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.
School choice advocates have a window of opportunity today that we have never had before in the history of our movement. Moments like this, where it is possible to advance bold education reform, are not to be wasted.
Curiously, some school choice advocates are less enthused about congressional action citing the big, bad "feds" getting involved in a state and local issue. Some say there should be no federal role in education, as if the $60 billion currently invested by the federal government in K–12 education would suddenly disappear or would simply be turned over to state education agencies. We like the latter, though we recognize the reality that the ensuing battle would be a seismic shift akin to the battle over welfare reform in the 1990's. That requires time to properly make the case to skeptical policymakers. Some believe things are percolating along nicely in the states and adding money to state choice programs is unnecessary. For those in the trenches making that progress happen, we know that scholarship amounts for most of these programs are not high enough. They're not high enough for most high schools in America, or to accelerate enrollment, or to encourage high quality private schools to expand in current states or open in new states. And we know that millions of kids remain trapped in schools that are failing them, and they need help right now.
There are many great ideas for congressional action to expand parental choice, most of which we support and will continue to fight for. But there is only one proposal that could truly have immediate impact across the country, utilize private money to fund scholarships, and come with a minimal federal footprint. That is a federal tax credit to encourage charitable contributions to local non-profits who provide scholarships to eligible children.
There are seventeen states that already have such a program. A well-designed program is the key to sustainability, growth, and quality. This includes ensuring a federal tax credit does not come with a host of regulations to burden private schools and suppress participation.
How would it work? A federal tax credit scholarship program would allow individual and corporate taxpayers a tax credit for charitable contributions to a scholarship granting organization (SGO). The proposal would provide a 100 percent credit for individual and corporation contributions to a state-approved SGO—with giving limits high enough to attract donors. The scholarships would be awarded to qualified families, with an income threshold in the neighborhood of 400 percent of poverty. All fifty states would be eligible to participate. Eligibility would not be limited to particular geographic regions or to students assigned to failing public schools. It would include common sense financial and academic accountability, ensuring that the program is responsible to taxpayers and working for students. It would be parent-centered, where scholarship recipients have the freedom to take their scholarship to any participating private school and low-income families are assured of entry. It would have an income threshold that allows working- and middle-class families to participate.
The federal tax credit proposal is the most viable, least disruptive or intrusive, and most impactful proposal out there. It could be considered as part of tax reform and included in the fiscal year 2018 budget reconciliation process. The budget reconciliation process requires a simple majority vote, which would prevent a Senate filibuster. For Republicans who control the majority, parental choice is good policy and good politics.
Any piece of legislation in Congress that offers full educational choice for parents will be viciously attacked by the teachers' unions, members who support the unions' adults-first agenda, and other defenders of the status quo in education. Remember the backlash when the House was considering public school portability? Remember the DeVos confirmation battle? Peel back the nonsense and character assassination and you’ll find that Betsy DeVos was opposed by the education establishment because she supports all options for kids.
As education reformers, we fight every day to improve a system that is antiquated, out of touch with twenty-first-century realities, failing millions of kids every year, and suppressing the massive economic potential that better educational outcomes would yield for our country. Now is not the time to be timid or purist. Now is the time to suit up for battle, double down in the fight against the education establishment to give every child access to a great education, and improve outcomes across the board. Now is the time for school choice advocates to band together and put our foot on gas to dramatically accelerate parental choice in America.
John Schilling is the Chief Operating Officer of the American Federation for Children.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.