The Grey Lady’s School Choice Confusion

By 06/15/2015

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In recent weeks, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ramped up his campaign to pass the Parental Choice in Education Act, which would expand educational opportunity for tens of thousands of low-income students in New York.

In addition to increasing funding for public schools, the proposal would grant tax credits worth 75 percent of donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. The scholarships would assist primarily low- and middle-income families in sending their children to the schools of their choice. Families earning up to $60,000 a year could also receive tax credits worth up to $500 to cover tuition and fees.

However, the Grey Lady has her doubts. Last month, the New York Times editorialized against Cuomo’s proposal, claiming that the scholarship program would benefit the rich, that it lacks accountability, and that it might be unconstitutional. These claims do not withstand scrutiny.

Benefiting Low-Income Families

The scholarships would be a great boon to disadvantaged students. In a recent Brookings Institution study of a pilot K-12 scholarship program in New York City, participating black students were 24 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college, significantly improving their odds of finding gainful employment.

Oddly, the Times completely ignores the would-be scholarship recipients, instead choosing to stoke the flames of class warfare. According to a budget analyst cited in the editorial, the tax credit would constitute “an extremely lucrative benefit likely to serve the state’s wealthiest taxpayers.”

The analyst reaches this conclusion not by comparing the financial impact of donating versus not donating, but by assuming that the donors would contribute anyway, in which case a tax credit is more lucrative than a tax deduction. “Many of the people who would get the credit already support their favorite private or parochial schools,” claims the analyst, so the Times concludes a “tax credit to encourage them isn’t needed.”

However, the $150 million in tax credits is designed to encourage more giving. Even in the highly unlikely event that tax credit fails to attract any new donors, prior donors could contribute much more than they had previously and still break even. And, of course, increased contributions would translate into more scholarships for needy children.

Accountability Directly to Parents

The Times argues Cuomo’s “efforts seems [sic] jarring, given his record of seeking more accountability in schools” because the “state has little say in private and parochial schools over testing, the teaching of basic subjects or other data collection required for assessing a good education.”

Here the Times erroneously assumes that government regulations are synonymous with accountability. However, the best form of accountability is when parents are empowered to choose the school that works best for their children. When parents can leave, schools must be responsive to their needs.

Public schools are not directly accountable to parents, especially schools serving low-income populations that have no financially viable alternatives. Instead, they are primarily accountable to school boards and education bureaucracy. Because they lack direct accountability, the government instead regulates the public schools, much like a public utility.

Indeed, if the Times truly desires greater accountability, the evidence suggests that it should support greater choice and competition. Out of 23 empirical studies of the effect of school choice policies on public school performance, 22 found a statistically significant positive impact. One found no discernable impact and none found any harm.

A Constitutional Choice

In a last-ditch effort to raise doubts about the choice legislation, the Times editorial raises “questions as to whether the kind of public support for religious schools the bill proposes would be prohibited” because “taxpayer support for religious education has been banned by the state Constitution for over a century.”

In fact, the constitutional question is long settled in favor of choice. In 1967, the New York Court of Appeals upheld the state’s textbook loan program, which entailed public funds being allocated to private and parochial schools. The court found the law constitutional because it was “completely neutral with respect to religion” and because the funds were granted directly to parents, which meant “the financial benefit is to parents and children, not to schools.” This is nearly identical to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale for upholding the constitutionality of school vouchers.

Indeed, New York State has been publicly subsidizing students attending religious schools for more than four decades through the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, a college voucher program that the New York Times called a “blessing” in a 1984 editorial and that it encouraged lawmakers to make available to children of unauthorized immigrants in 2012.

Moreover, unlike school vouchers, the proposed the tax-credit scholarships rely on private funding. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to a tax-credit scholarship law, finding that private funds do not become government property until “they have reached the tax collector’s hands.” High courts in four states have ruled similarly.

Sixteen states have tax-credit scholarship laws, including many with constitutional language similar to New York’s. No state court has struck down any of these laws.

The Grey Lady’s objections to Gov. Cuomo’s proposal are without merit. Tax-credit scholarships are a constitutional method to hold schools directly accountable to parents and to provide poor children with a pathway out of poverty. The legislature should not allow itself to be duped by spurious claims to the contrary.

– Jason Bedrick

Jason Bedrick is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

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