Cover Story

Unstoppable choice?

A new education tax credit, by giving choice to those who pay the bills, may be constitutionally bulletproof

Issue: "Balancing act," Sept. 8, 2001

There's a new school-choice option in town-one that anti-choice educrats may be powerless to gun down. The option: education tax credits. But not the kind that would let individual taxpayers recoup their own kids' private-school expenses. These credits instead let philanthropic-minded individuals and businesses help financially needy parents choose schools they feel best fit their kids' needs.

Tax credits help families like the Alexanders. In 1998, life was perking along pleasantly for Kyle and Marcia Alexander, their three sons by Mr. Alexander's first marriage, and their daughter together, Brenna, 2. Mr. Alexander worked as a department manager for a Phoenix-area computer firm. Mrs. Alexander cleaned houses part-time to increase the family's bottom line. With a combined income of $55,000 a year, the Alexanders couldn't afford, as they wished, to send their kids to a Christian school. But by setting her own hours, Mrs. Alexander could stay involved at the boys' public elementary school through room-mothering, chaperoning field trips-and reteaching the boys at home when she felt school lessons conflicted with the teachings of the Bible.

But in October 1998, a nagging cough sent Mr. Alexander, an athletic 38-year-old, to see a doctor. By Christmas Day, a series of tests confirmed he suffered from fibrosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer that had attacked his lungs. When he died in June 1999, the three boys went to live with their birth mother, and Mrs. Alexander was left to raise Brenna alone. With her annual income slashed to $15,000, she had no choice but to go to work full-time. Brenna would start kindergarten the following year, but "I couldn't be all those things in school for Brenna that I could be for the boys," Mrs. Alexander told WORLD. "Now I had no choice but to work"-and no choice but to leave her education up to government schools.

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But a friend of the family wrote to the Arizona Scholarship Fund (ASF), one of 32 private scholarship organizations in the state that have sprung up around education tax-credit legislation passed there in 1997. The friend requested a partial scholarship for Brenna. Instead, ASF agreed to pay Brenna's tuition for 12 years of private school.

In Arizona, businesses and individuals can donate up to $500 per year to nonprofit, private scholarship groups and receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on April 15. Since 1997, scholarship groups there have raised $32 million and funded 19,000 scholarships. This year, both Pennsylvania and Florida passed laws that let businesses take a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to private scholarship organizations. In August, the American Legislative Exchange Council passed a resolution supporting such measures nationally, and the Colorado legislature came within a vote of passing its own scholarship tax credit law. Arizona Scholarship fund director Cambria Henderson says she expects Colorado legislators to pass the measure next session.

Martin Angell, founder in Texas of A Choice for Every Child Foundation, says more legislators support this newer brand of education tax credit because it is free of issues, particularly church-state separation, that have plagued the voucher movement. In 1999, the Arizona Supreme Court beat back church-state challenges to the state's tax-credit law; the court ruled the program constitutional and declared resulting scholarships "private, voluntary, non-governmental funding." The U.S. Supreme Court let that ruling stand.

That worries school-choice foes. With private scholarship tax credits, the church-state separation argument falls flat since three degrees of separation-the donor, the scholarship group, and parents-exist between the money and the receiving school. Funds never pass through government ledgers. Groups such as the ACLU have a tough time tarring such credits as a ploy of the "Christian Right": So far, Arizona groups have paid for needy kids to attend Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and non-religious schools.

Going beyond the legal and political arguments, Mr. Angell sees private scholarship tax credits as the right thing to do. In the school-choice movement, "we eventually want to help every child, but to win this battle we have to start with the poorest kids," he said. "According to the Bible, we are to help the widow, the orphan, and the poor."

Marcia Alexander never expected to be a widow-but being able to choose a Christian education for her daughter helped ease one of her burdens. Last month, Brenna wore her school uniform of a navy blue pleated jumper with a white polo undershirt on her first day at Cathedral Christian Academy.

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