Summing up the Safier vs. Ladner comments smackdown

by David Safier

Over the past few weeks, Dr. Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute and I have engaged in a spirited back-and-forth in the comments sections of two posts: An interesting number and More Fool's Gold: Ed tax credits save us money. For my money, I won both arguments. I'm sure Ladner disagrees and, of course, he's welcome to put his opinions in the comments. As always, he'll get all the unedited space he wants.

The reason I picked a fight with G.I. in the first place is because I want to make it clear they have a purely political agenda. Their "research" is given far more credibility than it deserves, both by themselves and by the press who treats G.I. as a reasonable source of information. What they call "research" is often a travesty, a cynical misuse of scholarship to help conservatives get elected, then help them pass conservative legislation. Most of the rest is just smoke and mirrors.

Follow the link below to read my discussion of the two comment threads.

Let's look at the basic argument on An interesting number. My original post disputed this statement by Ladner, who maintains that Arizona's national ranking in per pupil spending, which is usually placed at 49th, is actually much higher:

Fact: When all of Arizona’s funding streams are added up, Arizona school funding ranks in the middle of the states at more than $9,000 per student per year.

In my post, I said that the figure almost everyone uses for Arizona, including some conservative organizations, is  a little over $6,000. But I didn't get into an argument with him on the point, and I won't, since I don't have the budgetary expertise to sort out all the numbers. If he wants to debate his $9,000 number, it will have to be with someone else.

But I said Ladner was comparing apples and oranges when he put us in the middle of the pack:

[Ladner] uses an apples-and-oranges comparison of [his] high figure with the usual per pupil spending figures in other states to show we're not really 49th in spending.

In the course of our discussion, Ladner said this about ranking states' educational spending:

The whole process of ranking states is not a terribly productive one. Arizona provides bad numbers, and so do other states. On the other hand, some states provide very accurate numbers. The whole ranking exercise is a pig's breakfast.

With that colorful phrase, "a pig's breakfast," Ladner admitted he doesn't lend much credence to his own statement that Arizona is in the middle of the states in per pupil funding. Yet he includes it in a statement he says is "Fact."

Later Ladner got into a side conversation with commenter Stephen Morris who tried to pin Ladner down on his statement that we're in the middle of the national pack. While Ladner held onto his $9,000 figure (he actually raised it to $9,700), he abandoned his attempt to rank the states entirely.

If you'd like me to concede the point that I ought not to make any claims about rankings- I agree to do so.

That to me is an absolute admission that he can't back up his "Fact" about ranking, which was the point I made in my original post. Ladner agrees with me: his "ranking" is not a statement of fact, or even an informed opinion. 

So far as I know, Ladner hasn't printed a retraction anywhere except in the comments quoted above. I'm not holding my breath.

My second post, More Fool's Gold: Ed tax credits save us money, contested his statement that education tax credits save the state money. Here is what he had written:

Fact: Getting children into private schools with $1,000 of foregone tax revenue costs less than the $9,000 spent on a child in the public school system. To save money, the Legislature should expand the private school scholarship tax credit and move more children from public to private schools. Suspending it will disrupt these students’ educations and increase costs to the state as children return to public schools.

The entire comment string for that post was incredibly long and convoluted, following related and unrelated tangents, even getting a bit personal now and again.

But toward the end of our discussion, I brought out a figure Ladner didn't dispute: that 85% of the students receiving scholarships from the individual tax credits are already in private schools, which means they hadn't been using state money for their educations. Every tax credit dollar going to those students is money that would otherwise go into the state coffers. Only the 15% who switched from public to private school were students whose education was previously being supported by the state. Ladner maintained the average tax credit scholarship is $1,800, a figure I accepted without checking into it. I did a little math you can find later in the post and concluded that every student who switched from public to private school cost the state $12,000 when you add in the students who were in private school already.

Ladner's answer?

The number of students who originally switched from public to private school is not relevant to our current discussion.

In fact, if you're trying to decide whether the state saves or loses money on the individual tax credits, it's directly relevant to the discussion. All I can think is, Ladner didn't want to discuss my figures because they show that his purported "Fact" is more of a fiction.

By my figuring, my two original posts were correct, and Ladner's two "Facts" were incorrect in part or in whole. That says to me, I won both arguments.

Here, by the way, is the math I used to arrive at the $12,000 figure.

Let me put two numbers you and I have been talking about together and see what conclusions I can reach. You say the average amount of a credit-based scholarship is $1,800. I have read that only 15% of the students receiving credit-based scholarships are "switchers" who were previously in public schools. That means only 15% of those receiving the $1,800 are actually people who otherwise would have been using state money for their educations.

15% of the students is one out of every 6.6 students. So to find out how much each one of those switchers costs the state, we have to multiply their credit-based scholarship of $1,800 by 6.6. That comes to about $12,000. Calculating things that way, the state pays $12,000 for every credit-scholarship student who would otherwise be in public school.

If you like, you can divide $1,800 by .15. You'll get the same result: $12,000.

Based on this calculation, depending which figure you use to determine how much it costs to have a pupil in public school, yours at $9,000 or the more commonly used figure of about $6,000, the tax credit costs between 150% and 200% more than what it would cost to keep that child in public school.

7 responses to “Summing up the Safier vs. Ladner comments smackdown

  1. Thank you Mr. Ladner & thank you Mr. Safier for the fine debate.

  2. David Safier

    Mr. Ladner.
    I’ve also enjoyed our discussions.I haven’t changed my mind about the nature or purpose of the Goldwater Institute, but I respect your willingness to join in the discussion on a liberal blog.

    A few comments. You say a few times that the burden of proof lies with me. That’s not the case. In both posts, I questioned something you stated as “Fact.” The burden lies with you to prove your facts are valid.

    Once again, I won’t engage in the $9,000 argument simply because I don’t have the expertise to argue the point. You say I am “fixated” on the state ranking issue. In terms of this discussion, you’re right. Your “Fact” put Arizona in the middle of the national rankings. I said that’s an unsubstantiated assertion based on comparing apples and oranges. If you concede the point that you can’t really rank Arizona fairly, that means you shouldn’t have stated it as a “Fact.” My assertion is correct.

    On the question of tax credits, once again I was questioning your “Fact” that Arizona’s individual tax credit saves the state money. The burden is on you to prove that fact. Your best argument admits that you can only conjecture that the state would save money. In that case, you shouldn’t have stated it as a “Fact.”

    I apologize for my sloppiness about referencing my figure that only 15% of the students receiving individual tax credit scholarships are switchers. You never challenged the figure, so I never cited my source. It is a research report, “The Equity Impact of Arizona’s Education Tax Credit Program: A Review of the First Three Years,” written by Glen Y. Wilson, Assistant Director of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at ASU. The paper’s date is 2002. I wish I could find more current information, but I used this as a starting point. I felt it has some degree of current accuracy based on a conversation with someone affiliated with one of our largest STOs. This person estimated that about 80% of the tax credits “recommended” the recipient of the money, and in most cases, the recommendations were honored.

    Here is the passage I was referring to. The author arrives at 20% as a final number, which would change my figure from $12,000 to $9,000. I used 15%, the top number Belfield cited, because of my suspicion that the Cato Institute would cook their figures a bit.

    “According to Belfield, target efficiencies for tuition tax credits tend to be very low, meaning that tuition tax credits appear to primarily benefit those already enrolled in private schools. Belfield’s literature review reveals that target efficiencies have been estimated by various researchers to range from less than 5 percent to no more than 15 percent.31 That is, only 5 to 15 percent of tuition tax credit revenue recipients will be switchers. The Cato Institute, a strong advocate of tuition tax credits, estimated a range for the target efficiency of Arizona’s private school tuition tax credits at between 15 and 30 percent. For its calculations and projections, however, the Cato Institute paper utilized 20 percent as the target efficiency for Arizona’s private school tuition taxcredits.32 Thus, the full range of estimates for the target efficiency of tuition tax credits runs from less than 5 percent up to 30 percent. For this analysis, the Cato Institute’s target efficiency estimate of 20 percent will be used.”

  3. Matthew Ladner

    Mr. Safier-

    In his middle eastern campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte had a nasty series of setbacks, but then returned to Cairo and threw himself a victory parade. It seems to me that this is what you’ve done here. Rather than starting another long chain, I’ll make a single comment. You are correct about one thing-I do disagree that you won either argument.

    Your spending per pupil argument essentially accused me of making up a $9,000 per pupil argument out of thin air. I then proceeded to demonstrate to you, using the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction’s financial report, that the figure is $9,707 in total revenue from all sources per pupil.Rather than focusing on the fact that you’ve been getting seriously lowball numbers from other sources for years, you want to fixate on this state ranking issue. This strikes me as rather absurd for someone who prides himself on intellectual honesty.

    I have conceded the point that other states may be lying about their numbers the way Arizona has been, and therefore that I ought not to make claims about where we rank. Note however that the main point is that Arizona has been badly misrepresenting their number. Note also that if I should not make claims about rankings, neither should you, especially rather precise ones like “we are 49th.” I’ll hope that you will have the good sense not to make such claims, but I’m sure we’ll continue to see this urban legend repeated over and over. Perhaps you will be so kind as to correct the record when you see it done.

    I have yet to see an explanation from anyone concerning the $2,000-$3,000 in revenue per pupil that mysteriously gets excluded from claims about how much Arizona public schools. For someone who seems to prize intellectual honesty, it seems odd to fixate on this ranking issue. In your comments you seem to like to treat different claims concerning the per pupil figure as equally valid. This isn’t the case: I have provided the documentation to establish the $9,707 figure and neither you nor anyone else has challenged it.

    On the tax credit discussion, let me note that your 85% figure is completely undocumented- something you think you saw once. I really don’t know how I can make it more clear that this number is entirely irrelevant, even if it is true, but I will try one last time.If someone submitted a straight repeal of the individual tax credit, and I was at JLBC and assigned the task of scoring it, this is the information I would want:

    1. How many kids are in the program.
    2. How large are the private scholarships (answer: small with an $1,800 average)
    3. How many kids would likely move from private to public school?
    4. What is the cost of educating a child in the public school (answer: much larger)

    For item 3- you’d want to know something about the incomes of the children. I established that a minimum of 41% of the scholarships are means tested by 3 of the 54 STOs alone. The actual number of low income children is higher, as even STOs that don’t means test or even track incomes do give scholarships to low income kids.Next- I established that the $1800 makes up a substantial portion of the average private school tuition in Arizona.

    Now, there isn’t any way to know for sure what would happen other than eliminating the credit. This is however a relatively straightforward estimate regarding the price elasticity of demand for private schooling. Further, the burden of proof regarding savings is on you, as you are claiming that eliminating the program would save the state money.You haven’t made even a slightly compelling case that it would.

    Obviously, a large number of low income students would be forced into public schools, where the costs are much higher. I’m at a loss to see how information regarding whether these children previously attended public schools is relevant to any of this. Just because families could afford a private school in 2004 doesn’t at all assure that they can continue to do so in 2009. They may have additional school age siblings, the economy is a disaster, tuition may have risen, etc. etc. etc. The question can be boiled down to: how many kids would drop out of private schools, and how much would it cost, and how would that cost compare to increased revenue?

    In any case-I’ve enjoyed discussing these issues with you. Generally speaking, I’d like to see more dialogue between the left and right in our state, and more civil dialogue. You obviously not agree with my positions. I hope however that the hours I’ve invested debating you, out of respect to you and your readers, at minimum demonstrates that the Goldwater Institute has not made up public school revenue numbers out of thin air and that there are reasons to wonder whether cutting the tax credit would save the state money.

    I’ll give you the last word, as it is your blog and I suspect that this could continue forever otherwise.

  4. The Goldwater Institute always bends the truth to support its anti-family agenda.

  5. If your “local press outlets” are anything like the one here in Prescott (Daily Courier), they aren’t really “local” because they are ran by a rich old-school John Birch style conservative family in Yuma.
    Lying to people to trick them into supporting conservative policies is really the only reason these people are in business.
    P.S. Francine Shacter, I know that you ran for office as a Democrat. I thought that experience would have educated you on the fact that Republicans have no interest in philosophical debates (it is no surprise…as Stephen Colbert famously said, the truth has a liberal bias). They are more into calling people who don’t agree with their reactionary policies “socialists” and chanting cheap empty slogans like “drill here drill now”

  6. parent X did a very good job in providing a concrete example of how bogus the GI numbers are. I hope he/she continues to bring these issues up and perhaps contact local press outlets and ask why they continue to seek out the GI for quotes when they clearly are not providing useful information. Just because one has a political agenda and well-heeled funders doesn’t mean their opinions are valuable.

  7. Francine Shacter

    To my mind, this is a lot of financial sophistry and completely ignores the purpose of a public school system in a democratic society. What I would like to see is an “on the one hand and on the other hand” about that philosophical concept. Then, when we agree on what is the purpose of a strong (yes, I added a qualifier) public school system in a democratic society – then let’s monkey around with the dollars.