Guest Column: Proposals to give tax credits, vouchers raises questions

Published 9:15 am Tuesday, February 21, 2017

My Point of View by Joseph E. Brown Sr.

Joseph E. Brown Sr. is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party and is a former Iowa state senator.

Another member of the Greatest Generation died on Jan. 19. Lewis W. Brown would have been 94 years old in April. He dropped out of school in eighth grade after his father committed suicide during the Great Depression to help care for his mother and four siblings. He served in the Army Air Corp during World War II. He worked as a mechanic for DuPont Cellophane Co. in Clinton, Iowa, for 34 years. He earned $21,000 per year at the end of his career. His spouse, Bette, was a seamstress and a stay-at-home mother. Lewis and Bette Brown were my parents.

Joseph Brown

Joseph Brown

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My parents were strong supporters of quality education. Even though they earned modest incomes, they sent their three boys to Catholic elementary school. That was their choice. They did not request or expect government assistance in the form of a tax credit or voucher.  They also were strong supporters of the local public school. They voted in favor of every bond and operating levy to provide a quality education for all students regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic status.

Personally, I attended Catholic schools for 6 1/2 years and public schools for 6 1/2 years. I earned an Associate of Arts degree from a Catholic college and a Bachelor of Arts from a Quaker college. I earned a Master of Arts from the University of Iowa and my administrative degree from Mankato State University. In summary, I experienced half of my education in public schools and half in private schools. I earned money working my way through college and by taking out and paying for student loans.

As a member of the Iowa state Senate, I authored the first open enrollment law in 1983. Minnesota and Iowa became the first two states in the nation to pass open enrollment laws that gave parents and students the power to decide which public school to attend. This law also became known as a public school voucher. As a legislator, I believed that public schools should compete academically just as they compete athletically. I also believed that it was wrong to force a student to attend the local public school based only on their address. After all, we do not force individuals to attend the nearest church or shop at the nearest store.

While serving as the chairman of the Iowa Senate Education Committee, I was frequently asked my opinion on home schooling. I stated that Robin and I believed strongly in home schooling. While sending all of our six children to public schools during the day, we also did a lot of home schooling on week nights and on weekends.

The state and national legislative proposals to provide tax credits and/or vouchers to parents who send their children to private schools raises a number of questions.

• Will private schools be required to accept all students including special education students, children living in poverty and students with conflicting religious beliefs?

• Will private schools be required to follow all state and national education standards and graduation requirements?

• Will private schools be required to administer all academic tests that are required of public schools?

• Will the proposed voucher cover the entire cost of private schools or will it simply be an economic benefit to those families that may already be able to afford to send their child to a private school?

• How will a tax credit benefit a family that qualifies for free or reduced lunch and is living in poverty since they probably do not earn enough income to pay income taxes?

• Will a voucher and/or tax credit only benefit the upper income families?

I believe in public school choice. I also support publicly funded charter schools in addition to supporting collaboration among public, private, online schools and home schools. I am not convinced that providing tax credits and/or vouchers to upper middle income and higher income families is the best use of scarce public sector dollars. A tax credit is the same as a tax expenditure.  It increases the federal deficit that has been out of balance for way too many years.  It reduces state revenue that may be needed for nursing homes, roads and bridges and schools.

My recommendation is that we concentrate on promoting strong families. Research suggests that if we have extra tax dollars to spend, they should be spent on early childhood programs, on extended education for children living in poverty and programs that encourage parents to be more involved with their children at an early age.  The ultimate goal of education should be to produce citizen scholars who become tax payers and not tax users. By working together, we can enhance our local quality of life for a better future.