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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Presidential Candidate John Kasich: Delusional about Public Education Issues

Republicans have hardly been discussing education policy at all in this bizarre Presidential race, but last week in the Thursday night debate, Ohio’s governor, John Kasich lavished praise upon himself for what he believes are his accomplishments in reforming education. He also addressed something he clearly knows little about—the plight of Detroit’s schools.  Kudos to two reporters who jumped right in to expose the flaws in his arguments.

Kasich bragged about how school reform has led to the rebirth of Cleveland.  Many people would be surprised to view Cleveland as reborn.  It was  described in the NY Times last week by a new group of researchers to be the poorest large city in the United States. Whether one slices and dices the statistics the way these researchers do—calling Cleveland or Detroit the poorest—one thing is clear: neither Cleveland nor its school district has had a rebirth.

Plain Dealer education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell notes in his report on the Republican debate that Kasich bragged: “The African American Democrat mayor, the union, and business leaders came to see me and said, ‘Would you help us to pass legislation to really create a CEO environment so that we can take control of the schools?'” O’Donnell corrects Kasich’s memory of his own central role: “Cleveland has had a CEO—not a superintendent—as head of the district since 1998.  That’s when former mayor Mike White hired Barbara Byrd-Bennett (recently indicted in Chicago after heading the schools there) as the first CEO, following the state legislature voting in 1997 to place the district under mayoral control.  Kasich was chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee at the time.'”

O’Donnell explains that the Cleveland Teachers Union was not involved in the implementation of a “portfolio school reform” transformation plan in 2012 for the Cleveland District—a plan designed by the Boston Consulting Group and underwritten with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation. O’Donnell chides Kasich for misremembering: “While Mayor Frank Jackson, a black Democrat, and business leaders were behind creating the plan, the teachers union was not.  The union never ‘came to’ the governor seeking help, but was angry at being left out of the creation of the plan.”  When he heard Kasich’s comment in Thursday’s debate, CTU President David Quolke is reported by O’Donnell to have declared: “That’s an outright lie. That did not occur.” O’Donnell continues: “When Jackson announced his plan early in 2012, he had never consulted the union. That sparked weeks of long and tense negotiations between teachers, the mayor and city leaders about how teacher pay, duties, and layoff rules would be changed.”

As to Kasich’s debate claim that “Cleveland’s coming back. The Cleveland schools are coming back because of a major overhaul,” O’Donnell responds, “That’s still to be determined.”  The district was able to pass a school levy after the plan was introduced, but that levy must be renewed by voters next November, and the mass of Cleveland’s traditional public schools, including the city’s flagship high schools, are suffering from lack of investment.  Kasich and his all-Republican legislature have determinedly cut state funding for education during his term.

And on Friday, right after Kasich bragged about the transformation of Cleveland’s schools, O’Donnell reported: “The Cleveland Teachers Union had an overwhelming vote this week of ‘no confidence’ in school district CEO Eric Gordon and his understanding of issues facing students and teachers… The union said that of 3,153 members who voted this week, 97.3 percent voted ‘no confidence.'”  Under CEO Gordon, the district has withdrawn from ongoing contract negotiations with the Cleveland Teachers Union.

During Thursday night’s debate when he was asked about the current crisis in Detroit’s public schools, Kasich demonstrated that he has not been paying attention to what’s been happening in the state next door to Ohio. Seemingly unaware of catastrophic budget problems in a school district where teachers have been protesting rats, leaking roofs, and buckling floors and where the district’s financial crisis is so severe that it may miss a payroll in April, Kasich is described by Emma Brown of the Washington Post switching his response to what he believes are the redeeming qualities of mayoral control, a governance structure that operates in Cleveland but not in Detroit: “Leaving aside the question of whether mayoral control would really be enough to fix Detroit’s problems, there is this fact: Detroit is not under mayoral control.  The city’s schools have been under state-appointed emergency manager for years.”   Brown adds that Governor Rick Snyder’s, “state-appointed emergency manager of the (Detroit) school system was, until a few days ago Darnell Earley.  Earley previously served as the state emergency manager of Flint, Mich., from 2013-2015.  It was during that period that Flint began using the Flint River as its drinking water source, a move that led to elevated lead levels in the water and a public health crisis.”

In fact, last summer in Ohio, Governor Kasich and Beth Hansen—formerly Kasich’s gubernatorial chief-of-staff and now head of his presidential campaign—and her husband David Hansen—formerly head of school choice in the state education department until he was fired for designing a charter school rating system that favored the notorious online charters—worked together to design and fast-track a state takeover plan similar to the one that seems to be failing in nearby Michigan.  In a twenty-four hour period last June, the state takeover of the Youngstown school district and, in the future any school district with persistently low state rankings, was rushed without sufficient hearings through the Ohio legislature.

As Kasich bragged about his education policies in last Thursday’s televised debate, he demonstrated that he is not aware of problems in Michigan caused by exactly the kind of policy he has most recently been pushing through Ohio’s super-majority Republican legislature.  The Kasich brand of school reform is ideological: cut taxes and hence school funding; privatize by expanding charters; impose state takeover of public schools in the poorest cities. Kasich may like to believe his ideas will bring back Cleveland and Youngstown and Lorain, but there are a lot of people in Ohio who don’t believe his self-congratulatory myth.