Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Should we pay private-school tuition for the children of wealth?

It appears that today may be a red-letter day for those out-of-state funders who have promoted voucher legislation in South Carolina since former Governor Mark Sanford's first run in 2002. After striking out several times before, they're back in an election year with gallons of red paint, ready to put targets on the backs of any conservatives who vote in support of public education.

And we're still a few weeks away from the filing deadline, so orchestrating a voucher vote early in the session gives them plenty of time to line up primary opposition to any lawmakers who fall away from the party line.

It's a tangled mess, and South Carolina's 700,000 public schoolchildren are the ones who are likely to suffer most.

A Carolina wren forwarded this bill summary overnight; let's break it down:

The House Ways and Means Sales and Income Tax Subcommittee on February 29 reported out favorably a $37 million plan to provide income tax deductions and credits to subsidize home schooling costs, tuition for private schools and tuition for students attending public schools in another district (H.4894). Those voting in favor of the bill were Reps. Rita Allison (chair), Gary Simrill, Murrell Smith and Garry Smith. Rep. Lonnie Hosey voted against the bill.

Beginning with the 2012-2013 school year, the bill would:

· Provide a state income tax deduction of up to $4,000 for tuition (fees for attending the school and school-related transportation) paid by a parent/legal guardian for their child or ward to attend a private school.

So if I'm a wealthy person who already sends my four boys to Heathwood Hall, I get to write off $4,000 per child -- that's $16,000 right off the top -- of my state income tax bill. That's $16,000 that won't make it to South Carolina's General Fund, thanks to my family's decision to send our children to an elite private academy.

And I'm keeping in mind that the legislature adopted a base student cost for this school year of less than $1,800, so I'll be getting a per-child tax deduction that is more than the state's appropriation for two children attending public schools this year. In essence, South Carolina values one of my children two-and-one-quarter times as much as it values someone else's child.

And, again, if I have four boys attending Heathwood Hall, then my tax deduction of $16,000 for four children is worth the state's appropriation for nine children who attend South Carolina's public schools.

This is a two-fer: Not only do I benefit by depriving the General Fund of $16,000, but the legislature now has fewer dollars to appropriate for next year's base student cost for the 700,000 children who attend public schools. This is a right-wing dream come true!

But there's more:

· Provide a state income tax deduction of up to $1,000 for tuition (fees for attending the school and school-related transportation expenses) paid by a parent/legal guardian for their child or ward to attend a public school outside the resident school district.

So if I send my children to a public school in my district, but I want to send them to a public school farther away because the principal there is my cousin and he'll guarantee that my boys play ball there, then I'll get to write off $1,000 per child for fees or transportation costs.

I see nothing wrong with moving a child from one public school to another, so I benefit from a $4,000 tax deduction -- which pays for gas and car maintenance, really -- and I deprive the General Fund of $4,000 for next year's base student cost. Hmm -- this feels squirrelly and I have a nagging sense that this is going to hurt public school funding next year, and the next year and forever after, but I get to pocket $4,000, right?

· Provide a state income tax deduction of up to $2,000 per home school student per year for instruction-related expenses.

Now, again, I know that the state appropriation for a base student cost to fund students attending public schools this year is less than $1,800. But if I choose to home-school my four boys, then I'll get to write off $8,000 of the expense of home-schooling them.

Well, we get our hand-me-down schoolbooks from the local homeschooling group, so that's not going to add up to $8,000. I wonder if I can claim $8,000 in rent for using the dining room as a classroom? Doesn't that count as "instruction-related expenses"? Or the groceries for our "home-school lunch program"? Four boys go through a lot of bologna sandwiches and macaroni-and-cheese and fruit roll-ups.

I've got it: That "class trip" we've been talking about taking to Disney World in Orlando! That's definitely going to cost $8,000, so we'll get a free vacation -- er, class trip -- to Disney World in Orlando out of this! Hello, Ariel!

· Provide a dollar-for-dollar credit on state income tax, insurance premium taxes or bank license fees for contributions made to non-profit scholarship funding organizations that would provide “grants” to eligible children to attend a qualifying independent school. Grants by scholarship funding organizations must not exceed:

o $5,000 per year or 75 percent of the cost of tuition, whichever is less (amount may not exceed cumulatively $15 million annually) for students eligible for the federal free or reduced school lunch program or whose families qualify for federal Medicaid benefits

o $10,000 or 75 percent of the cost of tuition, whichever is less, for “exceptional needs” students (amount may not exceed cumulatively $10 million annually)

So, if I'm a corporation and I want to cut my corporate income tax bill -- who am I kidding? corporate income tax bill? -- then I can donate money to a nonprofit organization that gives poor kids a voucher to go to private schools, and I get to write off the full amount of my donation.

I benefit from the tax write-off, and I get to deprive the state's General Fund of that much money, which means South Carolina has less to appropriate next year for the children who attend public schools. So what if the poor kids who think they're going to get into Heathwood Hall are sadly mistaken; they're not my concern.

The tuition tax deduction/credit bill is on the full Ways and Means Committee meeting agenda for March 6 after the House adjourns.

That's today. I reckon if it passes the full committee today, it'll be on the House agenda pretty soon.

Does this not sound like a wealth-redistribution scheme? Robbing from the poor to make the wealthy that much wealthier?

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