Transferring public resources to private hands is a major component of the conservative agenda. An extensive profile of the push to weaken public schools and transfer wealth to private academies through tax credit programs is the subject of an extensive profile in today’s New York Times , which highlights how conservative legislators, school privatization advocates and organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council are helping secure tax dollars to bolster private school systems. Disguised as programs to help needy children gain access quality education, in reality these programs simply channel money to individuals who don’t need the assistance and boost profits for private schools, often at great cost to students and communities.
Across the country, state legislatures are adopting tax credit programs, which allow individuals and corporations to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax refund for donations to private school “scholarship funds.” In Georgia, for example, a couple can donate up to $2,500 to a nonprofit scholarship fund to be used to send a needy child to a private school. In turn, the donors can subtract their donation from their Georgia tax bill. But according to school administrators, needy children hardly benefit from the practice, with the majority of the funding benefitting children that already attend private schools:
“A very small percentage of that money will be set aside for a needs-based scholarship fund,” Wyatt Bozeman, an administrator at the school near Atlanta, said during an informational session. “The rest of the money will be channeled to the family that raised it.”
The result is a system in which gives selected students a taxpayer-funded education at a private school. Around the country, the Times notes, similar programs have redirected nearly $350 million from public budgets. This “tuition” money may go to the payrolls of the nonprofit scholarship groups or even to recruit star athletes – only a small portion goes to needy kids. Politics pervades the entire process, and it is glaringly evident that tax credit programs are more about making money than educating children:
Some of the programs have also become enmeshed in politics, including in Pennsylvania, where more than 200 organizations distribute more than $40 million a year donated by corporations. Two of the state’s largest scholarship organizations are controlled by lobbyists, and they frequently ask lawmakers to help decide which schools get the money, according to interviews. The arrangement provides a potential opportunity for corporate donors seeking to influence legislators and also gives the lobbying firms access to both lawmakers and potential new clients.
Organizations such as ALEC have been instrumental in spreading such programs around the country:
“ALEC is a huge player in pushing forward a conservative agenda based on the premise that the free market and private sectors address social problems better than the government,” said Julie Underwood, dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has been critical of ALEC’s education agenda.
ALEC promotes a “Family Education Tax Credit Program ” similar to the program adopted in Georgia. The organization promotes a number of other methods of transferring public education dollars to private hands. In addition to numerous voucher  and scholarship  programs, ALEC promotes its “Education Accountability Act ,” which allows a state to override the elected school board and declare schools to be “educationally bankrupt” and divert funds to private schools. Perhaps the boldest plan is the “Virtual Public Schools Act ,” which permits online education companies to receive the same per-pupil funding as a brick-and mortar school providing classrooms, athletic facilities, lunch and transportation services.
Politics also makes its way into the classroom. Because the tax credit system allows the money to stay in private accounts – from donors to scholarship funds to schools – the effect is a loophole that creates a legal fiction that they are not being supported with government funds. So state governments are funneling taxpayer money to religious education and political indoctrination of children, insulated from court review. Republican Arizona Representative Trent Franks, who is credited with the idea to insulate private schools from court challenges for constitutional violations this way, bragged that the teachers’ union called the scheme “fiendishly clever.” As a result, the public is forced to foot the bill for a curriculum that would be unacceptable for a public school:
Frances Paterson, a professor at Valdosta State University in Georgia who has studied the books, said they “frequently resemble partisan, political literature more than they do the traditional textbooks used in public schools.”
Mr. Arnold, the headmaster of the Covenant Christian Academy in Cumming, Ga., confirmed that his school used those texts but said they were part of a larger curriculum.
“You have to keep in mind that the curriculum goes beyond the textbook,” Mr. Arnold said. “Not only do we teach the students that creation is the way the world was created and that God is in control and he made all things, we also teach them what the false theories of the world are, such as the Big Bang theory and Darwinism. We teach those as fallacies.”
ALEC, corporate lobbyists and conservative activists are pulling the rug out from beneath American kids and communities. Tax credit programs, vouchers and other “scholarships” are being used to promote profits and politics above education. All children deserve access to a quality education – instead of taking money out of public schools, we should make sure they work for everyone.