Education Opportunity Network

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Trump And DeVos Have A Deceptive Scheme To Push School Vouchers

Since President Trump picked Betsy DeVos to be his new U.S. Secretary of Education, there’s been lots of speculation in the media that his administration, with his secretary out front, would push for a school voucher program that would allow families to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a sum of money they could use to pay for tuition to send their kids to private schools, even ones that are religion based.

Others scoffed at that notion, arguing that getting a voucher program passed through Congress would be too difficult.

But if new reports out this week are credible, and they appear to be, a school voucher program is indeed on the president’s agenda – only it’s not being called that. There are reasons for the deception, and it’s important for progressives to understand how to frame Trump’s scheme before the public debate starts.

As Poltico reports, “The Trump administration is considering a first-of-its-kind federal tax credit scholarship program that would channel billions of dollars to families from working-class households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools.”

What is a tax credit program for education, and why is it just another name for vouchers?

As Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa explains, “Tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit of some kind, in exchange for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to children. So, unlike vouchers, they don’t involve the government directly providing financial support to parents for school choice.”

But what makes tax credit scholarships the same as vouchers?

In his 2008 book, Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, coined the term “neovoucher” to explain how tax credit programs accomplish the same thing as vouchers, only in a more convoluted way.

In a blog post for the Washington Post, 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.

So whether the plan is for tax credits or vouchers, in either case, public funding is redirected from public schools to private institutions, and the impact on funding available for public education is the same.

There are reasons for the Trump administration’s deception.

As Welner notes in another blog post for the Post, “Generally speaking, Americans know what vouchers are. Cleveland and Milwaukee have had conventional voucher plans for decades.” Welner should have added Washington, DC to that list of long-standing voucher programs as well.

So the track record for vouchers is well known. And it’s not particularly good.

As education historian Diane Ravitch writes, despite years of offering vouchers to parents, “those school districts are among the lowest performing in the nation on national tests. … When the taxpayers’ precious dollars are divided among two or three sectors, none of them flourishes.”

Further, the general public generally has rejected vouchers every time they’ve been put to a test at the ballot box. Ravitch notes, “When Ms. DeVos and her husband Richard led a movement to change the Michigan state constitution to permit vouchers for religious schools in the year 2000, the referendum was defeated by 69-31%. Even in deep red Utah, the public rejected vouchers overwhelmingly in 2007. Florida was the last state to reject vouchers, in a 2012 vote deceptively named the Religious Freedom Act; it was defeated by 58-42%.”

So to circumnavigate the lousy track record of vouchers and avoid the problem of their widespread public disapproval, school privatization advocates have devised education tax credit programs. But be aware, just as these programs have the same essential ends in mind as school vouchers, they also have the same devastating impact on public schools.

As veteran education journalist Valerie Strauss explains on her blog at the Post, in the 17 states that offer some kind of education tax credits, there are numerous examples of how the programs harm public schools and help spread fraud and abuse in public education systems. Strauss points to a tax credit scholarship program in Florida that sparked “a cottage industry of fraud” and a more recent report from Florida about a “school for students with autism that received money from two tax credit programs in Florida that was abruptly closed after its leaders were charged with Medicaid fraud.”

Numerous studies by education tax credit advocates claiming these programs save money have been thoroughly refuted. And the evidence they drain public education funding continues to mount.

Arizona has perhaps the nation’s most extensive and generous education tax credit program. The program has led to an enormous outflow of funding from public schools.

As an Arizona news outlet reports, the state allows qualified parents to set up “empowerment scholarship accounts” that are funded by STOs to provide families with debit cards worth about $5,200 a year to use on tuition at private schools, many which are religion based. However, as the reporter notes, public schools in Arizona get about $4,200 per pupil from the state, so each $5,200 debit card costs the state general fund an additional $1,000 for every child who leaves a public school for a private or religious school.

Despite the drain on Arizona public school coffers, lawmakers in the state want to expand the tax credit program to include more families, a move that would lead to an additional $24 million cost to taxpayers annually and potentially many millions more, according to the Arizona Republic.

So should Trump’s ideas for a tax credit scholarship program develop into a proposal, and the details become clearer, just remember a school voucher program by any name is still a school voucher program. And it should be dead on arrival in Congress.

  • Brigid says:

    This is nothing but a scam to funnel more money to the exuberant wealthy. Its time for home
    owners who pay taxes on their property to sue. Our taxes are suppose to pay for public schools and not for the private sector. There is a case precedent. The Amish were forbidden to home school their children. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that their children had to receive
    a public education all the way through to the 8th grade. Then they could be home schooled.
    I am not going to tolerate my tax dollars paying for private school education of children who are
    not even in college. And those private schools do not have teachers with credentials.

    February 24, 2017 at 2:29 pm
  • Timothy Trewyn says:

    If you can have a military with a religious chaplaincy program, then you can have public schools with voluntary access to religious activities. Strong public schools are the efficient option for the professional delivery of education, and a vital community building component of society.

    February 24, 2017 at 3:05 pm
    • Jeff Bryant says:

      Can’t agree with this: “If you can have a military with a religious chaplaincy program, then you can have public schools with voluntary access to religious activities.” No one has to join the military. Schooling is compulsory. And soldiers are adults who can make up their own minds about religious beliefs. Schools are filled with little kids who need to develop their personal identities without being drilled in religious doctrine. Teaching about religion is fine. After all, religions have been powerful influences in human history. And if students, on their own, organize religion-based clubs for after-school activity, that’s fine too. But public schools and educators who work in them should not lead religious rituals and activities, even if they are labeled “voluntary” for students to participate in.

      February 24, 2017 at 3:18 pm
    • Jerry M says:

      No one has Ever prohibited Voluntary Religious programs in Public Schools.
      Any student who wishes to pray is afforded every opportunity.

      What is Forbidden is any program that Forces children to pray or any Mandatory religious education program. All religious programs must be conducted Outside the classroom environment and as a voluntary “club” style activity.

      Many Religious people have been caught spreading the Lie that children are not Allowed to pray over the years. It says something for the level of Hypocrisy they are willing to tolerate in order to push their agenda.

      February 24, 2017 at 8:52 pm
  • Bonnie Bechard says:

    I am studying the NC private schools who received vouchers 2015-16. 77% are fundamentalist Bible schools using the A Beka Christian curriculum: The world was created in 6 24-hr days; evolution, the fossil record, climate change, carbon dating are frauds; dinosaurs lived contemporaneously with humans; LGBT behavior is an abomination and such students are not allowed to enroll; women are subject to the authority of their husbands; programs such as social security and medicare and poverty are socialism; the unrest of the sixties was due to public schools teaching evolution theory reading man to the level of an animal. And more. These vouchers are a way to divert $ from 21st century public schools to schools rooted in the middle ages and mini-labs for right-wing philosophies.

    February 24, 2017 at 3:28 pm
  • Bonnie Bechard says:

    correction: reducing man to the level of an animal.

    February 24, 2017 at 3:29 pm
  • Dave B. says:

    Most has already been said–religious schools teach anti-science “alternative facts”. Another key point is about diversity. Once we break up schooling into warring religious/political camps, students will all grow up in a bubble with no appreciation for culture/beliefs other than those of their own faction. Schools need to be as diverse as possible to teach the essence of politics–that there are often multiple “correct answers” that need to be resolved through compromise. Actually, we need more school integration, but then we get into redlining and other issues that no one seems to want to touch anymore…

    February 24, 2017 at 8:15 pm
  • Mary R Mcdermith says:

    This idea limits the tuition help to those with enough money to pay substantial taxes. The children of the fast food workers who make less than 10 dollars an hour won’t be helped at all. This stinks like a way to separate the prosperous from the poverty stricken. The GOP is really clever in the convoluted ways they use to meet their real goals. Under this priogram the private schools won’t even have to find dumb excuses to exclude the poor. And the religious schools with all their brainwashing on the Jesus myth won’t teach math and science which will leave our country short of doctors, research scientists and technology gurus. There are only so many that California can supply. Massachusetts will help but the poor poverty stricken south is still going to be deprived of good educations that could lead to good jobs in these times BUT as always the poor and the ignorant will vote for the gop. This is why the GOP likes to keep so many people poor and ignorant cause then they’ll believe anything, any lies the GOP wants to tell them.

    February 24, 2017 at 9:44 pm

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