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Dems to GAO: Inspect School Tax Credit Voucher Programs

By Lauren Camera, Education Reporter, April 14, 2017

A group of Senate Democrats is asking the Government Accountability Office – the nonpartisan congressional watchdog – to assess whether state tax credit voucher programs used to help pay tuition at private schools result in a mismanagement of public funds.

“With the strong possibility of federal legislative activity on tax-credit vouchers at the federal level in the near-future, we are interested in how states have designed these programs, whether they have strong internal controls, and whether they pose a risk of waste, fraud, abuse, misconduct or mismanagement,” thee Democrats senators wrote to the GAO on Thursday. The senators cite in the letter an instance in which the president of Arizona's state Senate profited off overhead funds from the state’s voucher program, which allows the voucher-granting organization – in this case, the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, one of the largest voucher-granting programs in the state – to keep 10 percent of the donations they collect. Those funds were used to pay the organization’s executive director, who happened to be the powerful state senator who touted the tuition tax credit system.

“The structure of tax credit voucher programs and the difficulty in tracing public dollars through this complicated scheme has raised the potential for fraud or conflicts of interest,” wrote Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Specifically, the senators are looking for information about how states structure their tax credit voucher programs, what financial accountability requirements they established for the organizations that manage the tax credit voucher programs, how those organizations administer the programs, and how states monitor the programs, including a list of best practices and challenges.

The request comes as the Trump administration readies to tackle tax reform, the vehicle for which education policy experts predict the president will make good on his campaign promise to steer $20 billion to school choice.

The president’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal included a $250 million private school voucher program, as well as a $1 billion boost in Title I funding for poor children that would allow them to use it to attend a public school of their choice. But Trump, along with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have spent a lot of political capital highlighting Florida’s tax credit scholarship, a sign, many say, that a forthcoming federal proposal may mirror that of the state.