May 21, 2010 5:21PM

The Anti‐​Defamation League and Private School Choice

In another of many recent signs that liberal and Democratic attitudes toward private school choice are changing, the Philadelphia branch of the ADL voted 13 – 4 this year to reject the national organization’s longstanding opposition to choice

core principle undergirding the ADL’s (and ACLU’s) longstanding opposition to school vouchers is that:

Proponents of vouchers are asking Americans to do something contrary to the very ideals upon which this country was founded. Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of religious freedom in America, said, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.”

Though the evidence has led me to strongly support private school choice, I am very sympathetic to this concern. Fortunately, there is a way to ensure universal access to a free educational marketplace without compelling citizens to pay for instruction that violates their convictions: education tax credits. Since the late 1990s, several states have enacted scholarship donation tax credit programs. Under these programs, businesses or individuals make donations to non‐​profit organizations that then subsidize tuition for the poor. The donor receives a dollar‐​for‐​dollar tax credit offsetting the value of the donation. 

When properly designed, as in Pennsylvania for example, these programs lead to the creation of many different kinds of tuition‐​granting organizations: secular, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, etc. If they wish, taxpayers can choose to donate to none of them. But if they do make a donation, they can choose the organization most consistent with their values. Similarly, parents seeking tuition assistance can approach whichever tuition‐​granting organization most closely matches their own beliefs and preferences. In this way, private school tuition assistance is made available through an entirely voluntary process. (Of course, those who do not donate to scholarship‐​granting organizations must still pay their taxes. Those are not voluntary).

This system is not simply better than vouchers at avoiding “sinful and tyrannical” ideological compulsion, it is better in this regard than our conventional public school system. Liberals in Dallas and conservatives in San Francisco must pay for public school systems whose content is often at odds with their own convictions. Conflicts over the content of public schooling have been the inevitable result — dating back to the very origins of state control over schooling in the mid 1800s. Education tax credits expand parental choice while avoiding the compulsion that breeds these conflicts. No one protests today over what is taught in Catholic schools or yeshiva ketanas.

On top of this powerful civic advantage, tax credit programs have grown much faster than voucher programs. And building on existing programs such as Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit is generally much easier than introducing new programs of any kind.

Perhaps the national ADL organization will take these facts to heart. Either way, the tide is clearly turning.