By Tim Walker
In her two years as U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos has seized on every opportunity to undermine public education. She has called for deep cuts to federal funding, rolled back protections for our most vulnerable students and shilled for the for-profit college industry that has defrauded countless students.
DeVos has floundered, however, in advancing her pet cause: the federal expansion of school vouchers. Even with GOP majorities in the House and Senate and the strong backing of President Trump, Congress in 2017 and 2018 rejected DeVos’ efforts to create federal vouchers to attend private schools.
Despite this setback and the recent 2018 elections that sent a pro-public education majority to the House of Representatives, DeVos’ enthusiasm for school vouchers hasn’t dampened. This was evident last week with the introduction of something called the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act.
In a USA Today op-ed touting the proposal, DeVos, Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Bradley Byrne, the bills’ sponsors in Congress, called it “a historic investment in America’s students.”
The majority of Americans who reject vouchers know better. DeVos’ proposal, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, is just the “latest attempt to push an agenda that is academically ineffective, fiscally irresponsible and that funds discrimination at the expense of student opportunity.”
The good news is that Congress – who soundly rejected a similar proposal during the 2017 tax debate – isn’t likely to give this reboot a serious look.Still, the corporate interests who have doggedly pursued school privatization for more than a decade are nothing if not persistent, which is why public education activists aren’t about to let down their guard.
What is an Education Freedom Scholarship?
Quite simply, it’s a federal school voucher. For years now, proponents, acknowledging that “vouchers” are unpopular, have worked tirelessly to reconfigure the scheme to 1) sidestep constitutional obstacles and 2) reintroduce them to a public that has consistently been in opposition, using friendly-sounding euphemisms to make them more politically appealing.
Whether they’re called “Education Saving Accounts,” “Tuition Tax Credits” or “Opportunity Scholarships,” the result is always the same: directly or indirectly, less money for public schools and more for private schools.
The Education Freedom Scholarship is a tax credit program, similar to what 17 states already have on their books.
Under such a plan, individuals and companies earn tax credits by donating money to nonprofit scholarship funds. Students then can use the funds to attend private schools, including religious schools.
Carl Davis, research director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, calls the DeVos proposal a “supersized” version, because it offers a dollar-for-dollar credit, meaning that every dollar given takes a dollar off the donor’s tax bill.
“The contributors to these programs wouldn’t have to put up a dime of their own money because the federal government would reimburse them in full,” he adds.
So what DeVos wants is the federal government to reimburse wealthy taxpayers with tax credits in return for providing funding to private schools on the states’ behalf.
“It’s a brazen effort to distort the tax code into a tool for funding private and religious schools with public dollars,” Davis said.
The Cost to Public Schools
In their USA Today column, DeVos and Cruz claim that “this program won’t take a single cent from local public school teachers or public school students.”
That is simply false. Tax credit vouchers will drain public funding from public schools. Under these plans, potential taxes are never paid, which in turn decreases the overall amount in the coffers. This makes less money available for public schools.
“The voucher proposal peddled by Betsy DeVos will divert already scarce funding away from neighborhood public schools – where 90 percent of children go – and give it away to private schools, which are not accountable to taxpayers,’ said Eskelsen García.
In a 2017 analysis, ITEP took a look at how these programs had impacted the budgets of the seventeen states where they had been put into effect. Taken together, these states were diverting more than $1 billion per year toward private schools via tax credits.
“Allowing certain taxpayers to opt out of funding an institution as fundamentally important as the nation’s public school system erodes the public’s level of investment in that institution–both literally and figuratively,” the repot states.
Furthermore, “expanding these programs at the federal level would lead to a loss of federal and state revenue directed at public schools that would weaken the ability of public schools to serve increasing numbers of students in poverty as well as students with disabilities and English-language learners.”
The Bill is Likely Going Nowhere But…
Soon after DeVos unveiled her proposal, U.S. Senator Patty Murray immediately declared it “dead on arrival.”
“Secretary DeVos keeps pushing her anti-public school agenda despite a clear lack of support from parents, students, teachers, and even within her own party,” Murray said in a statement. “Congress has repeatedly rejected her privatization efforts and she should expect nothing less here.”
With DeVos’ push to expand vouchers stymied (so far), the shift in momentum away from privatization may be modest but its’ unmistakable.
Educators across the nation have been calling attention to the dangers of school privatization as part of the #RedforEd Movement. In November, Arizona voters rejected Proposition 305, which would have significantly expanded the state’s school voucher program.
Still, by attempting to pry open the federal tax code to enable school voucher expansion, privatization advocates are demonstrating how relentless they are and will continue to be.
“While this bill isn’t likely to be enacted during this Congress, it sends a worrisome message about the direction that some private school advocates would like to go,” Davis warns. “They’re hoping to set the table for a major federal voucher plan the next time the political stars align in their favor.”