Neovouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling
reviewed by Richard Fossey - November 24, 2008
Title: Neovouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling
Author(s): Kevin G. Welner
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742540804, Pages: 176, Year: 2008
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Public funding for private schoolsparticularly religious schoolshas long been a contentious political idea in the United States. In 1971, the Supreme Court appeared to shut the door on such funding. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court ruled that state laws authorizing public funds to aid religious schools in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania violated the Establishment Clause because the laws created an excessive entanglement between government and religion (p. 614).
Since Lemon, however, the Supreme Court has grown friendlier to the notion of public funding for religious schools. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, decided in 2002, the Court upheld the Cleveland voucher program, which allowed families in Cleveland, Ohio to receive publicly funded vouchers that they could use to attend private schools, including religious schools.
Voucher advocates heralded what they thought was a new day for American education. President Bush declared the Zelman decision to be a civil rights triumph that was just as historic for public education as Brown v. Board of Education (Welner, p. 8). Across the United States, religious education supporters looked for the passage of voucher laws that would allow families to pay private school tuition with public money.
Voucher opponents, however, have been remarkably successful in thwarting the introduction of voucher programs in the years since Zelman was decided. Voucher schemes have been beaten back in state legislatures time and time again. In 2007, Utah voters rejected a voucher program for their state (Urbina, 2007). In two key court battles, voucher opponents successfully challenged legislated voucher programs in Colorado and Florida. The Colorado Supreme Court invalidated a Colorado voucher program in 2004 (Owens v. Colorado Congress of Parents); and the Florida Supreme Court struck down a Florida voucher law in 2006 (Bush v. Holmes). In both cases, the courts relied on state constitutional provisions to justify their rulings.
To their dismay, voucher supporters learned that the very word voucher sparks hostility across a wide political spectrum. Shifting tactics, voucher advocates began proposing tuition tax credits as a way to aid private schools. Less controversial than vouchers, tuition tax credits allow individuals or corporations to donate money to pay tuition at private schools and deduct these donations from their state taxes.
In Neovouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling, Kevin Welner examines the economic, political and legal issues surrounding tuition tax credits, which Welner calls neovouchers. In a remarkably clear and even-handed prose, Welner examines the tuition tax credit laws that were legislated in six states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
Traditional voucher programs, Welner explains, are vulnerable to legal challenges under state constitutions, which often contain language that explicitly forbids public funding for religious institutions. Tuition tax credit laws are less likely to be declared invalid under state constitutional provisions than traditional voucher schemes because tuition tax credit programs send no public money to religious schools. Instead, individuals or corporations donate private money to nongovernmental voucher-distributing organizations, which then dispense the donated money as tuition vouchers to families who send their children to private schools.
Welner argues, however, that the distinction between tuition tax credits and vouchers may be more illusory than real. Tuition tax credits, it is true, do not involve direct expenditures of public money for the benefit of religious schools. They do, however, represent foregone tax revenuesmoney that would have gone into a states coffers but for the states tuition tax credit law, which diverts tax money from the public treasury to families that send their children to private schools.
Tuition tax credit supporters contend that tuition tax credit schemes are revenue neutral. Instead of using tax money to pay for a childs education in a public school, the state allows taxpayers to donate part of their tax obligations to a tuition tax credit program that helps pay the cost of a childs education in a private school. Theoretically at least, tax money that is lost due to a tuition tax credit is offset by the fact that the program stimulates some students to leave public schools for private schools, thus reducing the amount of money the state pays for public education.
Depending on how a tuition tax credit program is structured, however, tuition tax credits may not be revenue neutral. In many instances, Welner points out, tuition tax credits are not used by families as the means for leaving public schools. Instead, tuition tax credits frequently go to families that already have their children in private schools. In those instances, tuition tax credits merely subsidize a familys private-school decision and do not reduce state expenditures for the public schools. Some states address this problem by stipulating that tuition tax vouchers are only available to switchersstudents who actually transfer from a public to a private school (and to children who are going to school for the first time as kindergarteners or first graders) (p. 48).
Welner recommends specific provisions for a well-drafted tuition tax credit law. In particular, he stresses that these programs should have an income cap so that only low-income families are eligible for tuition assistance (p. 101). Otherwise, a neovoucher program can operate perniciously, subsidizing private-school tuition for affluent families that can afford private schools whether they receive tuition assistance or not.
Welners book is commendably balanced, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of tuition tax credit schemes from both a political and public policy perspective. In fact, Welner seems sympathetic to school choice advocates who want to strengthen private school alternatives to public education. Voucher policies, and school choice policies in general, advance an important form of liberty, Welner writes. Americans instinctively understand the value of parents exercising choice over key elements of their childrens upbringingincluding a childs school (p. 109).
In the end, however, Welner seems to sympathize most closely with the opponents of tuition tax credits. Indeed, by labeling tuition tax credits as neovouchers, Welner links them rhetorically with traditional voucher schemes, which are loathed by almost all of the various public school constituenciesnotably the school board associations and the teachers unions. Welner worries that tuition tax credits will undermine the democratic principles of public education; and he quotes Horace Mann, who described the common schools as the great equalizer of the conditions of men, [as] the balance wheel of the social machinery (p. 109, quoting Mann, 1891).
For most Americans, school choice in all its manifestations is most appealing as an alternative to the nations troubled inner-city schools, wherewe must admitdemocratic principles are often not much in evidence. In fact, many inner-city school districts no longer have democratically elected school boards; board members are selected by the citys mayor or other government official (Medina, 2008; Moore, 2007).
More troubling, most inner-city school systems are racially isolated; many have overwhelmingly minority student populations. Some urban districts are as racially segregated today as they were in the days of legislated segregation (Orfield & Eaton, 1996). What democratic principle is being espoused by this disgraceful reality?
And perhaps most troubling, most inner-city school districts have appallingly low graduation rates. In many urban districts, 40 to 50 percent of students do not graduate high school (Swanson, 2008). It is hard to see Horace Manns vision of public schools as the great equalizer of the conditions of men when inner-city school districts are so shockingly ineffective at graduating their students.
There is no clear solution to the crisis of the inner-city public schools, but rigorous instruction in a personalized learning environment will help (Dynarski et al., 2008). Unfortunately, rigorous instruction and personalized learning environments do not exist in many inner-city schools. They frequently exist in private schools, however, particularly those with religious affiliations (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993). But many inner-city families cannot afford private schools.
Tuition tax credit laws are not a perfect school-reform solution, and Welner accurately and evenhandedly identifies their faults from a public policy perspective no matter how well they are designed. But in the inner-city public schools, no school-reform solution is perfectat least not yet. In the inner cities at least, tuition tax credit schemes can give a low-income family an opportunity to leave a failing public schoolperhaps its only opportunity. And because neovouchers are much less controversial than traditional vouchers, we are likely to see more state legislatures approve tuition tax credit programs in the years to come.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Bryk, A. S., Lee, V. E., & Holland, P. B. (1993). Catholic schools and the common good. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bush v. Holmes, 919 So. 2d 392 (Fla. 2006).
Dynarski, M., Clarke, L., Cobb, B., Finn, J., Rumberger, R., & Smink, J. (2008). Dropout prevention: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4025). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971).
Mann, H. (1891 ). Twelfth annual report for 1848 of the Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts. In Life and works of Horace Mann, ed. M. Mann, vol. 4, 222-340. Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers.
Medina, J. (2008, September 4). Panel backs leaving schools under the mayor. New York Times, p. B1.
Moore, M. T. (2007, March 21). More mayors are moving to take over school systems. USA Today, p. 1A.
Orfield, G., & Eaton, S. E. (1996). Dismantling desegregation: The quiet reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press.
Owens v. Colorado Congress of Parents, 92 P.3d 933 (Colo. 2004).
Swanson, C. B. (2008). Cities in crisis: A special analytic report on high school graduation. Bethesda, Maryland: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
Urbina, I. (2008, November 8). Voters split on spending initiatives on states ballots. New York Times, p. 29.
Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).