Be wary of what you read in the school voucher debate

June 13, 2024

  • The information surrounding universal voucher programs is rife with advocacy masquerading as research.
  • In Arizona, the universal ESA program is vastly larger than other private school choice programs despite advocates鈥 claims to the contrary.
  • Policymakers are taking major risks in adopting universal ESA programs with little supporting evidence to guide them.
      A group of private school students exit their school.
      A group of private school students exit their school. Credit: Monkey Business Images

      In May, we released a short Brookings report showing which families are most likely to get voucher funding through Arizona鈥檚 now-universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. The analysis isn鈥檛 complicated, and the results couldn鈥檛 be much clearer. A highly disproportionate share of Arizona鈥檚 ESA recipients come from the state鈥檚 wealthiest and most educated areas. That鈥檚 an important finding, even beyond Arizona, since this program is at the forefront of a wave of universal voucher initiatives that鈥檚 currently ). What happens with Arizona鈥檚 program could foreshadow what鈥檚 to come in many parts of the country.听

      These universal (or near-universal) programs are much more threatening to public education systems than the smaller, more targeted voucher programs that preceded them. They raise concerns about fundamental issues such as and the . Early research and reporting points to , , and from opportunistic private schools. Meanwhile, hardly anything in the academic literature suggests that universal ESA programs will improve student performance. And yet, the push to remake the U.S. education system in the form of universal school voucher programs continues.

      Having entered the fray with our own analysis of a universal ESA program, we鈥檝e gotten a close look at the information environment surrounding these recent initiatives. Suffice to say, it isn鈥檛 healthy, at least if we hope for a functional policymaking process. A network of pro-voucher interest groups, think tanks, funders, and politicians are filling an information vacuum with misleading data, faulty or disingenuous arguments, and advocacy that masquerades as research.听

      Here, we鈥檒l respond to four critiques we鈥檝e heard from that crowd. Part of our goal is to show why their specific critiques of our work are baseless, misleading, or just kind of odd. In doing so, we also hope to illuminate how dangerous the information environment surrounding universal ESAs has become now that many state leaders are dragging their education systems into uncharted territory based on little more than ideology, political calculation, and a fingers-crossed hope that the voucher advocates aren鈥檛 leading them astray.听

      Here are the critiques:

      Critique 1: We got our analysis wrong because someone else found something different听

      Our main results are probably best summarized by Figure 1, below, which appeared in our original post.听

      Figure 1

      The Arizona ZCTAs (ZIP codes, basically) with the lowest poverty rates have the highest share of school-age children who received an ESA. The ZCTAs with the highest poverty rates have the lowest rates of ESA take-up. It鈥檚 an extremely straightforward analysis, and we provide a detailed description of what we did in the piece.

      Before we published our post, an organization called the Common Sense Institute (CSI) of Arizona鈥攁 鈥鈥 with several staff members from former governor Doug Ducey鈥檚 administration鈥攍ooked into a similar question. CSI鈥檚 chart, below, tells a completely different story from our chart.

      A misleading chart on ESA particicpation

      CSI makes it look like relatively few wealthy families in Arizona get ESAs. So, why the discrepancy?听

      It鈥檚 because CSI presented an apples-to-oranges comparison that鈥檚 bound to tell that story. The data issue is subtle, but they present ZIP code-level data for ESA recipients (blue bars, on the left) and household-level data for families (red bars, on the right). Many households in Arizona make $150,000 or more, so the far-right, red bar is quite tall. However, few ZIP codes have enough households earning more than $150,000 that the median household income rises above that threshold. As a result, many ESA recipients who earn more than $150,000 aren鈥檛 included in the $150,000+ category in this chart. Instead, these households鈥攚hich earn more than $150,000 themselves but live in ZIP codes where the median income is below $150,000鈥攁re included in one of the other blue bars.听

      Maybe that鈥檚 an innocent mistake, but it鈥檚 certainly not an accurate representation of which Arizona residents are getting ESAs.

      Critique 2: We didn鈥檛 place Arizona鈥檚 ESA program in the proper context of its other school choice programs

      Education Next听published from Jason Bedrick of the Heritage Foundation that accuses us of omitting key context that, if presented, would markedly change the takeaways from our analysis. Bedrick points out that Arizona鈥檚 universal ESA program exists alongside several tax-credit scholarship programs (true) and that families are prohibited from participating in the ESA and tax-credit scholarships simultaneously (also true). He then shares a few numbers, does some hand-waving, and concludes that our 鈥渇atally flawed鈥 analysis is deeply misleading because of this omission.

      Curiously, Bedrick doesn鈥檛 show the relative size of the ESA and tax-credit scholarship programs in Arizona. Here鈥檚 the obvious chart to illustrate that comparison鈥攐ne that EdNext听maybe could have requested before of Heritage Foundation talking points on ESAs:听

      Figure 3

      These tax-credit scholarship (TCS) programs are small relative to a large-and-growing universal ESA program that鈥檚 . On top of that, most TCS dollars are going to recipients above 185% of the federal poverty level鈥攖he threshold for reduced-price lunch eligibility. (One note: the most recent numbers available for the ESA program , while the most recent numbers available for TCS programs .)听听

      In other words, this critique鈥攚hich really isn鈥檛 about the universal ESA program we analyzed in the first place鈥攄oesn鈥檛 even point to context that meaningfully changes the interpretation of our data.听

      It鈥檚 important to emphasize, too, that our analysis was primarily about the high-income households that are obtaining a disproportionate share of Arizona鈥檚 ESAs. In that post, we tried to present data in the most straightforward, defensible way possible. If our goal had been to present the most damning data possible, there鈥檚 more we鈥檇 have said.听

      Here鈥檚 a doozy of an example. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Arizona has 300 ZCTAs with at least 250 children under age 18. (The other 60 ZCTAs are smaller, which makes them difficult to analyze.) Of those 300 ZCTAs, the one with the single-highest take-up rate for ESAs (236 of every 1,000 children) is the one with the single-highest median household income (about $173,000).听

      Critique 3: Arizona鈥檚 ESA program is too new to assess who will participate

      Maybe the most peculiar response we鈥檝e seen is from Mike McShane of EdChoice, who published an .听

      McShane appeals to Everett M. Rogers鈥 鈥渄iffusion of innovation鈥 theory, which suggests that new technologies and ideas are adopted sequentially by different groups (from early adopters to laggards). McShane asserts that we should expect wealthier and more educated families to be the early adopters of a universal ESA program. He implores us to 鈥渢hink of the first people to own a personal computer, or a cell phone. They started with tech nerds and the wealthy, and eventually worked their way to everyone else.鈥澨

      Let鈥檚 play a game of with personal computers, cell phones, and a universal ESA program. Yes, we鈥檇 expect wealthier families to be the first to buy computers and cell phones. Those things cost a lot of money. A universal ESA program gives you money. We might expect poorer families鈥攚ith fewer resources and potentially worse public-school options鈥攖o jump first at that opportunity. Even the usual dynamic of uneven information diffusion is complicated in this context, as the ESA program was available to families with children in low-rated schools long before it became universal.听

      Regardless, there鈥檚 reason for concern that vouchers will be more exclusively adopted by the wealthy over time. Jason Fontana and Jennifer Jennings . They found that private schools responded to ESA eligibility by increasing their tuition. If this response continues to play out, we might see desirable private schools becoming unaffordable to low-income families that cannot cover a growing gap between the value of their voucher and cost of enrollment. In the long term, this creates a risk of extreme stratification across the public and private sectors.听

      Chile may provide a glimpse of that potential future. In a 2006 paper in the “Journal of Public Economics”, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Miguel Urquiola a universal voucher program in Chile. They found suggestive evidence that 鈥渢he main effect of unrestricted school choice was an exodus of 鈥榤iddle-class鈥 students from the public sector鈥 [which] had a major effect on academic outcomes in the public sector.鈥 These patterns, along with widening achievement gaps between rich and poor, led Chile to drastically .听听

      Critique 4: We’re targeting ESA programs when the real villains are public schools

      A fourth set of critiques presents more conceptual arguments about education reform. Perhaps the most data-infused of these comes from , which notes that Arizona spends a great deal of money to 鈥渟ubsidize public school instruction鈥 for wealthy families. It accuses us (and/or others) of a double standard in how we object to using government funds to pay for wealthy students鈥 private schooling but not public schooling.听

      We think this critique reveals just how far the rhetoric surrounding universal ESAs has drifted from Americans鈥 traditionally held views about education. Americans have long accepted鈥攊n fact, embraced鈥攁 double standard for public and private schools. Our public education system, with all its flaws, has been a foundational institution for supporting the country鈥檚 economic, social, and democratic well-being. Americans have found a rough consensus on how to approach K-12 education: provide free public schooling to everyone (including the wealthy!), allow families to pay for private education if they鈥檇 like to opt out of the public system, and maybe create a few opt-out opportunities via school choice policy for those unable to pay.

      We鈥檝e entered a period in which conservative lawmakers are confronted with legacy-defining decisions about whether to abandon that long tradition and embrace universal vouchers at the risk of kneecapping their states鈥 public education systems. Worse, they鈥檙e doing it in a polluted information environment that has plenty of loud voices but hardly any credible research to guide or support their decision-making. Now that a few states鈥攊ncluding Arizona鈥攈ave taken that risky leap of faith, the least we can ask of other state leaders is to wait and see what happens.


      Editor’s Note: We made a few minor edits on the date this was published to reflect the most recent version of the authors’ text.