Article Published in The Northern Virginia Journal
Contact Info for Writer: (703) 522-5807 or (703) 897-7953 A School Choice Tax Credit to the Rescue of Overcrowded Public Schools
By Robert Holland
One of the most innovative problem-solving plans to go before this year’s Virginia General Assembly session may well be one that currently would apply only to fast-growing Prince William County in Northern Virginia.
Sponsored by Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, the plan would give the Prince William Board of Supervisors authority to grant a property tax credit to parents living in the attendance zone of a public school that the county school board has declared to be overcrowded.
Those parents would be eligible for a tax credit when they agreed to send their child to a private school instead of to the crowded public school. The credit could not exceed the family’s actual expenses for tuition, books, and other qualifying educational expenses, or the average per-pupil expenditure from county-generated funds.
To be classified as overcrowded, a public school would have to have enrollment at 110 percent of capacity or greater.
If this idea debuted successfully in Prince William, there is every likelihood other localities with mushrooming school populations would want to have the same authority.
In the public-policy arena, private school choice often is portrayed as the foe of “government schools.” But Marshall’s measure brings to light one way that choice can be a winner all around for the public and private sectors, as well as for education consumers and taxpayers.
Prince William has a strong public school system with a significant degree of choice within that system. Making it easier for some families to use private schools would not detract from that system. In fact, given the serious problems the county faces in coping with explosive growth, encouraging full use of private resources could strengthen the public schools.
Prince William’s proposed six-year Capital Improvement Program, which was released the day before the General Assembly convened in Richmond, calls for the construction of seven elementary schools, five middle schools, and another high school, as well as additions to three elementary schools.
The current population of Prince William, an increasingly dynamic outer suburb of Washington, D.C., is 346,830. That’s a 23.5 percent increase just since the year 2000, when the population stood at 280,813. By 2020, Prince William’s population is projected to grow to more than 434,000.
As recently as 1990, Prince William had a population of just 215,686.
By giving families a tax credit if they chose private schools over jam-packed public schools, the county would save on its contribution to the operational costs of educating the children who departed. But the big-time savings could be on the capital side. If families more fully utilized private options, the county could save tens of millions of dollars in classrooms that would not have to be constructed.
Those savings could be used to reduce taxes, augment other social programs, or to meet other school needs.
If policy-makers gave Prince William a chance to try this creative approach to easing school crowding, Virginians might learn lessons that could be applied statewide.
(Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington.)
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