Tag: tax credits

Don’t Let the Aphorism Be the Enemy of Thought

I am often told that pointing out the serious shortcomings of government-funded school vouchers and the relative superiority of education tax credits is a case of “making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

It’s isn’t.

That is a misapplication of Voltaire’s famous aphorism. What the aphorism exhorts is that we not pursue an unattainable perfection when a good alternative is within reach. Education tax credits are not only attainable, they are usually easier to obtain than vouchers. Consider a recent example: Pennsylvania’s state House has voted 190 to 7 to expand its existing EITC tax credit program while the state Senate has been deadlocked for weeks looking for the bare minimum of votes to pass a voucher bill.

On top of that, it is dubious to cast vouchers as “the good” when they will expand the scope of compulsion of taxpayers to funding many new types of schooling to which they might well object, impose heavy new regulations on private schools (homogenizing the available “choices”), and more pervasively curtail direct payment by consumers in favor of third party government payment.

Even those who may not be fully convinced that vouchers are inferior should pause before trying to enact them in states that already have education tax credit programs with good growth prospects. Why make the dubious the enemy of the pretty darned good?

Educational Freedom in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania state House has just passed an expansion of its existing k-12 scholarship-donation tax credit program. The vote was a deafening 190 to 7 in a state that has voted Democratic in every one of the last five presidential elections.

Nevertheless, there is serious opposition to this expansion of education tax credits in the Senate, where several prominent lawmakers prefer a voucher bill. It’s not clear which path the legislature will ultimately take, but there seems to be considerable agreement on the goal: giving parents true freedom of choice in education.

A key point to consider, then, is which type of program is most likely to preserve the freedom and diversity of the education marketplace, thereby giving families a meaningful range of alternatives to choose from. I ran a regression study on precisely this question last fall (now forthcoming in the peer-reviewed Journal of School Choice). What I found is that vouchers impose a large and statistically highly significant burden of additional regulation on private schools while tax credits do not.

This is not the only advantage of the tax credit program, but it is a compelling one.

VICTORY! Supreme Court Upholds Education Tax Credits

Ruling in ACSTO v. Winn today, the United States Supreme upheld Arizona’s k-12 scholarship tax credit program. Under this program, individuals receive a tax cut if they donate to a non-profit scholarship fund that gives out private school tuition aid.

Today’s decision, a reversal of an earlier ruling by the 9th Circuit, found that the respondents had no right to sue to stop the AZ program because they have not been harmed by it. And the reason they have not been harmed is central to why, for nearly 20 years, I have favored education tax credit programs over both traditional public schooling and voucher programs.

Respondents alleged that cutting a person’s taxes is equivalent to spending government money – and since taxpayers are receiving credits for donations to religious organizations, that was ostensibly equivalent to the government giving to those organizations. The Court answered, quite simply: “That is incorrect.” Elaborating, the Court ruled that:

tax credits and governmental expenditures do not both implicate individual taxpayers in sectarian activities. A dissenter whose tax dollars are “extracted and spent” knows that he has in some small measure been made to contribute to an establishment in violation of conscience…. [By contrast,] awarding some citizens a tax credit allows other citizens to retain control over their own funds in accordance with their own consciences.       [emphasis added]

That is precisely the argument I have been making for a very long time (last Friday, at a conference in Berkeley; last year in a blog post, here; a dozen years ago, in my book Market Education: The Unknown History).

With this ruling, the way forward for the school choice movement is clearer than it has ever been. Education tax credits – both the scholarship form operating in Arizona and the direct form operating in Illinois and Iowa – allow for universal access to the education marketplace without forcing any citizen to subsidize instruction that violates their convictions. No other school choice system offers that advantage and it is an advantage that is central to the values of our nation. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Act Establishing Religious Freedom:

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

Public schooling has long been a source of social conflict because it engenders just such compulsion. Education tax credits offer a way of securing universal public education without this blight. It is time to adopt them more widely.

How to Think & Talk About Vouchers & Ed Tax Credits

School Choice Week is here, and there are a lot of people trying to spread the good word about the benefits of increasing educational freedom.

But what benefit of choice is best to focus on?

You can make at most a few points in an oped or on talk radio. On TV, and even in print reporting, you’re lucky to get one point across. And with friends and family, and even politicians, you need to keep the focus where it will do the most good.

So, should you focus on how horrible inner-city schools are, how many lives are destroyed in a failing government system? Maybe. Depends on the person, certainly.

But the evidence suggests that the best message overall is one that focuses on the financial benefits of school choice (and this is even before the financial crisis). People think about vouchers and education tax credits differently. And be careful trying to pull at Democratic heart-strings with arguments that choice will increase educational equity for poor kids … there’s evidence that it backfires!

Take a look at this slide presentation that describes how the public thinks about private school choice, what you should emphasize, and what you should be careful with … it’s not just my opinion, it’s based on evidence from a unique message experiment:

Tax Cuts vs. Government Checks … NRO Conclusion and Correction

VerBruggen signs off on the tax cut/government check debate by doubling down on the core issue; he believes that there is no meaningful difference between government spending and a tax cut.  I will quote him in full: “If some libertarians want to keep insisting that there’s a meaningful difference between (A) the government spending $500 on something and (B) a person “donating” $500 to that thing and then getting a $500 break on his taxes in return, there’s nothing I can do to stop them.”

In this, he has the company of the 9th Circuit and the Progressive wing of SCOTUS.

VerBruggen has also rightly asked for a correction to one of the numerous quotes I pulled from his blog posts on tax cuts vs government spending. I thank him sincerely for reading through to the end of my interminable post. The correct quote is below, with the omitted, qualifying language in italics, a new note on charitable giving and government spending, and my otherwise unchanged commentary:

He insists that “much (most?) deducted charity spending does not offset government spending in the slightest,” yet also agrees that “voucherizing the tax subsidies for charity would remove the incentive to donate” to the range of charitable and social welfare activities the government supports. [Note: There is much evidence that government spending on “charity” crowds out charitable giving. And most, not to mention much, charitable giving in the U.S. is devoted to health, educational, social welfare and religious organizations which in turn focus on assistance to the poor, health and educational activities. Needless to say, the government is deeply involved in health, education and welfare spending. See the index of Arthur Brooks’ fascinating book, Who Really Cares, for more details.]

Charity does not reduce pressure on the welfare state? The billions of dollars donated to health, education, welfare … these offset nothing in the public sector? In the absence of tax expenditures for employer-provided health care, how likely is it that the U.S. would have retained a relatively robust private medical market?

The charitable deduction allows the people who earned the money our governments spend on public “charity” to keep some portion of what the government would otherwise have spent on government “charity” or some other wasteful project.

If VerBruggen is concerned that the tax burden will marginally increase on some citizen as the result of another’s charitable deduction then the answer is to balance that lost revenue with a reduction in government “charity,” not to eliminate the deduction.

Perhaps most concerning is VerBruggen’s breezy assumption that all income belongs to the government. He insists that “taxpayer money is already allocated” in the form of deductions for charity, and therefore that “voucherizing the total amount of the deductions wouldn’t change that …”

Really? Tax credits and deductions belong to the taxpayer who earned them. They are not government funds; that is a legal and logical statement. To insist otherwise is to argue that all income is the governments, and what it does not claim is ours. The money that a taxpayer spends is HIS money, not the government’s.

And, as is noted above, voucherizing charitable deductions will convert a huge portion into direct welfare payments and eliminate the core of the charitable act; giving away one’s own money.

How Do I Overturn Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

Tomorrow morning, the United States Supreme Court will hear one of the most important education cases in a generation: the appeal of a 9th Circuit ruling that would cripple or end Arizona’s k-12 scholarship tax credit program.

As you’d expect, commentators aren’t sure how the Supreme Court will ultimately rule: it may decide to overturn the 9th Circuit on the merits of the case, or it could overturn the 9th Circuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs never had standing to sue in the first place. Heck, there might even be people who think SCOTUS will uphold the lower court’s ruling… can’t actually find anyone who thinks that, but they could be out there… somewhere.

On the merits, the law and evidence are clear. Arizona’s program allows private individuals to donate to non-profit k-12 scholarship organizations and get a tax credit when they do–much as federal tax deductions are available for donations to non-profit charities. Since federal deductions for donations to religious organizations are Constitutional, the same applies to the credits in the AZ case. Respondents (those trying to kill the program) didn’t marshal a serious argument to the contrary. In fact, one of the cases they cite actually eviscerates their own argument, as I noted in Section II (b) of the Cato Institute Winn brief co-written by Ilya Shapiro and myself.

The rest of Respondents’ merits arguments are equally ineffectual, not only taking a form (relying on a moving statistical target) that has already been explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in Zelman and elsewhere, but actually being wrong on the facts as well (see Section IV of the Cato brief linked above).

But while I’ve been exclusively focused on the merits of the case, it seems that the legal experts defending Arizona’s tax credit program have been arguing that the Respondents (originally, the Plaintiffs) never had a right to sue in the first place (“standing”), because they cannot show, in the context of Supreme Court precedents, how they have been harmed.

Both the SCOTUS blog’s reporter and independent experts seem to think the Court will overturn the 9th Circuit on the standing issue before even considering the merits, and I’m confident that the Court will overturn on the merits if it ever gets that far.

If the ruling comes down in either of those ways, modern education tax credit programs will retain their perfect record of never having been overturned by a court–a record not enjoyed by any other private school choice policy. The reason that is so very important is explained in the final section (V) of our Cato brief.

Universal Charity Vouchers. A Conservative Solution?

Robert VerBruggen of NRO believes that the only difference between allowing taxpayers to direct their own funds according to their individual preferences and having the government pool all tax dollars and distribute them according its collective preference is political, not principled. A mere technicality rather than a fundamental distinction.

Moreover, VerBruggen contends that it is dishonest to use tax credits instead of direct government spending.

If that’s true, why don’t we voucherize charitable giving?

The feds should eliminate the charitable tax deduction and send out the average (tax-forgiven) amount donated per adult to every citizen in the country to donate as they wish! Would this be more honest? Is there no fundamental difference between these two approaches?

Sure, some people would complain about how their tax dollars were being redistributed to, say, support abortion clinics or the Catholic Church or PETA. They would carp about how they, as taxpayers who earned that money in the first place, should be the ones to direct their money to the charity of their choice. They would complain that pooling the money and doling it out to people who didn’t earn it to use at their own discretion, according to some criteria determined by the government, is unfair and wrong. Are these just technicalities?

Is direct government spending on universal charity vouchers really no different than giving individual taxpayers the freedom to donate to the charities of their choosing?

Would universal charity vouchers be preferable to the individual tax deductions for charitable donations that we have today, from the standpoint of minimizing compulsion and social tension? To claim that school vouchers are equal to or better than tax credits on these grounds is to claim that universal government charity vouchers would be better than the system we have today.

“By letting citizens do the government’s job of allocating tax money to the preferred area,” VerBruggen insists, “politicians can avoid controversy, claiming they’re merely enabling ‘donations.’” He therefore concedes, “so maybe there’s something to Coulson’s argument about avoiding social conflict, if only because people mistakenly think there’s a meaningful difference between the two funding mechanisms.” While VerBruggen supports direct government vouchers, using “[tax expenditures] is a dishonest way to get them.”

VerBruggen seems pre-committed to charity vouchers. It’s the only honest thing to do. Anyone else on board with that?