This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2002 American Experiment Quarterly, a publication of the Minneapolis–based Center of the American Experiment. Mr. Reed and other authors were asked to address last Junes U. S. Supreme Court decision upholding vouchers.
In upholding the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program, the Supreme Court affirmed that it hardly constitutes a government establishment of religion if religious schools are among the choices parents can freely make. By implication, government schools do not have an automatic claim on a child's education superior to the choice of his parents.
The constitutionality of a particular, and very successful, voucher program clears away a major roadblock to freedom and quality in education. It will rekindle the debate about breaking up the government monopoly in schooling. But it thankfully leaves to the states the matter of how to move forward with programs that enhance choice and competition. Vouchers are one way to do that. But so are tax credits, whose constitutionality has also been affirmed by court rulings. In the months and years to come, some states may adopt vouchers. Others may adopt tax credits. Yet others, like Florida, may embrace both. Let the debate – and real progress toward liberating parents and children from a poorly performing government assignment system – begin!
My central point is not to criticize vouchers, but to advance the tax credit option as a viable alternative, especially in states where vouchers have been unfairly stigmatized and decisively defeated. Opponents of choice-based reforms like teacher unions – what I call the "send the cash, keep the change" crowd-are clearly on the defensive now.
The kind of credit the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has advocated since 1996 is "universal" – which not just parents paying tuition but also other parties can secure for contributions to scholarship funds. Any taxpayer – individual or corporate, parent or grandparent, neighbor or friend – could contribute to the education of any elementary – or secondary – school child and then qualify for a dollar-for-dollar credit against certain state and/or local taxes. The maximum credit could be equal to half what the government spends per pupil in the public schools, which is more than enough to cover educational expenses at 90 percent or more of private schools. A credit limit of half what the government spends would generate a savings for taxpayers every time a child migrates from the public to the private system – savings that could be returned to taxpayers or used to augment resources in public schools.
Would tax credits be sufficient to encourage businesses to contribute to education scholarship funds? Absolutely. After explaining the concept, I've asked CEOs all over Michigan this question: "Suppose you had a choice. You could send a million dollars in taxes to Lansing for the politicians to spend. Or you could send that million to one or more scholarship funds to help children, who might be your future employees, get a good education. Which would you do?" I've never met one who preferred option number one.
Any school choice plan should start with the recognition that private schools are not the problem we face today. They are an important part of the solution. We must not bargain away their independence or expanded choice will mean little. We must not burden them with new government mandates cloaked in the guise of "accountability." Private schools are already accountable – they have customers who can take a walk, not captives who have no real options.
Tax credits can get the job done while minimizing the danger of intrusive government, though private schools will always have to be vigilant under any system. They will galvanize and strengthen civil society by giving individuals and companies new incentives to assist the educational dreams of their fellow citizens. They will bolster the incentives of existing public schools to improve. And perhaps most importantly, they will put choice and responsibility back in the hands of parents, from whom such things should never have been taken in the first place.
The Supreme Court's momentous decision is an open door for improving schools through the power of choice and competition. Even more than it is now, it will be seen in time as a pivotal ruling in the restoration of American education. States now have a solid green light to move ahead, and more than one option for reform. For the sake of the children, let's not lose another minute.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.