Tag: school choice

Schools of Choice Promote Civic Values

As Americans celebrate our independence this Fourth of July, we should reflect on the institutions that sustain a free society. Chief among these is an education system that instills the civic knowledge and values necessary for self-government. While our freedom was won on the battlefield, it must be nourished in the classroom.

The Founders cherished education as the surest means to preserve liberty. James Madison, considered the father of the U.S. Constitution, proclaimed that:

Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. […] What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?

 Likewise, Thomas Jefferson declared in a letter to a friend that a proper education was the best safeguard against abuse of power:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

For over a century, the “common school” has been hailed as the cornerstone of democracy. Where else will students learn what it means to be an American citizen but at a government school? What other institution is better suited to inculcate the civic values of our constitutional republic?

Of course, this is an empirically testable question, and it has been tested. A literature review from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice published earlier this year finds that private schools outperform government schools in teaching civics:

Seven empirical studies have examined school choice’s impact on civic values and practices such as respect for the rights of others and civic knowledge. Of these, five find that school choice improves civic values and practices. Two find no visible impact from school choice. No empirical study has found that school choice has a negative impact on civic values and practices.

The largest and most comprehensive of these studies, Dr. Patrick Wolf’s “Civics Exam,” found that private school students are, on average, more politically tolerant, more knowledgeable about our system of government, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more politically active than their government school peers.

 Unfortunately, over the last few decades, civic education in government schools has significantly declined:

When asked whether they are “very confident” that students have mastered important content and skills, only 24% of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15% think that their students understand concepts such as federalism and the separation of powers, and 11% believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.

Indeed, earlier this year, Washington D.C. education officials considered a proposal to drop the requirement that high schools students in our nation’s seat of government learn anything about that government.

On average, schools of choice outperform government schools at instilling the civic knowledge and values necessary to preserve a free society. The Founders’ vision depends on an educated populace, but it does not depend on the government to educate them. 

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.

NH Court: You Can Choose a School So Long as It’s Secular

Earlier today, a New Hampshire district court upheld the “Live Free or Die” state’s nascent scholarship tax credit (STC) program, but limited the use of scholarships to non-religious private schools.

Earlier this year, the ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit claiming that New Hampshire’s school choice law was unconstitutional under the state’s Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the public funding of religious schools. The law grants tax credits to corporations in return for contributions to non-profit scholarship organizations that fund low-and-middle-income students attending the schools of their choice.

The decision hinged on whether or not tax credits constitute “public money.” Previously, the U.S. Supreme Court held that they do not, noting that when “taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizaions], they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers.”

Likewise, the Arizona state supreme court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s STC program, forcefully rejecting the “public money” argument:

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “public money” is “[r]evenue received from federal, state, and local governments from taxes, fees, fines, etc.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1005 (6th ed.1990). As respondents note, however, no money ever enters the state’s control as a result of this tax credit. Nothing is deposited in the state treasury or other accounts under the management or possession of governmental agencies or public officials. Thus, under any common understanding of the words, we are not here dealing with “public money.”

While neither the Arizona supreme court nor U.S. Supreme Court serve as binding precedent for how a New Hampshire court may interpret the New Hampshire state constitution, their reasoning should have carried great weight as the question before the court was the same. Nevertheless, the NH trial court rejected this traditional understanding of “public money” in favor of the plaintiff’s “all your money are belong to us” argument. In the words of the trial court judge:

This Court concludes that the program uses “public funds,” or “money raised by taxation” … Money that would otherwise be flowing to the government is diverted for the very specific purpose of providing scholarships to students.

This is precisely the understanding of “public money” that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected: 

Respondents’ contrary position assumes that income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands. Private bank accounts cannot be equated with the … State Treasury.

The U.S. Supreme Court held, in essence, that your money is your own whether or not it qualifies for a tax deduction of some kind. A taxpayer’s money only becomes “public money” once the government actually collects it in the form of taxes. The NH trial court judge, by contrast, holds that any taxpayer’s income on which the government might have a claim is instantly “public money,” even before collection, and it remains so even if the existence of a tax credit or deduction means that government will never collect it.

Unfortunately, the legal theater of the absurd doesn’t end there. Charlie Arlinghaus, President of the Josiah Bartlett Center, which advised legislators on crafting the law, noted that the trial court’s logic leads to another absurd conclusion:

This ruling is particularly odd. The entire program is fine unless a parent by their own choice chooses a religious school. By this logic a program is illegal if neutral and only legal if actively hostile to religion. 

The Institute for Justice, which intervened on behalf of the Network for Education, the state’s first scholarship organization, will be appealing the decision to the state supreme court. IJ Senior Attorney Richard D. Komer stated:

The court’s ruling inflicts again the blatant discrimination that motivated New Hampshire’s bigoted Blaine Amendment in the first place.  We will immediately seek a stay of the court’s decision so that parents receiving scholarships can choose the educational options that best suit their child’s unique educational needs, regardless of whether that is a religious or secular school.

The trial court’s order halting the program is wrong on both the facts and the law. As a factual matter, the program is funded with private, not public dollars.  As a legal matter, the federal Constitution prohibits states from preferring non-religious schools over religious schools, which is precisely what the court’s ruling does.

We can only hope that the Granite State’s supreme court will exercise better judgment.

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.