Topic: Education and Child Policy

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.  

The Common Core Is in Retreat

A Politico article today declares that the Common Core has “quietly” won the school standards war. It is a headline that would have been accurate several years ago, but today’s headline should be somewhat different:  “Common Core in major – but quiet – retreat.”

The one thing the article gets right is that the Core did, indeed, achieve almost complete domination very quietly. But that was around six years ago, when the Obama administration, at the behest of Core strategizers, slipped the de facto requirement that states adopt the Core into the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, a pot of “stimulus” money the large majority of states grabbed for while the country panicked about the Great Recession. It was also used to pay for national tests to go with the Core. It was, for all intents and purposes, a silent coup.

But then something happened. Around 2011 the public suddenly became cognizant that they’d lost a war they weren’t even aware they were in. After the states had done their part in conforming to the new standards overlords, districts and schools were told, “implement this new set of standards you’ve never heard of.” That’s when the resistance began, and it quickly grew fierce. Indeed, the Core has been on the defensive ever since.

Polling, though subject to lots of variation thanks to wording and other issues, shows the losses the Core has suffered. As I noted a few months ago, more-neutral poll questions tend to show very low support for the Core, but it is a question that is biased in favor of the Core that captures the direction in which the Core has been going: backwards. Defining the Core as standards states simply choose to adopt that “will be used to hold public schools accountable,” the annual Education Next poll found support dropping from 65 percent in 2013 to 49 percent in 2015. Among teachers, the Core freefell from 76 percent support to 40 percent, with 50 percent now opposing.

Capturing how bad things are for the Core, a question in a brand new poll that blatantly spins for the Core, describing it as a “set of high-quality [italics added] academic standards,” elicited only 44 percent support, with only 9 percent saying the standards “are working in their current form and should not be changed.”

Sure doesn’t seem like the Core is triumphant, at least not on the battlefield of public opinion.

Analyzing Arne’s Era and What’s to Come

Arne Duncan announced Friday that he is resigning as Secretary of Education, effective sometime in December. He will be replaced – sort of – by Deputy Education Secretary John King, who will not be put up for the permanent job but will be kept until the end of the administration in an “acting” – and Senate confirmation-less – capacity.

Of course, what Duncan has done as Secretary reflects what the Obama administration wanted, not what Duncan did on his own. Regardless who was ultimately calling the shots, though, Duncan presided over a period that has fulfilled some of the worst fears of anyone who has ever said, “It might be a bad idea to have a federal education department. They might start trying to run things.”

The overarching theme under Duncan has been huge consolidation of power not just at the federal level – alone blatantly unconstitutional – but in the Department itself.

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.” 

Liberty Usually Violated before the “Ban”

It is Banned Books Week, designated by the American Library Association and others as the time for “celebrating the freedom to read.” Of course, having the freedom to read whatever one wants is essential to a free society. But regular abuse of the term “banning,” and the violations of freedom that often occur before any so-called banning is attempted, are just as crucial to recognize if we really care about liberty.

Unfortunately, just about any time a parent or taxpaying citizen challenges the presence of a book in a public library or school, deafening alarm bells are rung that there is an attempted banning underway. But, as this Slate article nicely explains, there is very little actual “banning” being attempted, if by banning we mean “officially or legally prohibiting” someone from accessing a book. Just because you may not be able to get a book at a library does not mean you cannot legally obtain it at all. For the most part, it just means you have to hop onto Amazon and buy the book yourself. Which takes us to the violation that occurs before most “banning” is even tried.

As I explained a few years back, when a public library or school purchases a book with taxpayer dollars, it compels taxpayers to support someone else’s speech – a violation of liberty. This is even more the case if the library decides that it will purchase some books and not others, which it must do unless it has, essentially, infinite funds. Then a government entity not only compels support of speech, but chooses to elevate some speech above others.

A Solution in Search of a Problem

Last week, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission released its draft recommendations for improving and expanding the state’s school choice programs. While some of the commission’s proposed changes are meritorious, the commission failed to recommend expanding the state’s highly popular, nearly universal scholarship tax credit (STC), instead proposing that the state create a new STC that is highly regulated and much more limited in scope.

The commission’s two proposed changes to the existing STC (having the Department of Revenue count actual contributions against the tax credit cap rather than mere pledges and changing the start date for claiming credits) would make it easier for scholarship organizations to raise funds. The commission also explored the possibility of converting the STC into an education savings account (possibly still funded through tax credits, though the report is not clear about that), enabling families to use the scholarship funds for a variety of educational goods and services beyond private school tuition along the lines of what I described in my testimony before the commission in May. 

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.