Matt Yglesias is one of the smartest and most economically literate liberal writers, so I find this recent post on school vouchers a little confusing:
Republicans design a program that’s not a voucher program, it’s just a “free money for a small number of poor kids in the District of Columbia” program.
That’s what I’ve always understood to be the definition of a voucher program. In the comments section, Stephen Eldridge clarifies:
Vouchers are intended to replace funds used for Public Schools–that is, if you use a voucher, you’re “getting back” your money from your state or local taxes that would otherwise go to a public school and giving it to a private school instead…the DC program is *additional* money, so the use of it doesn’t defund a public school.
At some level, public-school spending and school vouchers are substitutable, since any spending on one could instead be spent on the other. Yglesias and Eldridge seem unconcerned about funding a small vouchers program in DC; note that its funding could instead be applied to public schools in DC. Meanwhile, Yglesias and Eldridge seem highly concerned with a system that could automatically make this same substitution at a much larger scale.
The underlying question of whether tax dollars are better spent on public schools or vouchers, is a testable one, but it’s important to use the right test. The test is not, Do DC students start using vouchers? as Yglesias worries it would be. The test is also not, Does the vouchers program lead to better education outcomes? The correct test is, Does the vouchers program have a better benefit:cost ratio than public school funding? If that question is conclusively answered affirmatively, it provides some support for the larger type of vouchers program that Yglesias and Eldridge oppose. But answering the previous questions provide no such support.
I think the strongest conservative viewpoint on this topic is Jim Manzi’s, who doesn’t support the large-scale voucher programs Yglesias and Eldridge fear:
I have argued for supporting charter schools instead of school vouchers for exactly this reason. Even if one has the theory (as I do) that we ought to have a much more deregulated market for education, I more strongly hold the view that it is extremely difficult to predict the impacts of such drastic change, and that we should go one step at a time (even if on an experimental basis we are also testing more radical reforms at very small scale).