New York Times Misrepresents Georgia Education Program

A Monday New York Times story (“Backed by State Money, Georgia Scholarships Go to Schools Barring Gays”) repeatedly claims that the scholarship funds used in Georgia’s education tax credit program are “tax money,” “state money,” and “public money.” The entire article depends on this characterization—a characterization that is demonstrably false. Here’s why:

In its 2011 ACSTO v. Winn decision, the United States Supreme Court flatly rejected the claim that donations under a similar Arizona tax credit program were public funds, stating that:

In [the respondents’] view the tax credit is… best understood as a governmental expenditure. That is incorrect.

The Court elaborates on the next page:

When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute to [Scholarship Tuition Organizations],they spend their own money, not money the State has collected from respondents or from other taxpayers. Arizona’s [tax credit program] does not “extrac[t] and spen[d]” a conscientious dissenter’s funds in service of an establishment [of religion],… or “‘force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property’” to a sectarian organization…. On the contrary, respondents and other Arizona taxpayers remain free to pay their own tax bills, without contributing to an STO. — emphasis added

Because these scholarship donations are private and voluntary, the central point of the New York Times story is false. Under an education donation tax credit program, no one is forced to support schools whose teachings violate their convictions. Note that the same cannot be said of public schools, which all taxpayers must support regardless of their beliefs. For those of us who truly value freedom of conscience and individual liberty, education tax credits are a superior means of funding education to the status quo system. For over a decade, I have advocated education tax credit programs precisely because they do not do what the Times story wrongly claimed.

Two years ago, I shared the ACSTO v. Winn ruling with the standards editor of the Associated Press, who ultimately agreed that it was a misrepresentation for journalists to call these private donations “public money.” I sincerely hope that the New York Times will rise to the same journalistic standard as the AP, publish a correction to its story, and take steps to prevent future occurrences of this error.