Question: President Clinton has threatened to veto a bill passed by Congress that would allow parents to set aside tax-free dollars for their children's elementary, high school and college education. Should Clinton sign the Education Savings Act for Public and Private Schools?
Bonnie Erbe: This is one of those feel-good bills that has bipartisan support (its primary sponsors are conservative Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and liberal Democratic Sen. Robert Torricelli , D-N.J.) but contains serious flaws.Of course parents should be encouraged to save for their children's education. Of course parents would prefer to send their children to private, not public, schools. But do we want to promote public policy that subsidizes, at taxpayer's expense, every pagan religious sect that sets up a private school? And do we want to contribute to the dismantling of the public school system in the process? I certainly hope not.
The so-called "Education Savings Act for Public and Private Schools" is actually the work of religious conservatives who won't give up their effort to obtain public subsidies for religious educational institutions. Having been shown the door by the U.S. Supreme Court in repeated attempts to violate the U.S. Constitution, they get an "A" for effort but an "F" for public policy. No matter how many times they try to win public subsidies for religious schools, and no matter how many times they are defeated, they keep coming back for more. This bill is just the latest attempt.
The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church & State says if tax cuts for private school tuition are approved, followers of Wicca in California will start a witches school and educate young children in that pagan faith with Uncle Sam's help. Is this something that most Americans will support? Heck no.
And make no mistake. Every taxpayer's dollar that is given to middle-income parents for private school tuition will somehow be drained from public school coffers. Elementary and high schools in wealthy suburbs will not be hurt. But the poorest schools in inner-city and rural areas will be hit hard.
Josette Shiner: Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., recently claimed the Education Savings Act (ESA) "hangs the sign for all to see on the front door of public schools of America: `Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Get out while you can.' " But the American people don't need legislation, or a Kennedy, to tell them many of their public schools are hopelessly broken and their kids are getting a lousy education. The relevant question, which ESA begins to tackle, is whether we are going to give parents what President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and U.S. congressmen already have - the freedom and means to send their kids to the best schools possible?
My colleague claims ESA "creates" educational inequities. It does exactly the opposite. ESA would allow - not require - families, charitable groups and private donors to contribute up to $2,000 a year for each elementary or secondary student into special savings accounts that could be used for any educational expense. At a compounded interest rate of 7.5 percent, a family that saves $2,000 a year for 10 years would earn more than $8,000 in interest payments. Talk about leveling the playing field. Bureaucrats and bad schools, not parents or kids, stand to lose from ESA. That's why the U.S. Education Department and the teachers' unions hate ESA do much - it threatens their very existence and purpose.
Who supports ESA? My colleague complains that it's ideological, extremist Christian conservatives. But some evidence shows that it is lower-income blacks who are truly fed up. According to a poll in the Washington Post poll, 65 percent of African Americans with incomes under $50,000 favor using federal money to help them send low-income students to private or parochial schools. Who can blame them?