Commentary

Accepting the Challenge of Tuition Tax Credits

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October's election results in Washington, D.C., brought public education across the nation both a cause for celebration and a mandate for some essential nose-to-the-grindstone work.

By an 8-to-1 margin, the District of Columbia's voters rejected a controversial tuition tax-credit proposal that threatened the long-term survival of public schools. The proposal, also known as "Initiative 7," would have provided for a tax credit of up to $1,200 per pupil for expenses at either private or public schools. It also would have permitted nonparents and corporations to contribute their tax credits to students.

The District's experience with this issue is meaningful to all of public education for several reasons:

  • Neither the origins nor the proponents of the measure were "home-grown" in Washington;
  • A federal tuition tax-credit bill is pending in Congress and rumblings about similar proposals can be heard in several other cities and states;
  • The failure of Initiative 7 in Washington can be credited to the city's success in rallying the assistance of virtually every governmental, labor, religious, business, parent, and community group--a broad-based coalition, which now has extended its continued support to the public schools; and most important,
  • The resounding defeat of the measure expressed the citizen's fundamental belief in a system of public education at the same time it put the schools on notice that significant improvements will be necessary to sustain that belief.

The election returns--74,000 votes against and 8,000 for the tuition tax-credit proposal--makes the defeat appear to have been an "easy victory." It was not.

The issue was placed on the ballot because over 27,000 citizens signed petitions requesting that the issue be put before the voters. Given that voter turnout in the two previous school board elections was only about 36,000, Initiative 7 appeared to stand a good chance of passage.

The petition's sponsors, largely newcomers to the city who allegedly had moved into Washington for the express purpose of working for the initiative's passage, capitalized on the provision for "up to $1,200 in tax credits for every pupil." However, apparently the qualifying words "up to" were either de-emphasized or not explained to the petition signers. Consequently, the general impression left with the public was that each and every student's family would receive the full $1,200 credit. Quite the contrary.

In order to receive a credit of $1,200, a family would have to pay at least $1,200 in local taxes; in other words, it would have had to have an income of at least $25,000. The vast majority of Washington's families earn under that amount. Consider that 83 percent of the public-school students in the District of Columbia are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches; and to be eligible, families of four, for example, must earn less than $16,000.

The tax credit, therefore, would have disproportionately benefited the more well-to-do families. On a family income of $7,500 per year, a citizen would pay only $128 in District taxes, and thus could claim a maximum credit of only $128. Naturally, that amount would not go very far in providing educational services for children. Furthermore, in order to claim credit, families first would have had to spend the money for specified educational purposes. This means that families would pay the private-school tuition--which averages $2,000 per year--and later could claim the credit on their income-tax returns. Producing $2,000 ''up front" is difficult for almost all families. How much more so for low-income parents?

Thus, the contention forwarded by tuition tax-credit supporters, that the measure would provide educational options for poorer children, was unfounded.

These facts, however, were not widely presented when the signatures for Initiative 7's placement on the ballot were being collected and the impression that a $1,200 credit would be available to all pupils took hold. Clearly, an extensive educational effort on the specific provisions of the proposal and its potential ramifications was needed if the initiative was to be defeated.

A major argument against Initiatve 7--an argument that eventually found appeal with voters who were not necessarily persuaded by the argument that the proposal was a potential threat to public education--was the measure's projected drain on the city treasury. If enacted, the initiative's "take" from city revenues would have been substantial--a minimum of $25 million in the first year. In following years, that amount would be substantially more because the initiative provided for a yearly tax-credit in-crease of 10 percent. In addition, the estimated cost of the proposal soared when the provision for corporations to claim the tax credit and the allowance for nonparents were taken into consideration.

The already-strapped city budget could not have sustained such a loss of funds without major cuts in all city services, not just public education. The alternative to reducing services, of course, would have been to raise taxes to compensate for the loss. One city official calculated that the projected loss of $25 million would have resulted, for example, either in a 10 percent hike in property taxes or the firing of 1,250 police officers (almost one-third of the current force).

While several other provisions of the proposal were criticized by the opponents, the loss of city dollars and the disproportionate advantages for wealthier families became the major issues to be brought to public attention if Initiative 7 was to be defeated.

When a legal attempt to remove the initiative from the ballot failed in September, opposition to the proposal mounted. City council members spoke out vigorously against the issue, and three different coalitions formed to work for its defeat.

However, although the city organizations and community leaders grew louder in their protests, the money needed to support a massive information campaign was slow in coming. Three weeks before the election, the supporters of the initiative had raised over $114,000, most of it from the National Taxpayer's Union, while the coalitions' fundraising efforts had netted only $1,400.

City and school system officials, of course, could not offer financial assistance to the opponents, but continued to speak out on the topic in meeting after meeting.

The number and variety of organizations who participated in the public debate against the measure grew with each passing day. The parent-teacher associations, the civic associations, the local American Civil Liberties Union, the D.C. League of Women Voters, and the teachers' union were joined by the city's ministries, the Board of Trade, the Mayor, all the school superintendents in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in denouncing the initiative. Over 30 debates took place on the stages of local universities and in the studios of Washington's television and radio stations. Opposition rallies were held, and a raft of flyers, posters, and fact sheets papered the city.

As election day approached, the American Federation of Teachers helped support the costs of these efforts, and other national organizations--particularly education associations--verbally registered their disapproval of the initiative. Even administrators and parents from some of the city's most prestigious private schools decried the measure, claiming that a strong public-school system was vital to Washington and the nation.

On October 26th, the Washington Post published an editorial entitled "So Who's Supporting It?" The closing paragraph read: "Who's left in favor of this thing [Initiative 7]? Go down the list of putative beneficiaries. If the business community is against it, if the private schools are either opposed or neutral, and if the archbishop refuses to support it, who's for it? Who, other than zealots and ideologues hostile to the principle of public education and the opportunity that it offers to every child, regardless of his parents' tax status?"

The defeat, particularly such an overwhelming defeat, was a very sweet success for public education everywhere. The groups that banded together in beating the initiative have said they intend to remain together to support the city's schools. And the citizens said, with their votes, that public education is important to them. More welcome messages could not have been received.

Yet, we in the District of Columbia Public Schools and all educators must recognize that now--in the aftermath of the intense flurry of campaign speeches, pledges, and rhetoric--the responsibility for building upon and firmly securing the offer of community backing for our schools is our responsibility.

In Washington, D.C.,--and across the nation--our work as educators lies before us. While we justifiably can praise the many efforts of the parent, school, and community groups that rallied against the proposed initiative, we cannot conclude that a "business as usual" approach to our jobs is in order. The defeat of one tuition tax-credit measure does not mean that we now can breathe a sigh of relief and return to the status quo, nor does it mean that public education is a permanent fixture, an untouchable component of American life.

Make no mistake: Public education is under siege and fraught with complex problems. The very appearance of a tax-credit initiative on an election ballot is evidence that the public's confidence in our schools is in need of much repair. The voters' rejection of the initiative neither minimized those problems nor signaled citizens' unquestioning acceptance of our schools as they are.

In the wake of the extraordinary amount of attention focused on public education in recent months, we face both a unique opportunity and a great challenge. We have the opportunity to solidify the underlying faith that the citizenry places in public education.

However, there is only one way to sustain this faith, and herein lies the challenge: We must determinedly pursue the improvement of public education for all children as we have never done before. Such pursuit holds specific charges for all educators--indeed, all those involved in the business of schooling. We must provide classrooms that are orderly and disciplined; school buildings that are clean and safe; instruction which builds each student's skills and abilities; learning options for children who need special or advanced assistance; and a range of supportive services to students, each of which contribute to the success of our mission as educators.

These needs may appear no different from education's goals in previous years. However, a critical deadline for showing more significant progress in these areas is drawing near. We cannot expect the citizens to hold public education sacrosanct regardless of our many problems and a less-than-desirable track record in producing skilled, educated graduates.

All teachers, principals, and administrators in the country have a personal stake in the success or failure of our public schools, not only because the schools pay our salaries and not only because another initiative or other measure may threaten those jobs in the future. Each of us has a great investment because as individuals we need to be able to say, "This is where I work, and I am proud of what I do," and because the value of our work--helping children to be the best they can be--can never be underestimated.

The defeat of Initiative 7 in Washington has underscored the importance of all our efforts and has simultaneously presented us with an agenda of challenges which, when met, can demonstrate that public education is a vital and successful means to the continued fulfillment of all citizens' rights and aspirations.

Vol. 01, Issue 13, Page 24, 18

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