Schooled Reporting on education

Tax credits and school choice: A win-win duo?

Education | Republicans in Washington want to boost school choice, but some conservatives are wary
by Laura Edghill
Posted 3/06/19, 02:55 pm

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos introduced a bold plan last week to offer $5 billion annually in tax credits that would expand school choice. Accompanying legislation sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., aims to give parents more choices for their children’s education without diverting funds from public schools.

“What’s missing in education today is at the core of what makes America truly great: freedom,” DeVos said. “Kids should be free to learn where and how it works for them.”

But Senate and House Democrats promptly dug in their heels, claiming the proposal undermines public education. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, vowed the legislation would be “dead on arrival.”

Opponents also claimed their constituents don’t want the program, but the results of a recent school choice poll showed that 67 percent of voters nationwide agree with the statement, “School choice gives the parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.” When sorted by age group, a whopping 75 percent of millennials favored greater school choice.

Under the proposed federal plan, dubbed the “Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunities Act,” donors could receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for gifts to qualifying school choice scholarship funds. States would decide which students were eligible for the funding, what educational opportunities to finance, and even whether to participate in the program at all. Educational opportunities could include private schools, apprenticeships, homeschooling, tutoring, virtual schools, and more.

Eighteen states already have some type of scholarship plan, most of which target low-income or special-needs students. This proposal is the first of its kind at the federal level.

Critics of school choice claim tax credit plans are essentially backdoor vouchers, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2010 case about Arizona’s program that tax credits are not the same as government spending or vouchers.

“When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to [scholarship organizations], they spend their own money, not money the state has collected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion for Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.

School choice proponents mostly welcomed the announcement, but Lindsey Burke and Adam Michel at The Heritage Foundation raised concerns that a federal program would open the door for unwelcome regulation: “A broad-based federal tax-credit scholarship program fundamentally goes in the wrong direction: It would expand, not shrink, federal intervention in K–12 education.”

Associated Press/Photo by Lynne Sladky Associated Press/Photo by Lynne Sladky Robert Runcie

Still at the helm

Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie survived a vote Tuesday that would have terminated his contract with the still-grieving Parkland, Fla., district. New Broward County School Board member Lori Alhadeff, the mother of a 14-year-old who died in last year’s mass shooting at the district’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, requested the vote. Alhadeff claimed that Runcie “has a history of leadership failures.”

During the hourslong meeting, more than 80 community members stepped up to the microphone with comments, the overwhelming majority in support of Runcie. Supporters praised him for raising graduation rates, leading an academic rebirth, and providing strong and compassionate leadership in crisis. The handful of citizens who spoke out against Runcie cited concerns about the school’s academic performance compared with neighboring districts, as well as lapses in school safety prior to the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that claimed the lives of 17 people.

“This has been a very difficult year, a very painful year,” school board member Patricia Good said. “I have seen firsthand how this superintendent has dealt with some very emotional and complex issues with this tragedy. No one has walked in his shoes.”

Following the 6-3 vote, Runcie addressed the gathered community, asking Alhadeff and the other victims’ parents to work together with him in forging a path forward.

“I have witnessed a lot of loss,” Runcie said. “Grief and anger can really test and wreck your spirit, but you can’t let it wreck your life.” —L.E.

Cannabis U

Study programs in marijuana and hemp are sprouting at colleges across the United States, as more and more states adopt pot-friendly legislation.

“My friends make good-natured jokes about getting a degree in weed,” said Grace DeNoya, one of the first students in a new four-year degree program in medicinal plant chemistry at Northern Michigan University. “I say, ‘No, it’s a serious degree, a chemistry degree first and foremost. It’s hard work. Organic chemistry is a bear.’”

Though marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, 33 states allow medical marijuana, and 10 have passed legislation decriminalizing recreational pot, as well. Industry watchers predict more than 400,000 jobs in the field by 2022, and higher education has taken notice. Colleges across the country, including some in states where marijuana remains illegal, now offer programs in cannabis chemistry, public policy, horticulture, and more.

“We’re following the market,” said Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Morrisville, a college in rural central New York that’s launching a new minor in cannabis studies in its horticulture department this year.

The big question remains: What type of scientists will emerge from these programs to handle such powerful chemicals in a society adrift? —L.E.

A pseudo-strike over school choice

A school-choice tax-credit program at the state level is spurring murmurs of another potential “sick out” in Kentucky this week. The state is considering legislation that would offer tax breaks to individuals for donations to private school scholarship funds. Similar to the debate over the federal proposal, supporters tout the importance of flexibility and choice, particularly for underserved families. Opponents claim the bill will drain resources from public education. For now, the proposed “sick out” is on hold, but Kentucky teachers have already shown their willingness to employ the tactic.

Last Thursday, hundreds of teachers called in sick, forcing the closure of numerous school districts, including two of the state’s largest. At issue was a bill that would dilute the power of the Kentucky Educator’s Association on the board of trustees for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. As of Monday, that bill stalled, its future uncertain. —L.E.

Carrying for safety

An Ohio judge ruled Thursday that a local school district may allow select teachers and staff to carry concealed weapons if they meet certain requirements. The Madison Local School District recommended the controversial policy in the wake of a 2016 shooting that injured two of its students. Several community members filed a lawsuit, citing the number of training hours as a major point of contention.

Judge Charles Pater of the Butler County Common Pleas Court affirmed that the policy’s required 34 hours of training was sufficient, in contrast to the 700-plus hours the lawsuit was seeking.

“Our primary concern has been and continues to be the safety of our students, and what works for our community may not work for others,” Madison Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff told WXIX-TV in Cincinnati. “While this policy has received a substantial amount of attention, it is just one of many steps that has taken to ensure student safety.” —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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    Posted: Fri, 03/08/2019 06:56 pm

    I don't know about teachers who carry weapons. That might mean a whole other definition of "respect" for the teacher.

    "Go ahead make my day!" 

    And they would have to be able to keep a student from grabbing their weapon, just like we see happening to cops.


    Posted: Fri, 03/08/2019 07:03 pm

    "Sweden’s School Choice Reform and Equality of Opportunity"

    I watched a report on this the other day and they said that it was good for the public schools as well as the private. Sweden seems to be happy with the results.

    Why don't teachers in public schools want to do a better job of teaching students? If a teacher isn't doing a good job of teaching they should be fired. It's sad that the teacher's union protects bad teachers.