Education Cannot Afford Tuition Tax Credits

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Occasionally, the argument for a tuition tax credit is presented in terms of high-minded altruism, as if it were designed primarily to get little ghetto children into the prestigious preparatory schools or to revolutionize somehow elementary and secondary education through a little competition.

With the enactment of a tax credit, we are told, alternative schools offering "choice equalization" for the poor will miraculously spring up, and many existing nonpublic schools, heretofore oblivious to the poor and isolated from them through generations of mindlessness, will suddenly undergo a value-system transplant: They will extend with open arms an invitation to the disadvantaged to be part of their student body--all because the poor will now be armed with tuition tax credits, and with refundability no less.

While Mr. Esty is to be commended for his concern about education for disadvantaged children, he must remember that advocates of tuition tax credits never designed the scheme to aid the poor. Rather, as Mr. Esty has assessed, tax credits were initially proposed by strong nonpublic-school lobbies "to use public policy to bring some financial relief to those who have already made the decision to enroll their children in private schools." In other words, tax credits would assure windfall payments to a select few who already exercise their freedom to choose, exclusive of the majority of poor families.

According to recent research figures, higher-income white families would receive a disproportionate share of the tax-credit monies, while low-income and minority families would claim only small shares of the same funds. Private-school attendance rates for students from families with incomes of $25,000 or more are about five times higher than the rates among children from families with incomes of less than $5,000.

Second, high tuitions, selective admissions, and segregated housing patterns continue to be barriers of access for disadvantaged families wishing entrance to nonpublic schools. Tax-credit advocates may posture: "Why should you be destined to be stuck in that inferior public school? Why shouldn't you be able to send your child to a good private school as the rich do?" Believing that a tax credit--even with refundability--will offer choice, a poor black family in Boston's ghetto or a poor white family deep in Appalachia will find themselves still too poor to send Johnnie to the private school of the rich. In the cases of those who can scrape enough money together to meet the tuition at a lower-cost private school, many will find that a lot of schools don't want their children. Indeed, I remem-ber all too well the number of parochial schools that disengaged from the Chicago inner city as parishioners moved away to the suburbs. That was not commitment to the poor; that was "white flight" to the safer, more acceptable middle-class neighborhoods leaving the poor behind.

In addition, more affluent parents are capable of responding to increased tuition costs or reduced scholarship offerings. These are cash requirements that poor families are less able to absorb--yet another example of how much more susceptible the poor are to inequitable marketplace fluctuations.

The major issue is that of equity. Would tuition tax credits assure equity to the poor who are excluded from private schools--either on the basis of income, race, sex, or religion? Given the present nature of many nonpublic schools, the answer must be there is no equity guarantee.

Benefits of tuition tax credits would accrue to certain groups of families: higher-income, white, having children with normal educational needs, and those living in metropolitan areas. Lower-income children, blacks, Hispanics, and students with special educational needs would face inequities. As a group, these people would not share fairly in tuition tax credit benefits, and there certainly is nothing to suggest that tax credits, even with refundability, would change the characteristics of enrollments in nonpublic schools or improve the educational options of the poor. In fact, the opposite may be true. Given the fact that many private schools admit students on the basis of religion, income, or race, tuition tax credits would merely continue to subsidize the choice of a private school, but for a larger group of people who belong to the same category of patrons who already send children to nonpublic schools.

As a result, tuition tax credits would diminish, rather than improve, educational opportunities for the poor. Not only will the poor have no legal protection from private schools that discriminate, but the impact of the Reagan Administration's budget cuts means that political support for public education will be eroded even further.

Stephen Bailey of Harvard University's school of education sums up the situation by saying,"You are going to re-establish a blatant class system in which the wealthy and the middle class buy their way out and pay just enough taxes to keep squalid public schools going in the slums."

It is possible that the exodus to private schools in many big cities could leave urban school systems desegregated and left with "welfare basket" cases. Tuition tax credits would give license to this predicament.

Another factor, no matter what the details of the tuition tax-credit scheme, is the insensitivity of this Administration to the needs of the poor. It is incredible that at a time when the Administration has cut school lunches for over 700,000 poor children; is recommending a 50 percent cut in Title I funds for disadvantaged students; and is suggesting that there is no role for the federal government in the education of poor children, it is recommending a federal program of tax credits that would,1lbenefit only 11 percent of our more affluent population in the private1lschools. At the same time, the Congress has passed a $739 billion tax cut. Those tax cuts are going primarily to the same people who can afford to send their children to private schools and who would re,1lceive tuition tax credits for doing so.

Tuition tax credits would simply consummate an Administration policy that consists of systematic withdrawal of hard-forged government commitments to help poor and minority people overcome the injustices that centuries of national racism so cruelly imposed upon them.

Last, Senators Daniel P. Moynihan, Republican of New York, and Bob Packwood, Republican of Oregon, have argued vociferously that their tuition tax-credit bill, S550, has adequate guarantees for children excluded from admission to nonpublic school "on account of race, color, or national or ethnic origin." In fact, Senator Packwood, at a June 4, 1981, hearing, inveighed against those of us who dared to challenge the will of Congress, let alone the will of the White House, to enforce ''nondiscrimination."

Many of us remembered how Congress blocked the IRS from enacting proposed regulations that would have allowed the agency to use tougher standards of enforcement for revoking tax-exempt status of nonpublic schools. And then, on January 8, 1982, the President decided to end the 12-year-old government policy denying tax exemptions to segregated private schools. If there is so much equivocation regarding enforcement of a national principle so fundamental as "nondiscrimination," what assurances do the poor have that their other civil rights will be protected? An argument can be made that the "nondiscrimination" provision of S 550 is a non sequitur and that private schools can pick and choose at will which public policies they wish to ignore, while at the same time being indirectly eligible for billions of dollars of public money.

So when arguments for tuition tax credits are made on the basis of support for the poor, we know that to be delusive. Tax credits will serve only to pull out whatever remaining educational and social-support systems the poor have left. Tax credits are a subtle "trickle down"--neither needs-based nor income-sensitive--and a program for the rich disguised in the polemics for the poor. It is interesting how many programs initiated for the poor end up becoming entitlements for the rich. Tuition tax credits are no exception.

Vol. 01, Issue 28, Page 18-19

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