Panelists debate tuition tax credits vs. vouchers

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Tuition tax credits are less affected by government regulation and more attractive to voters than vouchers, a politically diverse panel told a group of state policy-makers and staff Tuesday at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The discussion examined the financial and educational accountability of each school-choice strategy based on panelists' research on tax-credit and voucher programs enacted by a handful of state legislatures over the past several years.

Utah lawmakers have debated tuition tax credits in recent years, but the issue has died each time because of concerns about the financial impact on public schools.

Economists at Utah State University are studying the cost implications this summer.

Panelist Clive Belfield, a Columbia University (New York City) economist, said his research typically shows tax credits result in a net loss of government funding for public schools.

Joseph Lehman of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy argued school-choice measures would save public schools money in the long run if they were phased in.

"They can be designed to save a state money, not cost it," he said.

There was just as much disagreement on how closely states should regulate tax-credit and voucher programs.

Too much regulation discourages participation in the programs, while too little opens the door for fraud and other abuses, said Belfield, research director of Columbia's National Center for the Study of Privatization in Public Education.

Many problems with Florida's three voucher programs are due in large part to a lack of oversight and accountability, he said.