Tax-credits shouldn’tfund private schools

The Minnesota Legislature is about to enter a special session that could drag deliberations about a K-12 education bill well into the summer. Although extra sessions are a burden on the taxpayer, they buy lawmakers time to forge better agreements on substantive issues. And this year’s will provide a much-needed forum for debate about the direction of public education in Minnesota. Simply put, lawmakers are heading for overtime because most DFLers in the Legislature disagree with Gov. Arne Carlson’s plan to provide tax credits for low-income parents who want to send their children to private schools.
Carlson’s plan would provide $150 million in education subsidies for families with an annual income of $39,000 or less. In essence, these families would be able to use public money to help pay for their children’s private education. Considering the choice it would offer parents, this plan is palatable for legislators who believe the public school system is deteriorating. Tax credits for private education, however, would set a disastrous precedent for Minnesota’s public schools. Carlson should do the right thing and abandon his call for these subsidies.
The governor maintains that all parents — not just wealthy ones — should be able to send their children to private schools. This is a populist idea, one the governor says should appeal to any DFLer or Republican concerned about the quality of education in Minnesota. Moreover, his administration claims that just $18 million of the $150 million subsidy would be used to send children to private schools. The rest would help parents of children who attend private or public schools cover the cost of supplies, tutoring and other educational expenses.
The dollar amount of this proposed tax credit is not central to the issue — public schools will receive adequate funding in this year’s bill. Rather, the core of the debate surrounds our lawmakers’ collective commitment to public education. Although Carlson’s plan would divert a relatively modest amount of money from public to private schools, it would open the door for larger subsidies in the future. This is unacceptable, especially considering that many public schools — particularly those in the inner city and isolated rural areas — already need money for supplies, repairs and other expenditures.
Tax subsidies for private schools also raise valid constitutional questions about the separation of church and state. True, Minnesota families are already eligible for similar — although much smaller — tax credits. And public financial aid is available for post-high school students to use at private colleges. But just as the University has built its international stature on significant public investments, so does the quality of the state’s elementary and secondary schools depend on public dollars.
Carlson’s tax credit proposal sends the wrong message to Minnesotans: that the public school system does not deserve our full confidence. And it diverts much-needed money from public to private schools. This would be unfortunate and surprising because the governor has pledged his support for public education. But it’s not too late to change course. The subsidy has no place in the K-12 education bill and should be dropped.