This front-page NY Times story yesterday about abuses in a number of states' tax credit scholarship programs is very troubling. Florida is a model, but other states have passed much weaker laws resulting in all sorts of scams benefitting lobbyists, etc., but actually helping few needy kids.
Spreading at a time of deep cutbacks in public schools, the programs are operating in eight states and represent one of the fastest-growing components of the school choice movement. This school year alone, the programs redirected nearly $350 million that would have gone into public budgets to pay for private school scholarships for 129,000 students, according to the Alliance for School Choice, an advocacy organization. Legislators in at least nine other states are considering the programs.
While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools, the money has also been used to attract star football players, expand the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups and spread the theology of creationism, interviews and documents show. Even some private school parents and administrators have questioned whether the programs are a charade.
Here are comments by John Kirtley, who's one of the key guys behind the Florida program:
I have for years feared a story like this about the Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania programs. This is an excellent demonstration of two truths about the battle for parental choice:
Bill design matters tremendously
Opponents to choice will skillfully exploit any weaknesses in the movement
Our national choice organization, The American Federation For Children, has been adamant that any bill it supports have the following design aspects:
Portability—scholarships must be transportable to any eligible private school
Academic accountability—scholarship students must be tested, with either the state test or a nationally recognized test (the school can decide). Further, scores must be reported to an independent research entity who will publish the learning gains of the students. We have taken this a step further in Florida, and if a school has enough children on the program learning gains are reported by school. Our latest report shows: 1) The students who choose the scholarship are among the lowest-performing in the public schools they leave behind; 2) They achieved the same gains in reading and math last year as students of all income levels nationally; 3) Their gains were slightly greater than low-income students who remained in public schools; 4) the more a public school has children participating in the program, the higher the learning gains for the children remaining at that public school.
Fiscal accountability and transparency for scholarship organizations—how can you not require audits to be submitted to the state when you are handling so much money?
Fiscal accountability for schools—in Florida, if you take $250,000 worth of scholarship kids, you must submit to the scholarship organization a review by a legitimate third party CPA showing you used the money properly.
There are many other accountability measures. So why have they not been incorporated into the laws in these three states? The Arizona law was created in 1998, before our national organization existed, and legislators there have resisted any attempts to increase accountability since. Pennsylvania's bill was also created before our national organization was active, and they too not been interested in any attempts at imposing provisions after passage. Our organization lobbied heavily to include many of the above accountability provisions in the Georgia bill when it was passed, but we were overruled by the legislative sponsors.
There is an avid debate within the parental choice movement about means testing and how much accountability is needed in these programs. There are very intelligent, well meaning people on all parts of the spectrum. I am at one extreme. At the other extreme would be those who say that the programs should not be means tested, the scholarships need not be portable beyond one school, and there should be little government interference on accountability.
Advocates of the programs in AZ, PA and GA will tell you that there's nothing wrong with their laws, that they work just fine. Many of the scholarship organizations in those states are accountable and serve low income kids. But articles like this hurt our movement's ability to bring choice to low income children in other states. It also allows Democrats (and some Republicans) to say, "see, we told you that parental choice is just a front to enable well off, white parents to get their tuition paid." It makes it harder for us to make choice a bipartisan issue.
We invited the writer on several occasions to come to Florida and observe our operation, but she declined—of course it didn't match her narrative. But the movement left itself wide open on this one.
And below is a response by Checker Finn and Adam Emerson, which begins:
It's hard to get past the New York Times's animus toward anything "private" or profit-seeking in the realm of K-12 education, particularly when investigative reporter Stephanie Saul applies her own biased and acidic pento the topic. And Tuesday's interminable "expose" of state-level tax-credit scholarship programs certainly deepens one's impression that the writer (and, presumably, her editors) is in love with anything that smacks of "public dollars" or "public schools" and at war with anything that might be seen as diverting even a penny from state coffers into the hands of parents to educate their kids at schools of their choice. Never mind whether the public schools they are exiting are good or bad, nor whether the dollars being spent by those schools are well-targeted on high-quality instruction or frittered away on over-generous benefits for underemployed custodians and their retired pals.
Having gotten that out of the way, it's also worth learning that while some of these state programs (especially Florida's) are models of sound policy, efficient administration, and careful targeting of available resources, some others appear to be burdened by dubious practices on the part of schools, donors, elected officials, and maybe parents, too.
Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools
Niko J. Kallianiotis for The New York Times
THE MONEY FINDS A HOME Hadyn Packer, 8, at a check presentation at St. John Neumann Regional, a Catholic school in Williamsport, Pa.
Tax credit scholarships need a critical, not hostile, eye
Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Adam Emerson / May 22, 2012