SCHOOL CHOICE: The Buck Starts Here

school choice

When advocates for private schools began to advocate for the smattering of available government funding sources in the 1960s, the move was considered novel and controversial. Those days seem a far cry from the American map of today, when the concept of government funding for private schools has blossomed in many states into an array of tax credit scholarships and vouchers — achievements of the ever-growing school choice movement.

While the trajectory of school choice had been a steady upward climb for more than a decade, the past year brought a noteworthy number of wins for advocates of the movement, with new programs introduced and existing programs expanded. This past year also saw much movement in Congress and in the courts, the outcomes of which are still undetermined, but which seem to point decidedly to a new era on the subject in Washington.

While funding for specific services exists in multiple forms around the country, from both state and federal sources, the scholarship and tuition assistance programs are all the creation of individual legislatures, and as such it is difficult to view the nation as a whole and make generalizations about the status of school choice. Still, a summary of wins seems to paint a positive picture.

One state that saw windfall gains was Ohio, where already-robust school choice programs underwent massive expansions of both funding and eligibility.

“We’ve been making steady progress since the programs were introduced, but what happened this year essentially doubled the program overnight; it’s a major policy change,” Rabbi Yitz Frank, Ohio Director of Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia.

Ohio’s two most widely applicable scholarship programs are EdChoice, enacted in 2005 — which offers vouchers to students who live in districts with low-performing public schools — and its Income-Based Scholarship Program, enacted in 2013 — which, true to its name, is based solely on a family’s being at or 200% below the poverty level.

school choice
Rabbi Dovid Spetner, Rosh Kollel of the Cincinnati Community Kollel, gives a ‘closed-sefer’ masechta bechinah to Rabbi Shai Scherer’s 5th grade Mishnayos class in the Cincinnati Hebrew Day School.

This year, legislators and newly elected Governor Mike DeWine expanded EdChoice, which had only been open to students up to the fifth grade. It now runs through high school and $50 million has been allocated to cover expansion.

Some changes that relaxed the application process are also expected to significantly expand the program. One such change allows high school students to become eligible for EdChoice even if they have already been attending private school, and another allows for applications to be submitted mid-year, rather than the year prior as had always been the case before. Legislation also passed to increase funding for the state’s Cleveland Scholarship Program.

Changes were passed as part of Ohio’s state budget which was voted up overwhelmingly in both houses of the state’s legislature which was sealed in mid-July.

Ohio’s story not only strikes a triumphant chord for school choice advocates, but is evidence of the Orthodox community’s stake in the movement. Cleveland’s community has grown exponentially over the last decade. Much of this growth has been driven by rising housing prices in East Coast population centers as well as a concerted effort to open kollelim in the city; however, the state’s generous tuition aid programs have played no small role in this turnaround.

“It’s certainly not the only factor, but I think the vouchers are definitely a big part of what has attracted a lot of families who have chosen Cleveland as their home, and what was accomplished this year should only improve on that,” said Rabbi Frank.

Another state that made great strides in expanding its already generous school choice options is Florida. There, a new program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship, is set to expand eligibility and offer new doors to some of the 13,000 students currently waitlisted for existing programs. Perhaps most significant, the bill creates an “accelerator” that enables the program to steadily grow by 7,000 vouchers each year.

As a community that almost universally opts for private education in Torah-oriented schools, regardless of a family’s income, the keen interest which advocates in the Orthodox world have taken regarding school choice needs little explanation.

Among the general population, support for the movement comes from a broad spectrum of sectors who feel that opening up opportunities, particularly to low-income students, is the path to raising the bar of America’s educational system.

As the movement has grown, leading Orthodox organizations have partnered increasingly with other communities with shared interests, as well as with state and national lobby groups that support the cause, which also encompasses semi-private government- funded charter schools.

ADVOCATES AND FOES

While the movement has steadily picked up victories, it remains very controversial in many circles and the debate is often a highly partisan one. The programs’ most vocal foes have been teachers’ unions, and others, who argue that state-supported scholarship programs undercut efforts to maintain and improve public education.

The strength of unions and their supporters, including ruling Democrat lawmakers in the states that are home to the Orthodox community’s largest population centers — namely, New York and New Jersey — has kept school choice basically off the table in those states.

Advocates of school choice point to the fact that the vast majority of programs do not draw directly on any state revenue; rather, they create scholarships or voucher funds through individual or corporate donations, in exchange for tax credits. Still, the growth of such initiatives lowers the number of students, and district enrollment generates revenue for public schools. Opponents therefore argue that these programs shift too much of government’s attention away from public education.

Such tensions were at the core of a political showdown in Pennsylvania, where a Republican-controlled legislature passed bills that would have doubled the size of the state’s two tax-credit scholarship programs, only to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Tom Wolfe. In his public statement announcing the veto, the governor cited a lack of “accountability and oversight,” but he told local media that he felt the program “distracts from what we ought to be focusing on, which is educating every child through our public school system.”

school choice
Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) speaks during an event in February at the Department of Education headquarters, about his proposed Education Freedom Scholarships. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While Gov. Wolfe’s veto dashed the hopes of school-choice advocates, significant gains were still made in the state’s budget, adding $30 million more to the existing two programs combined, and raising income eligibility restrictions from $85,000 to $90,000 per family.

“There was a lot of excitement when the bill passed, and we certainly were disappointed that it was vetoed, but we still achieved huge wins this year,” Arielle Frankston-Morris, Executive Director of Teach PA, a division of the Orthodox Union, told Hamodia.

Currently, 40% of students in Jewish schools in Pennsylvania receive scholarships through one of the two available programs.

“These programs have attracted families to Pennsylvania in an unbelievable way and they are really sustaining Jewish education in the state, but as it is, half of the eligible students in our schools aren’t getting the funds simply because they’re capped out,” said Mrs. Frankston-Morris. “We have to keep on working each year to get increases. Through a lot of dedication by the legislature, we got this bill to the governor’s desk this year, and I think that it still might be possible to get something very similar to it passed in the future.”

The reverse story unfolded in Illinois in what was one of the year’s great school-choice dramas. One of Democratic Governor JB Pritzker’s central campaign themes had been a pledge to defund the ambitious tax credit scholarship program established by his predecessor, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. Up till a month before the state’s budget was passed in June, the new Governor’s plans to gut the program seemed on track, when a successful grassroots advocacy initiative showcasing students helped by the program coupled with political pressure and strong lobby efforts convinced him to change course and allow “Invest in Kids” scholarships to stay in place.

“What Illinois proved is that nothing beats parents telling their stories to elected officials and showing how these programs helped them in real life,” Rabbi AD Motzen, Agudath’ Israel’s national director of state relations, told Hamodia. “The other lesson is how hard it is to stop a program that is already helping children, no matter how opposed to it you and your base might be.”

On the whole, said Rabbi Motzen, who has been at the forefront of school-choice efforts over the past decade, while there had been some significant legislative wins that would help families, the sum total of gains evened out with failed attempts to initiate or expand programs in other states and had not made for an exceptional year. Still, he noted, constant efforts are essential even to the preservation of existing programs. “We’ve learned that if you’re not fighting to expand on your side, the other side is always looking to get these programs cut back, and in any place where a program exists, if you’re not on offense, you end up losing,” he said.

Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, a national leading school-choice advocacy organization, told Hamodia that he too saw 2018-2019 as a “middle year” in terms of accomplishment in states.

“We certainly have moved the ball down the field in the right direction, but in some ways it has slowed a bit,” he told Hamodia. “Of course, if you would compare this year to 2001 it would be a banner year which shows the general health of the movement.”

In a certain sense the biggest school-choice news of the year is one that is unlikely to a have a tangible effect in the foreseeable future.

This past March, the “Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act,” a plan that would raise up to $5 billion for a wide range of private-school voucher and scholarship programs around the country, was introduced in both houses of Congress and touted by its leading advocate, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. The move was an attempt to make good on a central campaign promise of President Donald Trump to enact sweeping school-choice legislation.

While historic, as by far the federal government’s most aggressive attempt to boost school choice, the move came at what seems like too late a date as Democrats who seized control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections have ruled out any votes on the bill. Widespread ideological opposition among many rank and file members of the House majority and a determination to deny the President what would be a major legislative achievement seem nearly sure to keep the bill from advancing for as long as the present political map continues.

“The challenges this bill faces are obviously very steep, but this is the first meaningful school-choice legislation on the federal level with administration backing and that gives it a new level of importance; it takes us into a different world,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudah’s vice president for government affairs, told Hamodia. “Once a bill exists that makes it real, there is a way to start the conversation and at the very least it could be a starting point for a time that might be riper to pass something like this.”

Mr. Bedrick took a cooler approach, saying that whether a national school-choice program would be ultimately beneficial for the cause is “controversial” even among its strongest advocates, but did not see much significance given the political reality.

“It’s essentially moot. … I don’t see it happening anytime soon,” he said.

school choice
Rabbi Akiva Willig, Rav of Beis Medrash of Woodmere, speaking to the boys of Rabbi Greenberg’s 6th grade class at the Yeshiva of South Shore.

One move the Trump administration took, much to the relief of school-choice advocates, was to back off of an IRS proposal that would have de-incentivized many large donors to state tax-credit programs. The initial threat was widely assumed to be an unintended consequence of attempts to close a loop-hole several states had designed to help citizens defray the effects of a $10,000 cap in the ability to deduct state and local taxes as per the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. School-choice advocates largely credited Secretary DeVos with stepping in to see that the move would not have an adverse effect on state scholarship programs.

What seems likely to be a landmark move on the federal level was the Supreme Court’s decision to accept Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a case that asks whether a state has the right to strike down scholarship programs, or any funding for that matter, on the grounds that some recipients are religious schools.

It is likely to put to the test laws on the books in many states, known as “Blaine Amendments,” that bar any state funding for religious education.

It would seem that opponents of the amendments, which have long been seen as a thorn in the side of the school-choice movement, have good reason for optimism given the 7-2 decision in a 2017 case, where seven out of nine justices ruled that a grant program to schools in Missouri was unconstitutional on the basis of its exclusion of religious schools.

“This is really picking up where [the Missouri case] left off,” said Rabbi Cohen. “If the court gets to the heart of addressing Blaine Amendments it could take away a lot of impediment to school-choice programs aiding religious schools and would be a sea change to programs that could benefit our kids.”

Looking beyond the wins and losses of a given year, Mr. Bedrick said of the course of the school-choice movement, “In the long run trends are on our side,” he said. “Even politically hostile officials see that it is practically impossible to repeal a program once families have had a taste of educational freedom. … Polls show that the younger generation is in favor of school choice. They’ve grown up being able to customize everything in their lives except for what school they attend. All told, I see school choice as a matter of when, not if.”