Politics & Policy

Etc, Phone Home

School choice's last, best hope, in Florida.

Has the age of vouchers ended? The Florida supreme court struck down vouchers last week in a disquieting decision that avoids federal issues entirely, thus evading an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and opening up another rationale for denying vouchers to needy children. But Governor Jeb Bush’s administration is quietly working on a plan to save school choice for thousands of children in Florida who use vouchers by using education tax credits instead. Although the recent court decision is a terrible blow against educational equity, it illustrates how important it is to pick the best policy in the first place. Education tax credits are quickly becoming, out of necessity, the last best hope for school choice in most of the country.

#ad#Florida’s supreme court struck down the state’s Opportunity Scholarships program, which gives vouchers to kids in failing schools, on the basis of the constitution’s mandate for a “uniform” system of education. Florida’s other voucher program, McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities, is directly implicated by the ruling, even though it is not targeted by the suit. McKay is the same kind of voucher program–it simply serves a different population. And it is the McKay program that most concerns Governor Bush and school-choice supporters.

The Opportunity Scholarships program struck down last week serves only around 750 students in a shifting, small number of schools. And although it is a vital academic lifeline for these disadvantaged students, it is not a serious force for school choice in Florida. The McKay voucher program, in contrast, helps over 16,000 children find schools that provide the support they need, and the supreme court’s ruling puts McKay in mortal jeopardy.

On the other hand, the Florida Corporate Tax Credit program funds community scholarship organizations that give almost 11,000 children a choice in education, and it is not affected by the supreme-court decision. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the state’s school-choice champion, Governor Jeb Bush, drew up plans for converting the McKay voucher program into a tax-credit program in advance of the ruling. The Palm Beach Post recently reported that this “secret” plan will allow businesses “to take dollar-for-dollar credits against both their corporate income tax and sales tax payments, limited only by the total dollar value of all the McKay vouchers for disabled children requested by parents.” That means over $100 million a year for school choice.

This planned school-choice “switch in time,” which will save over 16,000 disabled children from being yanked out of good schools, illustrates an important fact that needs more publicity: some school-choice policies are much better than others. For those seeking significant and sustainable school choice–whether universally or only for low-income or disabled children–education tax credits (ETCs) are the surest, best path.

The most obvious advantage that ETCs have over vouchers, and the one driving governor Bush’s “secret plan,” is the more certain and consistent legal viability of ETCs. Education tax credits avoid the legal morass of state constitutional problems almost entirely. Both common wisdom and judicial precedent in other states consider the use of state funds for voucher payments to non-government schools to be public support of a private institution. And the intermediary act of parental choice does not always eliminate the legal difficulties this creates for religious schools.

Education tax credits are, by contrast, generally viewed neither as government funds nor as government support. The courts have never overturned education tax credits or deductions, and such credits have been explicitly upheld in all state and federal legal challenges. School-choice opponents have thrown everything, including the kitchen sink, at education tax credits, but nothing has hit the mark. And that’s probably why they seem to have quit trying. No ETC has been challenged in state court since 2001, and neither Florida nor Pennsylvania, the states with the two largest programs, have had their ETC programs challenged.

The barriers to true school choice are high and many when the policy vehicle is a voucher, but are relatively few and small when dealing with education tax credits. Greater legal viability makes ETCs more likely than vouchers to be passed in more states, more likely to be sustained in the face of litigation after they are passed, and more likely to avoid litigation in the first place. The fact that ETCs are not government funds makes them less likely to come with burdensome regulations on independent and religious schools, and leaves participating schools less vulnerable to added regulation in the future.

These facts bring a larger and more energetic coalition together for ETCs, ensuring a greater chance of passage and sustainability. The self-implementing nature of ETCs ensures that families and private organizations alone interact in the marketplace, eliminating both the cost and potential trouble that a government voucher authority creates. Finally, education tax credits are simply more familiar, less threatening, and therefore more popular than vouchers.

Across five important dimensions, although these certainly don’t exhaust the angles, ETCs are clearly superior to vouchers. Governor Bush should be commended for not giving up the fight and for instead turning to the most promising of his school-choice programs to make sure that no additional children will be denied a choice in education.

Florida is the latest state to show us why ETCs are usually better policy than vouchers. Education tax credits are the future of school choice. Let’s not leave any more children at risk of losing access to good schools.

Adam B. Schaeffer is an NRI Fellow in education at the American Enterprise Institute and a Doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Virginia.

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