Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Facts Fall to the Wayside in Today's New York Times

After reading Stephanie Saul’s attack on scholarship tax credit programs in today’s New York Times, it would be easy to see how a person could come away being weary of the programs. But that's before one considers something that's conspicuously missing from Saul's story: the facts.

Saul highlights the Georgia Scholarship Tax Credit Program—making the Georgia program sound like the pith of the ten scholarship tax credit programs across the nation.  The program serves approximately 8,131 students (which Saul fails to report)—or only 6.3 percent of the 128,792 students who participate in private scholarship tax credit programs.  Thus, the Georgia program only represents a small minority of scholarship tax credit programs nationwide.

She also fails to mention the programs in Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island, instead only making reference to Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Some of those other states might have been helpful in showing some context.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, for example, serves nearly 40,000 students, yet the program is hardly mentioned in the story.  In fact, Saul does not mention the flagship program until the 16th paragraph, where she writes:

Some states have moved to tighten restrictions after receiving complaints.  In Florida, where the scholarships are strictly controlled to make sure they go to poor families, only corporations are eligible for the tax credits, eliminating the chance of parents donating for their own benefit.  Also, all scholarships are handled by one nonprofit organization, and its fees are limited to 3 percent of donations.  Florida also permits the scholarships to move with the students if they elect to change schools.

This “positive” aspect of the Florida program is shrouded in negative light.  A more balanced way of talking about the program:

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, created in 2001, serves nearly 40,000 students in the 2011-12 school year.  To be eligible for the program, students must qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program—which in 2011 would require a family income of not more than $41,348 for a family of four.  The program has also been the subject of numerous students from both independent evaluators and the state.  

Findings include:

  • “The typical student participating in the program tended to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with others nationwide. It is important to note that these national comparisons pertain to all students nationally, and not just low-income students” (Northwestern University, 2009-2010)
  • A legislatively required fiscal analysis of the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program by the non-partisan Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability estimated that the scholarship program saved $36.2 million for fiscal year 2008-09.
In addition, 97 percent of donations must be used for scholarships, which follow the child, allowing students to switch schools if their parents find a better environment for them.  The administrator of the program must also meet high accountability standards.

But Saul’s intent is not to report on the realities of school choice programs.  And in an attempt to appear balanced she writes,

“While the scholarship programs have helped many children whose parents would have to scrimp or work several jobs to send them to private schools…”

What Saul also leaves out is that of the 10 scholarship tax credit programs across the nation, one is specifically for children with special needs and eight are means-tested.  Meaning Saul only highlighted the two school choice programs in the entire country that are not means-tested.  A bit strange for a so-called accurate portrayal of these programs.

Saul continues with the usual bashing of conservative activists and foundations (despite growing and prominent Democratic support by legislators, advocates, and donors) and legal challenges (again, despite these programs being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court).

She also embarks on a bizarre attack of high school sports claiming that these scholarships are funneled to athletes.  Saul tells the story of Keyante Green, who attends private school thanks to a scholarship and excels at sports.  She insinuates that the school provided the scholarship for star players, yet disproves her own point by stating that only two of the 29 scholarship students play on the football team.

The most disappointing aspect of the story—and what opponents to school choice often miss—is that these programs are about providing students from low-income families access to a great education and providing real educational options to parents who could not otherwise afford them.

We could go on, from how Saul blames scholarship tax credits for slow growth in private school enrollment, to how she unfairly characterizes "some" parents as being opposed to choice without showing any evidence to that point. But by now, it's pretty clear the agenda behind the piece.

Countless different people were interviewed for the story, but conspicuously missing is testimony from any of the families who actually participate in scholarship tax credit programs nationwide. 

Perhaps if Saul had interviewed any of the 128,792 families across eight states, she would have heard a different story.

- American Federation for Children | Alliance for School Choice, MSG

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