Commentary

... And Embody 'Dangerous Palliatives' for the Public Schools

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Supporters of tuition tax credits generally share several assumptions about the state of the world. In fact, their support for such proposals seems predicated more on acts of ideological faith than on any evaluation of the risks and potential benefits of tax credits themselves. These risks are not insignificant, especially if you do not share the rosy assumptions of the tax-credit supporters.

Their first assumption goes something like this: The public school has had its day and is now rapidly sinking into complacent, hopelessly bureaucratic mediocrity. Given this belief, it is understandable that gov-ernment efforts be directed to assist any family seeking to escape the muck and the mire in he public school for the high ground of private institutions.

Second, proponents of tax credits, some more than others, agree with the voucher supporters that edu-cation is best regarded as a consumer good, like hula hoops,1land child care. It follows that all consumers should have access to several producers of education, private as well as public. Furthermore, they argue, any-thing government can do to cre-ate competition between producers will increase competition and thus efficiency in the system as a whole. In this way, government support for private institutions benefits both private and public institutions in the long run.

Third, both of the above assumptions buy into a cultural tradition, now experiencing a renaissance at the highest levels of American politics, that mythologizes the virtues of privatism and looks with suspicion on public institutions of all kinds. The recent interview with Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in these pages illustrates the heights at which this tradition influences the formation of policy.

Although these assumptions may be persuasive and even compelling as ideas, they are dangerous palliatives, discouraging any consideration of alternative solutions to America's educational problems and downplaying the risks inherent in any tax-credit program.

For example, despite continued debate it is unclear who will be the major beneficiaries of tax credits. While proponents argue that all will share equally, others suggest that disproportionate amounts of tax relief will accrue to white families whose earning power places them in the top third of the income scale for families with school-age children. Poor and minority children are underrepresented in private-school populations and will continue to be, unless specific measures are enacted to index benefits and to provide educational grants for families earning so little that they pay no taxes at all. Without such amendments to the general tax-credit notion, American education faces the prospect of becoming stratified, between public and private, on the ba-sis of race and class. Such a future would contribute to a social-class structure more rigid and static than the one existing now.

Even if indexed, tax credits pose a threat to the educational-opportunity structure. Proponents claim that they do not intend to lure parents and children away from the public schools, but only to support the families who have already decided to enroll their children in private schools. Although this may indeed be the intent, in fact, the more successful a tax-credit program, the more parents will seize the incentive offered by the government and withdraw from the public schools. In this way, tax-credit proposals are by nature open-ended. This open-endedness makes tax credits risky even in the event of their success.

First, tax-credit programs are by definition entitlement programs. That is, by meeting a standard set of criteria individuals may claim a share of the national wealth. As we are learning through the ordeal of budget slashing and reslashing, entitlement programs are uncontrollable expenses in the national ledger. For tuition tax credits, this means that the more successful the program, the higher its pricetag. In the current fiscal environment, critics rightly ask where the money is going to come from. In supporting a tax-credit pro-gram we risk installing yet another uncontrollable expense in the federal budget, an expense for which there is no--that's right, no--reliable estimate.

Second, educational finance at the federal level has, over the last year, become a zero-sum game--one program gains only at another's loss. It is likely that money to support tuition tax credit will come from cuts in other educational programs. Again, the more successful the tax program, the deeper the cuts in other areas. Guided by their assumptions about the world, federal education officials may well support private schools through tax credits by reducing or eliminating funds from public schools. No matter where the funds come from, there are substantial risks involved for the future of federal educational programs in the adoption of a tuition tax-credit plan.

Finally, the parents who choose to leave the public schools will be those most concerned with their children's education. In other words, the very people who could have the greatest impact on the public schools will be encouraged to leave by the federal government. By draining off the most committed, most concerned parents and students, a tax credit would effectively create the complacent mediocrity that is assumed to exist now. The result of a successful tax plan, then, may be to recreate Victorian charity schools and make public schools into warehouses for forgotten minds.

In short, the downside risks, inherent in the uncertainties of tuition tax-credit pro-grams, are significant. Most disturbing is that the more successful the actual program, the higher the risks involved. The risks can be avoided.

When we look at education as a political system rather than as an economic system, competition between producers becomes less important than participation by members.

Rather than fleeing the public-school system, concerned parents and students can act politically to reallocate local resources, tighten curricula, renovate decaying physical plants, and more generally forge links and lines of communication between the community and the school. Local control and voluntaryism, two topics about which we have been hearing a lot lately, have no more important forum in which to test their mettle than the public school.

Government should not be in the business of subsidizing individual disregard for public institutions. Instead it should be active in encouraging citizens to contribute to and participate in the pursuit of excellence in education through the public school. Such an effort directed at the public school has none of the risks inherent in tuition tax-credit proposals, yet aims at the same goal, namely sound education for all children. To begin, Congress must encourage parents to vote with their voices, not with their feet.

Vol. 01, Issue 28, Page 18-19

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