School Privatization in the Age of Betsy DeVos: Where Are We in Mid-May?

In a new analysis at Jacobin Magazine, Jennifer Berkshire reports that Betsy DeVos addressed a convention of tech investors and edupreneurs by pushing vouchers as the best form of creative disruption: “Apple, Uber, and Airbnb have worked their disruptive magic on one industry after another. Why aren’t our public schools being similarly disrupted?… But if the nation’s schools are the equivalent of a kitchen-wall rotary phone or the cab that never comes, DeVos was eager to let the audience know that a quick fix is at hand: school choice. The way to disrupt our educational malaise once and for all is to shift the way we think about education to focus ‘on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.’  Even the best schools won’t be the right ‘fit’ for all kids, DeVos noted. ‘The simple fact is that if a school is not meeting a child’s unique needs, then that school is failing that child.'”

DeVos’s attempt at sleek packaging of her long and old-fashioned support for the vouchers that have kept religious schools afloat and her endorsements of parents’ right to homeschool their children amuses me. DeVos’s one big idea—giving parents a choice—is definitely conservative, but it’s hard to call vouchers particularly creative or disruptive.  They have been around for quite a while now.

Here in Ohio, where I live, we’ve had private school vouchers for two decades. Tax dollars certainly flow out of the budgets of the state as well as the budgets of the local public school districts to religious schools. In fact, 97 percent of all Ohio voucher dollars pay tuition at religious schools, with much of the money supporting children who began using a voucher in Kindergarten and have kept on attending parochial school—students who whose parents always intended to send them to a religious school and are delighted that tax dollars are helping them pay the tuition. In Ohio, vouchers have been debilitating for public school districts but not particularly disruptive.

Here is a summary of existing school privatization programs, as compiled by the website The 74: “Fourteen states and the District of Columbia provide vouchers that give private schools state funding to pay tuition for students….Seventeen states, including Indiana and Florida, have tax credit scholarship programs….Eight states give tax credits or deductions to parents who send their kids to private schools…. Indiana and Louisiana allow families to deduct tuition on their taxes, while Illinois and Iowa let parents claim a tax credit for their children’s private school tuition…. In five states, including Arizona and Mississippi, education savings accounts let parents choose how to spend the state’s per-pupil allotment for their child’s education — whether it’s putting them in private school or paying for tutoring.” Last year Nevada established an education savings account program which would have allowed all 450,000 of Nevada’s students to carry their public school funding to a private school or use it for home schooling. The bill’s funding mechanism was found unconstitutional, but supporters are looking for a way to resurrect the program.

But this year with DeVos as their cheerleader, far right legislators across the states have been aggressively promoting school privatization with bills for new vouchers, tax credits or education savings accounts or bills to expand existing privatization schemes.  As usual, legislators are being assisted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate and think tank lobbyists to write model bills that can be adapted to any state and introduced across the statehouses by ALEC members.

The Network for Public Education has made available short explanations of all three school privatization schemes: vouchers, tutition tax credits here and here, and education savings accounts.

So what has 2017 brought us so far in passage of bills to expand privatization?

Washington D.C. Vouchers were reauthorized (through 2019) by Congress  at the end of April as part of the 2017 budget agreement. Reauthorization of D.C. Vouchers has been one of the priorities of President Trump and Betsy DeVos.  Here is the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown describing the program: “The D.C. program serves about 1,100 students, giving them up to $8,452 to attend a private elementary or middle school and up to $12,679 for high school. Participating private schools must be accredited by 2021 but otherwise face few requirements beyond showing that they are in good financial standing and demonstrating compliance with health and safety laws.”  Congress folded the D.C. voucher extension into the 2017 budget agreement despite a negative evaluation of the program just released by a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education itself. Emma Brown summarizes the evaluation: “D.C. students who used vouchers had significantly lower math scores a year after joining the program, on average, than students who applied for a voucher through a citywide lottery but did not receive one.  For voucher students in kindergarten through fifth grade, reading scores were also significantly lower… For voucher recipients coming from a low-performing public school—the population that the voucher program primarily aims to reach—attending a private school had no effect on achievement.  But for voucher recipients coming from higher-performing public schools, the negative effect was particularly large.”

Arizona exploded the number of students eligible for what had been a small Education Savings Accounts program. Governor Doug Ducey signed the education savings account program expansion into law early in April. Now every single child in the state will be eligible, though at this time there are enrollment caps—to be expanded gradually over time— on how many students the state will underwrite each year. ESAs are basically an experiment in totally portable school funding.  David Sciarra of the Education Law Center summarizes the meaning of Arizona’s new law: “Cheered on by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed legislation expanding vouchers again, this time making all 1.1 million public school students eligible.  To pass the bill, proponents accepted a cap of 5,500 new students per year and 30,000 students over the next five years. The cost to taxpayers and the public schools could quickly swell to over $100 million or more.  But make no mistake: Voucher proponents are already aiming to lift the caps and throw the program open to everyone…. (M)ost Arizona voucher recipients are from affluent neighborhoods…. And public school funding in Arizona… is among the lowest and most inadequate in the country.”

Currently legislatures across the country are considering bills for vouchers or tuition tax credits or education savings accounts, Most of the spring legislative sessions have not yet concluded.  Neither have state budget bills—into which all sorts of programs can be quietly slipped—been passed.  We’ll take another look at the end of June as the budget deadline passes and legislators go home for summer recess.  As of Mid-May, however, the news is not all bad: a number of states have rejected bids to expand school privatization.

It is worth noting some principles at the end of this summary. Schemes like vouchers and tax credits and education savings accounts privilege the individual wishes of the family over the state’s protection the rights of all. It is again worth considering the wisdom of the late Benjamin Barber:

“It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good. It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars and euros and yen than they ever did with their votes.” (Consumed, p. 143)  “The consumer’s republic is quite simply an oxymoron. Consumers cannot be sovereign, only citizens can.  Public liberty demands public institutions that permit citizens to address the public consequences of private market choices… Asking what “I want’ and asking what ‘we as a community to which I belong need’ are two very different questions, though neither is altruistic and both involve ‘my’ interests: the first is ideally answered by the market; the second must be answered by democratic politics. When the market is encouraged to do the work of democracy, our culture is perverted and the character of our commonwealth undermined. Moreover, my sense of self—me as a moral being embedded in a free community—is lost.” (Consumed, p. 126)

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).

How ALEC and Promoters of Privatization Are Helping Legislators Rip Off State Governments

In her story on Iowa’s tuition tax credit program in yesterday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein explains: “Iowa is one of 31 states where legislators have proposed creating or expanding school choice programs this year, without Washington even lifting a finger.”

Knowing that the U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a great fan of school privatization through vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts and the expansion of unregulated charter schools, we might wonder how and why all this school choice expansion Goldstein describes is happening without any assistance at all from DeVos and Congress.

Goldstein mentions one of the primary factors, the American Legislative Exchange Council: “In 2013 and 2014, the most recent years for which financial disclosures are available, several organizations associated with Ms. DeVos invested over $7 million in school choice lobbying efforts in states now considering new bills.  Americans for Prosperity, the activist group founded by the Koch brothers, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council are also pushing private school choice in statehouses across the country.”

One cannot possibly review too often the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state politics. If your state legislature is one of the 31 states now considering some form of school vouchers, your representatives are probably considering one of ALEC’s model laws.  ALEC is what is known as a bill mill, a membership organization that pairs member state legislators with corporate member lobbyists and representatives of far-right advocacy organizations promoting school privatization; these people collaborate in writing model bills that can then be introduced by ALEC-members in the legislative chambers of the 50 states. Members of ALEC’s Education Committee have cooked up a number of model bills to choose from: the Special Needs Scholarship 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.  The outrageous irony about ALEC is that, despite a long-running legal challenge from Common Cause, it is still considered by the IRS to be an educational, not a lobbying, organization.

Goldstein reminds us that vouchers don’t really serve very many students across the United States, despite that they drain a lot of money from states’ public education budgets: “The number of American students benefiting from private school programs now is relatively small. Estimates by EdChoice, the organization founded by Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist who first introduced the idea of vouchers, put the number at 446,000 this year, out of a total school-age population of 56 million. Three million attend public charter schools, which Ms DeVos also has championed and which generally do not accept vouchers.” (This blog has disputed proponents of charters who dub the schools, “public.” Although charter schools are publicly funded, they are always privately operated and have been considered in several court challenges as private contractors.  Because charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free, students at charter schools have no need to carry a tuition voucher of any kind.)

Goldstein profiles a parent, Mary Kakayo in Des Moines and her participation in Iowa’s already-operating, tuition tax credit program.  Ms. Kakayo would also like to benefit from the newer education savings account program now being considered by Iowa’s legislature: “Tuition credit scholarships like the one that helps pay tuition for Ms. Kakayo’s daughter…. allow individuals and corporations to receive credit on their state income taxes for donations to nonprofits that provide tuition aid to students. Iowa’s program, currently used by 11,000 students, has income limits—$73,000 for a family of four—and the average scholarship award is only $1,583.” We learn that the Kakayos personally pay tuition of $85 per month on top of their tuition tax credit.

Goldstein continues: “Iowa is one of the states where legislators this year proposed education savings accounts, an even more expansive benefit. The accounts (would) give parents state money each year—under one proposal, in the form of a $5,000 debit card—that they can use on private school tuition, home schooling costs, online education or tutoring.  Ms. Kakayo said she would welcome further tuition support from the state, which would allow her to save money for college for Alma and her younger sister….  Under one proposal, after a student graduates from high school, any money left in the account could be used for tuition at in-state colleges.”

Goldstein describes the concerns of opponents of the tuition tax credit program and the proposal being considered for education savings accounts: “Opponents have called the programs a giveaway to religious institutions. All but five of the 140 schools currently participating in the (Iowa) program are Catholic or Protestant, and the Diocese of Des Moines is among those lobbying for the expansion… Opponents also point out that private schools are allowed to reject some of the neediest students, like those who have severe disabilities or are lagging behind their grade level.”

Goldstein examines the financial implications for Iowa’s public schools: “Under the most far-reaching proposal, the new education savings accounts would be available to every child in Iowa without income caps, and include the over 40,000 who are already enrolled in private schools or home schooling.”  She adds: “School districts and some legislators also were concerned that if parents of privately educated students suddenly had access to thousands of dollars in state education money, public schools could be significantly affected financially.”  So far no bill being considered in Iowa has moved far enough for a vote in either of Iowa’s legislative chambers.

To see what might happen if Iowa were to expand these programs, one need only look to Indiana. In late December Emma Brown of the Washington Post reported:  “Indiana’s legislature and then-governor Mitch Daniels first approved a limited voucher program in 2011, capping it at 7,500 students in the first year and restricting it to children who had attended public schools for at least a year.” After Mike  Pence was elected governor in 2012, “Indiana lawmakers eliminated the requirement that children attend public school before receiving vouchers and lifted the cap on the number of recipients. The income cutoff was raised, and more middle-class families became eligible. When those changes took effect, an estimated 60 percent of all Indiana children were eligible for vouchers and the number of recipients jumped from 9,000 to more than 19,000 in one year.  The proportion of children who had never previously attended Indiana public schools also rose quickly.” Chalkbeat Indiana reported two weeks ago that the number of students who have never attended public school, that is children who are already enrolled in religious or private schools, who are now using vouchers has risen to 54.6 percent. “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017…  To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year. Under the most recent draft of the state’s next two-year budget, Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019….”

Launching vouchers or tax credits or education savings accounts as part of a state’s education plan is a zero-sum game. Vouchers and tax credits are always a way to redirect some of a state’s public school budget to a privatized alternative. It has never happened that legislators have increased taxes significantly to cover a new voucher program and at the same time protect a state’s investment in the public schools. School privatization undermines the public system even as a parallel system of schools is created. Indiana demonstrates clearly just how vouchers and tax credits are likely to swallow a state public school budget to pay private school tuition for families who have never even considered enrolling their children in public schools.

Fraud and corruption have not been the major problem with vouchers and tuition tax credit programs. The financial scandals have been more prevalent in the charter school sector where money is to be made by the for-profit management companies—profits that can be invested through political contributions that block sufficient oversight by state government to prevent self-dealing that violates the public interest.  Vouchers have primarily provided tuition  to religious schools, which have been less involved in overt ripoffs of tax dollars. However, in the NY Times earlier this month, Kevin Carey profiled a problem in one state where vouchers have involved self dealing and enormous profits:

“Steve Yarbrough is one of the most powerful men in Arizona. As president of the State Senate, he has promoted a range of conservative policies, including a tuition tax credit system that provides over $100 million per year to finance vouchers for private schools.. But Mr. Yarbrough is not just a champion of tax credit vouchers. He also profits from them personally… State tax credit voucher programs have grown rapidly in recent years. The number of students receiving them increased to 256,000 this year from about 50,000 in 2005. Arizona has one of the oldest and largest programs… The Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization (ACSTO) is one of the state’s largest voucher-granting groups. From 2010 to 2014… the group received $72.9 million in donations, all of which were ultimately financed by the state. Arizona law allows the group to keep 10 percent of those donations to pay for overhead. In 2014, the group used that money to pay its executive director $125,000. His name?  Steve Yarbrough… Yet the group doesn’t do all the work involved with accepting donations and handing out vouchers. It outsources data entry, computer hardware, customer service, information processing, award notifications and related personnel expenses to a private for-profit company called HY Processing.  The group paid HY Processing $636,000 in 2014, and millions of dollars in total over the last decade. The owner of HY Processing? Steve Yarbrough, along with his wife, Linda, and another couple.  (The “Y” in “HY Processing stands for ‘Yarbrough.’)”

Carey explains: “(I)t’s not clear that states can be relied upon to prevent self-dealing. Mr. Yarbrough’s personal financial interest in tax credit vouchers first received wide attention in 2009…. Yet in the years since, Mr. Yarbrough has continued to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from overhead funds.”  And as president of the Arizona senate, “He also supported the expansion of the tax-credit system.”

Last week when the PBS NewsHour profiled Indiana’s school voucher program, Dr. Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne’s public school superintendent warned: “You have established a totally separate school system on the back of a structure that was intended for public schools.” “I’m worried that people aren’t alarmed. Public education is the backbone of this country.”

So… What’s Wrong with School Choice (Privatization) at Public Expense?

In his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, President Donald Trump extolled school choice, another name for offering students, at public expense, the opportunity to attend a privately operated school.  He asked Congress to “pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious, or home school that is right for them.”  Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, amplifies Trump’s preference for school choice with an adjective. She says families need a “robust” set of choices.

So what is wrong with school choice—school privatization—at public expense?  Here is some of what’s wrong.

FRAMING — First there is the deceptive framing by ideologues—inspired by economist Milton Friedman, and the foundation now called EdChoice, that he left behind as a legacy. Carl Davis of The American Prospect pays close attention to the language: “Politicians have long had a knack for framing policy proposals, however controversial, in terms that make them more palatable to voters… (S)chool voucher programs that funnel public money to religious schools are cast as ‘school choice,’ because underwriting parochial schools with taxpayer dollars is controversial. The ‘choice’ frame has heightened public awareness of school voucher programs, and helped their advocates make significant inroads in convincing states to allow the use of public dollars for private schools.”

DIVERSION OF TAX DOLLARS — Then there is the problem of diversion of tax dollars away from the schools that serve the mass of our children. Chalkbeat Indiana summarizes data about the large school voucher program launched six years ago by Governor Mitch Daniels and expanded later when Mike Pence was Indiana’s governor: “The state’s voucher program is one of the largest in the nation, and more than 34,000 students received vouchers in 2016-2017… To qualify for a voucher that is 90 percent of state tuition dollars, a family of four can’t earn more than $44,955 per year.  For a 50 percent voucher, a family of four can earn up to $89,910 per year… Indiana is expected to spend $146 million in 2017 and potentially $163 million in 2019 on vouchers due to higher anticipated participation.” Here is the most stunning fact: over half of the students in Indiana’s program—54.6 percent—have never attended a public school.  The state has simply begun paying for students to attend private schools.

WINDFALL FOR WEALTHY INVESTORS — Federal law permits large investors to claim state tuition tax credits as charitable donations and receive a federal income tax deduction.  Davis in The American Prospect explains: “Because taxpayers are also permitted to claim a federal charitable tax deduction on their donations to ‘neovoucher’ (state tuition tax credit) programs—even if they were already fully reimbursed for those gifts by their state governments—the result for some taxpayers is a tax cut as large as $1.35 for each dollar donated.  Like many tax loopholes, this one is not geared toward ordinary taxpayers.  A quirk in federal law limits the benefit primarily to high-income taxpayers  So, in effect, a handful of states have created elaborate tax schemes that allow wealthy taxpayers to generate risk-free private returns of up to 35 percent.”

POOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT IN SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS — There are also serious questions about the quality of the private schools that are being funded by vouchers and tuition tax credits.  Kevin Carey, writing in the NY Times, recently described three new studies of voucher programs in Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio: “But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.  The results are startling….  Three consecutive reports, each studying one of the largest new state voucher programs, found that vouchers hurt student learning.” (This blog covered Carey’s report here.)

SCHOOLS RECEIVING STATE-FUNDED SCHOLARSHIPS MAY NOT PROTECT STUDENTS’ RIGHTS — In a column for the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Miner, who has covered the nation’s oldest school voucher program in Milwaukee for many years, summarizes the ways that such schools may violate students’ rights: “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 student 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.”

POOR MANAGEMENT — Questions persist about shoddy operations in voucher schools and schools operating with publicly funded tuition tax credits. In another analysis of the Milwaukee program, Erin Richards in The American Prospect notes that the state has finally instituted minimal regulations and standards, because the problems have been egregious over the Milwaukee voucher program’s 26 year existence: “(P)ressures for reform have led to more regulation of the voucher program, which has belatedly begun weeding out some of its worst actors. The private school teachers and leaders are now required to at least have bachelor’s degrees. The schools have to obtain accreditation, though lawmakers had to later tighten that language to get rid of irresponsible accreditation agencies. If the state has reason to believe a voucher school is financially unstable, it can require leaders to secure special bonds that assure the state they could pay back public funds if they go belly up.”

SHOULD PUBLIC DOLLARS VIOLATE PROTECTION OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION? — Finally. religious schools receiving public vouchers and tax credit scholarships may be violating constitutional protection of the separation of church and state..  Although in a divided 2002 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Zellman v. Simmons-Harris found vouchers to be constitutional, as long as the money is given to the parents to make a school choice and not donated directly by the state to the school, a number of states have nineteenth century Blaine Amendments in their constitutions, banning the expenditure of state dollars for religious education. Tuition tax credits have been the method by which several of these states have evaded their constitutions’ prohibition of state support for religious education. The taxpayer diverts tax dollars to a non-governmental organization, which then awards the tuition scholarship to  families, who then choose a school.

Many of us, however, question whether government ought to be paying for religious education in schools our tax dollars are supporting. A case in point is the education received by Denisha Merriweather, the woman brought by President Donald Trump last week to sit with his wife in the gallery during his Congressional address.  Merriweather was held up as a glowing example of a student who succeeded in school, graduated from a university, and is now in graduate school, all due to the tuition tax credit she received as a young child from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program being held up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a model for the federal program she hopes will be launched during her tenure.  In the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss describes the school attended by Merriweather: “With her tax credit scholarship, Merriweather attended the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning.  It was established in 2001 with a vision, according to the website, that ‘was birthed from the mind of God in the heart of Dr. Jeannette C. Holmes-Vann, the Pastor and Founder of Hope Chapel Ministries, Inc.,’ which ‘included a return to a traditional educational model founded on Christian principles and values.’  It uses the A Beka curriculum, used widely by private Christian schools and some home-schoolers, according to this listing of private schools published by the Jacksonville Times -Union. A Beka teaches the Bible as literal history.”

Trump and DeVos Harp on School Choice, a Lifeboat Strategy to Save a Few Students

Chalkbeat describes President Donald Trump’s Congressional speech Tuesday night, an address in which the President reprised Arne Duncan and called education “the civil rights issue of our time.”  Then President Trump made a leap to school choice—basically calling school choice the civil rights issue of our time: “Education is the civil rights issue of our time. I am calling upon Members of both parties to pass an education bill that funds school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children. These families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”  It’s an interesting definition of educational civil rights, to say the least.

In his speech to Congress, Trump then hinted at the type of school choice he is likely to propose, though there was no indication when he and his Secretary of Education are likely to move forward with such a plan. Trump had brought a young, Florida woman to the gallery, a young woman who participated years ago in Florida’s tuition tax credit program—a program Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said she admires.  DeVos has served on the board of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, which developed the model for this program.

Here is what Trump said about his guest last night: “Joining us tonight in the gallery is a remarkable woman, Denisha Merriweather.  As a young girl, Denisha struggled in school and failed third grade twice. But then she was able to enroll in a private center for learning, with the help of a tax credit scholarship program. Today, she is the first in her family to graduate, not just from high school, but from college. Later this year she will get her masters degree in social work.”

This blog has traced the interest of President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos in tuition tax credits here and explained all forms of vouchers (including tuition tax credits)—public tax dollars diverted to pay students’ tuition in private schools—here.

Back when Arne Duncan was education secretary, a good indication of the Obama administration’s plans for education was in the policies promoted by the Washington, D.C.—Democrat-leaning—think-tank, the Center for American Progress.  Perhaps we can see a similar dynamic operating on Tuesday night, as one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the education ideas in Trump’s speech was the American Federation for Children, the huge lobbying organization—founded, funded, and formerly chaired by Betsy Devos.  The American Federation for Children has promoted the privatization of education through vouchers, tuition tax credits, and expansion of charters in a climate free of “bureaucratic” regulation.

Here is the statement, released on Tuesday evening by John Kirtley, vice-chairman of the American Federation for Children: “We were pleased to hear the President offer strong support for school choice in his address to the joint session of Congress tonight… Now is the time to act with bold conviction. We urge school choice advocates to work with Congress and the Administration to pass a federal tax credit to encourage charitable giving to state non-profits who will provide scholarships for eligible children to attend the school of their parents’ choice… I was incredibly happy to see Denisha Merriweather sitting in the Executive Gallery with First Lady Melania Trump at the joint session tonight. As the President mentioned in his speech, Denisha used a tax credit scholarship in Florida and has become a true American success story due to the program. She exemplifies the power of choice in education.”

Despite that 90 percent of American children and adolescents attend public schools and that many of those students have their own success stories, we are being drilled by the Trump administration on a one-note school policy—freedom of choice for parents. Personal freedom and privatization are the key ideas. There seems to be no recognition that public schools are the system most likely to be able to serve the needs of the whole range of our children. Nor do Trump and DeVos appear to worry about protecting the rights of children by law and through transparent, democratic governance—protections absent from private schools. It is ironic that the people in charge of the federal department designed to support the education of all American children are endorsing a lifeboat strategy—vouchers,  tax credits and charters—that by its very structure can serve only some students. Public schools, of course, are required by law to serve all students.

On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos herself attracted enormous attention in the press for her awkward and ignorant effort to promote her one-note education idea when she complimented historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—as exemplars of school choice.  She failed to indicate that she has any real understanding of the role of these institutions during a period of our history when black students were entirely shut out of higher education at all white colleges and universities.

Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, DeVos’s home state, responded: “Let’s be clear, HBCUs were started because of Jim Crow laws. Black students did not ‘choose’ HBCUs over the all-white colleges—they were barred from attending due to their race.  This statement by Mrs. DeVos reveals either a stunning ignorance of history on the part of the person tasked with overseeing our nation’s education system, or an inability to acknowledge our nation’s shameful history of racial discrimination in education, both public and private… Yesterday’s attempt to whitewash the stain of segregation into an argument for privatizing our public schools is perhaps a new low in her current position.”

Many Predict Trump-DeVos Will Privatize with Tuition Tax Credits, Not Plain Old Vouchers

Everyone is wondering exactly how President Donald Trump’s and Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’s plans for expanding privatization of public education will play out. Two upcoming events may provide more details.  It has been predicted that the President will lay out his priorities when he releases his budget proposal in mid-March. Even before that, however, in a major address tomorrow to a joint session of Congress, he has said he’ll outline his policy priorities. Here is Politico commenting on what is expected from tomorrow’s address: “White House officials said that after a first month driven almost entirely by policies they could enact unilaterally, the joint congressional address will focus on work the White House wants done on Capitol Hill during the rest of 2017.”

The President and his education secretary have said they will expand the privatization of education but how that will happen isn’t yet clear. One member of the House of Representatives has already introduced a bill to eliminate the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now called the Every Student Succeeds Act) entirely and redirect the money now spent on Title I, ESEA’s primary program, to a school choice expansion. Others predict that Trump and DeVos will expand the one existing federal voucher program in Washington, D.C.

Some have suggested that Trump will convince Congress to go back to tinker with ESSA and pass a program Lamar Alexander and other conservatives endorsed back in 2015, Title I Portability—the idea that each poor child would be able to carry a designated amount of extra money to any public school that child chose to attend. Title I Portability was never broadly endorsed in Congress, however, because it would defeat the primary purpose of Title I, which was designed to address concentrations of poverty in particular school districts.  Schools educating concentrations of children whose families are extremely poor face an overwhelming set of challenges.  In its excellent (2010) book, Organizing Schools for Improvement, the Consortium on Chicago School Research documented the challenges for schools in neighborhoods where over 90 percent of children live in extreme poverty: “An endemic concern for urban schoolteachers are the students in their classrooms with extraordinary personal and social needs. Many urban children live under unstable home and community circumstances, including homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect. In such circumstances, a most basic need for healthy child development—stable, dependable relationships with caring adults— may not always be present… At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best of educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused….” (pp. 172-173)

It now appears more likely, however, that while Trump is likely to enlarge the federal Washington, D.C. voucher program, any program on a national scale will expand school choice through tuition tax credits.  Here is Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post: “Is there enough support in Congress to close the Education Department and create a federal voucher program for America’s schoolchildren?  No, according to people on Capitol Hill who are familiar with the issue, though a pilot federal voucher program is possible. Still, Trump has said he wants to spend $20 billion in federal funds to expand school choice, and the Hill sources said this could come in the form of a federally funded scholarship tax credit program that would be part of a Trump-promised reform of the U.S. tax code… Scholarship tax credit programs offer lucrative tax credits to individuals and corporations donating to nonprofits that provide money for students to use for tuition at private and religious schools and public schools outside a student’s designated district.  There are now 17 states with programs that offer scholarship tax credits… including Florida, the state that DeVos has frequently mentioned as a model for the kind of reform she is seeking.” (This blog covered the range of voucher, tax credit, and education savings account programs here.)

A tax credit plan would be easier to pass in Congress according to Caitlin Emma at Politico, “A federal tax credit scholarship program could be part of a larger tax reform bill and pass through the budget reconciliation process with only 51 votes in the Senate.”  Diverting Title I funds, by contrast, would require an appropriations bill, that could potentially be filibustered and require 60 votes.

You might wonder how tax credits could damage the public schools, if they merely divert tax dollars to private schools without affecting already-existing federal public school programs. Here is how this would likely work out. While the federal government provides less than 10 percent of school funding, states are a primary funder of public schools, covering about half of school spending. Any federal tax credit program would very likely be designed to incentivize states to launch new tuition tax credit programs or expand existing programs. And establishing or expanding state tax credits would reduce the amount of tax dollars flowing into the states’ public education budgets.  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)

Jeff Bryant quotes Kevin Welner of the National Education Policy Center explaining more about how such schemes  work: “Welner explains, tax credit scholarship programs are a ‘money-laundering mechanism’ that inserts into the transaction a third party—often called a school tuition organization (STO). Instead of taxpayer money being distributed directly to parents as vouchers, credits are issued by the state when tax deductible donations go to an STO. That credit then becomes scholarship money for parents to pay for private school tuition.”

Meanwhile, as Trump and DeVos move forward with some kind of expansion of vouchers or tax credits, in the NY Times, Kevin Carey just published a scathing critique based on three new research reports on the performance of traditional school voucher programs that have been operating for some time in a number of states.  Carey reports on a new study of the Indiana voucher program, created by Governor Mitch Daniels and rapidly expanded by Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor. The new research confirms that Indiana students who have moved to voucher schools “experienced significant losses in achievement” in mathematics and no improvement in reading.  Another 2015 study, this time in Louisiana, documents “negative results in both reading and math” when students used a voucher to transfer to a private school. Then this past June, “a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. ‘Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,’ the researchers found.  Once again, results were worse in math.”

Carey concludes: “The new evidence on vouchers does not seem to have deterred the Trump administration, which has proposed a new $20 billion voucher program.  Secretary DeVos’s enthusiasm for vouchers, which have been the primary focus of her philanthropic spending and advocacy, appears to be undiminished.”

These new voucher studies would not surprise Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, who, in their 2014 book, The Public School Advantage, explain: “We were both skeptical when we first saw the initial results: public schools appeared to be attaining higher levels of mathematics performance than demographically comparable private and charter schools—and math is thought to be a better indicator of what is taught by schools than, say, reading, which is often more influenced directly and indirectly by experiences in the home. These patterns… held up (or were ‘robust’ in the technical jargon) even when we used different models and variables in the analyses… (T)he data show that the more regulated public school sector embraces more innovative and effective professional practices, while independent schools often use their greater autonomy to avoid such reforms, leading to curricular stagnation.” (pp xvii-xviii)

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.”