Tag: tax credits

A Dialogue on School Choice, Part 2

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. Our initial comments were posted Tuesday. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby Rev. Joe Darby

First Response

Since this is a “dialogue,” let me focus on something that Andrew said in his first installment – that public education “…has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field.” I take that as a defense of the “free market,” where competition allegedly leads to quality and success. I don’t think that the “free market” is the best model for education. To quote African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop John Hurst Adams, one of my mentors, “the free market has limitations when it comes to the human condition, because it’s an amoral concept that ‘lets the market decide’ who swims and who gets swept away.” That’s applicable to the standard argument that private school choice would improve public schools through “competition.”

The first schools established for African-Americans following the Civil War were private schools. They sometimes, however, exclusively accepted the children of the black upper and middle economic classes while excluding the children of former slaves who struggled economically to survive. Public schools for African-Americans were decidedly and intentionally inferior, and the irony is that the opponents of quality public education in Charleston, South Carolina in that era included affluent African-Americans who saw good public schools as a threat to their private schools.

Public funds going to private schools would revive that tradition, for every tax dollar that “follows” a child to private schools in tough economic times will lead to understaffed and under-equipped public schools. Public school funding is set by legislators who are well aware that their constituents without children in the schools are loathe to fund them, and who’ve catered to those constituents by cutting funding for public education. There can be no true “competition” between public schools that only receive public funds and private schools that would have public and private funds at their disposal, for the free market turns on available capital.

The economic crisis now rocking markets in our nation and the world is also instructive. That crisis was, at least in part, created by policies that deregulated the free market and promoted not only innovation, but sheer greed which crafted a shaky, “house of cards” economy that has collapsed and taken people down with it. The lesson now, as it was during the Great Depression, is that unregulated free market activity can have disastrous results. I believe that the current financial crisis is also an element in the push for Private School Tuition Tax Credits. Many private schools are hurting because parents who can no longer afford high tuition are considering public school alternatives – private schools are hungry for the “bailout” that the pending South Carolina legislation would provide.

America makes the lofty claim in our Pledge of Allegiance to be “one nation under God.” If we’re serious about that, then we should heed the words of the Jesus who is seen as the Messiah by Christians and as God’s prophet by Jews and Muslims. He said that the Creator’s standard for right behavior includes equitable treatment for all people. That equity is at the heart of public education but is not a factor in free market competition, where the vagaries of the market decide outcomes and impact success in life. I said so six years ago in one of my conversations with my friend Mark Sanford, the Governor of South Carolina. He laid out his argument for private school choice over more funding for public schools in familiar, logical and compellingly Libertarian free market terms, but he never answered one question that I asked – why can’t we provide good public schools because it’s simply the right thing to do?

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

Andrew Coulson Andrew Coulson

First Response

Glad you brought up the objective studies, Joe, but you only mentioned one of them. I recently collected every scientific study I could find comparing outcomes between public and private schools (Journal of School Choice, vol. 3, no. 1). I came up with 65 studies that compare student achievement, cost-effectiveness, parental satisfaction and other measures. The results overwhelmingly favor private schooling. What’s more, the least regulated, most-market-like school systems stand out as the best of all (here’s an earlier version of the paper).

Interestingly, there’s one study I couldn’t include because it wasn’t released ‘til a few weeks ago. It’s the 3rd year DC voucher study (the successor to the one you mentioned), and it shows that students who’d been attending private schools for the full 3 years are 2 school-years ahead of their public school peers in reading! Even including the kids who’ve only been in the program for 1 year, the vouchers are now producing significant gains.

And there’s no evidence that school choice weakens the public schools. Professor Jay Greene looks at this question in his book Education Myths. He finds that public schools either improve under school choice programs, or are unaffected. So even the families that don’t choose to attend private schools will likely be better off, and certainly no worse off, than they are now.

Who would be the biggest beneficiaries of the SC education tax credit bill? Low-income kids. As noted in the preamble at the top of this column, only low-income families would be eligible for tuition aid from Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs). The amount of aid each family could receive from an SGO is not capped, so that assistance can be allocated based on individual need. Pennsylvania already has such a tuition-assistance program, serving over 40,000 students with bi-partisan support.

Parents who earn enough to owe state taxes would be eligible for direct tax credits to offset their own kids’ education costs, but those credits are explicitly capped (at around $2,800, if their kids are not zoned to attend a “failing” public school – more if they are).

It’s certainly reasonable to wonder how poor families would cope with transportation and any non-tuition costs, but we can just look at how scholarship tax credit programs are working in states like Pennsylvania and Florida: some schools provide transportation, some are within walking distance, some families form carpools, and others use public transportation. Tens of thousands of poor children manage to get to their private schools under these programs every day, and to obtain uniforms for the schools that require them. Many others do so even without scholarships.

As for wanting to start by fully funding public schools… we’re already there. The 2007-08 budget for Charleston public schools lists total expenditures at over $548 million (p. 21) for 40,202 students (p. 4). That’s $13,650 per pupil – more than the state and national averages, which are both about $12,000. These numbers are vastly higher than the median U.S. private school tuition, which the Department of Education reported as $3,500 in 2003-04 [the most recent year available]. And only about a fifth of private school revenue comes from sources other than tuition. Even if tuitions have doubled since then, they’d still be barely half of Charleston’s per pupil spending.

I’ll have to wait ‘til next time to address your concern about the history of school choice, since I’ve run out of word count. In the meantime, here’s a thought:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to fix the public schools. But you don’t lock kids in a burning building while you try to put out the fire.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

AEI Tax Forum

Chris Edwards, Photo by Peter Holden for AEI   Photo by Peter Holden Photography for AEI

I was a panelist at an American Enterprise Institute forum today discussing the proliferation of federal tax credits, particularly for low-income families.

AEI scholars Kevin Hassett, Larry Lindsey, and Aparna Mathur have a draft paper that looks at the idea of consolidating current individual credits into one supercredit. The idea would be to simplify the system and reduce the economic distortions created by these credits, which are valued at about $170 billion in 2009.

My observations included:

  • Obama’s Make Work Pay credit is valued at about $60 billion per year, much of which is “refundable.” (That means it is partly a spending increase not a tax cut). Coincidentally, Obama’s proposed tax hikes for higher-income individuals are also about $60 billion per year. So Obama is damaging the economy with “Make Work Not Pay” tax increases at the top in order to fund dubious work incentives at the bottom. It makes no economic sense.
  •  The AEI scholars provide interesting calculations about how we could make the $170 billion of redistribution in these credits simpler. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I’d like to end the redistribution altogether. Let’s provide a large basic exemption in the tax code for folks at the bottom, but we don’t need any complex credits. Instead, let’s repeal federal policies that damage the budgets of struggling families at the bottom, such as import barriers that raise the price of clothing and federal milk cartels that raise the price of  dairy products.
  • Here’s my compromise redistribution plan. Let’s chop the $170 billion in tax credits in half and use the extra funds to cut the corporate income tax rate. With a purely static calculation, that would allow cutting the corporate rate  from 35% to 25%. Assuming some behaviorial feedbacks, the $85 billion in credit savings would easily allow us to reduce the corporate rate to 20% or so.
  • What do corporate taxes have to do with the workers who currently get all these tax credits? As Hassett and Mathur explained in a 2006 paper, corporate tax cuts would increase investment, improve productivity, and that in turn would raise wages of average American workers. We don’t need President Obama’s fancy new Make Work Pay credits. Instead, we need to cut the corporate tax rate to make the economy boom and raise worker’s wages and incomes in the private marketplace.

A Dialogue on School Choice

The South Carolina legislature is currently considering a tax credit bill intended to give parents an easier choice between public and private schools. It would do this by cutting taxes on parents who pay for their own children’s education, and by cutting taxes on anyone who donates to a non-profit Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO). The SGOs would subsidize tuition for low income families (who owe little in taxes and so couldn’t benefit substantially from the direct tax credit). Charleston minister Rev. Joseph Darby opposes such programs, and I support them. We’ve decided to have this dialogue to explain why. The next installment is here.


Rev. Darby

Rev. Joe Darby

Opening Comment, Con

My local newspaper, The Charleston Post and Courier, recently affirmed their continuing editorial suggestion that we “give School Tax Credits a Try.” I think that’s a very bad idea.

My wife is a public school teacher – and an excellent one at that. She spends much of her time either shaping young minds or preparing to do so, even supplementing meager supplies at her own expense and using creative means to reach and teach children described as “at risk.” Her school is almost 100% “free lunch,” but her students score well on state tests because she’s a good teacher. Most of her colleagues who labor under difficult circumstances are excellent teachers too. Rather than simply blaming an ominous “public education establishment,” we should note the truth – objective studies show that private education is not always a winner. A 2008 United States Department of Education study of the District of Columbia voucher program found that students in the program generally did no better on reading and math tests after two years than their public school peers.

A mass exodus to private schools will weaken public schools by leaving behind parents who have the least ability to advocate for or assist their children, and remove positive peer role models from struggling students. The major beneficiaries of private school choice in South Carolina will not be poor families, for the tuition tax credits and scholarships proposed will not cover the cost of many good private schools and will leave parents to take up the slack and to provide other things like uniforms, transportation and extracurricular activity fees. The major beneficiaries will be affluent parents who will simply have more disposable income when their share of their children’s tuition is decreased.

Before we give school tax credits a “try” we should first give equitably funded, staffed and equipped public schools a “try,” for many southern states have never done so. Excellence in public education for African-Americans was frowned upon after the Post Civil War period of reconstruction. In Paradoxes of Segregation by R. Scott Baker, Charleston, SC School Superintendent A.B. Rhett touted what was Burke Industrial School in 1939 as a place to “supply cooks, maids and delivery boys.”

His views matched those of the political powers that be when South Carolina’s schools were separate and unequal. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954, but South Carolina held out until the 1960’s. Our legislatively ordained strategies to maintain segregation included allowing parents to “choose” their children’s public schools and giving state “scholarships” to white parents who sent their children to private schools established to maintain segregation – the same essential strategies in the present quest for school tax credits. Many predominately African-American schools were woefully underfunded, and when whites fled the public schools for private schools, public schools sank into a state of chronic neglect. We can’t label public schools as “failures” when we’ve failed our schools. When we fully and equitably fund, equip and staff all public schools, we can then “try” tuition credits, for parents can then choose between quality public and private schools – although that might be bad for the private school business.

I serve as the pastor of a church in peninsular Charleston, where architectural preservation is serious business. Homes and businesses that have been long abandoned or neglected and are all but falling over aren’t torn down – they’re rebuilt and restored in spite of years of chronic neglect. If we can do that for neglected homes, then we should also acknowledge our past failings and do the same for our public schools instead of simply tearing them apart or abandoning them.

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The Rev. Darby is senior pastor of the AME Morris Brown Church in Charleston, and First Vice President of the Charleston Branch of the NAACP.

 

Andrew Coulson

Andrew Coulson

Opening Comment, Pro

On paper, the United States offers its citizens a solemn promise: work hard and you can succeed here – regardless of your race, sex, creed, or family wealth. But there’s a catch. To secure a good job you first need a good education. On paper, we’ve taken care of that, too. Over the past 150 years we’ve built up a monumental system of free state-run schools that aims to ensure every child access to a quality education.

In reality, it’s all lies.

If you’re in the top fifth of wage earners, there’s just a one-in-a-hundred chance that you are functionally illiterate. If you’re in the bottom fifth or have no income at all, the odds are that you cannot understand a newspaper or follow the directions on a pill bottle. Despite the relentless efforts of generations of reformers, America’s system of public schooling has failed in its most essential duty. We are not equipping all children to succeed in private life and participate in public life. America’s meritocratic promise is a lie.

What can we do about it?

There are those who still believe that the existing system can be fixed. Having compared different kinds of school systems from ancient Greece to the modern day, and from the poorest to the richest nations on Earth, I am convinced that that effort is futile. The problems with the status quo are endemic to its design.

Public schooling hasn’t failed so many children for so long because teachers weren’t smart enough, or paid well enough, or because classes were too large, or the federal government played too small a role. It has failed because it lacks the freedoms and incentives that drive progress in every other field. Public school teachers are hamstrung by regulations and are paid based on time served rather than classroom performance. Parents are not free to seek out the public or private educational setting best suited to their children, they are extorted into the state system because of its monopoly on $12,000 per pupil in government funding.

But should we prevent people from trying to fix it? Certainly not. If they think they can bring to public schooling the same incredible progress that other human endeavors have experienced over the past forty years, more power to them.

By the same token, no one who wants what’s best for kids should stand in the way of a program that would give parents educational alternatives today. Our children cannot wait to see if the current generation of public school reformers will somehow succeed where their predecessors failed.

I’m an engineer by training and a geek by nature. I advocate programs like the one under consideration in South Carolina because the evidence overwhelmingly supports them. Scientific studies comparing this kind of free enterprise education system to conventional public schooling favor the free enterprise approach by a margin of 15 to 1.

Others advocate school choice for more personal reasons. DC school voucher recipient Carlos Battle wrote a poem explaining his gratitude and commitment to school choice, and delivered it to the rally here last week in support of that program:

surrender me from the typical stereotype of a

black young man

one who slings rocks, smokes weed, and keeps a

gun at hand

i am a whole different guy

one who reads books and wears a tie

you see, I’m changing the perception of a young

black man

i’m climbing the ladder of success - try and stop

me, try as hard as you can….

 

Please don’t.

Please don’t stop Carlos or the children who would follow him up that ladder.

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Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

 

9th Circuit Imitates Marcel Marceau

Last month, I warned that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would soon be handing the school choice movement a legal setback. Well, it’s here.

As expected, the 9th Circuit has reinstated a lower court challenge to Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program. The program allows taxpayers to contribute to non-profit Scholarship Tuition Organizations (STOs) that provide financial assistance to families choosing private schools. The taxpayers can then claim a dollar for dollar credit for their donation.

While this ruling leaves the program intact for the time being, it would almost surely require the tax credit program to be amended if it is allowed to stand. Fortunately, as I noted in my earlier post, the 9th Circuit is overturned as often as a caber at the Highland Games. Its ruling is unlikely to stand if appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue is the fact that taxpayers are free to choose the STOs to which they donate their money, and private STOs are free to set criteria for the schools at which their scholarships can be redeemed. There are thus some STOs that offer scholarships only to religious schools. This is essentially the same situation that obtains when taxpayers claim deductions for contributions to non-profit charities. The charities can legally be religious or secular, and they can infuse the services they offer with religion, or not, as they choose. The whole thing is constitutional because it is the taxpayers, not the government, that decides which charity gets their funds. This is all settled law.

To get around the fact that the legal precedents were against it, the 9th Circuit decided to do a compelling impression of Marcel Marceau, pretending to hem itself into an invisible legal box. Specifically, the 9th Circuit decided to pretend that the constitutional restrictions limiting government expenditures (as in school voucher programs) also apply to the private funds at issue under tax credit programs.

That box, of course, does not exist. No government money is spent under the tax credit program, and the tax credits are themselves available on an entirely religiously neutral basis, in scrupulous conformance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

So here’s my next legal prediction: the constitutionality of the Arizona education tax credit program will ultimately be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and opponents of educational freedom will have to resort to some new ploy in their efforts to herd American families back onto the public school plantation.

Obama Tax Policies and Beyond

I was a panelist for a Tax Notes forum on April 3 regarding Obama’s tax policies. The other panelists were Len Burman of the Urban Institute and Gene Steuerle of the Peterson Foundation. It was an expert and ideologically diverse panel, but nobody was fond of Obama’s fiscal policy direction. (In the photo, that’s former CBO director Rudy Penner to my left. Photo credit to Derek Squires)

Tax Notes summarized the discussion: “A diverse panel of economists and tax specialists largely agreed … that President Obama’s tax and budget plans at best would fail to forestall long-term fiscal ruin and could even hasten its arrival.” One point of agreement was that the tax code is too complex and it doesn’t need the complicated new tax credits that Obama has proposed.

Where we differed was on the need for added federal revenue, and herein lies the big tax policy battle ahead. Len thought that some form of new value-added tax (VAT) was inevitable in order that the government could  raise more money. I am increasingly hearing that argument from top fiscal scholars, and I fear that the drumbeat for a VAT will get louder.

Dan Mitchell and I are dead-set against a VAT because it will be a tool to fund even larger government, as we discuss in Global Tax Revolution. But supporters of limited government need to start watching this issue and making preparations to ward off a Euro-style money machine.

Vouchers Defeated in AZ. Freedom Can Still Prevail

The Arizona Supreme Court has just struck down two voucher programs serving disabled and foster children. This is a terrible blow to the families involved, but there is a way to continue offering them educational freedom: incorporate them into the state’s popular education tax credit programs.

Arizona residents and businesses can already make donations to non-profit scholarship funds and receive a tax credit for their donations. If the caps on those credits are raised, it will be possible to generate enough funding to serve the students formerly participating in the voucher programs. It would even be possible to create non-profit scholarship funds that specifically focus on serving special needs students, which could help parents choose the schools best suited to their individual children’s needs, and allow donors to know that their funds would go toward that cause.

While the Court has said that vouchers are impermissible in Arizona, it has already upheld the state’s tax credits that accomplish the same ends entirely through voluntary action. It is a solution that should satisfy everyone.

Everyone, that is, who has the best interests of children in mind.

Stop Wasting $Billions; Expand School Choice

The Philadelphia school system will spend over $3 billion for the first time next year. That works out to $18,500 per student in a failing school system and most likely leaves out significant costs like teacher health and retirement funds. Maybe it has something to do with the 84 administrative departments burning through funds that should be used to educate children.

In 2007 I highlighted the growing spending insanity in Philadelphia schools and noted that tens millions of dollars could be saved every year through even a small school choice program.

Pennsylvania’s small, successful, and popular donation tax credits system for private scholarships is already saving money and children from failing schools.

In this economy, Pennsylvania can’t afford not to have more school choice.