Reagan’s ABCs

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During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan dubbed the fledglingDepartment of Education "President Carter's new bureaucratic boondoggle."Two decades and billions of dollars later, Reagan's assessment holds true.

Under the department's watch, the American education system has continued to slouch toward utter failure. Test scores show that one out of three fourthgraders can't read. A significant achievement gap between the races stillexists. Meanwhile, a recent audit of the department's records found thatnearly a half billion dollars of taxpayer funds intended to supporteducation were either stolen or "missing."

Yet a Republican president will soon sign a bill passed by a RepublicanCongress that increases spending on that bureaucratic boondoggle by morethan 10 percent. Unable to pass the only valuable components of hiseducation package, such as parental choice and program consolidation,President Bush is settling for a bill crafted by Teddy Kennedy that armsfederal bureaucrats with a national test and billions in new spending.

Conservatives need to consider the ominous prospects of expanding federalpower over education. Federal funds for character education may sound finenow, but imagine what that might mean under, say, a "Hillary" administration. Before trading a vast expansion of federal authority for a bipartisan photo-op, the new administration should take a lesson from President Reagan.

While politics prevented Reagan from delivering on his promise to abolishthe Department of Education, he at least slowed the growth of the federalagency to 5 percent annually throughout his administration.

More important, Reagan understood the proper role of the federal governmentin education: "Education is the principal responsibility of local schoolsystems, teachers, parents, citizen boards, and state governments," he said.Adhering to this principle, Reagan sought policies that "insure that localneeds and preferences, rather than the wishes of Washington, determine theeducation of our children."

While focus group politics have frightened President Bush away from evenmentioning the words "abolish" and "education" in the same sentence, the new administration has an opportunity to enact a positive federal program that empowers parents and lets the states call the shots on new spending. Again, the answer lies in Reagan's playbook.

Throughout his administration, President Reagan called for an education tax credit that allowed parents to subtract a portion of their child's private-school tuition payment from their tax bill. While his package died in Congress, the idea is back. Conservative lawmakers across the country have taken Reagan's tax credit and polished it into a political winner: tax credits for donations to organizations that give scholarships to poor children to attend private schools. A $500 tax credit in Arizona raised $14 million for scholarships last year. Legislators in Florida and Pennsylvania passed similar programs this spring.

Now, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering education tax credits. Rep.Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) recently introduced a scholarship tax-credit bill in the House that provides a partial tax credit for donations for up to $500 for individuals, and $100,000 for corporations. Similar education taxcredits, including a dollar-for-dollar credit, have been introduced by othermembers of Congress.

The potential impact of these programs is enormous. A recently publishedfiscal analysis by the Cato Institute found that a national scholarship taxcredit could potentially raise nearly $6 billion per year -- enough to give$2,000 scholarships to nearly 3 million low-income children.

Along with aiding millions of families, the scholarship tax credit promisesto achieve another of Reagan's primary goals: returning federal power overeducation to the people. Since many of the scholarship recipients would befrom public schools, state and local governments would reap significantsavings -- roughly $12 billion, according to Cato's estimates -- as students switch from public to private schools. State coffers will swell withsurpluses -- dollars that can be used for tax cuts, new education programs,or however voters see fit.

More important than the fiscal savings, this small federal program couldspark additional reform initiatives that would empower parents across thecountry.

The 50 million school children across the country deserve more than newspending and a national test from the president who pledged education as histop priority. Instead of dumping more money into Jimmy Carter's bureaucraticboondoggle, President Bush should get behind the scholarship tax credit. Inthe process, the new president could empower millions of parents with schoolchoice, return federal power to the people, and, finally, deliver a longoverdue win for the Gipper.

Dan Lips

Dan Lips is an education research assistant.