Schooled Reporting on education

GOP tax bill gives boost to school choice

Education | Republicans want to expand 529 accounts to cover K-12 education
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 11/08/17, 03:56 pm

A provision in the Republican tax reform plan would provide more school-choice options for families saving for their children’s education. Under the GOP proposal, parents could use up to $10,000 per year from a 529 education savings account to pay for K-12 schooling. The law currently restricts funds from those accounts, whose earnings are not taxed, to go toward expenses related to higher education.

“This is a good step forward, reflecting that education should be an investment in individual students, not systems,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said.

School-choice advocates praised the measure but noted it wouldn’t help every family.

John Schilling, CEO of the American Federation for Children, said in a statement its members are “concerned about and focused on those families who do not have 529s, typically low-income families who aren’t able to put away those savings, who are looking for more and better educational options for their children.”

College administrators also aren’t happy with the tax system overhaul because it proposes adding to the government coffers by tapping into wealthy universities’ endowments. The bill would tax endowment income from the richest universities at a rate of 1.4 percent. The tax would apply to schools with more than 500 students and assets of at least $250,000 per student—about 60 to 70 schools, according to The Washington Post. The original bill had a lower financial threshold and would have affected more schools, but the House Ways and Means Committee voted to change it after backlash from colleges and higher education groups.

Harvard University has the nation’s largest endowment at $37.1 billion. In its annual financial report last week, Harvard announced that it made total investment income of nearly $2 billion in the year ending June 30. At the proposed 1.4 percent rate, the school would owe more than $27 million in taxes.

Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon President Donald Trump signs a memorandum expanding access to STEM education on Sep. 25.

Not all STEM jobs are created equal

STEM has been one of the top education buzzwords of the last decade. Education industry experts almost universally endorse an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math learning, especially at a time when so many jobs seem to rely on those skills.

In late September, President Donald Trump directed the Department of Education to set aside $200 million a year in grant funds for technology training aimed at girls and minority students. The president even donated half his salary, about $100,000, to the department to fund a summer camp that allows students to explore science and math careers.

“We need to create pathways for all our citizens to get jobs,” Trump said, as a group of children leaned over his Oval Office desk, watching him sign the grant memorandum. “When you get out of school, you’re gonna get great jobs.”

But will they?

That largely depends on their specific field of study, a nuance often lost on students and parents.

Not surprisingly, computer scientists make the most money and have the most job opportunities after graduating from college. Students with degrees in biosciences make the least, according to a salary survey done by jobs listing website Glassdoor earlier this year.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in the next seven years, 73 percent of STEM job growth will come in computing industries, while just 6 percent will come from physical and life sciences. —Leigh Jones

Facebook/Graziano for DCSD Facebook/Graziano for DCSD Anthony Graziano (back right) campaigning with supporters

A local race with national consequences

A slate of anti-voucher candidates won a resounding victory Tuesday in a Colorado school board election that drew national attention because of its likely effect on a closely watched school-choice program. The four candidates who campaigned together under the CommUnity Matters banner beat pro-voucher candidates with nearly 60 percent of the vote in Douglas County.

The new board members expected to discontinue a legal fight for the district’s controversial voucher program, adopted in 2011. The plan allowed parents to use tax money to send students to several pre-approved private schools in the area. The Colorado Supreme Court declared the program unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court this year asked the state’s justices to reconsider the case in light of its ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, which said denying state aid to churches was discriminatory. School choice advocates believed a win in the Douglas County case could have opened the door for voucher and educational savings account programs across the country.

Newly elected board member Anthony Graziano called the Douglas County voucher program a “distraction to the district,” adding that he and his new colleagues would refocus attention on local issues.

National groups poured money into the Colorado race hoping to affect the voucher case outcome. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, spent $600,000 to support the winning candidates. —L.J.

New approach to PE

Goodbye, dodgeball. Hello, cycling, hiking, and rock climbing. Schools across the country are rethinking physical education, emphasizing athletic skills students will be able to use well past the elementary years. While picking teams and competitive contests once formed the foundation of gym class, PE teachers now focus on teaching more cooperative and individual sports lessons. In upstate New York, students get to explore activities like kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, dance, self-defense, archery, and in-line skating. One school in Washington state takes its students fly-fishing. Other schools focus fitness classes on offerings students might see at a local gym for adults, such as yoga, strength training, and swimming. With the youth obesity rate hovering at around 17 percent, schools are trying everything they can to keep kids moving and burning calories. —L.J.

Greek groundings

I’m amazed that students still want to pledge fraternities and sororities given the seemingly constant stream of stories revealing the degrading things they must do to become part of the “cool club.” Hazing rituals, evidently a prerequisite to participate in Greek life, often include dangerous amounts of alcohol consumption, force-feeding designed to make students vomit, and humiliating situations crafted to debase pledges. Even a growing list of fatalities hasn’t seemed to stem the flow of willing recruits. But colleges, facing outrage and lawsuits from bereaved parents, are starting to reach their tolerance limit. This week, Florida State University indefinitely suspended all fraternities and sororities after a freshman pledge died during a recruitment event. Two other universities, Penn State and Louisiana State, also suspended their Greek groups this year after alcohol-related deaths. —L.J.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital assistant editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 11/08/2017 08:52 pm

    Taxing endowment income is a good idea.  That money is spent on educational pork, anyway.

    I am not convinced that expanding 529 eligibility to K-12 will help.  In fact, it could harm some people by encouraging them to take undue risk of short-term loss in their children's educational savings.  This could eat up savings that is better left to grow for college.

  • austinbeartux's picture
    Posted: Thu, 11/09/2017 09:43 am

    I am THRILLED that the 529 for K-12 is in the Tax Reform Plan.  My wife and I sacrifice a lot so that we can send our two children to a private, Christian school.  Being able to use tax-sheltered income to pay for this would be great!  **UPDATE**  Nevermind--I thought income was tax-sheltered, but it's really not.  Just the earnings on the investment.  (SIGH)  This offers virtually nothing for my children.

    But what would really win my vote are school vouchers--enabling the taxes I pay to follow my children.  That's real choice!  Imagine if the public schools actually had a competitor.  Parents would have the right to choose which schools were best for their children and use the taxes they pay to fund their own kid's education.  If that happened, public schools would be forced to reform and be competitive with non-public schools.