School choice programs must serve students, not schools

Travis Pillow

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2017 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts to explain how President Trump should structure his highly anticipated $20 billion school choice proposal. Other entries can be found here.

In some parts of the country, private school choice has faced insurmountable barriers. In Michigan, a restrictive state constitution basically forbids publicly funded scholarship programs. In New York and almost every other blue state, a politically powerful teachers union has thwarted tax credit legislation. In Texas, recalcitrant rural Republicans have blocked voucher bills.

President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Republican-controlled Congress have an unprecedented opportunity to expand private school choice in all of those places. A federal tax credit scholarship program could open new doors to disadvantaged students in those states, without forcing them to spend any public money or change their existing policies.

If the administration and Congress decide to go that route, it's imperative they follow a principle that has guided our work in Florida for more than fifteen years. Scholarship programs must serve students, not schools.

In some states, people who donate to scholarship funding organizations are allowed to earmark their contributions for specific schools. Allowing this practice in a federal program would be a mistake.

It would create a risk that schools with well-connected donors could snatch up all of the available tax credits and set aside most of the scholarship funds for students attending their favored schools. Schools in low-income areas struggle to compete for scarce funds, and parents who want to send their children to these schools—the very families our movement most wants to help—risk being shut out.

The goal of a federal tax credit scholarship program should be to empower parents, not to subsidize private schools. To realize that goal, the organizations that fund scholarships must be required to offer scholarships to any student who applies, and they must allow parents to use their scholarships at any school that meets the program's other requirements.

A family that wants to attend a school run by a private school with well-off donors should have the same chance at getting a scholarship as a family that wants to send their child to a school with great results but few donors. Students looking for a Catholic school should have the same chances as children looking for Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or secular schools. If a low-income parent decides in the middle of the school year that a child she sent to a private school is not making academic progress, she should have the ability to move her child to a different school, without having to give up her scholarship.

Some people in the school choice movement argue tax credit programs should make room for “mission-based” scholarship funding organizations. But every scholarship organization already has a very clear mission: to offer families the opportunity to attend private schools they couldn't otherwise afford.

If a mission-specific scholarship funding organization wants to cater to the needs of a specific group of children, such as those with dyslexia and similar learning disabilities, and solicit money from donors who are passionate about helping them, that may be appropriate. But those scholarship organizations must allow parents to take their scholarship to any school they choose - not limit them to a select group of hand-picked schools.

The national debate has brought private school choice programs under unprecedented scrutiny. Critics argue that private school choice programs cater to well-to-do families, rather than serving the disadvantaged. They argue that sometimes, schools pick students, rather than the other way around. And they claim that offering scholarships to religious schools will open the door to discrimination.

These criticisms ring hollow in Florida, where the nation's largest private school choice program helps ninety-eight thousand of the most disadvantaged children in the state attend private schools of every denomination, and no denomination at all. A law passed in 2010, with bipartisan support, allows our program to keep growing every year.

When we ask our supporters for the authority to serve more kids, there's no greater political asset than the moral authority we derive from prioritizing the needs of disadvantaged children. To protect that moral authority, Congress should create a program truly expands parental choice, not one that simply subsidizes certain private schools.

Travis Pillow is editor of redefinED and a member of the public affairs team at Step Up For Students.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.