Vouchers and online education

Published 3.2.2017
Thursdays here are set aside for considering all things educational, even if it doesn't work out that way. It's good to have goals, I keep reading, and I am still trying to decide exactly how I want to organize my education related writing. What follows are brief commentary on items and recent news related to education.


The New York Times (NYT) looks at the voucher program in Arizona. The president of the Arizona Sensate profits from the state’s voucher system, which funnels tax dollars to private schools.

But Mr. Yarbrough is not just a champion of tax credit vouchers. He also profits from them personally. The story of how that happened raises questions about President Trump’s campaign promise to spend $20 billion to increase school choice. There’s a strong chance that he’ll do that through tax credit vouchers — a mechanism that Betsy DeVos actively campaigned for before she became Mr. Trump’s education secretary.

Arizona’s system is set up much like Florida’s. The program allows tax payers to make 100% tax deductible donations (against their state taxes) to a voucher granting nonprofit, which then gives the money to the student. The nonprofits are allowed to keep 10% of the donated money, which is how the Senate president cleared $125,000 last year.

This is the sleazy bit:

Yet the group doesn’t do all the work involved with accepting donations and handing out vouchers. It outsources data entry, computer hardware, customer service, information processing, award notifications and related personnel expenses to a private for-profit company called HY Processing. The group paid HY Processing $636,000 in 2014, and millions of dollars in total over the last decade.

The owner of HY Processing? Steve Yarbrough, along with his wife, Linda, and another couple. (The “Y” in “HY” stands for “Yarbrough.”) According to The Arizona Republic, Acsto also pays $52,000 per year in rent. Its landlord? Steve Yarbrough. In June 2012, Mr. Yarbrough bought a car for $16,000. In July 2012, Acsto reimbursed him the full amount.

This double dipping is unusual, most states don’t permit it. Tax credits are popular as a way to fund vouchers because they can be spun as a tax cut for the people making the donations. Funding in this matter makes it harder to track the money and whether or not is actually improves educational outcome.

When schools that accept vouchers are required to meet the same standards as public schools (such as high stakes annual testing) the results are similar to public schools. This is usually spun by voucher opponents as a sign that vouchers don’t work, but I’m not sure that follows. I understand the concern that any dollars going to vouchers isn’t going to public schools— public schools are funded per student, and fewer students means less funding. However, parents who have their children in a school of their choosing might be okay with the performance if it equaled the public schools. There are a lot of reasons to choose not to attend public schools, not all of which are related to the school’s performance on tests.

The NYT article ends by stating that the Trump administration will have to decide how to limit the self-dealing that exists in Arizona, but it might not. If the position is that education is the purview of the states, then it will be up to the states to decide how to set up their programs. The issue will be the use of federal tax money. Trump claims that $20 billion will be pushed at school choice issues, but who knows what will actually happen. There is no evidence that the Trump administration knows.

Online Learning

Online study is an area that I am very interested in, and about which I have some experience. My position is that online education is in its infancy, and has not been optimized. Too many programs simply put the information that would be on slides in a lecture hall into an online presentation. There isn't the level of interaction that is necessary— mostly because online purveyors think that the teach to student ratio online can be astronomical. That's a cost savings of course, but it doesn't result better learning or earning post degree.

Though students who pursue an exclusively or substantially online education usually see their earnings go up following their efforts, it’s typically not enough to cover the amount they spent on tuition and fees, according to a working paper by Stanford University economist, Caroline Hoxby, distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research this week. What’s more, the earnings increase is rarely enough to recoup the cost society pays — in the form of federal student loans — to send them to school, the study found.

The findings come after years of growth in enrollment in online education, buoyed by deregulation and evangelists’ claims that the courses offer the benefits of a college degree at a fraction of the cost, both in time and money spent. Up through 2003, less than 50,000 students enrolled in primarily online education each year, the study notes. By 2013 that number had increased nearly ten times to 423,968. But the paper, which is based on Internal Revenue Service data of Americans who attended exclusively or substantially online colleges between 1999 and 2014, raises questions about whether these students are being served well.

Still it's too early to make a conclusion about online learning.

Despite Hoxby’s troubling findings, it’s hard to say whether online education in and of itself is inherently problematic or whether certain models could be successful. Goodman’s research on a Georgia Institute of Technology online master’s in computer science program indicates that, if done right, an online degree can provide a decent education at a fraction of the cost.

Central planning is to blame for BAs not being able to get jobs? Uh no, I don’t think so. In the mid 1980s the same was true. Why don’t private firms start training programs to train the work force they need? He’s not arguing against central planning— he’s arguing that the central planners haven’t made the correct choices.

What happened to the free market solving all society’s ills? Using tax payer dollars is not the free market.


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