Acton Commentary

Educational Choice? Not According to Congress


$84,000. That is what parents can expect to pay, on average, for a their child to attend a private college or university in America for four years. $34,400 is what they can expect to pay at a public college. Each year that goes by sees an increase in tuition, room, and board, at colleges and universities across America. Parents and students alike work to save money, and later, work to pay off loans in an attempt to counteract the rising costs of higher education. Fully aware of the rising costs of higher education, the federal government implemented an education savings account plan. Formerly known as Education IRA’s, the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) allowed individuals to contribute up to $500 per year to a tax-free trust that could then be used to pay for the beneficiary’s college education. In 2002, as a result of the 2001 tax reform, the total amount that could be contributed annually was increased to $2,000 per year.

But education can cost at other levels as well. Many parents spend upwards of $5000 to send their children to private elementary and secondary schools. They realize the benefits that can be garnered from these schools, and are willing to pay what they must in order for their children to be given the best education. For this reason, the tax reform also revised the rules of the ESA to allow parents to use their ESA to pay for private elementary and secondary school tuition, uniforms, books, etc.

But, as always, the devil is in the details. According to a Congressional budget rule, the tax cut of 2001 will expire at the end of 2010 unless extended by the Congress. In other words, the rule changes allowing an additional $1,500 per beneficiary, per year to be invested, and allowing parents to use their ESA to pay for elementary and secondary private schools, will expire at the end of 2010. Parents whose children attend private schools and who had decided to use Coverdell ESAs will no longer be able to use them to help offset tuition and other educational costs. $500 will again be the maximum allowable contribution per beneficiary, per year. Only a Congressional act could allow the new provisions to become permanent.

That act was defeated in the House of Representatives on September 4. By a vote of 213 for, and 188 against, the bill was defeated, since it could not muster the 2/3 majority needed to pass the bill due to a House special procedure. House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Charles B. Rangel of New York led the charge to defeat the bill.

Congressman Rangel urged his fellow members to defeat the motion alleging that the ESA revisions were “tax breaks equivalent to vouchers for private schools at the elementary and secondary level.” Congressman Rangel also used the argument that such tax breaks would take money away from public schools. In so doing, the Congressman managed to cover all of his bases: vouchers remain a much debated issue and the NEA and other educational elites demand that no money ever be taken away from public schools.

An old educational adage holds that repetition is the mother of learning. Apparently Congressman Rangel agrees with this adage. The arguments he made to block the ESA reforms from becoming permanent are the same arguments opponents of parental choice have always made. Vouchers support religious schools and take money away from public schools, Rangel and his allies say. The Congressman’s arguments are as invalid as they ever were.

In June, the Supreme Court found that vouchers do not represent a violation of the First Amendment’s so-called Establishment Clause, since parents have the choice to use those vouchers at any school they wish. Studies conducted in Milwaukee demonstrate that, far from taking money away from public schools, Milwaukee’s experiment in vouchers has actually led to an increase in public school funds—according to Milwaukee Public Schools’ own financial reports, since 1990 Milwaukee’s per pupil spending has increased from $6064 up to $9417.

While the Coverdell Education Savings Account, as constituted before the recent Congressional decision, represents a step in the right direction, it does not allow parents to use that money immediately. In order to realize the tax benefits of the ESA, parents must allow the money invested to mature, as any investment must be made after taxes. Thus, while parents may invest taxed income, and any interest earned would not be subject to taxes, the ESA would do little to help parents with children already in school, and who would like to make use of the ESA as quickly as possible.

A more effective strategy for parents with school-age children would be to allow individuals to invest pre-tax money in Education Savings Accounts. Parents would then be free to realize the benefits of such accounts at the very time when they most need it. Furthermore, such accounts would trump completely the arguments that the government cannot support religious schools and that such accounts take money from public schools. Unlike vouchers, such ESAs would be made up of the pre-tax earnings of parents, and parents would then be able to utilize these ESAs to allow for their children’s attendance at the school of their choice. They would not amount to vouchers, since the federal government never received the tax income from the funds invested in ESAs.

Congressman Rangel, like the NEA and other educational elites, are using diversionary arguments against Educational Savings Accounts to distract from the real goal: limiting parental choice and control in their children’s education. This goal undermines parents’ God-given task to be primarily responsible for the upbringing (including education) of their children. Parents are free to delegate aspects of that responsibility, and usually do, but that delegation should be according to the parents’ wishes, not in spite of them—as is often the case with working class families stuck in mediocre school districts. This understanding of the central role of parents in education is founded on the frankly realistic appreciation of the fact that parents—not politicians or bureaucrats, however well-meaning—will most often be in a position to assess what is best for their own children.

Educational savings accounts, under the present rules, allow parents to begin saving money for their child’s educational career from their child’s birth. ESAs allowing pre-tax income contributions would give parents even more power to plan and control their children’s education and to choose the schools that will provide that education. They would give non-wealthy families the opportunity to secure a first class education for their children, even when that means they must look beyond their local public schools and fund such education themselves.

According to a 2000 poll conducted by the Heritage Foundation, 40% of members of the House of Representative who responded send their children to private schools. In the Senate, the number is 49%. Former NEA President Bob Chase stated in an October 2000 advertisement “[T]here are…public schools that middle class parents, including me, would not want their children to attend.” Finally, according to 1990 census data, 50% of public school teachers living in the central city of Milwaukee send their children to private schools.

The educational elite and the US Congress make use of parental choice and are glad to do so. They just don’t want other parents to be able to exercise their parental rights. George Orwell wrote prophetic words in his novel Animal Farm, “All animals are equal; but some animals are more equal than others.” When it comes to parental choice in education, it seems that may be true indeed.