Interview with Nathan Hoffman, American Federation for Children on School Choice + Tax Credit Scholarship Programs

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Sarah: We know school choice is a multifaceted topic and you bring a unique voice to the conversation. Can you provide a high-level overview of the school choice work and advocacy that you lead at the American Federation for Children?

Nathan: I’ve been working in the public policy space now for probably close to eight years at this point, for various organizations primarily supporting K-12 education reform and specifically school choice. I find myself now at the American Federation for Children or AFC, for short. AFC is the largest and I would say probably most active school choice advocacy organization in the country. We operate both a national team and several state-based teams as well. I sort of sit on both which is a unique position within the organization. I lead our work here in Illinois, and I also provide guidance as it relates to policy implementation and different challenges that the state directors or state leads are facing through my position on the national team.

Sarah: Thinking in particular about education savings accounts or tax credit scholarships, why do you view these as important and necessary in our current education landscape?

Nathan: If you are somebody who believes, like I do, that your circumstances at birth, shouldn’t predetermine where you ultimately are able to end up in the United States of America of all places, then I think it’s important to talk about the lack of opportunity that particularly low income families and more often than not, these are minority low income families, have in accessing a school other than the one that’s been assigned to them by the government by virtue of where they live.

If you are blessed enough to be born into a family that has the financial means to move into a different school district that has better schools, or you have the ability to pay tuition at a private school, or you are somebody who might be socially or politically connected to somebody who matters who’s able to get your child into a better school, then you have school choice already. We shouldn’t be mad at these families for being afforded these opportunities, but we should seek to extend these kinds of opportunities to all the families who don’t fit into one of these categories.

If you look at it from a public policy perspective, tax credit scholarships, vouchers, education savings accounts, are all just different mechanisms for how we might level the playing field or how we’ve approached leveling the playing field of opportunity, particularly for low income families across the country. Knowing that, I would say they’re incredibly important.

If you just look at how public schools have done in educating low income and minority kids, these are often the populations of kids doing the worst in the public school system. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and certainly doesn’t make a lot of sense to AFC to trap these families and kids in schools that are not working for them for one reason or another. Especially when other families who have the means, do get up and move out of those schools when they are no longer working. We believe that these types of programs are a public policy solution to providing greater parity when it comes to opportunity and education.

Sarah: Let’s stick with this idea of tax credit scholarships. You make a really strong argument for tax credit scholarships; but I want to think a little bit about how they’re controversial. A number of education experts view them as a potential financial drain or attack on a traditional public school. Knowing that there is controversy around tax credit scholarships, what is your response to people who worry about the projected loss for public schools and the redirecting of the tax base to private schools?

Nathan: This is the argument we encounter every single day. So I would say a few things: one, I would say the argument itself is a systems based argument around what’s going to happen to the system. I have found there to be very little commentary on what is going to happen to the students, or what does happen to the students and families when these programs are instituted. You can look at any school choice program data out there on the performance of students, not just their academic outcomes, but their social outcomes, their later life economic outcomes, all these different positive outcomes and indicators are why these programs either benefit kids, families, and communities when they’re instituted.

But to the actual question, we still largely fund education in this country based on the attendance and certain characteristics of each student. So obviously, the fewer students who are enrolled in public schools over time, the fewer state resources and potentially federal resources they’re going to be receiving based on the way in which we currently fund schools. Although they’ll still retain all the local funding that’s provided through the property tax base, etc.

So I mean, to me, it’s simple supply and demand. On one hand, if there’s less demand at a particular school, then that school won’t have the same level of financial need as it would with greater student demand. That said, there will always be student demand for education. It’s not like the students sort of disappear or the families disappear just because they choose to go someplace besides their zoned public school. They’re still there. They’re still in the community. We shouldn’t necessarily look at them as any different just because they chose to go to St. Ann’s instead of John F. Kennedy High School. They’re still there. The demand has just shifted elsewhere. It’s up to the public schools, and frankly all schools, to make themselves attractive to students and families.

And this is where the demand for funding more kinds of schools comes in. If you follow my initial logic about school choice policies primarily being a mechanism for extending more options to more families who are less capable of taking part in these options because they lack the financial or political resources to do so, then it would seem that supporting the decisions of these families in choosing a different school than the one assigned to them still requires the expenditure of taxpayer or taxpayer subsidized funds. With school choice programs, you’re not really reducing the amount of funding available to support education in a community. You’re also not reducing the job opportunities for educators. I don’t think we talk enough about this actually, looking at school choice from the teacher perspective.

There are many teachers out there who would love to have a more diverse array of options of where they might leverage their skills in the classroom. I think that diversifying the job opportunities within the teaching field is something that comes with having greater school choice because the students are going to be able to move around to different schools, which means teachers are going to have these same opportunities, should they so choose, to go work at a private school or to go work at a charter school or whatever type of school students and families are choosing.

I guess the reality is that yes, over time, if there are more students who leave the public school system, and we continue to fund public schools the way we do on an attendance basis, it is conceivable that there would be less funding directed at a particular school or in a particular district if students and families choose to leave. That does not mean though, that there will be less money overall to provide for the education of kids in a particular community or that the quality of education provided would necessarily diminish.

Sarah: I appreciate the explanation and the idea of thinking about shifting dollars around as opposed to a drain on dollars. It brings nuance to the argument.

Nathan: It’s too often presented as a black and white argument, when it’s not. The opposition will say that if you extend school choice, which often represents a small fraction of the overall state investment in K-12 education, you will defund the entire system. I don’t think it’s this draconian and it’s certainly not this black and white. I have not seen where entire school systems have been shut down or defunded because a relatively small school choice program was put in place.

If you look at Florida, everybody wants to get to where Florida is, at least in the school choice community. I think they are either approaching half of their students or they’re just over half of their students who choose to attend a different school that’s not their zoned public school. This doesn’t mean they’re not still enrolled in the public school system, they might just go to a different public school. I am quite certain we would hear about it, especially in a place like Florida, if there were public schools being shut down all over the place as a result of Florida’s nation-leading school choice programs being in place.

Sarah: In thinking about public schools, as you said, they still serve a need, they’re not going away. So in your opinion, what are the strengths of the traditional public school system? What is the value of traditional public school districts? And why are they a necessary part of the education landscape?

Nathan: I don’t know if all my friends in the school choice community appreciate when I say this, but I believe it to be true. If we said that tomorrow we’re going to provide universal school choice to every family in America or every family in Illinois, where I live or whatever state you live in, the majority of families would still choose to attend a public school. Whether that’s the one that they’re currently attending or it’s the one they’ve been trying to get into, and now they have the opportunity to attend. I think we are creatures of habit and convenience. And so, you know, we want to send our kids to schools that are conveniently located, we want to send our kids to schools where they’re going to be educated by people we know or are friends with outside of school. So if we did in fact provide school choice to every family in America tomorrow, most will still choose the public school system for one reason or another making them necessary to our current landscape.

If you are a student that falls in the middle, meaning you’re not on the lower end of the spectrum, where you really have trouble learning in most environments, or you’re not at the higher end of the spectrum, where you’re probably not being challenged in many environments at all, public schools generally do a pretty good job of of educating these kids because they teach to the average. I also think that public schools are a source of pride in many communities. There’s a nostalgia and a romanticism with public schools, particularly your high school, your public high school. I went to a public high school and I still look at the football score when we play our rival down the street. So this is quite frankly why we have a lot of trouble with lawmakers who represent rural communities with school choice because not only are the public school systems economic drivers, major employers, they’re community centers, but they are that source of pride in a community, even if it’s just for sports, for the families and for the residents there.

I know choice is good. I believe that we should have universal choice, but I also believe that we’re going to continue to need the public school system. But at the end of the day, the public school system will have to make major shifts in the way it delivers education because it’s not working for too many kids and families.

Sarah: Last question, you’ve identified value in both landscapes — traditional public school, and school choice. How do you envision education stakeholders work towards a common ground around school choice? Can these two spaces coexist? Or does the prospect of school choice always function as a threat?

Nathan: I certainly believe that there’s space for both of them to coexist and to coexist quite nicely. Here in Illinois, we have a $100 million tax credit scholarship program that provided somewhere around 9,000 scholarships last year alone to low income and working class families to attend a private school. That law, called the Invest in Kids Act, passed at the exact same time actually, literally linked in statute to a historic overhaul of how we fund public schools in Illinois. What we have always said, from an advocacy perspective in Illinois, is these two laws need each other. You’re getting more money into the public school system, which many schools were very much underfunded when that law passed in 2017, and you’re providing an opportunity through additional dollars that are coming in the form of private donations in exchange for tax credits for students who are looking for something else outside of the traditional public school system. To this point, the legislature has provided more than $1.5 billion in new state investment into the public school system in Illinois since the law passed and the tax credit scholarship program has raised some $250 million or more, so on the whole, there’s a lot more money going around to support the education of Illinois students thanks to both the public school funding reform and the existence of this tax credit scholarship program.

There’s many other states that have proven that it can be done, Arizona, Florida, Indiana — have very rich school choice environments — and have also managed to fund public schools as well. If we want to coexist, sort of peacefully, there’s things that both sides could probably do to engender some peace, but like anything in our politics today, it’s very vitriolic.

I think if we approached our rhetoric from a different standpoint, which is to say, focus on the students and less so on these other big sort of ego driven topics and just focus on the students who are being served, then we’d all do better.

That said, the model for teacher unions relies on members paying dues and if we are providing more opportunities for students to go outside of the public school system, then it is conceivable that teachers may choose to do so too. This means they won’t necessarily be in the union, which threatens the financial model and political power of the union. I personally don’t think this is a bad thing but it is the big elephant in the room, which is a financial and political threat, not to the public school system, but to the teachers’ unions.

But I would stand by my original thought that if we lowered the tension, lowered the rhetoric, we’d probably be able to work some things out that we haven’t been able to thus far.

Sarah: Is there anything that I didn’t ask that would be important for you to say in terms of capturing the argument that AFC looks to provide within the school choice space?

Nathan: We’re very clear about our mission statement. “To empower families, especially lower income families with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children.” You will often hear different people approach the school choice debate from different perspectives. Some people approach it from the free market perspective — we just need competition in schools and it’s sort of the Milton Friedman free market approach to school choice. Others approach it from the justice perspective, the civil rights perspective. And historically these two approaches to school choice have been able to come together very nicely.

I think we’re living in a very rich time, in terms of where we’re at with school choice. 22 states passed or expanded school choice programs in 2021 alone. At AFC we believe that was a direct response to the breakdown in the public school model during COVID-19. But what you have started to see now is a little bit of a splintering in terms of what the coalition to support choice looks like. I think part of that just comes naturally with the increased splintering of our ideological lines in society.

One of the big debates in the school choice policy world today, which is a similar debate to what’s happening in the public schools, is what to do about testing and accountability. There is a split in the school choice community between those of us, I count myself in this camp, who believe that students should be tested and that it’s important for us to know how they’re doing, and those who place less value on this type of information or exercise. I think testing is important from a taxpayer perspective; it’s important from a parent perspective; it’s just generally important to know whether kids are reading and doing math on grade level.

AFC participates in all of these conversations about how you can create better school choice programs. At the end of the day, what we’re interested in is how we provide families more and better opportunities outside of those currently being provided. We don’t really care how it comes to fruition as long as kids and families are being well served at the end of the day.



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