This morning’s News & Observer editorial page a pours cold water on incoming House majority leader, Paul Stam’s longstanding proposal to give tuition tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools.
Sensing the majority leader may resurrect a similar proposal when the General Assembly reconvenes later this month, editors launched a preemptive strike. They said the program raises constitutional questions and in the long run would have a“corrosive effect” on a public school system that “isn’t broken”.
The editors have conveniently ignored that the Supreme Court has upheld the legality of similar programs. In 1983, the US Supreme Court (Mueller v. Allen), upheld a Minnesota program that provide educational tax deductions to parents, even though private and religious schools received the most benefit. According to the Court, the program did not violate the Establishment Clause.
More recently in 2002 the Supreme Court (Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris) upheld an Ohio program that provided vouchers for poor children to attend private schools, including religiously-affiliated schools.
The editors criticize Stam’s proposal as merely a fix for something that isn’t broken. Yet at the same time they worry that enacting the policy would “undermine public education, draining students and resources over the long run. If the schools aren’t broken, why would there be an exodus?
The fact is the exodus has already started. In the early 1990s Wake County Public schools educated over 90 percent of school-age children. Today the percentage of school-age children educated by the Wake County public schools is about 83 percent. Last August, the Office of Non-Public Schools reported there were 81,500 students enrolled in home schools. In 1988-89 that number was about 2,300. Such trends reflect the public's dissatisfaction with many public schools.
Editors admit that since the cost of education at most private schools is less than traditional public schools, tuition tax credits can provide substantial savings to the state. However, according to the editors, tax credits would also have a “corrosive effect” on our schools.
How so? Today North Carolina spends over $8 billion on K-12 public education yet, only 70 percent of students graduate four years after entering high school, student achievement scores have stagnated and a massive achievement gap persists among the races.
If a student wants to go to enroll in another school it is because they have reasons to do so and better educational opportunities. Such factors or conditions exist prior to tax credits. It's not tax credits that cause individuals to leave. Tax credits merely provide a means for students and parents to pursue a wider array of educational opportunities; a means to vote with their feet. In the long run, such competition makes all schools – public and private – better schools by forcing them to address difficult issues and be senstitive to student needs.
There are many fine public schools in North Carolina. However, not all of them serve the best needs of students. Few schools can. Tax credits merely put an end to geography being the major factor in determining the quality of educational opportunity available for many young people. Tax credits give parents and students the freedom to pursue quality education. And, shouldn’t that be the main goal we have for our children?