A Costly Disconnect

Once again, a group of Californians is attempting to qualify a statewide ballot initiative intended to dramatically increase parents’ ability to enroll their children in the school of their choosing, whether public or private. And once again, the effort is almost certain to sow disappointment, invite recrimination, and result in failure. It could have been different, and I believe it will be different in the near future. Before expanding on those thoughts, a brief description of the proposed initiative’s basic elements is in order.

The “Children’s Educational Opportunity Act” seeks to create an education savings account program (ESA) that would make a sum of money – $17,000 in the program’s initial year of operation, and a comparable sum each year, thereafter – available for every child in California who is eligible for enrollment in public school grades Transitional Kindergarten through 12. Parents will be able to direct any portion of those funds to pay for private school tuition, or to cover “expenses typically associated with the education of a TK-12 pupil in an eligible school…” including, “…curriculum, books, online courses, religious and academic course materials, school supplies and equipment, academic tutoring, academic testing fees, special needs services of a special needs beneficiary, and transportation.”

The proposed program permits any portion of ESA funds not expended in a given year to accrue to subsequent years. Any funds remaining following a beneficiary’s graduation from high school can be used to pay for that beneficiary’s post-secondary education. And should parents or other relatives wish to contribute to a child’s ESA, their contributions would be excluded from the computation of gross income on their state income tax filings.

To become eligible to receive ESA funding, as directed by parents, a private school would be required to meet one of two conditions. A school would either need to be “accredited by a regional, national or religious accreditation organization” or would need to “perform nationally norm-referenced academic testing of all students (except IEP students) to occur at minimum biennially, beginning no later than the fourth grade.”

The program would be overseen by an ESA Trust Board consisting of “…members who are actively affiliated with five eligible non-religious private schools, six eligible parochial/religious schools of different religions or denominations and two parents or legal guardians of a child with an ESA receiving home-based education.” The Board’s initial members are to be appointed by “the proponents of [the] initiative.”

The backers of the initiative provide an example of “How it Works” in which tuition at a private school offering instruction in the elementary grades is set at $7,000. A prospective recipient of ESA funding could cover the entirety of tuition and reserve the additional $10,000 to cover the cost of tuition at a private high school, repeating the surplus-generating process each year.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Plenty, beginning with flat-out dishonesty. The level at which a private school’s tuition is set almost never reflects the actual cost of the education it provides. In almost every case, the difference is made up through continuous, and oftentimes herculean fundraising efforts. Any academically competitive private elementary school that currently sets its annual tuition at $7,000 is almost certain to adjust its tuition to a higher level if administrators know the state is handing parents $17,000, which they may spend on tuition. (Why would a donor contribute to a scholarship fund when parents can designate public funds to cover tuition?)

Next, not only does the proposed program fail to provide preferential treatment to children hailing from low-income households, it actually advantages the wealthy. High-income earners can tax-shelter a portion of their income through contributions to their children’s ESAs, subsequently using those funds to pay for college tuition.

The authors of the proposed ESA program appear to be so concerned over potential state regulation of private schools that the protective language built into their initiative actually opens the door to unscrupulous actors and invites regulatory push-back. For one, the criteria governing a school’s eligibility for receipt of ESA funds are too lax. Administering a norm-referenced test every other year hardly establishes accountability. (Nothing in the initiative requires a school to make school-wide test results public, or even to report the results to parents.) Audit results are, presumably, to be reviewed by the ESA Trust Board, which appears to be a private entity not subject to oversight by any agency of the state.

In its zeal to insulate private schools from state regulation, the initiative appears to provide legal cover to future private schools founded for the purpose of propagating unsavory ideas. At the very least, a provision could have been added acknowledging “that nothing be taught that is manifestly inimical to the public welfare,” (a tenet acknowledged in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters), but such a gesture was, apparently, regarded as overly restrictive, or as an invitation to government oversight.

Last, but not least, the initiative invokes gratuitously negative language when describing the state’s public schools. Not all public schools are failing. There are some great public schools, and there are some awful private schools. A public school can be a better fit for some students and families, while a private school may better meet the needs of others. Providing parents with the capacity to pursue what they regard as the best fit should be the animating idea behind the initiative in question.

The shame of it all is that these errors could easily have been avoided had the backers of the initiative partnered with those representing the actual providers of private K-12 education (meaning those representing groups of schools) early on. Regrettably, if predictably, the progenitors of proposals such as the initiative in question are abetted by public policy institutes that are often disposed to ignore providers. Whereas some think tanks (EdChoice immediately comes to mind) have a long-established record of working collaboratively with provider groups, the general tendency among relevant public policy institutes is otherwise.

That pro-school-choice public policy institutes tend to ignore the actual providers of private education is not entirely irrational. Think tanks compete with one another for notoriety, perceived influence, credit for achievements and, above all, donors. The need for public policy outfits to differentiate themselves from one another tends to produce ‘siloism’ at the expense of collaboration.

Of course, it takes two to tango, and those of us in the provider space may be equally blameworthy for our failure to engage with colleagues in the policy world. With that mea culpa in mind, it is heartening to know that the California Catholic Conference is organizing an Advancing Educational Excellence Summit intended to bring representatives from the two spheres together to consider elements of policy likely to attract a base of support that is both broader and more inclusive than has been true of recent California initiatives.

With dedicated leadership and mutual good will, we can and will do better!

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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