Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2017 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts to explain how President Trump should structure his highly anticipated $20 billion school choice proposal. Other entries can be found here.
The Trump administration has suggested establishing a federal school choice policy somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion. Although lacking details, one route that has been floated is a federal scholarship tax credit program. But as tempting as it may be, the creation of a new federal choice program runs the risk of entangling Washington in private education and jeopardizing the autonomy of non-profit scholarship granting organizations, hundreds of which are already in operation nationwide.
Creating a new federal program further entangles Washington in local school policy and private education. Scholarship tax credits (STCs) are great policy at the state level. They enable businesses and individuals to receive a credit against their tax obligations for contributing to non-profit scholarship granting organizations, which in turn provide scholarships to eligible children to attend a private school of choice. It’s a win-win.
Nevertheless, the federal tax code is not the appropriate lever for establishing STCs. First, the U.S. Constitution does not authorize the federal government to enact national education programs, and instead rightly leaves education policy to the states. Moreover, school choice programs produce savings to the taxpayer at the state level because state education spending is tied to enrollment, but this is not true of federal education spending. Reductions in revenue from scholarship tax credits are more than offset by corresponding decreases in state spending. By contrast, a federal STC would provide no corresponding reduction in spending.
Moreover, this new program would open the door to a host of potentially harmful regulations. Will participating schools be required to administer some sort of uniform assessment? And will those outcomes be reported and used to monitor program “effectiveness”? In the future, when the Department of Education is inevitably under the control of an administration less friendly to choice than the present one, what sort of “pen and phone” executive orders and agency “interpretations” might we expect? Will private schools be treated like government contractors, as the Obama administration wanted to treat private schools serving students with special needs in Wisconsin? Will the feds seek to set every private school’s locker room policies? It’s unlikely that a program of this magnitude, even using tax credits, would be left free from government regulations masked as “accountability” or “social justice,” if history is any guide. When one state adopts policies that undermine school choice, that may be unfortunate, but at least any harm is contained to that state. However, no state can escape the long arm of the federal government.
Scholarship granting organization autonomy may be jeopardized. A federal STC program could also homogenize the school choice market in a way that ultimately limits options for families. With many state programs, taxpayers enjoy the freedom of choosing which scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) to contribute to, and can direct their hard-earned money to non-profits that reflect a particular mission or religious orientation. For example, the guiding principle of the ALEF Fund, which provides scholarships to children attending Jewish Day Schools in Georgia, is “to improve the affordability of Jewish education by awarding scholarship dollars to eligible students.” The Catholic Tuition Support Organization in Arizona operates in a similar manner, awarding scholarships funded through donor contributions to children who attend any of the twenty-six Catholic schools in the Diocese of Tucson. The Montessori Scholarship Granting Organization in Arizona provides donor-funded scholarships to children attending Montessori schools. These organizations become a part of the fabric of their local communities and tap into donor bases that differ from the SGOs that are not mission-specific.
It’s another win-win: donors can support SGOs that reflect their values, and children can access scholarships from organizations that serve particular types of schools. That shared mission is what often motives donors to contribute to a non-profit.
Yet it is an open question as to whether a new STC program would honor donor intent and allow SGOs that are mission-oriented to participate. The proposal introduced during the last session of Congress by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), for example, did not permit single-mission SGOs, prohibiting contributions via an SGO “to any specific school or group of schools.”
So allow states to lead
Today there is conservative leadership at the helm in a record 68 percent of state legislatures, and with conservatives controlling both legislative chambers and the governorship in twenty-four states, there is an unprecedented opportunity to advance education choice.
Creating a new federal program poses more risks than opportunities. It’s worth remembering that the federal government is still just a 10 percent stakeholder in all education financing, but contributes mightily to the red tape that binds the hands of states and local school leaders.
Americans were rightly frustrated by the federal government’s heavy-handed role in pushing Common Core. Through a combination of Race to the Top carrots and No Child Left Behind waiver sticks, the Obama administration pushed states to adopt the national standards and tests, which led to a major nationwide backlash against what had been a state-led initiative.
Without a doubt, education choice is good policy. But using the federal government to push it risks sparking a similar backlash. Each state’s school choice programs are different, reflecting the different political needs of each state. Some regulations that are necessary for a bill to pass in one state would be political poison in another. A single, national regulatory standard risks upsetting the hard-won local coalitions that have emerged from the bottom up over the course of decades.
The main argument from proponents in favor of a federal STC is that union-dominated states need federal nudging to move on school choice. As much as I want to see every state provide universal choice for students, we have to resist the temptation of using federal might to push policies we like. School choice is politically sustainable when local coalitions are in the driver’s seat and are able to build a sufficient level of local buy in. Let’s avoid the Common Core-ification of school choice.
Lindsey Burke is the Director, Education Policy Studies and a Will Skillman Fellow in Education Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.