The Magazine


Jun 9, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 38 • By MAJOR GARRETT
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SOMETHING REFRESHING IS AFOOT in Minnesota. Republican governor Arne Carlson is in a knockdown-drag-out fight with the Democratic legislature over his plan to devote $ 150 million to tax deductions and credits for parents seeking alternatives to public education.

When the Democrats killed the plan in mid-May as the legislative session came to a close, Carlson demanded they debate it anew in a special session, now looming. The governor has vowed to veto the entire $ 6.7 billion education budget unless the Democrats relent and give school choice to parents throughout Minnesota.

The Democrats and the Minnesota chapter of the National Education Association are astonished by Carlson's newfound passion on school choice. The state education lobby endorsed him in 1990 and donated $ 60,000 to his campaign after he promised to oppose the use of public funds for private education. "We have a videotape where he denounces using public money for private religious schools," says a genuinely confused Judy Schaubach, president of the Minnesota Education Association. "I wish I knew what he was up to."

What Carlson is up to is waging the most important battle for school choice in the nation. He has pointedly declined to sip the tepid tea of bipartisanship with Democrats protective of the status quo in education. His gambit confuses his opponents on many counts. A pro-choice Republican who has signed gay-rights legislation and drastically boosted education spending, he keeps his distance from social conservatives and has never been supported by his party's nominating convention. He leaves office in two years, has no detectable senatorial ambitions, and is by no means presidential timber. His critics, then, detect no hidden scheme to advance his political interests.

So why pick a fight over school choice -- a sticky wicket anywhere -- in a state with an abiding affection for public schools? Because the governor is fed up with what he calls the "education cartel."

"The education lobby approached me in 1990 and wanted to know if I'd accept their support," Carlson recalls. "At the time, I was not in love with vouchers. But after I became governor, all I was pressured for was more money, more money, and more money. That made life impossible. The more I thought about it, the more I began to figure out that [the education lobby was] not that supportive of reforms that would actually help children. There is a kind of pretense that to them kids are first. That simply isn't true. The union interest is first."

Following this revelation, Carlson asked the legislature in 1995 to provide state education vouchers to poor children. The proposal attracted virtually no support and quickly died. The defeat was reminiscent of many suffered by the school-choice movement. Minnesota voters bought the lobby's line that education spending is a zero-sum game and that vouchers for the poor would shortchange middle-class kids. Voters were also genuinely concerned about the blurring of church-state separation implicit in taxfunded vouchers' going to church-run, as well as secular, private schools. These arguments, broadcast in massive media campaigns funded by the NEA, doomed school-choice referendums in Colorado and California and have scared off numerous Republican governors and members of Congress.

But instead of accepting defeat, Carlson set about devising a plan that could win middle-class support and sidestep church-state issues liable to land it in the courts (the fate of voucher programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee). With the help of Tim Sullivan, press secretary to Vin Weber when Weber was a GOP congressman from Minnesota, the governor settled on his package of refundable tax credits for lower-income families and tax deductions for the middle class.

The proposal would give any family with an income of up to $ 39,000 a refundable tax credit of $ 1,000 per child per year, up to $ 2,000, for expenditures to improve the child's knowledge of subjects required for high- school graduation. Tutors, educational summer camp, private school, and classes taught by qualified instructors would qualify; flute lessons, soccer camp, and self-esteem seminars would not. The credits would be indexed to inflation and would reduce a family's tax burden dollar for dollar.

To sweeten the pot for the middle class, Carlson proposes a deduction of up to $ 1,950 per child in grades K-6 and up to $ 3,000 per child in grades 7-12 for the same educational expenses. Education deductions already exist, but they are worth far less: $ 650 for children in grades K-6, $ 1,000 for those in grades 7-12. Carlson also wants to let parents deduct the cost of a home computer and educational software.