Commentary

Education Tax Credits Can Give NH Parents and Students More Choice

By Darcy Ann Olsen and Dan Lips
This article appeared in the Union Leader on April 26, 2001.

President Bush and congressional Democrats believe more spending will resuscitate America’s ailing education system. They plan to raise federal spending in New Hampshire to $ 141 million per year. But all the money in the world won’t do the one thing that matters most in education: putting parents in charge.

A new study by the Cato Institute suggests that a federal education tax credit may help do that.

An education tax credit works like this. First, parents who send their children to private school could lower their tax bill by $500 for the cost of private school tuition. Second, any taxpayer could take a $ 500 tax credit for donations to non-profit scholarship organizations that award tuition scholarships to low-income children. When combined, the two components of the tax credit will enable millions of students to attend better schools.

It’s time to give parents this freedom. For 30 years, education reforms have come and gone. Whether smaller classes, new standards, higher teacher salaries, more technology or more preschool or after-school programs, each has been tried and each has failed to reverse the decline in student achievement. The effect of choice is clear and immediate. Children in bad schools today can enroll in better schools tomorrow.

Evidence from choice programs shows clear benefits to children. Harvard University researchers evaluated private scholarship programs in Dayton, New York and Washington, D.C., and found that children able to enroll in private schools scored higher on standardized tests than those who stayed in public schools. Education researcher Jay Greene found similar benefits to students in a private scholarship program in Charlotte, N.C. and reported, “The consistency of the results across all four cities is impressive, as is the size of the gain.”

Critics say academic improvement is not always forthcoming for all students. To be sure, it takes time for students to adjust to new learning environments. And it’s not easy to make up for years of lost learning. This is all the more reason why parents should have a choice from kindergarten onward.

Of course, choice is about more than academic achievement: It’s about the right of parents to choose a learning environment for their child. A new study released by the national nonprofit organization Parents In Charge found 82 percent of Americans believe that parents should be able to choose which school their children attend. Why squeeze America’s 53 million students into a uniform, one-size-fits-all system when a range of excellent schools from Montessori, Waldorf, parochial, traditional, to something altogether different exist?

A federal education tax credit promises an additional benefit for the state: taxpayer savings. In a new analysis, we find that the parental choice component of the credit could encourage 1,400 new students to attend private school across New Hampshire. Since the public schools would no longer have to educate these students, the state stands to save $ 9 million per year. The scholarship credit promises more savings. Modeled after a highly successful scholarship program in Arizona that raised $ 14 million for scholarships last year, reasonable estimates suggest that nearly three million scholarships worth $ 2,000 apiece could be raised for low-income students nationwide. The nation as a whole stands to save nearly $ 12 billion as scholarship students leave the public school system. If some of these scholarships go to public school students in New Hampshire, the savings for the state will be significant. As savings pile up, lawmakers in Concord can pass them on to taxpayers in a well-deserved tax cut.

But more important than the potential tax cut is that these reforms begin to give parents greater control over education. Instead of pouring more federal spending into the state education system, Congress should return those dollars to parents and concerned citizens and let them determine how the children of New Hampshire are educated. A $ 500 education tax credit is a first step toward this bright horizon.

Darcy Olsen is director of education and child policy and Dan Lips is an education researcher at the Cato Institute.