GOP lawmakers have introduced The Educational Choice for Children Act in both the Senate and the House. The bill doubles down on Betsy DeVos’s failed idea by proposing a $10 billion school voucher program on the federal level.
The proposal proposes the type of education voucher called a tax credit scholarship. In such a system, a corporation or individual makes a donation to a scholarship granting organization, which in turn offers vouchers to students to attend select private schools. The donors gets to use the donation as a credit against their tax liabilities.
In other words, donors get to make contributions to private schools in place of paying taxes, and because their money never actually touches government hands, tax credit scholarships skirt the entire issue of using tax dollars to fund private religious schools.
Several states have TCS programs, which usually come with a cap, because every dollar’s worth of tax credit is a dollar that the state doesn’t get. The huge cap on the ECCA would blow a $10 billion hole in the federal budget.
The ECCA not only gives away $10 billion worth of federal spending power, but it is also generous with the vouchers themselves. Voucher programs are often piloted by aiming at less wealthy families who want financial assistance in getting their children out of public school. This proposal goes far beyond that.
Students are eligible if their family makes up to 300% of the “area median gross income.” Students may also receive a voucher if they are “eligible to enroll in a public elementary or secondary school,” which means that students who have never actually attended public school (but could have) can still collect this federal subsidy for their educational expenses (which can include tuition, but also “fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment and attendance”).
The proposed bill would allow individuals to contribute up to $2,000 or 10% of their gross income—whichever is greater. Corporations could earn a tax credit for up to 5% of their taxable income. The scholarship granting organization may keep up to 10% of the funds for “administrative purposes.”
The House version was proposed by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) who says that every child should have a chance for success “regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic background,” though it’s unclear what socioeconomic barriers are faced by families with an income 300% of their area’s median.
Senator Bill Casidy (R-LA) introduced the Senate version, saying that the bill “provides yet another opportunity to empower parents.” Yet as with most school choice legislation, there are no protections for parents and students here. Private schools remain free to decide which students they will accept or reject, and parents who find that their child’s new private school is not serving their needs have no recourse.
The bill is very explicit in saying that the government may not in any way direct how the scholarship granting organization or private schools will conduct their business, and it explicitly says that parents may choose “faith-based schools.”
The bill is clear that handling the funds in this voucher program does not turn schools or scholarship organizations into “state actors;” that distinction’s importance was just underlined by the recent court decision in North Carolina that charter schools are not free to ignore federal law. With vouchers we often discover that while the money may follow the students, the students’ rights do not. This bill is very clear in stating that private schools that receive vouchers remain free to discriminate as they see fit.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) speaking in support of the bill says that America’s education system needs “more transparency,” yet the proposed voucher system is largely opaque, providing little oversight or accountability for how the money has been spent.
The supporters of the bill are working to strike the same chords as the parental rights movement. Left undiscussed is the research suggesting that voucher programs do not produce excellent educational results.
CU Boulder Professor Kevin Welner, who directs the National Education Policy Center, describes tax credit scholarships as “pain-free giving, or—in reality, it’s not giving at all, it’s just diverting a tax obligation to fund private school tuition.”
When it comes to the money being diverted, Welner says, “Why not take the $10 billion per year tax expenditure that this bill’s authors want to put into these neovouchers and put the money toward educational interventions that have actually been shown to help children, like high-quality preschool, class-size reduction, community schools, and intensive reading and math interventions and tutoring?”
This type of federal school voucher has been pitched before. Betsy DeVos spent her last years as Secretary of Education pitching her $5 billion Education Freedom Scholarships with no success. It may be that this proposal is simply intended to raise some election-year noise before ending with the same quiet whimper as its predecessor.
That would be best. $10 billion in lost revenue would be a huge cost, but going federal with the idea that education is a consumer good like soup and toilet paper rather than a public common good that we all share responsibility for—that idea would be even more costly to us as a nation.