Joseph and Anne Karpie of Buffalo, New York, are faced with a cruel dilemma. To give the oldest of their four children, 14-year old Martin, a good education, they have enrolled him in a private secondary school. To afford the $3200 a year tuition, Mr. Karpie works 72 hours a week at two jobs and Mrs. Karpie works 25 hours a week, besides caring for the children. Yet the Karpies are still forced to pay several thousand dollars a year in property taxes, sales taxes, and income taxes to support the public schools.
The Karpies, and millions of parents like them, are not the only ones being victimized by our system of forced education funding. Millions of single people, childless couples, and retirees are also forced to pay billions of dollars each year for a public school system they do not use—and from which they derive scant benefits.
To be sure, all of us benefit in a general way from living in a literate society, which the schools are supposed to make possible. But there are solid grounds for questioning whether today's public schools can do even that. A recent study by the US Office of Education found that 20 percent American adults are functionally illiterate and unable to cope with the demands of daily living in our society. And for minorities the figures are even more shocking: 44 percent of blacks and 56 percent of Spanish-surnamed individuals were found to be functionally illiterate.
These dismal figures were reinforced by the results of last fall's Functional Literacy Test in Florida high schools. In metropolitan Jacksonville 14 percent of the high school juniors failed the (8th grade level) English section and 45 percent failed the math section of this new test, which students must pass in order to graduate. And who among us is unaware of the precipitous 10-year decline in scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and Graduate Record Exam?
But more than just the decline in educational results is driving parents away from public schools. Parents are increasingly alienated from the ever-expanding educational bureaucracy. In theory local school boards provide for local control, but in the past two decades the size of the average school district has increased tenfold, and much of the control is now vested in state capitals—and in HEW. Teacher strikes have become increasingly common, replacing the concept of teaching as an honored profession with the factory notion of labor-management bargaining. The ability of schools to fund adequate programs is increasingly threatened by the (understandable) tendency of voters to turn down nearly all school bond issues. Violence has become commonplace in public schools, with 70,000 teachers seriously injured by student attacks each year. Drug use is common in junior highs, and is now becoming a problem in elementary schools. And then, of course, there's busing—a program premised on the belief that black children cannot possibly achieve unless sitting next to white children!
In the face of all this, it is no wonder that enrollment in private schools is growing, even while the total number of American students is declining. In California, for example, private school enrollment increased by 2.9 percent last year, while that of public schools dropped by 0.9 percent. Nationwide, private schools account for about 11 percent of total enrollment, a number that is gradually increasing despite the closure of many parochial schools over the past decade due to lack of funds.
Yet the gross injustice remains. Parents who wish to save their children from the perils of public schools are forced to pay twice, while millions of others—nobody really knows how many—put up with the public schools in quiet resignation, because they simply can't afford the private alternative.
Many thoughtful people have analyzed this situation, seeking some kind of solution. Abolishing the public schools would, of course, place the responsibility for education back where it belongs, with the individual parents. But in 1978 America, abolition is considered unthinkable. Another approach is Milton Friedman's education voucher idea—to distribute education tax receipts to parents in the form of vouchers cashable at any school, public or private. As promising as this idea may appear, its political prospects appear close to zero.
But there's a third reform proposal, one that's been around quite a few years, which now appears to have an excellent chance of being implemented. That idea is the education tax credit. Briefly, it would amend federal tax laws to permit anyone paying for private schooling to deduct all or some portion of the cost directly from his federal income tax. Note that this is far more than a tax deduction—it is a direct dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of tax owed. To the extent that the credit approaches 100 percent of the actual cost of private education, it eliminates the unjust double payment imposed on those choosing private schools.
Legislators such as Barry Goldwater have been sponsoring college tuition tax credit bills for more than a decade, but in the past few years the idea has begun to pick up broad, bipartisan support. The Senate has actually passed tax credit legislation three times in the past 15 months. Delaware's Senator William Roth won headlines in December for attempting to add a $250 tuition tax credit to the Social Security tax bill.
But the real breakthrough is the recent bill introduced by Senators Packwood and Moynihan, with 41 cosponsors. Their bill would provide a tax credit of one-half the tuition up to $500 for each member of a family enrolled in any sort of private school: elementary, secondary, college, adult education, trade school, or vocational school. Senate action on the bill is expected in the spring session, and if it passes, there's a fair chance of similar legislation getting through the House.
The Packwood-Moynihan bill, though evolutionary in form, is revolutionary in potential. At one stroke it would open up the market for private education, setting in motion a potentially unstoppable chain of events. Think of the millions of parents fed up with public schools but unable to scrape together the necessary tuition on top of their heavy tax burden. Think of the thousands of excellent teachers whose creativity and drive are being slowly extinguished in the nightmare of the public school classroom. The potential for revitalizing American education is enormous.
Of course, to the extent that the measure is seen as promising massive change, to that extent will it be strenuously opposed by the educational bureaucracy and its unions. Far better that it be argued for on the simple grounds of ending the injustice of forcing parents to pay twice.
But argue for it we must. This magazine seldom endorses specific legislation, but in this case we are making an exception. Enactment into law of the Packwood-Moynihan education tax credit bill should be the number one libertarian legislative priority of 1978. At no time in recent history has there been such an opportunity to disestablish the monopoly of the public schools. The tax credit issue is one we must win.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Toward an Educational Renaissance".