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Considering scholarship tax credits with an open mind

Nathan Strenge

As a current Minnesota teacher with experience in both private and public schools, I feel compelled to weigh in on the scholarship tax credit legislation currently being considered.

At my core I am a champion for public education. I believe public education can be the great equalizer, giving every young person – no matter his or her circumstances – the opportunity for a life-impacting education. I truly believe it will be innovations made within public schools that will ultimately give all children the education they deserve. I will spend my entire career working to drive these innovations and help public education meet the needs of its vast and diverse student body. I feel it important to start here, because often we assign motives to ideas we find controversial. Rather than engaging in substantive conversation, we make assumptions that create a caricature of dissenting viewpoints. In this context, it is vital we understand the problem scholarship tax credits aim to impact, and why they should be considered with an open mind.  

Our reality: achievement and opportunity gaps

Right now in Minnesota, we must face the reality of our achievement and opportunity gaps head on. The need for targeted strategies to address inequity has never been more pressing. There are myriad factors that explain why we continue to see discouraging educational results for students from low-income families and students of color, and not all can be attributed to schools. Even so, the school a child attends has an enormous impact on his or her future, so making sure the mission and culture of the school fits what each child needs is vitally important.

There is simply no blanket statement that adequately describes what type of school is best for every student. I have taught in three very different school models — traditional district, arts-focused charter, and independent – and each one serves a unique purpose and inspires students differently. This is not to say all of our schools are effective; sadly, we have too many schools that are not meeting the needs of large swaths of students. The inability of schools to innovate away from the passive industrial model cripples student engagement and often leaves youngsters feeling like their education is a mandatory sentence rather than a purposeful learning experience. It should be the intention of every education stakeholder to push for more active and relevant school environments.

Enter the scholarship tax credit. This policy aims to create tax incentives for Minnesotans to contribute to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships for our most vulnerable students to have equitable school choice. With a rich history of independent schools and pioneers in the charter world, we as Minnesotans have long held choice as an integral component of our education ecosystem. The idea of sponsored scholarships is not new, and the results are excellent. Take a look at Cristo Rey in Minneapolis for an example of sponsored scholarships done well. The most important component of this, educationally speaking, is getting students to buy in to their own education. When students see the purpose of learning and are supported in a stimulating environment, every child will be successful.

Schools shouldn’t feel entitled to students

A common argument against scholarship tax credits labels them as an assault on public education. I feel this viewpoint is misguided. Fiscally, the tax subsidies do not draw from education funding; the allocated state money designated for public education therefore is not negatively affected, as many would lead you to believe. While public schools are financially supported largely by per-pupil funding, no institution should feel entitled to students. Arguments that schools “lose” funding when students go elsewhere are troubling, and this entitlement breeds complacency. Because of this, it is not a stretch to imagine scholarship tax credits indirectly incentivizing schools to innovate and explore better learning models.  

Policy-wise, there may be ways to improve the language of the proposed bill on scholarship tax credits; perhaps independent schools choose to opt-in by giving a nationally or state-normed assessment. That can be debated, but the urgency of the situation to address inequity cannot. Though tax-credit dollars are not pulled from education, we should be diligent to ensure any public money is applied purposefully.

Right now, we have a dire need for targeted strategies to address the achievement and opportunity gaps in Minnesota; this policy aims directly at that. It is time our education decisions prioritize students over institutions, equity over entitlements, and innovation over inaction. Simply considering this with an open mind without vilifying its champions is a start.   

Nathan Strenge now teaches math at the International School of Minnesota. He has won Solution Tree’s national Redefining Excellence in the Classroom Award and has been nominated for Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/16/2017 - 03:30 pm.

    Vouchers

    This is the most dishonest piece I have seen on Minnpost in a long time. Of course vouchers take money away from public education. And time and again, they are shown to be completely ineffective for anything other than taking money away from public schools. Shameful.

    • Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 05/16/2017 - 11:01 pm.

      True shame comes in the inability to carry out substantive discussion without reverting to name-calling or integrity deprivation. The argument that scholarship tax credits take money from public education is the troubling position that leaves schools feeling entitled to students. Sponsored scholarships, when done well, have not been shown to be completely ineffective. I again contend that scalable change will happen when innovations ignite within public education, making school relevant and purposeful for all students. You may completely disagree with my position but my directive is not dishonest nor manipulative, and I hope future conversation assumes best intent for the future of our children.

      • Submitted by David McKoskey on 05/17/2017 - 09:33 am.

        Weak at Best

        Even when well done, sponsored scholarships aren’t completely ineffective? Not a compelling defense, even using anecdotal evidence, which you don’t provide. Innovation is also a weak argument, and again, no details.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/17/2017 - 09:42 am.

        Poor Arguments

        “The argument that scholarship tax credits take money from public education is the troubling position that leaves schools feeling entitled to students.” No, it’s the common-sense position that the Minnesota Constitution calls for the establishment of public schools, and those schools should be adequately funded. It is also the position that, while parents are free to send their children to private schools if they wish, they are not entitled to financial assistance to do so (I have the legal right to live in any house that I choose. Should I get a tax credit so I can afford a riverfront loft?).

        “Sponsored scholarships, when done well, have not been shown to be completely ineffective.” That certainly doesn’t leave me with much confidence in the idea. If everything lines up and everyone does their job well, it will not be a complete flop.

        “I again contend that scalable change will happen when innovations ignite within public education . . .” So we do that by taking students out of public schools and directing tax money elsewhere? Your proposal is going to result in the removal from public schools of the children of parents who can afford the cash outlay for private school tuition, and for whom tax credits are a significant factor. Is that what you mean by “scalable change?”

  2. Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/16/2017 - 10:49 pm.

    Convienent

    That our author leaves out a major recipient of said voucher dollars, religious schools. Tax dollars should not fund religious education, period. Take that choice away, and this idea goes away, which should inform as to its true intent.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/18/2017 - 07:31 am.

      Religous schools

      You’d have an argument if the current system works. Unfornunately for you, the current system is an absolute failure.

      If that’s were a parent wants to send a kid, so what. Our tax dollars fund religious hospitals and religious charities.

  3. Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 05/17/2017 - 11:37 am.

    Rebuttal

    Let me be clear: I believe scalable change happens when every student attends a school that meets his or her needs on an emotional, social, and intellectual level; schools that hold every student to the highest expectation through rigorous, relevant, and purposeful learning. That will happen through incentives and policy to drive innovation within public schools.

    This debate should not be about institutions but rather the students that are consequently being let down by them. There are numerous indicators showing the ineffectiveness of our system for low-income students and students of color – dropout rates, college remediation, student debt, student satisfaction surveys, etc. – and the only solution can’t be “spend more money on education.” We absolutely need well-funded public schools, but when we see numerous examples of innovative schools and districts having success with current or less funding, we know creative solutions exist. There are templates for positive change if we are willing to approach the problem from a solutions-oriented design mentality. If you want to look into creative ways districts are approaching innovation here in Minnesota, I encourage you to look at Alexandria Area High for its Academies, Moundsview for its partnership with Anoka Ramsey Community College, and Prior Lake-Savage-Lakeville for its MNCAPS program. I bring this up because it is imperative to understand that most champions of scholarship tax credits understand they represent just one strategy to address the urgency of our equity crisis, but by no means should they take resources away from public schools.

    As for the concern about the public return on its monetary investment, consider this from the National Conference of State Legislatures: “through a nonpartisan analysis of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It reported for every $1 spent on the tax credit program, Florida taxpayers saved an estimated $1.49.” While the reason we should consider this isn’t because its fiscally sound, don’t let it be the reason to oppose them, either.

    If you truly believe a student is incapable of getting a better education outside of public schools, then I understand your argument. I do not believe this is currently our situation, which is why I want more equitable school choice that empowers individuals and families to find their best fit. I think the concerns for funding religious institutions are valid, and should be considered in discussing the best path forward. I would accept stronger accountability measures to help ensure these funds are not going to under-performing schools.

    I do not believe this policy is a back channel way to privatize education or funnel public dollars into religious institutions, but rather a direct aim to shrink the achievement and opportunity gaps of our most vulnerable students. Again, I hope we can proceed forward with the assumption of best intent for our students and we truly keep their interests first.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/17/2017 - 02:13 pm.

      Epic fail

      What has happened in Florida is that public school funding has been cut in addition to being diverted to private schools. What you are calling “fiscally sound” is actually just gutting education.

      • Submitted by Nathan Strenge on 05/17/2017 - 03:46 pm.

        Results Matter

        If public schools in Florida are in such a fiscal bind do to the gutting of their education funding, they are making due quite well. The 2017 U.S. News & World Report comparing the states with the best public high schools, Florida finished second. This is not some conservative propaganda looking at school choice metrics, but a legitimate study of the educational results in all 50 states.

        Here is the link to the report: https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/articles/how-states-compare

        Here is the link to the ranking’s methodology (which greatly matters when we use comparative statistics): https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/articles/how-us-news-calculated-the-rankings

        This doesn’t mean that Florida is the utopia of American education, but I think it serves as a cautionary tale about over simplifying the relationship between funding and results. Any reasonable person who reads the “Epic fail” post would assume that Florida public schools must be in a dire situation, but the reality of the situation doesn’t support that.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 05/18/2017 - 07:27 am.

        Epic Fail of a response

        “Gutting public education” – If that’s the only response, then we know that the responder provides no other solution that to suggest pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the same failed system.

  4. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 05/17/2017 - 12:56 pm.

    Vouchers

    Of course a diversion of tax dollars from the pot which funds public schools will harm public schools. Tax credit scholarships are the bright new face of vouchers which have gained a bad reputation through their general failure to attain better outcomes for students living in poverty. It turns out that private and religious schools do not have to comply with the same standards as public schools in terms of teaching staff, licensing, accreditation, financial and academic accountability, accommodations for special education, etc. and the vast majority do not achieve better academic results than public schools, often faring worse. Contrary to claims, low-income minority parents are not clamoring for these vouchers or scholarships because they rarely cover the full cost of tuition, making them unaffordable. Middle and upper income students are the more common recipients. Private schools are not interested in admitting large numbers of poor or hard to educate students. As funds are siphoned away from public schools, disadvantaged students who are more expensive to educate will be segregated in a diminished public school system. “Tax credit scholarships” are another guise of “school choice reform” which increases inequity in education and must be seen for what it is – a push for corporate and religious control of our country’s education system.

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