Commentary

Coalition’s Choice

Yesterday, I explained why vouchers are more likely than credits to get into legal trouble — because they’re government dollars. Today we’re talking about coalitional politics.

So, which of the two options for real school choice reform fields a bigger and more energetic coalition to do battle with the government school unions: vouchers or education tax credits?

Tax credits command support from a larger coalition of conservatives, free market advocates, and private schools than do vouchers, in large part for the same reason they’re more legally viable; because they’re not government funds, they pose less danger to the autonomy of private schools that accept them. And the legal issue has major implications for the school choice coalition. Many social conservatives and libertarians, as well as private school, home-school, and religious organizations that oppose or only weakly support vouchers, prefer education tax credits.

The Home School Legal Defense Association published an issue paper in 2002 titled “Reasons Home Schoolers Should Avoid Government Vouchers,” but it actively supports education tax credits. Likewise, many religious conservatives are more supportive of tax credits than they are of vouchers. Maureen Wiebe, legislative representative for American Association of Christian Schools, says her organization is uncomfortable with vouchers as a vehicle for school choice, but wholeheartedly supports education tax credits. These and other organizations fear that vouchers, as general revenue from government coffers, will bring increased regulation and control of private education.

Together, home-school supporters and social conservatives are a well organized political constituency with a proven track record of grassroots mobilization. Emphasizing vouchers deals a major blow to school choice because it alienates the movement’s most powerful natural allies.

The concern with government funds bringing government control isn’t exclusive to religious conservatives. The National Association of Independent Schools, the largest association for non-religiously affiliated private schools, does not take an official position on many policies, leaving statements on more controversial issues to its autonomous member schools. However, NAIS director of legislative affairs Amy Sechler says her association recognizes that vouchers often bring more challenges to private school autonomy than do tax credits. A 2006 poll of leaders in the school choice movement, conducted by myself and the Mackinac Center, showed that they prefer tax credits as well; although still low, their opposition to vouchers is more than double their opposition to tax credits (13-percent and 5-percent, respectively).

Furthermore, there seems to be more support and less opposition to tax credits, among Democratic political leaders. Arizona, Rhode Island, and Iowa passed tax-credit programs last year, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing business-tax credit program. The Arizona, Iowa, and Pennsylvania bills became law under Democratic governors, and the Rhode Island business-tax credit was born in a legislature controlled by Democrats.

In New Jersey, a strong center-left coalition including many prominent African-American Democrats — most notably, Newark Mayor Cory Booker — supports tax credits. Finally, in deep-blue New York, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed an education-tax deduction in his first state budget, but he opposes vouchers for school choice. Most opponents of vouchers oppose tax credits as well, but there are signs that some political opposition to tax credits is weakening whereas opposition to vouchers remains relatively solid.

School-choice battles incite bitter resistance from one of the largest, most politically potent and well-financed set of economic interests in the nation: public-school employee unions. Even if they disagree with the general assessment of the danger that vouchers pose to private schools, school choice supporters need the most powerful coalition they can muster to pass and defend school choice legislation. Indeed, coalitional support is perhaps even more important than popular support when dealing with such a divisive issue, particularly when the public knows so little about it.

The vast majority of political and ideological support for school choice resides on the right side of the political spectrum, and the vast majority of opposition comes from the left. When elite opinion on an issue is polarized along ideological lines, mass opinion tends to move along similar lines. That’s not surprising, but it is often overlooked by school-choice supporters; as school choice becomes a live issue in a state, liberal elites tend to drive up liberal and Democratic opposition to school choice and conservative leadership drum up conservative and Republican support.

Voucher legislation, however, enervates and eliminates large, politically active blocks of the private school, home school, and general conservative constituencies. Education tax credits unify the largest possible coalition while inspiring no more resistance, and possibly less resistance, than vouchers.

School-choice supporters need to lead with the policy that commands the strongest coalition. That means education tax credits.

Adam B. Schaeffer is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.