A Voucher for Reform


The Public School Monopoly, edited by Robert B. Everhart, San Francisco: Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1982, 583 pp., $30.00/$13.95.

The timing couldn't be better for the issuance of The Public School Monopoly, a broad, deliberate study of state control over primary and secondary education. The Reagan administration has been making a strong push for a federal tuition tax credit, and the debate that first began getting serious in 1978 with the near passage of the Packwood-Moynihan tax credit bill has once again been raging in Washington. In the last Congress, a Reagan-backed bill was stalled in the Senate Finance Committee by objections to its civil rights protections, but the momentum built up by pro-tax credit interests could well lead to adoption this year.

The Public School Monopoly provides extra intellectual ammunition for the tax credit attack. This thick volume is edited by Robert B. Everhart, a noted educational researcher currently on the faculty of the University of California at Santa Barbara. It is the third book on domestic policy issues to emerge from the fledgling Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research in San Francisco.

Everhart has assembled 14 essays from a variety of viewpoints—libertarian, conservative, neoconservative, and even neo-Marxist—to document the relationship between education and the state. The essays are functionally grouped to offer a historical perspective, an assessment of state intrusiveness from moral and Constitutional standpoints, and an examination of how federal regulatory control has given rise to a patchwork quilt on the local level of curricula and administrative organization. The arguments all lead up to a section that presents a strong case for tax credit and educational voucher reforms that would restore to parents a measure of control over school financing.

The heart of the book lies in this final section. Noted libertarian scholar E.G. West takes a page from William Niskanen's Bureaucracy and Representative Government in weighing how the politics of bureaucracy has led to greater monopoly in educational agenda formation. We have reached the point, West argues, where the federal Department of Education, large consolidated school districts, and other institutional testaments to public bureaucratic hegemony have achieved such power that the average parent, rightfully feeling helpless, becomes apathetic. Because tuition tax credits and vouchers would assist in forming a competing set of private education interests outside the bureaucratic establishment, they are strongly opposed by those who have control over the public budget. Only in the wake of enormous voter pressure to reduce taxation and government spending can tax credits and vouchers have a chance of passage. This recently came to pass in British Columbia, where a "Proposition 13" mood among taxpayers propelled the legislature into approving a $500-per-pupil voucher.

While West's essay is a fascinating economic analysis of bureaucratic politics, those who have been numbed into doubt by reading too many Washington Post and New York Times articles would do well to start with Thomas W. Vitullo-Martin's essay, "The Impact of Taxation Policy on Public and Private Schools." Vitullo-Martin uses IRS tax codes to show how indirect federal subsidies work to the benefit of white, upper-middle-class, suburban school districts. Because homeowners can deduct local property taxes from their federal income tax, those living in suburban areas are partly shielded from the effects of high local taxes. In contrast, urban residents tend to be in the lower-income brackets, where the marginal relief from such a deduction is less. Real figures from Pocantico Hills, New York (a suburban Westchester County community) and New York City prove the point. Through the tax deduction for local property taxes, the federal government "shoulders" nearly $4,200 more per year for well-to-do suburban white pupils in Pocantico Hills than it does for urban, ethnically mixed residents of the Big Apple.

Facts like these challenge the comfortable assumptions of public education leaders, many of whom have become steeped in knee-jerk rhetoric against a tuition tax credit and who unnecessarily fear the harm such reforms could cause for their institutions. Harold Howe, for example, the US Commissioner of Education during the Johnson years, who recently wrote in the New York Times that tuition tax credits are like subsidizing country club memberships, might well change his tune if he actually saw the eye-popping figures on minority enrollment in private schools.

Overall, a few of the essays are a bit weak, relying more on armchair philosophy and "rational expectations" analysis than on a sifting and weighing of available factual evidence. But on balance, The Public School Monopoly is a welcome addition to the growing body of educational reform literature.

Ronald Kimberling is executive secretary in the Department of Education. This review was written in his private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.