Education Funding Opinion

Americans Are Confused About What Is A Government Program, and This Is Relevant to Education

By Sara Mead — June 29, 2011 2 min read
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Suzanne Mettler’s current Washington Monthly article about the “submerged welfare state” is getting a lot of attention, particularly for this chart showing that a huge percentage of people who have benefited from government-subsidized social and education programs don’t actually realize that they’ve benefited from government subsidies. It’s pretty striking, but even more striking, to me, is that I’m pretty sure that somewhere around 90% of the people who responded to Mettler’s survey probably attended public school at some point in their lives--something so taken for granted it didn’t even register in Mettler’s mind as an example of a government program, though obviously public schools are government-run and taxpayer funded. The fact that people by and large don’t think of public education as a “government program” has interesting implications for our overall public debate about public education that folks ought really to think about. (I’d argue, for example, that this is one reason folks like Diane Ravitch can get away with characterizing as a “privatization” agenda things that don’t have any obvious connection to the dictionary definition of “privatize.”)

But to bring things back down to the realm of the concrete, it is pretty striking that education subsidies--particularly 529s/Coverdells, Hope/Lifetime Learning Tax Credits, and Student Loans--are among the subsidies for which beneficiaries are least likely to recognize they’re getting a public subsidy. Note also that these are mostly higher ed, not K-12, subsidies, which a reasonable person might suppose may make some contribution to the insanely skyrocketing inflation in higher ed costs, which far outstrips regular inflation or increased in K-12 or early childhood spending.

Finally, Mettler’s general discussion of “tax expenditures"--and their negative impact on our fiscal bottom line, the transparency of public budgeting, and our political debate--is important to note as we’re seeing an uptick in state legislative activity around “tax credit scholarship” voucher programs. These programs have been gaining ground in recent years, and for reasons I’ve never managed to understand, they seem to be embraced by a lot of center-lefty types as a sort of “kinder, softer” voucher--when in fact they are by any reasonable policy criteria one might want to consider much more problematic than vouchers. Tax credit vouchers are problematic on general good government grounds, because, like all tax expenditures, they decrease transparency in public budgeting. And funding vouchers on the tax rather than spending side dramatically reduces public accountability, which is problematic for an education program. If publicly elected officials want to subsidize children’s attendance in private schools they should do so honestly and transparently on the spending side of the ledger rather than hiding it through the tax code.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.