How Can Schools Be Voucherized? Let Us Count the Ways… and the Consequences

School privatization via vouchers has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. Private school vouchers are also a favorite cause of Vice President Mike Pence and the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Most of us are not particularly familiar with vouchers in general because they have until now been a project of state governments. We are likely to know about what’s happening in our own state, but perhaps be unaware about trends across the states. Did you know, for example, that school vouchers are called by a number of names?

5 Names Politicians Use to Sell Private-School Voucher Schemes to Parents is a short resource that clarifies how all these programs work: “(V)ouchers divert taxpayer dollars away from public schools—starving them of the critical funding needed for students to thrive—only to use these funds to subsidize private and/or religious schools.  However, voucher proponents, like (Betsy) DeVos and politicians found in your state almost never call them vouchers. Instead, they attempt to mislead parents, taxpayers, and voters by re-branding these plots to drain and defund public education with some pleasant-sounding, flowery name plucked from the school-choice lexicon—Opportunity Scholarships—Parental Choice Scholarships—Tuition Tax Credits—Charitable Tax Credits—Education Savings Accounts.

NEA explains that Opportunity and Parental Choice Scholarships give parents public money to use for tuition (and sometimes transportation, fees, and equipment) at private and parochial schools.  Because these vouchers are insufficient to pay for tuition at a great many traditional private schools which charge as much as private colleges, vouchers are frequently used by parents of students at religious schools.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the only federally funded voucher scholarship program is the one in the District of Columbia. Congress has never been able to muster the support to enact vouchers federally—only in Washington, D.C. where, perhaps not coincidentally, the residents lack a voting Congressional representative. Vouchers, which began in Milwaukee back in 1989, have grown steadily as statehouses have tipped toward domination by the far right. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have plain old voucher (scholarship) programs in which students are given a publicly funded coupon to cover tuition at a private or parochial school: Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin, along with Maine and Vermont which have both had longstanding tax scholarship programs for children in isolated rural areas lacking public school districts.

Tuition Tax Credits are also a kind of vouchers. Here is how David Berliner and Gene Glass define tuition tax credits in their book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: “There are tax credits and then there are tax deductions. They are very different things. Suppose you and your spouse have an income of $100,000…. And suppose that the federal income taxes you owe… amount to about $25,000 a year. If you take a tax deduction for your contribution of $1,000 to the Red Cross, that will reduce your tax indebtedness by about $250. Not so with tax credits… If you and your spouse live in a state with a state income tax (and a tuition tax credit program)… then you can direct $1,000, say, of your state income tax to the My-Pet-Project fund, and your state income tax indebtedness will be reduced by the full $1,000.” (p. 188) For parents in states with tuition tax credits, the pet project is the education of their own children, but some states also have broader Charitable Tax Credits for education—tuition tax credit programs that allow individuals and corporations to contribute to state school tuition organizations that then make scholarship grants to students to pay for their tuition at private schools.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as of December 2016, 17 states offered different types of tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia.

The National Education Association defines another—the newest—kind of vouchers: Education Savings Accounts: “Education Savings Accounts (ESA) are the latest trend in publicly subsidized private school education… (T)he common factor is that these programs pay parents all or a large portion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children in exchange for an agreement to forego their right to a public education. Funds deposited into such accounts may be used for any number of expenses, including private school tuition, fees, textbooks; tutoring and test prep; homeschooling curriculum and supplemental materials; special instruction and therapeutic services; transportation; and management fees. These programs also permit parents to roll over unused funds for use in subsequent years and to invest a portion of the funds into college savings plans.” In Education Savings Account voucher plans, the state itself deposits funds in parents’ accounts, and the parents can shop around for particular services, perhaps split among a number of vendors.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as December 2016, only 5 states had such programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, though Nevada’s program is on hold because the state supreme court found its funding system unconstitutional.

Vouchers of all forms have arrived in the 50 state capitols in the form of bills cooked up elsewhere and then introduced by sympathetic legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a membership organization, pairs member state legislators with corporate lobbyist members and with members who represent special interests—in the case of vouchers, the ideologues from the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization), and the Friedman Foundation, now called EdChoice—to create model laws that can then be handed to member state legislators to be introduced in any state. ALEC is often dubbed a bill mill.  ALEC’s model bills for various kinds of vouchers include a Special Needs Scholarship Program Act, The Foster Child Scholarship Program Act, Opportunity Scholarships, the Smart Start Scholarship Program, the Education Savings Account Act, and the Great Schools Tax Credit Act.

Here is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, in a recent column commenting on what vouchers do to public school funding. This time the example is Mike Pence’s home state, Indiana: “Vouchers drain state tax dollars, creating deficits, or the need for tax increases. When Indiana started its voucher program, it claimed it would save taxpayers money. Not only did that not happen, the state’s education budget is now in deficit, and the millions shelled out for vouchers grows each year. Last year, vouchers cost the taxpayers of Indiana $131.5 million as caps and income levels were raised. Indiana now gives vouchers to families with incomes as high as $90,000 and to students who never attended a public school.” Burris adds that while the program was passed, “promising that it would help poor and lower-middle class families find schools they like for their children… as it turned out, five years after it began, more than half of the state’s voucher recipients have never attended Indiana public schools and many vouchers are going to wealthier families, those earning up to $90,000 for a household of four.”

Last week, writing for the Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee journalist, Barbara Miner shared her insights after observing the Milwaukee voucher program since its beginning: “For more than a quarter-century, I have reported on the voucher program in Milwaukee: the country’s first contemporary voucher initiative and a model for other cities and state programs, from Cleveland to New Orleans, Florida to Indiana.  Milwaukee’s program began in 1990, when the state Legislature passed a bill allowing 300 students in seven nonsectarian private schools to receive taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers. It was billed as a small, low-cost experiment to help poor black children, and had a five-year sunset clause. That was the bait. The first ‘switch’ came a few weeks later, when the Republican governor eliminated the sunset clause. Ever since, vouchers have been a divisive yet permanent fixture in Wisconsin.” “Since 1990, roughly $2 billion in public money has been funneled into private and religious schools in Wisconsin, and the payments keep escalating.” “Today, some 33,000 students in 212 schools receive publicly funded vouchers, not just in Milwaukee but throughout Wisconsin. If it were its own school district, the voucher program would be the state’s second largest. The overwhelming majority of the schools are religious.”

A serious problem, reports Miner, is that voucher schools are not required to protect the civil rights of their students, including the rights guaranteed by federal law in all public schools: “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 students 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.”

Miner warns, “Wisconsin has sunk so deep into this unaccountable world that our voucher program not only turns a blind eye toward discrimination in voucher schools, it forces the public to pay for such discrimination… Privatizing an essential public function and forcing the public to pay for it, even while removing it from meaningful public oversight, weakens our democracy.”

Southern Education Foundation Traces Tax Funded Segregation via Vouchers, Tax Credits

While schools remain highly segregated by race across the United States, the de jure kind of segregation in which Southern states had explicit laws to separate white from African American children was eradicated during two decades’ of civil rights struggles that followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  As the Brown precedent was used to test and overturn segregation statutes across the South, one of the responses was to offer various tax credits to families whose children moved to the private, white segregation academies.  In a major report released at the end of March, Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding of Private Schools, the Southern Education Foundation traces that history as a backdrop for an up-to-date investigation of the role of private schools today as segregationist escapes for white children and the implications of the expansion of tax credits and vouchers to support private schools that virtually exclude African American, Hispanic and American Indian children.

Here is a bit of the history recounted in the report: “From 1954 to 1964, Southern state legislatures enacted as many as 450 laws and resolutions attempting to block, postpone, limit, or evade the desegregation of public schools.  A large number of these acts were aimed at re-directing public resources, including those in the public school system, to benefit private schools.”  But such statutes were eventually overturned by the early 1970s: “Each of these enactments supporting private schools, even indirect efforts like tax credits shrouded in non-racial language were invalidated by federal courts or abandoned by Southern states that faced likely court challenges because the bills were seen as indirect, covert efforts to evade or disrupt public school desegregation….”

Today, according to this report, beginning in the 1990s, nineteen states have once again passed vouchers or tuition tax credits to pay students’ tuition at private schools including nine states across the South: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia: “Most legislation adopted and considered to fund private schools in the Southern states in recent years has been introduced and supported with the stated purpose of improving educational opportunities and success for low income students, many of whom are students of color, especially African American and Hispanic students.”  The report notes that most of these states “do not collect or publicly provide reliable data that includes reporting of the race and ethnicity of students who attend private schools with public funding.  For this reason, there is no verifiable means at this time to determine accurately the demographic characteristics of private school students whose attendance has been subsidized by state funds….”

The Southern Education Foundation therefore considers another question as a proxy for the unavailable documentation that would identify the number of children of color receiving vouchers and tax credits: “(W)hat is the role of private schools in comparison to public schools, in educating students of color in the South and the nation?” After all: “Unlike public schools… private schools… are often entirely free to decide which children to admit as students, so long as the schools adopt a non-discriminatory policy and publicly declare that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.  Therefore, an analysis of enrollment patterns among white students in private schools throughout the 50 states can advance an understanding of the choices that private schools have made, with and without public funding, in selecting students to admit.”

What are the report’s findings?

  • Across the South, from 1998 to 2012, the percentage of white private school students exceeded the number of total white students in the region by 20 percentage points, twice the margin in the rest of the nation.
  • Across the U.S., from 1998 to 2012, the number of all students enrolled in private schools declined slightly for both white and students of color.
  • A third measure is what the report calls “virtual segregation” of white students—white students comprising 90 to 100 percent of a school’s enrollment.  “In 2012, white students were far more likely to be educated in virtual segregation in private schools than in public schools. “Forty-three percent of the nation’s private school (white) students attended virtually all-white schools in contrast to 26.9 percent of public school students.”  In South Carolina, 63 percent of white students in private schools were being educated in extremely segregated settings compared to 5 percent of the state’s public school students. The difference in Mississippi is 56 percent segregation of white students in private schools vs. 15 percent in the public schools.
  • The report adds another category: virtual exclusion—the number of white students attending private schools with 10 percent or less students of color. “Nearly two-thirds of white students attending private schools across the 50 states were in schools that virtually excluded African American, Hispanic, and Native American students.”  Again South Carolina led the states with 84 percent of white students in South Carolina’s private schools attending schools that exclude children of color.  Delaware came in second with 72 percent of white private school students attending schools with a virtual absence of racial-ethnic minorities.  “Seven of the ten states with the largest measures of racial exclusion in private schools were in the South… The percentage of white students in private schools in the 15-state South exceeded the percentage in the public schools by 37 percentage points.”

The report’s conclusion: “Today… private schools in nine states of the South, and eight other states including Kansas and Arizona in the rest of the nation have begun to receive special public funding through vouchers and/or state tax credits.  As a result, private schools receiving special public funds are no longer entirely private, no longer free of special government support.  With the special public funding of vouchers and tax credits, private schools should have a higher pubic duty to observe higher public standards—higher standards of non-discrimination—than before.  In other words, public funding of private schools, directly or indirectly, should… mean that token desegregation and ‘schools for whites’ among the private schools in the South and other sections of the nation are no longer acceptable as a matter of law or practice… The predominance of virtual segregation and virtual exclusion, which this study documents in private schools in the South and beyond, is clear and convincing evidence that private schools are failing to achieve a practice that meets a reasonable public standard for non-discrimination.”

Vouchers Across the States… and Proposed for New York

Last week when I learned that New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has been going around that supposedly progressive state in the Northeast promoting a state Parental Choice in Education Act—a kind of school vouchers, I wondered if maybe we’ve really lost the battle against the privatization of public education, one of our society’s great achievements.  Here is this blog’s post last week on Governor Cuomo’s new proposal for tuition tax credits in New York state.

Vouchers and tuition tax credits both award public dollars as scholarships to students to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. Vouchers give away tax dollars directly as scholarships.  Tuition tax credits give big tax breaks to those who contribute to funds for creating the scholarships.  The state education budget—on which public school districts depend—ends up much smaller in both instances.

Here is the Albany Times Union editorial board’s commentary on Governor Cuomo’s proposed tuition tax credits: “A governor who perennially complains about schools’ insatiable appetite for money has suddenly found millions of dollars to burn through for his Parental Choice in Education Act.  It’s a public-private partnership of the worst sort—the public pays the tab, private schools and wealthy donors reap the benefits.  Perhaps Mr. Cuomo sees this as another way to break what he calls the ‘public education monopoly’—as if public schools were not something in which we all have a stake.  But Mr. Cuomo seems to have conflated public education with his animosity for teachers’ unions.”

How does the proposal work? Private donors could “take a tax credit of 75 percent of their donations to nonprofit education foundations, up to $1 million.  Senate and Assembly versions of the bill would allow up to 90 percent.  That’s money shaved off a person’s or a corporation’s tax bill—and they could roll it from year to year if the credit exceeded their tax liability.”

Vouchers have always been popular on the far right. When I read about Cuomo’s new proposal, I wondered if they are trending up across the states.  But here is what I discovered.  Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have programs they identify as vouchers: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  Fifteen states have enacted tuition tax credits: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Virginia.  Sixteen of these states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin—are one-party states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors.  Pennsylvania, an industrial state in the Northeast, was a Republican one-party state until former Governor Tom Corbett was voted out of office last November in large part due policies that have punished the public schools in cities like Philadelphia, Reading, and Allentown. Clearly a number of states have undertaken such school privatization plans, but expansion of vouchers has not taken off.

New York’s Alliance for Quality Education reports that earlier this week three dozen organizations banded together in New York to “decry the tax break as one that siphons taxpayer money from public schools and funnels it into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires.” The organizations that have joined in coalition represent the 99 Percent—constituents whose members depend on strong public schools for their children and the strength of their communities. It is heartening to see such a broad based coalition— including civic, religious, education, and labor organizations—gathering to defend public education: A. Philip Randolph Institute, AFSCME, Advocates for Children of New York, Alliance for Quality Education, Balcony, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Citizen Action of New York, Citizen Budget Commission, CSEA, DC 37-AFSCME, Interfaith Impact of New York State, La Fuente, League of Women Voters of New York State, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Make the Road New York, NAACP-New York State Chapter, New York City Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York State AFL-CIO, New York State Association of School Business Officials, New York State Federation of School Administrators, New York State Parent Teacher Association, New York State School Boards Association, New York State United Teachers, New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, Public Employees Federation, Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, Rochester-Finger Lakes Pride @ Work , Rural Schools Association of New York State, School Administrators Association of New York State, Strong Economy for All, The Black Institute, The Council of School Superintendents, United Federation of Teachers, and Working Families Party.

The Albany Times Union editorial board charges Cuomo with refusing fully to fund the Campaign for Fiscal Equity remedy the state agreed to back in 2006: “What’s perhaps most troubling here is how Mr. Cuomo has railed about the need to put public education on a crash diet, even as advocates accuse him of underfunding needy schools in cities and less affluent rural areas.  Now, suddenly, a state that supposedly could not afford to keep throwing money at public schools has $50 million to $150 million a year for private and parochial schools?”

David Little, Executive Director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State, is quoted in the Alliance for Quality Education’s press release announcing the anti-tax credit coalition: “For New York State to consider diverting available funds away from public education while it has a law that unconstitutionally withholds funds from school districts is unconscionable.  If the state cannot afford its public educational system, it certainly can’t afford a second one.”

Short, Pithy Video Graphically Critiques Vouchers and Tuition Tax Credits

We worry more about the widespread scandals in charter schools these days when we talk about privatization of public education, but voucher programs, begun in a big way in Milwaukee 25 years ago, have been steadily increasing in number across the states. In a  short, informational video, the Southern Education Foundation explains how private school vouchers and closely related tuition tax credits are robbing public schools across the states of the funds public schools need to serve all children.

I urge you to watch the video and send it to others. Watching it takes only a couple of minutes.

The graphic presentation shows where vouchers and tuition tax credits are popping up in state legislatures, summarizes the ways vouchers rob needed public funds, and defines lesser-known tuition tax credits as vouchers in disguise.

The Southern Education Foundation’s video emphasizes the growth of vouchers and tuition tax credits across the South, but they are popping up all across the United States.  The NY Times reports that Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo included tuition tax credits in his state budget proposal, although the idea appears to have been dropped (for now) because Cuomo was unable to garner adequate support.  In Pennsylvania, Bobby Kerik, reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that there is currently bi-partisan support in both houses of the legislature for expanding two already-existing tax credit programs.  The first gives businesses “a tax credit—a reduction in actual taxes paid—if they designate money to any of 1,270 approved organizations with an educational component.” The second, the Pennsylvania Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program, gives tax breaks to businesses  for contributing money for “tuition assistance to students residing within the boundaries of a low-achieving school who wish to attend another school.”  The bill currently being discussed in the Pennsylvania legislature  would expand “the combined budget for the two programs from $150 million in tax credits annually to $250 million annually.”

Vouchers and tuition tax credits fund private and parochial schools while undermining the public system, which is more likely to distribute opportunity for all children, not just for some.  Although it is often assumed that private schools are accountable to the market, vouchers and tax credits support schools that may be neither transparent nor accountable. In a public system it is possible to pass laws to protect the needs of all groups of children including students learning English and children with disabilities and to protect children’s rights.

The political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains the difference theoretically: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right.  Private choices rest on individual power…. Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.  Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

Watch this new little video.

Vouchers and Tax Credits Threaten Religious Liberty and Sense of a Shared Public Space

The idea of religious liberty in American public education is basic.  This is the promise that the U.S. Constitution protects children from the teaching of somebody else’s religious views at public expense in their schools.  The First Amendment of the Constitution protects religion in two ways: government may not impose religion (public schools may not teach religious doctrine) and government must protect the free exercise of religion.

The idea of religious freedom is being perverted in myriad ways by those who perpetually try to figure out how public schools or publicly funded schools can teach religion.  Yesterday, Stephanie Simon published a fascinating and detailed article at Politico about the many ways school vouchers and closely related tuition tax credits are being used by those who want to promote their religion.

Simon summarizes the thinking of Neal McCluskey, a libertarian analyst from the Cato Institute, for example, who says that public funds ought to be allowed to go to schools that promote all kinds of religious values.  Then parents should be free to choose for their children the schools that reflect their own beliefs.  “If you want very rigorous evolution instruction, you should be able to choose that.  But you have to let other people choose something else.”  McCluskey’s thinking gets us to a very peculiar definition of scientific thinking: you should be able to choose for your child what kind of science you want your child to believe.  Most scientists, however,  would define scientific thinking as a matter of empiricism not a matter of belief.

According to Simon, only 250,000 students use vouchers and tuition tax credit scholarships, a tiny percentage of the more than 50 million children in public schools in the United States, but the number has grown 30 percent since 2010.  Not-for-profit 501(c)(4) organizations actively pushing vouchers are the American Federation for Children, with leadership from the far-right Betsy DeVos, and Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group.  Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships are constitutional under the U.S. Constitution under the 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which the Supreme Court said vouchers can subsidize religious education if the state funds flow to the parents, not directly to the school, and if the parents have a choice about where to use the voucher.  Simon describes voucher programs in place in a growing number of states whose state constitutions do not prohibit them.

During his term as General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. John Thomas authored a profound pastoral letter that endorsed independent scientific inquiry: “Through the scientific advances of our time, we are seeing nature with new eyes, and what we see fills us with wonder and praise. Stunning images of deep space are like new windows on creation. Microscopic details of living cells show us the unexpected intricacies of our biology. Mathematical equations unravel the secrets of  the first seconds following the birth of the universe. Through these gifts of science, we look across ever-expanding vistas of cosmic beauty, almost to the beginning of time itself. What we see evokes wonder and humility, and we hear within ourselves a new voice arising and singing an anthem of praise that reverberates through the whole creation.”  Rev. Thomas understands that children ought to learn science including the theory of evolution, not religious stories of creation, in their public school science classes.

Just last week in a blog post at Chicago Theological Seminary where Rev. Thomas now teaches, he declares his support for public funding of public schools and  raises an additional set of concerns about tax credits.  These diversions of tax money to private entities are,  “one more part of the relentless chipping away at the public in our public school system.”  “A century ago the Progressive era ended the tyranny of business tycoons who controlled utilities, railroads, state houses, banking, city halls, and the wages and working conditions of millions, all without the inconvenience of public oversight. Today a new elite is returning us to a bygone era many of us thought we’d left in the 19th century.  The chipping away of the public is well underway.”

As a religious leader who supports each person’s freedom of religious belief, Thomas describes the importance of scientific research.  He also argues that tax dollars be directed to support a vibrant public space which all citizens, whatever their faith, are obligated to support, and from which all citizens, whatever their religion, can benefit.  Taxes, according to Rev. Thomas, should not siphoned off for private or religious purposes.  About a recent proposal for tax credits Thomas writes: “… it represents one more part of the relentless chipping away at the public in our public school system. By encouraging voluntary private donations by corporations and individuals directly to schools of their choice – public and private – we further shift control of the education of our children away from the public to the private sector. The tax credits further reduce state revenue, squeezing already inadequate public funding of our most struggling school systems. What happened to the notion that a fair tax system should support public responsibilities?”