Tax Credits for Education

Back in my university days, a number of us fancied a libertarian concept known as “tax credits for education”. The idea seemed so simple. Parents pay taxes for the public education system; middle- and lower-income parents have little or no money left over to choose the private school option. Why not give them a tax credit, letting them vote their dollars to the school that best achieves their educational goals? But in 2010, nothing is ever so simple …

When we passed out the leaflets on campus, other students scowled at us like we were from Mars. Perhaps we were.

Today. our “idea from Mars” is federal law, as the IRS explains on their Education Credits web page.

In Arizona, taxpayers have sued to stop a similar program on the state level. According to the New York Times, “The program was challenged by Arizona taxpayers who said it effectively used state money to finance religious education and so violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on the official establishment of religion. “

The case is being heard in the United States Supreme Court right now. The Times also published the supremecourt.gov link to the oral arguments transcript being heard now by the Court. It is interesting.

It would be hard to find a more staunch supporter of separation of church and state than myself. And it’s a matter of record that parents very often choose private schools that offer religious instruction. But I find I have to favor the line of Justice Scalia’s questioning:

JUSTICE SCALIA: Then what’s your problem under the Establishment Clause?
MR. BENDER: The problem is that government benefits in a government benefit program cannot constitutionally be given to the beneficiaries of the program on the basis of their religion.
JUSTICE SCALIA: So you must positively disfavor religion?

Justice Scalia is Catholic. I am not. Many of the most vociferous advocates of private education are deeply committed to their own religious institutions and educational programs. I am not. I nevertheless believe the religious-end-use argument against educational tax credits misses the point. It is a red herring.

It comes back to the original forty year old concept. If parents are to be given a tax credit to afford them freedom of choice in selecting an accredited educational curriculum for their children, it becomes perverse and immoral to then announce you can choose any school you want, so long as it doesn’t offer religious instruction.

As amply demonstrated in other articles on this site, I also have zero tolerance for teaching kids religious agendas which rest on science denial — such as “creationism”. But I don’t have to pay for that instruction. If you argue that I really do, because ultimately it all comes out of the same tax bucket, you might equally well argue that we get to vote on which books we can read and which movies we may watch. The ugly specter of censorship doesn’t become prettier under the disguise of “education”.

It’s up to us – and now, it’s up to the Supreme Court – to decide which is the greater principle for kids to see and learn under : real-time exercise of freedom of choice, or the jingoism of “safe” curricula and carefully controlled, state-approved mediocrity.

If the United States of America really can’t tolerate light-of-day debate on the great moral, intellectual and religious ideas of the age, perhaps we don’t really deserve a better education system after all.

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