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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What's a “Neovoucher?”

That's what Kevin G. Welner, the director of the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado, calls tax credits to individuals or businesses for donations they make to organizations that provide students with financial aid to attend private schools. And he doesn't like them.

The idea of tuition tax credits is that a state offers individuals and, in some cases, businesses, a credit for donating money to nonprofit, privately run voucher programs. Currently, six states have such policies in place: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

“Although much less well known and understood than conventional vouchers, neovouchers actually dwarf conventional vouchers in terms of their scope,” said Mr. Welner, whose new book on the issue is titled NeoVouchers: The Emergence of Tuition Tax Credits for Private Schooling.

According to Mr. Welner, some 100,000 students are receiving neovouchers while almost twice as many as receive conventional vouchers. The debate on neovouchers breaks down on the same lines and for the same reasons as the debate on conventional vouchers. Conservatives favor neovouchers because they allow parents to send their children to private schools who might not otherwise afford the tuition. Liberals believe that neovouchers will undermine public schools.

On average, public education costs about $8,000 per child per year. Property taxes constitute the main source of funding supplemented by state lotteries, casino, timber receipts and other miscellaneous revenue streams. There was a recent report that the median value of a home has fallen to about $220,000 implying median annual property taxes of about $2250. There are 73.4 million homeowners and 50.5 million public and charter school students in the U.S. The shortfall is obvious.

Private schools charge from around $25,000 for boarding schools and other upper crust schools down to around $3,000 for the far more numerous neighborhood or church-run private schools. Private school students are no more or less successful than public school students. As long as the public, including public school teachers, believes private schools are better, data hardly matters.

One reason private schools may cost less is that private schools are not required to provide all the programs public schools must provide by law. They might not be feeding students breakfast, or have on on campus health care center, or serve the most profound special education students. Private schools may lack facilities or programs. But public schools sometimes feel compelled to cut programs to make ends meet. Public schools often sacrifice music and/or art.

Arizona has had a neovoucher program for more than a decade.
An individual may claim a credit for making contributions or paying fees to a public school for support of extra curricular activities or character education programs. An individual may also claim a credit for making a donation to a qualified school tuition organization for scholarships to private schools.

One of the express goals of the neovoucher program is to attract underserved populations, but most of the scholarships go to students already attending public schools.

Are vouchers accomplishing their goals? Do vouchers give especially low income parents the ability to escape “bad” public schools? Do vouchers eliminate double taxation, that is, paying once through taxes and paying again for tuition? There is little in the way of rigorous evaluation. What is clear is that parents paradoxically believe that American education is failing to educate America's children, but their own children go to good schools.

The education of children is primarily the parents' responsibility. While I acknowledge the state's interest in an educated citizenry, parents are even more invested in the welfare of their children. Parents understand that their child has only one childhood to invest in education. I have heard some people say that all parents must be required support public education by sending their children to their local public school. Parents cannot afford to sacrifice their child's childhood to ideology. President-Elect Barack Obama said that in order to out-compete the world, we must out-educate our children. When public schools demonstrate a uniform ability to out-educate and out-compete the alternatives, vouchers and neovouchers will wither away.

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