Tuition tax credits: unfair to public schools

A number of congressmen have been supporting the idea of having the federal government grant tax credits to parents for the costs of tuition at their children's nonpublic schools. The Reagan administration supports the idea, but with massive reductions in federal school aid in 1981 its attention was focused elsewhere. Assistant Treasury Secretary John Chapoton has put a Senate Finance Subcommittee on notice that tuition tax credits will ''be at the top of our agenda at the appropriate time.''

S 550 would provide a credit equal to one-half the cost of tuition in a nonpublic school. The maximum credit would be $250 in school year 1982-83 and $ 500 in school year 1983-84 and thereafter. The credit could be applied for both nonpublic elementary and secondary school costs as well as for higher education expenses.

Specifically, this bill singles out nonpublic schools which would benefit from the tax credit by saying such schools don't have to comply with federal regulations governing educational institutions receiving federal aid. What does this mean? It means that nonpublic schools may feel free to continue discriminating against handicapped youngsters. And I don't know what other word is more appropriate than ''discrimination'' when you look at the statistics which show that only 2.7 percent of the sectarian schools in America provide programs for the handicapped.

S 550 also protects church-controlled schools from examination of their books and records in connection with tuition tax credits.

Since 85 percent of private school pupils attend parochial schools, such proposed legislation becomes an unprecedented federal subsidy of religious education, with an estimated $5 billion tax revenue loss in the first year.

The use of statistics always appears to be a persuasive argument for any cause. But everyone knows that figures can be presented in different ways so that the same set of statistics can be juggled to give the appearance of supporting both sides of the tuition tax credits argument. For example, one can say that the principal beneficiaries of such tax credits would be the 27 percent of all private school families who have incomes under $16,000. What about the 30 percent of all children in nonpublic schools who come from families with incomes in excess of $25,000? Wouldn't they, too, be principal beneficiaries? The really needy families who earn less than $5,000 a year constitute only 3 percent of the children in nonpublic schools.

It doesn't seem to make much sense to provide nonpublic schools with unrestricted general aid from the federal government while the public schools must now fight for their share of the federal block grant program funds and meet strict requirements to be eligible for it. We all know that the block grant program represents a 25 percent cutback in federal funds from the old categorical aid programs. Granting tuition tax credits to nonpublic schools would simply become an additional drain on these already inadequate funds. Federal revenues are badly needed for items that rank higher in priority than tuition tax credits, such as education of the disadvantaged, education of the handicapped, and elimination of architectural barriers to the handicapped.

Not enough has been said about the fact that the proposed tuition tax credits make up only a partial subsidy of parents' school costs. Additional funding is needed and consequently low-income students would be discriminated against in S 550. Since blacks represent a disproportionately large share of the low-income families, this proposed legislation would merely aggravate the problem of segregation, since nonpublic schools currently educate 6 percent of the black students in America, while the public schools educate 15 percent of them.

There is much to be said for a publicly appointed or elected school board which is accountable to its constituency, and this is not true of nonpublic schools, which can campaign for their students and take only the cream of the crop, leaving the handicapped, retarded, and slow learners, not to mention the disciplinary cases, to be educated in the public schools.

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