Category Archives: Vouchers

The Folly of Voucher Advocates?


A new study just came out showing that the Louisiana voucher program had negative effects on student achievement.

It’s one year of data on a new program, so I would caution against any grand proclamations on the usefulness of vouchers. There’s a much richer literature from which one can draw conclusions.

Perhaps more interesting is how voucher advocates reacted.

Jason Bedrick’s piece – The Folly of Overregulating Vouchers – criticized the Louisiana program for:

  • Not allowing tuition in excess of the vouchers.
  • Not allowing private schools to use selection criteria for admitting students.

I feel like I’m missing something.

The logical extension of Jason’s argument is that an all voucher education system would lead to a public education system where all schools would be allowed to reject students based on wealth, academic performance, and behavior.

Is this right?

Either voucher proponents have very different views of equity than most citizens, or they don’t really view vouchers as a replacement model for the current public education.

I’m curious – which is it?

Overall, I’m sympathetic to lowering barriers to entry (you have a crazy idea that parents will sign up for, go for it) and to reducing test based accountability (you and families think there’s a better way to measure school performance, go for it).

I understand the risks involved with this type of deregulation, but I think it’s worth trying and seeing what we learn. I don’t know if it would work, but it might, and the potential the upside seems high.

I also think there are things you can do to solve for equity (significantly weighting vouchers for at-risk students), that will lead to higher performing private schools enrolling hard to serve kids.

But, ultimately, I’m not ok with taking the public out of public education.

A system where every school can systematically discriminate based on wealth is not one that I want to be a part of.

Is this is where the voucher movement is heading, count me out.

If, on the other hand, the voucher movement is really about innovation, entrepreneurship, and family empowerment – then count me in.

Lastly, I have a ton of respect for people on all sides of this debate, so if I’m mischaracterizing anyone’s views, I’ll update the post.

But, admittedly, I found some of my voucher friends making arguments that, to me at least, were pretty unconvincing.


The Family is Not Too Far Apart: Me, Jay Greene, and the Voucher State

Jay just wrote a useful response to my last post. I continue to learn from the back and forth, and I appreciate that Jay continues to push. Once you get into philanthropy, the risk is that everyone just tells you that you’re always right, so I really appreciate the debate.

Jay puts forth the following vision for choice systems:

  1. Government should only very selectively close schools, and when it does show it should look at more than test scores.
  2. Schools should be allowed to have their own admissions and expulsions processes. Equity can be achieved through per-pupil funding weights for disadvantage and hard to reach students.
  3. We shouldn’t be the farm on charters. We need choice amongst choice.

Jay then ends his post with:

“I’m pretty confident that the high regulation strategy being pursued in LA and New Orleans is a really bad idea.”

My thoughts:

1. Jay continues to play it loose with evidence. He is pretty confident that the New Orleans reforms are a really bad idea, despite the fact the New Orleans reforms have achieved greater results than any of the voucher evidence he sites! Yes, it’s not a RCT, but the effects on achievement (test scores) and attainment (high school graduation rates) are very positive and significant: .2-.4 effects on test scores and ~20 percent increase in high school graduation rates. I don’t understand why Jay makes bold claims, both positive and negative, that far exceed what the research seems to warrant.

2. All that being said, I’m open (but not very confident) that a more deregulated voucher system could lead to even better results in New Orleans and elsewhere. So if we’re talking about pilots and experiments, the family is not too far apart.

3. As for closing schools, I generally think test scores are the best way to do it because once you get into more subjective criteria I worry that schools will never close. So I’m ok setting the bar pretty low (perhaps being in the bottom 2-5% of schools in the state for multiple years in a row), but generally I’m in favor of clear cut lines rather than bureaucratic (and political) judgment calls.

4. I’m open to the idea that funding weights might get you 80% of what you want with equity while also significantly increasing the amount of schools that participate in choice. It is also worth noting that the Nevada funding weights are, in my opinion, not close to where they’d need to be to get the incentives right. But if weights got up to 50-100% increases for low-income, I think the model would be worth trying.

So I’d be very interested in experimenting with state regulations where performance accountability was clear but targeted at the very lowest performing schools and significant funding weights were the main tool for equity.

Would this work better than the more regulated New Orleans charter environment?

I really don’t know.

But it seems worth trying.

A Debate Within the Family: To Regulate or Not?

Jay Greene had a series of posts on choice regulation over at his blog.

His overarching argument: regulating school choice does more harm than good.

Broadly, I think Jay makes a number of good points. I also think he overstates his case.

More specifically, I think his arguments are somewhat strong on performance and pretty weak on equity.

I also think that Jay could be more conservative on how he generalizes fairly narrow research findings, especially given how hard he is on others who misuse research!

Overall, Jay made me think harder about how philanthropists should allocate resources across choice interventions. He might be right that there is too much attention to charters. I think if voucher proponents were more serious about equity regulation they could help shift the focus. I’d be happy to work with Jay and others on this. Nevada and other pilots that attempt to achieve scale could be fruitful places to partner and learn more.

Below I tackle his main points.

Government funding does not require performance oversight.

Jay notes that cash transfer programs (such as Social Security) do not come with government performance contracts. This is true.

Jay also notes that food stamps don’t come up with performance contracts. In his words: “When the government provides food stamps it does not require recipients to submit BMI measurements or other indicators of adequate nutrition.”

This is true, but it’s not a perfect example, as the government does require the providers of food to meet performance input targets (food must have some nutritional value). The government does not trust the consumer to make his or her own decisions, so choice is restricted based on the nutritional performance of the food provider’s product.

While there is not accountability for outcomes, there is heavy regulation of inputs.

More broadly, we are seeing more and more performance accountability in government health programs (Obamacare looking at things such as readmission rates) and government post-secondary programs (requiring schools that receive Pell grants to achieve certain performance targets).

Jay overstates his case when he says: “Repeating that government funds require accountability to the government is just mindless sloganeering, not an accurate description of how government programs typically operate.”

Yes, education testing is probably on the more regulated end of pay for performance. But the issue is a complicated one, and most government programs (except for direct cash transfers) regulate inputs and many also regulate outputs.

There is a vast academic literature on these various approaches.

Whether or not to regulate for outputs is worthy of deep debate, not outright dismissal.

Personally, I’m probably closer to Jay on this than the average charter supporter. I think that, over time, not regulating for performance would likely work out. In my previous writings, I’ve often said that I’d make the “all choice for no testing” trade with the far left and the far right.

But I think the issue is complicated. And, as I note below, I’m fairly comfortable with the government putting in a performance floor and closing down the very worst performers.

Test Scores are Limited Tools; Attainment is a Better Proxy for Quality than Test Scores; Vouchers Do Better on Attainment

Jay rightfully points out that test don’t measure everything: things like grit and conscientiousness are likely very important to lifetime outcomes and it is very difficult to capture these in tests.

Matt Barnum did a good response on this. In short, numerous studies have tied increases in test scores to increases in long-term outcomes. None of these studies are a slam dunk, and causation can be tricky, but there’s enough here to make a case that achievement tests measure some of what we want schools to be doing.

For these reasons, I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that performance accountability, if it is to be used, should be used as a floor rather than the end all be all of school grading. Perhaps “A-F” systems should just be “F” systems.

Jay then argues that because testing doesn’t measure everything, attainment is actually a better measure of school quality.

Jay might be right, but it’s complicated. Yes, achieving a degree (be it high school or post secondary) will likely increase a student’s life outcomes. But the more this degree attainment is divorced from knowledge attainment (and test scores), the weaker this effect might become over time (unless employers really just care about conscientiousness, which may very well be the case).

All told, the international evidence on “schooling ain’t learning” is robust.

That being said, in terms of policy, I don’t really have much to disagree with here. As I noted above, I have mixed feelings on performance accountability as it is, and an increased focus on attainment might be very healthy for the charter community.

Jay then makes the case that vouchers do better on achievement than charters. Jay cites three studies, two of which find higher degree attainment. The Milwaukee study found increased high school degree and college persistence with voucher students, while the DC study found voucher students had increased high school graduation. The NYC programs only increased college attendance (I didn’t see any evidence on graduation). Moreover, the NYC program was only a partial scholarship, which as far as I can tell required families to pay for a portion of schooling (which makes it hard to generalize to families that could not afford to pay). The DC voucher program was fairly small in scope as well.

This does not seem to be an evidence base from which one can make strong, generalized claims about what voucher effects would be on a systems level. Only the Milwaukee and DC programs come near providing a full voucher program, and only the Milwaukee program got to real scale.

As Jay points out, the most rigorous charter research finds positive effects on test scores rather than attainment. But the evidence on test score gains is massive: CREDO has studied dozens of cities and have found an overall effect of ~.1 for urban areas serving hundreds of thousands of students. This research includes three markets where charters serve roughly half of all students or more (NOLA, DC, Detroit). And the impact on New Orleans attainment has been very significant (high school graduation rates are up twenty points). Of course, systems level evidence is  not randomly controlled, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not useful; in many instances, it’s probably more predictive than small RCTs.

If I had to bet on which intervention is most likely to work at scale, I’d be inclined to bet on a massive data set that found positive effects on test scores rather than a very narrow data set of three studies where only two study found higher degree attainment.

Of course, I might be wrong. But Jay has surely not proven his case. The evidence he cites covers small scale studies that make it difficult to generalize.

We Should Not Regulate Choice Programs for Equity

Jay first notes that heavy regulations –  “such as mandating that schools accept voucher amounts as payment in full, prohibiting schools from applying their own admissions requirements” – decreases the number of participating private schools.  This is clearly true.

Undoubtedly, more private schools will enroll voucher students if they can screen out students with behavioral issues and very low income students (which is what admissions requirements and pay-sharing would do).

In arguing against regulation, Jay writes: “But real education reform requires using the power of choice and competition to provide incentives to create more good and to reduce bad.”

Yet Jay’s version of education reform would clearly incentivize schools to not enroll students with behavioral issues or children from very low incomes. Why enroll a student who is hard to serve or who can only pay partial tuition?

This is the biggest flaw in Jay’s argument.

Jay is probably right that the performance market would correct itself over time.

It is very unclear to me that this would be true for equity.

It was surprising to me that Jay did not even find this obvious rebuttal worth mentioning.

Voucher proponents such as Jay would do well to think hard about reasonable equity regulations that ensure that decentralized choice markets offer good educational opportunities to all students.

Charter markets are moving toward unified enrollment and expulsion processes as easy to regulate for equity. Perhaps these processes are too heavy handed.

But I think some equity mechanisms need to be put in place.

Of course, you can make the argument that it is ok to have unequal public educational access so long as this system lifts all boats in the aggregate. Given that I believe that equity in access is a principle in of itself, it would take fairly large overall achievement gains for me to be willing to compromise so hard on equity.

Concluding Thoughts

There does seem to be enough in theory and evidence to support larger scale pilots of voucher programs.

This is why many people, charter school supporters included, are eager to see what we learn from Nevada.

For whatever it’s worth, my two major critique of the Nevada voucher were that the voucher amount was not enough money and that equitable access safeguards do not seem to be in place.

But overall I think it’s a very important breakthrough for choice.

So if the goal is more experimentation at scale, sign me up.

But in this experimentation I’d just argue for some basic equity guardrails so that choice is available to everyone, including the most disadvantaged.

Lastly, thanks to Jay for putting forth a good argument. It’s well worth grappling with.

Who Will Lead the Suburban Charter School Network Movement?


I grew up in Valparaiso, IN. It’s a town of about 30,000 people that’s located 55 miles outside of Chicago.

The public schools I attended were decent but not exceptional. The quality of the schools paled into comparison to the best charter schools I visit today. I would have benefited from increased choice and quality in public schooling in my town. The same is probably true for the millions of students who currently attend public schools in the suburbs.


Right now, the best charter schools are often launched and scaled in cities. CREDO data shows that urban charters are the highest performing part of the sector.

What would it take in order for this to change? What would it take for there to be 20-30 national class CMOs serving suburban students?

I’m not sure, but in considering charter growth, I often think about the entrepreneur profile of a given network.

To date, the high-performing urban charter movement has largely been driven by mission driven entrepreneurs who are drawn to serving students in poverty.

My guess is that the entrepreneurial profile will look different in the suburbs:

1. For-profit Entrepreneurs

While mission driven entrepreneurs might be more compelled to work with students in poverty, for-profit entrepreneurs might simply be drawn to a market opportunity. Chains such as Sylvan Learning provide some insight into how its possible to scale in suburban environments.

2. School Could be So Much Better Entrepreneurs 

Organizations such as Alt School, Acton Academy, and Basis seem to be born out of the recognition that schools that serve middle and upper class children can be significantly improved.

The entrepreneurs launching these schools seem to be driven more by building world class, innovative educational institutions than by serving students in poverty.


Foundations and non-profit venture funds should think about how to further support and incentivize high-quality entrepreneurs that fit into these profiles.


My main worry is that the regulatory hurdles to scaling in the suburbs will be very difficult to overcome. Each suburban public school district is a fiefdom of its own, and given the small size of many of these districts, even one new charter school could severely impact a district’s budget.

As such, perhaps vouchers will be ultimately be a more politically viable option for school choice in the suburbs. Given the better off student population (less worries of creaming), the educational culture of suburbs (private schools are already accepted), and I’m guessing voting patterns that are more conservative than big cities – vouchers could be the way forward.

So maybe the title of this post is asking the wrong question.

Rather, perhaps we should be asking: what political entrepreneurs will scale vouchers across suburban communities?

Build for the Tribe

hippy school

Speaking to the tribe entails using the language of your audience’s tribe when trying to influence them.

Here’s a related idea: build for the tribe. If you want someone to adopt your policy stance, make sure the policy delivers what their tribe wants.

Consider these two articles:

Micro Schools

“In the 2030s, when these kids are graduating, they’re going to have to be highly independent, very dynamic, able to know themselves and get from the world what they need to be happy and successful. They need to start exercising that muscle in preschool.”

The Flatiron School 

“The Flatiron School is an example of what can be done with a blank slate. They have figured out how to give students highly relevant and valuable skills at a cost that is both affordable and recoupable very quickly. Adam, Avi, Sara and the entire team has created a model that should be an inspiration for others.”

What’s the commonality?

My guess: it is these types of schools that could pave the way for broad based voucher programs (though I don’t expect this to happen in the very near future).

Personalization and career tech school models are in high demand by the left. Yet, right now, the push for vouchers is intimately tied up in the expansion of religious schooling, which does speak to / appeal to the left.

Uber is proving, albeit painfully, the demand can induce deregulation.

Voucher proponents would do well to heed this lesson.

The left deeply desires school models that deemphasize testing and deliver a more “progressive” education.

Voucher demand may increase from the left if there are more private schools that offer such an education at a price roughly akin to what public schools spend.

Or to put it another way: the path to vouchers is not through God, it’s through Montessori.

One last thought: I’ve seen enough poorly designed voucher programs that I approach the issue with some pragmatic skepticism. That being said, I do think vouchers with sound regulation could deliver great, innovative options for kids, and I’d be happy to work with any folks who are trying to get such a program off the ground.