The Bush budget proposal has been unveiled and, buried within its pages,
there is something new - an "education tax credit." It is an intriguing
proposal. And, a good start.
But only a start.
The proposal goes like this: Students in failing public schools would be
eligible to receive a refundable $2,500 tax credit that could be used for
"qualified" education expenses. Such costs include, among other things,
tuition and fees associated with transfer to a private or religious school.
This latest incarnation of the "school choice" concept follows on the heels
of a similar effort during consideration of the President's centerpiece
education legislation, the "No Child Left Behind Act." The original
proposal, which had encountered strong congressional opposition and quickly
pulled from the bill, would have given children attending failing or violent
public schools the opportunity to opt for private school, religious or
otherwise. In the end, the President and Congress had a meeting of the
minds. Children in persistently failing public schools will be allowed to
use federal funds for "supplemental" educational services offered by
for-profit and nonprofit providers, including faith based institutions and
Now, the "education tax credit" is on the table.
Like supplemental services, the tax proposal is a worthwhile beginning. Any
step, however modest, in the direction of greater parental involvement and
control in their children's education - is a step in the right direction,
and represents good public policy. Indeed, studies have shown that
educational excellence and achievement are directly linked to the active
participation of parents in their children's schooling. And there can be no
greater participation than empowering parents with greater options.
But there is something sadly deficient with the proposed tax credit - in
fact, there is an unfortunate pattern in all these initiatives - one that is
deeply disheartening to traditional "school choice" proponents. It is that
their benefits are limited to students in the public school system.
Families, like ours, whose preference from the outset is to provide their
children with private or religious education have been abandoned in these
The problem is not merely one of "equity" or "inclusion." It is not simply
that school choice works best when the broadest options are made available
to the broadest range of parents - including those who choose private school
for their children.
It raises a concern of a different sort - striking at the very heart of the
"school choice" concept itself.
"School choice," to be sure, is about upgrading the quality of public
education, or at least improving educational opportunity for children
already attending troubled public schools - and there is every reason to
think that it will.
But it is more.
It is also about helping all parents provide their children with the most
appropriate, effective and productive form of education. It is about
providing some relief to parents who struggle mightily, and who sacrifice so
much, to offer their children the best education possible and the best
opportunities for their future - whether found in public, private or
religious schools. It is about assisting all parents to fulfill their
parental responsibilities and do right by their children.
That essential element of "school choice," that essential element of
meaningful school reform, is unfortunately absent from President Bush's tax
Reading the political tea leaves on both sides of the issue, the White House
has indicated that the tax credit is still a "work in progress." Good. It
There is often a temptation to count congressional heads and go with any
bill that Congress will pass. But the Administration should recognize what
might result if, in the name of pragmatism or bipartisanship, it tries to
seek consensus on a bill that reduces the initiative to the lowest (read:
weakest) common denominator.
The risks are obvious. We are already witnessing the emergence of a "public
school only" pattern. Will it become the standard starting point for
"school choice" legislation? The accepted norm? The worthy ideal? Ultimate
success? The more Administration proponents compromise and accept the
notion, the more legislatively entrenched it will become.
The White House and Congress must work to find ways to broaden - through the
tax code or by other means - educational assistance to all American
families. To enshrine a limited "school choice" vision is to shortchange
the concept and abandon many millions of parents - indeed, school choice's
innovators - who have for years, and at great personal sacrifice, breathed
life into the idea.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Abba Cohen is director and counsel of Agudath Israel of America's
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