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.

 

 

 

 

 

 


AEI on ESAs

May 13, 2016

AEI

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We had a wonkapolooza on ESAs at the American Enterprise Institute earlier this week! What- you had a friend in from out of town and couldn’t make it? Ah well not to worry the video is here:

On the first panel, our discussant MI’s Max Eden advised tapping on the expectations brakes, noting a number of practical difficulties. The biggest of these difficulties was summarized by Adam Peshek’s slide:

ESA expenses

So, yeah, this slide basically shows 70,000 ish Florida tax credit students using approximately 1,500 vendors (private schools). Meanwhile the Gardnier Scholarships programs had south of 1,600 students, but those 1,600 students made **ahem** almost 11,500 purchases.  A new set of practices and techniques will be necessary to administer such a system.

Fortunately we have practices from other policy areas to draw upon and companies highly adept at account management and oversight from Health Savings Accounts and others. It’s going to take time. In the paper and presentation I referenced the Greek myth regarding the birth of Athena- who sprung from the skull of Zeus not only fully grown, beautiful and powerful but also clothed and even armed for battle!

Alas outside the realm of myth we have little choice but to engage teams of people to grind on problems over time, as ESAs did not emerge fully formed from the mind of some mighty being as a finished product. Evolutionary improvement and innovation may not make for as good of a story as the goddess of wisdom springing forth, but for us mere mortals it will have to do. I’m anxious to see what happens next.

Anyway- great event and thanks especially to our friends at AEI for hosting it. Also make sure to see Anna Egalite’s guest blogging on RHSU on ESAs and also Jonathan Butcher’s new report on mobile payment systems and ESAs for the Goldwater Institute. Also Heritage President Jim DeMint tells a Texas suffering from parental choice dehydration to jump on in, the school choice water is fine!

 

 


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.


Heritage Foundation’s Burke recruits Arizona All-Stars to talk ESAs

August 11, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I finally got to watch this Uncle Milton birthday event at the Heritage Foundation on ESAs with Jason Bedrick, Jonathan Butcher and Tim Keller of Cato, Goldwater and IJ Arizona respectively.  Cactus patch represent! Spoiler alert but look for guest appearances by a famous spymaster and another by a very famous animated character.

 


Attack of the Wonks!

June 23, 2015

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As the Fordham Institute’s ESA Wonk-a-thon is coming to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As JayBlog readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. (If an author thinks I missed or misconstrued something, please yell at me in the comments section.) The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure all ESA students take NNR tests and track student outcomes. The state treasurer must ensure the application process is user friendly, distribute restricted-use debit cards, and conduct annual audits. Otherwise, providers should be free to innovate and parents should be free to choose among them.

Matthew Ladner (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should ensure financial accountability through restricted-use debit cards and the whitelisting of vendors and eventually of individual products. The market can foster quality through platforms where users rate providers (as happened informally in Arizona). The state should aggregate NNR test scores and hire an academic researcher to report on the data, but otherwise avoid trying to regulate quality.

Jonathan Butcher (Goldwater Institute): The state should ensure the ESA funds are being used for eligible educational purposes by reviewing receipts before issuing the next quarterly installment. Students should take NNR tests and the state should commission an academic researcher to report on the results. Otherwise, policymakers should rely on the market to ensure quality.

Tracey Weinstein (StudentsFirst): The state should “set a high bar for the quality of services offered by providers” and “eliminate providers who consistently fail to meet the mark.” The state should also provide ESA families with information about providers.

Andy Smarick (Fordham Institute): The state should “prioritize transparency, continuous and small-scale course corrections, and research” and “collect and publish information on providers, participation rates, student outcomes, and more.” In the long term, researchers should “study how the public’s interests are and are not being met by these increasingly private choices.”

Neerav Kingsland (New Schools for New Orleans): Nevada should increase public funding to $7,000 per student with more for low-income, ELL students, and special needs students, and that educational institutions should be prohibited from charging ESA families additional tuition beyond the amount the state deposits in the ESA. 

Lindsey Burke (Heritage Foundation): State regulators should stay out of the way of the market. The state should primarily concern itself with ensuring taxpayer dollars are used only for eligible expenses and making the application process transparent and user friendly. Responsibility for academic outcomes should lie primarily with parents, though the state’s NNR testing requirement is appropriate.

Jason Bedrick (Cato Institute): Policymakers should resist the urge to overregulate. Quality is best fostered through the market process: provider experimentation, parental evaluation, and organic evolution. A robust market ensures quality by channeling expert knowledge (e.g. – private certification and expert reviews) and user experience (e.g. – platforms for user ratings). The state should limit its role to ensuring that ESA funds are spent only on eligible expenses and serving as a repository for information. 

Adam Peshek (Foundation for Excellence in Education): The state should primarily concern itself with providing financial accountability (restricted-use debit cards, auditing), but responsibility for academic outcomes should rest with parents. We must “remain vigilant against death by a thousand regulatory cuts.”

Robin Lake (Center on Reinventing Public Education): Nevada must recruit a “new breed” of bureaucrat that will “learn how to regulate choice without squashing innovation,” “develop creative and better approaches to fiscal and performance accountability,” “coordinate with non-governmental agencies to develop a strong supply of high-quality providers,” ensure transparency, and “build a dashboard of indicators of a healthy market and government regulatory structure” (among other objectives).

Travis Pillow (redefinED): Regulators should give providers the freedom to experiment (even though some experiments will fail). However, the state should ensure the health and safety of students and prevent financial fraud. The results of NNR tests should be reported to parents and the public. The state should provide an online forum for parents that would help catch administrative problems and could serve as a Yelp-like provider rating system. The state should give more money to low- and middle-income families and students with special needs. 

Robert Tagorda (SoCal education reformer): To operate at scale from the outset, the state treasurer’s office and state department of education must collaborate effectively. The state must broker information to ensure the marketplace functions properly, but it can’t do it alone. The state must foster organic solutions and exchanges of information such as platforms for user reviews.

Rabbi A.D. Motzen (Agudath Israel): “Almost universal” eligibility isn’t good enough. The state should expand eligibility to all students, not just those who attended a district school for 100+ days in the previous year.

There appears to be some consensus around financial accountability. The state must ensure that ESA families are only using taxpayer funds for their intended educational purposes. To that end, most of the wonks who addressed the matter called for utilizing restricted-use debit cards and/or auditing.

The primary area of contention is the role of the state in guaranteeing educational quality. Some want the state to set standards, measure performance, and perhaps even “eliminate” providers who don’t meet those standards. Others (myself included) respond: “Get your regulatory paws off me, you dirty technocrats!” are concerned that such efforts would stifle the very diversity and innovation that the ESA is intended to foster.

It’s an important debate. I commend both the Fordham Institute for hosting it and the participants for offering their insightful analysis. Differences in means aside, we all share the same end: fostering an education system in which all children have access to high-quality providers that meet their individual needs.


Florida Legislature proposes ESA funding and eligibility expansion, NVESA wonkathon is west bound and down!

June 16, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Travis Pillow over at RedefinED has details on the Florida special session budget process proposal for expanding funding and eligibility for Florida’s ESA program. Looking good Billy Ray!

Meanwhile NV ESA wonkathon is loaded up and truckin! New entries from Jonathan Butcher, Tracey Weinstein and Andy Smarick today. Each piece makes important points in my view.

Butcher (quite rightly) warns of the dangers of over-regulation and unintended consequences. Sith lord enforcers overly empowered bureaucrats will inevitably find your lack of faith in their benevolent wisdom…disturbing.

Weinstein raises equity concerns. She has a map (!) showing that Nevada’s modest pre-existing private school infrastructure tends to be clustered in well-to-do areas. Those experimenting with high-quality low-cost private school models-I’m looking directly at you Christo Rey, Acton and Notre Dame ACE Academies- we are firing up the signal!

And you bring something nice to wear…

Seriously though I hope we will see deeply committed efforts to expand the supply of options for disadvantaged children. Seth Rau raised the possibility of using the tax credit program to enhance the buying power of low-income students, which ought to be viewed in a benign fashion so long as the total amount of aid does not exceed the average spending per pupil. In the absence of these programs however, new private school efforts for low-income areas were terribly unlikely. I expect future wonkathon posts to raise additional equity concerns. These deserve careful consideration, especially if the trailer park schools with substitute teachers don’t happen to cluster in the leafy suburbs. The program does provide more funding for low-income children, but I view it as a perfectly legit topic for further discussion as to what level those funding differences ought to be set. This is a question upon which Nevada legislators must deliberate and decide on an ongoing basis.

Andy Smarick sounds a note of Burkean caution:

My bigger worry, though, relates to the rapidity and expanse of possible changes. Fast, fundamental change of longstanding institutions is generally hazardous. What we have today (in education and elsewhere) is the result of trial-and-error processes played out over generations. It is never perfect, but it is robust, and it often possesses wisdom.

I actually don’t expect rapid change. The supply of private school seats will start off quite limited, and our experience with private choice programs shows consistent incremental take-up rates. This program has more allowable uses and broader eligibility than most, but even so we have no reason to expect a blast furnace of participation in the early years. Funded eligibility creating a credible exit option will be crucial, the rate at which parents choose to exercise that option- not as much.

The McKay Scholarship program has been contributing to substantial public school gains among public school special needs children since 2001. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that only 7% of Florida special needs students directly utilize the program, or that there are more special needs students in Florida public schools today than when the program passed in 1999, more people working in the schools etc. Color me blissfully unconcerned so long as the parents who have their children in the public schools are there by choice- meaning they had other options. Constraints on the supply of private school space just makes it all the better that Florida lawmakers have made ESAs available as well.

 

 


Parental Choice Reporting in Refuto-Vision! (TM)

February 18, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So a few years ago Jay was in downtown Austin with an evening to kill. He called me and asked me what he should do. I of course said “Go to the Alamo Drafthouse!!!”

So he looked up what was playing at the Alamo that night and told me “Hmmm, it says ‘Indiana Jones 4 in Heckle-vision.’ What is ‘hecklevision?’

I said “I don’t know but it doesn’t matter, just GO!”

So he went. Hecklevision turned out to be a system whereby you could text messages on the screen while you watched an awful movie (Indy 4 certainly qualifies). Jay reported that the experience was hilarious.

So in the same spirit of fun, we decided to create something called Refuto-Vision! (TM) here at the Jayblog.  A few introductory comments-one of the ongoing challenges of the school choice debate is the ongoing practice of having choice opponents simply fear things, regardless of whether those fears have any empirical basis, and have them printed as grave concerns. “School choice is going to make kids grow a radioactive third eye” doesn’t (quite) get printed (yet) but many things just below that in plausibility routinely find their way into print. Reporters work on tight deadlines and (on a good day) attempt to present a balanced story, balanced in the sense that they have spoken to both sides and have their point of view presented in the story.

Jason Bedrick and Greg Forster volunteered to serve as Refuto-Vision (TM) reviewers on just such a conventionally balanced story-the recent Politico article on ESA programs. We could have chosen any number of straight up opinion-piece screeds to try this out (stay tuned!) but a news story seemed like a better place to start. For the record we have all seen (bad day) news stories far less balanced than this.

Due to the technical limitations of this almost-free blog and the even greater limitations of its user, this Refuto-Vision comes in the form of a pdf file, downloadable in the below link. Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you Refuto-Vision (TM) 1 in magnificent 2D:

Refuto-Vision 1