Tuition Tax Credits—One Type of School Vouchers—Press Coverage and NPE’s Excellent Toolkit

Washington Post reporter Emma Brown describes Florida’s tuition tax credit program, what Brown and many others believe is the model Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration will try to use for a national program to privatize public education.

Brown describes the essential elements of this program: “Florida’s program, created in 2001 with the full-throated support of then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), was one of the first to harness corporate tax credits to help low-income families pay school tuition.  Sixteen other states have enacted variations on the idea. Using tax credits to fund the scholarships, instead of direct payments from public treasuries, enabled lawmakers to work around state bans on use of public funds to support religious institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tax-credit programs are constitutional. Taking the idea to the federal level is one of the clearest ways Trump could make good on his promise to supercharge private-school choice across the country. If embedded in a larger tax bill that the GOP-held Congress passes via the budget reconciliation process, it would be protected from a Senate filibuster and therefore would require only 51 votes instead of the 60 usually required to pass legislation… In Florida’s tax-credit program, businesses receive a dollar-for-dollar credit when they donate to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations. A corporation that owes $50,000 in Florida taxes, for example, could donate $50,000 and pay nothing to the state. The nonprofit then dispenses money to students for tuition at participating private schools…. Private schools do not need to be accredited to participate.” (According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Florida has capped the amount of tax dollars that can be diverted:  “A corporation can apply for a credit worth up to 75 percent of its total income tax liability. As a whole, the state awards a maximum of $140 million (FY 2011) in scholarship tax credits.”)

Brown adds: “But there is scant evidence that these students fare better academically than their peers in public schools. And there is a perennial debate about whether the state should support private schools that are mostly religious, do not require teachers to hold credentials and are not required to meet minimal performance standards.”

The Network for Public Education’s  fine new toolkit, School Privatization Explained, contains two informative and very readable fact sheets about tuition tax credits. I urge you to read and find a way to use and distribute the information in NPE’s new toolkit. These basic resources help sort out the complex issues about various kinds of school vouchers and their constitutionality.

The fact sheet, Do Education Tax Credit Scholarships Provide Opportunity?, busts some of the myths being promoted by advocates of school privatization: “Education tax credit programs don’t enable families to choose better schools… The amounts of money paid out to families from these programs rarely cover the full cost of private school tuition. Poor families can’t make up the difference, especially to high quality private schools, so substandard privates are being subsidized… Both private and religion-based schools that can receive tax credit money often discriminate on the basis of religion, gender preference, disciplinary history or ability level.  Education tax credit programs don’t provide escape routes from ‘failing’ public schools. Students who use the programs often transfer out of better performing schools, and those students don’t perform any better academically than how they performed before their transfer.”

In this fact sheet, NPE explores examples of the tax credit programs in a number of states—Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Florida—and then declares: “Many parents receiving tax credit scholarships can already afford private school and should pay their own way. Private schools on average do not perform better academically than public schools… Redirecting taxpayer money from public education to private schools does little to increase education opportunities, especially for low income families.”

The second of NPE’s fact sheets about tuition tax credits addresses this question: Are Tax Credit Scholarships a Voucher by a Different Name?  According to NPE the best way to think about tax credit vouchers is as a money-laundering scheme to get around the state Blaine Amendments (see here) that prohibit the direct expenditure of tax dollars for sectarian education: “Education tax credit scholarship programs are a money laundering scheme. Whereas vouchers distribute public education funds directly to parents, education tax credit programs use a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO)—that is set up as a nonprofit by the state or by financial groups connected to the private school industry… The money from the STO is distributed to selected parents to use for private school tuition….”

Tax credit programs are sometimes promoted as a money-saving enterprise.  NPE responds: “Education tax credit scholarship programs don’t save money. They drain financial resources from public schools while providing tax benefits to wealthy businesses and individuals… Education tax credit scholarship programs are a give-away to the rich. High-income taxpayers are the main beneficiaries of the programs. They not only get their donations back as a tax credit; they also can take a federal charitable tax deduction on top of that.” Again, the fact sheet presents examples from a number of states, this time Georgia, Arizona, and Alabama.

Here in a recent USA Today commentary is Joshua Starr, former superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and now CEO of PDK International, a professional society for educators: “Betsy DeVos, our new Secretary of Education, claims that she wants the federal government to become more responsive to the will of the American People… Fair enough. So when it comes to pubic education, what do the American people want?  Since 1969, PDK International has conducted an annual poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools… Since 1993, we have asked Americans 20 times whether they support allowing parents to choose a private school at public expense, and every time a majority has said ‘No.’ … (O)ur data have shown consistently over many years that a majority of Americans favor spending more money on the public schools, especially on their local schools (which people tend to rate much more highly than the public schools in general.).  A majority of people even say that they would be willing to pay higher taxes as long as the money goes directly to education.”

Here is Starr’s judgement on Betsy DeVos: “Secretary DeVos may have her reasons for wanting to… ramp up funding for her preferred forms of school choice. But let’s be honest: Those reasons are grounded in ideology, not in practical experience (she has none) or evidence (she cannot cite any).

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Why People Who Know REALLY Oppose Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

You no doubt know that Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Education Secretary, has devoted her fortune and her advocacy to promoting school privatization through expansion of vouchers and unregulated charters. DeVos believes that if parents are given a choice and enough money to choose, they’ll improve the product by voting with their feet. Her theory, if not the reality, is that bad schools will then close and children will be better served. As the Senate considers her confirmation, people who know a lot about public education are warning Senators to oppose her.  Here are highlights of four articles—all by experts—all from different points of view.  Please do follow the links and read the articles themselves.  They are all short.

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Brett McNeil, whose The High School Where Our Kids Belong appeared on Monday in the Chicago Sun-Times, describes himself as someone who shifted careers, seeking teaching mid-career, working in a Chicago public high school and a Chicago charter high school. Although he has now left teaching for work in journalism, he brings the seldom-heard perspective of a teacher from inside two contrasting high schools, and he explains: “(W)ith charter school champion Betsy DeVos set to preside over federal education policy, I thought I might highlight some key differences between the public and charter school models.”  He describes the two schools in which he taught: “Both schools have student populations that are predominantly minority—one African American, the other Latino. Both schools also have a large number of students receiving free or reduced lunches….”  McNeil contrasts the facilities, programs, and extras at the two schools. The public school has a library with librarians, a large gym and gym classes and a performing arts center, while the charter lacks a library, librarians, gym classes and performing arts. The public high school offers a range of enrichments—a video production lab; a 25-yard swimming pool and swim team; a band room, band classes and marching band; art classes; drama classes and a drama club; National Honors Society; an International Baccalaureate curriculum; an auto shop; a student council; an improv club; and a literary journal.  He describes the charter as occupying a “decommissioned” elementary school, and he explains that the facility still feels like a grade school.

McNeil’ conclusion captures a reality that would matter to a great many adolescents and their parents: “The public school, while not a feeder to the Ivy Leagues, looks and feels a lot more like what I suspect readers imagine when they read the words ‘high school.’ It’s a comprehensive institution, offers a breath of classes and activities to a wide range of students with varying abilities and interests, and it functions as a neighborhood hub. Parents and siblings attend plays, concerts, sporting events, the usual.”

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Sarah Carr is a journalist, editor of the Teacher Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and the author of Hope Against Hope, a book about the transformation of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. Even Carr, who describes herself as a supporter of school choice, worries about DeVos based on Carr’s experience covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 2002-2007.  In  her recent piece at Slate, Betsy DeVos’ Big Education Idea Doesn’t Work, Carr explains that part of her assignment was reporting on the evolution of the nation’s first school voucher program in Milwaukee: “Milwaukee’s program historically targeted low-income families, allowing them to use state-funded tuition vouchers to send their children to private schools and, as of 1998 religious ones. When I started reporting in Milwaukee, potential voucher school operators basically needed only a building occupancy permit—and a group of willing families with kids to open a school and rake in hundreds of thousands of public dollars. Not surprisingly, the schools’ quality ran the gamut: Some were run by accomplished, talented, and dedicated educators; others by criminals with no background in education.”  Carr explains that many parents continued to choose schools with poor academic records.

Carr declares: “DeVos is sounding an old tune in her insistence on the power of parental choice as a lever to improve education in America.”  Wisconsin has, “over the past 10 years…  started to require much more of voucher school operators…. Now schools in Milwaukee must survive an accreditation process, meet stricter hiring and financial standards, and administer the same state standardized tests as public schools.” She concludes: “The Milwaukee story, combined with substantial research showing that charter schools tend to perform better in states with rigorous vetting of charter operators, helped usher in a new phase of ‘school choice’ in many communities: one in which government agencies or designees play a more aggressive role in determining what constitutes quality education—and what does not.”

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Diane Ravitch and John Jackson both bring reservations about the nomination of Betsy Devos based on their experience working in the U.S. Department of Education.

Diane Ravitch is an academic historian of education, and someone who, before a radical transformation based on the evidence of the failure of No Child Left Behind, worked as an Assistant Secretary of Education under Secretary Lamar Alexander in the George H.W. Bush administration. (In her 2010 book, Ravitch formally rejected her previous support for what is now called “corporate school reform.”) This week Ravitch addressed a public letter to now Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican, a promoter of school privatization, and currently the chair of the Senate HELP Committee, which is considering the DeVos nomination.

In her Open Letter to Senator Lamar Alexander about Betsy DeVos, Ravitch addresses Senator Alexander as an old friend.  She worries about what she heard from Betsy DeVos in the HELP Committee’s confirmation hearing: “When asked direct questions about important federal issues… (DeVos) was noncommittal or evasive or displayed her ignorance. She thinks that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be left up to the states to decide whether or not to comply; she does not know it is a federal law and is not optional… She was unfamiliar with the terminology of education issues… I understand that she doesn’t like public schools and much prefers religious schools and privately managed charter schools, including those that operate for-profit… She would be the first Secretary of Education in our history to be hostile to public education. I have written extensively about the history of public education and how important it is to our democracy.  It seems strange to return to the early 19th century, when children attended religious schools, charity schools, charter schools, were home-schooled, or had no education at all.  This is not ‘reform.’  This is backsliding.  This is wiping out nearly two centuries of hard-won progress toward public schools that enroll boys and girls, children of all races and cultures, children with disabilities, and children who are learning English.  We have been struggling to attain equality of educational opportunity; we are still far from it.  School choice promotes segregation and would take us further away from our national goal.”

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Dr. John H. Jackson, President and C.E.O. of the Schott Foundation for Public Education served as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights during the Clinton administration.  Jackson and the Schott Foundation for Public Education have been leaders in promoting justice in the public schools by advocating for closing the resource opportunity gaps that drive the racial and economic achievement gaps in test scores.  In Our Next Secretary of Education Should Know Education, Jackson affirms the right of “a freely elected president… (to) appoint, with the advice and consent of the Senate” cabinet officials.  However, he observes that in her Senate confirmation hearing, Betsy DeVos demonstrated that she, “lacks even the most basic knowledge and capabilities required for the responsibility of U.S. Secretary of Education… In fact, the hearing laid bare astonishing deficits in DeVos’s understanding of the obligations and authority of the Department of Education… Her inability to assemble the team and dedicate the time necessary to adequately prepare for one of the most predictable parts of the process and the job—the Senate Confirmation Hearing—should be alarming and offensive to Senate members on both sides of the aisle.”

Jackson, leader of a foundation, criticizes DeVos as a philanthropist: “DeVos is a well-heeled philanthropist who has championed the expansion of charter schools, school vouchers, and tuition tax credit programs… Yet possessing millions of dollars does not automatically make a philanthropist — or a philanthropic organization — more prepared or more credible.  As a funder dedicated to ensuring that all students in our public education system have a fair and substantive opportunity to learn, the Schott Foundation’s thought leadership has been sharpened through 25 years of experience working with and learning from parents, students, and educators in local communities, districts and public schools across the nation.  It’s clear that Mrs. DeVos has little in the way of federal education policy experience as she was rarely able to provide substantive answers to legitimate questions about her ideas and plans.  DeVos currently has no experience serving in public schools as an educator, administrator, board member or superintendent.  She has no earned degree in education.  She was neither a student of a public school nor the parent of one.  Furthermore, the results of her work championing school choice programs and privatization efforts in her home state of Michigan have been dismal.”

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While on Monday, the Democratic Senators in the HELP Committee requested an additional opportunity to question Ms. DeVos about her qualifications and her potential conflicts of interest, the Committee’s chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, has denied the request.  The committee members will vote on the DeVos nomination next Tuesday, January 31 at 10 AM. After the committee vote, the nomination will very likely move to the Senate floor.  Please continue to call your U.S. Senators to oppose the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the next Education Secretary.