Since President Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos to be his new Education secretary, there’s been lots of talk in the media that his administration, with his secretary out front, will push for vouchers so parents can withdraw their children from public schools and get money to pay for tuition at private schools, even religious ones.
Others scoff at this notion, arguing it will prove too difficult to get a voucher program through Congress.
But if new reports are credible, and they appear to be, a school voucher program is indeed on the president’s agenda — only it’s not being called that. There are reasons for the deception, and it’s important for progressives to get out front of this issue and understand how to frame Trump’s scheme before the public debate gets started.
Breaking Down The Deception
Let’s take a close look at some of these reports to see what Trump and DeVos might be up to.
The Trump administration is considering a first-of-its-kind federal tax credit scholarship program that would channel billions of dollars to families from working-class households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools.
So what exactly is a tax credit program for education? Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa explains:
Tax-credit scholarships allow individuals and corporations to claim a tax credit of some kind, in exchange for a donation to an organization that provides scholarships to children. So, unlike vouchers, they don’t involve the government directly providing financial support to parents for school choice.
Call in the STOs
But what, then, or who, turns tax credit scholarships into vouchers? It’s a subterfuge known as an “STO.”
Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, coined the term “neovoucher” in 2008 to explain how tax credit programs accomplish the same thing as vouchers, only in a more convoluted way.
Welner argues in The Washington Post that tax credit scholarship programs are a “money-laundering mechanism” that inserts a third party into the transaction — often an “STO,” or school tuition organization.
Rather than taxpayer money being distributed directly to parents as vouchers, credits are issued by the state when tax deductible donations go to an STO. That credit then becomes scholarship money for parents to pay for private school tuition.
In essence, whether the plan calls for tax credits or vouchers, public funding is redirected from public schools to private institutions, and the impact on funding available for public education is the same.
There are reasons for this latest deception by the Trump administration.
As Welner notes in another post, “Generally speaking, Americans know what vouchers are. Cleveland and Milwaukee have had conventional voucher plans for decades.” Welner should have added Washington, DC to that list of long-standing voucher programs as well.
Vouchers’ Lousy Record
The track record for school vouchers is well known. And it’s not particularly good.
As education historian and blogger Diane Ravitch writes in the Huffington Post, despite years of offering vouchers to parents,
Those school districts are among the lowest performing in the nation on national tests. … When the taxpayers’ precious dollars are divided among two or three sectors, none of them flourishes.
Further, the general public generally has rejected vouchers every time they’ve been put to a test at the ballot box. Ravitch notes,
When Ms. DeVos and her husband Richard led a movement to change the Michigan state constitution to permit vouchers for religious schools in the year 2000, the referendum was defeated by 69-31%. Even in deep red Utah, the public rejected vouchers overwhelmingly in 2007. Florida was the last state to reject vouchers, in a 2012 vote deceptively named the Religious Freedom Act; it was defeated by 58-42%.
So to circumnavigate the lousy track record of vouchers and avoid the problem of their widespread public disapproval, school privatization advocates have devised education tax credit programs. But be aware, just as these programs have the same essential ends in mind as school vouchers, they also have the same devastating impact on public schools.
As veteran education journalist Valerie Strauss points out in her Washington Post blog, in the 17 states that offer some kind of education tax credits, there are numerous examples of how the programs harm public schools and help spread fraud and abuse in public education systems. Strauss points to a tax credit scholarship program in Florida that sparked “a cottage industry of fraud” and a more recent report from Florida about a “school for students with autism that received money from two tax credit programs in Florida that was abruptly closed after its leaders were charged with Medicaid fraud.”
Numerous studies by education tax credit advocates claiming these programs save money have been thoroughly refuted. And the evidence they drain public education funding continues to mount.
Arizona has perhaps the nation’s most extensive and generous education tax credit program. The program has led to an enormous outflow of funding from public schools.
The state allows qualified parents to set up “empowerment scholarship accounts” that are funded by STOs to provide families with debit cards worth about $5,200 a year to use on tuition at private schools, many which are religion-based. However, public schools in Arizona get about $4,200 per pupil from the state, so each $5,200 debit card costs the state general fund an additional $1,000 for every child who leaves a public school for a private or religious school.
Despite the drain on Arizona public school coffers, lawmakers in the state want to expand the tax credit program to include more families, a move that would lead to an additional $24 million cost to taxpayers annually and potentially many millions more, according to the Arizona Republic.
So should Trump’s ideas for a tax credit scholarship program develop into a proposal, and the details become clearer, just remember a school voucher program by any name is still a school voucher program. And it should be dead on arrival in Congress.