Tag: school choice

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.

Who’s Afraid of School Profits?

Should there be a separation of school and profit? Many opponents of education reform seem to think so.

Case in point, a blog post at the Washington Post yesterday decried “outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.” Setting aside that the vast majority of private schools are nonprofit, the author apparently misses the fact that parents choose to send their kids to these schools. (Does it make sense to complain that other businesses are profiting “on the backs” of their paying customers?) In order to persuade parents to switch to private schools, they must offer parents something that the free-to-attend government schools do not. Even when a school choice program covers the full cost of private school tuition, the parents would merely be financially indifferent. To motivate parents to choose something other than the default government school option, private schools still must offer something better.

Moreover, it is absurd to think that profit—in the sense of financial gain—is limited only to the for-profit sector. Do teachers, principals, and other school staff from janitors to bus drivers “profit” from their salaries or wages? What of the profits made by the corporations that publish the textbooks that students read? Or construct school buildings? Or manufacture desks, whiteboards, pens, pencils, and playgrounds? Whether government- or privately-run, nearly every adult involved in the formal education process is earning a “profit” short of the parents who volunteer to chaperone the high school dance.

Those who denounce “profits” in education simply don’t understand the role of profits in a market. Perhaps they are confused because in the government-run education system with which they are familiar, there is little connection between financial gain and meeting the needs of students. In a competitive market, by contrast, profits (and, just as importantly, losses) provide valuable information. As explained in Herbert Walberg and Joseph Bast’s excellent book, Education and Capitalism: How Overcoming Our Fear of Markets and Economics Can Improve America’s Schools (which is celebrating its 10th anniversary):

In a capitalist economy, profits are the reward earned by firms that maximize the quality of services and goods, minimize overhead and bureaucracy, motivate their workers to achieve high and consistent levels of productivity, and avoid unnecessary expenditures. Successful firms sell better, cheaper, or better and cheaper products and services than do other firms. Customers notice, and business gradually shifts from inefficient to efficient firms. […]

Low-performing government schools don’t gradually lose customers and face the threat of closure, the way an inefficiently run business does. As a result, there is little urgency for reform. Their assets do not move from the control of those who have misused them into the hands of others who could do a better job. (Pages 98-9)

In our existing education system, only the financially well-off can afford to live in the expensive districts with high-performing government schools or to pay for private schooling. Without school choice programs, low-income families are locked out of these markets. Instead, their only option is the local, assigned, government school. If I blogged for WaPo, I might say that these underperforming schools are built on “the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

DOJ vs. School Choice

Claiming that private schools in Milwaukee are discriminating against students with disabilities, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) demanding that private schools participating in the Milwaukee school choice program comply with Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act. As Professor Patrick Wolf explains over at Education Next, the DOJ is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law.

Wolf is part of a team of researchers that has studied the Milwaukee school choice program over five years. Their statistical analysis “confirmed that no measure of student disadvantage—not disability status, not test scores, not income, not race—was statistically associated with whether or not an 8th grade voucher student was or was not admitted to a 9th grade voucher-receiving private school.” This is exactly what the law requires. Wisconsin law forbids discrimination on the basis of disability and requires schools participating in the voucher program to accept students on a random basis. 

Moreover, the DOJ is wrong on the law in treating private schools participating in the program as though they were government contractors. As Wolf explains:

Private organizations normally are exempt from Title II of ADA but the DOJ argues that the law applies to private schools in the MPCP because the government is contracting with them to provide a public service (the education of K-12 students). This claim flies in the face of the facts and case-law surrounding the program. The voucher program does not involve any contracts, of any kind, between any government organization and the participating private schools. Students need to meet certain eligibility restrictions to participate in the program, as do interested private schools. Once both are deemed eligible by the state, students choose schools and government funds flow to the private schools based on the choices families have made and consistent with the laws governing the program, not based on any “contract.” In fact, the Wisconsin State Statute that governs the MPCP, §119.23, is entirely separate from Wisconsin State Statute §119.235 entitled “Contracts with Private Schools and Agencies.” Nothing could make the point clearer that the MPCP is not a case of government contracting for education services.

Wolf suspects that the DOJ’s letter came as a result of the Wisconsin DPI’s report that 1.6 percent of choice students have a disability. Since the DPI is not authorized to collect that information, they estimated the number of students with disabilities using the number of choice students given accommodations on the state accountability exam. However, as Wolf explains, that is a highly flawed proxy since only a minority of students with disabilities are given such accommodations. Wolf’s team of researchers estimated that the number of choice students with disabilities between 7.5 and 14.6 percent, with their best estimate being 11.4 percent.

The DOJ’s overreach may be unsurprising in light of other recent scandals, but it also sets a terrible precedent. Parents choosing to use their vouchers at private educational institutions do not render those institutions “government contractors” any more than grocery stores become “government contractors” when citizens use their EBT cards to purchase food there. The Obama administration’s unlawful and misguided attempt to hamper school choice programs with additional red tape should be vigorously resisted.