Report Offers an Inventive Argument for Expansion of Wisconsin’s School Choice Programs

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Key New NEPC Review Takeaway: Report creatively builds a mountain of speculation into claimed economic benefits from an expanded school voucher plan.

A recent report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) claims a chain of benefits will purportedly follow if the current cap on voucher enrollment for the state of Wisconsin is increased. It describes a “ripple effect of economic benefits that will reverberate throughout the state.”

William J. Mathis, Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, reviewed Ripple Effect: How Expanding School Choice Programs Can Lead to More College Graduates and a Stronger Economy. He found a “failing of logic” in how this ripple effect would actually occur.

The report presumes a causal chain of: raising the voucher cap from 4% to 20% → more voucher students in K-12 schools → higher graduation rates from college → higher lifetime earnings → more consumer spending → increased state and local taxes collected. The resulting benefits to Wisconsin are asserted to be $3.2 billion over 20 years. The final three steps are based on solid research, although the specific numbers are in some dispute. That is, when students graduate from college, they will have higher average incomes and will spend more, and pay more taxes, over their lifetimes. The numbers get complicated, however, when we start to consider factors like job market opportunities that can accommodate the increased percentage of college graduates.

The real problem with the analysis, however, lies in the first two steps. As Mathis explains, these steps are highly speculative and are based on very skimpy evidence.

First, raising voucher cap may not drive much of an increase in voucher students, since less than one percent of Wisconsin’s districts currently reach the 4% voucher cap. That is, there appears to be very little demand-side need for the voucher-growth initiative. Even more troubling is the report’s reliance on one problematic study for its key argument that voucher use leads to a specific determined increase in graduation rates from four-year colleges (a 38% increase).

Adding to these problems, the trumpeted dollar figure in the report literally doesn’t add up. Lifting the voucher cap, readers are told, will generate a $3.2 billion increase in consumer spending and personal gains. But the figures presented in the report come up exactly $91 million short of $3.2 billion. This is undoubtedly just arithmetic carelessness (and it’s not clear which figures are the source of the error), but does further undermine one’s faith in the research.

In addition to Mathis’ explanation that the report’s causal links are weakly explained and lacking in support, he points to other prominent unaddressed issues: social stratification, inequitable selection effects, the cost of running two school systems, and the effects of the vouchers on learning. For all of these reasons, Mathis explains, the report offers no assistance to policymakers or others.

Find the review, by William J. Mathis, at:
https://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/ripple-effect

Find Ripple Effect: How Expanding School Choice Programs Can Lead to More College Graduates and a Stronger Economy, written by Will Flanders and published by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, at:
http://www.will-law.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/will-ripple-effect-v3.pdf

NEPC Reviews (http://thinktankreview.org) provide the public, policymakers, and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected publications. NEPC Reviews are made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice: http://www.greatlakescenter.org

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: https://nepc.colorado.edu

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William J. Mathis
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since: 09/2010
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