The idea behind McKinney Senator Ken Paxton's proposed legislation really is pretty ingenious. The whole school-choice voucher idea -- essentially a guise to funnel public money to religious schools -- invariably runs afoul of constitutional challenges. So, lately, that movement has shifted its strategy quite successfully by avoiding public coffers altogether. Some experts call it the "neo-voucher."
At least eight state legislatures have passed bills allowing folks to donate to "nonprofit organizations" that set up scholarships in exchange for a tax-credit voucher. That way, tax revenue destined for the treasury instead winds up with nonprofits who disburse the money as they see fit. Nobody has successfully challenged their constitutionality in court so far. The idea, ostensibly, is to pluck students out of failing public schools and place them in private ones they couldn't otherwise afford.
It's the kind of free-market solution that's found sturdy support from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conclave of business interests and legislators from which spring draft legislation like shoot-first-ask-questions-later "Stand Your Ground" laws. Historically, though, it hasn't always worked out to the benefit of the students who could use a hand up the most. According to a New York Times investigation last year, the money has gone to kids already enrolled in private schools. It's gone to religious schools teaching its students that the Antichrist will eventually control the world. In some instances, the donors' cash was eventually funneled back to their own kids.
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At a recent Texas Tribune conference, even Governor Rick Perry's own former education commissioner warned of the potential for fraud when unaccountable nonprofits get their hands on all that cash. "Whether it's public funds or it's siphoned off tax dollars that go into a 501 (c) 3 and they get to hand out the money, the potential for fraud is incredible. Those checks are going to go out and they're going to find out that those kids don't actually exist, as we have with charter schools in the past," former education commish Robert Scott said.
Paxton's bill may avoid at least some of the worst excesses wrought by tax credit vouchers. Donations can't be awarded based on athletic prowess. Nor can a nonprofit funnel scholarships to one particular school. But these organizations need only spend a quarter of annual revenue on scholarships for "economically disadvantaged students" who attend failing public schools. About whom the rest of the money goes to, the bill says very little. There's nothing in the law that prevents a student who is already enrolled in a private school from qualifying for a scholarship.
This kind of program does have budget implications, which won't go unnoticed in a state where deep budget cuts have resulted in teacher layoffs. As of last year, it was estimated that some $350 million has been diverted from public coffers in eight states under the various tax credit voucher laws.