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.