Time For Education Tax Credits; Abandon Failed Programs

By Dennis Constant

For decades, taxpayers funding public schools with their property taxes have been taken for a ride — and not a particularly pleasant one. Student achievement has stubbornly refused to improve significantly despite the billions of dollars being poured into government school systems.

Between 1960 and 2005, per-pupil spending in the United States quadrupled, adjusting for inflation, but student performance on reading and math tests did not improve.

However, one thing that has improved is public school teacher salaries. Teacher pay remains tightly bound to seniority and advanced degrees and not to student achievement. As reported recently in the Chicago Sun-Times, only seven of the top 25 Illinois elementary school districts for highest-paid teachers also made the top 25 in student achievement scores. This is a clear indication that something is broken in the public school system.

Policy planners once had high hopes for school vouchers: low-income parents could use vouchers to move their children out of failing neighborhood public schools into better, private schools. Researchers studying results of the past 20 years have found, to their dismay, that the voucher students’ achievement gains were no higher than those in public schools.

Another optimistic idea involved charter schools: public schools that were freed from many of the usual restrictions related to such things as hiring practices and curriculum rules. As in the case of vouchers, charter schools have proven to be a disappointment.

Voucher programs and charter schools share one important characteristic: they are funded by taxes paid by other people. That is, parents using these programs have no personal financial stake in their children’s academic success. This is not the case of private schools, where parents pay tuition from their own pockets — tuition that is in addition to property tax payments to public school systems their children do not use.

The most promising — and fair — program involves tuition tax credits. These credits reward parents for contributing their own money toward educating their children, giving them a personal stake in their children’s achievement. This is the reason private schools do a far better job of educating students at a fraction of the cost of public schools: the private schools and the parents form a partnership intent on seeing children succeed.

As Lawrence W. Reed pointed out in A New Direction for Education Reform, tuition tax credits “…don’t represent a claim by anyone on someone else’s wallet. You don’t get the credit if you don’t pay tuition or if you don’t pay taxes. A credit on your taxes represents your own money, period.”

The anemic tuition tax credit in Illinois should be increased, from $500 to $2,500, with a five year carry-forward. This would finally give parents a stake in their children’s academic future. It’s time to implement a system that’s fair…and that works.

Dennis Constant is Research Director of the Illinois Taxpayer Education Foundation.

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