Education Commentary

Commentary: Pro-Family Tax Policy Advocated

February 22, 1989 6 min read

Federal income-tax policy has shifted sharply away from support for families and children in recent decades, argues Allan Carlson, president of the Rockford Institute, in the winter issue of The Public Interest.

The 1986 tax-reform law--hailed by many “pro family” advocates for its efforts to reduce taxes on families with children--may actually have made things worse for them, he writes.

Mr. Carlson traces the tax treatment of family income and deductions for children since the Congress’s 1948 overhaul of the internal-revenue code.

That law’s steeply graduated tax rates, hefty personal exemptions, and favorable treatment of the income of married couples were advantageous to marriage and families, he maintains.

By offering incentives for married women to substitute tax-free “home production” for taxable work income, he suggests, it “encouraged greater family self-sufficiency, increased domesticity, and may even have had a hand in sustaining the baby boom through the 1950’s.”

Since then, in his view, the tax system’s support of families has steadily declined. Tax-law writers have effectively pushed women out of the home and into the labor force, he contends, with measures like the day-care credit and recent alterations intended to reduce the “marriage penalty.”

He argues that such changes--and more esoteric proposals, such as taxing the “psychic income” parents receive from their children--should be discarded in favor of a pro-family tax code.

“The tax system should give strong preference to children as national treasures, in a manner that affirms parental responsibility,” he writes.

Mr. Carlson advocates the following steps: raising the personal exemption from $2,000 to $4,000 for each child; expanding the existing child-care credit to provide a $750 credit for all families with preschool children; and creating a new dependent-child credit of $600 per child.

In an article in Mother Jones magazine contrasting the leadership styles of three urban high-school principals, David L. Kirp concludes that a single-minded focus on order is less likely to encourage student achievement than is an emphasis on intellectual drive.

Mr. Kirp writes in the January issue that Joe Clark, of Eastside High School in Paterson, N.J., and George McKenna, formerly of Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, used “tireless exertions of command and control” to restore order to campuses ravaged by drugs and gang violence.

But the order imposed was not accompanied by equal gains in academic achievement, contends the author, who is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. Clark has won both acclaim and notoriety for ruling his school with bullhorn and baseball bat in hand and for expelling large numbers of students.

Yet, according to Mr. Kirp, “all the sound and fury have done little to boost student achievement, which remains abysmal.”

Mr. McKenna ended the chaos at Washington Prep by espousing a philosophy stressing nonviolence, love, and family. His success was chronicled in The George McKenna Story, a television docudrama.

But as at Eastside High, Mr. Kirp says, test scores at Washington Prep have not improved.

At Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, on the other hand, the MacArthur Award-winning principal Deborah Meier stresses intellectual drive over control and obedience, he writes.

Unlike Eastside High and Washington Prep, Central Park East, which opened in 1984, embodies no educational formula. “All that this venture stands for is a wider array of school choices for families, greater personalism in instruction, more authority to those closest to the classroom--and, hardest to clone, a visionary for a leader,” Mr. Kirp says.

At Ms. Meier’s school, he continues, “there is a commitment to know these youngsters as minds worth sharpening and as human beings with souls.”

Ms. Meier has prevented the intrusion of drugs, sex, and violence by creating a small, highly interpersonal community, Mr. Kirp observes. Creating order “isn’t so hard,” Ms. Meier is quoted as saying.

It is still too early to measure the success of her experiment, Mr Kirp adds--the first class will not graduate until 1991. But Central Park East, he concludes, “holds promise: better the intimate enclave of learning than either the plantation of fear or the factory of love.”

The Democratic Party needs to reassess long-cherished policies such as affirmative action and desegregation-related busing if it hopes to recapture the White House, Joseph A. Califano Jr. argues in the Jan. 8 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

“What bothers many white, middle-class voters,” the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare writes, “is the Democrats’ refusal to discuss frankly the serious shortcomings of many programs aimed at disadvantaged blacks.”

As a tool of integration, busing “has been a counterproductive failure,” he contends. And affirmative action “has pried open some important doors for blacks, but it was never conceived as a permanent program and time is running.”

The party need not abandon its commitment to economic and social justice for blacks, Mr. Califano writes.

Instead, he suggests, it should focus on policies that work: more effective job-training programs, greater investment in schools, higher standards for teachers, and increased emphasis on student discipline and academic achievement.

Mr. Califano also castigates his fellow Democrats for putting the rights of accused criminals before those of their victims. He blames this stand on “the influence of white liberal ideologues rather than any concern about offending blacks.”

Changes in the Presidential nominating process and the increased ability of Democratic Congressmen to raise campaign funding without the support of the head of the ticket have also made it more difficult for mainstream Democrats to win the party’s nomination, he says.

“Everybody who hates Graham,” read the note passed around the 4th-grade classroom, “sign here.” And before the teacher could intervene, all the students in the class had signed.

According to an article in the January/February issue of Psychology Today, students who, like Graham, are actively rejected by their classmates may face extraordinary social and academic pressures.

Most children are liked by several of their peers at least, and disliked by few, writes Paul Chance, who is a contributing editor of the magazine. But psychologists estimate that between 5 percent and 10 percent of all elementary-school children have no friends--and many of these children are actively disliked by their classmates, he reports.

Besides suffering the pain of rejection, children who do not interact with their peers also miss important opportunities to improve their physical, social, and intellectual skills, Mr. Chance notes.

And he cites studies indicating that unpopular children are more likely than others to be truant, to be held back, or to drop out of school.

According to the article, some of these unpopular children fit the stereotype of the schoolyard bully. Others, Mr. Chance writes, “simply behave inappropriately"; they may do “silly things,” such as belch or stand on a table, or they may have trouble joining in others’ play.

In some cases, children are rejected because they are less attractive or have an unpopular religious or ethnic background, Mr. Chance says, noting that both weak and gifted students are also more likely to be outcasts.

Psychologists have attempted to help these children by strengthening their social skills. But the psychologists have discovered that the established biases of their classmates are difficult to overcome: Many of the children who receive such training continue to be rejected even when their social abilities improve markedly, according to the article.

Over the long run, however, children thus tutored in social skills may eventually gain acceptance by their peers or develop ties with others who do not know their reputation, Mr. Chance says.

And because rejection is such a common problem, he concludes, some psychologists have proposed that social skills be included in the preschool curriculum.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as Commentary: Pro-Family Tax Policy Advocated