Credits are due

It's time to devoucherize the debate over school choice

Issue: "View from the Axis," March 9, 2002

School vouchers may gain the approval of the Supreme Court, but they haven't done so well with voters. Americans who have had the opportunity to vote directly on school vouchers have rejected the idea, most recently by 2-1 margins in California and Michigan in the 2000 elections.

The good news is that despite the sound and fury coming from the Supreme Court building last month, a new push in the school-choice arena involves a much better idea-tax credits. While voucher programs remain political poison, tax-credit programs are quietly gaining political steam across the country.

The idea behind these tax-credit programs is simple: Allow individual taxpayers or companies to subtract from their tax bills the amount of money they donate to scholarship funds. Donors can stipulate which private schools their money will support, and poor parents who want their children to attend those schools can apply for the scholarships.

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Arizona was the trailblazer on tax credits. In 1997, the state began allowing individual taxpayers to subtract up to $500 from their tax bills for donations to scholarship funds, and the credit has helped more than 19,000 students attend private schools. Other states, including Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, have adopted similar programs.

In addition to helping children, tax credits have an added benefit: They are without question in line with the Constitution. Unlike vouchers, tax-credit programs almost exactly match the church-state thinking of America's Founders.

Many of the Founders favored "multiple establishments," or government support for religion on the state level as long as the money did not go to one particular church. Voucher programs pass that test: No single denomination or sect would have a monopoly on voucher funds.

But the Founders, who were always concerned about the rights of taxpayers, had another test. They believed that the government should allow each taxpayer to decide which church his tax dollars would support. The three states that implemented religious taxes-Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire-all gave individual taxpayers the right to designate which church received their money. Thomas Jefferson-who, along with Baptists and some Presbyterians, opposed even these types of plans-nonetheless stated the Founders' guiding principle: "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical."

Vouchers don't pass this test. Voucher programs give choice to the recipients of subsidies (many of whom pay little or no taxes), while the Founders gave choice to those who provided the subsidies. With vouchers, taxpayers have no choice about which religions they must promote.

The United States in 2002, of course, is a very different place than it was during the founding era. Today we have tax-funded art, tax-funded broadcasting, and tax-funded schools that promote ideas that many taxpayers strongly oppose. The government today is very much in the business of promoting political and even religious ideas, and those ideas most often turn out to be liberal and/or anti-Christian.

Many Christians and conservatives think the solution is to push for policies like school vouchers. If the government is going to be in the business of promoting ideas, the thinking goes, then we better fight for our share of the money.

A much better solution lies in returning to the Founders' principles. If we cannot eliminate many of these government programs (and, practically speaking, we cannot), then let's at least allow each taxpayer to decide which religions, which philosophies, and which ideas his money will promote.

As a Christian, I don't want to fund Buddhist, Hindu, or Islamic schools any more than I want to fund the local materialistic public school. In a pluralistic society with numerous false religions, evangelicals should value the protections the Founders fought to implement. Tax-credit programs protect our rights, while voucher programs do not.

Tax-credit programs, like the one in Arizona, help poor schoolchildren. They restore a measure of liberty to taxpayers. They do not threaten the independence of private schools the way vouchers do. Unless conservatives are simply addicted to promoting government spending, why don't we just go ahead and devoucherize the debate over school choice?

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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