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A Flimsy Idea in the House

Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page A22


The house is scheduled to vote today on a further tax cut almost exclusively for the better-off, masquerading as a form of aid to education. It would be a follow-on to the tax cut the president and Congress included, improvidently, in their plan to balance the budget earlier this year. The earlier cut included an instrument called the educational savings account, the investment income from which would be exempt from tax if used to pay for higher education. The new proposal is to allow such accounts to be used to pay for elementary and secondary education as well.

It's not clear this could pass constitutional muster, since most of the tax benefit would end up as backdoor public aid to private education. It would be bad policy even if it did pass such muster. The concept of vouchers to help low-income students transfer out of non-performing public schools in which they are trapped is relevant here. It has some big and obvious problems; but assuming it, too, could survive a court test, it seems to us worth trying at least in the form of a modest experiment.

The reason the voucher idea is relevant is that the proposed tax cut comes wrapped in some of the same rhetoric, but is nowhere near the same thing. Only people with quite high incomes could afford to set aside in advance of the elementary and secondary years enough money to make the device worthwhile. The Treasury has estimated that about three-fourths of the benefit would go to the highest-income one-fourth of all families. The proposal is being urged in the name of educational reform, which it is not. Proponents say there would be no public cost, but there would. If Congress sends him this, the president would be right to cast his threatened veto. The proponents want the issue, which they think will help them. We think they're wrong; this is a flimsy idea that can't stand up to scrutiny.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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