Tax overhaul may include school vouchers

Sally Ho
Associated Press

Las Vegas — More than a third of U.S. states have created school voucher programs that bypass thorny constitutional and political issues by turning them over to nonprofits that rely primarily on businesses to fund them. But the programs are raising questions about transparency and accountability at a time when supporters are urging that they be expanded into a federal program.

Unlike traditional school vouchers, which are directly funded by the states — or in the case of Washington, D.C., the federal government — these programs don’t use public money. Instead, those who contribute to the voucher program get tax credits. Seventeen states now have the so-called tax-credit scholarships.

Both President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have promoted the scholarships as a way to give parents greater choice in deciding where their children will go to school. Supporters are pushing the administration to launch a federal program extending the tax credit scholarships nationwide.

Asked whether such a proposal might be included as part of a tax overhaul, DeVos said Wednesday in an interview with the Associated Press, “It’s certainly part of our discussion.”

Depending on whom you ask, the programs are either another avenue for school choice drawing on the generosity of taxpayers, or a workaround to existing bans on giving public money to religious organizations — in this case schools — with a set-up that’s ripe for abuse. It’s hard to know who’s right, given that the states purposefully limit their fingerprints on their own programs.

For Mayra Puentes of Las Vegas, it was simply a way to get her children a better education. Her son, she said, was struggling in public school, in a state that is ranked at or near the bottom of national lists on public education quality. Puentes said would not have been able to afford the combined $22,000 tuition for her three children at Mountain View Christian Schools.

How the program works:

Nonprofits solicit contributions from businesses and others. The organizations distribute the funds to families that apply. They keep 5-10 percent of the donations for administrative costs.

Contributors can deduct the amount they gave, sometimes dollar-for-dollar, from their state tax bill. Most states designate the programs for low-income families.

“They are this weird blend of tax policy and education policy, and in a lot of ways, they are treated more like tax policy,” said Josh Cunningham of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Supporters have on their side the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled that the contributed money is private funds because the cash is never touched by the state.

But government transparency watchdogs have warned that the set-up can be problematic, with abuses well-documented. In Alabama and Georgia, for example, groups advertised the programs as money-making for contributors. In Arizona, a lawmaker makes six figures annually by running a scholarship group in the same system that he has supported.