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Tax Reform Provisions for Private K-12 Education: Unintended Consequences?

by John Gordon

While the final language is not yet out, members of the conference committee on federal tax legislation have reportedly reached an agreement on the outlines of a compromise bill. Going into the conference committee, one area of agreement in the House and Senate proposals was a measure that takes direct aim at public education: subsidizing private school tuition for wealthy families.

Both the House and Senate bills included provisions that would expand the 529 college saving account plan, which allows parents to save money and withdraw that money for higher education expenses (tax-free) to also cover up to $10,000 of tuition at private and parochial schools. (Language in the Senate bill also covers home schooling expenses.) The provision is a federal subsidy for private and parochial school tuition.

As it currently stands, 529 plans are used by largely upper-income households (median income of $142,400) and by making the proposed changes, it will only increase the growing inequality in educational attainment between high-income families and low and middle-income families. The planned expansion of this tax break is welcomed by school choice advocates, who argue that public schools are unable to properly educate students and should be more market-oriented. However, this planned expansion would be largely unavailable to low and middle-income families.

In reality, this plan does not really expand school choice options to anyone. It actually undercuts the savings benefits of the plan if they are used for private and parochial K-12 tuition. Pulling out the money sooner both lessens the tax benefit of the plan and leaves less money available in the plan for college. If you are a wealthy family, this is not much of a problem. But if you are a middle class or low-income family, it would be very unwise to use this money before college. The only real beneficiaries of this expansion would be people who are high-income and wish to have the government subsidize their kids private school tuition.

Withdrawing funds from the savings plans sooner rather than later could also have implications on the investment strategies employed by states and fund managers. Such changes could impact the eventual rates of return for all participants in 529 programs.

Along with capping the deduction for local property taxes and/or state and local income and sales taxes at $10,000, the 529 measures could set back public funding for education. Combined with the trillion dollar plus increase to the federal deficit the tax bill could bring, it’s another demonstration of why our members of Congress need to vote down this bill.

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