Adam Schaeffer and Chaim Katz | The best gift for kids is a better education

Another Christmas has come and gone, and the New Year is here with the resulting resolutions. Many of us use this time of year to reflect on the spirit of giving, especially in the midst of rising unemployment and uncertainty. Some people had less to give or perhaps nothing at all, or even relied on the giving of others, but many people continued with their charity despite their own increasing hardships.

However, as belts tighten all around, we should think hard about what gifts are the most powerful, which ones help those in need the most. No matter how well-intentioned, if a program of giving is indefinite and its outcome is not ultimately uplifting, it’s not charity. It’s welfare. Unlike charity, welfare victimizes its recipients. Since anyone can fall on hard times, charity is an essential component of a compassionate society. However, its purpose must be a hand up, not a hand out. In order to actually help people while strengthening their sense of dignity, the best gifts allow people to not rely on charity in the future. As gifts go, fishing lessons beat a salmon sandwich any day of the week.

It’s no accident that we say teaching a man to fish is more useful than giving a man a fish. When we teach, we prepare students to do things that they were unable to do before. Good teaching gives a student something which no one can take away. Good teaching improves a person permanently, not temporarily. Good teaching is the greatest gift of all.

When we think of teaching, we generally think of schoolchildren. Teaching in American schools ranges from outstanding to inadequate. Tragically, many kids in America simply don’t get taught much of anything in the educational system. Two facts tell the tale. First, three in ten secondary-school students will fail to graduate from high school, which means their lifetime earning prospects drop by an average of one-third or more. Second, only about one in three public-school eighth-graders in Virginia is “proficient” in reading and writing, according to the NAEP test, the “Nation’s Report Card.” And unfortunately, on top of the overall poor average performance of students, there’s also a large racial gap. African-Americans are two-to-three times more likely than white children to be “below basic” in math and reading.

Americans feel strongly that we owe all children a decent education and a fair shot at succeeding in life. However, that’s not what millions of children are getting. So how can we give children the one gift that we truly owe them?

To make our educational intentions and hopes a reality, we need a dollar-for-dollar school tax credit for middle-class parents along with scholarships funded by donation tax credits for low-income families.

Education tax credits reduce the amount a taxpayer owes the government for each dollar he spends on his own child’s education or on scholarships for children who need them. That money comes straight off anyone’s tax liability, so it’s essentially found money; you can either pay it to the government or use it for the kind of education you want to support. For instance, if you or a corporation owe the state $1,000 and donate $1,000 to a scholarship-granting organization, you would pay nothing in taxes. The same kind of benefits can be applied to individuals for their donations, or for money they spend on their own child’s education. Tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations help support school choice for lower-income families, and personal-use credits help middle-class families.

Our commitment to education for all is laudable, but the unquestioned support for the current government-run monopoly school system is badly misguided. Actually, it’s worse. Our support for a constantly failing system makes a mockery of our ideals. With millions of children in jeopardy, there is no time for tinkering with a broken system at its edges. Every child should have the right to exit a failing school and enter one that works for them — whether it’s public, independent, or religious.

Imprisoning children in poor schools robs them of a productive and fulfilling future. Poverty, unemployment, and crime ultimately increase when children fail to get a safe and effective education, characterized by discipline and rigor.

The gift of education isn’t just the best gift we can give to America’s children. It is one of the few that we truly owe them. And it’s one we can give without cost through school choice.


Adam B. Schaeffer, Ph.D., is an adjunct senior fellow with the Education Reform Initiative at the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, and a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Chaim Katz is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Virginia.

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