There’s no doubt that tax-cut proposals in the House and Senate will increase income inequality today, but provisions in the bills could also weaken the earning power of many in the future by eroding the quality and the diversity of public schools.
One change that as approved by the Senate and also found in the House bill extends a tax benefit for college savings accounts to cover tuition for private elementary and secondary education. The change means that those who can afford to save money for non-public school tuition will be able to see that money grow tax-free.
Extending the tax break won’t mean much for families of modest incomes since they can’t afford to save large amounts for pre-college schooling, but it will have the effect of making high-priced private schools less costly to the wealthy. The Senate version of the change offered by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas even allows those who home school to draw up to $10,000 annually out of the tax-favored accounts to cover loosely defined school expenses. In the end, the change reduces tax revenue to give the wealthy a break on private education costs.
This relatively narrow adjustment will be joined by sweeping proposals in both the House and Senate tax bills that limit federal deductions for state and local taxes. Those changes will make it harder for local and state governments to raise taxes to support public schools. Together, the changes will lighten the tuition bill at private schools while adding to the tax burden that supports public schools.
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Of course, higher education is also threatened by provisions in the tax plans that would include levies on endowments and on tuition benefits provided to graduate students and children of college employees. But the plans’ broader threats are to public schools, which are already being undermined by Republican-backed efforts to increase the number of charter schools – publicly funded but privately run – and to expand the use of tax funds for private schools through voucher programs. Now that “school choice” movement has gained support at the federal level with the appointment of Betsy DeVos – a charter and private school advocate – as the U.S. education secretary.
As Republicans cut away at the financial foundation of public schools they are also accelerating the re-segregation of all schools at the elementary and secondary levels. Adding charters and using tax dollars to subsidize private and sectarian school tuition is leading to a great sorting by race. And that, rather than enhancing education, deprives children of learning through exposure to classmates of different racial groups and economic backgrounds.
In a recent report on charter schools, The Associated Press found the number of charter schools has tripled over the last decade and racial isolation has grown with them. Charters tend to be overwhelmingly white, or overwhelming one minority. The AP reported: “While 4 percent of traditional public schools are 99 percent minority, the figure is 17 percent for charters. In cities, where most charters are located, 25 percent of charters are over 99 percent nonwhite, compared to 10 percent for traditional schools.”
The trend worries even some charter school advocates. Pascual Rodriguez, principal of a Milwaukee charter where nearly all the students are Hispanic, told the AP: “The beauty of our school is we’re 97 percent Latino. The drawback is we’re 97 percent Latino … Well, what happens when they go off into the real world where you may be part of an institution that’s not 97 percent Latino?”
The AP report mirrors what an October News & Observer report found about racial segregation in North Carolina charter schools. The report found that the schools are more segregated and have more affluent students than traditional public schools.
Christine Kushner, a member of the Wake County Board of Education and a former chair of the panel, said that despite efforts to foster diversity in the Wake County school system, the state’s largest, minorities are the majority, largely because of an increase in Hispanic students and more white students enrolling in schools outside of the system. She said Wake schools remain strong, but their reduced diversity both in race and income is a setback.
“It’s troubling to me that we are going backward because I think diverse schools are what’s best for all children and economics and history affirm that,” she said. School choice is fine, she said, but public schools need to have the resources “to be the first choice for all parents.”
Good public schools and strong support through taxes are inseparable. But the tax bills in Congress are adding to the forces that are splitting that bond and jeopardizing public education.