Bob Mercer reports on the first data made available on South Dakota’s new public funding program for Christian schools.
Recall that in 2016, to salve the angst Republicans felt over having to give in to market forces and increase public school teacher pay, the Legislature approved Senator Phyllis Heineman’s stealth voucher program, which reimburses insurance companies via tax credits for giving scholarships to private school students.
Last month, former Senator Heineman submitted this report on her stealth vouchers to the Government Operations and Audit Committee. In the first year of the program, we taxpayers spent $260,000 to subsidize tuition for 295 children at 41 Christian schools (every private school is South Dakota preaches Christianity). That’s only 13% of the two-million-dollar annual cap placed on the program.
Four insurers laundered this public money into religious subsidies:
- Sammons Financial Group—$150,000;
- Avera Health Plans—$100,000;
- 1 company desiring anonymity.
That’s interesting: a private company gets public dollars, but the company gets to keep that fact secret. Rep. Herman Otten (R-6/Tea) and a bipartisan coalition tried to undo that secrecy with House Bill 1125 this year, but former Senator Heineman, the religious right, and, most strangely, Matt McCauley on behalf of the Foundation for Government Accountability persuaded House Education to kill that bill. Thus, we still have no way of knowing whether Heineman’s husband D. Greg and his William Insurance Company received any additional state funds for subsidizing Christian education.
We can at least thank Sammons, Avera, and ReliaMax for their openness. Any other recipients of public largesse should adopt the same openness.
Heineman’s stealth voucher program gives insurers an 80% credit for their donations; thus, our tax dollars covered $260,000 of the $325,000 insurers donated. The program awarded a total of $213,402 in scholarships, which I can only assume means the scholarship program bankrolled $111,598, including $46,598 in tax dollars, for use in future scholarships.
Using public dollars to prop up religion violates the Establishment Clause, good religious sense (taking government money subjects your church to government control), and our civic obligation to commit public dollars to public education. But under the heading “Budget Neutrality,” Heineman’s report claims that the vouchers helped pay for themselves by pulling 61 kids out of public school and saving the state money. Their math:
- State law allocates $5,464.011 per K-12 student.
- The state picks up 56.1% of that amount.
- The state cost per student is $3.065.31
- By pulling out of their public schools, those 61 kids saved the state $186,983.91.
- That’s 71.9% of the total state tab for church school subsidies.
The Heineman report extends its math to include 118 scholarship recipients who were new to South Dakota schools. Had all 118 gone to public schools, they’d have required another $361,706.58 in state K-12 aid. Thus, the stealth vouchers team claims $548,690.49 in gross savings in state aid, more than twice what we spent on the stealth vouchers. However, Heineman and friends provide no data on how many of those 118 new enrollees would have gone to private school with or without the scholarships; thus, claiming any savings from those students is fairy-tale math.
Besides, every dollar the state “saved” is actually a dollar your local school district didn’t get. And knowing how school staffing and supply acquisition work, pulling maybe three more kids from Vermillion, Salem, and Dell Rapids didn’t reduce costs for Vermillion, Salem, and Dell Rapids. Pulling those state funds to support church schools only disadvantaged hundreds of other kids in the public school system… which of course is the outcome Heineman, ALEC, and other school privatization backers facilitate when they divert public funds from public schools.
180 of the 295 students whose religious education taxpayers subsidized come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches. In other words, more than a third of the students receiving tax dollars for private school probably don’t need our help to obtain the luxury of a private education.
The Heineman report provides no information on student performance. But we have research that shows kids who use vouchers to switch from public to private schools score worse on tests.
Public subsidies for religious education are bad for kids, public schools, private schools, and the First Amendment. Legislators should claw this church/corporate handout back and put every dollar back in public education where it belongs.