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Mitt Romney's Voucher Madness

August 16, 2012

Ever since Mitt Romney tapped Paul Ryan as his running mate, all eyes in Washington have been on Medicare. At the center of the debate has been what Romney called his "close to identical" proposal to Paul Ryan's to dramatically shift the costs of health care to future American seniors by transforming the popular insurance program into an under-funded voucher scheme.
But largely lost in the uproar over Romney's voucher madness on Medicare is his desire to apply a similar mechanism to privatize other essential government services. Following in the footsteps of governors like Bobby Jindal (R-LA), Rick Scott (R-FL) and Mitch Daniels (R-IN), President Romney would undermine public education by directing taxpayer funds into vouchers for private, religious and home schools. And as it turns out, Romney has flirted with a voucher gambit to "introduce some private sector competition" to the successful VA system that serves 25 million American veterans.
Romney has joked that his planned Medicare replacement for elderly Americans is called "by our friends premium support, by our enemies as 'vouchers.'" But when it comes to the nation's schools, Romney doesn't like to utter the word "vouchers" at all. Two weeks after he delivered a major address on education policy in which he never mentioned the V word, the New York Times in June detailed Romney's proposal to divert $25 billion in taxpayer dollars to religious, private and for-profit schools. But voters don't have to imagine what that plan, an old GOP twofer designed to subsidize Christian institutions while bludgeoning Democratic-friendly teachers unions, will do to American public education. As the frightening results in states like Louisiana, Indiana, Georgia and Arizona show, the Romney-Ryan voucher dream is fast becoming an American horror story.
Governor Romney has been an advocate of so-called "school choice" since his first run for the White House. In 2007, Romney suggested American parents should not only be encouraged to abandon the public schools; they should be rewarded for it with a tax break for home schooling their kids. Now, as the Republican nominee outlined in a recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Romney wants to redirect $25 billion from two federal programs into a new voucher scheme. As the New York Times explained:

As president, Mr. Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government's largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucherlike system. Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose -- public, charter, online or private -- a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to drive academic gains.

But as the experience in Bobby Jindal's Louisiana suggests, that system would instead introduce large quantities of public cash into the coffers of religious schools and academies whose educational credentials may be suspect at best. There, voucher-receiving institutions must be blessed by the state. As the Daily Kingfish noted, over 90 percent of the 115 schools qualifying for Jindal's $8.500 voucher are religious institutions. And as Reuters documented, many of the 7,450 slots reserved for voucher students are at some pretty suspect schools:

The school willing to accept the most voucher students -- 314 -- is New Living Word in Ruston, which has a top-ranked basketball team but no library. Students spend most of the day watching TVs in bare-bones classrooms. Each lesson consists of an instructional DVD that intersperses Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.
The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.
At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake, pastor-turned-principal Marie Carrier hopes to secure extra space to enroll 135 voucher students, though she now has room for just a few dozen. Her first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains "what God made" on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution.
"We try to stay away from all those things that might confuse our children," Carrier said.

Voucher programs like Jindal's may not be doing much good (and perhaps will do actual harm) for American children. But for the churches and faith-based groups getting public dollars for their parochial schools and religious academies, the future looks bright.
In "Vouchers Breathe New Life into Shrinking Catholic Schools," the Wall Street Journal in June revealed that Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels' voucher program is proving a major boon to the bishops. "Driven by expanding voucher programs, outreach to Hispanic Catholics and donations by business leaders," WSJ reported, "Catholic schools in several major cities are swinging back from closures and declining enrollment." For example:

Thanks to vouchers, St. Stanislaus, which was $140,000 in debt to the Catholic Diocese of Gary at the end of 2010, picked up 72 new students, boosting enrollment by 38%.
"God has been good to us," says Ms. [Principal Kathleen] Lowry. "Growth is a good problem to have."

Mark Gray of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University explained why. As the Journal noted, getting more students enrolled in Catholic schools is "clearly one of the top priorities" for the church as it tries to get more faithful back into the pews. As Gray put it, "There is an important long-term effect on the Catholic population by having them in schools."
Of course, there is an important effect on public schools as well.

Critics, including teacher unions, say vouchers drain resources from public schools, siphon off the brightest students with the most engaged parents, and, in the case of Catholic schools, violate the separation of church and state by sending tax dollars to religious institutions...Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for the nearby public school district Fort Wayne Community Schools, which lost nearly 400 students and $4.2 million in state funding to vouchers--more than any district in the state--says it is tough for her schools to compete. "There's this unfair perception out there that all private schools are better than public schools," she says.

The emerging fiasco in Louisiana should put that myth to rest.
Meanwhile in places like Arizona and Georgia, Republican governors and legislatures are trying to confuse taxpayers and the United States Supreme Court. In April 2011, a 5-4 majority upheld an Arizona law which tried to evade the voucher controversy by giving gives taxpayers there a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit of up to $500 for donations to private "student tuition organizations." The organizations are permitted to limit the scholarships they offer to schools of a given religion, and many of them do. While Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion claimed "awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences," dissenting Justice Elena Kagan saw through the façade. As the New York Times noted:

Justice Elena Kagan, in her first dissent, said the majority had laid waste to the doctrine of "taxpayer standing," which allows suits from people who object to having tax money spent on religious matters. "The court's opinion," Justice Kagan wrote, "offers a road map -- more truly, just a one-step instruction -- to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge."

Georgia provides a case in point for the insulation of government financial of religious activity from legal challenge. There, a $50 million program supposedly offering $2,500 tax credits for donations to "nonprofit scholarship groups" to help poor and needy children turned into something else altogether. Instead, the New York Times documented last month, the Georgia program became just another vehicle to siphon government funds into non-secular schools:

That was the idea, at least. But parents meeting at Gwinnett Christian Academy got a completely different story last year.
"A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund," Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. "The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it."
...Most of the private schools are religious. Nearly a quarter of the participating schools in Georgia require families to make a profession of religious faith, according to their Web sites. Many of those schools adhere to a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist -- a world ruler predicted in the New Testament -- will one day control what is bought and sold.

Of course, what is being bought and sold is our children's future. According to the Alliance for School Choice, in this year alone eight states "the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students." Mitt Romney's ideology notwithstanding, education is not (or at least, shouldn't be) a free-market where parents purchase a product called test scores. But if it were, it would be a case of market failure. As Stephanie Mencimer pointed out, the dubious performance and questionable financial practices of charter schools has them in hot water with federal investigators. As the Washington Monthly detailed in April 2008, voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee failed to produce better performance in the private versus public schools. (70 percent of students in the Milwaukee program attend religious institutions.) As the American Prospect reported last year:

In Milwaukee, home of the oldest city voucher program in the country, researchers are in the middle of the five-year study of the program that is expected to shed light on the potential of voucher programs. But three years into the study, results are unimpressive. High school graduation and college enrollment are up 5 percent to 7 percent among voucher recipients, but overall performance between public school and voucher recipient cohorts is virtually the same.

It's no wonder Christopher Lubienski, an education professor at the University of Illinois, concluded that "Romney is on poor empirical ground in making a claim based on competitive effect."
And when it comes to veterans' health care, thin ice.
Studies have shown that over the past 40 years, the per-beneficiary cost of Medicare rose 40 percent less than private health insurance and that the Veteran's Administration (VA) health care system provides "the best care anywhere," consistently outperforming its private sector counterparts. If Mitt Romney had his druthers, he'd privatize both.
Governor Romney delivered that dangerous prescription for veterans on Veterans Day. As he explained over barbecue to a small gathering of veterans:

"Sometimes you wonder, would there be some way to introduce some private sector competition, somebody else that could come in and say, you know each soldier gets X thousand dollars attributed to them and then they can choose whether they want to go on the government system or the private system and then it follows them, like what happens with schools in Florida where they have a voucher that follows them, who knows."

Sadly for Romney, the VA already clobbers the private sector competition.
The turnaround at the VA isn't merely, as Paul Krugman explained, "one of the great policy success stories of the past two decades." Writing in the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen highlighted the 2005 findings of Phillip Longman in "The Best Care Anywhere":

As Longman explained at the time, "Who do you think receives higher-quality health care? Medicare patients who are free to pick their own doctors and specialists? Or aging veterans stuck in those presumably filthy VA hospitals with their antiquated equipment, uncaring administrators, and incompetent staff? An answer came in 2003, when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study that compared veterans health facilities on 11 measures of quality with fee-for-service Medicare. On all 11 measures, the quality of care in veterans facilities proved to be 'significantly better.' ... The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that compared veterans health facilities with commercial managed-care systems in their treatment of diabetes patients. In seven out of seven measures of quality, the VA provided better care."

In June 2010, Elizabeth McGlynn, associate director of Rand Health, a division of the Rand Corp., concurred with the assessment that "it's hard to top veterans' health care."

"You're much better off in the VA than in a lot of the rest of the U.S. health-care system," she said. "You've got a fighting chance there's going to be some organized, thoughtful, evidence-based response to dealing effectively with the health problem that somebody brings to them."
The combination of its information system and support tools, routine performance reporting and financial incentives for managers who hit quality targets gives it an edge, said McGlynn, who co-authored a comparative study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2004 that found the VA outperformed its community health-care counterparts by 20 percentage points in preventive care. It also performed significantly better on chronic disease care and in overall quality.

Just as telling, a June 2011 study by Amal Trivedi and Regina Grebla published in the journal Medical Care found that the VA delivered much better results than for elderly patients than private sector Medicare Advantage (MA) plans:

Among persons aged 65 years or older, the VA health-care system significantly outperformed private-sector MA plans and delivered care that was less variable by site, geographic region, and socioeconomic status.

Worse still, Romney's voucher scheme for the VA would inevitably lead to rationing. As a stunned Krugman summed it up:

You know what voucherization would mean in practice: the vouchers would be inadequate, and become more so over time, so that veterans who don't make enough money to top them up would fail to receive essential care. Patriotism!

It's no wonder the Veterans of Foreign Wars tersely responded to Romney's proposal by simply declaring, "The VFW doesn't support privatization of veterans' health care."
Which is why the Romney campaign quickly rushed to walk back Mitt's Veterans Day vision of vouchers for vets. As spokeswoman Andrea Saul, who recently ran afoul of the GOP party line praising Mitt's Massachusetts health care model, signaled the retreat:

"He did not lay out any new policy proposals today."

Maybe not. But taxpayer-funded privatization of government is one of the bedrock foundations of Romney's campaign. And whether it's for our kids, our military heroes or our grandparents, Mitt's voucher madness is just that.
(For more background on the Romney-Ryan proposals for the voucherization and de facto rationing of Medicare, see here, here and here.)


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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