December 20, 1995

December 20, 1995 | Commentary on Federal Budget

ED122095b: Tax Credit Could Pay For College

One of the reasons Washington has failed to pass a budget for 1996 is that President Clinton believes Congress has been too zealous in cutting government education programs.

What the president did not say -- and may not even know -- is that by opposing Congress's plan to give families a $500-per-child tax credit, he effectively denies millions of American families a greater financial opportunity to send their children to college.

That's right. The fact of the matter is that Congress's balanced budget plan is one of the most education-friendly bills in quite some time. And since the budget wrangling between Congress and the White House isn't over yet, there's still a good chance to save its most important benefits. Consider the following:

1.) My colleagues at The Heritage Foundation have calculated that if an average American family saved the entire $500-per-child tax credit for a period of 18 years, that family would be able to accumulate an amount of money equal to what $14,000 buys today. That's more than enough to pay the average cost of an education at a public university.

2.) Heritage analysts also have shown that the $500-per-child tax credit would provide families that can't afford private education with enough money to pay nearly 25 percent of the tuition at a typical private elementary school. This would increase the number of parents able to send their children to private schools, just like so many members of Congress do today.

3.) Congress's seven-year balanced budget plan would cause interest rates to drop by at least 0.5 percent below what they will be if current federal budget and tax policies are kept in place. This reduction in rates would save a student more than $400 on the cost of an average student loan. Four hundred dollars is enough to pay for a year's worth of books, two additional classes, or even a third of the cost of a personal computer.

These are all benefits President Clinton will deny American families and students if he forces Congress to abandon the $500-per-child tax credit. Why then does he continue to lambaste Congress for cutting spending on education? After all, Congress's balanced budget plan would cut less than 2 percent per year during the next seven years from a federal education budget that represents only a tiny fraction of the total spent on education across the country. In other words, President Clinton would deny 28 million American families the ability to pay tuition for their 51 million children to go to college -- rather than cut a tiny portion of a budget that itself is a tiny fraction of America's educational effort.

From the president's point of view, such cuts are "anti-education." But from the vantage point of the average American family, the picture is quite different. After all, which do you think eventually will have a greater positive impact on your child's education: Four years of college, or programs run by the U.S. Department of Education?

Think of what you could do for your children's education with an extra $500 per year. You could save more than enough to send each child to a solid public university for four years. You could afford to purchase an encyclopedia set, a personal computer, the services of a tutor or any number of other educational values. Congress is offering these to the American people, and President Clinton doesn't like it. Why? Because the choice would be left in your hands. Like his ill-fated health-care plan, he wants the key decisions to be made by the bureaucrats.

The question Washington faces is this: Is a good education policy one that expands the reach and control of federal programs, as President Clinton apparently believes? Or is it a policy that expands the choices available to American families so they can afford the cost of a private elementary school and send their children to college?

I submit two more points to consider before this choice is made:

  • The money spent on public elementary and secondary education has increased more than 200 percent since 1960. Spending by the U.S. Department of Education has increased 634 percent since 1962. What has all this money done for our kids? Over the same period, average SAT scores have declined 73 points.
  • It is not surprising why more families are choosing private schools for their children. A private-school graduate is 52 percent more likely to apply to college than a public-school graduate. And an average college graduate earns a salary nearly 80 percent higher than that of the average high-school graduate.

So, next time President Clinton claims Congress is trying to deny education to children, ask yourself: Who is more concerned about my child's education? The bureaucrats who get my money if the president has his way -- or the private school or college that gets it if I make the decisions myself? Can we, as a nation afford another three decades, or even seven years, of declining test scores, bureaucracy as usual, and an increasingly undereducated workforce?

The time to return control of our children's education to American families is now. One way to do it is to stand by a budget plan that does just that.

Note: Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D. is deputy director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D. Senior Fellow
Center for Health Policy Studies