Parents receiving tuition tax credits to offset the cost of sending their children to nonpublic schools are taking government money away from the public school system, according to Alex Molnar, spokesman for the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education.
Molnar and Gary Glenn, president of School Choice YES!, debated parental school choice's effect on public schools and education before the 1999 Michigan PTA Legislative Conference in Lansing on February 24. School Choice YES! is promoting a November 2000 ballot initiative that would alter a 1970 amendment to the Michigan constitution to allowa K-12 tuition tax credit for families who desire more educational options.
Molnar opposed the tuition tax credit and drew an analogy between it and the federal tax deduction for home mortgages, saying both required the use of government money. "Those of you who have mortgages, when you get your federal tax deduction, you are using federal tax dollars," he said. Allowing tax credits for tuition similarly diverts public money from government-operated schools to private and religious institutions, he said.
Molnar claimed that school choice proponents deliberately word their arguments to make them sound more palatable. "Who could be against 'choice' except some kind of hold-over Stalinist from the Cold War?" he quipped.
Glenn said that the proposed tax credit simply allows individuals or businesses who wish to invest in Michigan children's K-12 education to keep more of their own private dollars for that purpose.
"If Dr. Molnar is correct, then any PTA official who claims the mortgage deduction is diverting for their own personal use tax dollars that could otherwise be spent for the federal school lunch program," Glenn said. "How can they in good conscience make their own house payments by taking food from the mouths of low-income children?"
The PTA also opposes Glenn's proposal, which is based on the Universal Tuition Tax Credit plan developed by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
"We're in total opposition to the tuition tax credit," says Georgene Campbell, president of the Michigan PTA. She agrees with Molnar that tax credits will take money away from public education and give it to private schools.
Campbell also serves as president of the Council About Parochiaid, an interest group composed of public school employees, labor unions, and other associations that is leading the attack on tuition tax credits. She emphasizes, however, that "the Michigan PTA has its own policies and its own positions" apart from the council.
But Charlene Haar of the Education Policy Institute is skeptical. Haar explains in a recent series on teacher unions and parental involvement that "the PTA . . . often serves as the front organization for the coalitions of public school organizations," particularly education employee labor unions.
Glenn also questions how well the PTA represents its members.
"PTA officials' opposition to greater parental choice is radically out of step with the 73 percent of public school parents who . . . support adopting a K-12 tuition tax credit," he says. "Obviously, an overwhelming majority of parents disagree with the extreme minority of parents and teachers' union members represented by PTA officials on this issue."
For Glenn, the crux of the debate is summed up best by a question raised in the Michigan PTA Report on the Universal Tuition Tax Credit, which asks, "Who better than PTA to understand what is in the best interest of children?"
"That's easy," says Glenn. "Each individual child's parents. When it comes to understanding and choosing what's best for children, we should trust their parents."
A video tape of the PTA debate maybe obtained for $30 from Michigan Government TV,(517) 373-4250.