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Chipping Away the Public

My mother never expected a tax credit when she brought in cupcakes for the PTA fundraiser at Holmes School. She didn’t tally her hours volunteering in the school library, either. These were the things you did to provide the little extras, to demonstrate support, and to enhance the experience of public education. Her family paid the modest price of seeing those delicious baked goods heading out the door, away from our own kitchen. Collectively we assumed that the basic cost of a good public education would be paid for from our taxes.

Times have changed. A brief article tucked away inside Tuesday’s New York Times describes a bill that has been making its way through the legislature in New York State that would provide generous state tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate money to public schools, or to scholarships that help poor and middle class students attend secular and religious private schools. While it has always been possible to get a charitable deduction for these kinds of gifts to private schools or to foundations established to receive such gifts for public schools, the new tax credits are far more lucrative for donors and attractive to tax advisors. And legislators love it because it gives the appearance of addressing school funding without making any tough decisions about budgets and tax rates.

What’s wrong with this plan? Why wouldn’t we want to do everything we can to help struggling public schools and to provide scholarships for poor children? In and of itself this proposal will not mean the demise of public education. But it represents one more part of the relentless chipping away at the public in our public school system. By encouraging voluntary private donations by corporations and individuals directly to schools of their choice – public and private – we further shift control of the education of our children away from the public to the private sector. The tax credits further reduce state revenue, squeezing already inadequate public funding of our most struggling school systems. What happened to the notion that a fair tax system should support public responsibilities?

Furthermore, by including private secular and parochial schools in the plan, we ensure that our public schools are further impoverished through public support of private education. Cardinal Dolan has been a vocal supporter of the bill, along with leaders of Orthodox Jewish and Lutheran parochial school systems. Dolan proudly described himself as the “clean-up hitter” at rallies for the tax credit plan all across the city. This is as ironic as it is predictable. The Cardinal, the cheer leader of the Bishops’ Conference’s hysteria over alleged government intrusion into religion through the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, seems quite willing to have the government’s hand in the pocket of his cassock when it has money in it for him. Other supporters of the plan include hedge fund owners who hope that eventually charter schools can be added to the plan, along with supporters of school vouchers and enemies of the teacher’s unions.

Privatization of public schools and public services is well underway across the country, whether it is parking meters in Chicago, tollways in Indiana, or privately contracted janitors at O’Hare airport hired to replace fired city workers deemed expendable because they earned decent union wages and benefits. Another Times article last weekend described the shifting of financial support for basic scientific research away from federal funding to private philanthropy. America has thrived on a healthy balance of public and private support for the common good. A century ago the Progressive era ended the tyranny of business tycoons who controlled utilities, railroads, state houses, banking, city halls, and the wages and working conditions of millions, all without the inconvenience of public oversight. Today a new elite is returning us to a bygone era many of us thought we’d left in the 19th century. The chipping away of the public is well underway.

Most telling in the proposed tax credit bill is the addition of a provision that would give teachers who purchase their own classroom supplies a $100 credit. Aside from the rather transparent effort to gain teacher support, the simple fact that legislators recognize that teachers often have to buy their own basic school supplies is revealing, as is the fact that instead of addressing the underfunding of public education, they are turning instead to private philanthropy!

What’s next? Should principals hire directors of development at public schools that can’t afford librarians, social workers, art and music teachers? Who could blame them if support for even the most basic needs of the school increasingly depends on competing for private donations? A school district in a well-heeled Silicon Valley community already raises hundreds of thousands of dollars from its wealthy parents to ensure a vibrant public school experience; the neighboring town, with much poorer residents, struggles with declining state funding. The days of a note home from the teacher asking for a donation of a dozen cupcakes may be long gone. Today parents should expect to hear from their school’s Advancement team offering a consultation with their wealth management advisor. As for public schools already too poor to compete for donors? Good luck.

John H. Thomas
March 20, 2014

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