Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos introduced Education Freedom Scholarships (EFS), a bold federal proposal to expand school choice. At first glance, its chance of becoming law may seem slim. Any federal school-choice initiative has at least two obstacles: conservatives are wary of “federal” and progressives hate “school choice.” But EFS potentially has appeal for both sides.
Rather than establishing a new national program, EFS would provide a dollar-for-dollar federal tax credit for individual and corporate donations to state-based nonprofits that give scholarships. EFS could double donations almost overnight in a state like Florida, which already runs a tuition tax-credit program that defrays the cost of private education for about 100,000 students and has helped boost college enrollment. And EFS would not burden states like California that neither have nor apparently want a tuition tax-credit program.
Most federal programs offer states taxpayer money to operate programs created in Washington. EFS would subsidize private donations to locally designed programs. By encouraging states to sponsor nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations, EFS would encourage what R Street’s Andy Smarick calls “real decentralization.” In states where legislators may be on the fence about school choice, EFS offers an incentive to experiment, without imposing federal mandates. One state may want to provide scholarships to low-income students in failing schools; another, to support religious education; and another, to assist a nonprofit that gives scholarships to apprenticeship programs. EFS could accommodate these different efforts.
Some conservatives, such as the Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke, oppose EFS on the principle that the federal government should have no involvement in public education. Burke worries that EFS would open the door to future federal meddling. But the risk that Washington could one day leverage federal tax credits to pressure private schools should be weighed against the prospects that EFS offers for expanding school choice.
School-choice programs partially defray the cost of private education for barely 1 percent of American schoolchildren—and this after a quarter century of advocacy. The American Enterprise Institute’s Nat Malkus argues that state school-choice programs would need a massive cash infusion to yield the kind of marketplace that would give them the best chance to succeed. With up to $5 billion in private donations courtesy of EFS, the prospects for such a marketplace would never be better.
But why would Democrats, who oppose private school choice, support this proposal? For one thing, blue states could use EFS to support their public school systems. States could create transportation scholarships, for example, to defray the cost of busing urban students into suburban schools as part of integration efforts. Teachers’ unions could partner with state lawmakers to create tutoring scholarships that would pay teachers for what many do now for free after school.
Republicans might not like what some blue states do with their programs, and Democrats might not like what some red states do with theirs. But EFS could serve the purpose of true federalism—allowing states to serve as laboratories of democracy, even if the powers that be in Washington don’t approve.
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