School Choice & Charters

Growth of ‘Neovouchers’ Sparks Debate Over Policies

December 16, 2008 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Tax-credit-supported scholarships are fast outpacing vouchers as a state policy tool for promoting private school choice, the author of a new book on the topic said this week. Whether that growth is good news or bad depends on whom you ask.

Kevin G. Welner, an associate professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has written a new book on the topic, uses the term “neovouchers” to describe state policies that grant tax credits to individuals or businesses for donations they make to organizations that provide students with financial aid for private schools.

In remarks at a forum here last month in the nation’s capital, Mr. Welner voiced concerns about the increasingly popular approach.

For starters, he charged, the policies are “unproven, largely unstudied, and largely beyond the reach of solid evaluation.”

But others participating in the Dec. 15 discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, had a much different take.

Kevin P. Chavous, a former Democratic City Council member in the District of Columbia, pointed to disappointing results in the nation’s urban public school systems, such as low graduation rates, as justification for trying the tax-credit approach.

“We know what is not working,” said Mr. Chavous, who is also the board chairman for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. “Anything that is remotely different will get pushback from the status quo, even if the status quo isn’t serving children.”

The idea of tuition tax credits is that a state offers individuals and, in some cases, businesses, a credit for donating money to nonprofit, privately run voucher programs. Currently, six states have such policies in place: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

Mr. Welner, the director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado, estimates that 100,000 students are receiving tuition assistance this year under state tax-credit policies, almost twice as many as receive vouchers under publicly financed voucher initiatives.

“Although much less well known and understood than conventional vouchers, neovouchers actually dwarf conventional vouchers in terms of their scope,” said Mr. Welner, whose new book on the issue is titled NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling.

State Approaches Vary

In describing the advent of tuition tax credits, Mr. Welner noted that they provide some advantages to choice proponents over traditional voucher programs. For one, he said, they are “relatively unencumbered by the [political] baggage of past voucher battles.”

Also, he said, they appear better insulated from legal challenges. In a commentary for Education Week earlier this year, Mr. Welner explained: “Since no new money ever actually enters the state’s coffers, proponents can argue that state money has not been spent on religious education.”

That reasoning, he noted in the commentary, was adopted by a majority of judges in a 1999 ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court on one of that state’s programs.

At the forum, Mr. Welner highlighted some of the ways tuition tax-credit initiatives vary from state to state.

“Each state has its own set of rules, and it’s important to understand the differences,” he said.

For instance, in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia—which enacted its program this year—the tax credits equal 100 percent of the amount donated. In other states, he said, the credit ranges from 65 percent to 90 percent of the donation amount.

While some states provide credits exclusively either to individuals or corporate donors, others extend them to both groups.

Also, state policies on who is eligible to receive scholarships vary. For instance, in Florida, tuition assistance is targeted at low-income families.

Mr. Chavous said he supports that idea.

“I”m a firm believer in means testing,” he said. “I think that responds directly to the crisis of where we are.”

Mr. Welner argues that most states fail to demand sufficient data on their programs or call for rigorous evaluations.

But Adam B. Schaeffer, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based free-market think tank, contends that even without significant data on particular efforts, a lot of information on school choice exists more broadly, and he finds it encouraging.

“We’ve been experimenting with school choice for more than 50 years,” he said. “I think it makes sense to go with what looks to be promising.”

A Question of Capacity

Compared with conventional voucher programs, Mr. Welner said, tuition tax credits tend to hand over substantial decisionmaking authority to wealthier taxpayers. He notes that only corporations or private citizens who file itemized tax returns are eligible for the credits.

“The reality with neovoucher policies is that parents’ roles ... are largely subordinated to decisions made by donor taxpayers and the school tuition organizations they donate to,” he said.

Mr. Welner also expressed concern that both vouchers and tuition tax credits tend to benefit “active parents” and risk producing a “cycling downward” in the quality of public schools, where other students with less active parents would remain.

Sheila Simmons, the director of the human and civil rights department at the National Education Association, who also took part on the panel, echoed that concern. “We have to look at the masses of children,” she said. “We need to change public schools, we need to change public education.”

Ms. Simmons also asserted that private schools lack the capacity to serve the large number of students who need better schools.

“The capacity issue is a serious one,” replied Mr. Shaeffer from the Cato Institute. “It’s obviously going to take time for private schools to ramp up their capacity, for new ones to open.”

But he maintains that “if you actually free the money up and give parents control over that money and they start choosing private schools,” the market will respond and sufficient options will emerge.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Growth of ‘Neovouchers’ Sparks Debate Over Policies


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters What to Know About a Neo-Nazi Home-School Scandal
Three things to know about how the incident connects to broader public education debates.
6 min read
Tight crop of hands typing on a laptop overlaid with a window that includes a video play button and red progress bar.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School Choice & Charters The Push for School Choice Is Accelerating
States across the country are considering sweeping school choice bills that would send public funds to private schools.
6 min read
Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school to protest the HB15 voucher bill, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.
Students and teachers from East High School in Salt Lake City walk out of school on Jan. 25, 2023, to protest legislation that would create private-school vouchers in the state. Several years of pandemic restrictions and curriculum battles have emboldened longtime advocates of funneling public funds to private and religious schools in statehouses throughout the country.
Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
School Choice & Charters Charter School Governance Shapes Those Schools’ Approach to Equity
New research finds that the entities governing charters influence the schools' commitment to equity.
5 min read
Young students file back into school at Somerset Academy Charter South Miami, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, in South Miami, Fla.
Students head back to their classrooms at Somerset Academy charter school in Miami in December.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
School Choice & Charters Q&A Voucher Programs Gain Strength With Help From the Courts, An Expert Says
A school choice expert explains how recent rulings could prevent future voucher programs from getting blocked by opponents.
8 min read
Group of white paper planes going in one direction on a light blue background with one individual red paper plane heading in a different direction