ADVOCATES call their trimmed-down plan to pay parents to send their kids to private schools a compromise. It’s not.
Oh, it costs less than last year’s plan to throw hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money at private schools that follow their own rules. But the big-money out-of-state special interests pushing this year’s legislation make no bones about considering this an “incremental” first step, a base from which to increase funding in years to come. More importantly, it retains all the other problems that plagued the plans that our lawmakers have wisely rejected in the past — and ought to reject again this year.
Unlike previous proposals, the bill awaiting House debate gives tax deductions rather than tax credits to middle- and upper-income families who abandon the public schools. That keeps the price down, because a $4,000 deduction reduces income taxes by, at most, $280, whereas a $4,000 credit reduces taxes by $4,000. Those small numbers — most parents would save significantly less than $280 — underscore the idea that supporters consider this bill a foot in the door; why else go through such a divisive political fight, and use up $12 million of the $37 million the legislation would cost in the first year, in order to give such piddling little incentives?
Like previous proposals, the legislation promises to help poor kids attend private schools by way of a convoluted tax scheme that lets people divert up to $15,000 of their income taxes each year to private “scholarship-granting organizations” that would dole out the money to needy children. That’s a problem in itself if you believe that we all ought to pay our fair share toward the public services that benefit us all, rather than picking and choosing which programs to pay for.
Beyond that, this faux free-market plan would help only those particular poor children whom private schools choose to admit and whom private scholarship-granting organizations choose to help and whose parents have a way to get them to and from the private schools and pay at least a quarter of the tuition themselves.
And as with the previous proposals, the worst part about the so-called compromise is the effect it would have on our collective psyche.
We provide tax incentives in order to encourage people to do things we want them to do but which the government is not doing. That is, incentives are an alternative to government doing something itself. The logical next step after giving incentives to parents to leave the public schools is to stop providing public schools. Of course, we can’t do that, but the more people believe that incentives make private schools a real option for any parents who care about their children, the less they will support doing the hard and politically difficult work of improving our public schools — which is so clearly the goal of those who are bankrolling this plan.
We understand that a lot of legislators are terrified that the out-of-state special interests will field and bankroll challengers in this year’s elections if they don’t support this bill. We sympathize, but we also expect them to support the best interests of our state, even if that carries political risks. Lawmakers need to reject this bill, and make it clear that they won’t be intimidated into supporting bad legislation that will harm our state.