Is education for children or for schools?

Rarely is the question put so bluntly.  But amidst the confusion cluttering this issue, blunt is good: is education first about kids or about schools?

Tax Reform

The question deserves attention following passage of federal tax reform.  The Senate added several kid-friendly education provisions: 529 plans (the principal you deposit is taxed but interest and capital gains are tax free for education) were extended to primary and secondary schools; Coverdell Education Savings accounts will cover homeschoolers’ expenses, like textbooks (kids schooled at home were previously excluded in most states); parents and grandparents can now start tax-advantaged education savings plans for a “child in utero” (making unborn children legal subjects in federal law).

All this sounds good, right?  It expands children’s opportunities and parents’ choices.

The usual suspects were not amused.

The New York Times previously reported the insertion of the “child in utero” provision into the tax bill, the same week it felt the need to explain why the benighted State of Texas had counted 23 victims of the Sutherland Springs church massacre instead of 22.  One woman was pregnant, and Texas treats an unborn child as a separate victim for certain crimes, like murder or assault, as opposed to just being an “aggravating factor” in the crime perpetrated against the mother.

On the question of tax breaks for school expenses of born children, the Times quoted Sasha Pudelski of the American Association of School Administrators:

We have provisions that are incentivizing parents to keep students in private schools or send them to private schools.  If there’s going to be tax breaks in the bill, giving it to the parents in the private education system over the public education system doesn’t make any sense.

Not if education is for schools.  But it makes a lot of sense if education is for kids.

Pudelski represents the viewpoint that the state should only be interested in public schools.  That view reflects the usual mythology about the supposed common socializing effect of public education passing on a civic patrimony and values.  By criticizing the “incentivizing” of parents to enroll or retain their child in a non-public school, Pudelski’s threat is implicit: anybody choosing anything but the common school should be penalized.  Such a one should be double taxed for the arrogance of exercising parental authority.

Parental Choice

Catholic social thought would, of course, insist that parents are the first and primary educators of their child.  The state and school system support parents because the typical parent lacks the resources to meet the full demands of the educational levels today’s student needs.  That said, the state’s and school’s roles remain supportive of the parents’ mission.  Their role is subsidiary.

Seen through that lens, the kind of education a child receives is first and foremost a parental choice.  In a society claiming that maximizing “autonomy” is a key social goal, it is curious that the term seems to vanish when applied to parental educational choices.

Likewise, in a society claiming concern about “growing inequality,” providing some relief for parents who exercise educational autonomy improves their access to a valuable commodity like education.  A community interested in maximizing equality of opportunity should have no qualms about providing financial incentives to make that opportunity realistic and attainable by all.

Kids are ends, schools are means.  Perhaps Sasha Pudelski would not dispute that.  But the truth is, when the direct focus of our attention shifts from kids to schools, the schools de facto become the end and the kids get short shrift.

Consider the Times’ other grievance about the tax bill: that in capping the deductibility of property taxes and excluding the ability to write off state and local income taxes, public schools (which are usually highly dependent on local property taxes) will suffer.  And if public schools suffer, kids suffer.

Well, by denying any tax breaks to parents who choose to exercise educational autonomy, real kids suffer.  They are denied a realistic alternative that their parents think is best suited for them and, given the state of public education in many places, are compelled by dint of financial pressure to choose a second-best alternative.

On the other hand, the deductibility of state, local, and property income taxes could affect taxpayers’ readiness to raise levies or pass school budgets, where the latter is open to public vote.  But the immediate impact on a particular child is indirect.  While “you get what you pay for,” the thesis that ever-growing public funding makes for better schools is, frankly, not experientially self-evident.   In my home state of New Jersey, local courts have been on a will-o-the-wisp quest since 1973 to find the right mix of funding to meet the state constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient education.”  Over forty years and millions of dollars later, the courts are still tinkering with a magic formula, while nobody necessarily holds up the average New Jersey school district as a national model.  Imagine if, instead of four-plus decades of appropriations and taxes, the Garden State had decided in 1973 that the key to a “thorough and efficient education” was empowering every parent with the average cost for a year’s education, to be used at the institution of his choice!

The tax bill’s educational provisions are not perfect: 529 and Coverdell accounts appeal to the well-heeled, while (as the Times notes) the problem of less affluent parents is saving the money to put into those accounts.  Still, one must start somewhere, and the bill seems to start in the right place: with the kids.

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.  All views expressed herein are exclusively his.