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.
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.
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.
Blogging for the Newark, N.J. Star-Ledger, politicial science prof. Thurman Hart presents this objection to school vouchers:
[T]he effect of it would be that state, and maybe federal funds, would be used for the expressed [sic] purpose of teaching Catholic dogma. My opposition to that has nothing to do with my status as an Episcopalian - I don't want All Saints Episcopalian Day School in Hoboken to get state funds to teach Episcopalian dogma
There is merit to his concern. Many of this nation's early immigrants had fled compelled support for religion and other infrigements on their freedom of belief in their mother countries. But there is a way to avoid these problems while simultaneously ensuring educational freedom and choice for all: education tax credits.
These programs cut taxes on families who cover the cost of their own children's education, and on individuals and businesses who donate to non-profit scholarship funds for lower-income students. If you choose to participate, you also choose the institution that gets your money -- either the school you send your own children to or the scholarship orgnization that receives your contribution. In the latter case, you simply pick the scholarship fund you think is doing the best job helping low-income families.
If you don't want to fund a religious education for Catholics or Muslims, you don't have to. You can choose a secular scholarship fund or one serving Episcopalians, Jews or Hindus. For those not particularly sensitive to the religiosity of other families' schooling, there are scholarship funds that make no religious distinctions at all.
This is a way to unite like-minded donors and parents without the use of compulsion, and without inhibiting the very freedom and clear sense of mission that are the entire raison-d'etre of school choice. It is also in the best spirit of individual liberty and cooperation among free people that we will be celebrating early next month...
Reason's Nick Gillespie has a great new video in which anguished parents and students ask president Barack Obama why he's letting the DC school voucher program die.
To receive this segment by email, subscribe to the Cato Weekly Dispatch.
Obama Dips a Toe in the Educational Choice Pool
After Congress voted to let the Washington D.C. voucher program expire, stripping 1,700 low-income children of the opportunity to attend private schools, President Obama said he will keep the program afloat in subsequent legislation.
"It wouldn't make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. "And I think we'll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn't take place."
Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom, commented on Obama's decision to continue to extend school choice benefits to underprivileged children in the nation's capital:
This is a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.
In an op-ed that ran the day Gibbs made the announcement, Coulson explained why those who oppose school choice will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
In 2006, Susan Aud and Leon Michos published a report on the fiscal impact of the D.C. voucher program, which documented the success of the District's school choice pilot, the first federally funded voucher program in the United States.
Obama Signs Earmark-Heavy $410 Billion Omnibus Bill
After signing a bill that had nearly $8 billion in earmarks, President Obama declared that from then on, his administration would work toward earmark reform.
Sounds a bit like St. Augustine's famous prayer, "Lord, make me chaste but not just yet," said Daniel Griswold, director of Cato's Center for Trade Policy Studies:
Recall that as a candidate, Obama said he and Democratic leaders in Congress would change the "business as usual" practice of stuffing spending bills with pet projects. Those earmarks, submitted by individual members to fund obscure projects in their own districts and states, typically become law without any debate or transparency.
Saying he would sign the "imperfect bill," President Obama offered guidelines to curb earmarks ... in the future. "The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past," he said. "So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability."
Lord, make us fiscally responsible, but not just yet.
The Bush administration's brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.
For Cato's policy recommendations on earmarked spending, see the "Corporate Welfare and Earmark Reform" chapter in the 2009 Cato Handbook for Policymakers.
Violence Spills into the U.S. from Mexico's Drug War
With daily reports of increased violence coming from Mexico, Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Ted Galen Carpenter said the brutality is an indicator of power and arrogance, not desperation, and asserts that gun restrictions in the U.S. will not subdue violence:
The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere...
... Even assuming that the Mexican government's estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States-and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics-the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.
Carpenter spoke at a Cato policy forum last month, and explained why the war on drugs sparks such intense levels of violence.
In a Policy Analysis published in early February, Carpenter warned of the need to change our policy on the Mexican drug conflict, so as to prevent the violence from spreading across the border.
Editor's Note: This post was updated on March 9, 2009.
This week, education secretary Arne Duncan referred to DC public schools as a district with "more money than God." Perhaps he was thinking of the $24,600 total per-pupil spending figure I reported last year in the Washington Post and on this blog. If so, he's low-balling the number. With the invaluable help of my research assistant Elizabeth Li, I've just calculated the figure for the current school year. It is $26,555 per pupil.
In his address to Congress and his just-released budget, the president repeatedly called for efficiency in government education spending. At the same time, the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have been trying to sunset funding for the DC voucher program that serves 1,700 poor kids in the nation's capital. So it seems relevant to compare the efficiencies of these programs.
According to the official study of the DC voucher program, the average voucher amount is less than $6,000. That is less than ONE QUARTER what DC is spending per pupil on education. And yet, academic achievement in the voucher program is at least as good as in the District schools, and voucher parents are much happier with the program than are public school parents.
In fact, since the average income of participating voucher families is about $23,000, DC is currently spending almost as much per pupil on education as the vouchers plus the family income of the voucher recipients COMBINED.
So Mr. President and Secretary Duncan, could you please sit down with Democratic leaders in the Senate before next Monday's vote on an amendment to keep funding the DC voucher program, and reassert to them your desire for efficiency and your opposition to kicking these children out of a program that they depend on?
Here are the details of, and sources for, the DC education spending calculation:
Excluding preschool, higher education, and charter schools, the main education expenditures in the District are as follows:
|Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education||$4,917,325|
|DCPS (k-12 relevant items only, see below)||$593,961,000|
|OSSE (k-12 relevant items only, see below)||$198,277,000|
|Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization||$38,368,800|
|Special Education Transportation**||$75,558,319|
|Total DC k-12 budget||$1,291,815,886|
|DCPS official total enrollment (incl. special ed.)||48,646|
|Total per pupil spending||$26,555|
DC budget FY2009, Agency budget chapters, part 2
DC Budget FY2009, Capital Appendices, part 2
DC Budget FY2009, Operating Appendices, part 2
Linda Faison at DCPS, e-mail, March 5, 2009
The non-k-12 items excluded from the OSSE budget were:
amount code description
|$36,697,000||A245||public charter financing and support|
|$85,943,000||a430||early care & education administration|
|$6,322,000||a431||childcare program development|
|$14,544,000||a432||pre-k and school readiness|
|$459,000||a433||early childhood infants and toddlers|
|$2,036,000||a434||income eligibility determination|
|$37,000||a440||career & technical education|
|$726,000||a470||post secondary educ & workforce readiness|
|$4,574,000||a471||career and tech education|
|$3,237,000||a472||adult and family education|
The non-k-12 item excluded from the DCPS budget was:
amount code description
|$58,780,000||2200||early childhood education|
Transfers from OSSE to DCPS (count in OSSE budget, but not in DCPS budget):
Revenue code Amount