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.”

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.”