Curmudgucation: DeVos Organization Issues School Choice Guidebook

The American Federation for Children is a dark money group that advocates for school choice in general, and vouchers in particular. It was founded and funded by the DeVos family (Betsy was chair right up through the summer of 2016), and is well-connected via ALEC, that special organization in which corporate sponsors get to write bills for legislative members. The AFC Growth Fund is another wing of the group, and they produce an annual School Choice Guidebook. This year's book is out, and I've looked at it, but you probably should anyway.

The report is 88 pages of reform chatter, so this trip will be neither quick nor easy, but if you stick with me, you'll get to see some stunning reform logic at work, gather some fun factoids along the way, and see exactly what their idea of a perfect voucher program would be.

It's Not All Awful

Okay, it is kind of awful, but it's worth noting that the guidebook contains a ton of information, much of it arranged in handy charts. If you have questions about, say, which states have which kinds of voucher programs, and how the details of those programs vary from state to state, this guidebook has answers, often arranged so that they can be viewed easily at a glance. I doubt that it's all perfectly accurate, but honestly, this is a resource I'll probably return to for answers to certain questions about the state of voucherdom.

So let's dig in and see what the report has to offer.

Types of Private School Choice Programs and $$$

A whole page of the different flavors of choice, though oddly they lump magnet schools and homeschooling as "private school choice programs." They've even included charter schools, despite the insistence of charter fans that charter as public schools. 

Of the ten different flavors listed on the page, AFC is going to focus on three-- tax credit scholarships, vouchers, and education savings accounts.

This is followed by a map and chart that shows which states have charters, which have some sort of voucher, which have both, and which have neither. Only four states have neither. There are fifty-four voucher programs in the US-- twenty-four voucher, twenty-two tax credit scholarship, six education savings account, and two individual tax credit programs. The average "scholarship" amount is a measly $5,408. Of the three types, ESAs have the highest average amount.

According to AFC, the total amount expended for the programs is $1.1 billion for vouchers, $1.1 billion for tax credits and $158.3 million for ESAs.

There's a cute graph of annual enrollment in these programs that starts with 29,03 enrolled in 2000-2001 and comes up to the last hard figures, from 2016-2017-- 442,475. Likewise, the number of states involved has grown.

More Charts!!

This guidebook really is a chart and graph fan's playground.

The next set of charts show the enrollment and funding for various programs by state, with separate charts for each of the types of voucher programs.

So if we look tax credit scholarships, we find that Montana has such a program-- and it took in #29,950 in donations that were divided among the 39 students who signed up for the program.  Five of the programs only make triple digits for students enrolled. Only one state hits six digits for students enrolled, and that's Florida, with 108,098 students in a $631 million dollar program (that's not counting the Hope Scholarships). There are some states that have a fairly impressive dollars-to-students ratio, including Alabama where the Tax Credit for Contributions to Scholarship Granting Organizations program only enrolled 4,181 students, but took in a whopping $29,699.374 in donations. Kansas took in over $4 million to serve 307 students. And New Hampshire had 332 students enrolled in a program funded to the tune of $713K. Incidentally, all of these figures are from the 2017-2018 year.

The six ESA programs make a wild field, including as they do Nevada's ESA program which was passed, but then denied any funding. So it exists, but it currently serves 0 students with 0 dollars. Florida, however, has over 10K students in its Gardiner Scholarship program, funded with $105 million. In fact, two thirds of the total ESA funds in the US are in that Florida program.

For the regular old voucher programs, the leading spender is, once again, Florida leads again with $220 million spent on vouchers for 31,000 students. Wisconsin and Indiana are close behind, with Indiana actually serving more students. Ohio is the only other state in the big leagues for vouchers. Are any of these factoids surprising you

Florida Blue Ribbon

By AFC's count, of the $2.4 billion total spent on various voucher programs in the US, $956 million of that was spent in Florida-- that's 39%. No wonder Betsy DeVos thinks Florida is an exemplar of how education should work. That's almost a billion dollars taken out of taxpayer pockets and placed in the bank accounts of educational entrepreneurs. In one year.

Who's Eligible

One of several interesting breakdowns in the report, this shows which states have which kind of eligibility requirements. So we learn that there are twenty-eight means-tested program, nine for failing schools, twenty-one for students with special needs, two for bullied students, and three that are open to everyone (Arizona, Georgia and Montana).

Why so many for special needs? Because it's a political winner, and because it's a better money-maker. As we've learned repeatedly, a school that can gather students with low-cost special needs (like a mild speech impediment) can still rake in the extra money that follows students with a special needs label.

Accountability

Perhaps because it is aimed in part at investors, the guidebook is more exacting on the subject of accountability than you might expect. Again, some nifty charts guide us through the type of accountability standards that are or are not present, program by program.

For instance, on the voucher chart, we learn that only six of the twenty-four programs require independent evaluation of academics in the voucher school. Only ten require proof of financial viability. Only thirteen require annual financial reports, meaning that eleven do not. And four programs require no background checks for personnel.

Tax credit scholarships come with even fewer background checks, and only four out of twenty-two require proof of financial viability. Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island have non academic accountability requirements at all. Most programs require some sort of financial reportage.

ESAs are academically lax. And North Carolina's ESA program is the only one of all the active programs listed in all categories that has no non-discrimination requirement.
 

Now for the Sales Baloney

If all those facts and charts are getting you down, let's move on to the sales pitch.

AFC strongly believes that all school choice programs should collect and report data on how the students are doing in the programs–both academically and socioemotionally–and also on their academic attainment after they graduate from the programs. Our hope is that a greater number of choice programs do this important research, particularly on postsecondary outcomes.

This is a pleasant dream, and it's also carefully placed right in front of a graphic about "gold standard, random assignment empirical studies of private school choice programs." The seventeen studies they picked are broken down to eleven positive, four neutral and two negative "effects on student learning." Not about post-graduate results.

There are no footnotes, endnotes-- nothing to indicate which seventeen studies they are talking about. A quick check with my research assistant Dr. Google tells me that at least three legitimate studies show vouchers producing negative effects for students. And when we talk about these kind of student effect studies, generally all we're talking about is test results, anyway-- and so what? AFC itself seems to be trying to shift rhetoric away from test scores and on to college enrollment and "persistence" and so they toss out two studies about those things, neither of which is exactly earth shattering. In both, researchers found that students who enrolled in voucher programs were more likely to enroll in college than their peers who did not. Since voucher enrollees are a self-selecting group of students with families that are supportive of education, it seems safe to assume that they are also more likely to attend college. In other words, the studies found that students who care about education often later seem to care about education.

Mostly this seems like a page designed to distract attention from findings that voucher programs actually hurt the students who participate.

Myths and Facts

Oh, these are my favorite. This is the part where reformsters say, "Look, here's a mean thing that people are saying about us, but nanny nanny boo boo to them." It's also where we find out what they think their vulnerabilities and strengths are, and where they try to steer the discussion. All fun stuff.

AFC has a whopping ten myths they want to address. Let's see how they do.

Myth #1: Private school choice programs drain money from public schools.

AFC's claim is that school choice programs "save our government millions of dollars each year." They even attach a number, claiming that the participating states saves "anywhere from $13 million to $120 million annually." They offer not a single piece of support, which is a wise choice. There's some carefully worded argument here-- "the cost to educate a child in a traditional district school is greater than the public funding provided for each child in a scholarship program." Technically sort of correct in the case of tax scholarship or ESA programs, because in those programs the donors give money to fund the voucher rather than paying that money in taxes, so we can argue that it's not public money because the government never actually touched it. However, tax revenues for the school district are still reduced because donors paid for a voucher instead of paying school taxes.

AFC also tries the old "the district saves money because they don't have to educate that kid" argument, which ignores problems of scale-- a district can easily shed a couple of students with no reduction of expenses for the district. And in some voucher programs, the student didn't even have to be in public school to begin with, which means a chunk of money is diverted from the public school but public school enrollment is reduced by exactly zero.

Of course vouchers drain money from public schools. If you're household budget is tight, do you buy a second house to save money? Of course not-- and you can't run multiple school systems for the same money you used to operate one. And since all that money was collected in a bin marked "public education," you can't take anything out of the bin without reducing the money going to public education.

Myth #2: Private school choice programs violate the separation between church and state.

AFC's argument is "some courts ruled in our favor." Of course, some courts also ruled against them, but we're not mentioning that. Voucher systems overwhelmingly direct money to religious schools. And voucher backers like DeVos know this full well-- the whole point among many religious conservatives is to take back society from the Godless heathen liberals, and that includes, especially, schools. They know that vouchers violate the separation of church and state-- they just don't believe that separation was intended by the Founding Fathers of this Christian Nation. As far as they're concerned, breaking down the wall is just setting things right. As one of my Christina right friends explained to me (yes, I have Christian right friends), the whole wall between church and state is the result of confusion and failure to really understand the Constitution.

Myth #3: Students don't benefit from private school choice.

This is based on their cherry-picked set of studies (the list we aren't allowed to see) and the two post-grad studies they found that helped their cause. That's before we even get to all the studies that show that the measure of choice-- raised test scores-- is bunk. We should believe that this is a myth because AFC says so.

Myth #4: School choice is anti-public school.

AFC doesn't really answer this, but then, this is a group founded and led by the woman who said that public schools are a "dead end." They go with the old "public schools have their place, and we're sure there are some fine ones." And it is largely true that DeVosian style reformsters don't want to see an end to public school, because Those Peoples' Children have to go to school somewhere.

Myth #5: There is no accountability in private school choice programs.

They harken back to the charts showing that things like health and safety regulations are followed by choice schools, and that some even have to take the same Big Standardized Test as the publics. They have "some level" of financial accountability, which is not true in all states per their own charts. And families can vote with their feet, which simply doesn't count as an accountability measure.

Myth #6: School choice hurts traditional public schools.

There are studies that show students who stay in public school near choice schools improve. There are many of them, but AFC requires us to take their word for it. And wait- I thought that studies showed that voucher students outperformed public students.

Myth #7: Only private schools have selective admission policies.

They argue that plenty of public, magnet, charter etc schools also have selective admission requirements. They are correct-- because they have carefully misstated the "myth." In their defense some public school advocates also misstate this. But the real point is this-- only private school systems have selective admission processes. A magnet school may have a selective admission process, but that is for students who are within the system-- and nobody has to apply to get into their public school system. Within that system there may be requirements or pre-requisites to get into a course, a performing group, a sports team, or a magnet school. But nobody has to apply to get into their public school system. And no, charters aren't public schools.

Myth #8: Private choice programs increase racial segregation in schools.

"No reputable study shows that private school choice increases racial segregation." Oh, we should just be done here, because the rest of the paragraph is carefully worded attempts to deny and shade what has been true since the first segregation academy opened in the South. We can look at a city in the DeVos's own home state to see the effect in action. AFC cites a study of Louisiana from 2016 as evidence that segregation is not increased, but another scholar looked at the same data and got very different results-- more segregation. The fact that choice appears to free lots of white parents to indulge their desire to get their own children away from Those People-- well, it's not an admirable impulse, and it's not choice's fault that the impulse to segregate is there, but it sure does seem to empower that impulse.

Myth #9: School choice only helps urban students.

Choice can help rural students? Well, let's not talk cyber-schools, the kind of choice that's prevalent in my neck of the woods, because cyber-schools kind of stink. Bricks and mortar charters aren't interested in the rural market because there isn't enough market there to make a strong business case for the rural charter-- and charters are businesses. There are rural-ish religious schools, and vouchers might be a windfall for them, but for students they won't make any real difference.

Myth #10: Private schools don't serve students with special needs.

Well, now we see why all; those charts made sure to break out the programs specifically for students with special needs. If I go back and crunch the numbers, the total number of students enrolled in the voucher programs aimed at those with special needs, I get a grand total of 50,786, out of the under-500K students using any voucher program. And of that 50,786, a full 31,044 come from just one state. Can you guess which one? Yes, it's Florida's John M. McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities.

It's a small number of students in just twenty targeted programs in the country, but admittedly 1 is a big enough number if it's your kid. But AFC doesn't answer two critical questions. One is the nature of the special needs, because there's a big difference between providing services for a student with a mild speech impediment and services for a non-verbal student confined to a wheelchair. The other critical question-- how do students with special needs fare in schools that belong to the other programs? Having targeted special needs programs is no plus if it's just an excuse for every other program to say, "We won't take you-- there are programs set aside to handle your problems, so go see them."

They are correct that ESAs can be used to provide special services in the home, but that really dodges the question. They also say that each year 0ver 70,000 students with special needs use ESAs and other private choice programs to meet their needs, and I have no idea where that number comes from. And it still doesn't address the criticism. Can a student with special needs be accepted at any voucher school (as they must be by any public school), or can they only expect to get in to schools that are specially marketed to them.

The States

The rest of the report (we're only on page 17) is a state-by-state evaluation of the various voucher programs. The tax credit scholarship programs are actually ranked based on scores in various categories-- we'll get back to that in a bit. Of the eighteen tax credit scholarship plans ranked, number one is-- ta-dah-- Florida's. Of the eleven ranked voucher programs, number one is Wisconsin's Racine Parental Choice Program.

Each program (some states have more than one) gets a page loaded with information and details. It is a good at-a-glance reference for seeing what's going on around the voucher world.

Alabama's individual tax tuition credit program only involved 127 taxpayers-- but the total tax credits refunded were $351,140. Arizona's ESA program requires parents to sign an agreement to provide education in reading, grammar, math, social studies, and science. Enforcement of that agreement...? That "parents must sign" requirement is a common one, as is the absence of any stated accountability for the parents. Florida's tax credit program requires teachers at participating schools to have three years of teaching experience-- or a bachelor's degree or "special expertise." So, anyone. Rhode Island requires at least a bachelor's degree.  Some tax credit scholarship programs allow a tax credit of 100% of donation, while stingy states like Indiana allow only 50%. Iowa, Virginia, and some other state families are eligible with up to 300% of poverty guidelines. Lots of states forbid discrimination on basis of race, color or national origin; LGBTQ discrimination is largely unmentioned (Maryland is one state that does forbid discrimination based on "sexual orientation.") Mississippi has a voucher program for students with dyslexia and very specific directions about what therapy must be used. New Hampshire's tax credit program, unlike some others, does not allow donations to be tagged for one specific school. In Tennessee, the ESA requires parents to waive their child's rights under IDEA. In Utah, students using the special needs voucher must have an IEP; however, if they are already enrolled in a private school, that school can do an assessment to see if the student is eligible to bring the school a voucher bonus for special education services. Wisconsin's parental choice voucher program has a slow-releasing cap, raised one percent of public school district enrollment per year until 2025-2026, when the cap is completely lifted.

There's a lot to dig through.

The Rankings

This section presents the same info in different formats and lets you check and compare the scores. It also shows how the points are awarded, which provides a straightforward look at what AFC thinks matters most. Here's the breakdown by categories, showing what AFC's ideal voucher program would look like.

Student Eligibility

The less limited, the better. Highest score for income limits over 200% of free and reduced lunch. Highest score for no limits related to public school performance-- you get zero points for a voucher program set up only for students in a "failing" school. No geographical limits-- highest score for program that includes all students in the state.

This one is important-- AFC wants to see no limits based on students' previous school. That means that money would flow away from public schools for students who never attended the public school in the first place. On the day those vouchers start, public schools lose a ton of money and no students. Meanwhile, the voucher schools-- who had already enrolled these students-- get a tremendous windfall.

AFC also wants to see "once in, always in" so that even if the family moves above the income limits, they don't lose eligibility for the program.

Program and Scholarship Size

Highest score for programs that give 100% of per-pupil expenditure to the choice school/ 100% of students eligible. No caps on enrollment or the amount of money the program can suck up. Schools that are new start-ups can play, too. And of course high growth rate and participation rates are preferred.

School Accountability

These are not heavily weighted, but at least they're here. AFC says school's scholarship students should take the Big Standardized Test, and their results should be reported. Schools should run background checks on staff. Annual financial reporting is required (for whatever reason, they consider this less important for ESAs). Beyond these items, however, AFC says no additional regulation should be required.

Additionally, For Tax Credit Scholarship Programs

100% of donation should be a tax credit. The cap should be 100% of donor's tax liability. The scholarship organization must use 90% of donations for actual scholarships. Donors should not target particular school or particular student. Annual reports and background checks for scholarship organizations.

And For ESAs

Someone from the state should keep an eye on how the program debit card is being used. Tutors and other practitioners must be licensed or accredited. Really? You were going to let people with no teaching credentials teach in schools. And "extra" money can be rolled over for later college expenses.

And you can see all the point totals, program by program.

And we've reached the end! Still here? God bless you. My overall impressions? Well, given the amount of groups like AFC have made, it's a little surprising to see what a small portion of the US education landscape is taken up by these folks. Especially if you take Florida out of the mix (and taking Florida out of the mix makes almost everything in this country better). They've had all these years, and thrown spectacular amounts of money at the issue, and this is what they've got to show for it? No notable clearcut successes, and while they have grown steadily, they're still smaller than the average number of viewers on a Justin Bieber video.

Voucher programs involve fewer students than are enrolled in Catholic high schools. AFC claims under 500,000 students in voucher programs. There are over six million students in 4-H clubs. There are 2.4 million Boy Scouts. A little over 1 million students play high school football. Roughly 12 million teens (47% of 25 million) use Snapchat daily. 18-year-old Bretman Rock has well over a million followers on YouTube (and you don't even know who he is, do you). Over one million people bought the soundtrack to the first Alvin and the Chipmunks movie.

I'm not saying half a million is nothing. I am saying that in a country where there are 56.6 million K-12 students, half a million (less than 1%) do not represent a major piece of the action. Vouchers deserve our attention, because they are a bad anti-public ed, privatizing idea that is being pushed hard by some folks who know less about education than they know about Bretman Rock and the Chipmunks. But as much as they have managed to grow their movement over the last two decades, they are still just a blip on the education landscape. That's one big message they unintentionally conveyed to me with the handbook.

PS: Shame on you, Joe Lieberman

For sitting on the board of AFC. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation.