Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Vouchers: Alt-Fuels for Schools

While the governor vetoed the budget bills today, I suspect the voucher bill will be vetoed separately. For those of you not from Arizona, I hope the column sufficiently explains the whole alt-fuels mess, which was the Arizona Legislature's answer to the Diamondbacks trading Curt Schilling for Casey Fossum.

East Valley Tribune, Mar. 20, 2005

What did the Arizona Legislature learn from the alternative-fuels tax credit debacle five years ago? Apparently nothing, because now they want to create “alt-fuels for schools.”

Yes, that’s what vouchers are -- an alt-fuels-style tax credit, without the tax credit. Now instead of people buying expensive new SUVs with state tax money, the Legislature wants to give parents $4,000 private school tuition subsidy checks.

The voucher people claim the state will save money, under the kind of spending-money-to-save-money theories that these same people ignore and ridicule when it comes to public health or after-school programs. Theoretically, vouchers will attract students from public to private schools, “saving” the state the money needed to educate them. Cheap at half the price!

It’s essentially the same theory that the same people claimed would help reduce air pollution. The state would give a tax credit for purchasing SUVs that could operate on an “alternative” fuel, like propane. The proponents claimed that subsidizing alt-fuels vehicles would reduce pollution and we’d all benefit.

Well, it certainly didn’t work that way. First, the geniuses at the Legislature didn’t specify just how much alternative fuel a tax credit vehicle must use. An industry sprang up to install little bitty propane tanks in otherwise standard gas-guzzling SUVs, because the purchaser got the credit no matter how much (or how little) the vehicle used propane rather than dirty old regular gas.

Second, the tax credit applied not just to the alt-fuel conversion costs, but for the entire purchase price. People soon learned that buying a regular SUV was very expensive, but paying a bit extra for a propane tank (that they never need use) meant the State of Arizona would refund 75 or 80 or 90 percent of the cost of a brand new vehicle.

That’s really what vouchers are. The law’s proponents claim that the subsidy checks will go to parents who now are sending their kids to public schools, but there’s no way to check or enforce that. There’s no income test and the voucher isn’t nearly enough to send a poor deserving student in a failing public school to private school.

So just like how Jeff Groscost rigged the state tax code so his friends and neighbors could get a state subsidy for purchase of a new truck, today his successors are rigging the law to help pay for their friends’ and neighbors’ private school tuitions. Families who are now managing to pay private school tuition will get a check. Private schools can increase tuition, knowing that four grand more is free for paying parents.

Hustlers -- excuse me, entrepreneurs -- can start fly-by-night schools, provide $3,000 worth of education while charging $4,000, pocket the difference, and close the school before anyone complains. If a parent gets upset, the only remedy is a different school. It’s not like there’s any sort of accountability in the voucher program. The money goes out, and that’s it (except for one percent for administration, which also isn’t capped even though in real life, the bigger the program, the lower the percentage for overhead should be.)

The “vouchers save money” argument depends on a big increase in the number of kids going to private schools in Arizona, but of course there’s no good baseline figure of that number today or what those schools charge now. Instead, we’re going to throw money at a problem -- the problem of government not doing enough for the well-to-do.

That’s what links alt-fuels and vouchers. With alt-fuels, the state gave our tax money to rich people so they could do what they were going to do anyway. With vouchers, the state will give our tax money to the well-to-do so they can do what they were going to do anyway. Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me.

We now know the “conservative” Republican theory of government: Subsidizing rich people. Oh, they’ll trot out a poor family or two who can take advantage of vouchers. But it’s a fake. Those people will be as rare, and as representative, as the handful of alt-fuel SUVs that actually used propane.

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