Commentary

Making Private Schools 'More Equal'

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The residents of George Orwell's Animal Farm were supposedly equal, but some animals were "more equal" than others. The same principle applies to the proposal--recently made by the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC)--to "include" public-school families in the federal tuition tax-credit plan now being considered in the Senate. Though public-school families would participate "equally," private-school patrons would benefit much more equally, obtaining the bulk of the financial benefits that would result from the law.

In September, the USCC's administrative board adopted a resolution urging Congress to include public-school families in the tax-credit bill. This was not an act of sudden magnanimity, however. The 47 bishops on the board said they wanted to bring the legislation into line with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, in Mueller v. Allen, upholding Minnesota's tax breaks for educational expenses at both public and private schools.

(The Court majority in the Mueller decision drew a sharp distinction between Minnesota's tax-deduction scheme and systems that only aided parents with children in private schools.)

The USCC board, in its September statement recommending that the benefits be extended to public-school parents, said: "It can, of course, be argued that nothing in the Supreme Court's recent decision clearly requires that this be done for constitutional reasons. ... Although this may be the case, we nevertheless conclude that the legislation should in fact be revised to conform more closely to the statute sustained in Mueller."

Monsignor Daniel F. Hoye, the USCC general secretary, was even more candid about the reasons for the recommendation. The decision was made, he said, not because of constitutional concerns, but for political reasons. "From a legal point of view, it's not a move that has to be done," he commented, "but given the political climate, it could [help the bill] gain more support."

The USCC's action came largely as a result of pressure from its allies on Capitol Hill. In August, Senator David Durenburger, a Republican from Minnesota who is a strong supporter of tax credits, told a convention of Catholic educators that a tuition tax-credit proposal is "not going to pass" as long as it targets all benefits to parents of private-school children, most of whom attend parochial schools. Senator Durenburger chided his "friends at the USCC" for refusing to see the wisdom of his position.

Because the advice came from a leading proponent of the plan in the Senate, the USCC apparently accepted the argument. A month later, it endorsed his proposed change.

When the tax-credit bill is debated on the Senate floor, Senator Durenburger plans to offer an amendment that would limit the proposed federal income-tax credit to $100 and would require that certain public-school expenses--such as locker, lab and gym fees--be allowed as deductions. The Minnesota system allows state taxpayers to claim deductions for expenses incurred in public or private schools, such as tuition, nonreligious textbooks, transportation costs, and basic supplies.

What would be the effect of this change? Shouldn't public-school families welcome a new program of federal assistance?

Not at all. The plan would be unfair from the beginning. As is the case in Minnesota, it would disproportionately aid private schools. And it would initiate a new federal program of tax aid for private schools at a time when the Administration is still trying to cut federal funds for public schools.

Expenses at public schools are small. Much of the purpose of public education is to provide schooling to everyone regardless of their race, creed, or income. Consequently, public schools charge no tuition. Fees for lockers, band, laboratory use, and gym are small and are usually confined to secondary schools.

Consequently, public-school families would be able to collect at most only a fraction of the $100 tax credit. In contrast, parochial and other private-school patrons would be eligible for the full $100 credit for each child. All nonpublic schools charge enough in tuition alone to cover such a credit.

But more important, the credit would not long remain at the $100 level. The same powerful lobbying groups that have forced tuition tax credits to the forefront of the political agenda are not likely to remain satisfied with such a small sum. (Other proponents of tax credits have asked for more from the start. In 1980, Senator Daniel P. Moynihan pressed for a $750 credit. The current Reagan Administration bill would phase in a $300 credit.) In fact, the parochial lobbies generally concede that they are concerned at present only with enacting the tax-credit bill into law. The figures themselves are less important than the principle.

The Minnesota example tells us what will occur if the plan becomes law. In 1955, when the state's first tax deduction for educational expenses was approved, the legislature adopted a $200 limit. A few years later, the legislature increased the deduction to $500 for elementary-school students and $700 for secondary-school students. After the Supreme Court upheld the plan in June, legislators quickly introduced bills to raise the deduction to $850 and $1,190, respectively.

As the size of the deduction increases, the amount of aid going to public-school parents becomes a proportionately smaller part of the program's overall costs. How many public-school parents will be able to write off $1,190 in gym and locker fees?

The "equal benefits" provision is a facade covering an effort to subsidize parochial-school tuition. Yet, we can expect no help from the Supreme Court in this matter. Although public-school parents collected only peanuts under the Minnesota program, a five-member majority on the Court said the program "neutrally provides state assistance to a broad spectrum of citizens."

The patent unfairness of the system aside, the inclusion of public-school expenses in a federal tuition tax-credit scheme could have terrible side effects for public schools.

For example, it would encourage public schools to start charging parents for educational costs in order to benefit from the federal largesse. The pressure would then be on to charge tuition for electives such as driver's education and music. And why confine such fees to electives? Perhaps there will someday be a charge for 3rd-grade math.

Public-school parents can always get their money back in credits at the end of the year when they pay their taxes; unless, of course, they're making too little money to pay that amount in taxes. Although some proposals would allow direct refunds to such parents in lieu of tax deductions, refundability isn't part of the measure now on the Senate floor.

One can easily see the possible effects on our system of free public schools. What happens to the national goal of providing education in public schools to all persons regardless of ability to pay?

Senator Durenburger seems unconcerned about such problems. "Although it is true," he has said, "that there are currently a limited number of public-school parents who would benefit from tuition tax credits, such a provision would ultimately result in increased use of tuition by public schools. In time, public-school parents would become the primary beneficiaries of this legislation."

Senator Durenburger, incidentally, admits that he would like to see a national voucher system enacted, and his tax-deduction plan effectively leads us in that direction. Parents would be given a special sum (credit) to be used at either a private or public school.

These types of proposals have led this country to a crossroads in the way it makes education policy. In most of the last century, state, local, and federal funds often were committed only to public schools. Our commitment to private schools was to leave them free of government interference. But in the last three decades, a concerted effort has been made to force the government into a financial commitment to both public and private schools.

The tuition tax-credit bill currently before the Senate, and other such proposals, raise the question of whether we will maintain our commitment to free public schools open to all, or whether we will dilute that commitment and also try to shoulder the cost of private schools open to a selected few. The cost of such a change in policy goes far beyond its considerable impact on public revenues. (Senator Durenburger concedes that his $100 credit could cost the federal treasury $4.5 billion per year in lost revenues.)

The majority of the private schools in this country are church schools--some 85 percent of the children enrolled in private schools attend religious schools. Sixty-five percent are Roman Catholic; fewer than a dozen other faiths make up the bulk of the remainder. Any public subsidy of this system of religious schools will effectively require all Americans to subsidize the religious-education programs of a few religious faiths. While we are talking about "fairness" and "equality," it is important to note that the religious faiths that operate parochial schools will suddenly become "more equal" than other faiths if they are given a huge federal subsidy for their schools. And this would occur despite the provisions of the First Amendment, which forbids the government to favor some religions over others.

Vol. 03, Issue 11, Page 24

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