Church schools hook for public funding

[cross-posted from MainePolitics.net]

Maine’s private schools, like most other enterprises, are feeling the vise of recession.

Over the past decade, Maine’s shrinking student demographics have disproportionately drained private school enrollments which are now 34% off their peak. Over the same period, public school enrollments have declined by 26%.

Religious schools, in particular, are now turning to the government for relief.

"Adequately financing these schools has always been a challenge," Marc Mutty, lobbyist for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, told the Legislature’s Taxation Committee on April 6. "They need financial assistance if they are to survive."

Recently remembered for warning against the consequences to schools from government sanctioning of gay marriage, Mutty and other religious school advocates hope to stem the decline in private enrollments by persuading the Legislature to appropriate ten million dollars in new public subsidy via tax credits to those who support private schools through tuition.

Two vehicles are proposed for this transfer of tax dollars:

LD 1092: An Act To Allow a Tax Credit for Tuition Paid to Private Schools, sponsored by Senator Sherman, provides for an income tax credit of up to $2,500 for tuition paid to a private school for both resident and nonresident taxpayers.

If that proves too transparent a stratagem to funnel public money into religious education, there’s also LD 1287: An Act To Create a Scholarship Granting Organization Tax Credit, which inserts a proxy between the state and church coffers while also broadening the reach of tuition tax credits.

The bill’s explicator, Greg Swallow, a former board member of the Greater Houlton Christian Academy, described the text of LD 1287 to the Taxation Committee transparently as “a plagiarism from Arizona and Florida.” Indeed,similar plagiarisms are to be found in many other state legislatures this month, an indication of a significantly larger agenda.

Noting that parochial school tuition rates (if not actual per-student expenditures) are lower than Maine’s average public school per-pupil costs, several Taxation Committee members appeared ready to extend the comparison into an assumption that additional money moved into private schools could be offset by savings in reduced expenditures at public schools.

This widely alluring fallacy that public education is a simple aggregation of meaningful per-pupil marginal costs now reaches right into the Blaine House where the Governor regularly asserts that he believes that public money should “follow the student” as if it were an individual entitlement, like a seaman’s whack of tobacco and salt pork.

Deliberately or not, this view disregards the reality that public education is not an industrial aggregation of marginal production costs. Rather it is a network, like a road system, of largely fixed costs maintained to provide a uniform opportunity for a free and adequate education to all citizens across the state, whether or not they choose to plug into it.  In scope and critical ambition, this is a function that no private school comparably assumes, nor is capable of assuming.

Constitutional harm to the Establishment Clause aside, there may be progressive benefits that follow from broadly augmenting public support of diverse educational opportunities, even baldly religious ones. But to build for these special interests at the expense of the common foundation of public education will do much greater offsetting damage.

Some legislators may in fact intend such damage. Most, one trusts, do not.

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[Disclosure: the author is, in large part, a product of Quaker schools.]