Worth revisiting: The flaw in tax credit argument

Yesterday I got this kind note from a schoolteacher:

Mr. Warthen,

For years I have quoted an article you wrote for the state newspaper entitled, “Put Parents in Charge isn’t a ‘voucher bill’ it’s something much worse” to my public speaking classes as they begin persuasive arguments and to my friends and family who insist that school choice is fair and responsible.  I continually return to your argument that asks, are we a citizen or a consumer?

I searched The State archives today to find a way to link to your article on my FaceBook page.  In my ever so humble peon public school teacher opinion, I have never encountered a better argument against vouchers.  Public schools are the least discriminatory institution in America—we serve everyone—whether a parent has the money to choose or not, and we are part of the infrastructure of our country.

I hope that you understand…, [but]… I have photocopied your article since its publication in March of 2005.  What is a public school teacher in Lexington County to do??  I have used it to make my students see one side of this issue that they may never have been able to see otherwise.  With the election of Mick Zais, I am truly frightened that this issue is on the table again and more a reality than ever before.  The article, as well as your very logical argument, needs to be resurrected and published again.

She’s got a point. Maybe this would be a good time to revisit some of the basic flaws in the arguments for tax credits (and, for that matter, vouchers). Not because Mick Zais was elected, but because Nikki Haley was. (Think about it: when was the last time you saw a state superintendent lead a significant political fight? The job is ministerial, not political, which is why it should not be elected.) Here’s the column she was looking for. It was published in The State on March 4, 2005:

Put Parents in Charge isn’t a ‘voucher bill’ — it’s something much worse

Editorial Page Editor

SOUTH CAROLINIANS for Responsible Government, the group advocating Gov. Mark Sanford’s tuition tax credit proposal, criticizes its opponents for repeatedly calling “Put Parents in Charge” a “voucher” proposal.

On this score, the group is absolutely right, and Mr. Sanford’s critics are dead wrong.

This is not a voucher bill. It’s nothing like a voucher bill. It’s something much worse.

It’s worse because of the hole it will blow in state revenues, to be sure. To pass what is essentially a tarted-up tax cut bill without considering its effect on all state services (not just education), would be inexcusable.

But the main way in which a tuition tax credit is worse than a voucher is that it promotes the insidiously false notion that taxes paid for public schools are some sort of user fee.

Whether you agree with me here depends upon your concept of your place in society: Do you see yourself as a consumer, or as a citizen?

If you look upon public schools narrowly as a consumer, and you send your kids to private schools or home-school them, then you might think, “Hey, why should I be paying money to this provider, when I’m buying the service from someone else?” If that’s your view, a tuition tax credit makes perfect sense to you. Why shouldn’t you get a refund?

But if you look at it as a citizen, it makes no sense at all. Public schools have never been about selling a commodity; they have always been about the greatest benefits and highest demands of citizenship.

A citizen understands that parents and their children are not the only “consumers” of public school services — not by a long shot. That individual children and families benefit from education is only one important part of the whole picture of what public schools do for society. The rest of us voters and taxpayers have a huge stake, too.

Public schools exist for the entire community — for people with kids in public schools and private schools, people whose kids are grown, people who’ve never had kids and those who never will. (Note that, by the logic of the tax credit advocates, those last three groups should get tax breaks, too. In fact, if only the one-third or so of households who have children in public schools at a given time paid taxes to support them, we wouldn’t be able to keep the schools open.)

Public schools exist to provide businesses with trained workers, and to attract industries that just won’t locate in a place without good public schools. They exist to give our property value. If you doubt the correlation between good public schools and property values, just ask a Realtor.

They exist to create an informed electorate — a critical ingredient to a successful representative democracy. (In fact, if I were inclined to argue that public schools have failed, I would point out just how many people we have walking around without a clear understanding of their responsibilities as citizens. But I don’t expect public education critics to use that one.)

Public schools exist to make sure we live in a decent society full of people able to live productive lives, instead of roaming the streets with no legitimate means of support. In terms of cost-effectiveness on this score, spending roughly $4,400 per pupil for public schools (the state’s actual share, not the inflated figure the bill’s advocates use, which includes local and federal funds) is quite a bargain set against the $13,000 it costs to keep one young person in prison. And South Carolina has the cheapest prisons in the nation.

Consider the taxes we pay to provide fire protection. It doesn’t matter if we never call the fire department personally. We still benefit (say, by having lower insurance rates) because the fire department exists. More importantly, our neighbors who do have an immediate need for the fire department — as many do each day — depend upon its being there, and being fully funded.

All of us have the obligation to pay the taxes that support public schools, just as we do for roads and law enforcement and the other more essential services that government provides. And remember, those of you who think of “government” as some wicked entity that has nothing to do with you: Government provides only those things that we, acting through our elected representatives, decide it should provide. You might disagree with some of those decisions, but you know, you’re not always going to be in the majority in a democracy.

If, as a consumer, you wish to pay for an alternative form of education for your child, you are free to do that. But that decision does not relieve you of the responsibility as a citizen to support the basic infrastructure of the society in which you live.

Radical libertarians — people who see themselves primarily as consumers, who want to know exactly what they are personally, directly receiving for each dollar that leaves their hands — don’t understand the role of government in society because they simply don’t understand how human beings are interconnected. I’m not just saying that we should be interconnected; I’m saying that we are, whether we like it or not. And if we want society to work so that we have a decent place in which to dwell, we have to adopt policies that recognize that stark fact.

That’s why we have public schools. And that’s why we all are obliged to support them.

31 thoughts on “Worth revisiting: The flaw in tax credit argument

  1. Doug Ross

    Your argument leaves out the entire aspects of performance and value. Sure, we citizens want public education. But if the results are poor (at the bottom in dropout rates) and there is excessive wasteful spending seen of those tax dollars, why should the citizens just accept that?

    If the fire department allowed 40% of the houses to burn down, would we not try to find alternatives?

    If the police only caught 40% of the murderers, would we not want to find new police chiefs and policemen?

    The only solution offered by the anti-voucher/tax credit crowd is “spend more on the same system that is failing”. They won’t even consider trying some type of voucher program for the worst schools.

    Public education is a monopoly that is scared to death of competition and true accountability which would mean actually firing teachers who don’t do their jobs.

  2. Greg Jones

    While we will undoubtedly beat the voucher thing to death for a few years, it doesn’t take a lot to see the good sense in NEED-BASED vouchers. This might be the only answer we have for disadvantaged students in our worse districts to stand a chance of getting a decent education. Allendale County is a prime example. The state Dept of Education gave up on them…don’t those kids deserve a chance? And there is a private school with adavnced certification that serves that county’s residents now.
    I know, the better answer is for the new State Supt. to fix it, but it’s unlikley without the legislature WANTING TO fix it.

  3. Herb Brasher

    It was a good word back then, and it still is. In fact, it’s a good argument for corporate responsibility and the role of government in general.

  4. Brad

    Doug, my argument leaves out nothing. If the fire department is broken, it’s a citizen’s duty to fix it — or, this being a representative democracy, to elect people to fix it.

    It would NOT be good citizenship to abandon the fire department, or to advocate paying other citizens to abandon it.

    These are our schools. They are not someone else’s; they are ours. We are responsible for them. We do not morally or ethically have the option of washing our hands of them — and that’s what the advocates of vouchers and tax credits advocate.

  5. SusanG

    @Doug —

    “If the police only caught 40% of the murderers, would we not want to find new police chiefs and policemen?”

    That’s right — we’d fix the police department. We wouldn’t just leave the police department to rot, slowly starve it, and all hire our own bodyguards.

  6. Mark Stewart


    If the fire department let houses burn down, most people’s response would be to build more and better fire houses – not dismantle the service.

    Come on.

  7. Kathryn Braun Fenner (Mrs. Stephen A.)

    @ SusanG

    Well, I like your analogy up to a point, but the voucher people are saying that you would get some money towards hiring your own bodyguard—not enough to get a top quality one, and maybe there aren’t any bodyguards for hire in your area, but you would get a voucher for one, so it’s all fair.

  8. bud

    Wasn’t there a recent incident where the fire department of a small, Tennessee town allowed a man’s house to burn down (while they watched) because he didn’t pay the $75 fee? Seems like that is what Doug is proposing for the school system. Simply allow the kids whose family can’t pay, even with a voucher, to forego any kind of education. This whole business of vouchers can only benefit those of middle class status or better. The poorest kids would be left even further behind.

  9. Abba

    I agree wholeheartedly with your piece, Brad. Public education is necessary for an ordered society. A good school system benefits you and me and everyone, whether or not we ever set foot in the school building. A good fire department, by responding to a fire at one house, keeps fires from spreading through an entire neighborhood and thus benefits the whole community. A good school system ensures an informed citizenry, capable of discharging their civic responsibilities and thus benefiting the whole community.

    Additionally, the argument that vouchers or tuition tax credits will help poor kids in bad schools escape to a better situation is a fantasy. Private schools are not available to serve every child in a bad school, particularly in sparsely populated areas, and private schools do not want and are not equipped to serve all children. Private schools do not provide transportation, which poor kids typically need in order to even get to school, particularly in sparsely populated areas. Poor parents cannot afford to pay the additional cost of private school tuition that exceeds the amount of a voucher, or pay private school tuition for a year before getting a tuition tax credit on their following year’s income taxes. They cannot solve the problem for poor kids in bad schools.

    The argument that a voucher or tuition tax credit simply “allows the money to follow the child” to a private school and does not hurt the public school from which a child transfers is also disingenuous. If a child transfers from a public school to a private school and the state money allotted to the public school for that child is transferred to the private school, the public school still has to pay for the teacher, the classroom, the library, and all the other operating and capital expenses in the school the child left, but without the state funding it used to have. There are no cost savings for the public school in that scheme. For “private school choice” advocates to argue otherwise ignores reality.

  10. Brad

    Andrew: No way. Go ahead and use FedEx and UPS if you prefer them.

    But don’t turn to me and the rest of your fellow citizens and ask us to reimburse you with a tax credit for the cost of YOU choosing to use those private services.

  11. Andrew

    Yet we get a lot of tax credits – in this state, and in others and on the Federal level.

    Are tax credits in of themselves bad, or just ones devoted to public education?

    Why are some tax credits good and others bad?

  12. Andrew

    For example, the state of Iowa gives tax credits to FedEx.

    In SC, you get tax credits if you go to a private college, use a hybrid vehicle, install and use solar energy, open a day care center, etc.

    Where do you draw the line on tax credits?

    Are you ok with Georgia & Florida style non profit org. tax credits given for students from poorer backgrounds?

  13. Brad

    Andrew, all tax credits are meant to reinforce a certain kind of behavior among taxpayers — buying a home, or something else that’s seen in the overall best interest of society. (It’s a soft way of impelling behavior. Instead of passing a law to MAKE people buy homes, which would be absurdly stepping beyond the legitimate bounds of what government should do, you give them an incentive to do so willingly. Which is why a lot of libertarians hate the IDEA behind tax credits– they’re offended by the notion of government trying, even indirectly, to affect individual behavior — even as they advocate them for school tuition.)

    The thing that’s wrong here is that it would reinforce a bad thing: Abandonment of public schools. Such a credit would provide a financial incentive to neglect our duty to FIX the public schools. It’s paying people to look away, rather than engage the challenge.

    And that’s why it’s a bad tax credit.

  14. Andrew

    Well, I’m not a libertarian, I’m a conservative. Don’t really care for libertarianism actually, especially its populist manifestation.

    I’m a conservative concerned with different areas of society working within and with each other’s spheres of influence.

    In this case, while public education is absolutely essential for a modern society, the goal for me is not fixing public education, but rather ensuring that families and students are served the best way possible.

    For example, I went to a SC public school, then to a SC private college. The people of the state decided that it was a good incentive to ensure that I remain in state for an education and gave (or my parents) a tax credit for staying in state.

    I think that’s fine. I don’t like vouchers, for a variety of reasons. Vouchers are not conservative.

  15. Brad

    Perhaps we’re disagreeing over semantics. For instance, I would say that vouchers are not as “libertarian” as tax credits, because they assume more of a responsibility of the state to fund a person’s education.

    I don’t see either approach as conservative, because both would constitute change (change can be a very good thing, but it isn’t “conservative”), and both would have the effect of undermining the established order in some way, which is definitely not conservative.

    Note that I don’t say they aren’t conservative because I think they are bad ideas; I just don’t think that’s a logically sound application of the word. To me, neither “conservative” nor “liberal” has a connotation of “good” or “bad.” Sometimes a liberal solution is a good one; sometimes a conservative approach is. I just want to use the words in a way that makes sense.

  16. Greg Jones

    As to whether or not private schools are available in sparse areas: yes they are, because that’s typically where the public schools are the worse.
    And yes, private schools ARE NOT set up to handle children with special needs. Who we’re talking about are the kids who can and want to do better, but can’t in their environment, and their parents can’t do anything about it.
    As to transportation, that is being done already.
    I always am amazed at the public school attitude that it would hurt the (already failing, inadequate, non-teaching) public school by taking out the child (and his state money) who wants to find a way to excel. Who are we concerned about here?
    I’m paying for my kids to go to private school, and I’d never get a penny of voucher money, but it’s criminal that we are more concerned about sustaining the failing schools than helping the kids. There are some great public schools in this state (like York 4, where I went) but there are some bad ones, like Allendale.
    One last thing, the private schools aren’t begging for these kids, or their state money, but we’d take them, because it’s about education. We care.

  17. Doug Ross

    I don’t want to remove a single dime from public education. I want to remove bad teachers and bad principals – a task that is nearly impossible unless a crime is committed.

    I also would like to see the state funding allocated to the child, not to the school.

    The goal is to create the highest number of educated students who can become productive members of society. That doesn’t mean it has to be done by government schools. That’s just part of the equation. And in terms of meeting that goal, South Carolina’s schools perform worse than nearly every other state.

    Educating students doesn’t mean it has to be via the government school monopoly. Our state turns out many (and a much higher percentage of) successful students who never set foot in a public school.

    Until the public education establishment is willing to completely overhaul the entire system from curriculum to teacher pay to ending social promotion and more, this discussion will continue for decades. Until the leaders of the black communities step, we’ll lag behind.

    Everyone who is against vouchers won’t even dare to consider trying them on any basis (need, school performance, trial). Because they might work. That’s a scary thought for a monopoly.

  18. Abba

    @ Greg Jones –

    You say “I always am amazed at the public school attitude that it would hurt the (already failing, inadequate, non-teaching) public school by taking out the child (and his state money) who wants to find a way to excel. Who are we concerned about here?”

    I am most definitely concerned about that child who wants to excel, but don’t miss the whole picture here. We must be concerned about having a thriving, good public school system that will serve not only that child who wants to excel, but also those others who did not have the luck to be born to parents who cared or had money. We must be concerned about their communities where they will live as adults and where we need to build a healthy economy built on good jobs filled by these future citizens with the skills and knowledge to perform. We must be concerned about our State and its need to support and fund, on an adequate and reasoned basis, our public schools so that we all benefit. (I stress the word “reasoned” – I am definitely not about “throwing money” at some undefined problem.) That’s why we need to focus on what you call the “already failing, inadequate, non-teaching public school.” That’s where most of our future citizens will be educated.

  19. Joanne

    @Abba, beat me to it.

    @Greg, it is disheartening to any teacher to continue to read and hear over and over the “word-bite” about our “failing schools.”

    Do you think, really think, that teachers or principals or guidance counselors go to school every day WANTING to do a bad job?

    It’s a wonder many of us can get out bed in the morning. I just finished my day at 7:30 PM after starting at 7:30 AM.

    Sorry, if this seems Haley-shrill, but I am one of those who gets the paint with the brush that covers all. And I’d like to think …one day…that I do or did a good job.

  20. carrie

    Great article, Brad. I am a public school teacher and I sent my kids to catholic elementary school, then to public middle and high schools. I chose to send them to catholic school because I felt it was important for them to have the spiritual component. It was my choice, and as such, I had no expectation that anyone (other than me) would pay for it. In my experience, voucher supporters are frequently already sending their kids to private schools, or can readily afford to do so if they choose. Most of the private schools with which I am familiar are at capacity and couldn’t take a great influx of voucher-bearing former public school students anyway. And they are rarely capable of serving even moderate learning differences, leaving parents with no choice but to find support outside the school setting.

    While there are poor public schools in our state (and in every state), a majority of SC schools are filled with caring teachers and administrators who work hard to educate every child every day. And we take all who come, regardless of ability or family background or religion.

  21. Shannon aka Scout

    Thank you for re-posting that article, Brad. It is awesome.

    @Greg Jones

    You say, “There are some great public schools in this state (like York 4, where I went) but there are some bad ones, like Allendale.”

    York 4 and Allendale are an apples to oranges comparison, since their poverty levels are not even in the same universe. York 4 does not have even 1 Title 1 school. Allendale does not not have a Title 1 school. Percentage of York 4 students who took PASS elegible for free/reduced lunch – 19%; Percentage of Allendale students who took PASS eligible for free/reduced lunch 93%.

    Even the very best doctor in the world would have 100% mortality rate if his entire caseload had incurable cancer. Simply judging doctors based on mortality rate without regard for who their caseload is would give no reliable measure of the quality of the doctor. We definitely need to improve but the metrics we are using to measure schools are not giving us useful information to make the changes necessary. I contend that there are probably cases where if the faculties of a so called “failing school” were switched with a so called “exemplary school”, the results of the respective schools would not change. The challenges involved in teaching high poverty students are just not the same.

    You say, “As to whether or not private schools are available in sparse areas: yes they are, because that’s typically where the public schools are the worse.”

    Care to provide specifics to back this up? Most of the private schools in these areas, where they exist (which is hardly everywhere), were founded in the late 60’s and early 70’s as a response to integration. I don’t really see them welcoming a parade of poor black children with vouchers.

    You say, “As to transportation, that is being done already.”

    Please explain further. If you are saying private schools are going to provide transportation to poor students who choose to make use of vouchers, I highly doubt this.

    You say, “it’s criminal that we are more concerned about sustaining the failing schools than helping the kids.”

    I agree that not being concerned with helping the kids would be criminal. It is precisely because I am concerned with helping the kids that I am against vouchers.

    Public schools are responsible for everybody. Private schools are not. For that reason alone, private school stats will always be better than public schools. Public schools will always be responsible for the harder to educate, and even when they do the best job possible with these groups, their stats are going to be lower. This is a fact that people who want to apply market principles to schools just don’t get. No business is ever responsible for serving everybody.

    So what will happen with vouchers? Of those who are harder to educate, there will be some who will not be able to make use of a voucher. Children with special needs, children with deadbeat parents who won’t take the initiative to try and use a voucher, children who for whatever reason aren’t accepted by private schools, children who have no transportation to private school – these children will remain in the public schools. And the public schools will have fewer resources to serve these most neediest of our children, because of vouchers.

    There are children in our public schools who receive better care, are better fed, and have more meaningful relationships with any adults in their life at school. These children will not get a voucher. These children will be hurt by vouchers.

    It is because I care about these children that I am against vouchers.

  22. Kathryn Braun Fenner (Mrs. Stephen A.)

    The private schools in “sparse areas” are usually seg academies….

  23. Ralph Hightower

    Of the ministerial South Carolina executive positions: Lt. Governor, Treasurer, Comptroller General, Agcriculture Secretary, Education Superintendent, Adjutant General, those offices have to follow state law.

    What was surprising to me was that School Voucher advocate and New York City Real Estate mogul, Howard Rich pumped thousands of dollars using shell companies into campaigns for various state executive offices.

    Comptroller General? He cannot make laws. He just pays the bills. Why did Howard Rich pour money into his campaign?

    Now, I used the “Citizen vs. Consumer” argument as a basis in a Toastmasters speech. We don’t have kids, but we pay taxes for schools. We are citizens, knowing that children are our future leaders; we have never been “consumers”.

    However, if “school vouchers” are passed to subsidize private education, then I will push for a tax credit for those that don’t use “the system”!

    This “Sarah Palin”, “Nikki Haley”, and Tea Bagger PowerPoint bullet points of “Taking back our government” of using public tax money to subsidize private schools is just absolutely insane!

  24. Shannon aka Scout

    Doug, you say,
    “The goal is to create the highest number of educated students who can become productive members of society. That doesn’t mean it has to be done by government schools. That’s just part of the equation. And in terms of meeting that goal, South Carolina’s schools perform worse than nearly every other state.”

    What are you basing this on? We are not at the bottom of NAEP scores, which is the only true apples to apples comparison between states. We may have more schools not meeting AYP right now, but that is because our standards are higher and standards vary across states. We are just below the middle of the pack in NAEP scores – not a great standing, but it does not jive with “South Carolina’s schools perform worse than nearly every other state”.

    You say, “Everyone who is against vouchers won’t even dare to consider trying them on any basis (need, school performance, trial). Because they might work. That’s a scary thought for a monopoly.”

    I have read and analyzed every voucher bill that has been proposed in the past decade. I am willing to consider one that I think could actually work to help the poorest kids. I’ve not seen one that I think would work that way yet. The bills proposed so far mostly seem like they would just provide a tax write-off for wealthier parents who are already sending their kids to private school. For me to take a voucher bill seriously, I think it would have to have at least these two components: 1) vouchers would only be available to individual children who a given school had failed demonstrated by that student scoring not met on PASS. 2) Such a child could only use a voucher to go to a private school if the private school agreed to administer the PASS. They would have to show that they could bring that child’s scores up to standard in order for them to keep the voucher.

    Such a bill would most likely never pass because 1)the kids of middle class and wealthier parents would not qualify for vouchers because these kids pass the PASS because these kids are not the ones who are difficult to educate and 2)the private schools would not agree to administer the PASS because they don’t want to be held accountable.

  25. Greg Jones

    Hopefully these spirited discussions will be what leads to real fixes in the schools.
    1. Allendale is bad, York 4 is not. Somebody needs to fix Allendale, or save the kids.
    2. I’m not in Allendale. My children (and my masters-holding state certified teacher wife) moved to private school when our district decided that it was in ALL the children’s best interests to no longer group the children by ability. Learning slowed to a screeching halt.
    3. Yes, the rural private schools were opened 40+ years ago because of desegregation. That is history. The ethnic diversity at our scool varies according to how many non-whites can afford to enroll. We have no scholarships, though there are occassionally “scholarship” students there supported by church groups or the like.
    4. We run a bus to Allendale county to service our students.
    5. We’re not full, but we’ve always said if vouchers happened (or a significant problem occurred at one of the other districts we serve) we’d bring back the portables while we build another new wing (just finished the last major addition last year).
    Again, these discussions, and exchange of ideas, will hopefully lead to someone finding a way for EVERY CHILD to get a good education.

  26. Greg Jones

    My last point, as I re-read Abba’s post:
    What do we tell those kids who are trapped in those schools, that despite the best efforts of teachers and administrators, still have huge problems? Do we tell them, “It’ll get better, eventually. Maybe after you’re gone.”
    Don’t sacrifice more kids while you’re trying to figure out how to fix the schools. Give the kids a chance.
    I say this as a private school parent who will never get a penny of voucher money, and shouldn’t. I speak for my family, and many (but certainly not all) private school parents.

  27. Jeff

    Brad, can you explain why you say it will blow a “hole” in state revenues?

    Florida has had this for 10 years and with 4 times the student population it’s only grown to $150 million / year. SC’s program may grow to $25 million in 5 or 10 years … but that is nothing compared to the public school education budget of $5 or $6 +++ Billion … and no telling how bit it will be in 5 or 10 years.

    At an average maximum $2,250 scholarship no one is getting a windfall here … except perhaps the taxpayers who will have less kids to educate in the public school system. (Do the math: $25 million / $2,250 = 11,111 less students to educate. There has to be taxpayer savings in there somewhere.)

    This legislation will make a world of difference to the people that need it. It perhaps doesn’t even hurt the states revenue or public schools at all … and if so, just minimally. So confusing why this is polarizing. We should be putting the KIDS FIRST, not peoples political agendas.

    Thanks in advance.

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