-promotion bug that afflict the rest of us here at JGPB, so I’ll mention for him that he has a new study out along with Jonathan Butcher and Justice Bolick (ah….I just love the sound of that…) on tax-credit ESAs.

The Three Bs make a strong case on the desirability of converting existing tax credit programs over to multiple uses, and also correctly note possible constitutional advantages under some state constitutions for a tax credit approach. The technology for allowing multiple uses for funds looks to be better and cheaper than one might expect (account management/oversight technology is fairly advanced) which may allow for oversight within the admin fees typically allowed by scholarship tax credit programs.

The Three Bs did not directly address the topic of scale. The mighty Florida tax credit program currently looks likely to reach the practical limits of its ability to scholarship children somewhere below 100,000 out of Florida’s 2,500,000 students. This might change if new taxes can be added to credit, but the mechanics of creating a credit against some taxes seems somewhere on the speculative to work-in-progress spectrum at present.

Thus I enthusiastically support conversion of existing tax credit programs to multiple uses, and under some state constitutions, it might be a very good idea to choose this option over a state funded model. Outside of those circumstances, I’d recommend taking your chances with a state funded model if aiming for more than a pilot project.


April 22, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Quick response from Andrew Coulson. I suspected that the Cato Institute might, like Cato the Manservant, prove unwilling to call off their attack. I can hear Peter Sellers’ French accent in my head “Cateaux!!?!? Cateaux?!!??! I know zat I ordeured you alvays to attack, but I rescind zee ordeur! CATEAUX?!?!?”

Andrew has primarily refered back to his litany of why he likes tax credits better than vouchers. I have already conceded that tax credits enjoy some benefits over vouchers in the last post, so I don’t see this as on point. The question isn’t “tax credits good vouchers bad?” but rather whether tax credits are up to every school choice task we might assign to them. My request to examine the case of children in large families, children in poor families and/or children with disabilities in large poor families has gone unanswered as of yet.

Andrew offers the fact that the Step Up for Students tax credit serves a greater number of students than the McKay Program in Florida as evidence that tax credits could be up to the job of providing education for children with disabilities. Children with disabilities however require more costly services than general education students. The most recent figures show that Step Up for Students raised $106m while McKay spent $138m. Spend the entire tax credit amount on children with disabilities, and about a quarter fewer of them would be served and 29,000 low-income kids currently served by the SUFS program would be SOL.

When one considers the still small fraction of Florida special needs children served by the richer and easier to scale McKay Program, I hold it as self-evident that even the mighty Step Up for Students program, the nation’s largest of its kind, would fall completely short of the task assigned to McKay. I am happy that both programs exist, and I have never heard a peep of complaint from private schools in Florida about burdensome regulation associated with the McKay program.

I also think that Andrew should broaden his view of the word “savings.” An advantage of the ESA approach lies in exposing the opportunity cost involved in possible private school cost inflation: an allowable use of the ESA funds in Arizona include putting money in a College Savings 529 account. Higher education provides a cautionary tale of mixing subsidies and education: hyperinflation. The evidence of this from K-12 choice programs is limited, but no one has really studied the matter, and the potential obviously exists.

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.

James Tooley to Unveil Book at Cato

April 8, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Next Wednesday at noon, James Tooley will be at Cato’s DC headquarters to launch his book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into how the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

I’ve previously written on Tooley and coauthor Pauline Dixon’s amazing research on high-quality and low-cost private schools in the third world. It is really, really an amazing eye opener. Private schooling is pervasive in low-income areas of very poor third world countries, and Tooley and Dixon document that they outscore students at much better funded public schools.

Do yourself a favor and attend if you can.

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