Let's Discuss Seriously How to Strengthen Successful Tuition Tax Credit Programs

What a hubbub. Having finally read last week’s desperate New York Times attack against K-12 tuition tax credit programs, I was left scratching my head. Really? The Old Gray Lady seems awfully cranky about school choice and short on facts or serious arguments when it comes to this one. In a way, it felt like writer Stephanie Saul was pushing different random hot buttons to get people fired up about… something or other.

As usual, overlooked in the article was the fact that nearly all gold standard academic research shows positive academic or competitive benefits from private school choice programs — and not one shows a negative impact. But that probably didn’t sound as compelling as the overblown assertion that “scholarship programs have been twisted to benefit private schools at the expense of the neediest children.” Writing for Education Next, Jason Bedrick does the most thorough job of dismantling the implicit argument in Saul’s story.

The Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer observes that at least the article can be credited with the positive effect of fostering “a serious discussion of good education tax credit bill design.” Indeed it has. Schaeffer makes a strong case for accountability measures outside government regulation. Georgia, which is the only state tuition tax credit program not means-tested by income, receives a heavy dose of the Times’ anecdote-driven hostility. Schaeffer highlights why he prefers the Peach State’s plan to Florida’s older program, the nation’s largest.

Eric Wearne, senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, lobs hard facts back at the national article’s attacks on his state’s tax credit program to show how, yes, it primarily helps low-income students. He concedes that some Georgia scholarship organizations are in better need of self-policing, and makes allowance for state legislative action for improved transparency. Wearne notes:

When public school programs have problems (with standardized testing or construction projects, for example), no one seriously advocates shutting down the entire system. Rather, rules are tightened and improvements are made – sometimes at the local level and sometimes by the state.

Finally, the Fordham Institute’s Checker Finn and Adam Emerson envision an even more significant role for the state in shoring up loose ends, including greater financial oversight of scholarship organizations. They also suggest that private foundations that advocate and support choice step up to provide greater internal quality control of tax credit programs.

While these three thoughtful responses represent differently nuanced approaches to address the few legitimate defects identified by Saul’s report, they stand together in resisting its caricatured and wildly overwrought attempt to smear school choice. As we embrace the easy opportunity to debunk the outrageous, let’s not back down from a civil debate to discuss the best practices for tax credit and other choice programs, too.