School Vouchers vs. Tax Credits

NRO editor Robert VerBruggen has weighed in a couple of times this week on the relative merits of school vouchers and education tax credits, raising interesting and important issues.

In response to my earlier post today about an education tax credit case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, VerBruggen writes:

If the Supreme Court buys this logic — which I suppose is sound on its face — it could lead to some very interesting programs. Any time it’s illegal for a government to fund something directly, it could simply make a dollar-for-dollar “tax credit” program for it, allowing sympathetic taxpayers to technically “donate” — but actually just redirect the taxes they’d otherwise have to pay — to the cause.

This is actually an argument presented by critics of the program in their brief asking the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal that it… just decided to hear. The fact that this argument is fallacious is no doubt one reason that the Supreme Court decided to reject critics’ request. Here’s where it goes wrong:

Under a constitutional tax credit program such as Arizona’s, the state has no power to pressure/encourage taxpayers to do anything that the state could not do directly. Taxpayers can choose to give no money to religious charities, or to give all their money to them. The state is unable to affect their decisions in any way.

As Ilya Shapiro and I pointed out in Cato’s amicus brief in this case, this is identical to the law pertaining to federal charitable tax deductions. Religious charities get more tax deductible donations than any other kind of entity, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld their constitutionality because the decisions regarding such donations are left entirely to the unfettered choices of private citizens.

While it would be unconstitutional for a tax credit program to only allow donations to religious charities, it is perfectly consistent with the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court precedent for a tax credit program to be religiously neutral, leaving the donating decisions to private citizens.

But there’s much more to it than this. Credits are not just constitutional, they offer an important advantage over vouchers. Under voucher programs, all taxpayers must support every kind of schooling, which can be a source of social conflict in a diverse society. [Think liberals being forced to fund religious-conservative-capitalist schooling; or conservatives being forced to fund schools supporting homosexuality as natural and without any inherent moral implications]. While this doesn’t violate the U.S. constitution (see Zelman v. Simmons Harris), it’s still a less-than-ideal outcome, as was observed in all three dissents in the Zelman case.

Tax credits, as I explained in the last section of our amicus brief (p. 21), avoid this source of social conflict. Not just families but taxpayers enjoy the benefits of free choice and voluntary association. Tax credits are thus a way to ensure universal access to a free educational marketplace without putting citizens into conflict with one another on matters of conscience. For this and many other reasons, they are the best realistic policy for advancing educational freedom yet devised.