Dropout Nation normally doesn’t publish on Fridays. But yesterday’s unveiling by Congressional Republicans of $1 trillion tax-cutting proposal includes a plan to expand school choice through existing education savings plan currently used to fund higher education tuition payments. The actual mechanics — as well as a failure to provide a similar tax credit plan to low-income families — is another reminder that the Trump Administration has no good intentions for poor and minority children. It is also proves that hopes among conservative reformers for a major expansion of choice weren’t worth the compromises they made to their morality and commitment to help all children.
At the heart of the Congressional Republican plan, contained in House Resolution 1 (or the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”), is a move to allow families to use 529 college savings plans offered by states and some financial firms to pay as much as $10,000 a year in elementary and secondary school expenses. This can range from private school and apprenticeship tuition to expenses for tutoring services families use to help their children succeed in school. If implemented, the idea, floated earlier this year by the Heritage Foundation, would transform 529s from mere college tuition savings programs (and tools for grandparents to siphon off their wealth before going into the hereafter) to vehicles similar to education tax credits already in place in states such as Nevada.
For middle class and wealthier families who haven’t used 529s so far, not only would the conversion of the plans help them pay for private school tuitions and other expenses, it also comes with a tax benefit to boot. Nearly every state allows contributors to 529 plans to exercise a tax deduction, meaning more tax dollars back into their pockets. Which, by the way, is something they will need since Congressional Republicans plan on reducing the level of deductions they can take on state and local taxes in order to finance the tax cuts they plan under the bill.
Save for worries about 529 plans straying from the original purpose of saving for those increasingly expensive college bills (and the risk of reducing incentives to seek out college education), your editor has no great problem with this proposal on its face. After all, middle class families in suburbia (especially those from Black and Latino households) have long been denied the charter schools and other choice options that are far more robust in urban communities. If this plan was tied together with an Earned Income Tax Credit-style program that helps poor and minority households gain money they can use for private school tuition payments and tutoring (which they can then use to make direct payments or start 529 accounts for their children), as well as keeping current deductions on state and local taxes (which help fund traditional districts), the proposed 529 conversion would be a win-win for all families and children.
Yet this is not the case. Neither Congressional Republicans nor the Trump Administration pushed for an education tax credit program. Which means poor and minority households end up losing out on additional opportunities to help their children gain opportunities for high-quality education and ultimately, the knowledge they need to become part of the middle class.
The lack of such a plan raises the same concerns school choice advocates such as Howard Fuller have had about ESAs that poor families lose out at the expense of families that already have resources and can take advantage of various vehicles that allow them to save and reduce tax burdens all at once. This is especially problematic when you consider that 51 percent of all K-12 students (especially those from Black, Latino American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian households) are on free- and reduced-lunch programs, a proxy for being low-income. The American Federation for Children (whose board current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos once chaired) has already expressed disappointment that nothing was done to help the poorest families gain choice.
Your editor isn’t exactly shocked. As Dropout Nation readers can recall, I noted back in July that efforts to use the tax code to expand school choice were running afoul of Congressional tax writers, whose concerns had more to do with reducing tax bills for higher-income Americans and corporations than with expanding choice. [Staffers at the U.S. Department of the Treasury also disdained those plans because of the potential impact on the nation’s finances.]
That the Trump Administration is a basket case of a regime with few appointments filled at the U.S. Department of Education and incapable of convincing senators to pass various versions of an ObamaCare repeal all but guaranteed that a school choice expansion would be lackluster. Add in the reality that Congressional and Senate Republicans are also terrible in crafting legislation, and the likelihood of a comprehensive choice program was remote to impossible.
But the problem wasn’t just with the Trump regime’s inability to organize and craft policy (or that of Congressional Republicans). The administration has demonstrated since January that it has no interest in doing well by poor and minority children.
Even the one bone it tossed — a $250 million increase in funding for the federal Charter School Fund and the devotion of $1 billion in Title I funds for intra-district choice for low-income children — was funded in part by eliminating $2.2 billion in funding for Americorps, the program that helps districts provide poor and minority children with Teach for America recruits proven to improve their academic achievement. Given Teach For America’s political muscle as well as that of traditional districts, and those reductions were never going to happen. The effort, put simply, was anything but serious policymaking for advancing systemic reform.
Meanwhile the Trump Administration has done all it can to render miserable the lives of Black, Latino, Native, and immigrant children. From ending Obama Administration-era efforts to stem overuse of harsh school discipline against minority children, to September’s move to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (which ensured that 760,000 undocumented immigrant children, youth and adults brought to the country as children aren’t deported), to last week’s move to detain 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez as she was heading to a Laredo, Texas, hospital for emergency surgery, the Trump regime has proven uninterested in doing right by our most-vulnerable children.
Conservative reformers, including hardcore school choice activists, will argue that at least there may be an expansion of options through converting 529 plans. But that may not happen. This is because the tax plan itself is now opposed by a variety of interests, including homebuilders and real estate agents opposed to the proposed limitation of the mortgage deduction to homes worth less than $500,000, states and districts upset over the limits on state and local tax deductions, deficit hawks worried that the plan will increase the federal deficit, healthcare advocates concerned that the plan will be a stealth attempt at repealing ObamaCare, and advocates for abortion opposed to the 529 proposal’s plan to allow for families to save for the unborn. So it is unlikely to pass. Which means that this plan to expand choice may not happen after all.
Since DeVos’ nomination last November, all but a few conservative reformers have been silent about both the Trump Administration’s bigotry (as well as DeVos’ own lack of fitness for the job), while others have actively defended it. All in the hopes that their policy proposals would become reality. But it increasingly appears that for the most part, those hopes have been dashed.
These folks will have to look themselves in the mirror and ask if any of this was worth sacrificing their mission to help all children, no matter who they are or where they live, succeed in school and in life. The answers should trouble them their sleep and their waking hours.