In his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, President Donald Trump extolled school choice, another name for offering students, at public expense, the opportunity to attend a privately operated school. He asked Congress to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.” Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, amplifies Trump’s preference for school choice with an adjective. She says families need a “robust” set of choices.
So what is wrong with school choice—school privatization—at public expense? Here is some of what’s wrong.
FRAMING — First there is the deceptive framing by ideologues—inspired by economist Milton Friedman, and the foundation now called EdChoice, that he left behind as a legacy. Carl Davis of The American Prospect pays close attention to the language: “Politicians have long had a knack for framing policy proposals, however controversial, in terms that make them more palatable to voters… (S)chool voucher programs that funnel public money to religious schools are cast as ‘school choice,’ because underwriting parochial schools with taxpayer dollars is controversial. The ‘choice’ frame has heightened public awareness of school voucher programs, and helped their advocates make significant inroads in convincing states to allow the use of public dollars for private schools.”
DIVERSION OF TAX DOLLARS — Then there is the problem of diversion of tax dollars away from the schools that serve the mass of our children. Chalkbeat Indiana summarizes data about the large school voucher program launched six years ago by Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded later when Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor: “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017… To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year. For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year… Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019 on vouchers due to higher anticipated participation.” Here is the most stunning fact: over half of the students in Indiana’s program—54.6 percent—have never attended a public school. The state has simply begun paying for students to attend private schools.
WINDFALL FOR WEALTHY INVESTORS — Federal law permits large investors to claim state tuition tax credits as charitable donations and receive a federal income tax deduction. Davis in The American Prospect explains: “Because taxpayers are also permitted to claim a federal charitable tax deduction on their donations to ‘neovoucher’ (state tuition tax credit) programs—even if they were already fully reimbursed for those gifts by their state governments—the result for some taxpayers is a tax cut as large as $1.35 for each dollar donated. Like many tax loopholes, this one is not geared toward ordinary taxpayers. A quirk in federal law limits the benefit primarily to high-income taxpayers So, in effect, a handful of states have created elaborate tax schemes that allow wealthy taxpayers to generate risk-free private returns of up to 35 percent.”
POOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT IN SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS — There are also serious questions about the quality of the private schools that are being funded by vouchers and tuition tax credits. Kevin Carey, writing in the NY Times, recently described three new studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio: “But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling…. Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning.” (This blog covered Carey’s report here.)
SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS MAY NOT PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS — In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Miner, who has covered the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee for many years, summarizes the ways that such schools may violate students’ rights: “Because they are defined as ‘private,’ voucher schools operate by separate rules, with minimal public oversight or transparency. They can sidestep basic constitutional protections such as freedom of speech. They do not have to provide the same level of second-language or special-education services. They can suspend or expel student without legal due process. They can ignore the state’s requirements for open meetings and records. They can disregard state law prohibiting discrimination against students on grounds of sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or marital or parental status.”
POOR MANAGEMENT — Questions persist about shoddy operations in voucher schools and schools operating with publicly funded tuition tax credits. In another analysis of the Milwaukee program, Erin Richards in The American Prospect notes that the state has finally instituted minimal regulations and standards, because the problems have been egregious over the Milwaukee voucher program’s 26 year existence: “(P)ressures for reform have led to more regulation of the voucher program, which has belatedly begun weeding out some of its worst actors. The private school teachers and leaders are now required to at least have bachelor’s degrees. The schools have to obtain accreditation, though lawmakers had to later tighten that language to get rid of irresponsible accreditation agencies. If the state has reason to believe a voucher school is financially unstable, it can require leaders to secure special bonds that assure the state they could pay back public funds if they go belly up.”
SHOULD PUBLIC DOLLARS VIOLATE PROTECTION OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION? — Finally. religious schools receiving public vouchers and tax credit scholarships may be violating constitutional protection of the separation of church and state.. Although in a divided 2002 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Zellman v. Simmons-Harris found vouchers to be constitutional, as long as the money is given to the parents to make a school choice and not donated directly by the state to the school, a number of states have nineteenth century Blaine Amendments in their constitutions, banning the expenditure of state dollars for religious education. Tuition tax credits have been the method by which several of these states have evaded their constitutions’ prohibition of state support for religious education. The taxpayer diverts tax dollars to a non-governmental organization, which then awards the tuition scholarship to families, who then choose a school.
Many of us, however, question whether government ought to be paying for religious education in schools our tax dollars are supporting. A case in point is the education received by Denisha Merriweather, the woman brought by President Donald Trump last week to sit with his wife in the gallery during his Congressional address. Merriweather was held up as a glowing example of a student who succeeded in school, graduated from a university, and is now in graduate school, all due to the tuition tax credit she received as a young child from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program being held up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a model for the federal program she hopes will be launched during her tenure. In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss describes the school attended by Merriweather: “With her tax credit scholarship, Merriweather attended the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning. It was established in 2001 with a vision, according to the website, that ‘was birthed from the mind of God in the heart of Dr. Jeannette C. Holmes-Vann, the Pastor and Founder of Hope Chapel Ministries, Inc.,’ which ‘included a return to a traditional educational model founded on Christian principles and values.’ It uses the A Beka curriculum, used widely by private Christian schools and some home-schoolers, according to this listing of private schools published by the Jacksonville Times -Union. A Beka teaches the Bible as literal history.”