After Betsy DeVos’s last round of Congressional obfuscation testimony, many folks are asking the same question as EdWeek ― “When Do Voucher Programs Allow Private Schools To Discriminate Against Students?” DeVos answered variations on the question with repetitions of one answer:
Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law, period.
I don’t have a direct line to DeVos’s brain, so I can’t discern for certain what she’s thinking, but I do know a way to keep funneling tax dollars to voucher programs and let those voucher schools discriminate in any and all ways they wish to, all without violating the above quote.
In Pennsylvania, we call them Educational Improvement Tax Credits, and they work like this (beware: oversimplification in the service of clarity dead ahead). My corporation has a tax bill of $1,000 in taxes that would ordinarily go to public education. But instead of sending the taxes to the state capital, I send $900 to Nifty Educational Privatey Organization. I get credit for paying $900 of my taxes, and those dollars go straight to NEPO, a group that distributes “scholarships” (aka “vouchers”) to students who want to attend private schools. Meanwhile, the local public school system receives $900 fewer taxpayer dollars.
But notice― the $900 from GreeneCorps never touched the government’s hands, so technically, those are not “government” funds.
In Arizona this dodge is called a “tax credit voucher” program, and it has provided new ways for folks to grift and graft their way to personal riches. The tuition tax credit idea has been around for a while, but like many previously-dead reform ideas, it’s enjoying a resurgence. And tuition tax credits can be particularly tasty in states where you can get a rebate from the state for dollars that you contributed to a voucher school program; if you’re shameless enough, you can actually turn a profit.
This all deserves closer examination, but its importance here is simple― if the feds implement a federal tuition tax credits program, DeVos will able to look at private schools that benefit from the program while engaging in all sorts of discrimination and say, “Well, they aren’t taking any federal dollars, so federal laws don’t apply.” While charters have hitched their wagons to the public school funding mechanism, tuition tax credit voucher programs create a money funnel that bypasses the government (and all its dumb rules and stuff). While charters are designed to attach themselves to a restaurant diner and drain his blood as he eats his meal, tax tuition voucher credit programs just steal the food from the waiter on his way from the kitchen the diner (which may explain why charter fans are often opposed to vouchers).
If such a system were installed by the Trump-DeVos administration, it would exist outside of any federal regulations (and many state ones). All that debate about giving public dollars to religious institutions would be moot― silly old separation of church and state is no longer a problem. Voucher schools could trample civil rights every day and twice on Saturday while DeVos protested that they didn’t receive any federal money and parents were free to choose whatever they wanted to choose. It would be a corporate oligarch’s dream, free of any regulation or other government interference. And it would mean that Betsy DeVos spoke something that was truly the letter of the law, even if in her heart she wanted to kill the spirit of the law dead, dead, dead.