Plaid Skirt Welfare Redux

Plaid Skirt Welfare. The headline on the Cleveland Scene back on November 29, 2001 memorably identifies the essential nugget of truth about vouchers. At that time, then Ohio Governor George Voinovich was going around the state promoting a Cleveland “scholarship” program with his brother Mike, who worked as the governmental affairs director for the Cleveland Catholic Diocese.  Vouchers were conceptualized as a way to save struggling diocesan schools.

The following summer, on June 27, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court made vouchers for parochial schools constitutional. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court declared that the Cleveland program could constitutionally award state funded vouchers to students in parochial schools—without violating the Constitutional First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion—because, said the Supreme Court, the vouchers were awarded to the parents who would make the school choice, not directly to the school.

Vouchers continue to operate in Cleveland and in a number of other states, though, as a form of school choice, voucher programs have not grown as quickly as the more lucrative charters—as the huge Charter Management Organizations and on-line for-profits have demonstrated. And while the number of charters has grown, their presence has made parochial schools increasingly vulnerable because charter schools do not charge tuition.  In Ohio and elsewhere the voucher program has turned out pretty much the way the Cleveland Scene‘s headline explained—a way to help parochial schools survive in a competitive school choice marketplace.

The biggest problem with vouchers for the public in the states that now have vouchers is the school funding arithmetic.  Funding for vouchers comes out of the money in the state’s budget for education, and that amount has, to my knowledge, not anywhere been expanded to cover the vouchers while keeping public education funding at an adequate level.  In Ohio at the time of the Cleveland Scene‘s coverage of the proposed vouchers, Bill Phillis who led the coalition of more than 500 public school districts that had filed a lawsuit against the state for inadequate and inequitably distributed school funding commented: “If the state wants to expand its role into private education, that’s OK, but it’s kind of an irony that Ohio is considered among the first in private school funding in the nation, and we’re considered among the worst in public school facilities.”

Fast forward to May of 2015 when, earlier this week, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo was traveling around his state with Cardinal Timothy Dolan and promoting school vouchers in a bill Cuomo plans to introduce into New York’s legislature—the Parental Choice in Education Act.  Geoff Decker explains for Chalkbeat New York: “Cuomo spent Tuesday with Cardinal Timothy Dolan advocating for tax credits that would finance full or partial tuition to nonpublic schools for students from less-affluent families.  The proposal, a version of which was cut out of an education deal decided along with the state budget in April, is the latest effort by Cuomo to promote schools that aren’t within the traditional school system and has a better chance than ever of making it into law.”  Decker continues: “In New York City, 242,000 students attend nonpublic schools, 19 percent of the student population, according to the Independent Budget Office.  But enrollment in Catholic schools has been trending downward for years.”

Vouchers?  Tuition tax credits?  They are the very same thing.

Decker explains how Cuomo’s proposal would work: “The bill… would establish tax credits that would finance four statewide education programs.  Individuals or corporations who donate to the program would be able to subtract up to 75 percent of their contribution from what they owe the state in taxes. Up to $150 million in tax credits would be available in the first year.” While some of the money would support programs in public schools like after school and arts programs and pay for reimbursements to teachers in district and charter schools for supplies, “most of the available money—$137 million—would go toward the other two programs, one of which would offer scholarships for ‘low-income and other students,’ and the other offering $500 tuition checks for children from families earning less than $60,000. That, Cuomo and Dolan said, would help revitalize the state’s religious schools.”  In other words, people and corporations donating to the program would be able to subtract three-fourths of their gift from the amount of taxes they owe, and the money would be used primarily for vouchers for lower and middle income children to attend parochial schools, whose tuition is low enough to be offset by the amount of the voucher.

Billy Easton, Executive Director of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, points out: “The education tax credit is outrageous.  Everyday taxpayers will be subsidizing donations to private schools by millionaires. These are our public tax dollars and they should be going to our public schools, not sheltering millionaires from taxes.”

New York has among the most inequitable school funding among all the states. In a March 2015 report, New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute explained that New York is neither adequately funding its public schools nor distributing state funding equitably to support sufficiently the poorest school districts unable to raise enough local taxes: “In 2006, more than a decade after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit was first filed on behalf of students in New York City, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state was failing to provide students with the classroom resources necessary to receive ‘the sound basic education’ that the state constitution guarantees.  The state legislature adopted the current Foundation to settle that lawsuit… However, years of austerity budgets have undermined the promise of the CFE settlement legislation—funding for school districts is just about where it was in fiscal year 2006-2007, and far behind where it was supposed to be in FY 2015-2016.  Total Foundation Aid is more than $5.7 billion below where it would have been if it had been fully funded at levels specified after the enactment of the CFE settlement legislation… The state should use the Foundation Aid formula to distribute increased school aid in order to direct more assistance to the districts with the highest needs.”

If New York’s public schools remain desperately in need of more funding, why is Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, proposing a new program to siphon needed public funds away from the public schools?  Clearly he has decided to bolster his own support among families who use parochial schools and from the rich donors who will qualify for the tax breaks they will receive when they donate to the tax credit program.  During his bid for re-election last fall, Governor Cuomo began adopting the language of the far-right: “Our education system is a public monopoly where the paradigm is the more money you spend, the better you will do.  You want more education for the student? Fund the bureaucracy with more money. That’s how we’ve been operating for years.” It is known that he is highly beholden to a group of New York hedge fund managers who have contributed generously to his political campaigns. Cuomo also recently forced through the legislature a bill making students’ standardized test scores count for 50 percent of each teacher’s evaluation, a bill that has been widely viewed as a frontal attack on public school teachers.

What does it mean that New York’s governor, a Democrat, has turned against public education and public school teachers?  The new proposal for vouchers is yet another symptom that Cuomo is way out of touch with public opinion across America.  At least I hope so.