How Do We Know It Won’t Work? Well, Madame Secretary…

Normal people might have trouble staying awake for it. But when politicians start talking about tax-credit scholarships the way Queen Betsy did recently, historians get antsy. I uncovered even more evidence on my recent NSB that today’s tax-credit schemes revive the worst parts of pre-public schooling.

misc files

How I spent my Spring Break…

A little background to start with: Queen Betsy recently proposed five billion dollars to support tax-credit scholarships. What does that mean? Wealthy people could give their money to non-profit organizations that support the private schools of their choice, then receive (sometimes) a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. In short, it would allow some people—people who have enough money to care about tax breaks—to direct their tax money toward private schools instead of the public-school tax fund. [For more on the financial ins and outs of the program, check out this Have You Heard episode.]

With help from the archivists at the New-York Historical Society, I was able to spend the last week digging through the records of New York’s Free School Society. This was a group of well-to-do New Yorkers dedicated, as they pledged in 1818, to providing schools for poor children in the city,

poor and suffering children, who must progress from the cradle to maturity with no Schools but those of profligacy and guilt, unless the hand of Charity be extended to reclaim their steps.

What do they have to do with QB’s tax-credit scheme? Everything. At first, the society thought it could cobble together a mix of funding, a mish mash of “the donations and Legacies of charitable Individuals, the bounty of the Corporation [i.e. city government] and the munificence of the Legislature.”

It didn’t work. At the beginning of 1819, the FSS found itself in a life-or-death financial crisis, running a deficit of $11,465, with only $2,235 in their treasury. What to do? They asked the state legislature in Albany for a grant of $10,165. In their application, the FSS warned the legislators that without this money, without the “hand of Charity,” their city would soon fall prey to “the vices and crimes of European Cities.” The money was meant for the public good, the FSS explained, to continue

early education and early habits, the fundamental springs of action and character in all communities, as the protecting resort if we would perpetuate our Civil Institutions and our Religious privileges.

The tight-fisted legislators weren’t convinced. They grudgingly offered only $5,000, so the FSS had to cut teacher salaries and student prizes. It had to—guess what—increase class sizes and abolish frills such as food and clothing for the destitute students.

Subscription book for school 3 1818

How it worked before public funding: A subscription book from 1818, in which well-heeled New Yorkers offered poor kids a little help…

In response, the FSS came up with a radical idea. In 1822, they floated a new kind of funding idea past the mayor. What if everyone in New York—130,000 people at the time, according to the FSS—chipped in a little bit through taxes to help pay for these schools? It wouldn’t cost much. The FSS needed its additional $5,000, and they calculated that each New Yorker could pay an additional four cents in annual taxes to cover the deficit.

Their plan didn’t go anywhere at the time, but it stands as a stark lesson for the likes of Queen Betsy and her privatizing brigade. The United States has already tried mixing public and private funding for our public schools and we learned our lessons the hard way: It doesn’t work.

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