Tag: tax credit programs

Dear Journalists, Donations Are Not ‘State Money’

Oklahoma has just joined the ranks of a half-dozen other states by enacting a K-12 education tax credit program. Under the new program, individuals or businesses that donate to non-profit School Tuition Organizations receive a tax cut worth 50 percent of the donation. STOs then use the funds to help low income families afford private schooling.

Journalists for the Associated Press and countless other media outlets routinely refer to donations made under education tax credit programs as “state money.” According to the United States Supreme Court’s recent ACSTO v. Winn decision, “that is incorrect.” This is a matter of settled law. To call these private donations “state money” is to misrepresent the facts and mislead readers.

It would be bad enough if the journalists and wire services misrepresenting these programs were simply unaware that they were distorting the facts, but in at least some cases they continue to do so even after having been apprized of their error. Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, wrote to the AP last week to correct their earlier erroneous coverage. He received no reply and the errors continue.

I never cease to be amazed by this kind of behavior from an industry that is clinging for its life. The purpose of journalism is to apprize customers of the facts. Demonstrating indifference to the facts cannot be good for business.

SCOTUS Issues a Super-Zelman Decision on Education Tax Credits

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States issued the Zelman decision for education tax credits. More than that, it’s Super-Zelman.

The findings in Zelman apply just as well to education tax credit programs, but only credit programs allow taxpayers to spend their own money on education.

As Andrew Coulson explained in detail earlier, the Court ruled that education tax credits are not government funds, and the plaintiffs therefore have no standing to bring suit in the first place. They were not harmed because none of their money was collected and then disburse by the state.

Children are rightly our primary concern, but taxpayers deserve more consideration than they often get in debates over education reform.

Education tax credit programs can expand educational choice and freedom while respecting the preferences and values of the individual taxpayers who earned that money in the first place.

Voucher programs simply cannot provide this kind of accountability to both parents and taxpayers.

Vouchers, Tax Credits, and Social Conflict

Yesterday, I contended that education tax credits substantially avoid the compulsion inherent in school voucher programs – that vouchers compel all taxpayers to fund every kind of schooling (including ones they may strongly object to) whereas tax credits do not.

In his most recent response, NRO’s Robert VerBruggen disagrees. He writes

I don’t see how [tax credits do] anything whatsoever to change this, at least mathematically speaking. Whenever someone earmarks their tax dollars for a certain purpose — in this case, by “donating” to a voucher program and being reimbursed with a tax credit — the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget. Non-”donating” taxpayers, therefore, subsidize the voucher program to the exact same degree they would have if the government funded it directly.

Let’s deal with the core of our disagreement by following the money. Under a voucher program, you pay your taxes as always, the money goes into a big government pot, and it pays for every type of schooling – including some that may violate your convictions. About this sort of thing, I agree with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that:

to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical

(Well, I agree with the tyrannical part, anyway).

Tax credit programs like Arizona’s are different. From the start, taxpayers are given a choice. If they wish, they may donate to any of a wide range of k-12 scholarship organizations that subsidize private school tuition, and receive a dollar for dollar tax cut to offset the cost. That portion of their money – and only that portion of their money – is then used for scholarships for private schooling. So far, there is no conviction-violating compulsion.

Alternatively, taxpayers may choose not to donate to any scholarship organization, in which case they pay their taxes as always and the money goes into the state treasury. From there, the only k-12 educational uses to which it can be put are funding the secular public and public charter school systems. In this scenario, none of the taxpayer’s money goes to fund religious instruction of any kind.

There is no intermixing of funds between these separate options. There are two different pots of money, and each individual taxpayer decides which pot will receive his money.

It is not true that “the government has to devote a higher share of everyone else’s tax dollars to the rest of the budget,” because the government is no longer financially responsible for the education of children once they accept scholarships. To understand this, we again just have to follow the money.

For example, imagine that half of all taxpayers donate to the scholarship program, and half do not. Are the half that do not make donations “subsidiz[ing] the [scholarship students] to the exact same degree” as if it were a voucher? No. Under a voucher program, every taxpayer would be paying some portion of the cost of the program. With tax credits, the entire cost of the private school scholarships is being borne by those taxpayers who are making the donations. The taxes still being paid by non-donors do not go toward scholarships and they do not go up. On the contrary, if anything, the taxes paid by non-donors go down.

Educating students in private schools via scholarship programs costs less than placing them in government schools. The more students leave the government system for independent schools, the less it costs to operate the government schools. [And anyone out there who thinks that fixed costs are dominant in the public school sector should consult the relevant econometric literature. I and others have done marginal cost estimates of public schooling and found it to be in the 80 to 85 percent range – so when a child leaves the public school system, the system saves almost the entire average per-pupil cost.] And as the cost of the public school system goes down, the amount of revenue that needs to be appropriated for it goes down as well. In most states, state level public school appropriations are tied to enrollment, so appropriations will fall as students leave the government system.

The only scenario in which non-donating taxpayers could be said to have an “increased” tax burden due to an an education tax credit program is one in which there was never a tax-funded government school system in the first place. Then, there would be no savings from moving children out of public schools. But even in that fictional scenario, no taxpayer would be forced to pay for devotional religious instruction. They would always have the choice of donating to secular scholarship organizations, if they so wished.

So credits don’t suffer the same conviction-violating, conflict-generating, compulsion problem that afflicts vouchers.

I should add, of course, that public schools are much worse than vouchers in this regard. The conventional public school system not only forces all taxpayers to fund a single official government organ of education, sparking endless battles over what is taught, it puts huge financial pressure on all families to place their kids in that system, by virtue of its lavish funding monopoly. How a nation founded on liberty was ever lured into adopting such a compulsion-laden, Balkanizing system is a very interesting story of its own.

Arizona Republic Corrects its Tax Credit Savings Estimate in Response to Cato Input

Last Wednesday, the Arizona Republic published a fiscal impact assessment of the state’s education tax credit programs for k-12 private school choice. While the story itself was a good faith effort, there were errors in both its data and assumptions. I wrote an op-ed intended for the Republic correcting those errors and e-mailed a copy to the story’s author, Ron Hansen, the same day his story was published.

While the paper’s editorial page expressed no interest in printing my submission, the Republic published a correction today based on the accurate spending and savings figures I provided. In a phone call, Hansen indicated that the correction was precipitated by my e-mail, though he opted not to mention that in his story, saying that he didn’t think the source of the correction was important.

On the one hand, Hansen and the Republic are to be commended for publishing a correction, and it should be noted that the bad data were provided to them by Arizona Director of School Finance, Yousef Awwad. On the other hand, their correction is incomplete – acknowledging only the bad data and not the mistaken assumption explained in my op-ed.

So while the Republic has now raised its savings estimate from their originally reported $3 million to a corrected $8.3 million, they have yet to explain that this figure could actually understate the total savings.

Still, their response is better than I expected.  Most newspapers, in my experience, do absolutely nothing when factual and reasoning errors in their education stories are brought to their attention, and in fact go on to repeat those same errors in subsequent stories.

And they wonder why two thirds of the public now doubt their credibility….

9th Circuit Imitates Marcel Marceau

Last month, I warned that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would soon be handing the school choice movement a legal setback. Well, it’s here.

As expected, the 9th Circuit has reinstated a lower court challenge to Arizona’s scholarship donation tax credit program. The program allows taxpayers to contribute to non-profit Scholarship Tuition Organizations (STOs) that provide financial assistance to families choosing private schools. The taxpayers can then claim a dollar for dollar credit for their donation.

While this ruling leaves the program intact for the time being, it would almost surely require the tax credit program to be amended if it is allowed to stand. Fortunately, as I noted in my earlier post, the 9th Circuit is overturned as often as a caber at the Highland Games. Its ruling is unlikely to stand if appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue is the fact that taxpayers are free to choose the STOs to which they donate their money, and private STOs are free to set criteria for the schools at which their scholarships can be redeemed. There are thus some STOs that offer scholarships only to religious schools. This is essentially the same situation that obtains when taxpayers claim deductions for contributions to non-profit charities. The charities can legally be religious or secular, and they can infuse the services they offer with religion, or not, as they choose. The whole thing is constitutional because it is the taxpayers, not the government, that decides which charity gets their funds. This is all settled law.

To get around the fact that the legal precedents were against it, the 9th Circuit decided to do a compelling impression of Marcel Marceau, pretending to hem itself into an invisible legal box. Specifically, the 9th Circuit decided to pretend that the constitutional restrictions limiting government expenditures (as in school voucher programs) also apply to the private funds at issue under tax credit programs.

That box, of course, does not exist. No government money is spent under the tax credit program, and the tax credits are themselves available on an entirely religiously neutral basis, in scrupulous conformance with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

So here’s my next legal prediction: the constitutionality of the Arizona education tax credit program will ultimately be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and opponents of educational freedom will have to resort to some new ploy in their efforts to herd American families back onto the public school plantation.