April 2, 2012 9:58PM

On School Choice, Jews Can Have Their Lekach and Eat it, Too

In a recent WSJ op‐​ed, Peter Beinart calls on American Jews to ease up on their concerns about freedom of conscience and freedom of religion and embrace school vouchers. Beinart notes that,

Outside the Orthodox community, American Jewish organizations have for decades opposed government funding for religious schools. The most common objection is that by intertwining church and state, such funding threatens religious liberty

Fortunately, Beinart’s Solomonic choice between freedom of conscience and educational freedom is unnecessary. It is not only possible to achieve both, it is easily done thanks to education tax credits.

A problem with school vouchers is that they channel state spending to families and thence to religious schools. This compels every taxpayer to support every kind of education, including varieties they may find deeply objectionable–violating their freedom of conscience in a way that Thomas Jefferson called “sinful and tyrannical” in his 1786 Act Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia.

But under education tax credit programs, no taxpayer is compelled to pay for any sort of private schooling at all, and those who chose to do so get to determine the kind of schooling they support. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this distinction in its ACSTO v. Winn decision last year, upholding a scholarship donation tax credit program in Arizona.

Here’s how scholarship donation tax credits work: taxpayers can choose to make a donation to a non‐​profit organization that subsidizes tuition for families who need it. When they make that contribution, their taxes are cut—usually dollar for dollar. If they do not make any such contribution, their income is taxed as it always was in the past, and cannot be used for the support of any private school.

“Direct” or “personal use” tax credits are even simpler: they cut the taxes of parents who shoulder the cost of their own children’s education. Here again, no one is forced to pay for any sort of education to which they might object.

Not only are tax credits superior to vouchers from the standpoint of freedom of conscience, they are also superior to the status quo public school system, which forces all taxpayers to support a single official organ of education that cannot possibly reflect everyone’s values.

So, rather than abandoning their principles, defenders of freedom of conscience can pursue them far more effectively by advocating education tax credits than by propping up the status quo or by advocating alternative school choice policies.