Tax credit won’t solveproblems in education

Last year, Gov. Arne Carlson made repeated requests to the Legislature to set up a system of school vouchers that would give parents the option to use state funding to help pay a child’s tuition at a private school. The voucher plan was firmly rejected, but now Carlson is back with a proposal for tax credits to be used for supplemental education, such as private tutoring programs, summer language camps or home computers. Families of any income level that home-school their children would receive $1,000; families with an income of less than $39,000 would be entitled to $1,000 per child (or $2,000 per family) in the form of a refundable tax credit, and wealthier families would receive a deduction. Overall, the tax credit plan would cost the state $146 million during the next two years.
Although the tax credit plan is intended to provide educational opportunities, its current form is flawed. It has the potential to drain money from spending for public education; it does nothing to address current problems in the schools. Most importantly, the plan fails to recognize the needs of the poorest at-risk students. Rather than endorsing market-driven education, the proposed funds would be better spent on improving public schools.
When parents are asked about why they sought out supplemental education for their children, they frequently cite overcrowded classrooms that limit the amount of personal attention teachers can give to students and the limited resources in the public schools. These comments clearly point to problems in public education but not unsolvable ones. Using the money to hire more teachers, reduce class size and improve remedial education within public schools would benefit a much larger group of students and eliminate many of the problems that caused parents to seek out supplementary education in the first place.
Private tutoring programs for elementary students, such as the Sylvan Learning Center that Carlson visited Wednesday or Standardized Achievement Test preparatory seminars like the Princeton Review, have been proven to work. However, they are expensive. Sylvan charges $30 to $45 an hour, and the Princeton Review costs $650 for a six-week SAT preparation. Even with a tax credit, how accessible is supplemental education for low-income families? Sure, students from these families could reap benefits from private tutoring, but realistically, Sylvan tutoring costs six times more per hour than the minimum wage. Also, access to tutoring is geographically unbalanced. Many low-income families are located in rural areas, but supplementary educational programs are commonly available only in larger population centers. The tax credit system would put these families at an even greater disadvantage, not increase their opportunities.
Education has the potential to be a great equalizing force in our society, but there are gross inequalities in the current system. The $146 million could go a long way toward equalizing education in Minnesota. But using that money to promote market-driven education would only further exacerbate current problems. Although well-intentioned, the tax credit plan does not improve the educational opportunities for those who need them most.