Making Vouchers Sound Mainstream

The Mackinac Center has for years tried to divert public funds to private and religious schools. In 2000, their attempt to amend the Michigan Constitution to allow vouchers went down in a landslide: 31-69. That must have stung, given that the enormous amounts spent to pass it were the highest ever:

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Since then, the Center’s been pushing Universal Tuition Tax Credits, a phrase that doesn’t sound anything like vouchers, which they evidently hope will avoid memories of that last election blowout and is probably designed provide a legal argument that the constitutional ban doesn’t apply. After all, it’s not the state that’s sending money to religious schools, it’s sending it to taxpayers after they’ve already spent it at private schools. It’s sort of a money laundered voucher scheme that benefits from confusion with the tuition tax credits already allowed for higher education expenses.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has taken a similar tack that assumes no constitutional prohibition. It pushes Education Savings Accounts. Again, this plan benefits from the confusion with ESA’s already allowed by the IRS, which are essentially a Roth IRA for parents to save for education expenses. In the ALEC version, K-12 foundation (per student) grants are diverted to these savings accounts that parents would use for private schools.

That it’s a tuition check by another name is the whole point:

ALEC and its allies have additionally sought to move away from the term “vouchers” and towards “education savings accounts,” even though the impact is ultimately the same: to shift taxpayer funds from public schools to private or religious institutions.

Versions of the ALEC Education Savings Account Act were introduced in seven states—Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—in 2015. The bill subtracts funds directly from state school aid and deposits these funds into savings accounts for low-income students that can be used to pay private school expenses.

The Heritage Foundation  is pushing DOE Secretary Betsy Devos to implement ESA’s for military-connected and Native American children. Devos’ own American Federation for Children offers model legislation for autistic, special needs and foster care children, as well as veterans, active military, low- and middle-income families.

Why all these half steps?

This is the camel’s nose under the tent technique. Provide money to the most deprived, move the center of what’s normal to the right and then push an equity argument to expand coverage to everyone. The Mackinac Center has developed an entire political theory around this technique: the Overton Window.

The term Overton Window was coined by former Mackinac Center VP Joe Overton, who observed that new policies, properly framed, can make previously radical ideas seem reasonable.

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Now a rallying cry for the extreme right, as well as an awful book by Glen Beck, the Overton Window has been given credit for the assent of Donald Trump. In that analysis, there are three steps to shifting the window of public policy:

  1. Give people an enemy.
  2. Make passive allies active.
  3. Use popular sentiments to justify radical shifts.

But from the Mackinac Center’s perspective, the Window is mostly about shifting education policy. Enact marginally mainstream polices in order to drag what you really want into the acceptable range.

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And by doing this, you get, step by step, to your ultimate goal.

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