Friday, March 17, 2006

Government ala carte: Giving Credit Where Credit is Not Due

Two proposals are now before the New York Legislature to provide $400 million to $1,200 million to private and religious schools in the state. One tax credit plan proposed by the Governor and another by legislators would allow parents to offset the cost of sending their children to private schools against their state taxes. While titled a “tax credit,” each plan is a variation on what have historically been promoted as school “voucher” plans.

One argument used by supporters of school voucher plans is “I should be able to decide where my money goes because I pay taxes for my child to go to school.” This argument at first may seem reasonable, but it is not, for two reasons. First, taxpayers do not get to determine where any other portion of their tax dollars go. Second, parents do not pay taxes for the education of their own children.

The argument “I should be able to decide what school gets my tax money because I pay taxes for my child’s education” is shown to fail by putting the logic in a different context. By replacing the italicized words in the previous sentence, one could argue for replacing a whole host of government services with private options at the will of individual citizens--government ala carte. I pay taxes for road repair. If I do not like how the town maintains the street by my house, I might ask for a voucher to hire private pavers. I pay taxes for police. If I decide to hire private security I would be able to ask for a tax credit. I pay taxes for welfare. If I see poor people in my community my local church might appreciate help for their food bank by me demanding that the government send them money.

A principle function of government is the social agreement to provide certain basic services to all citizens. It cannot function if individuals can opt out of such services and extract the cost from the taxes they would otherwise pay. If one hires a private concern to provide a service that the government already provides, s/he must pay the total cost of that service.

The other fallacy of the vouchers/tax credits argument is that parents pay taxes for the education of their own children. They do not. Property owners pay school taxes because the democratic society in which we live needs effective schools for its continued existence. People who have no children still pay school taxes. Parents with two children do not pay more taxes than parents with one child. Families with one, two, three or ten children all pay the same taxes—if—each of those families lives in a home of equal value in the same school district. School taxes are based on one’s status as a property owner, not as a parent.

Most voucher advocates propose some system giving the appearance that money shunted to private schools through vouchers will not be taken from the public schools. Even if that is the case, using government money to fund private schools takes money away from some government function which either means that another government service is reduced to make up the difference or the government will increase taxes on everyone including those who do not use private schools. In New York, the Legislature is currently under a court order to provide billions in funding to public schools to improve school equity. Every dollar that goes to fund tax credits to parents of private school children is, at the very least, a dollar that will not go to the poorest public schools in New York. The Legislature and the Governor have resisted the court order, in part claiming that they don’t have the money. They will have less if either of the proposed tax credit programs is enacted.

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