May 22, 2015 11:10AM

Texas Pastors Are Wrong about School Choice

Today, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published my op-ed addressing the claims of a group called Pastors for Texas Children. For the last month, the pastors have been flooding the pages of Texas newspapers with op-eds opposing school choice. Although they raise some legitimate concerns about school vouchers, their charges against scholarship tax credits—and school choice laws generally—range from lacking substance to being demonstrably false. 

There wasn't enough space to address all of their claims in a single op-ed, but fortunately, here at Cato@Liberty we buy megapixels by the barrel (or whatever they come in). 

The claims made by six Fort Worth pastors in this op-ed were typical. I’ll address their major claims point by point:

The Texas Senate recently passed Senate Bill 4, providing tuition tax credits to donors giving scholarships to private schools. These are plainly private school vouchers.

Actually, the scholarships plainly are not vouchers. Voucher programs are government-funded and administered. Tax-credit scholarships are privately funded and administered by nonprofit scholarship organizations. As I wrote in the Star-Telegram, it’s like the difference between government-issued food stamps and nonprofit food banks. Donors to both scholarship organizations and food banks have their tax burden lowered as a result, but in neither case do the donated funds transmogrify into government property.

Our state Legislature has repeatedly rejected private school vouchers because they divert public money to religious schools in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any establishment of religion.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that school vouchers are constitutional because they serve a secular purpose, are neutral with respect to religion, and the funds are given to parents who can choose among religious or secular options. This is no more offensive to the First Amendment than holding a Bible study in a Section-8 subsidized apartment or using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and chaplains on the payroll.

Second, as noted previously, tax-credit scholarships are private funds. In ACSTO v. Winn, SCOTUS held that private funds do not become government property until they “come into the tax collector’s hands.”

Nevertheless, whoever runs the Pastors for Children Twitter account argued that “Tuition tax credits reduce the public treasury in diverting money for [a] religious cause.” But if that’s all it takes to turn private donations into government money, then the churches to which the pastors belong are entirely government-funded. After all, donors to those churches receive tax deductions and the churches themselves receive 100 percent property-tax exemptions. Fortunately for the pastors, no one really believes that.

Moreover, unlike the tax benefits that churches receive, well-designed education tax credits reduce the overall tax burden by reducing state expenditures more than they reduce state tax revenue. Whenever a child leaves her assigned district school to accept a tax-credit scholarship, the state no longer has to fund that child. In 2010, Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability calculated that the Sunshine State’s scholarship tax credit produced $1.44 in savings for every $1 of reduced tax revenue, saving Florida taxpayers more than $36 million in a single year.

Religious liberty is at stake. The separation of church and state is intended not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the church from the state.

With Thomas Jefferson, we believe it is sinful and tyrannical for government to compel people to pay taxes for the propagation of religious opinions with which they disagree, or even with which they agree. Authentic religion must be wholly uncoerced. [emphasis in the original]

Indeed! Of course, the pastors don’t extend that logic to its conclusion: public schools regularly propagate opinions with which many citizens disagree. If the pastors truly held that principle sacred, if they truly believed that such compulsion is “sinful and tyrannical,” then they would seek to end government-run schooling altogether.

Moreover, even school vouchers have an advantage over the government's near-monopoly in K-12 education because they allow parents to enroll their children in schools that reflect their views and values, rather than forcing parents into social conflict. And, of course, tax-credit scholarships achieve that end through voluntary contributions. In any case, given the pastors' rhetoric, they should support school choice.

As a practical matter, vouchers channel public monies to private schools with no public accountability.

Actually, vouchers and tax-credit scholarships enhance accountability by making schools directly responsible to parents. This is especially true in low-income communities where parents have no financially viable options besides their assigned district school.

Private schools could use public money to discriminate on race, gender, religion and special needs.

There are four claims here. The first is patently false; as Patrick Gibbons noted at RedefinED, all schools—public and private—are forbidden by law to discriminate based on race. The U.S. Supreme Court settled the issue in its 1976 decision in Runyon v. McCrary. The pastors should issue a retraction.

The second and third claims are red herrings. Of course, in a free and pluralistic society that treasures freedom of association, a private school can be single-sex or have a particular religious affiliation. Do the pastors object to Wellesley College or Notre Dame accepting students on Pell Grants?

The fourth claim is more complicated. Not all private schools are equipped to handle particular special needs, but any school that accepts federal funding must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Moreover, there are numerous private schools that cater to students with special needs. Indeed, more than a dozen states have school choice programs that specifically benefit students with special needs, such as the child in this video:

Returning to the pastors’ op-ed:

Texas benefits from a robust economy, yet hovers near the nation’s bottom in per-pupil spending. We feast at bounty’s table while some children subsist on crumbs.

The underlying but unstated assumption here is that more money means higher performance. However, there is no good evidence to suggest that’s the case. Texas public schools already spend north of $10,500 per pupil on average–how much do the pastors think should they should spend?

Education is a core component of democracy.

Indeed it is! Yet as Neal McCluskey noted recently, the best evidence shows that private schools do a better job instilling civic knowledge and values.

In a second op-ed, a Pastors for Texas Children member takes a different approach:

As tempting as it may be for private, religious schools to pluck the low-hanging fruit of “free” public money, the cost is too great. … Vouchers come with government strings attached.

Here the pastor raises a good point. Vouchers do tend to come with strings attached—but tax-credit scholarships do not. For that matter, the government could impose regulations on private schools even in the absence of vouchers. School choice or not, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

These government payouts seek to fill in for faith. They whisper from the shadows that they are the answer to the problems of funding a Christian school. God does not need vouchers.

Frankly, I’m not even sure what to make of that. Does that mean that there are no religious schools with a waiting list? And does God also not need public schools?

Whether or not God needs vouchers (whatever that means), there are low-income families who need financial assistance to send their kids to a decent school. Ideally, those funds would come through private charity, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Instead, we live in a world in which the government provides “free” education that crowds out most alternatives. Tax-credit scholarships would reduce that crowd-out by encouraging private giving to empower low-income families to choose private schools.

At one point, the pastor strays into darker territory:

There however, are some faith-based schools ready to receive the funds. I don’t want tax dollars diverted to them anymore than I want them diverted to my school. In North Carolina’s voucher program, 8 percent of the public money is diverted to a single school, the Greensboro Islamic Academy. Louisiana’s voucher system only passed the state legislature when an Islamic school’s request for funds was withdrawn. Where public funds are diverted to faith-based schools, all faiths will have access to the funds.

Why raise the specter of Islamic education if not to appeal to the assumed bigotry of the reader? We should expect better from a man of the cloth.

In short, none of the pastors’ central claims withstand scrutiny. Let us hope that after prayerful reflection on the evidence, they will—like the Texas Catholic diocese—come to support education for all students.