Exchange prompted by email submission of Dr. Sarah Stitzlein testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, 2/23/12

posted Feb 2, 2012, 2:40 AM by Bill Duncan   [ updated Feb 10, 2012, 5:44 PM ]
When Dr. Stitzlein submitted her Senate Education Committee Testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, it brought an immediate reply from an advocate for the other side.  Dr. Stitzlein's testimony is at the bottom, Jason Bedrick's response is next, reading up, and my response to him, incorporating feedback from Dr. Stitzlein, comes here at the top.

The voucher bill sponsors and advocates try to enhance their arguments any way they can.  Here they do it by attributing greater authority to their studies than is appropriate.  You see it in the bogus references to the "Harvard study" and the "study by the Florida Department of Education."  This is discussed further in "This here study says everything will be OK".

From Bill Duncan:

Honorable Members of the House Ways and Means Committee,

You recently received Dr. Sarah Stitzlein's testimony to the Senate Education Committee.  This is a serious, thoughtful, balanced  and credible consideration of the issues in this legislation.  The response you received from the advocates (included below) does not measure up to that standard.  Here are my comments:

Mr. Bedrick starts with a reference to his Bartlett Center report, which I have commented on here.  It should be read as an advocacy piece.  Then he goes on to address several issues.

1. Private School Performance: Whenever you hear the phrase "gold standard," you know what you are getting is from the mother ship of voucher advocacy, the Friedman Foundation (as in Milton Friedman, who invented vouchers). The actual gold standard of research is peer review.  If someone refers to a study, ask if it's peer reviewed.  And then ask for the study and read the short abstract to see what it actually says.  

In the case of private school performance in voucher programs, Diane Ravitch, the leading critic of public education in the country, pretty much puts the issue to rest in her new book Death and Life of the Great American School System.  Here is an excerpt that says it all: there are no benefits to speak of, competitive or otherwise.

2. Accountability: The fact that parents can take their children out of private schools is no reason for there to be no academic accountability and transparency for private schools funded with public money.  (Money that, in this case, is coming right out of New Hampshire's public school systems.)  Florida and most new Education Tax Credit programs provide for in depth assessment of the academic performance of participating private schools. That's where all the voucher studies advocates refer to come from.  

One of the leading school choice advocates in the country makes a passionate case for the need for good performance assessment in voucher programs like New Hampshire's (their reasoning is here) .    

3. Reaching Low Income Families: Mr. Bedrick says that the "Harvard University study on Arizona's education tax credit program shows that non-profit scholarship organizations disproportionately fund low-income families even in the absence of a state mandate to means-test." 

First, the author is Vicki Murray, a fierce school choice advocate from the libertarian Pacific Research Institute, not Harvard.  Based on Mr. Bedrick's statements to me about this, it is clear that Ms. Murray's report does not meet Harvard's very clear guidelines, and is not qualified to be cited as a "Harvard study."  This is relevant because voucher advocates consistent overstate the legitimacy of their studies.

Second, Ms. Murray's conclusion does not show that the Arizona "scholarship organizations disproportionately fund low-income families."  It says, after a lot of qualifications about the quality and completeness of the data, that the recipients' median family income during the 2009/10 school year was $55,458.  This is not "low income," but almost 300% of the federal poverty guideline.  (Dr. Stitzlein pointed out in her testimony that she, as a UNH prof. qualifies under these guidelines, though she would not feel right taking voucher.)  

Ms. Murray's data analysis yields no insights on the proportion of scholarship recipients that are low income.

Click here for more on the "no need to target" argument

4. "Tax Credit Programs are Different From Vouchers:"  Not at all. Advocates like to make this point because vouchers are unpopular, but tax credits are just an alternative court-friendly way to fund vouchers.  More on that debate here.  There are differences between tax credits and vouchers, but their impact in schools is nearly indistinguishable.  They produce the same results.  Research on vouchers is often used to assess tax credit programs.

But Mr. Bedrick goes on in this section to make a much more serious misstatement when he says that HB 1607 does not drain money from the public schools.  Here's the reality: 

The state would offer tax credits to businesses to create $2,500 vouchers to incent children to leave their local public schools for private schools.  When a child leaves, the state would take over $4,000 from the child's school to repay itself for the scholarship.  

That's about as direct as it gets: public school money is moved into private schools.

Then Mr. Bedrick even goes a step further, citing a study "from Florida's Department of Education," again overstating the legitimacy of the study.  There is no study from the Florida Department of Education saying that voucher competition improves the public schools. His link goes to a magazine article on advocacy web site reporting on a study the the Calder Center, which has institutional funding from many sources including the Florida Department of Education.  The study is not "from" Florida DOE and is not peer reviewed.  The authors consider it a "working paper."  It is a reconsideration of a decade old disproved theory that competition from voucher and tax credit programs improves the public schools.  Here is a full critique of that proposition and that study. [In a subsequent email, Mr. Bedrick admitted his error in attributing this study to the Florida DOE, while saying everything else I say is wrong.]

Dr. Stitzlein and others at your own University of New Hampshire can provide reliable policy analysis on these issues.


Bill Duncan

Here is Mr. Bedricks email:
Honorable Members of the Committee,

I regret that I was unable to attend the hearing today on HB 1607. As you probably know, yesterday the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy released a report on the proposed amendment to this legislation. Representative Bettencourt asked me to address the letter that Professor Stitzlein sent to you regarding HB 1607. The Josiah Bartlett Center report addresses all of those issues, but I will briefly touch on her main points here, in the order that Prof. Stitzlein made her points:

1. Some private schools outperform the public schools. Some don't. But even our best public schools aren't what's best for every single child assigned to those schools. This bill allows those families an opportunity to seek alternatives that best meet the individual needs of their children. Moreover, 18 randomized controlled studies (the "gold standard" of social policy research) have conclusively demonstrated that school choice programs have a positive effect student performance, or show no statistical difference. There is no "gold standard" study showing a negative effect. 

2. It is important that public schools and independent schools alike are held accountable for their performance. However, the accountability mechanisms for each are different. Public schools operate essentially as a monopoly, and they are primarily accountable to the taxpayers, not just parents. This gives elected officials the prerogative to decide what accountability measures to employ, such as standardized tests.


By contrast, independent schools are directly accountable to parents, who have the ability to choose to send their children to other schools if their children’s needs are not being met. Since independent schools often vary in their pedagogical approach, it would not be prudent to mandate that they administer standardized tests. Nevertheless many independent schools choose to have their students take the same tests as public school students.

3. A Harvard University study on Arizona's education tax credit program shows that non-profit scholarship organizations disproportionately fund low-income families even in the absence of a state mandate to means-test. This is akin to Salvation Army and soup kitchens, which also provide for low-income citizens even without state mandates.

4. Tax credit programs are very different from voucher programs in many respects regarding funding and administration (I go into greater detail in the Josiah Bartlett study), so it is a mistake to conflate the two. The program contained in HB 1607 does not drain any money from the public schools. Public schools are paid based on their enrollment. This bill does not change that. However, the state saves money because the reduction in state revenue is less than the reduction in state spending. Most importantly, studies from other states (including one from Florida's Department of Education) shows that public school performance improves in response to choice and competition.

It's also important to note that the private schools in Milwaukee, which Prof. Stitzlein references, have a much higher graduation rate and cost half as much as the public schools and they are performing at the same level. 

5. Education tax credit programs are perfectly constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts in states with similar "Blaine amendment" provisions have found that education tax credits are constitutional. Not a single education tax credit program has been found to violate a state constitution.

Education tax credit programs expands the choices available to families. It shouldn't matter where a child is education -- what's most important is that children have access to high quality education that meets their individual needs.

I hope this answers any questions you might have, but I am happy to discuss this legislation further with anyone who is interested.

Jason Bedrick
Research Fellow
Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Sarah Stitzlein <>
Date: Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 11:03 AM
Subject: UNH Education Professor weighs in on today's discussion of HB 1607--please read

Vote No on HB 1607/SB372 the Education Tax Credit Program for Scholarships/Vouchers


Sarah M. Stitzlein, Ph.D. Educational Policy Studies

Assistant Professor of Education, University of New Hampshire


1.     Private schools do not outperform NH public schools.  We are a state that has one of the strongest and most successful public education systems in the country as indicated by our testing data.  Why should we incentivize children to leave it and thereby jeopardize its well-being?

·      The most recent (2009) and consensus-earning national data suggests that vouchers have not made any improvements in achievement or graduation rates over traditional public schools. 

o   Additionally a major 2011 study of low income students in Milwaukee found that those attending voucher schools performed no better, and often worse, on state standardized tests than students in traditional public schools. 

o   Interestingly, this bill does not provide the option of defraying costs associated with transferring to another public school, suggesting that the heart of the bill is focused on rewarding private schools rather than truly ensuring the best educational options for children, which may very likely be other public schools.

2.     Reduced accountability.  Shifting students to private and religious schools that have fewer regulations and no requirement for state testing, jeopardizes our ability to maintain accountability for the quality of education those children receive and the ability of the public to oversee how their funds are spent.

3.     Overuse by wealthy and typically white populations.  Vouchers/scholarships without strict guidelines on who receives them tend to be used by a narrow slice of the population who often are already well served by public or private schools.  These are the very people who do not need to be financially incentivized to make educational choices.

§  People who take advantage of school choice programs tend to be wealthier and more informed families.  If these families are drained out of the public schools, those schools may suffer.

§  Often vouchers don’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition.  So, they are more likely to be taken advantage of by wealthier families (typically white) who can afford the rest of the tuition.  In fact, many wealthy families use vouchers to move their children from less expensive private schools into even more elite and expensive private schools.

§  Given that the proposed NH legislation does not cover transportation costs, one can see that families who use the program would already be those well enough off to be able to provide the time and vehicle for transporting their child to a private school.

§  Vouchers tend to cause de facto segregation.  Currently across the nation only 9% of private school students are Black and 8% are Latino.

4.  Vouchers drain the public schools of students, funding, and resources.  Due to the use of vouchers in Milwaukee, public school attendance over the last decade is down 20% and it’s down 56% in D.C.  This drains money from the public schools (in the form of per-pupil expenditures that help cover costs that remain static even as the number of students decline, like heating bills). 

5.  Vouchers invite legal problems.  Conflict with putting public money into privately run schools, especially religious ones, opens up NH to major legal challenges by allocating public funding to religious organizations.

§  In the DC case, 82% of the children use their vouchers at religious schools. In Milwaukee, 80% of children use vouchers to attend religious schools.

§  The supreme court in Florida in 2005 found that vouchers were unconstitutional. 


Vouchers undermine the publicness of public education! We should all be working together to keep NH public schools strong, rather than just turning to private approaches to supposedly benefit a small percentage of people.

Sarah M. Stitzlein, Ph.D.

21 Cattail Lane, Unit 1

Barrington, NH 03825