The Tax Credits Program for School Choice

Policy Reports | Education

No. 213
Sunday, March 01, 1998
by Linda Morrison

Growing Sentiment for School Choice

In the last 10 years, a nationwide movement has emerged in favor of school choice -- the use of market forces to give parents greater control over their children's education, to improve learning and to control government school costs.1 The impetus behind that movement is the growing dissatisfaction with government schools, which now control 92 percent of all money spent on elementary and secondary education. A majority of parents are unhappy with those schools.

  • In a 1995 survey, almost six of every 10 parents with children in government schools said they would send them to private schools if they could afford to do so.2
  • An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in 1997 found that 94 percent of Americans want significant change in the public education system - and 69 percent want parents to have more control over their children's education.3

"A majority of parents are unhappy with government schools."

Parents, taxpayers, business groups, elected officials and civic leaders increasingly object to skyrocketing costs, poor quality, high drop-out and truancy rates, incorrigible bureaucracy, resistance to reform, crumbling buildings, worsening violence, lack of standards and accountability and the absence of instruction in morality.

The public policy proposals most often put forward in response are:

  • Tuition vouchers -- government gives low-income parents tax-funded vouchers to help pay tuition at nongovernment schools.
  • Charter schools -- government fully funds a limited number of existing or new schools that are exempt from most regulations and free to design their own curricula.
  • Public school choice -- parents are allowed to choose their children's schools from existing government schools, either in or outside of their district.
  • Contracting out -- school districts contract with private companies for teaching, management or support services now provided by district employees.

All four approaches would enhance school choice. But all present operational, political and legal difficulties that are discussed below.4 This paper describes a fifth proposal, the Tax Credits Program for School Choice: tax credits for individuals and companies who help to pay children's nongovernment school tuition, thus relieving government schools of the task of educating a child.5

This program is not designed to solve all education problems for everyone everywhere. However, it could be part of the solution, possibly in addition to other kinds of school choice plans. It could provide the means for a significant number of elementary and secondary school students to leave government schools, giving critical relief to overburdened school districts, to parents who want a different kind of education for their children and to taxpayers straining under the high cost of government education.

Of equal importance, the program speaks to concerns about possible unwanted government intervention in the operation of private schools and about the constitutionality of using government funds for religious schools. With tax credits, the money never becomes "government money"; instead taxpayers are able to keep their own money to use toward education.

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