Tax-Credit Defense Useful but Flawed
Study on low-income scholarships in Arizona provides good information but overstates its case
EAST LANSING, Mi. (November 18, 2010) –A new review finds that a recent defense of an Arizona tax credit program to help students attend private schools uses sound and reasonable methods and offers useful information. But the review also notes limitations in the data and the report's overstated claims.
The report, reviewed for the Think Twice think tank review project by Casey D. Cobb of the University of Connecticut, was produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
Since 1998 Arizona has allowed state taxpayers to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits by making donations to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) that provide voucher-like scholarships enabling students to attend private schools.
Although the law does not currently require STOs to consider student financial need in making awards, a rationale for its initial adoption was to expand access to private schools for low-income families. Reports in two Arizona newspapers in 2009, however, exposed various abuses in the program and suggested that the program was not meeting the objective of serving lower-income families.
In An Analysis of Arizona Individual Income Tax-credit Scholarship Recipients' Family Income, 2009-2010 School Year, published by the Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG), Vickie E. Murray of the Pacific Research Institute collected survey data from STOs. The surveys sought information about the income levels of recipient families. Murray's report concludes that the scholarship/voucher recipients had a median family income of about $5,000 less than the statewide median, according to federal data. Murray also accuses the two papers, the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune, of "sweeping allegations" that the program "disproportionately serves privileged students from higher income families..."
In his review, Cobb takes issue with that latter characterization, finding from his own review of the cited newspaper articles no evidence of "careless or unsubstantiated" allegations in the news reports. He also notes that the articles uncovered abuses in the tuition tax credit program and that they did find the program "was not serving as many low-income students as was originally intended" – but that the "tenor of the language in the articles seemed much less extreme" than Murray's report suggested.
As for Murray's survey of the STOs, Cobb credits the analysis for transparency and a demonstrated concern for accuracy and thoroughness. But he notes that the survey sample was not random. Instead, the report is based on a survey of 15 of Arizona's 51 STOs; the STOs that responded to the survey accounted for 79.4 percent of scholarships/vouchers awarded in 2009. This was a good response rate, because the largest STOs provided information, but Cobb discusses possible issues of biased data. He also points out that the survey didn't report information about the amount of scholarships awarded, linked to families' income levels. Thus, there's no way of telling whether the dollar value of scholarship awards to lower-income families was systemically greater or lesser than that of awards to higher-income families. Further, because the survey generated voluntary, self-reported data from STOs, it raises questions about accuracy and consistency.
That may change for future research, he notes, thanks to the upcoming changes in the law that will "require more transparency in the reporting of scholarship information, including the percent of low-income recipients."
Find Casey Cobb's review on the Great Lakes Center website at:
Find An Analysis of Arizona Individual Income Tax-credit Scholarship Recipients' Family Income, 2009-2010 School Year, by Vickie E. Murray, on the web at:
The Think Twice think tank review project, a project of the National Education Policy Center, provides the public, policy makers and the press with timely, academically sound reviews of selected think tank publications. The project is made possible in part by the generous support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
The review is also available on the National Education Policy Center website at:
The mission of the Great Lakes Center is to improve public education for all students in the Great Lakes region through the support and dissemination of high quality, academically sound research on education policy and practices.
Visit the Great Lakes Center Web Site at: http://www.greatlakescenter.org