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The Tax Credit Debate: Arguments For and Against Aid to Private Schooling

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The following are statements excerpted from a debate on federal tuition tax credits held in Washington on Oct. 22.

Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, spoke in favor of the concept, which is supported by the Reagan Administration. Mr. Finn is a former aide to Democratic Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York, who is also a proponent of tuition tax credits.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, opposed the proposal.

The debate was part of a seminar on the issue sponsored by the Education Department.



Chester E. Finn Jr.

Tuition tax credits are a means to an end--they are not an end in themselves. The end, in my view, is fostering educational choice at the elementary and secondary level for American families and simultaneously buttressing the idea of pluralism and diversity in American education.

Except for national defense, I don't believe in government monopolies. I also should say that I don't believe in private-sector monopolies.

There is nothing government does so wellthat it should be left to do it alone--with no competition, with no pacesetters in other sectors, with no alternative formulations. Obviously, we don't have a government monopoly of elementary and secondary education in this country.

What we have instead is a near-government-monopoly for poor people and a wide array of choices for rich people.

The [wealthy] almost without exception can pick the kind of schooling they want for themselves and for their children, and, if you will, their grandchildren. They can move into wealthy suburbs with public schools that are excellent and special and lavish, or at least that were until the school finance reformers got to them and insisted on equalizing them. They can also pay tuition at private schools if they want to--private schools of an incredible array.

In the main, however, poor people can't do that. They have to send their children to school, but they have no alternatives within their grasp, within either the public sector or the private sector.

Remarkably, many scrimp and save to send their kids to private schools anyway. If you are a poor urban resident, in fact, it is a lot less expensive to scrape together the $500 or $800 a year that is needed to send your kid to the local Catholic parochial school, than to buy a house for $200,000 in the suburbs at 19 percent.

The question for me, then, is whether a government that allows rich people to make choices in education should allow poor people to be denied those choices by virtue of their poverty.

We would be horrified if government only provided scholarships for poor college students if they attended state institutions, and we would be equally horrified if Medicaid beneficiaries were only allowed to get treated in municipal hospitals. Think about telling Social Security recipients that they could only use their checks to buy a television set if that television set is confined to the public broadcasting channel. I don't think we would tolerate that.

As a society, we generally believe that poor people should have the same choices the rich have when it involves something that is essential or compulsory. And that's an important point--we're not talking about a luxury good.

That's why I don't have much patience with the analogy to municipal or private golf courses or swimming pools that is occasionally made. The analogy is irredeemably flawed unless you complete it.

Imagine a society in which every child is required to take swimming lessons, and to swim every day, but the local public pool doesn't have enough lifeguards, sometimes the water isn't clean, the diving board is broken, the other kids dunk you and occasionally drown you. But more important, the pool authorities absolutely forbid anyone to do the backstroke, and they insist that every child swim freestyle in the same direction and at the same speed, even though some have never learned to float, while others are ready for the Olympics.

Obviously, that pool accepts all comers-it's required to. But is it any wonder that the parents of exceptionally able or eager swimmers, or for that matter, the exceptionally eager parents of ordinary swimmers, and certainly, the parents who believe that freestyle is sinful and their children must do the backstroke, is it any wonder that they obey the compulsory swimming law by sending their children to private pools whenever they can?

My own view is that if they feel that way, but cannot afford private pools, the government should help them.

I say nothing about the relative worth or effectiveness of public and private pools. The question need not be even reached. It's a question of whether parents have that kind of choice, where parents who want their children to swim in a society like this should be able to have them swim, and whether affording them such a choice is a legitimate public value. I think it is.

Switching back to education, I don't I mean to say that everyone attending a private school deserves financial aid from the government.

Much as I would welcome it to help send my own two kids to the schools they now attend, I cannot tell you that I think I have a strong claim on this kind of aid or that I think it should be a high priority for government at a time when many essential public services are suffering.

But I do [believe] that equity demands that within certain limits, poor people should have the same choices for their children that rich people have for theirs. Maybe tuition tax credits aren't the best way to do that. Maybe even the federal government shouldn't do it. But somebody ought to. Somebody in government.

Second, I believe that educational quality is most apt to be provided when there are different kinds of schools and when they are to some extent competitive with each other. Now maybe tax credits are not as good an idea as vouchers for fostering maximum competition, and I want to insist that I don't mean competition only between public and private. There is enormous opportunity for differentiation, diversification, variety, choice, and competition within the public sector of education, and I think it would be a splendid thing.

But there are also some kinds of education the public sector probably can never provide, and a full range of "differentness," if you will, must include nonpublic schools. Note that I am talking about different kinds of schools and that they will likely end up with relatively homogeneous student bodies. That's quite opposite to the current pattern, which is heterogeneous groups of children attending virtually identical schools.

Third, I believe there is an issue of justice here. In 1965 when [large-scale] federal aid to education got under way, the law stipulated that the aid would go to all children in the various categories without regard to where they attended school.

But with very few exceptions, private-school students haven't gotten their share, nor have the private schools they attend gotten their share.

Meanwhile the parents pay taxes-both the taxes to support the public schools and the taxes that pay for the federal aid to the public schools and for the federal aid that would have gone to the private schools if the law had been followed.

Now there are many reasons for this and they are explainable but I don't think they're justifiable, and I think you have to understand the deep-seated resentment within private education to an injustice at the hands of the federal government that has been visited upon them for a long time now.

Fourth, there is also an issue of social peace. Aid to private schools is a divisive issue, but it is also a deeply felt one. It evokes very different social philosophies; it affects various interest groups; it rubs virtually every exposed nerve in this society.

So long as it is unresolved it will continue to generate acrimony, and it will distract us from what I believe are the more important educational questions: namely, those pertaining to the quality of teaching and learning for all students, especially the 90 percent of students who attend public schools. Getting this issue behind us would be worth something.

Now a word on the usual objections: First, the notion that aid to private schools is bad for public schools. We can talk about that quite a lot, but I don't think it holds much water as an idea.

In Minnesota, the various schemes of state aid to private schools, including, incidentally, a tuition tax deduction, haven't hurt public schools at all. And lots of other countries manage to aid their private schools while maintaining strong and high-quality public schools.

Second, the argument that competition is unfair because public schools have to do all sorts of things private schools don't have to do. Let's not suppose that two wrongs make a right. The way to handle the absurd constraints on public schools is to ease or eliminate them, not to lament the freedom with which private schools operate.

At the same time, private-school people have to understand-and some of them don't want to understand this-that getting aid is going to entail a certain amount of regulation. There is no getting around it. Those that want no regulation must be warned ahead to decline the aid.

Third, the argument that aid to private schools means aid to the rich and to the white. I get a little sick of this, because the main purpose of aid to private-school students is to bring these opportunities within the reach of the poor and the nonwhite, and thus to alter the composition of the private-school population, assuming such persons wish to avail themselves of the opportunity.

Of course private schools are disproportionally rich and white--that's why we should aid people to attend them.

Fourth, the argument that it's unconstitutional. You can't know if it's constitutional until you try it. The Supreme Court does not give advisory opinions. And no existing decision is directly on point.

Also, the Supreme Court has, since 1947, regularly if unsystematically misinterpreted the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and it needs to correct itself. It is not so unusual for the Supreme Court to reverse itself, even on quite fundamental issues. That's what the Brown decision in 1954 was a reversal of a 58-year-old doctrine that separate-but-equal was O.K. It's time for another set of reversals.

Let's keep this in perspective. Private schools enroll barely 10 percent of all students in this country. At no time since World War II have they enrolled more than 13 percent. It is not a huge thing. It has not been a huge thing for 30 or 40 years. There are supply constraints in private education and I believe there are also rather severe demand constraints.

I do not believe that there are enormous numbers of persons out there looking for an opportunity to send their kids to school if only they could get a $250 tax credit, Indeed, private schools can't even decide among themselves what kind of relationship to government they want. There is, alas, a deep schism between those who want aid and don't mind a few strings attached to it, and those whose premier value is to be left entirely alone by government.

The latter group is not necessarily wrong. Being left alone by government has much to be said for it.

Indeed, while the recent Coleman and other reports have been interpreted as arguments for aiding private schools, they could equally be interpreted as arguments for not encumbering private schools with all of the constraints we have visited upon public schools, lest private schools lose whatever it is that makes them appealing and effective.

Tuition tax credits [must] satisfy two concerns: first, that aid for nonpublic-school students is not perceived to be aid to private education at the expense of public education; and second, that minimal standards of racial nondiscrimination must be required of schools whose students receive such aid.

Now, given the budgetary situation, there probably won't be federal aid to private schools any time soon. That is a pity. That doesn't mean we should ignore the public and private schools in the meantime while we are waiting-maybe waiting a long time. Nor does it mean we shouldn't be working at the state and local and institutional level to improve them.

If Americans were basically satisfied with their schools-which as far as I can tell Americans never have been-there wouldn't be nearly so much talk about giving Americans choice among schools. And for 90 percent of all American youngsters, being satisfied with their schools means being satisfied with their public schools.

In a free society, you cannot mess up institutions that are very important to large numbers of ordinary people and not have those people both actively seek alternatives and deeply resent those who messed up the ones they used to rely on. I think that is a fundamental fact of American life which we had better accept and figure out how to deal with.

Vol. 01, Issue 09, Page 17-19

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