Tax Credits Debated at School Choice Forum

Published December 1, 2001

Prominent Virginians debated how much the Old Dominion State should learn from school-choice pioneers like Arizona, and from its own legacy in the civil rights revolution, during a September 20 forum at the General Assembly Building in Richmond.

Sponsored by the Lexington Institute, an Arlington-based think tank, the forum featured the state’s No. 1 political proponent of school choice, Republican Delegate Jay Katzen, who was in the middle of a campaign for Lieutenant Governor. It also featured one of the state’s most vocal opponents of vouchers, tuition tax credits, and charter schools, Democratic State Senator Henry L. Marsh III of Richmond.

Potential Savings

Katzen said his proposed dollar-for-dollar $500 credit for individuals and corporations donating money to scholarship assistance programs would enhance “fairness and empowerment” without draining money from the public school system.

Citing the recent success of a similar program in Arizona, Katzen speculated the Virginia credit could result in 20,440 children leaving the state’s public schools system–which enrolls 1.2 million. That would mean a savings of $147 million in tax expenditures and a revenue loss of $63 million. Thus, the state would realize a net savings of $84 million . . . and more than 20,000 needy children would receive help to attend better-performing schools of their parents’ choice.

Katzen’s comments came just a week after the Cato Institute released a study showing that between 1998 and 2000, the new Arizona tax credit generated donations totaling $32 million, which funded 19,000 scholarships offered by more than 30 scholarship organizations.

The record suggests Arizona’s credit “will be a net winner for Arizona taxpayers; it will extend school choice to thousands of families and save taxpayers millions of dollars,” wrote the authors of the study, Carrie Lips and Jennifer Jacoby.

Parental Involvement

Senator Marsh, a leading civil rights lawyer going back to the days of Virginia’s “massive resistance” to court-ordered school segregation, begged to differ after Katzen and several other speakers cited the Arizona model.

“I am rather surprised,” said Marsh, who became Richmond’s first black elected mayor in 1977, “that people here today are saying we should look to places like Arizona and Milwaukee for leadership. I think we have or can find the answers right here in Virginia.”

Marsh suggested parental involvement is the key to a child’s success and commended programs such as those seeking to make low-income parents computer-literate, which may help parents be more engaged with their children’s schoolwork.

Recalling how Virginia attempted to use tuition grants as a ploy to slow down school integration in the 1960s, Marsh said many Virginians believe tax credits, charters, or vouchers will be “like the camel’s nose under the tent, and once in the tent the camel will rise and the whole tent will fall.”

Audience Response

Marsh failed to persuade at least one young African-American in his audience, University of Virginia graduate student Gerard Touissant Robinson.

Robinson described how he has helped organize the nation’s first residential boarding charter school in New Jersey and is currently playing a key role in starting Virginia’s third charter school. That charter school, specializing in math, science, and technology, will be run out of Hampton University, an historically black institution. Both schools, Robinson noted, were the products of bipartisan support.

“When there is an honest and open dialogue about race and reality,” Robinson said, speaking from experience, “people are more willing to say ‘I support school choice,” or ‘No I don’t but I will give reasons why'” rather than relying on stale rhetoric.

An African-American leader in North Carolina’s school choice movement–Vernon Robinson, a Winston-Salem alderman and founder of the North Carolina Educational Reform Fund–recalled that white liberals in the state legislature predicted the KKK and other fringe groups would be opening charter schools if the state passed enabling legislation. Instead, he pointed out, one-half of the students in North Carolina’s 92 charter schools are black and one-third of charter schools have been opened in black communities.

“One thing the white liberals didn’t understand,” said North Carolina’s Robinson, “was that a vote for charter schools was not a vote for white flight but a vehicle for black empowerment. The segregationists got out 40 years ago. Today it is the working class, low-income black families who want out.”

Robinson said charter schools are the “only fully accountable public schools in North Carolina,” in that parents can leave if they aren’t satisfied and public authorities can close them if they don’t deliver on their promises.

Contrasting North Carolina’s 92 charter schools with Virginia’s two, Robinson said if Virginia is to realize the benefit of charter schools, it will need to change its law, which allows local school boards to reject charter school applications or even refuse to entertain them.

“That’s like going across the street and asking Sun Trust Bank, ‘May I open a bank?'” said Robinson.

Increased Cooperation

Virginia’s former State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Bill Bosher, who currently heads an education policy institute at Virginia Commonwealth University, called for increased cooperation among public, private, and home schools. But he strongly opposed vouchers or tax credits as a way to facilitate choice.

“If I never wanted to use a public library, would you give me a voucher for my AOL subscription?” Bosher asked rhetorically. “If I chose never to use a public park or recreational facility, would you pay my family fitness club membership?”

Lil Tuttle, who worked with Bosher in developing Virginia’s nationally acclaimed Standards of Learning when she was an appointee of Gov. George Allen on the State Board of Education, strongly disagreed with that reasoning.

A founding board member of Children First Virginia, which raises money for private scholarships for needy children in Central Virginia, Tuttle said education has become a “two-tiered, elitist, inequitable system” that gives the “haves” an array of choices but the have-nots “no options–they must accept the seat they are assigned.”

“Two years ago,” Tuttle recalled, “an African-American pastor drew a convincing parallel to lessons of the last century. He pointed out that 40 years ago, children were locked out of public schools because of race. Today, some are locked into public schools because of economic circumstances. Those standing in the way were wrong then, and they are wrong today.”

As far as the argument that public funds should never be used to purchase private services, Tuttle, now education director for the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, asked, “Why ever not?” She pointed out that millions of public dollars pay for private college choice through the GI Bill, Pell Grants, and the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant Program.

Public funds also support parental choice of private preschools, Tuttle noted, and “no one complains about that.” Only the K-12 public school monopoly freezes out private educational choice.

Victoria Cobb, director of government relations for the Family Foundation, pointed out that in inner-city Richmond schools near where the forum was being held, more than two-thirds of third-graders have not been taught to read. These are “the exact children most in need of help” from school choice programs, she said.

Robert Holland, who also spoke at the forum, is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].