Lost in the controversy over school vouchers in the Wisconsin state budget battle is the idea of giving income tax deductions for parents who send their children to private schools. Parents could receive tax deductions up to $4,000 for elementary students and $10,000 for high school students. The cost to the state could reach $30 million dollars. In the short run, the impact of the tuition tax deductions will have far greater impact on education than the proposed extension of the school voucher program.
How private schools react to parents receiving these deductions will expose the real motivation behind these schools.
Private schools could elect to make a few changes in their tuition and admission policies. This would result in an increase in parents considering private schools as an educational option. More working class families may send their children to private schools, but poor families would not receive these credits because they don’t pay much in income taxes now anyway.
Private schools could increase tuition and use the extra money to provide scholarships to needy families. Some private schools do this now, or they peg the present tuition on a sliding scale based upon family income and the number of family members enrolled in the school.
Milwaukee’s St. Joan Antida Catholic High School serves a large percentage of girls from poor families, but this has resulted in a large percentage of middle class parents no longer considering this school for their children. Many other examples of private school white flight can be found within the Milwaukee voucher program.
So private schools could also increase tuition in order to keep lower income families out of their schools. Their presently enrolled families might even demand it. Of course such parents are likely to hide their real feeling behind the concept that their schools could use the extra money to improve the educational program for their children, whether it is lowering class sizes, adding new programs, or updating equipment and facilities.
It is this last possibility which is the most troubling because private schools in the South have been historically used as a haven for white families to avoid racial and economic desegregation. It is no accident that Southern states were some of the first places to jump on the tuition tax bandwagon in order to support segregated "Christian academies.”
Today such academies are more likely to segregate, not simply by race, but also on socioeconomic and special education lines. So the excellent black basketball player is likely to find a home in a Southern Christian academy where his black buddies down the street are likely not to get in because of low academic performance.
The Wisconsin voucher program is only one step away from giving state funds directly to the private schools themselves. The U.S. Department of Justice is telling Wisconsin’s Department of Education that they must enforce federal standards for children with disabilities in these private schools. And the state already requires that private schools receive certification in order to be in the voucher program, and their students must take the present state academic achievement test.
But a deduction is a little less direct. The parents receive the tax credits; no state money ever winds up in the hands of the private schools. Some Wisconsin Catholic school leaders actually are praising the tax deduction option because “…there is no entanglement between the church and state," So discrimination can reign in private schools.
Now it will be up to Wisconsin private schools to either serve the poor or become more like the segregated Christian academies of the South.