Commentary

Credit Report: Good School Choices

With the height of summer past us, school is just around the corner. And unfortunately, too many kids across the country will return to schools that just aren’t doing the job; whether it’s imparting reading, writing, arithmetic, or morality, the current educational models do not suffice.

Parents ought to have more liberty to make decisions about their children’s educations, but even the best efforts of the school-choice movement have achieved only spotty success over the years. Before the next cycle begins, school-choice supporters should consider the fundamentals with an eye toward the most promising avenues for giving parents the freedom to choose their child’s school.

So, which of the two options for real school-choice reform are more popular: vouchers or education tax credits?

Surveys generally demonstrate that tax credits command five to ten percent more support than do vouchers.

A large academic poll recently conducted for the magazine Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University illustrated the remarkable wide support for tax credits. Even current and former public school employees support education tax credits by a margin of nearly two to one; 50 percent said they supported tax credits, while only 28-percent opposed them. Public school employees oppose vouchers by a thin two-point margin.

Vouchers are essentially checks that the state sends parents to use at schools of their choosing. Tax credits reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he spends on his child’s education or scholarships for children who need them. If a business owed the state $4,000 in taxes and donated $2,000 for scholarships, for instance, it would pay just $2,000 in taxes – and it would get to choose the organization that received its donation. Similar benefits can also be applied to individuals for donations, and for their own child’s education expenses. Three states have personal use tax credits, and five states have donation credits. The biggest programs in Pennsylvania and Florida save millions of dollars and help thousands of children afford good independent schools.

Both vouchers and tax credits fund school choice, but there are big differences between them. Only tax credits let taxpayers control their own money — they get to spend it directly on a child’s education or donate it to a scholarship fund. In a voucher program, taxpayers send their money to the government and it decides how to spend the funds.

The Education Next/Harvard survey showed, in fact, that tax credits were more popular with the general public, with 53-percent supporting them, compared to the 45-percent supporting vouchers. Moreover, there is much more opposition to vouchers, with 34-percent opposing them and only 25-percent opposing credits. That gives tax credits a 28-point margin of support over opposition compared to an 11-point margin for vouchers.

Some say tax credits are more popular because teachers’ unions have spent so much time and money attacking vouchers, but this poll didn’t even use the word “voucher.” Instead, it referred only to “government funds” in the question. It’s clear that tax credits are much more popular and less objectionable to the general public, and even to public-school employees, than vouchers. And the word “voucher” has little to do with that.

One possible reason for the popularity of tax credits is that tax benefits are a common and popular policy vehicle, and most Americans have had good experiences with them. For instance, the HOPE Scholarship tax credit, which gives taxpayers credits on a portion of college expenses, child tax credits, and home mortgage deductions are widely recognized, popular tax breaks among middle-class voters; these kinds of policies often get over 70 or 80-percent support.

Some critics have lamented the proliferation of special interest tax credits and deductions, but these are proliferating for a reason. Tax credits are a popular and relatively easy way to provide benefits for particular kinds of activities. Credits for education expenses have the same advantages, and unlike most other tax benefits, are amply justified improvements on a tax-funded government education monopoly.

Education tax credits command the popular support necessary to significantly expand school choice. We need to refocus our energies on what works and help politicians to see that the public wants school choice through tax credits.

Adam Schaeffer is an education analyst at the Cato Institute.