Commentary

Credit Where Due

With Eliot Spitzer running almost 50 points ahead in New York’s gubernatorial “race,” it seems safe to crown him the winner. Most of us know Spitzer for his anti-corporate adventures as the state’s swashbuckling attorney general, but although he might be bad for business, he could be surprisingly good for kids.

As Kathleen Lucadamo reported in Monday’s Daily News, Spitzer, “speaking to Orthodox Jews at a Brooklyn yeshiva, said it is unjust that private schools educate 15 percent of the state’s students but get only 1 percent of the education budget.”

Spitzer couldn’t be more right. He supports encouraging public education through private means, and is increasingly unabashed in saying so.

Earlier in the year, Spitzer flipped from hazy opposition to support of what was then Governor Pataki’s proposal for an education tax credit. “I support the idea of education tax credits,” he claimed, though he had previously declared that “vouchers would destroy the public school system.”

The education tax credit at issue turned into a blanket child tax credit, but Spitzer still expresses support for the concept of education-specific tax credits. His spokeswoman Christine Anderson said this week that “if elected, Eliot will explore the feasibility of expanding such programs.”

Spitzer’s still no fan of vouchers, but education tax credits are emerging as both the “third way” for Democrats and the policy of choice for social conservatives seeking to send their children to religious schools and libertarians who just want more choices. Spitzer appropriated the tax credit issue from his current opponent, attorney John Faso, who sponsored the ETC bill as minority leader of the state assembly in 2001.

Education tax credits have been on the rise across the nation. In the past year, Arizona, Rhode Island, and Iowa have all passed new programs, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing business tax credit for donations to private scholarship funds. The Arizona and Iowa bills both got past Democratic governors, and the Rhode Island business tax credit came about in a legislature controlled by Democrats in both houses.

At $330 per child, the current New York tax credit is paltry, but its political implications are enormous: an ambitious Democrat has embraced education tax credits in a true-blue state. Like Bill Clinton signing on to “end welfare as we know it,” the acceptance of the principle and the approach matters greatly. President Clinton didn’t want to go all the way with the Republican welfare plan. But his acceptance of the conservative conception of the problem and the range of solutions moved the political center of gravity to a point that allowed their victory.

The politics of school choice is changing, too, and school-choice supporters need to take advantage of it. Supporters of school choice should take advantage of Spitzer’s overtures to raise their expectations and push for educational freedom on a much more meaningful scale.

As we have seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and elsewhere, tiny pilot and hyper-targeted programs have served their purpose in demonstrating the effectiveness of school choice and helping a small number of students. But coverage for low-income children will expand most rapidly if a broad and politically powerful set of constituencies gets behind it, and that means the middle class. It’s easier to help the disadvantaged through a program that helps everybody.

Whether their concern is for low-income children alone or for educational freedom across the board, school choice supporters need to build on the new momentum and push forward with big, broad-coverage education tax credits. With political opposition to these credits softening, New York has never had a better opportunity to bring educational choices to children.

It doesn’t matter if Spitzer’s support for school choice is limited: His statements have changed the game. As he heads to the governor’s mansion, school-choice supporters should think big, and push him to pass broad bills that would allow all parents to choose where their children are educated.

Adam Schaeffer is a policy analyst for the Center for Educational Freedom.