But the thing is, school choice through tax credits provides an education system more accountable to parents and the public than charters, voucher, or anything else.
Unfortunately, his own arguments undermine his case. In the next paragraph, he says:
Personal-use tax credits allow parents to spend their own money on schools that they choose . . . and school accountability to parents is the most effective kind of accountability. Donation tax credits let people choose the kinds of Scholarship Granting Organizations they think do the best job educating lower-income children. In both cases, the people with the most interest in holding schools accountable for results are the ones with the power to actually hold them accountable – parents and the people funding the schools.
But wouldn’t tax credits actually weaken the incentives for donors to be serious about holding accountable the scholarship granting organizations they funded? Right now, people who donate to scholarship funds are doing so as acts of charity–they forfeit some other use of the money. But with a tax credit, they don’t have to forfeit anything–if they get a dollar for dollar deduction in tax liability for their donation, the donation suddenly becomes free, thereby reducing its cost to the donor and his or her incentive to hold scholarship foundations accountable.
More significantly, Adam’s point here acknowledges that the people who fund schools have a clear interest in holding those schools accountable. Guess what–when we’re talking about education that’s supported from public coffers, then the people funding the schools are all of us taxpayers, and we all have an interest in holding schools accountable for serving the public good. Adam might counter that we’re not talking about education that’s funded from the public coffers here, because education tax credits offer a subsidy on the tax side of the budget rather than the spending side–taxpayers get to choose how to use their own money. But it’s still a publicly-supported subsidy for a specific behavior, and the difference between tax expenditures like education tax credits and government outlays on the spending side is more an accounting and timing difference than a practical one. In fact, the illusion that taxpayers/the public/the government isn’t really paying for these scholarships or private school tuitions is one of the reasons I think that tax credits for private education are less desirable than flat-out vouchers, which make expenditures much more transparent.
Even if you don’t buy the public interest in how kids educated on our dime are learning, there’s still a case to be made here for a government accountability role in providing information needed to run a well-functioning education market place where parents and donors can make good decisions. Kind of like how you can buy whatever food you want, but the government mandates that all the packaged foods in the grocery store have comparable nutrition labels. As Kevin Kosar wrote recently on Edspresso, it’s difficult for even a savvy parent to make sense of the information available on the performance of different schools. Good public accountability systems that provide comparable information for parents across available schools are essential to help parents make good decisions. Should accountability systems be designed to be more responsive to parent demands for information? Probably. But considering the angst with which middle-class suburban parents await test scores for their neighborhoods, I’d argue that there’s a significant amount of parent demand even for the suboptimal test-based accountability information we have now.
I’m arguing this as a supporter of increased choice in publicly-supported education. I think families should have more freedom to choose the schools to which they send their kids and that a greater diversity of choices should be available to them. I don’t care if you want to send your kid to a Montessori school, a single-sex school, a military school, a religious school, or a billingual Esperanto immersion school. But I do care, as a taxpayer, that schools using my tax money meet basic health and safety standards, don’t discriminate, and teach kids sufficient math and verbal/literacy skills to contribute to the economy and have a decent shot in life. That’s why we need both parent choice and public accountability. And it’s why education tax credits just don’t cut it.