A Soft Surrender to Low Expectations

There is a problem in the school choice community … let’s call it a soft surrender to low expectations.

We are witnessing a race to the bottom on education policy, and the latest case comes from my own state of Virginia. The legislature passed an education tax credit program this week, soon to be signed by the Governor, which means I should be celebrating. Unfortunately, the Virginia tax credit program is a mockery of education reform.

I will lay out my basic list of criticisms, which include some of the program’s  inadequacies along with its grave debilitations. Read more here.

  1. It is a 65% credit, which is terrible policy and will cripple the program (see more on this issue).
  2. It places the program administration and control, including approval of SOs and schools under the state DOE rather than the proper authority for administering a tax credit program, the Dpt. of Revenue.
  3. It exempts the DOE from the Administrative Process Act, which provides for appeal and review of decisions, and explicitly states that all decisions by the DOE and Superintendent are “final and not subject to review or appeal.” In other words, they have been given a blank check of regulatory authority over the program and schools.
  4. The bill will force schools to collect and report detailed student information to the DOE.
  5. The cap is only $25 million, and has no growth provision.
  6. No personal-use credits so that families can use their own money for their own children … they must beg for charity if they are eligible.
  7. No homeschooling or non-traditional education.
  8. And the kicker … the whole thing sunsets in 2018, five years from now (see section 58.1-439.26 A, “beginning on or after January 1, 2013, but before January 1, 2018 …”).

I would celebrate the last provision, a sunset clause, as a chance for Virginia to get it right the second time, if not for the much greater probability that the looming demise of the program will enable choice opponents to make the program even worse in trade for a stay of execution.

If we will accept this, we will accept anything. It will not do what we expect or need in terms of expanding choice and freedom, and the hope that it will be appreciably improved in the next five years is slim at best.

Often, when I insist on higher standards in school choice policy, I am told that we must voice support because it will help some children now. Few seem to consider the hundreds of thousands of children who will not be helped in decades to come, indeed may well be harmed, because of this inadequate policy. Opportunity costs must be considered. All the children yet to be born must play into our utilitarian calculus if that is the measure we use to judge public policy.

And we should not pretend that obviously inadequate programs are bold reforms; it  only serves to encourage yet more inadequate policy. We should push the conversation and educate leaders and citizens about real reform. Instead, the issue of school choice will be set aside for at least four years, as politicians point to their “accomplishment” that will help so few and provide no foundation for future reform. A roadblock to real education reform has just been passed in Virginia, and it is labeled SB 131.