If you haven’t been following DeVos’s school choice initiative, or if you could use a quick explainer for a friend, here are a few basic takeaways to help follow what the fuss is about.
How Does It Work?
It’s a tax credit scholarship plan, and many states already have one.(Pennsylvania is one of those states. An unsuccessful attempt to expand the program was referenced by Trump in his speech.) Here’s how they work. Corporations or individuals can contribute to the plan instead of paying their taxes. They hand their money to a scholarship organization, which in turn issues scholarships to students. The money can be used to pay for transportation, remedial programs, homeschooling materials, or, most commonly, private school tuition.
Isn’t This Another Kind Of Voucher?
Yes, but “voucher” hasn’t worked out well politically for anyone, so Secretary DeVos would be happy if we all called it something else. But this is a voucher; just one that’s managed by a private organization instead of the government.
Who Really Pays For It?
Advocates for the program are fond of saying that it doesn’t spend any taxpayer dollars. This is technically correct; since the donors hand their money to a scholarship organization instead of the government, it never becomes “government money.”
However, since it is money that’s paid instead of taxes, it leaves a hole in the government’s revenue. DeVos wants a $5 billion program, which means that the government would collect up to $5 billion less in taxes. That means that taxpayers will either get less service from their government, or their taxes will be raised to cover the shortfall (conceivably, at the federal level, the government could just add it to the deficit).
So while the program doesn’t spend any taxpayer money, it does come with a cost to taxpayers.
Who Benefits From This?
People who want to direct their tax dollars to support private schools, and the private schools themselves. And in states that have voucher programs, those private schools turn out overwhelmingly to be religious private schools. Tax credit scholarships are a particularly good way to get around that whole “don’t give public tax dollars to private religious schools” issue (though the Supreme Court ruling on Espinoza v. Montana could wipe that issue away). As for education quality, the results of voucher program studies are at best mixed for academics. A just-released study from Harvard adds to the body of research suggesting that school choice programs make the already-bad problem of school segregation even worse. In short, it’s not clear that students themselves would get a big benefit from this, despite DeVosian protestations to the contrary.
Who Is Empowered By It?
The program is touted as a big chance to offer the same choices to poor families that rich families get, a chance to escape terrible schools. DeVos is fond of saying that it would empower families. But current situations in Florida and Ohio show that it’s not that simple.
Ohio has a slightly different sort of program called EdChoice. A recent investigation discovered that two thirds of the voucher students from several major cities had never attended public school in the first place; in other words, they were not using vouchers to “escape” anything. They just provide a little financial boost to families that were already sending their kids to private school.
Under this kind of program, private schools remain private, retaining all of their prerogatives. In Florida, investigation has shown that some of the schools receiving voucher money discriminate against and will not admit LGBTQ students. Just because your family has access to a scholarship does not mean that the school has to accept you. No voucher empowers a family to overrule a private school’s admissions office, which is generally free to accept or reject students for reasons of its own.
Furthermore, the discrimination is being threatened not by parents, legislators, or taxpayers, but by donors. If power rests with the pursestrings, then the power in a tax credit scholarship program rests with the patrons of the system; taxpayers, elected officials, and the families are taken out of the loop.
But scholarship granting organizations have to be vetted and approved, and providers of other voucher-eligible services must be certified as allowed (or not). Someone has to process and oversee those applications and maintain those lists, as well. It is possible that the scholarship organizations could be given the task of auditing family spending, or that oversight could fall to the government, but it seems necessary; in 2018, Arizona found that parents had spent $700,000 of voucher money on banned items and services, including clothing and cosmetics.
The alternative to red tape to manage the program would be a $5 billion program with no accountability, inviting all manner of fraud and mismanagement.
Meanwhile, neither the House nor Senate included a cent for the program in the 2020 budget, suggesting that legislator support for the DeVos plan is limited. Whether or not a Trumpian cheer and budget proposal for it will change that in 2021 remains to be seen.