Class warfare as a matter of choice

I have to admit to being somewhat of two minds on the school-choice issue that is championed by the likes of 20th District Del. Chris Saxman, whose sales pitch is a strong one at first glance.  Saxman’s most recent legislative proposal would have capped tuition tax credits available to parents to go toward a child’s private education at the amount of money that the state provides for the average child’s public-school education, “so it is a net neutral at worst for just about every locality,” as Saxman pointed out in an exchange of e-mails with me a couple of weeks ago.

“For the suburban areas with very good schools, they gain as well since they are the ones who complain that due to their composite index they lose revenue they send to ‘Richmond,'” Saxman said via e-mail. “So, the aggregation is that it will likely cover the costs of most private schools – I think the average is around 5k a year. Some are obviously higher. Much higher.”

That’s my first issue, and it’s been with me ever since my first debate on tuition tax credits back in college in the 1990s. I was talking with friends who had gone to private schools and who felt strongly that tuition tax credits – we called them vouchers back then, and you still see that term used some today – were the wave of the future because they would allow more people access to private-school educations that ostensibly are better than what you can get in public schools because, you know, they’re, er, private schools.

“But these tax credits wouldn’t have done anything to help me,” I countered, alluding to my upbringing in a single-parent home that was about as lower-middle-class as you could get and still be able to claim any middle-class status at all.

And I’m still not hearing anything to dissuade me from thinking that anybody other than upper-middle-class and wealthy families would benefit from tuition tax credits, which would effectively be private-school tax breaks for people who can already afford private school as opposed to being something that could open up private-school-quality education to the masses, as it were.

To Saxman’s credit, he tried to give me reason to sway. “Is school choice a panacea? Of course not, but it is a very useful program to families who want to avail themselves of different schools, be it Buffalo Gap, Grace Christian or a Montessori school,” he said by way of our e-mail exchange. “Like TAG grants for Virginia higher education, they make it more affordable,” Saxman said, referring to the Tuition Assistance Grant program that the state offers students at private colleges and universities in Virginia.

But is that a fair analogy – comparing what we could do to ease the burden on parents to provide private primary or secondary education to what we already do to help college-age students who are considered responsible for bearing the costs of their higher-education studies? K-12 education and college are two different beasts entirely, and have been since we decided a few generations ago that free public education was part and parcel to the American experience.

Another question here – isn’t a key part of the reason that we have a TAG program in Virginia that we’re conceding policy-wise that our state’s higher-education infrastructure isn’t sufficient to meet the demands of the marketplace in terms of the number of students who apply for admission to the state’s public colleges and universities?

It makes me wonder if what we’re saying here is we don’t want to do what we need to do to get our K-12 infrastructure to where we need it to be, considering.

I indicated at the top here that I think of myself as being of two minds on this issue, and here’s why: I like the part of what Saxman and other school-choice backers have to say about allowing parents to choose between public and private schools as to how they think their children’s educational needs would best be met. As a practical matter, there would be concerns to address if, say, Westwood Hills Elementary would have 900 or 1,000 applicants for its 300 spots and William Perry Elementary had 150 applications for its 300 spots, because obviously we couldn’t pack one school in a school district and leave others half-empty. And what if a school system suffered from mass flight from the public to the private sector, thus taking away the support in the form of tax dollars that it would need to restructure to be able to win the public’s confidence the next year or in future years?

The part of me that likes pure school choice says, Well, so what if that happens? Because that would be an indication of the market at work saying that the school system in question wasn’t delivering and was in need of improvements.

You can see where it breaks down. Taxpayers are no better off, because Saxman’s proposal is “net neutral,” as he explains, meaning that the only effect of tuition tax credits would be to take dollars out of public schools to go toward private schools. And as far as the delivery of education is concerned, we might see private schools step up to up their capacities to take on more students, though one would have to assume that we wouldn’t see much in the way of that kind of activity, since one of the main selling points for private schools is that they don’t have to operate at class ratios that underfunded public schools do. So you might see new private schools open, sure, but it’s not like anybody can just rent a campus and open up a school and offer quality education, either.

As seductive as the arguments might be, I can’t get past my college-age feelings that the school-choice push is nothing more than a cash grab benefiting people who can already well afford private educations for their children at the expense of the rest of us who cannot.

I have Republican friends who will refer to these kinds of things as being class warfare. Which I believe in this case in particular is right on target. Because the upper-middle-class and wealthy are waging war on the rest of us here.

 

– Story by Chris Graham


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