Federal Dateline

One Third of a Nation

by NICHOLAS J. PENNING


Of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s many public statements, his observation that "one third of the nation is ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-clothed" remains largely true today for roughly a fourth of our country’s children. Most wealth in the United States remains covetously guarded by the top fifth who own it.

Meanwhile, we hear those critics of public education whose re-election is tied to the wealthy utter phrases such as "Everyone knows Title I doesn’t work" and "Our nation’s public schools are a disgrace." They and their legislative colleagues push for vouchers to break the public tax base of local schools.

In years past, all a president had to do to defuse voucher proponents’ efforts was threaten to veto voucher bills or tuition tax credits aimed at supporting those in private and religious schools. Those in favor of such legislation would back off, sometimes threatening to raise the issue in a future Congress.


Undermining Public Schools
Not surprisingly, voucher proponents who support private and religious schools are back in force and well-funded. You may wonder how much money these folks would save in the long run as they attempt ad nauseum to undermine public education. And let’s face it, that’s what these groups are all about.

Voucher proponents want the federal government to finance a personal commitment they have made to send their children to a non-public school. Voucher proponents don’t support schools that are open to everyone, and they don’t think you should either.

During Senate debate on an earlier version of public money for private K-12 education, the president threatened a veto. At that juncture, Clinton’s words produced enough strength to hold off adoption of a voucher bill that would pass both chambers of Congress.

This year the story’s different. Those who wish for government support for private and parochial schools have constructed a new vehicle--one that provides parents of public school students with access to the same tax break as parents of non-public school students. But the words "tax break" should tell you to whom the Coverdell A+ Education Savings Account would appeal and for whom the account would most benefit. Such tax breaks would not benefit the most needy who don’t earn enough to be subject to the tax laws.

Yet the Coverdell accounts could appeal to a wide audience because the proposal’s education IRAs would allow someone to deposit up to $2,000 per year per child in accounts that earn non-taxable interest and allow withdrawal at any time if used on school and school-related expenses. So you could set aside money for your child’s home computer and withdraw the money accrued at any time and with no tax burden.

That possibility may appeal to you and me. But to economically disadvantaged parents for whom this tax break is held out as a means to choose any school, public or private, the possibility is a cruel hoax.

The Coverdell bill appeals to those with funds to pay for private schools, and its proponents attack the tax system by channeling $1.6 billion that could have been spent on public education for all to non-public education for a few.

Hearkening to the words of FDR, President Clinton notes, "One third of our schools need to be modernized. Nearly half don’t have wiring to support basic computer equipment." These are absolute national infrastructure needs of equal importance to the $200 billion highway bill approved by Congress and the president.

"The federal government," the president explains, "helps to build roads and bridges and other infrastructure projects because they are in the national interest. But none of that will matter if we do not see that our national interest in an adequate education infrastructure is also preserved."

Lend Your Voice
In the end, that’s what this is all about. Do we have the intestinal fortitude to call the White House (202-456-1111) and urge the president to veto the Coverdell Education Savings Account bill (H.R. 2646)? He has said he will veto it, but he watches polls carefully. Use your own voice to the White House, as part of an AASA Legislative Corps poll, and urge the president to reject this and any similar attacks on public education.

If we hope to have an economy and a democracy that fulfills the dreams of all Americans, our nation will endure. If, on the other hand, we continue to favor those who have and especially those who contribute big checks to candidates, the poor most assuredly will be left out of the education agenda for tomorrow.

Nick Penning is a senior education analyst at AASA. E-mail: npenning@aasa.org