Broken Record Betsy

I don’t usually agree with Andrew Rotherham, a former domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton, the founder of and a partner at Bellweather Education Partners, and now a commentator for Campbell Brown’s project, The 74, an online news service with a pro-“reform” edge.  Rotherham is a committed education “reformer,” a pro-innovation, pro-charter-school technocrat. But this week I laughed in agreement when, commenting on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Rotherham surmised that maybe “even asking her about the weather gets you an answer about school vouchers.”

DeVos and her husband and both of their parents control a network of family foundations that have made major contributions to pro-privatization lobbies and think tanks: the Council for National Policy, the American Federation for Children, the Alliance for School Choice, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Institute for Justice, the Mackinac Center, and the Great Lakes Education Project.  For decades Betsy DeVos has been a proponent of school vouchers to support religious education and homeschooling. When a hapless DeVos faced the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee for her confirmation hearing last January, she didn’t do much to hide her disdain for public education.

But I imagined that just perhaps, after DeVos took over the U.S. Department of Education, she would come to appreciate its primary programs—funding Title I to support schools serving concentrations of very poor children—providing resources to pay at least part of the expense of federally mandated programs for disabled children through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  And I imagined that just maybe, after she learned more about the essential role of the Office for Civil Rights to protect children experiencing discrimination and bullying, she might come to appreciate the role of the Department of Education that she is charged with overseeing.  Naively, I dreamed that after DeVos made some visits to public schools, she might come to appreciate the dedicated work of the professionals serving children. For example, she visited a public school in Van Wert, Ohio, my state. When I read about the robotics program she saw in this small town’s high school, I was impressed. But I guess none of this has cracked the armor of Betsy’s preconceived beliefs.

On Tuesday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss called her column, This Is the New Betsy DeVos Speech Everyone Should Read. You may remember that DeVos went to an ed tech conference two years ago and decried public schools as “a dead end.”  Well, she went to another ed tech conference last week in Salt Lake City and said the same thing… and she harped on the failure of public schools over and over again. I agree with Strauss: you ought to read the speech, which Strauss reprints.

DeVos has one idea: parents should have the right to school choice. What can we do to improve education?  For DeVos, “This starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn’t matter where they learn.  When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system where we can predict educational outcomes based strictly on ZIP code. The system we create would respect parents’ fundamental right to choose what education is best-suited for each of their children. Every individual student is unique, with different abilities and needs. Our education delivery methods should then be as diverse as the kids they serve, instead of our habit of forcing them into a one-size-fits-all model.”

Of course a system of mass education cannot be utopian; no public school and no mass system will perfectly meet the needs of each and every child.  But we expect our political leaders in a democracy to help define strategies for improving the public system they are charged with overseeing and for expanding the opportunity to learn for children who have historically been left out or left behind.  In this speech DeVos doesn’t connect her sole idea to any kind of practical plan. If parents can get a voucher, they will make the right choice, she believes.

DeVos bolsters her argument with a sort of rhetorical trashing of public education: “I doubt you would design a system that’s focused on inputs rather than outputs; that prioritizes seat-time over mastery; that moves kids through an assembly line without stopping to ask whether they’re actually ready for the next step, or that is more interested in preserving the status quo rather than embracing necessary change.”

Unpacking all the rhetoric in that one sentence would take more space than this blog permits.  Let me just point out that I have always believed the so-called “inputs” in public education are more important than the test-score mavens—who look only at the output measured by the score—acknowledge. Inputs in this case are the teachers and the curriculum and the daily schedule and the enrichments like art and music that are present in some schools and lacking in others. The inputs also include tax-based school funding that happens to be grossly unequal depending on how states distribute it. Usually poor students and black and brown students get a whole lot less of these inputs, and their problems are compounded by family poverty.  DeVos just dismisses these realities and instead returns to her sole idea: Parents will solve it all if they have the right to choose a school.

DeVos begins the speech this way: “Since I do have this opportunity to speak with you, I want to begin by saying it’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education. Why now? Because Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years with very little to show for its efforts.”

Here is how Valerie Strauss herself responds: “What exactly does this mean?… Is that a reference to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the most important federal education legislation ever passed by Congress that was aimed at funding primary and secondary education to help close achievement gaps? Is it a reference to federal involvement over decades in attempting to desegregate public schools and protect the civil rights of students? Is it a reference to major federal legislation aimed at protecting the educational rights of students with disabilities?  Is she suggesting that the federal government should simply stand down and stop trying to protect the civil rights and the educational opportunities of students and leave it to the states, whose inaction or misaction led to federal involvement in the first place?”

I urge you to read the speech and then read it again. Force yourself to unpack the language while at the same time considering that DeVos is describing a system of about 90,000 public schools across the United States that serve 50 million children every day.   Betsy DeVos compares this to cell phone service: “Think of it like your cell phone. AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile may all have great networks, but if you can’t get cellphone service in your living room, then your particular provider is failing you, and you should have the option to find a network that does work.”

DeVos doesn’t have a particularly practical mind.  She doesn’t concern herself with the little things like what her so-called solution would cost. It doesn’t seem to enter her mind that state education budgets in many places remain lower than before the great recession or that her favorite programs like vouchers and tuition tax credits and education savings accounts will take a lot of money out of public schools with fixed costs. It doesn’t seem to worry her that rapid expansion of school choice has driven the closure of public schools that anchored neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Chicago where school privatization has further destabilized vulnerable communities. Basic public policy concerns that worry planners and economists—rudimentary ideas about the opportunity cost and the negative externalities—don’t occur to Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is merely a billionaire heiress promoting her personal biases about education.  She has not learned to understand the system she has been hired to lead even though she’s been on the job for a while now.

Public schools are not utopian; they will always need improvement. It remains true, however, that a public system of education is our best hope for meeting the needs and, through democratic governance and oversight, protecting the rights of our nation’s children.

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)

Arizona Expands Privatization of Education Yet Again

Arizona is no stranger to the privatization of education.  It has had charter schools, online charter schools, tuition tax credits and the newest iteration of privatization—Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).  Tuition tax credits and education savings accounts are particular types of school tuition vouchers, by which children are granted tax funded coupons to pay all or more commonly part of private school tuition.  An education savings account program expansion was signed into law late last week by Arizona’s governor.  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.

Here is Dana Goldstein describing Arizona’s ESA expansion in the NY Times: “The bill, which the State Legislature passed on Thursday, makes all 1.1 million public school students in Arizona eligible for money from a program that until now was available only to some students, including those with disabilities and those in underperforming schools. Under the law, parents who withdraw their children from public school can use their child’s share of state education funding to pay for private school tuition, home-schooling costs, tutoring and online education, as well as for therapies for the disabled…  Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee have similar programs, but they all restrict eligibility to disabled children. That makes the Arizona expansion the broadest to date. Unlike traditional vouchers, in which states pay private schools directly, E.S.A.s allow parents to distribute public dollars for educational expenses.”

For parents an education savings account is like a credit card which parents can use to buy particular services for a child. This puts parents fully in charge of where and how children are educated. Here is how the Network for Public Education explains education savings accounts in a fact sheet that is part of an excellent new new toolkit, School Privatization Explained: “ESAs provide a huge loophole for unaccountable use of public money. Parents who withdraw their children from public schools get a proportion of the money the state would otherwise have spent to educate their children deposited into an account. The account comes with a debit card families can use to pay for unaccountable education products and services such as private schools, home schooling, online courses, lessons and private therapists and tutors… Most of these (ESA) programs release their funds to parents in exchange for the parents agreeing to forego their right to a public education.”

Goldstein explains the size of Arizona’s monetary awards to parents: “This year, about 3,500 Arizona students, the majority of whom have special needs, are participating in the program.  The average size of an account is $5,700 per year for children without disabilities and $19,000 for children with them.”

Emma Brown, the Washington Post‘s education reporter, describes how Arizona’s new ESA enrollment is expected to grow: “Now, all 1.1 million students across the state will be eligible for the money, though not all will be able to enroll. Under a deal negotiated to ensure the legislature’s approval, 5,500 additional students will be able to enroll each year, up to a cap of 30,000 in 2022….” “Critics said it would weaken Arizona’s public schools by siphoning away students and needed funds and would be more likely to subsidize affluent families’ private-school tuition than to help poor children access new opportunities.”  One worry is that, as has happened in other states, once voucher programs get underway, legislatures have raised the caps more quickly than originally intended, a reality that has depleted state education budgets.

There are all sorts of potential problems with ESAs (and other kinds of vouchers), however. Marketing and glossy advertising is always part of a school choice marketplace, and there are what are technically called asymmetries of information. Parents who are given an education credit card may not be prepared to choose reputable schools, to inquire about the credentials of the teachers, or to evaluate the school’s curriculum. Finally, Erin Richards, writing about the Milwaukee voucher program, describes the same kind of self-dealing and fraud in voucher schools that we have seen in disreputable charter schools.

One cannot, however, ever consider the impact of a voucher program from the sole perspective of the children and families who receive the voucher. There are what economists call externalities, the side effects—unanticipated or intentional—of a policy like school privatization. Here is one of the primary realities: when a legislature adds a separate voucher or tax credit or ESA or charter school program, the state has never, to my knowledge, added an extra tax to pay for it. The cost of running the extra system always comes out of the state budget for public schools. And in the case of Arizona, that is a huge problem. At the Education Law Prof Blog, Derek Black, explains the fiscal realities of Arizona’s expanded ESA program in the context of Arizona school funding: “The funding mechanism and its expected cost to the state is murky… What is clear, however, is that Arizona’s per pupil funding for public schools currently ranks 47 out of 50 states. To make matters worse, it distributes those meager funds unequally. The Education Law Center’s 2017 School Funding Fairness Report grades Arizona’s funding distribution as an ‘F.’…  Arizona spends the least on students who need the most.  That same report also shows that Arizona is doing almost nothing to fix its low funding levels or unequal distribution. Arizona ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the level of fiscal effort it exerts to fund its schools… These cold hard facts show that the state is not really interested in supporting adequate and equal education for its students. Thus, it is no surprise the state would double down and make matters worse. If gross inequity and inadequacy in public schools does not bother the state as a general principle, why would robbing those schools of more money be a problem?”

The Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos champion various voucher programs including the one passed in Arizona last week. While federal cheer-leading may have encouraged legislators in Arizona to expand this program, to date there has not been any federal plan passed or even proposed in Congress to expand the various kinds of school vouchers. Neither has Congress created any federal program to incentivize states to pass or expand voucher schemes.

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.”

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.”

Nevada Education Savings Account Vouchers Ruled Unconstitutional by Nevada’s Supreme Court

In a short brief, the National Education Association concisely defines Education Savings Accounts—the kind of school voucher program that was found unconstitutional by the Nevada Supreme Court last week:

“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.”

Education Savings Accounts are advocated by the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’s organization) and the Friedman Foundation.  The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has a model Education Savings Account bill ready to be introduced in any state legislature. (If you are unfamiliar with ALEC, check out this post.) As of 2015, NEA reported that five states—Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Mississippi and Tennessee—had passed legislation to establish Education Savings Accounts.

Nevada’s program was said to be the most radical. In June of 2015, after Nevada’s law was passed, Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown reported for the Washington Post: “Starting next school year, any parent in Nevada can pull a child from the state’s public schools and take tax dollars with them, giving families the option to use public money to pay for private or parochial school or even for home schooling… Nevada’s law is singular because all of the state’s 450,000 K-12 public school children—regardless of income—are eligible to take the money to whatever school they choose.” While most voucher programs are designed for poor and special needs students, every student in Nevada was going to be able to take $5,100 (or $5,710 for special education students) and use the money for her or his parents’ choice of educational services. The only demand: the student must have been enrolled in a public school for at least 100 days in order to qualify.

Of course, a big problem loomed: this plan was guaranteed to break the public education budget of the state and to destroy the public schools. The program was never fully implemented, as legal challenges were immediately filed, although the Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that 8,000 families had applied to participate.

And in its decision last week, the Nevada Supreme Court found the program’s funding, not the program itself, unconstitutional. By denying the program’s funding, however, the supreme court’s decision will effectively end the program. The Education Law Center, part of the pro-bono legal team in this case, commented on the significance of the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision: “The Court’s ruling makes clear that the Nevada Legislature violated a constitutional prohibition against the use of public education funding for any purpose other than the operation of the public schools. The ESA voucher program would have diverted funds from the public schools for private education expenditures. This decision strikes at the heart of the ESA voucher program, which was designed to remove significant amounts of funding from public school budgets to pay for private school tuition and other expenses, even for the wealthy.  The court’s sweeping ruling permanently blocks the program from being implemented in the future.”

Supporters of Nevada’s Education Savings Account program have pledged to find another funding mechanism. They have explained that the court did not specifically find Education Savings Accounts unconstitutional and instead merely rejected the way Nevada funded the program. For the program to be resurrected at this point, Nevada’s legislature would have to create a funding stream entirely separate from Nevada’s education budget for this particular program.

What is clear is that with support from far right advocates and even a model bill from ALEC, other state legislatures will be introducing plans for Education Savings Accounts.  And not all state constitutions have specific language prohibiting the diversion of state education funds away from the public schools.