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Suspect conclusion impoverishes voucher debate

A virtually parenthetical comment derived essentially from a footnote created a bit of turmoil at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, illustrating a larger debasement of the scope and purpose of public policy research that has wafted through policy discourse for the past half-century.

During a routine report adoption, Louisiana School Board Association Executive Director Scott Richard challenged a passage that noted the state’s Student Scholarships for Excellence Program, known colloquially as a voucher program that allows lower-income families with students at or who otherwise would attend low-performing schools to have the state pay for tuition at a qualifying public or private school up to a certain level, saved the state money. He pointed out a sentence in a February Legislative Fiscal Office report alleged that the state would save $8.3 million without the program.

BESE gubernatorial appointee Doris Voitier then asked for the report’s alteration to include the LFO snippet. It is no accident that Richard, whose clients generally loath the program because it both highlights their failures and removes resources from their control, and Voitier, a careerist of government monopoly schools whose appointer Gov. John Bel Edwards opposes vouchers and in this year’s budget tried to scale back funding of these, called for this. So the report forwarded to the Legislature will have both, treated as equal.

Except that they are not. The LFO allegation provides absolutely no details or background on how it came up with that statement; the extent of evidence backing up its analysis is exactly one sentence that reads “The state will pay $8.3 M more to the voucher schools than it would have paid through the MFP in the current year.” By contrast, the BESE report’s original passage referred to an April study released by the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform, who joins with Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes as the premier academic researchers of school choice policy.

The study itself goes into fine detail about its data, methods, and assumptions. As someone who in three decades in academia has taught courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in research methods and in public policy evaluation, and have conducted public policy research, I can attest that it provides a compelling analysis: under the most likely scenario, the program saved the state almost $7 million last year (but further explains this may understate the actual amount.)

In fact, using the UA researchers’ data, I tried to derive how the LFO possibly could come up with the opposite conclusion. After sifting through the impact of Level 1 vs. Level 2 Minimum Foundation Program spending, similar or differential impacts across schools and districts, and various rates at which displaced voucher recipients would return to eligible schools, the best I could figure was the LFO used an absurd figure that half of all students losing vouchers nonetheless would return to and their families would pay tuition to a school when the national figure from historical data is actually one in eleven.

That Edwards’ allies muddied the voucher policy picture with such a unreliable piece of research serves as an indicator of the larger degradation of truth in policy debates. Perhaps the most errant axiom that has infiltrated the philosophy of science in the past five or six decades has been that the mere presence of any dissent on a subject, including even the most far-fetched or unreasonable, means that we cannot attain the truth of a matter – unless, of course, as in cases where politics has overwhelmed science such as with the question of significant anthropogenic climate change where any dissent, no matter how compelling, must be quashed.

Thus, as an extreme example, a faulty study liking vaccinations to autism gathers a life of its own and, despite endless debunking of that, scares people into making unhealthy choices for their families. Yet even with a question of much smaller stakes, the idea has become accepted too uncritically that just because some entity with assumed credibility asserts something, without an ability to allow for independent verification of this in policy debates, then automatically that must cancel out conclusions drawn from high-quality, meticulous, and accessible research.

Obviously, the Edwards Administration and its fellow travelers want to use the LFO’s questionable factoid as a cudgel to drive their political agenda of dismembering vouchers, regardless of that conclusion’s suspect validity. That this receives equal time with information that by all appearances validly describes the way the world works in this area of policy and concludes very differently impoverishes the argumentation concerning education delivery.

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