Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Hill on March 9, 2019.
A new plan originating in the nation’s capital could aid states in their quest to help parents do what is best for their children. It does so by offering states both flexibility and extra funding.
Introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), the plan for Education Freedom Scholarships rewrites the script for Washington-based school reform. It would create a $5 billion pool of federal tax credit funds, and states would decide whether to draw from a designated share of the money to craft their own scholarship programs to serve students.
Serious observers should hold no illusions; the newly introduced bill faces a steep and serious climb. The idea of school choice is popular among people of different races, geographies and political affiliations. Still, in Washington's deeply polarized political climate, teachers unions and other organized interests will be motivated to defeat the bill and keep control.
The Education Freedom Scholarship resembles the Universal Tuition Tax Credit idea introduced by the Mackinac Center over 20 years ago. The center envisioned a Michigan-based program in which individuals or businesses could receive a healthy state tax write-off for contributing to a student’s K-12 tuition. We proposed capping the credit based on a fixed share of tuition or public school per-pupil funding, with more money available to help children from low-income families.
That families could use the proposed tax credit funds at private schools kept it from getting off the ground in the Great Lakes State. Our state’s uniquely restrictive constitution handcuffs attempts to provide tax incentives that would “support the attendance of any student” at a nonpublic school.
Since the Mackinac Center’s 1997 proposal, however, 18 other states have adopted education tax credit programs that spur donations to help families afford a private school. Nearly 300,000 students have switched to private schools with tax-credit scholarships. A third of those are from Florida, where a recent study found the program’s low-income students are much more likely to attend and complete college.
Some programs — including those in Pennsylvania and Arizona — provide tax credits that also benefit public school activities. A selling point of the Education Freedom Scholarships is that states could design them for use in a variety of public and private options. The scholarships also would do no fiscal harm to traditional public schools. Instead, the $5 billion would be money added to a much larger pool spent on education.
It’s fair to be concerned about the revenue lost to a federal treasury that regularly runs annual deficits in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars. But the proposed amount represents a small fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget.
Unlike many initiatives, the energy that could be unleashed by the bill would come from the bottom up, not the top down. It’s not a one-size-fits-all federal program and lacks the typical strings and red tape. Even so, some people question whether the bill would enable future regulatory overreach that threatens, rather than expands, opportunities.
That risk should not be dismissed outright. But for a state such as Michigan, it pales next to the promise of opening many doors of opportunity. These doors could lead to not only private schools, but also to a wide range of learning options. Consider these scenarios:
The working-class parents of a bullied 7th-grader find the extra money they need to enroll her in a safe and caring nonpublic school;
The mother of a struggling young reader has funds to help pay for him to take part in an effective after-school tutoring program;
A bright but bored high school student can save money by pursuing dual-enrollment courses at the local college or earning a prized industry certification;
The family of an autistic child has an extra source of income to pay for a service or therapy for which they have to fight to be included in his formal education plan; and
A single mother in poverty is able to pay for gas money or public transit to get her daughter to a high-performing district or charter school that's miles away.
The bill’s proponents have a difficult task ahead of them, but the scholarship proposal could open up opportunities for thousands of households. No matter where you live, that’s an enticing prospect.
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