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Committee Considers Education Options for Parents

The House Education and the Workforce Committee held an April 16 hearing on expanding parental choice in education, including ways in which low-income parents can pay for education expenses in both public or private schools at the K-12 level.

Congress included several parental choice provisions in the Leave No Child Behind Act (P.L. 107-110) signed into law in December (see The Source, 12/14/01). The law allows Title I funds to be used to help parents with children in failing schools obtain extra help for their children by hiring a tutor or sending them to after-school or summer school programs. Parents may use private and religious schools to provide the supplemental services they need for their children. Additionally, Education Savings Accounts, designed to allow parents and grandparents to set aside money for qualified education expenses, were expanded to include public and private elementary and secondary school, as well as college and graduate school.

A majority of the testimony and the discussion at the hearing focused on education tax credits. In his opening statement, Committee Chair John Boehner (R-OH) noted that the President has included in his FY2003 budget an education tax credit “that would build on last year’s bipartisan education reforms.” He also announced that Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-CO), a member of the committee, “will soon introduce legislation to meet the President’s goal of further expanding parental choice in education.”

“The best educational option for parents would be a high quality public school in every neighborhood in America,” said Latha Krishnaiyer of the National PTA, expressing opposition to education tax credits. “Now is not the time to divert public funds to private schools that are not accountable to the public, whether through experimental voucher programs or tuition tax subsidies, neither of which has been proven to raise student achievement,” she said.

Instead, she recommended “reforms that are fully accountable to the public and that are designed to help ALL children, such as class size reduction, professional development, school modernization, parent involvement, and before- and after-school programs.”

Lawrence Reed of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy explained that most people think of tax credits “as a way in which to provide parents with tax relief” when they send their children to private school. “But tax credits can also apply to expenses charged by a public school that accepts a student from outside its regular jurisdiction,” he stated. “The credit is usually a dollar-for-dollar reduction in taxes owed, whereas a tax deduction is merely a reduction in taxable income,” he added.

If tax credits are “properly designed,” they can improve education for everyone and get whole communities involved, urged Mr. Reed. “They can make our school officials fundraisers instead of tax raisers and ultimately allow for better utilization of more resources for schools,” he said.

Elliott Mincberg of People for the American Way called the education tax credits “schemes that drain crucial resources from public schools” and that “provide choice primarily to private schools, not parents and students.” He said that voters “have overwhelmingly rejected voucher and tax credit proposals in favor of strengthening public schools,” and he urged that “the same choice should be made by this committee and this Congress.” He also urged the committee to give the parental choice options in the new current law a chance to take effect.

Lisa Graham Keegan of the Education Leaders Council said she was embarrassed listening to the arguments against education tax credits. She told the committee that her organization believes that choice “is a right that parents should expect; it should not be considered an extravagance by the government.” She said parents who choose tax credit options “are not exacting revenge on the school system, nor are policymakers.” She added, “The law rightly gives these wobbling schools the assistance, funding, and opportunities they need to right themselves, hardly an effort to abandon schools that need help, but students shouldn’t be forced to teeter along with them.”

Several of the witnesses described education tax credit laws passed by the states of Arizona and Pennsylvania. In Arizona, taxpayers can make a voluntary contribution to a school tuition organization (STO) in return for a tax credit of up to $500. The STO must, by law, allocate 90 percent of their revenue for scholarships for students to attend private schools. The law also allows taxpayers to claim a tax credit of up to $200 for donations made to public schools of their choice.

The Pennsylvania program allows businesses to take tax credits for contributions to scholarship programs for public and private schools as well as to innovative public school programs.

Criticizing the state tuition laws, Mr. Mincberg charged that, “Over a three-year period, the Arizona scheme cost more than $74 million, and that money went largely to subsidize education for middle- and upper-income families.”

Ms. Keegan called the Arizona program “elegant,” and said it has managed to withstand constitutional challenges because “it neither directly allocates public money to private institutions, nor endorses religious versus non-religious schools.”

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