Reforming Education With School Choice

Published May 1, 1998

“Education reform should begin with opening up opportunities for all families to send their children to the very best schools possible,” declared James Mansour, CEO America’s national chairman, at a March 10 Congressional briefing on school choice in Washington, DC. The event was jointly sponsored by CEO America and the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis.

Driven by a growing demand from parents for more control over their children’s education, a nationwide movement in favor of school choice has emerged over the past decade. Surveys now find the majority of parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford to do so, and an overwhelming majority of parents want significant changes in the public education system.

“The answer is to end the public school monopoly and let competition emerge,” said NCPA Policy Chairman Pete du Pont. If schools had to compete for students, the former Delaware governor said, they would seek out ways not only to keep academic standards high, but also to meet the special needs of students and parents.

Charter schools, tax credits, and school vouchers are just different ways of creating that competition and reforming the education system, noted NCPA Senior Fellow Linda Morrison, who presented her tax credit proposal at the briefing. “Just picking one isn’t the solution,” she added, and suggested combining a package of school choice options.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who is promoting a voucher program for schools in the nation’s capital, argued that opportunity scholarships are necessary because parents “deserve the ability to remove children from bad schools.”

CEO America’s privately funded voucher programs “are opening doors for children trapped in low performing and unsafe schools,” said Mansour. “We challenge the nation to join us in our effort,” he added.

Tuition Tax Credits for School Choice

Although critics of school choice have long argued that vouchers and tax credit proposals would take resources away from public schools, a new joint study of tuition tax credits shows this argument to be unfounded. In most cases, it finds, per-capita spending in the public schools would increase. Moreover, a school choice program funded through tuition tax credits removes constitutional questions about taxpayer funding of religious schools, since parents spend their own money rather than “government money.”

According to the study’s author, Linda Morrison, senior fellow of the National Center for Policy Analysis, the tax credit program would work as follows, using a $1,000 tax credit per child as an illustration:

  • A dollar-for-dollar tax credit of up to $1,000 per child would be made available for money spent on tuition expenses at nongovernment schools.
  • The tax credit would be available to businesses, individuals, and taxpayers who homeschool their children. It also could be applied against gifts to charitable foundations providing scholarships to students from low-income families.
  • The budget of the education district in which the child lives would be reduced by the amount of the credit.

In her study, “The Tax Credits Program for School Choice,” which is a joint effort of NCPA and CEO America, Morrison provides examples that illustrate the effects of such a tax credit in large and small school districts.

For example, if a $1,200 tax credit caused only 5 percent of the 78,648 students in government schools in Washington, DC, to transfer to nongovernment schools, the school district’s per-pupil spending would rise almost 2 percent. If 15 percent transferred out, per-pupil spending would rise by 12 percent.

“This is what we have been saying all along,” said Gary Glenn, president of School Choice YES!, a group preparing to put a school choice tax credit proposal on the ballot in Michigan.

Morrison’s study also suggests setting the value of the tax credit well below the per-pupil spending in government schools. Doing so would allow per-pupil spending in the government schools to increase each time a child transfers to a nongovernment school, and it would discourage nongovernment schools from raising their tuition and fees in response to the tax credit program.

“This study outlines a tax-neutral way to help many children get a good education and relieve overcrowded schools, while increasing per-pupil spending,” Morrison said.

How Would it Work in My School District?

Linda Morrison has offered to calculate the effects of the tax credit plan on an individual school district. To do this, she requires the following data for your local government school district: 1) the district’s total budget, broken down by source–local, state, and federal–if possible; 2) total number of students now attending the district’s government schools; and 3) total number of students within the district now attending non-government schools or being homeschooled.

Send the data in an email message to [email protected] (Linda Morrison)–tell her School Reform News sent you–and she will e-mail the results back to you.