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Accounts for the Kids

By Paul Coverdell, Newt Gingrich and Robert Torricelli
Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page A23

The debate concerning education reform has taken center stage, and it is fitting that we focus on how we can ensure that every child in America has the best possible education and the opportunity to succeed.

We believe that education savings accounts for kindergarten through high school are one important step toward addressing the concerns of parents around the country. Education savings accounts – which we call "A+ Accounts" – work this way: A parent or grandparent or even a scholarship organization can open an account in which after-tax money is deposited – up to $2,500 a child per year. The key is that the savings will grow with interest, and withdrawals for educational expenses are tax-free.

For a child attending public school, money in an "A+ Account" could be used for car-pooling or other transportation costs, for a home computer or for school uniforms. Special needs for children with a learning disability could use this money for tutoring or occupational therapy. For a child attending private school, this money could be used for tuition.

"A+ Accounts" are designed for both middle-income and low-income families. For example, a couple, each of whom makes $35,000 a year, would save more than $5,000 just in terms of taxes they no longer had to pay by the time the child was age 14. But "A+ Accounts" are also designed to help low-income children. There is no restriction on who can contribute to such an account, and they are set up to be the perfect vehicle for the many scholarship and charitable efforts that are emerging around the country.

Education savings accounts recognize a fundamental truth: the needs of parents of children in elementary and secondary schools are too varied to fit within a one-size fits all federal straitjacket. "A+ Accounts" do not dictate what choices are made by parents; they simply offer a way to help achieve whatever that choice is.

Regrettably, the Clinton administration is opposed to this proposal. But to be frank, the opponents' attack bears little resemblance to what we have actually proposed. The most outlandish caricature is the description of a savings account as a "voucher." It is not. No federal money is involved. The "A+ Account" is structured exactly like an individual retirement account, which no one would presume to call a voucher.

Nor would the wealthy benefit. The use of "A+ Accounts" is restricted to those making less than $95,000 a year. As a result, 70 percent of the tax benefit goes to families with $75,000 and less. When the wealthy want to send a child to private school, they don't worry about opening an education savings account; they write a check.

The real irony is that the administration already supports education accounts at the college level for both private and public institutions, yet opposes exactly the same principle when it comes to children in kindergarten through high school. The reason usually provided is that "A+ Accounts" would undermine the public schools. But a moment's reflection should convince anyone that this is flatly wrong.

First, we each strongly support the concept of public education. Not one single dollar of state or federal education funds is directed away from public education by "A+ Accounts." Quite the contrary. These accounts can be used for such public school needs as home computers, extra tutoring or transportation expenses. In fact, official estimates show that nearly 11 million families – or 70 percent of those who would use these accounts – would do so to support children in public schools.

Second, parents' decisions to send their children somewhere other than a public school are independent of whether "A+ Accounts" exist or not. Relatively few parents would likely wish to incur the cost of a private education without some really compelling reason. And those who do would continue to pay taxes to support the public schools just like everyone else and will go on doing so.

The real debate is about whether we can improve the quality of education of all our children through competition without diverting resources from public education. Many parents, especially those in our most urban areas, legitimately view a private-school education as an important avenue of opportunity. We should give children every opportunity to learn in the best environment – whether that is a public school in a neighboring district or a private school down the street. "A+ Accounts" are an effort to provide the means to every American to improve the quality of their children's education by giving parents more control over where their children attend school.

Paul Coverdell is a Republican senator from Georgia. Robert Torricelli is a Democratic senator from New Jersey. Newt Gingrich is speaker of the House.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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