Tag: school choice

Montana Bureaucrats: Religious Families Need Not Apply

Montana’s scholarship tax credit (STC) law was already crippled and now bureaucrats are attempting to issue the coup de grâce

Montana’s STC law offers individuals and corporations tax credits in return for donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations that help families send their children to the school of their choice. All Montana students are eligible to apply for a tax-credit scholarship and the value of the scholarships is capped at half the statewide average per-pupil expenditure at the district schools (just over $5,300).

The only catch is that donations are capped at $150 per donor, far lower than in any other state. That means it would take at least 34 donors to fund a single $5,000 scholarship–a monumental task for scholarship organizations seeking to fund thousands of students.

But even if the scholarship organizations manage to raise the requisite funds, families may not be allowed to use the scholarships at their preferred school due to Montana Department of Revenue’s proposed rule barring the use of tax-credit scholarships at religious schools

The proposed regulations would bar schools from participating in the program if they’re “owned or controlled in whole or in part by any church, religious sect, or denomination.”

The proposed regulations also note schools are barred if their accreditation comes from a faith-based organization. […]

Republican state Sen. Kristin Hansen, who supported the bill, said the department was out of bounds.

“It’s the opposite of the intent of the legislation,” she said. “When we drafted the bill, we intentionally drafted a substantial definition of who qualified, so there wouldn’t be any questions about who would be eligible. I think the department has exceeded its authority by adding its own interpretation … when the Legislature was very clear. Absolutely, I think this proposed rule exceeds the department’s authority on more than one level.”

The bureaucrats claim they’re just following the state constitution’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the appropriation of “any public fund or monies” to churches, religious schools, and other religious institutions. However, as the U.S. Supreme Court and several state supreme courts have held, tax-credit scholarships constitute private funding, not public funding, because the funds never enter the state treasury. Constitutionally, tax credits are no different than tax deductions or tax exemptions. Has the Montana Department of Revenue prohibited donors to churches from receiving charitable tax deductions? Has it prohibited the churches themselves from taking property tax exemptions? If not, why is it treating the tax credit law differently?

The department will hold a hearing on its proposed rules on November 5th. Hopefully the bureaucrats will see the error of their ways and change course. If not, they are inviting a lawsuit–one they are likely to lose.  

Protecting School Choice from the State

As economists have understood for more than half a century, government agencies charged with regulating industries are often subject to regulatory capture. Rather than protect consumers from bad actors in the industries they were created to oversee, regulators too often develop cozy relationships with industry leaders and work at their behest to advance their interests. In Free to Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman detailed a particularly egregious example: the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).

Established in 1887, the ICC’s mission was to regulate the powerful railroad industry, which critics accused of engaging in cartel-like price fixing and market sharing. Instead, the railroad industry took almost immediate control of the ICC. The ICC’s first commissioner, Thomas Cooley, was a lawyer who had long represented the railroads and, as the Friedmans explained, many of the agency’s the bureaucrats “were drawn from the railroad industry, their day-to-day business tended to be with railroad people, and their chief hope of a lucrative future was with railroads.” 

The Year of Educational Choice: Update V

This is the sixth post in a series covering the advance of educational choice legislation across the country this year. As of my last update in early July, there were 18 new or expanded choice programs in 14 states. A few days after that update, Wisconsin enacted a new voucher program for students with special needs. And on Friday, North Carolina lawmakers finally passed a long-overdue budget that expanded the state’s two school voucher programs for low-income and special-needs students, bringing the total number to 21 new or expanded programs in 15 states. The updated tally is below.

A lawsuit against the Tar Heel State’s voucher law impeded implementation so only 1,216 low-income students participated last year, barely 10 percent of the 12,000+ applications the state received. In July, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the program, clearing the way for the legislature to expand it. 

Pope’s Visit Good Time to Contemplate Educational Freedom

The nation is abuzz with the visit of Pope Francis. There is, of course, a lot that could be discussed with the coming of the Pope, but for education it is a good time to remember the crucial importance of freedom. After all, for much of our history the biggest fights in education were over the public schools’ inability to accommodate Roman Catholics.

From the earliest advocacy of public schooling, arguably the primary goal has been to unite diverse people. As Founding Father Benjamin Rush put it in his Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, “Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.”

Of course, there is a fundamental problem with this: diverse people will almost certainly want diverse things out of education, so conflict – and suppressing of politically weak minorities to end it – is inevitable.

For much of American history, there was no bigger flashpoint than religion.

Notably, the first religious disputes over “common schools” were not between Catholics and Protestants, but among Protestants. In the Massachusetts of common schools “father” Horace Mann, many orthodox Protestants took issue with the public schools that were to teach “nonsectarian” Christianity, a lowest-common-denominator Protestantism that, among many things, appeared to be Unitarian – Mann’s denomination. It is likely that Mann just wanted to avoid doctrines that would spur theological disputes, but even that proved impossible, with the absence of such doctrines also appearing sectarian.

ACLU v. Nevada Children

The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is filing a legal challenge against Nevada’s new education savings account program. The ACLU argues that using the ESA funds at religious institutions would violate the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever…shall be used for sectarian purposes.”  

What “for sectarian purposes” actually means (beyond thinly veiled code for “Catholic schools”) is a matter of dispute. Would that prohibit holding Bible studies at one’s publicly subsidized apartment? Using food stamps to purchase Passover matzah? Using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the payroll? Would it prohibit the state from issuing college vouchers akin to the Pell Grant? Or pre-school vouchers? If not, why are K-12 subsidies different?

While the legal eagles mull those questions over, let’s consider what’s at stake. Children in Nevada–particularly Las Vegas–are trapped in overcrowded and underperforming schools. Nevada’s ESA offers families much greater freedom to customize their children’s education–a freedom they appear to appreciate. Here is how Arizona ESA parents responded when asked about their level of satisfaction with the ESA program:

 Parental satisfaction with Arizona's ESA program

And here’s how those same parents rated their level of satisfaction with the public schools that their children previously attended:

Parental satisfaction among AZ ESA families with their previous public schools 

Note that the lowest-income families were the least satisfied with their previous public school and most satisfied with the providers they chose with their ESA funds.

Similar results are not guaranteed in Nevada and there are important differences between the programs–when the survey was administered, eligibility for Arizona’s ESA was limited only to families of students with special needs who received significantly more funding than the average student (though still less than the state would have spent on them at a public school). By contrast, Nevada’s ESA program is open to all public school students, but payments to low-income families are capped at the average state funding per pupil ($5,700). Nevertheless, it is the low-income students who have the most to gain from the ESA–and therefore the most to lose from the ACLU’s ill-considered lawsuit.

The Reigning School Choice Champion

On Monday, Education Next released the results of its 2015 survey on education policy. Neal McCluskey already summarized the key findings, but I want to highlight one finding in particular: scholarship tax credits (STCs) are the most popular form of private educational choice. 

STCs received the support of 55 percent of respondents compared to somewhere between 47 percent and 51 percent for charter schools (depending on whether the survey first explained what charter schools are), 27 percent to 46 percent for universal school vouchers (again, depending on the wording of the question), and 34 percent to 41 percent for low-income vouchers. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask about education savings accounts.

2015 Education Next survey: types of choice

Support for STCs was even higher among parents (57 percent), African-Americans (60 percent), and Hispanics (62 percent). This is not surprising since minorities are more likely to be low-income and therefore choice deprived. Those voicing support for STCs more than doubled those opposed in the general public (26 percent) and more than tripled the opposition among African-Americans (16 percent) and Hispanics (18 percent).

Previous Education Next surveys–as well as the Friedman Foundation’s survey last year–also found the most support for STCs among school choice policies. 

"A proposal has been made to offer a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools. Would you favor or oppose such a proposal?"

Support for STCs dipped slightly from a high of 60 percent last year, but it is still higher than any other year since Education Next first started asking the question in 2009. (They did not ask about STCs in 2013.) However, the poll also revealed the second highest level of opposition since 2009.

In the Friedman Foundation’s 2015 survey, released in July, scholarship tax credits, school vouchers, and education savings accounts all received high levels of support that were within the margin of error of each other when the question was prefaced with an explanation of how the policy worked:

  • Scholarship tax credits: 60 percent support, 29 percent opposition;
  • Education savings accounts: 62 percent support, 28 percent opposition;
  • School vouchers: 61 percent support, 33 percent opposition.

However, when not preceded by a prompt, only 39 percent of respondents supported school vouchers while 26 percent were opposed. (The other questions were only asked with an explanatory prompt because few Americans are familiar with STCs or ESAs.) Charter schools were the least popular with 53 percent in support and 27 percent opposed.

Encouragingly, support for STCs and ESAs in the Friedman poll was highest among Americans aged 18-34 with 72 percent and 75 percent support respectively. These results may well indicate a coming school choice tidal wave.

Latest Poll: Common Core Crashing, People Want Everything, and More

The annual Education Next poll on school reform is out, and as always it’s boiling over with hot, tasty results. I won’t hit nearly everything in it, and even the topics I do cover can be dissected much further, but I have a few parts I want to highlight.

Common Core

Questions about the Common Core national curriculum standards have been my main focus in past EdNext polls, and they remain so this time around. The news isn’t good for the Core. Among respondents asked whether they support the Core, defined as standards states chose to adopt that “will be used to hold public schools accountable” – a description heavily biased with the promise of wonderful-sounding accountability – support has dropped from 65 percent in 2013 to 49 percent in 2015. Among teachers, the Core has donned its barrel and plunged from 76 percent support to 40 percent, with 50 percent now opposing it. Finally, getting rid of the accountability promise in the description resulted in just 39 percent of the public supporting the Core and 37 percent opposing, essentially a tie when margin of error is considered.

Federal Role

Questions about the federal role in education reveal what appear to be some serious inconsistencies. Unfortunately, 41 percent of the public thinks Washington should be in charge of “setting educational standards for what children should know,” while 43 percent think the states should be and 15 percent local governments. That means roughly 4 out of 10 people are ignoring the Constitution, as well as the federal government’s very poor track record. More encouraging, lower percentages of parents and teachers would have the feds lead on standards, and only about 1 in 5 members of the public think Washington should decide if “a school is failing” or “how to fix failing schools.” But get this: The poll also finds that 67 percent of the public thinks DC should require that all students “in grades 3-8 and once in high school” take math and reading tests. Oh, and allowing parents to opt their kids out of such tests? Only 26 percent of the public, and 32 percent of parents, support that. If there is a unifying theme here it may be that the public likes the abstract idea of national benchmarks but not centralized ramifications for performance, which we likely see reflected in the Common Core debate and No Child Left Behind reauthorization.