The Magazine

HOW TO WIN THE EDUCATION FIGHT Minnesota's Arne Carlson Points the Way

Sep 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 01 • By MAJOR GARRETT
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This fall, the nation will hear the opening shot in a battle over education. President Clinton will unveil a plan that will sound new, but that will, in fact, be the same, stale, statist approach that the education establishment has foisted on the taxpayers for more than a generation.

This time, though, Republicans should be ready. They should relish a brawl over education. They can study a game plan executed to perfection by one of their own, a plan that galvanized public support, overwhelmed a Democratic legislature, and defeated the fearsome teachers' unions.

And it happened in -- of all places -- Minnesota. Not Alabama, or Montana, or New Hampshire, but a state whose devotion to union-dominated public education is legendary. Republican governor Arne Carlson led a shrewd campaign for reform, inducing the majority Democrats to go along -- with union lobbyists screaming in their faces in the hallways.

On June 25 of this year, the legislature approved a two-year package of tax cuts valued at $ 160 million. These breaks will give the poor and middle class more money to spend on private education, home computers, tutors, and summer education camps.

As with many tax plans, this one has a few wrinkles. The essence of it is a $ 1,000 refundable tax credit for families earning less than $ 33,500 per year. The governor originally sought the use of these credits for all education expenses, including private-school tuition. But Democrats refused, and Carlson agreed to exempt tuition from the tax credits.

The governor also more than doubled tax deductions for school-age children. Now parents can claim an annual deduction between $ 1,625 and $ 2,500 each year, depending on the child's age. These deductions, available to taxpayers of any income bracket, may be used for private-school tuition.

As for that apparent concession on tax credits and tuition, Carlson agreed only after one of his top aides, Todd Johnson, persuaded him that allowing the credits for expenses related to "instructional materials," transportation, and book purchases could accomplish many of the same goals. In negotiations with Democrats, it was clear they were willing to swallow 90 percent of the governor's plan, but only if they could save face by preventing those of modest income from using tax credits for tuition.

Johnson showed Carlson how private schools could easily shift their accounting to use the credits for approved purposes, thereby offsetting tuition costs. He knew this because he sat on the board of a Lutheran church whose school his two boys attend.

Democrats comforted themselves by crowing about Carlson's "retreat" on the issue of tuition. But education lobbyists knew better. "It's a travesty," Cheryl Furrer of the Minnesota Education Association told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We've certainly opened the floodgates on private- and religious-school funding."

What the education lobby found particularly appalling was that the Carlson plan won the support of a majority of Democrats in both legislative chambers, including House speaker Phil Carruthers and Senate majority leader Roger Moe. "People are becoming discontented with the status quo," says Republican state representative LeRoy Koppendrayer, the original sponsor of Carlson's plan. " The good that is going to come out of this is that the teachers' unions and the system now must change. The old methods are going to disappear. People used to say, 'Other school districts are hurting, but mine is okay.' They're not saying that anymore."

"I think the Republican party has a tremendous opportunity to create a new message on education that stresses opportunity," says Carlson. "We should adopt the philosophy that every child will be given the chance to succeed. I think it is a moral argument. I want to put it on a moral plane."

Carlson will be in Washington this week to spread the gospel of school choice and rouse Republicans for the coming fight with Clinton and Hill Democrats over federal education funding. Sen. Paul Coverdell, Republican of Georgia, has furthered debate by authoring legislation to create Individual Retirement Accounts for K-12 expenses. His plan would allow parents, grandparents, and scholarship sponsors to save up to $ 2,000 annually in after-tax income in separate accounts. Interest would accrue tax-free as long as the savings were used to defray educational expenses.