The Ethicist: I Disapprove of School Vouchers. Can I Still Apply for Them?

April 15, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “I Disapprove of School Vouchers. Can I Still Apply for Them?”.

My son attends preschool part time at a private Montessori school, which goes up to middle school. I like the school, and he is very happy there, but I can’t afford to keep him there when he starts kindergarten full time.

I believe that free public education is an important aspect of our society. Our local public elementary school is generally considered a decent option, but I worry about how standardized testing has changed the public-school landscape in recent decades. My son is thriving in his current environment, and the approach of traditional public schools is significantly different from Montessori’s. If money were no object, I would strongly consider keeping him at his current school.

Our state has a school-voucher program, which uses public money to help low-income families pay for private-school tuition. My family would probably qualify. But I believe that taxpayer dollars would be better spent to fortify public-school systems and should not be funneled to private schools. Given my beliefs, may I apply for a school voucher? Name Withheld

My response: All that build up and you ask “May I. . .”?

Of course the answer is yes, you may. I think you mean to ask about how to resolve your conflicting values between doing what you consider best for your child and what you consider best for society, but you didn’t ask and we’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to nonquestions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:

Looking after your son’s interests is a special obligation you have as a parent. “Special obligation” is a philosopher’s term, but it simply means that you have duties to him, arising out of your relationship, that you don’t have to other children. You’re not merely entitled to put his education first; you’re obliged to do so. You should feel free to use whatever legal means there are to get him a great education, including vouchers — unless you think they are so wicked that your participation in them would amount to condoning evil. If you just think the voucher program is bad policy, then join the campaign against it. That’s the right way to voice your judgments about the merits of educational policy. You don’t want to sacrifice your son’s education to abstract principle, especially given that you’re not going to end the voucher program by failing to make use of it. Our roles as parents, friends, employees and citizens can make conflicting calls on us.

But be sure you’re right about what’s in your child’s best interests. You should take a closer look at your local public elementary school, and not content yourself with the general skepticism you express about the “public-school landscape” and the effects of “standardized testing.” If it turns out that the private option isn’t obviously better, you can bring your beliefs as a citizen into a more natural alignment with your duties as a parent.

My children are currently in private school, although both were in public school for many years, and my younger one may switch back to public school for high school. I’m a big supporter of public education, so I was already feeling guilty about my choice — and then the federal tax bill passed in December. New tax rules allow pretax 529 savings accounts to be used not just for higher education but also for private precollege education. What should I do, if I want to do all I can to be a public-school ally? It seems there are three options: 1) Not take the tax deduction; 2) Take the deduction and give the money I save to the P.T.A. of a local underresourced public school or an organization working to improve public education; or 3) Take the deduction, figuring that as an N.Y.C. resident it will help offset the huge increase I expect to see in my taxes. Name Withheld

My response: I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

What should you do? I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

Under the new federal tax act, you can withdraw up to $10,000 a year from a 529 savings account to pay for a student’s private precollege education. Vouchers lite! Previously, these accounts could be used only for higher education. But the way that the relevant “deduction” works hasn’t changed. When you pay into these accounts in New York State, your state income-tax liability is reduced up to a limit of $5,000 for a single person or $10,000 for a couple. Once in the fund, your money grows federal- and state-tax-deferred; but you don’t have to pay taxes when you take the money out, if it’s for a qualified educational expense. (The details here, as with much tax law, get complicated, but this is the basic picture.) You may well be paying into one of these funds already for your child’s college education and getting the maximum state-tax deduction. If so, this particular change in the tax law should not affect your income taxes very much.

Of course, any money you take out in the next few years won’t be available later for college expenses and won’t have compounded for long. Still, the new federal law does encourage you to save for private school as well as college in one of these funds. If things remain as they are, the federal provision that increases the use of these funds threatens to reduce state income-tax revenue. Then again, a “preliminary report” from New York’s tax department suggests that K-12 payments may not be considered qualified educational expenses and that the state could recapture any associated tax benefits. And, as you’re aware, this new use for 529 funds may do little to offset the loss to you that comes from no longer being able to deduct more than $10,000 in state property and income taxes from your federally taxable income.

None of that is ethics, though. My ethical view is you should take all the tax deductions you’re legally entitled to. Many features of our tax system are ridiculous; many are the product of lobbying without much regard for the public good. But you don’t have a duty to pay more than you are required to by law just because you and people like you are benefiting from bad policies, any more than you have the right to pay less than you’re required to when you take a hit from bad policies. The right thing to aim for is tax reform that makes the system fairer. (We will all have our own views about whether the recent tax reforms did that. Count me a skeptic.)

You’re already helping to pay for New York’s public schools through your taxes. Your choice to give your children a private education doesn’t lessen your financial support for public schools. If you want to lend additional assistance to public schools without sending your kids to them, you can, as you say, support the local P.T.A. You can also pay attention when voting for candidates for public office and vote for those who will do their best for those schools. And you could lobby your state to make sure that it excludes deductions related to 529 funds used for K-12 expenses — deductions that encourage people with your sort of income to leave the public schools. With more people like you as parents, those schools might provide better education for all our children.

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