Monday, March 23, 2015

New York's Backdoor Voucher Proposals

Both the Republican-led NY State Senate, and Governor Cuomo, have proposed an Education Investment Tax Credit for this year’s budget.  Cuomo’s plan would give a tax credit of 75% of any contributions made to school scholarship funds, while the Senate plan would credit 90%.  What this means, is that individuals or corporations could give money to public schools, private nonprofit schools, and educational scholarship organizations.  Under Cuomo’s plan, any qualified contribution would net the donor back 75% of their gift on their taxes, up to one million dollars.  Basically, it lets individuals or corporations take money away from the state treasury, and requires taxpayers to bear the burden of a three-to-one matched donation.  The worry is that, even though Cuomo’s version of the proposal also includes public schools as qualified recipients, the scheme will divert tax dollars to private schools and thereby threaten the money available for public schools.

A criticism of both the Senate’s plan and Cuomo’s proposal, is that the term “education programs” is much too vague.  The definition of a “non-public school,” though making a point of including schools that are only not-for-profit, defines such a school as one that “provides instruction at one or more locations to an eligible pupil.”  An, as in one.  So could this be used for the purpose of home schooling as well?  Imagine if this were the case – everyone’s family members donating a scholarship to the home school, and receiving back 75% of what they gifted. 

And what about those charter schools?  Though Cuomo’s plan is worded to leave those that make a profit out of the picture, what about charters that have been calling themselves public schools?  Could charter schools rebrand themselves to fit the criteria of non-public not-for-profit schools while still paying hefty salaries to their CEO's? 

The massive lobbying for vouchers and tax credits across the nation is headed by the “Coalition for Opportunity in Education,” with hedge fund billionaire Bruce Kovner at the helm.  Even though the name of the organization sounds all social justicey, I rather doubt that they have altruistic motives.  The aim of all those who push for privatization is nothing less than the destruction of public schools.

Perhaps the most bothersome issue at play in this scheme is that in the case of religious schools, this “backdoor voucher” system is a way to bypass the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, with the state subsidizing a parochial education.  Political Research Associates reports that “In Florida and Pennsylvania, the two states with the largest private school choice programs (both are corporate tax credit programs or neovouchers), many of the students who receive neovoucher money attend fundamentalist Christian, conservative evangelical, or nondenominational schools.”  In Florida, 81.5% of the scholarships go to religious schools.  While many of those schools are excellent schools, some are Christian fundamentalist, teaching Young Earth creationism, climate change denial, or revisionist history.  Some schools openly teach hostility to other religions. 

Alan Singer of Hofstra University says, “Religious groups could charge the state for all sorts of “non-religious” services and outsource delivery to group members who would then donate money back to the organizations to subsidize their religious programs.” 

Of course, the tax credit is strongly endorsed by Orthodox Jewish and Catholic groups that are seeking to bolster their school funding in times of waning student enrollment.  Though I have sympathy for the plight of parochial schools, it is clear that the intent of our constitution is to separate church and state, and there are good reasons for that.  Should our tax dollars go to teach religion?  I think not. 

As Diane Ravitch warns, “Do not be fooled: this is not a conservative plan.  This is a radical plan.  It will send public dollars to backwoods churches and ambitious entrepreneurs.”

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