Freedom Watch

Give This Tax Credit Its Due

A Supreme Court ruling overturns the notion that private contributions are government property.

By From the July/August 2011 issue

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It is said, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” This sentiment underscores the critical nature of the debate surrounding parental choice in education—the same debate that was the center of a landmark Supreme Court case this past spring.

The spiritual, social, and academic principles instilled in the minds of our children will indisputably set the paradigm for America’s future. The question, then, becomes: Who will have ultimate control over how a child is educated—a bureaucrat who doesn’t know the child’s name, or a parent who would pour out his last drop of blood for the child?

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, overturning the notoriously biased Ninth District Court’s ruling against Arizona’s tuition tax credit program and throwing out the absurd challenge to the program. The Supreme Court’s ruling marks the culmination of 14 years of work—I authored the bill in 1995 and it passed in the Arizona state legislature in 1997. It is my prayer that it will prove, in the long run, to be a victory not only for children and parents in Arizona, but a victory for children, parents, and individual liberty nationwide.

Unlike the “voucher” approach, the funds in the tuition tax credit program never enter the government’s coffers. Instead, individuals are offered a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for any contribution they give to private School Tuition Organizations (STOs). The STOs—which must meet rigorous criteria, including a requirement that they spend at least 90 percent of all contributions to pay for scholarships—then apply the donated money to cover the education expenses of the children whose parents have applied to be a part of the program.

Because the government never touches the money, the tuition tax credit approach saves states money, creates a better education for all through the fundamental free market principle of competition, and overcomes the accusation frequently lobbied at voucher programs of “funding religion.” Contributions to the program come from private donors, not public funds; they are made on a purely voluntary basis and are used to send someone else’s child to a private school of his parents’ private choice. The provided tax credit merely incentivizes these private contributions.

Seeing that the structure of the tax credit program pulled the main line of reasoning from underneath their feet, the vehemently anti-school choice activists at the NEA and ACLU took their arguments to dazzlingly absurd new heights, claiming that the private contributions are still government property—that, in fact, all money is inherently government property (at least until the government is kind enough to “allow” citizens to keep a portion of their own paychecks).

The Ninth District’s ruling would have given those inclined toward liberal judicial activism grounds to raise constitutional challenges against any tax credit or program with which they disagreed. Everything from charitable contributions to tithes at your local church to tax credits for married couples and parents would have become fair game, and a massive new front in the war on traditional values would have been immediately created.

Though such radical collectivist dogma should not have been as close as a 5–4 vote, the Supreme Court’s decision nonetheless ensures the 100,000-plus children currently under scholarship in Arizona and eight other states (who would likely be unable to enjoy a private education otherwise) will continue to receive the best possible education and the tuition tax credit program will continue to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Opponents of this program have spent 14 years trying to derail it through any means possible. Now that it has survived challenges at practically every level, including in the Arizona supreme court, the Ninth District Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, I pray that those attacks will end. 

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About the Author

Trent Franks is a Republican U.S. representative from Arizona.