For Better Schools, Pay Achievers

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No objective of public policy ultimately transcends the proper education of the American people. Defense spending, tax codes, and the like can do nothing if the population is without knowledge. The current policy mix toward education is doing more than any of us would admit in determining just where the United States will stand in the 21st century.

At the center of this debate is the concept of a tuition tax credit proposed by President Reagan. In their simplest form, legislated tuition tax credits would permit those people who send their children to private schools a credit on their income taxes of $500.

Tuition tax credits unfortunately are not enough to reverse the decline in scholastic skills of America's youth. Such a plan may well be much better than our current fare, but it is not designed to go the full distance. Lest opponents of the President's proposal take heart, however, it should also be noted that of the arguments put forth in the debate none are as vacuous as those proffered by groups opposed to tuition tax credits.

To argue that aid to private schools in whatever form specifically hurts public schools is fundamentally disingenuous. In the first place, the vast majority of public schools' funding comes from state and local government, whereas a tuition tax credit would principally affect federal tax revenues.

Moreover, there is not the slightest presumption that revenues foregone by a tuition tax credit would be offset by reduced federal aid to education. In fact, political pressures being what they are, a good case could be made for more than proportional cuts elsewhere. Tuition tax credits would unquestionably increase the amount of resources going to education.

Increased Resources

Tuition tax credits would even increase the resources devoted to all public schools on a per-pupil basis. Surely some current public-school students would be enticed to switch to private schools. With fewer students and about the same overall budget, public schools would have more dollars to spend per pupil. Specific schools are allocated funds on a per-pupil basis, and therefore a substantial drop in enrollment would reduce their budgets. This is not true, however, for the state education budgets. Thus, those who oppose the tuition tax credit in the name of public education are dissembling. Opposition to the tuition tax credit per se is a scarcely veiled attack against the entire education system, including public schools.

This, however, is not a proper defense of tuition tax credits. If faced with the option of a tuition tax credit or nothing, I might well succumb on the grounds that some action is better than none in this crucial area. We are not, however, faced with such stark choices. Now is the time to develop the best plan rather than to accept the mediocre.

On a purely conceptual level, the tuition tax-credit plan doesn't make sense. Why should a family whose child attends private school be more deserving of a tuition tax credit than a childless family? Both families pay for something (public education) they don't use. Why paying double and receiving single is any more deserving than paying single and receiving nothing is beyond me. In the same vein, an 83-year-old, terminally ill man should receive an MX missile tax credit because he probably will not live to be defended by the program.

Second, there are a lot of bizarre private schools. They educate children in fashions way beyond either the comprehension or approval of the electorate. Surely these are not the schools upon which we wish to bestow beneficence. While their right to exist is unquestioned, their use of tax dollars is outrageous. A tuition tax-credit scheme could not discern the good from the bad. Were some federally funded board empowered to oversee the public weal, chances are great that their power would be misused. The notion of tuition tax credits is at best a crude method of enhancing the education of Americans, and an expensive one at that.

The avowed purpose of educational aid of all sorts must ultimately be improved knowledge of those educated. Therefore, the relevant question in regard to any program to improve the quality and quantity of education in America is simply how much improvement is made for each dollar spent. The answer on programs ranging from the existing student-loan programs to the hypothetical tuition tax credit is that, dollar for dollar, these programs are inefficient.

Direct Policies are Better

If the purpose of a program is to improve the skills of students, why isn't the program specifically aimed at just that? It should be. Direct policies are always preferable to indirect ones. School loans and tuition tax credits, which are indirect policies, can't match direct payments to students for educational excellence.

On a dollar-for-dollar basis, the best way to improve America's educational system is to provide an annual lump-sum, tax-free award to those students who have excelled. Receipt of the award should be solely for academic and scholarly achievement and therefore unrelated to the issue of the pupil's race, sex, etc. or whether the pupil attends public or private school. An easy way of achieving this would be to administer the Scholastic Aptitude Test (sat). The money could be awarded based on student excellence in both English and math. Perhaps each person scoring in the top 5 percent on each test would receive an award of $15,000, while each person in the next 5 percent would receive $7,500--no strings attached.

If private schools did the job better than public institutions, parents would be willing to spend more to have their children educated privately. If, on the other hand, public schools with heavy parental involvement or perhaps supplemental tutoring could accomplish the task, then we all would be better off. Minority students and children of the poor would have a chance to better their lots in life in a socially acceptable fashion.

Lotteries are well known for being profitable. People spend far more than the value of the winnings. The same will be true for the 21st Century Excellence Awards. The total increase in spending on education, public as well as private, would greatly exceed the value of the awards. People would spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money just to win the awards, elevating the quality of all education. We would all be far better off, whether the learning were carried out in public or private schools.

Vol. 01, Issue 37, Page 24

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