Jones: Tax credits + private schools = bad public policy

Guest ColumnistMay 9, 2013 

Neal

— Here they go again. Each year, right-wing legislators introduce schemes to subsidize private education under the guise of public education “reform,” employing euphemisms such as “choice” and “competition.” This year’s scheme, introduced by Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, gives tax deductions to parents who send their children to private schools or home school, as well as to individuals who donate money to nonprofits that provide scholarships for poor or disabled children to attend private schools. This is a very bad idea on at least four counts.

It offends the idea of separation of church and state. Since most private schools are religious schools, this is a backdoor way for the government to subsidize religious education, a clear violation of the principle of religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment. This ensures that Americans are not forced to subsidize religious activity that contradicts their own beliefs and values and that government keeps its nose out of religious matters. Government aid ultimately means government intrusion and government control.

It’s unaccountable. Private schools don’t have to comply with the same accreditation criteria, teacher standards, curriculum and testing requirements as public schools. Public schools are accountable to the public; private schools answer to their owners. While not even private schools may discriminate on the grounds of race, color or national origin, they may discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic background, disability, academic record, English proficiency, disciplinary history and other reasons. Some private schools will not admit students who belong to the “wrong” religion or who are from the “wrong” side of the tracks. Some will not hire teachers who are unwed mothers or divorced. Discrimination, whether practiced by individuals or institutions, is wrong. When discrimination is funded by taxpayers, we are all culpable.

It’s biased. Tax deductions benefit a small minority of families who already have the money to cover the cost of tuition, uniforms, transportation, books and other supplies at private schools. This scheme also gives tax credits to those wealthy enough to contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations, but the scholarships are a drop in the bucket to cover the costs of a private school — costs that nearly all working-class and most middle-class families cannot begin to afford. This scheme pretends to offer “choice,” but the only ones who can choose to attend a private school are those who can afford it. Do taxpayers really need to subsidize the lifestyles of the rich?

It’s anti public education. Let’s be absolutely clear. These ploys do absolutely nothing to improve public schools, but they do actively assist private schools and the families who can afford them. There is no “competition” between public and private schools, as if they were rival businesses competing for customers in the free market. We Americans decided a long time ago that we would not allow the market to decide who gets an education and who doesn’t. We decided that education is not the luxury of a few but the right of all, regardless of one’s religion, income or geography. We made a commitment to public education.

Our legislators are our public representatives, guardians of a public education. Diverting badly needed funds from our already-underfunded public schools is the last thing our state needs to do. Public education is what created the largest middle class in history, and it is what will lead South Carolina out of the pit of poverty, unemployment and economic underdevelopment … if our leaders will lead.

The Rev. Dr. Jones is president of the Columbia chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State and minister of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia; contact him at nealjones@sc.rr.com.

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