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).


National “Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education” Campaign Re-Launches This Week

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of educators and key policy experts gathered in Washington, D.C. to re-launch a campaign for holistic education and social policy reform to surround America’s poorest children and their families with the kind of educational opportunities their middle class peers take for granted. Seizing the occasion of the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to replace No Child Left Behind, advocates for expanding opportunity in America’s public schools have relaunched the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, a campaign designed to push public policy away from blaming teachers and toward constructing a policy framework to support children and schools in poor and marginalized communities.

Broader, BOLDER’s new mission statement proclaims: “The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education is grounded in the understanding that the kinds of educational opportunities—both within and outside of schools—that help well-off children thrive are the same opportunities that would most benefit children who lack access to them… Achievement gaps in test scores are not the root problem, but important symptoms of the underlying problems facing our schools…. Since poverty manifests itself in various ways and places in children’s educational trajectories, BBA addresses them at each stage….”

In a column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Elaine Weiss, the campaign’s national coordinator, explains why the relaunch of the Broader, BOLDER Agenda is designed to coincide with the recent passage of a new federal education law: “ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) claws back some of the most problematic federal accountability requirements, and it emphasizes the need for social and emotional, as well as traditional academic, measures of success.  It also sets aside new money for investments in quality pre-kindergarten and for wraparound supports that help provide disadvantaged students equal opportunities to learn.  That said, ESSA comes nowhere near evening the education playing field…. ESSA fails to put forth a coherent strategy to address the high levels of poverty, (and) racial and socioeconomic isolation… that present major barriers to success for millions of American students and the schools serving them… With its relaunch, BBA establishes the framework for developing those policies.”

Broader, BOLDER’s new agenda folds together social and health support for families with school improvement: “As rates of child and family poverty grew during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, poverty also became more concentrated in certain cities and neighborhoods.  This exacerbated the already difficult circumstances of children of color, who have long been disproportionately clustered in our country’s least resourced… and most isolated communities.  Widespread joblessness, crime, violence, and dysfunction combine with scant public and private resources to isolate families…. Indeed, research documents the severe obstacles to school success posed by these circumstances.”  The campaign links four strategies to alleviate out-of-school barriers to success:

  • Early Childhood Experiences: “That every student arrives at kindergarten with the benefit of high-quality early learning and necessary health, wellness, and family support services from birth.
  • After-school and Summer:  “Indeed, it is particularly critical that students who are less likely to be exposed to organized sports, activities such as the fine arts, music, and trips to museums, and challenging games like chess in other contexts enjoy those opportunities as part of their schooling.”
  • Health: “Not only should we expand the presence of health clinics in schools serving high-risk student populations, but enact policies to support those programs.”
  • Nutrition :”Every child should have consistent access to nutritious food all day and all year, and the school system, with support from other agencies, should be structured to provide it without stigma or barriers to access.”

The new campaign also presents four strategies to narrow opportunity gaps within and across schools:

  • adequate school funding, equitably distributed;
  • school accountability that measures not just test scores but also school conditions such as access to quality teachers and curricula;
  • an emphasis on preparing and fostering “a strong, experienced corps of professional educators”; and
  • robust and transparent regulation of charter schools to ensure they serve all children, avoid conflicts of interest, and responsibly steward our tax dollars.

In marked contrast to the past two decades’ accountability-driven agenda, framers of the new campaign confront what research confirms are the primary barriers to school achievement.  Leadership by chairs—Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, Paul Reville and Joshua Starr—and the appointment of a diverse and broadly experienced advisory board ensure a wide audience for the new campaign’s work.