Commentary

People Are Ready for Real Education Reform

The South Carolina Legislature killed real education reform again this year. Instead of education tax credits and scholarships, which Rep. Tracy Edge and Sen. Larry Grooms put forward this year, state lawmakers recently passed a “choice” law that allows students to enroll in different school districts without paying tuition. But the law doesn’t create any seats in good schools and doesn’t let parents choose between government and independent education. It still lets bureaucrats deny parents a choice, and thereby changes nothing. Thankfully, Gov. Mark Sanford has vetoed this obvious attempt to put off true education reform.

South Carolina legislators are unwise to stand in the way of school choice, which is a wise and increasingly popular education policy. The representatives who killed education tax credit legislation earlier this year should take note of the numbers and get on the right side of history.

Public opinion surveys consistently show that close to two-thirds of the public supports education tax credits. Typically these credits reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he spends on schooling 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. Similar benefits can also be applied to individuals for donations and for their own child’s education expenses.

A poll by South Carolinians for Responsible Government, a conservative grassroots organization, showed that 63 percent of South Carolinians support tax credits, and only 29 oppose them. These numbers are nothing new, and polls in other states and nationwide show the same overwhelming support.

Earlier this year, a poll by the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank, revealed that Missourians approved education tax credits by a margin of almost two and a half to one. Another recent poll by the Bluegrass Institute, a similar organization, shows Kentuckians support education tax credits three to one.

Even the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup polls on education, which are notoriously skewed in favor of government-run schooling, show similarly lopsided support for education tax credits. In fact, after its 1998 and 1999 polls showed two to one support for the credits, PDK mysteriously dropped the question about them altogether.

My own polling research, using a national online sample of 1,400 respondents, shows support for education tax credits ranging from two and a half to one up to four to one, depending on the specific proposal. And that dominant approval holds regardless of party identification: Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike.

Education tax credits are popular because people want control over their children’s educations, and control over how their education dollars are spent.

The credits are gaining popularity across the country, and on both sides of the political aisle. Arizona, Rhode Island and Iowa all passed tax-credit programs last year, and Pennsylvania expanded its existing business donation 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 Democratic legislature. Even in deep-blue New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer proposed an education-tax deduction in his first state budget.

Though they are often reluctant to cede control of anything, politicians are starting to see that education tax credits are good for all citizens.

School-choice programs give parents the power to find good schools, prompting them to take more responsibility for their children’s educations, so it’s no wonder academic research finds that they increase student achievement.

These programs also save money by allowing students to transfer from expensive government schools to more efficient independent ones. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, after adjusting for inflation, public schooling costs around $10,500 per child, while private-school tuition averages around $5,300.

A recent report from the Friedman Foundation, a free-market school choice research organization, finds that from 1990 to 2006, school choice programs saved state and local governments a total of $444 million despite their small size and other limitations. And that’s small change compared to the massive savings and scholastic improvements a truly free educational system could give South Carolina.

Education tax credits are good for taxpayers, kids, families and communities. And it’s no surprise that South Carolina voters support them by overwhelming margins.

Politicians are sometimes so afraid to take risks that they create new ones by stubbornly sticking with the status quo. But education tax credits will come up again and again, and South Carolina’s lawmakers should get on board before they get left behind.

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