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College Tax Credits Eyed by Choice Supporters

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President Clinton's plan to create tax credits to offset the cost of college tuition is leading some conservatives to ask: Shouldn't parents of children in private elementary and secondary schools get the same deal?

Strategists seeking a policy debate as a platform for raising issues like school choice and vouchers may seize on the college tax-credit plan, according to observers looking for clues about how next year's legislative season will unfold.

Republicans in Congress would be wise to push the president when he offers tax incentives for college costs, some analysts say.

"The logic of it is impeccable, irresistible," said Denis P. Doyle, the education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank here. "It's the obvious thing to do. I don't know who will do it, but I'm sure somebody will."

Congressional Republicans met last week to settle committee assignments and sketch out their legislative agenda for the next two years. Specific proposals, such as responses to Mr. Clinton's college tax incentives, are still being formed, according to Republican sources on Capitol Hill.

Looking for Battleground

But school choice is bound to be part of the debate, observers say. It's just a question of where it will appear. In the past two years, school choice proposals arose in the form of proposed pilot voucher programs to be part of broader community redevelopment.

None passed, and only one made even significant headway. A plan to give vouchers to parents of poor children in District of Columbia schools died when sponsors failed to gather the 60 votes needed to break a Senate filibuster.

This year, White House aides expect the debate to occur as part of Mr. Clinton's plan for college tax incentives, according to lobbyists.

And some choice advocates agree that proposal may be their best shot. The measure will be in a huge package of spending cuts and tax changes that Mr. Clinton will propose in a balanced-budget plan. The president singled out the bill as his top goal for his second term. ("Clinton Budget To Include Campaign Proposals," Nov. 20, 1996.)

Because congressional rules protect budget bills from Senate filibusters, conservatives such as Mr. Doyle see an opening for expanding the tax incentives to include K-12 parents. If the bill includes the higher education incentives the president wants, it would be hard for him to veto, the argument goes.

Further, tuition tax credits for private education may find stronger constitutional grounds than vouchers.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court approved a state tax incentive allowing Minnesota parents to deduct expenses such as tuition, textbooks, and transportation paid for their children's education at private or public schools. Although the deduction included expenses for religious schools, it did not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on a government establishment of religion because it was available to all parents, the court found.

"If it's a truly neutral system that includes public and private school parents and all private schools, then I think the Supreme Court would uphold it," said Richard D. Komer, a senior litigator at the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based advocacy firm that represents voucher proponents.

'Inappropriate' Connection

But the tax-credit strategy, of course, includes some pitfalls, congressional experts say.

Because the budget bill will be written by tax committees instead of education panels, the members deciding on tuition tax credits may not consider school choice a priority issue.

"I don't know if those people would be as interested in school choice as the education Republicans," said John F. Jennings, a former education counsel to the House Democrats who is now the director of the Center on Education Policy, a foundation-supported effort to build support for public schools. "The hearts of Republicans on the tax committees are not going to be in fights like that."

President Clinton may not be boxed into a corner on K-12 tax credits if he is willing to compromise with Republicans in other places, Mr. Jennings added.

Robert F. Chase, the president of the National Education Association, said drawing a connection between the costs of college and K-12 schools is a bad idea. States are legally bound to offer elementary and secondary schooling free of charge to every student, he explained. Higher education is an option students pay for.

"The analogy between the two levels is not appropriate," Mr. Chase said. "I don't think there's a connection between the two."

Momentum may also be a hurdle for voucher proponents.

Choice opponents handily defeated a Senate plan for tuition tax credits in the early 1980s, when the Senate--then as now controlled by Republicans--was as conservative as it will be next year. The cost of the program was what drew support away from the proposal then.

"They're going to have to face a lot of data [against tuition tax credits] that is not suspect," Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said.

With 5.77 million children attending private elementary and secondary schools today, the $1,500 tax incentive Mr. Clinton wants to offer for higher education could cost $8.7 billion annually if it were extended to K-12 students.

GOP Bills

But data and policy arguments will not keep choice proponents from making their case.

Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., plans to introduce a bill that would create vouchers for private schools available to parents in 100 poor communities, according to a spokesman. The communities could receive federal grants of up to $5 million for the scholarships.

Mr. Coats will be the chairman or the second-ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee next year.

Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., and James M. Talent, R-Mo., are planning to revive a similar plan.

"Hopefully, those who are legislating are listening to what the public is saying," Mr. Chase said, pointing to a lack of enthusiasm for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole's voucher plan and the defeat of a voucher measure in Washington state.

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