Tuesday, January 28, 2020
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Not as many Dunlap 5th graders play an instrument

An activity fee of $100 may be the reason 25 percent fewer fourth and fifth graders in Dunlap, Illinois, play an instrument in elementary school today than in 2014, the Peoria Journal-Star reports.

Music teachers, who came to a school board meeting earlier this week, said the district started charging the activity fee in 2014 as a temporary fix to reduce budget deficits. But now, the school board is contemplating increasing the fee to $125, while the teachers would rather see it cut in half, or eliminated altogether, especially for the youngest students.

The fee covers all activities, so for older students in this central Illinois community, that includes sports, music, speech, scholastic bowl, or whatever. But for fourth- and fifth-grade students, the only real activity choices are band and orchestra. Add to that other registration costs and the average instrument rental of more than $500 annually, and it’s possible some students’ families would have to come up with $1000 every year just to play in the band.

“We want you to consider the message you send when we say if you can’t pay, you can’t play,” the paper quoted Tina Holloway, the school’s band director, as saying to the board.

Unfortunately, activity fees like those used in Dunlap are a fact of life at many schools across the country. One reason they’re unlikely to be reduced or eliminated in many places is that several governors, most of them Republican, support tax credits for people who donate money to schools.

In Arizona last year, for example, public schools received $46 million from individuals and couples through the state’s tax credit program, while corporate and personal tax credits for private school tuition totaled $161 million.

In other words, Arizona’s 465 private schools saw 36.6 percent of last year’s tax credit funding, while more than 2,200 public schools shared just 10.5 percent.

Now lawmakers in the state are considering eliminating the tax credit, the reason being the credits are taking money away from other programs they want to provide for their constituents. In a staggering display of the depths of “opportunity cost,” both Republicans and Democrats want to get rid of the tax credit.

But another side effect of such a tax credit, since corporations generally have more money to donate than individuals, is that private schools get a lot more money than public schools and, because the government doesn’t have as much money for public school programs, those programs get cut in some cases and, in others, bring sharp increases in the activity fees charged to students just to keep the programs surviving.

The situation in Arizona should sound familiar to Illinois taxpayers. Voxitatis reported that the state’s tax credit program resulted in $36 million being sent to schools last year, most of them private. This is happening as the state revises its funding formula to leave public schools with less money. That’s the opportunity cost, again: If we spend money on tax credits for private schools, we necessarily take that money away from other programs lawmakers would like to fund, including public school activities, like band and orchestra.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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