I’ll begin with my proposal: Parents who do not send their school-age children to public schools do not have to pay taxes to help support those schools. Whatever proportion of property, income, and other taxes go to schools, those parents either do not have to pay in the first place (I propose), or else they get the money back during tax season, up to the average per-pupil expenditure. I mean to include here property taxes paid indirectly through rent.
It’s hard to object to that proposal on moral grounds. It says simply that parents should not have to pay for these government services that they do not use. There is no subsidy involved; we are talking only about a family’s own money.
Families still would be required to provide their children with a meaningful education. We’re talking about families who choose either private schools or homeschooling as an alternative to the public schools.
True, under this modest proposal, people without school-age children still would have to pay taxes to support public schools. We can bracket that issue. If you’re worried about giving wealthier people “too big” of a tax break, we could limit the program to families earning, say, 150% or less of median household income (which would be around $130,000). A gradual drop-off would avoid a steep benefit cliff.
Rebutting bad objections
I can think of only two main arguments, both bad, that people might raise against my proposal. The first is that parents are too stupid or malevolent to do right by their children absent government “help.” Because that position is breathtakingly condescending and elitist, people who hold it rarely state it bluntly.
That argument might go a little better if public schools had a stellar record of achievement, but, bluntly, they are performing generally poorly (with exceptions) and failing many students.
The second argument is that parents who take their children and their dollars out of the public schools somehow harm the students left behind in those schools. The grain of truth here is that, at the margin, one less student does not decrease building expenses or teacher salaries. But, in the longer term, school districts can adjust the number of teachers and even the number of buildings. There’s no reason to think that costs of educating children in public schools would go up longer-term just because a small additional fraction of parents choose other alternatives.
The real threat to public school finances is not the small percentage of students in private schools and home schools; rather, it is administrative bloat. But, somehow, the people who complain about school choice never seem to get around to dealing with the real problems.
Someone also could argue that a tax-credit proposal such as the one described above would help middle-class parents find alternatives for their children, but it wouldn’t much help poorer families, who don’t pay much in taxes anyway. The obvious solution, if you think that’s a problem, is just to offer direct, no-strings-attached subsidies to poorer families. That approach moves away from strict libertarianism.
Another approach is to let everyone direct their school-directed tax dollars to the educational programs of their choice. This approach gives people more control over their own money, although government still forces people to contribute some portion of their funds to education, whether or not they have school-age children.
Tax-funded “choice” brings complications
The most widely known approach to “school choice,” popularized by Milton Friedman, is to issue every family with school-age children a voucher, redeemable by the school of the parents’ choice.
In a recent column, I pointed out that some people, including some in Colorado, worry that tax-funded “school choice” brings with it government control. So I think Barry Fagin, as well-intentioned as he is in his recent article, is not fully attending to the relevant difficulties.
Fagin begins by claiming that “Take Back Our Schools (TBOS), a Colorado Springs parents’ organization . . . wants certain books removed from school libraries in multiple Springs school districts.” Fagin sympathizes with this aim, asking, “Why is it OK for their tax money to fund schools whose administration, staff and school board majority don’t share their values?”
One problem is that Fagin is not fairly summarizing the aims of the group in question. I addressed this in one of my earlier columns. The group does not only want to get certain books removed from schools. Instead, as the headline for the news article that Fagin cites declares, “Conservatives call for criminal investigation into El Paso County school districts over ‘obscene’ materials.” There is a huge difference between asking schools to remove books and calling for criminal penalties for the possession or distribution of certain books.
Fagin has a point, though, that government is forcing those people to finance the distribution of books that they regard (or at least imagine) as “obscene.” If we take seriously the principle of freedom of conscience, forcing people to finance the propagation of materials with which they disagree, or even which they find abhorrent, is a problem.
Fagin is too quick to tout his solution to such social clashes: “Does anyone seriously believe these kinds of problems would happen if we had school vouchers? Or Education Savings Accounts? Or Education Tax Credits? Pretty much anything where the money goes to parents instead of school districts will make these battles vanish in a puff of smoke.”
Not so fast. Let’s consider vouchers. Partly, vouchers are just giving people some of their own tax dollars back. Largely, though, they involve government forcing people to subsidize families with school-age children.
Those who fear that vouchers invite government controls are right to worry. Obviously government will decide what vouchers may be spent on and what they may not be spent on. And such decisions will invite the sorts of social clashes that Fagin hopes to avoid. Although tax-funded preschools don’t use vouchers, they do involve parents choosing their preschools, and we can see by the lawsuits brought by some religious preschools that tax funding inherently invites public fights.
Consider: Should government allow parents to spend vouchers at a School of Astrology that features classes on horoscopes and Zodiac signs? How about a School of Satanism? If that strikes you as absurd, consider that there is an after-school Satan club in Tennessee, and a group placed a Satanic display in the Illinois state capitol. What about a school promoting jihad? Or a white supremacist school? A group of Ohio homeschoolers shared “pro-Nazi” materials. What about a “regular” fundamentalist Christian school that discriminates against gay and transgender students and staff? Such schools already exist in Colorado.
Perhaps vouchers, because directed by parents, would result in fewer cultural battles than today’s public schools. I think the sort of delimited tax credit that I describe above would increase choice in education without bringing intense cultural fights.
So I sympathize with Fagin’s position. I also worry that he and various other school-choice advocates do not sufficiently attend to inherent problems of forcing people to pay for the education of other people’s children. The choices of the people footing the bills matter, too. Whether the tax funding to schools comes directly via public schools or indirectly via vouchers, cultural clashes are inevitable.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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