New CTBA Report on School Choice Smells Like Bologna

The last few Fridays have been absolutely lovely. They were sunny, warm, and filled with delicious new stops on the school choice train. Today is different. It’s cold, rainy, and all around a little icky outside. If I were older and knew what the word “foreshadow” meant, I might say that I should have expected today to involve reading something like a yucky, choice-bashing report from the heavily left-leaning Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA).

Unfortunately, I didn’t see it coming. And after reading through the report’s findings, I have to say I walked away pretty irked about the report’s tilted observations and the motivations driving them. But just as I was warming up my little fingers for a vigorous defense of choice, I noticed that my good pal Jason Bedrick beat me to the punch. Jason has said pretty much everything that needs to be said, but I’m also going to stick my nose into the debate on a couple of the biggest issues anyway.

First up is this interesting conclusion:

None of the independent studies performed of the most lauded and long standing voucher programs extant in the U.S.—Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.—found any statistical evidence that children who utilized vouchers performed better than children who did not and remained in public schools.

That simply isn’t true. I mean, here’s a whole list of random-assignment studies conducted by independent researchers and published by peer-reviewed academic journals and respected outfits like the Brookings Institution. All but one found small but statistically significant positive impacts from voucher programs.

The CTBA report does include a weak statement about excluding studies “conducted by organizations with a clear bias,” and I assume that’s how they justify their selective research here. I do have to wonder, though, what criteria they used to determine “bias” when those criteria led them to exclude solid, peer-reviewed research from major academic outlets. One might say I strongly suspect bias was involved in the identification of bias. Mind = blown.

In fairness, none of the random-assignment studies on voucher programs show mind-blowing academic results. That makes sense; there is no such thing as a silver bullet in education policy. But as Ross Izard, Ben DeGrow, and the Friedman Foundation pointed out in a joint amicus brief defending Douglas County’s embattled voucher program last year, no study has ever found that vouchers harm anyone academically. Notably, the CTBA report acknowledges this fact by remaining silent on the issue. It also ignores the nearly universal parental satisfaction with school choice programs.

Why would parents be overwhelmingly satisfied with school choice even if it doesn’t guarantee that their child will grow up to be a fire-juggling astronaut who can crush standardized tests while cooking dinner and clipping his toenails? Well, because school choice offers a whole bunch more than just academic achievement boosts. Perhaps a family needs a safer school, or a school that more closely mirrors their values, or a school that has programming they can’t get elsewhere, or a school that fills any one of a nearly uncountable number of potential needs other than academic achievement. Who are we to tell them that different priorities make their choices any less valuable?

If a kid is doing better—even just a little better—academically in a school choice program and is in a school that better meets his or her unique needs, isn’t that a win?

Here’s another of my favorites from the report’s findings:

Indiana spent $115 million on its voucher program in the 2014-2015 school year. In context, that means over $115 million of public, taxpayer money annually will be diverted from potentially enhancing student achievement by following the evidence-based strategy of building capacity in the state’s public school system, and instead used to subsidize students attending private schools.

I’ll let Jason Bedrick take this one:

By claiming that Indiana’s school voucher program cost the state $115 million in 2014-15, CTBA completely ignores the savings generated from reduced expenditures on district schools. The average cost per-pupil in Indiana’s district schools in north of $10,400, whereas the average voucher is worth less than $4,000. Indiana’s base per-pupil funding amount is about $4,600, and the state gives district schools more than $6,000 for low-income students, as well as additional funds for other categories of students (e.g. – students in special needs programs, academic honors programs, career and technical training programs, etc.), so the state saves money each time a student switches out of a district school to accept a voucher. CTBA does not even acknowledge this fact when discussing the fiscal impact to the state, let alone estimate the true fiscal impact.

There are many more aspects of this report that I take issue with, but we’ll save those for another day. In the meantime, I think this report and my favorite lunch sandwich have something important in common: They both smell like bologna.