Tag: scholarship tax credits

School Choice at the Polls

In a nation with a strong tradition of holding major political contests in years divisible by the number two, politicos are mostly confined to chirping about distant elections during odd-numbered years. The exceptions in the year following a presidential election are New Jersey and Virginia, which hold their gubernatorial elections. In addition, due to the passing of Senator Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey will hold a special election to the U.S. Senate. In all three elections, one or both of the major candidates have made school choice an issue. That makes sense because school choice is increasingly popular, especially once implemented. Unfortunately, while the candidates should be commended for promoting school choice policies in general, their specifics leave much to be desired.

Last week, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, unveiled an education plan calling for an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit program (or the creation of a separate program) that would direct funds to students currently attending a failing public school. However, what Virginia’s scholarship tax credit program really needs is the policy equivalent of Extreme Home Makeover to remove unnecessary regulations on private schools, shift administration of the program to the Department of Revenue, increase the credit amount, and expand the uses of the scholarships beyond just tuition. As Andrew Coulson has demonstrated, it is the least regulated, most market-like private schools that do the best job of serving families. 

Parents Want More Education Options

A record number of low-income families participated in Florida’s scholarship tax credit (STC) program this year.

According to the Florida Department of Education’s latest report, the number of scholarship recipients grew by 10,827 students from 40,248 in 2011-12 to 51,075 in 2012-13, an increase of 26.9 percent. More than half of the scholarship recipients are in grade 3 or lower, indicating that the program will continue to grow over time.

Florida’s sole scholarship organization, Step Up for Students, focuses aid on the families that are most in need. Florida’s STC program requires that the families of first-time scholarship-recipients earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line ($43,568 for a family of four), but the average scholarship recipient’s family income is only about 106 percent of the federal poverty line ($23,579 for a family of four). 

Scholarship recipients are much more racially diverse than Florida’s general population. Scholarship recipients are 25 percent non-Hispanic white, 33 percent non-Hispanic black and 35 percent Hispanic compared to 78 percent non-Hispanic white, 17 percent non-Hispanic black, and and 23 percent Hispanic in the general population.

According to Jon East, spokesperson for Step Up for Students, there are still more than 10,000 students on the waiting list due to the program cap. This is consistent with the demand for STC programs in other states. For example, just one of Pennsylvania’s roughly 250 scholarship organizations, the Children’s Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, had to turn away 104,500 of 115,000 scholarship applicants over the last decade due to the state’s program cap.

Florida’s STC program is allowed to grow to meet demand over time because the law contains an “escalator” provision that automatically raises the cap whenever the program grows to at least 90 percent of the cap. While STC programs in Arizona and New Hampshire contain similar provisions, most do not. That’s unfortunate, since the caps limit the program’s ability to expand education options to low-income families.

New Hampshire Court’s School Choice Decision Was Flawed and Unprecedented

Last week, a New Hampshire trial court declared that the state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program could not fund students attending religious schools. The Granite State’s STC program grants tax credits to corporations worth 85 percent of their contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations that aid low- and middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

Writing on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Professor Kevin Welner of the University of Colorado at Boulder mocked supporters of the program who criticized the decision. Welner argues that school choice advocates should have expected this decision, declaring that it was “unsurprising” that the court should find the program (partially) unconstitutional. But what Welner calls unsurprising is actually unprecedented.

Only toward the bottom of his post does Welner reveal that the only high courts to address the issue thus far—the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arizona supreme court—have ruled STC programs constitutional in their entirety. Indeed, though all but two of the remaining ten states with STC programs have similar “Blaine Amendment” provisions in their state constitutions, opponents haven’t even bothered to challenge their constitutionality. Additionally, other state courts have ruled on the question of whether tax credits constitute “public money” in a manner consistent with the previous STC cases, demonstrating that the courts’ rulings were not the aberrations that Welner imagines them to be.

If school choice supporters had a reason not to be surprised, it was because the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State shrewdly went judge shopping. That’s why they brought their lawsuit in Strafford County instead of Merrimack County, where the state capital is located. Their strategy seemed to pay off, as the judge’s decision relies heavily on the dissenting opinions in the U.S. Supreme Court and Arizona supreme court decisions, and misapplies the limited precedent from New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the final decision rests with the New Hampshire supreme court. As I detail below, logic and precedent suggest that they should overturn the lower court’s decision.

South Carolina Adopts School Choice

When South Carolina’s legislature narrowly rejected a school choice proposal last month, it seemed that the education reform movement would have to wait another year to make any progress in the Palmetto State. That changed yeseterday when both legislative chambers approved the conference committee’s state budget, which includes a scholarship tax credit (STC) program for students with special needs.

South Carolina’s legislation is only the latest sign of the increasing popularity of school choice. Last week, Arizona’s legislature voted to expand the types of corporate donors that could participate in its STC program. Earlier this year, Iowa and Georgia expanded their STC programs so that more students could receive scholarships and Alabama enacted a new STC program.

As with Alabama’s STC program, South Carolina’s program is very limited in scope relative to STC programs in other states, particularly New Hampshire. According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice:

Under the proposal, taxpayers can receive a credit worth no more than 60 percent of their state tax liability when donating to nonprofits that distribute private school scholarships to children with special needs. Scholarships cannot exceed $10,000 per pupil. The statewide limit on tax credits distributed is $8 million. According to 2011-12 data, more than 12 percent of South Carolina students are identified as having a disability that would qualify them for the program.

A cap on donations makes fundraising more difficult for scholarship organizations while a cap on the total amount of tax credits limits the number of students who can participate. And while it is understandable that policymakers would prioritize students with special needs, they are far from the only students who would benefit from expanded educational options. Despite these limitations, South Carolina’s decision yesterday is a great step toward an education system that meets the individual needs of every child.

Arizona Expands Its School Choice Program

Arizona is the latest state to expand school choice. Yesterday, the Arizona legislature passed a bill to expand the type of corporations eligible to participate as donors in the Grand Canyon State’s scholarship tax credit (STC) program and to streamline the program’s tax credit approval process.

Under current law, only C-corporations are eligible to receive tax credits in return for donations to state-approved scholarship organizations. The legislation expands donor eligibility to include S-corporations and limited liability corporations, which are typically smaller businesses relative to C-corps. Expanding the donor pool will make it easier for scholarship organizations to raise money to help low-income and disabled students attend the schools of their choice.

The bill also mandates that the Arizona Department of Revenue create a website to process the tax credit requests electronically. Since the STC program caps the total amount of tax credits issued in a given year, the AZ-DOR must pre-approve donations to be eligible for tax credits. According to the Center for Arizona Policy, the current system can be “a tedious and lengthy process [that] often discourages donors from participating.” The web-based approval process is expected to be much faster and easier.

This is the latest of numerous STC program expansions. Earlier this year, state legislatures in Iowa and Georgia voted overwhelmingly to expand their states’ STC programs. Last year, Arizona and Florida expanded their STC programs as well. In total, six of the seven states to enact STC programs before 2010 have subsequently expanded them.

Support for School Choice Tax Credits Grows Once Implemented

The unanimous decision of the Iowa legislature to expand the state’s scholarship tax credit (STC) program yesterday once again demonstrates that school choice programs grow even more popular once implemented.

Iowa’s STC expansion bill raises the credit cap from $8.75 million to $12 million and expands the types of corporations eligible to receive tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations. The bill adds no new regulations.

Six of the seven states with STC programs enacted before 2010 have subsequently voted to expand those programs. The chart below shows the legislative support and opposition in four of those states. (The expansions in Indiana and Pennsylvania were part of legislation covering other issues so they were excluded from this analysis. The chart includes information for Arizona’s corporate-donor STC program but not its individual-donor STC program, for a similar reason.)

 

Initial Vote For STC Program

Most Recent STC Expansion

State

Year

For

Against

% Difference

Year

For

Against

% Difference

Arizona House

2006

33

26

12%

2012

37

19

32%

Arizona Senate

2006

16

13

10%

2012

20

9

38%

Florida House

2001

76

39

32%

2012

92

24

59%

Florida Senate

2001

33

4

78%

2012

32

8

60%

Georgia House

2008

92

73

12%

2013

168

3

96%

Georgia Senate

2008

32

20

23%

2013

40

11

57%

Iowa House

2006

75

19

60%

2013

97

0

100%

Iowa Senate

2006

49

1

96%

2013

49

0

100%

The most dramatic shift was in Georgia’s State House, which moved in just a few years from a fairly even divide to overwhelming support. Support in Iowa went from overwhelming to unanimous. While Florida’s Senate barely moved, support has grown considerably in the House. Arizona has also had modest increases in support for school choice in both chambers.

A survey by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that 72 percent of the American public already supports scholarship tax credit programs. The survey found even higher support among parents, African-Americans, Hispanics, and registered Independents and Democrats.

There have not yet been any studies measuring whether support in a given state increases after enacting an STC program, but if legislative support is a reliable proxy then the answer appears to be in the affirmative.

Which State Will Expand School Choice Next?

With over 150,000 participating students in 12 states, scholarship tax credit (STC) programs constitute the largest and most popular form of private school choice. STC programs have expanded rapidly in recent years with six states adopting them since 2011, including Alabama this year. So which state will be next? After yesterday’s disappointing defeat in South Carolina, the answer may lie on the opposite side of the continent.

Earlier this week, Rep. Liz Pike introduced an STC bill to the Washington state legislature. The bill would provide tax credits to corporations donating to state-approved scholarship organizations that fund children from low-income families and children with disabilities attending the schools of their choice.

Like the STC program that New Hampshire enacted last year, the WA legislation follows the best practices from STC programs around the nation and avoids the flaws of the recent bills in Virginia and Alabama. Washington’s proposed STC program would be capped at $100 million in the first year and includes an “escalator” so that the program will grow over time to meet demand and it eschews unnecessary new regulations. The $5,000 cap on scholarships is high enough to benefit low-income families but low enough that the state still has the potential to save money, as shown in this chart from the Freedom Foundation comparing the maximum scholarship size to Washington state’s total public school spending per pupil: 

How Tax Credits Result in Savings. Image courtesy of the Freedom Foundation.

The bill could go farther still by expanding the use of the scholarships to include educational expenses beyond just private school tuition. For example, under New Hampshire’s STC program, scholarships can cover expenses such as tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, and online learning. Adding a similar provision would move the bill from school choice to educational choice, which would foster greater customization and innovation in the delivery of education.

But even without such provisions, school choice programs have been proven effective at improving student outcomes and adopting one would be a great leap forward for Washington’s education system.