Tax rebate not part of kids going to private school Private-school attendance doesn't warrant break from government

April 03, 2001|By Susan Reimer

I WROTE a column recently criticizing the Maryland legislature for proposing to buy textbooks for private and parochial schools, and I must say that it is a good thing directions to my house don't appear in this space, or there would be an angry mob with torches and rope waiting in my front yard when I get home from the car pool.

I suggested that before the state hands out money to benefit families who pointedly reject public schools, it ought to make sure those same public schools aren't lacking for so much as a box of paper clips.

The responses to that column were overwhelmingly negative, aside from one woman who called to say, "You go, girl." And I have to say I was surprised by the lack of public outrage at a proposed $5 million grant for textbooks to private schools when public school roofs are leaking all over the state.

But those who wrote and called to criticize me did so from almost identical scripts: We are saving the state $7,000 for every child we send to private or parochial schools, and we ought to get some of that money back.

This, I gather, is the modern version of the "we pay taxes, too," argument. But it does not bear scrutiny.

Neither of my children are in juvenile detention homes. Am I entitled to a rebate from the state for the money it is not spending to house and rehabilitate them?

Neither has produced a child out of wedlock. Am I entitled to a portion of the money that is not spent by the state to support a young, unwed, uneducated, unemployed teen parent and child?

And, to be brutal, neither of my kids is in need of special education services, a motorized wheelchair, a personal teaching assistant or placement in a private institution for the developmentally disabled. Where's my cash-back bonus for that?

Do I get a tax break for what I do not require of the state? Do I get my share refunded to me for any government services to which I choose not to subscribe?

The answer is, obviously, no.

The public schools are there for our children as part of a fundamental belief in this country that all deserve an education, regardless of their social class or ability to pay. If a family has the money to make another choice, or the conviction that requires it, they are free to do so. But they are not entitled to a refund.

Another point made in the angry responses to my column was this one: You better pray William Cardinal Keeler does not close every parochial school in the state because the already overburdened public schools would sink under the weight of all the students they would suddenly have to take in.

However, that argument misses the point that if Keeler did indeed close all the parochial schools in the state, the public schools would be there for the families of all those displaced children. It might not be pretty, but there would be a school for them to attend.

But the greater irony in the argument that every child placed in private school saves the state money is that much more is lost than is gained when a family pulls out of the public school system.

The truth is, parents who are concerned enough about their children's education to make such a choice are just the kind of parents public schools need to be successful.

They value education, and they expect their children to give their best effort in achieving it. These parents are alert and aware; they have high expectations of the school system. In short, they make excellent watchdogs.

Parents like these support and supplement their children's education at home, and they are available to the school for everything from guest reading to big-time fund-raising.

When kids leave public school for private school, they take these parents with them.

And it is also true that the children who leave public school for private school are often just the children who would inspire teachers to show up for work everyday.

They are clean, fed, clothed, rested and ready to learn. Equally important, they have been taught some of the social skills necessary to learn in a group setting. In short, they are the kinds of kids you would be happy to have your kids go to school with.

And to all those letter-writers offended by my sharp rebuke of their motives for leaving public schools - that they were seeking to protect their children from the poor and minorities - I ask them to examine their hearts.

If you wouldn't mind your children learning among children who are different or who have less; if religion was an elective; if class sizes were smaller; if the instruction was more rigorous, then the loss to public schools is multiplied.

Because public schools need people like you. And public schools need your kids.

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