choice challenge

A Betsy DeVos-approved tax change is meant to make private school more affordable. Here’s why it might not work

PHOTO: Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The just-passed tax law includes a big perk for families who send their children to private school: the ability to use certain tax-advantaged savings accounts, which until now could only be used to save for higher education, to pay for K-12 school, too.

That’s led to criticism from those who note that the wealthy stand to benefit the most and that local public school budgets could take a hit, and support from school choice advocates like Betsy DeVos, who argue it will expand access to private schools.

But there’s reason to believe that the move won’t make private school feasible for any more families — and that private schools are likely to raise tuition in response.

Here’s why: All families are eligible to use the saving accounts, known as 529s. That means unlike a lot of state programs that offer private school vouchers or tax credits, the 529s aren’t targeted at poor students, those with a disability, or other specific groups.

In a peer-reviewed 2016 study, researchers compared the effects of these two types of choice programs: those that are restricted to certain populations and those available to all. The latter group — that is, programs like 529s — didn’t lead to any increase in students attending private school, but did cause a sharp hike in school tuition.

This suggests these programs don’t function the way some advocates want them to. Instead of adding choices for families, they offer a windfall to schools. (Keep in mind that students could still benefit if private schools use that extra money to improve the quality of education they offer.)

There is one important reason why private schools may not react to this change in the same way. Although all families will technically be able to use the new 529 rules to save for private school, in practice, only families with enough money to put extra into one of the accounts will be able to participate. In that sense, it could function more like a targeted program, and those have been found to boost private school attendance.

In praising the initiative on Tuesday, DeVos acknowledged the fact that the program is unlikely to benefit poor families.

“Anything that empowers parents and gives them more opportunities for their students is a good thing,” she said. “But it doesn’t address the needs of parents who are from lower incomes and doesn’t empower them in significant ways.”

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.