By Nathan J. Diament
The Forward, September 26, 1997
As Congress and schools returned from their respective summer vacations this month, senators began to re-focus on a legislative initiative that would provide some assistance to the parents of school children. Sponsored earlier this year by Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA), the proposal would create a new class of savings accounts dubbed A+ Accounts akin to the Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) that many Americans use. Under this plan, parents of a child may invest as much as 2000 post-tax dollars per child, per year in their A+ Account; the interest accrued would be tax-exempt.
Unlike President Clinton’s re-election campaign proposal that would have set up such savings opportunities for parents of college students, the Coverdell proposal recognizes that it is in the elementary and secondary educational years that children learn their most critical skills. Thus, the Coverdell proposal makes the savings accounts available for a wide range of expenses associated with education at all ages and irrespective of whether the student attends public, private or parochial schools. Money may be withdrawn to be used for tuition fees, transportation costs, tutoring or even buying a home computer.
When the Coverdell proposal was offered in the Senate last spring, the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators the teachers’ union and trade group for school administrators indicated to some sympathetic senators that they opposed it. Senator Tom Daschle took to the floor to denounce it as a “voucher” that would divert funds from the public schools. The bill garnered a 59 to 41 vote for passage and made it into the final budget package submitted to the President at the insistence of the Republican Congressional leadership. The education lobby then turned up the heat, and asked the White House to kill the proposal.
Towing the line of the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators, the President wrote to Speaker Gingrich and stated that he “strongly opposed the Coverdell amendment,” and that he “would veto any tax package that would undermine public education.” In the face of this threat, Mr. Gingrich removed the Coverdell initiative from the final budget agreement.
It has, however, been reintroduced as a free-standing bill; the congressional leadership has promised to act on it this fall. Moreover, Senate Democrats have begun to support the proposal in greater numbers with Senators Torricelli and Lieberman already signed on; with Breaux, Moynihan, Leahy, and Levin have indicated interest. Such support has drawn fire from the education establishment and makes it likely that the second battle over the Coverdell initiative will shape up as a turning point in the education reform war.
The NEA and AASA are beginning to resort to the kind of extremist rhetoric and tactics regularly used by the National Rifle Association and the National Abortion Rights Action League. Like those groups _ which decry any reasonable restriction on the right to obtain a handgun or an abortion, such as a brief waiting period, as a step toward depriving Americans of their fundamental rights. The NEA, AASA and other defenders of the educational status quo are asserting in recent letters to senators that A+ Accounts would steal money from public schools and are unconstitutional “vouchers” that risk violating the separation of church and state.
The Coverdell initiative is clearly different from the typical school voucher proposal. Voucher plans are designed to give parents, rather than school administrators, the power to decide how many education dollars a particular school receives by giving each parent a voucher for each child equal to the amount of the per-student spending allocation in the particular school system. The money then “follows the child” to the school the child attends. Thus, better performing schools that attract more children receive greater resources than schools that aren’t up to the job. Voucher plans may very well take education dollars away from public schools because it is part of the point; to make schools perform better by forcing them to compete for students and funding.
The Coverdell proposal is a more modest effort to help parents. It simply exempts from taxation the interest earned on money that has already been taxed once by the federal government through the income tax. It is really an incentive plan – a modest one — to encourage parents to invest and save toward their children’s education. To suggest that this is an unconstitutional establishment of religion because a parent might use the tax-free interest earnings toward buying a home computer for a child who attends a parochial school is to suggest that parents who are homeowners and benefit from mortgage-interest payment deduction and use that financial savings for same expense, that deduction, too, would be unconstitutional.
Moreover, just last term, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a government funded education program – special education classes – could be enjoyed by parochial school students as long as the program was not specifically designed to benefit religion. The situation is constitutional, the justices wrote, because government “money ultimately went to religious institutions as a result of the genuinely independent and private choices of parents.”
The suggestion that the Coverdell initiative diverts funds from public schools is also false. Unlike vouchers, which may re-allocate education dollars based upon parental choices, the Coverdell plan merely prevents people’s money from being taxed twice by the federal government which provides only a small amount of funding to school districts in the first place.
Thus, the education establishment may now be approaching a watershed. If the NEA and AASA continue to rail against the A+ Account proposal as a “terrible threat to our nation’s public school system” and a “plot by the religious right” to grab public money for private schools, they will certainly be perceived as a lobby for teachers rather than as champions of greater educational opportunity for America’s children.