Commentary

A “Winn” for Education and Freedom of Conscience

The US Supreme Court rejected two separate challenges to Arizona’s K-12 scholarship tax credit program in ACSTO v. Winn this week. The program offers a dollar-for-dollar tax cut to anyone who donates to a non-profit School Tuition Organization (STO). STOs, in turn, use the money to help families pay for private schooling. The rationale underlying the Court’s ruling highlights a unique advantage that tax credits have over other ways of funding education: they expand both freedom of choice for parents and freedom of conscience for taxpayers.

Plaintiffs had argued that cutting a person’s taxes is equivalent to spending government money, and so taxpayers were being compelled to support religion when credits were used for donations to religious STOs. The Court said, “that is incorrect.”

Unlike the funding of public schools, which is compulsory for all taxpayers, participation in Arizona’s tax credit program is voluntary. If an individual chooses not to donate to an STO, his taxes are collected just as they have always been, and those dollars cannot be used for any sectarian purpose. Furthermore, if a taxpayer does choose to make a donation, he is free to select the STO most consistent with his own values. Arizona has scores of different STOs, some with a religious emphasis and some without.

The freedom of conscience afforded to taxpayers under this program is wholly consistent with the founding ideals of our nation. In 1786, the commonwealth of Virginia passed the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and steadfastly supported by James Madison. The Act declares that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.”

It is precisely because of this compulsion that we have suffered an endless succession of public school wars from the very origins of our state-funded school systems. In their early days, these systems were religious and sectarian, using a Protestant version of the Bible in daily readings to students. Riots ensued when Catholic families in Philadelphia asked for permission to either use their own version of the Bible or to have their children exempted from the readings. Dozens were killed and St. Augustine’s Church was burned to the ground — a bitter irony given that Protestant George Washington had paid for part of this Catholic Church’s construction.

In the generations since, we have fought over school prayer, sex education and the teaching of everything from human origins to multiplication tables. The reason we have been plagued by these public school wars is that we have compelled all taxpayers to support a single official organ of education. It is impossible for such a monolithic system to reflect the diversity of values of our pluralistic society. In our attempt to build unity we have instead compelled conformity, which has, in turn, fomented conflict.

A century-and-a-half of this compelled conformity has left our nation no more unified than it was before. Indeed the past decade has seen deep political and ideological divisions, with civility often in short supply.

The Supreme Court’s Winn ruling reminds us is that there is a way to finance universal education without resorting to socially corrosive compulsion. Indeed if we wish our schools to promote mutual respect among people of different religions and world views, we must respect the right of parents to offer their children an education consistent with their values, and we must not compel taxpayers to support forms of instruction that violate their convictions. Tax credit programs such as Arizona’s do both.

What would be the social effects of such a system, if greatly expanded? Critics fear it would Balkanize the public into warring factions, but that is what happens under our current one-size-fits-all approach. Having studied education systems from their earliest origins in Athens and Sparta 2,500 years ago, and around the world in the present day, I have found that social conflict is minimized when no one is compelled to send their children to a school, or to fund a school, whose teachings they oppose. Once families and taxpayers no longer feel that their personal beliefs and traditions are under attack, these systems reveal a deep commonality of purpose among parents that builds a sense of unity and civic-mindedness.

There are other ways of funding universal choice in education, but only tax credits (either for parent’s own education expenses or for donations to STOs) respect the freedom of conscience of taxpayers as well as the freedom of choice of parents. If we truly wish our schools to help build strong, harmonious communities, there is no better way than to adopt such programs at the state level on a grand scale.

Andrew J. Coulson directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, and is author of Market Education: The Unknown History.