Public money and private education

Tax credits to reimburse parents for private school costs may well be promoted as the education panacea of the 1980s. Despite the recent defeat of a $ 1,200-per-child tuition tax credit proposal by the voters of Washington, D.C., the idea has powerful political support both in Congress and the White House. The scheme is at once novel in its ambitions and revolutionary in its implications for American education.

The Washington effort is, in one sense, old hat, just the most recent in a long line of attempts to garner public aid for private schooling. What is new are the terms of the battle over support. The rationale for public involvement has changed markedly over the past quarter-century. The pace of that change confirms how quickly our sense of what government can accomplish gets refashioned. The direction of the change suggests a nation in full flight from the conception of social justice that animated the policies of the 1960s.

The story begins almost 25 years ago with an essay written by conservative economist Milton Friedman. Friedman lambasted public schools as an inefficient monopoly and argued that education would benefit from a healthy dose of market competition. Education should be encourged by giving vouchers to parents rather than spending public dollars on state schools.

In the 1960s interest shifted from promoting efficient government to doing something for poor children. The two leading voucher proposals coupled aid to private education with a response to the needs of the poor.

The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) also got into the act, funding a different but equally redistributionist voucher scheme. Even though everyone would receive a voucher vouchers going to the poor were worth more -- private schools would get more government aid for enrolling poor children than middle-class ones. The elite prep schools would recruit among the disadvantaged -- not exactly their normal clientele -- with the result that a happy diversity would prevail.

Vouchers survived in the 1970s, but the underlying aspiration was different, stressing the salutary features of diversity, with choice as an end in itself.

None of these ideas came close to popular adoption.

Although the voucher proposal will likely appear on future ballots, vouchers seem mildly out of fashion these days. Despite the District of Columbia vote, tax credits for private education have apparently become the preferred instrument of the 1980s for getting money to private schools. Legislation introduced by Sens. Daniel P. Moynihan and Bob Packwood, which would give parents a tax credit for half of tuition costs up to a maximum of $500, has attracted considerable congressional support. The White House, apparently believing that enabling parents to send their youngsters to private schools is part of the famous social safety net, will offer its own version.

Tax credits, like vouchers, help private schools, but there the similarity ends. The tax credit typically proposed isn't substantial enough to enable most families to switch from public to private schools; best estimates are that fewer than 1 family in 10 would benefit. Those whom the experts regard as most likely to make a change are a rather special group, including parents who are unhappy with public schools because they promote integration or pay insufficient attention to religious values.

The big tax credit winners will be the well-to-do, who already pay for private education out of their own pockets; with the tax credit, they may spend less.

The private schools themselves should also do nicely. Although parochial schools and academies won't get much bigger, because the tax credit offers them insufficient incentive for expansion, they will predictably hike tuition. The tax credit does not prevent this outcome. In keeping with the spirit of deregulation, it imposes almost no standards on private schools, which may turn away whom they please and educate their students more or less as they see fit.

Tax credits do not promise more choice or more support or even more efficiency. They are a way of turning the old biblical prophecy -- to them who have, more shall be given -- into its modern form: the more, the more. In that sense, tax credits admirably -- perhaps too admirably -- suit the temper of the times.

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