Tag: school vouchers

An Accounting of Indiana’s Voucher Regulations

I’ve been trying to draw attention to the dangers that regulations like those in Indiana’s new voucher program pose for long-term educational freedom and choice.

It’s a difficult thing to do, in part because we have little freedom at all in the public school system that educates the vast majority of kids. Destroying the independence and diversity of the private education sector seems a reasonable risk to run for many if it means more choice for the majority of families. I disagree, and think that we’ll trade the possibility of a dynamic and innovative market in education for a new era of stagnant secular and religious public schools.

The other difficulty in explaining the threat of regulations like those in Indiana’s voucher law is that it is a complicated bill, linked to complicated existing state code.

In the interest of clarity and transparency, I’ve uploaded a two-page overview of the regulations, with citations and links for those who would like to take a look themselves. You can access it here: Regulations Associated with HB 1003 Indiana—2011-05-20

Let me know what you think, and whether I have missed or misinterpreted anything.

Matt Ladner replied to my concerns recently with some interesting qualifications and questions. He notes, “I haven’t seen an example yet of a voucher program in the United States swallowing up the private school sector and homogenizing them, but I agree that it is possible and a grave concern.”

The primary reason we haven’t seen this yet is that these programs have all been too small and constrained by funding caps. And that’s the problem with the Indiana plan and other plans to expand heavily regulated voucher programs; the better they are on coverage and access, the more devastating the consequences for educational freedom.

I find it horrifying to contemplate looking back 15 years from now at this moment of great opportunity and realize that, in the pursuit of choice, we imported the dysfunctions of government education and top-down control into the private sector and reduced both choice and freedom in the process.

Pennsylvania School Choice Bills

Much attention and controversy have been focused in recent months on Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1, which would create a government-funded school voucher program.  Less attention, and far less controversy, accompanied the passage yesterday of an expansion of the state’s existing education tax credit program out of the House education committee. The vote was 21 to 4.

Apart from the seemingly more favorable reception it is receiving, the tax credit program has three notable advantages: it is less likely to curtail educational freedom by suffocating participating private schools with regulation (which would defeat the purpose of a school choice program), it does not force taxpayers to support types of education that may violate their convictions, and it encourages direct co-payments by parents toward the cost their children’s education, when they can afford to do so (which is associated in the international and historical research with higher school efficiency and greater responsiveness to parents’ demands).

Worth thinking about.

Tax Cuts vs. Government Checks … NRO Conclusion and Correction

VerBruggen signs off on the tax cut/government check debate by doubling down on the core issue; he believes that there is no meaningful difference between government spending and a tax cut.  I will quote him in full: “If some libertarians want to keep insisting that there’s a meaningful difference between (A) the government spending $500 on something and (B) a person “donating” $500 to that thing and then getting a $500 break on his taxes in return, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

In this, he has the company of the 9th Circuit and the Progressive wing of SCOTUS.

VerBruggen has also rightly asked for a correction to one of the numerous quotes I pulled from his blog posts on tax cuts vs government spending. I thank him sincerely for reading through to the end of my interminable post. The correct quote is below, with the omitted, qualifying language in italics, a new note on charitable giving and government spending, and my otherwise unchanged commentary:

He insists that “much (most?) deducted charity spending does not offset government spending in the slightest,” yet also agrees that “voucherizing the tax subsidies for charity would remove the incentive to donate” to the range of charitable and social welfare activities the government supports. [Note: There is much evidence that government spending on “charity” crowds out charitable giving. And most, not to mention much, charitable giving in the U.S. is devoted to health, educational, social welfare and religious organizations which in turn focus on assistance to the poor, health and educational activities. Needless to say, the government is deeply involved in health, education and welfare spending. See the index of Arthur Brooks’ fascinating book, Who Really Cares, for more details.]

Charity does not reduce pressure on the welfare state? The billions of dollars donated to health, education, welfare … these offset nothing in the public sector? In the absence of tax expenditures for employer-provided health care, how likely is it that the U.S. would have retained a relatively robust private medical market?

The charitable deduction allows the people who earned the money our governments spend on public “charity” to keep some portion of what the government would otherwise have spent on government “charity” or some other wasteful project.

If VerBruggen is concerned that the tax burden will marginally increase on some citizen as the result of another’s charitable deduction then the answer is to balance that lost revenue with a reduction in government “charity,” not to eliminate the deduction.

Perhaps most concerning is VerBruggen’s breezy assumption that all income belongs to the government. He insists that “taxpayer money is already allocated” in the form of deductions for charity, and therefore that “voucherizing the total amount of the deductions wouldn’t change that …”

Really? Tax credits and deductions belong to the taxpayer who earned them. They are not government funds; that is a legal and logical statement. To insist otherwise is to argue that all income is the governments, and what it does not claim is ours. The money that a taxpayer spends is HIS money, not the government’s.

And, as is noted above, voucherizing charitable deductions will convert a huge portion into direct welfare payments and eliminate the core of the charitable act; giving away one’s own money.

Universal Charity Vouchers. A Conservative Solution?

Robert VerBruggen of NRO believes that the only difference between allowing taxpayers to direct their own funds according to their individual preferences and having the government pool all tax dollars and distribute them according its collective preference is political, not principled. A mere technicality rather than a fundamental distinction.

Moreover, VerBruggen contends that it is dishonest to use tax credits instead of direct government spending.

If that’s true, why don’t we voucherize charitable giving?

The feds should eliminate the charitable tax deduction and send out the average (tax-forgiven) amount donated per adult to every citizen in the country to donate as they wish! Would this be more honest? Is there no fundamental difference between these two approaches?

Sure, some people would complain about how their tax dollars were being redistributed to, say, support abortion clinics or the Catholic Church or PETA. They would carp about how they, as taxpayers who earned that money in the first place, should be the ones to direct their money to the charity of their choice. They would complain that pooling the money and doling it out to people who didn’t earn it to use at their own discretion, according to some criteria determined by the government, is unfair and wrong. Are these just technicalities?

Is direct government spending on universal charity vouchers really no different than giving individual taxpayers the freedom to donate to the charities of their choosing?

Would universal charity vouchers be preferable to the individual tax deductions for charitable donations that we have today, from the standpoint of minimizing compulsion and social tension? To claim that school vouchers are equal to or better than tax credits on these grounds is to claim that universal government charity vouchers would be better than the system we have today.

“By letting citizens do the government’s job of allocating tax money to the preferred area,” VerBruggen insists, “politicians can avoid controversy, claiming they’re merely enabling ‘donations.’” He therefore concedes, “so maybe there’s something to Coulson’s argument about avoiding social conflict, if only because people mistakenly think there’s a meaningful difference between the two funding mechanisms.” While VerBruggen supports direct government vouchers, using “[tax expenditures] is a dishonest way to get them.”

VerBruggen seems pre-committed to charity vouchers. It’s the only honest thing to do. Anyone else on board with that?

School Vouchers vs. Tax Credits

NRO editor Robert VerBruggen has weighed in a couple of times this week on the relative merits of school vouchers and education tax credits, raising interesting and important issues.

In response to my earlier post today about an education tax credit case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, VerBruggen writes:

If the Supreme Court buys this logic — which I suppose is sound on its face — it could lead to some very interesting programs. Any time it’s illegal for a government to fund something directly, it could simply make a dollar-for-dollar “tax credit” program for it, allowing sympathetic taxpayers to technically “donate” — but actually just redirect the taxes they’d otherwise have to pay — to the cause.

This is actually an argument presented by critics of the program in their brief asking the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal that it… just decided to hear. The fact that this argument is fallacious is no doubt one reason that the Supreme Court decided to reject critics’ request. Here’s where it goes wrong:

Under a constitutional tax credit program such as Arizona’s, the state has no power to pressure/encourage taxpayers to do anything that the state could not do directly. Taxpayers can choose to give no money to religious charities, or to give all their money to them. The state is unable to affect their decisions in any way.

As Ilya Shapiro and I pointed out in Cato’s amicus brief in this case, this is identical to the law pertaining to federal charitable tax deductions. Religious charities get more tax deductible donations than any other kind of entity, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld their constitutionality because the decisions regarding such donations are left entirely to the unfettered choices of private citizens.

While it would be unconstitutional for a tax credit program to only allow donations to religious charities, it is perfectly consistent with the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent for a tax credit program to be religiously neutral, leaving the donating decisions to private citizens.

But there’s much more to it than this. Credits are not just constitutional, they offer an important advantage over vouchers. Under voucher programs, all taxpayers must support every kind of schooling, which can be a source of social conflict in a diverse society. [Think liberals being forced to fund religious-conservative-capitalist schooling; or conservatives being forced to fund schools supporting homosexuality as natural and without any inherent moral implications]. While this doesn’t violate the U.S. constitution (see Zelman v. Simmons Harris), it’s still a less-than-ideal outcome, as was observed in all three dissents in the Zelman case.

Tax credits, as I explained in the last section of our amicus brief (p. 21), avoid this source of social conflict. Not just families but taxpayers enjoy the benefits of free choice and voluntary association. Tax credits are thus a way to ensure universal access to a free educational marketplace without putting citizens into conflict with one another on matters of conscience. For this and many other reasons, they are the best realistic policy for advancing educational freedom yet devised.

It’s Dangerous For Pols to be on the Wrong Side of Overwhelming Support

Any City Council members who aren’t vocally supporting the DC voucher program need to take a good long look at these numbers:

Nearly 75 percent of District residents support the city’s federally funded school voucher program, according to a rigorous, independent poll released today. Widespread support for the program crosses party lines—with 74 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Independents backing the program—and extends across each of the District’s eight wards…

Two previous polls have demonstrated local support for the program; in 2007, a Greater Washington Urban League poll demonstrated almost 70 percent support for the federal funding creating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. A 2008 poll by the national nonprofit Education Reform Now demonstrated equally strong support for the voucher initiative, with 63 percent of D.C. residents supporting school vouchers in general and 77 percent voicing supporting for parental choice in education.

Good Policy and Strategy in NJ

Chris Christie, the Republican candidate in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race this year, has some life in him. He’s going to hit incumbent Jon Corzine hard on the education issue and is making urban education reform and private school choice a central part of his platform.

Some highlights on Christie from the NYT:

He’s white, he’s conservative, and his support is strongest in New Jersey’s suburbs, where the public schools include some of the nation’s best.

Yet Christopher J. Christie, the Republican candidate for governor, is hunting for votes in cities like Newark, Camden and Trenton, where Democrats routinely pile up big margins, but where black and Hispanic parents are increasingly running out of patience with the public schools, among the nation’s worst…

But what could emerge as the sleeper issue is Mr. Christie’s push for education reform: merit pay for teachers, more charter schools, and above all, [education tax credits] as a way to give poor and minority children better educational choices and create competition that would improve the public schools…

Mr. Christie said that he did not expect to carry any heavily Democratic cities. But he is gambling that school choice has become popular enough among urban blacks and Latinos that he can cut into their support for Mr. Corzine, who opposes it.

Just a note: The article talks primarily about “vouchers,” but the private school choice plan being pushed there is a donation tax credit program. Reporters have difficulty with the distinction.