Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Kevin Welner's "Neovouchers" - a review

The debate over school choice now clearly needs to be expanded. Kevin Welner, an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Colorado and director of their The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) is uniquely positioned to examine the material, holding both a Ph. D. in Educational Policy and a law degree. He thoroughly does so in a new book entitled NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling published last September by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. The book thoroughly covers a broad range of related topics, including examining research, the implications of policy including legal and financial implications. Most of all, it offers perhaps the first comprehensive examination of a new approach which he calls “neovouchers.” Unlike traditional vouchers, these do not represent a direct payment of government funds to individuals. Rather these are state policies that grant tax credits to individuals or businesses for donations they make to organizations that provide students with financial aid for private schools. Neovouchers represent an important phenomenon that is changing the shape of education. This book is an important tool in understanding that phenomenon.

It is important that while Welner thinks neovouchers are an important topic worthy of close examination, he is no necessarily totally opposed to every possible manifestation of neovouchers, even as he maintains a healthy amount of skepticism about what we have learned from current implementations. Thus we read in the introduction his rationale for writing about neovouchers especially as a means of broadening the opportunities to expand access to high-quality educational opportunities, especially to children in low-income households who are most at risk:

This book offers a comprehensive exploration of the record and potential of tuition tax credit policies, with regard to this goal and others. As compared to true voucher policies, tax credit policies are more pervasive and more likely to survive legal challenge. Yet these tuition tax credit policies - these neovouchers - have managed to fly under the voucher radar. A careful examination is overdue. p. 3

We can combine this with the final paragraph in the main text, from pp. 112-113, where after having mentioned how far neovouchers have come and that they have advantages and disadvantages, intended and unintended effects:
I have personally come to appreciate these policies (and their underlying philosophies) as advancing a form of liberty. But I am also critical of the shift away from the recognized practices of democratic control over education, and I m concerned that these policies appear to further stratify the educational experience. Perhaps most troubling or me is the possible abandonment of a key part of the civic mission of schooling, given the likely cycle of our current understandings of citizenship and democracy shaping our educational practices, and those practices then shaping our future understandings of these concepts. Wise policymakers will look down the road, experimenting with promising new approaches but always keeping in mind a long-term vision of American schooling and democracy.

The issue Welner addresses is not hypothetical: as he notes, three states - Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania - had at the time he wrote well established tuition tax credits laws and three more - Georgia, Iowa, and Rhode Island - hd recently introduced them. In six appendices he offers the text of the laws of five states and of the bill proposing the credits in Georgia, because the law was being adopted as the book went to press.

The book is packed with information. Welner laws it out in six chapters, starting with the Introduction. His subsequent 6 chapters cover a wide range of topics. In a chapter entitled, in quotes, “Something SO Close To Vouchers,” he presents a comprehensive overview of the various attempts at promoting competition with public schools, whether those are formally labeled as vouchers, or placed under a different title such as Florida’s Mackay Opportunity Scholarships. An examination of the research on the various efforts leads him to caution that market-based solutions might not solve “what ails American schooling. The combination of stratification plus few or no achievement or competition benefits leaves little (other than ideological preference) on which to hang one’s policy hat.” (p. 25). Yet he cautions that despite identifiable problems such as stratification and little evidence of achievement benefits, the downsides identified are minimal, thus leaving advocates of such approaches some room within which to maneuver.

To give a complete scope of the material packed into this small book, let me merely list the titles of the remaining 5 chapters:

3 Preferring Preferences: Taxes as Policy Instruments
4 Current Knowledge on the Nature and Effects of Neovoucher Policies
5 Taxing the Establishment Clause: Exploring the Constitutional Issues
6 Policy and Political Implications
7 Future Prospects: Tinkering with Utopia

Because a review of this length does not allow thorough exploration of all the material, the remainder of this revue will concentrate on chapters 5 and 6. I focus on 5 because traditionally one opposition to voucher programs has been the argument that it could represent government money going to religious schools. Yet even before the Supreme Court somewhat eliminated the First Amendment separation issue in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), the landscape was not as clear as many may have thought. And the current status of jurisprudence is that while Zelman eliminated the obstacle of the First Amendment as a federal matter, it did not address any limitations within State constitutions, especially those with so-called Blaine amendments originally offered as anti-catholic measures in the somewhat more distant past. One might argue that should these state constitutional amendments be litigated before the Supreme Court, that it might a variety of methods choose to invalidate such provisions, for example on an equal protection basis. Welner thoroughly explores aspects of the various issues that come into play. Here his legal background is of particular value in enabling him to clarify the landscape. He thoroughly explores the evolution of the Court’s reasoning in developing tests and standards, exploring for example how the 3-part test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) has been modified over time in subsequent cases to matters of endorsement, coercion and a rubric of neutrality. Against this he lays out the landscape of 36 states (and Puerto Rico) having Blaine provisions in their constitution, while 29 (including 18 with Blaine language) have a second provision that prohibits taxpayers from having to support any ministry. “Only Michigan’s state constitution includes language that directly and specifically vouchers and tax benefits (p. 67).

I have taken the time to demonstrate how thorough Welner is because the opposition to vouchers, and likely to neovouchers as well, has often been fought precisely on the grounds of a violation of separation of church and state, and it is important as the phenomenon continues, as seem likely, given the expansion of the use of tax credits from 3 to 6 states in recent years, to be sure those involved in such policy matters fully understand the nature of all issues that will come into play.

Let me note as an aside that one can read this chapter by itself as a thorough introduction to Supreme Court jurisprudence on the interplay of government and religion, especially as it plays out in schools. This is an issue that I have studied extensively, and about which I instruct my Advanced Placement students. The chapter is of value just for that.

Welner is also able to bring into play implications of other decision of the Supreme Court. For example, he notes the decision in Romer v Evans (1996) that invalidated a Colorado Constitutional amendment that sought to prevent jurisdictions “from instituting civil rights measures against sexual orientation discrimination. . . The Court analyzed the law as specifically targeting one group for lesser legal protection and therefore as in violation of the equal protection clause (pp. 73-74). Thus would could readily see how the Court MIGHT rule a Blaine provision as similarly violative of the 14th Amendment equal protection provisions. Welner demonstrates his thoroughness by offering a counterbalancing caution:
Ironically, school choice itself could be challenged with a similar argument - that the policies were initiated because of a desire to harm a politically unpopular group. Choice became a prominent policy in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Instead of mandating that black and white students attend separate schools, boards adopted so-called freedom of choice policies purportedly allowing all students the option of enrolling in whichever school they wished. p. 74
Of course, any Black student who attempted to enroll where s/he was not wanted would face implicit, and not particularly subtle, threats to discourage such action.

Let me briefly examine the chapter on policy and political implications. First, Welner provides a very complex formula, which I will neither reproduce nor attempt to explain, on page 85, which is supposed to demonstrate how neovoucher policies save public funds. He then examines the reality behind the calculations. He notes that in Arizona, the pro-voucher Goldwater Institute calculated that the state suffered a net loss of #13-18 million in one school year, and that only about 12% of the neovouchers had gone to transferring students. This highlights one problem common in voucher proposals that is still part of many neovoucher approaches: the problems of ensuring that the funds go only to those transferring from supposedly inferior public schools to nonpublic schools. Attempts to control the problems are not always successful. For example, some states prohibit a family from gaining a tax credit contributing to a “scholarship” (or equivalent) for their own children, but that ban is easily circumvented by families pairing up to contribute on behalf of each other’s offspring. That is not to say that such policy issues cannot be addressed, but in the relatively new world of neovouchers they have not as yet been completely addressed.

Similar, Welner notes the requirement in some states that private funds going to neovouchers partially help fund public schools, perhaps requiring 1/3 of funds contributed by a corporation be retained for funding programs within the public system. He also notes that some policy makers prefer neovouchers over more traditional vouchers for a variety of reasons. First, neovouchers do not represent a direct expenditure of government funds, which gets around the Blaine restrictions. Second, by giving a tax credit neovouchers CAN save states money not expended on behalf of the students no longer in the public school, although as already noted of the neovoucher goes to a student who was already in a nonpublic setting, the money saving function is reversed because of the decline in revenue received by the government. And simply put, “tax credits may simply look better than spending increases . . . many taxpayers perceive a tax credit as a tax cut, even though the practical budgetary effect is the same as a direct expenditure” (p. 91) which makes neovouchers easier to “sell” as policy.

By now you should have a sense of the richness of this slender volume. While I am primarily a public school teacher, I have a strong interest in educational policy matters, such that I was pursuing a doctorate in the subject until I found that I could have an impact writing online and lobbying without the magic three letters after my name. I have reviewed books and and served as a peer reviewer for journal articles for a number of years. I have to say I do not believe I have encountered a book on educational policy that provided so much useful material, and in a non-polemic fashion. Welner discusses so much, including thing like how the issue is framed a la George Lakoff. He connect the use of neovouchers with the supply side approach of many of a conservative political persuasion. He provides copious documentation of the material he discusses, which enables the motivated reader to pursue any and all lines of inquiry further.

I intend to recommend this book to several Members of the House Committee on Education and Labor and their education staffers, because it covers the issues so thoroughly. I strongly encourage people wanting to be able to discuss important issues of educational policy to read this book at their earliest convenience.

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