While most of the media focused, with good reason, on the huge increase in military spending and dramatic cuts in domestic programs in President Bush's $2.1 trillion budget proposal for 2003, a few enterprising reporters dug deep into the budget's core. One of the things they unearthed is a school voucher program disguised as an education tax credit.
That's right, a school voucher program--similar to those that have been repeatedly defeated by voters across the country and the one that was removed from the President's education bill--has resurfaced in the budget. According to the Washington Post, the President's proposal would grant a tax credit of up to $2,500 a year to subsidize private school for children whose public schools are judged to be failing under state standards. The estimated cost of the program is $3.7 billion over five years.
The President's budget was released a few weeks before the US Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in three cases involving the school voucher program in Cleveland, in which the Administration urged the Court to uphold vouchers. The central question before the Court is at the heart of the voucher debate: Does the use of public tax money to pay for religious schools violate the principle of the separation of church and state?
If the Supreme Court, which will render its judgment later this year, endorses the program, it will be the first major victory for voucher supporters and could open the floodgates for other states and cities to try similar programs. It would also strengthen the President's hand as he tries to win Congressional support for a full-blown national voucher program. While a ruling against the Cleveland voucher program would be a major blow, voucher supporters now appear to have a fallback position in the President's education tax credit.
According to the American Federation of Teachers, the measure would allow taxpayers to claim credits on their state or federal income taxes for "expenses associated with sending their children to private or religious schools." The credits would sometimes be available for public school expenses as well, but the AFT claims that the families most likely to benefit from the program are those "who send their children to private or religious schools because their schooling expenses are higher than the educational expenses of families who send their children to public schools." The Administration, reports the Post, contends that the money could also be used for books, computers and other equipment needed for home schooling, or for transportation to a private school or better public school.
But the AFT points out that the credits are worth more than existing tuition tax deductions, and would benefit wealthy families most. And disturbingly, the credits would "lead to a loss of state or federal tax revenue and thereby can lead to a reduction in funding for public schools or other vital public services."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees the tax credit as an end run around church-state separation and has called Bush's proposal a "back-door" voucher scheme. "It takes money from the public treasury to finance religious and other private schools. Congress should quickly reject this misguided gambit. At a time when lawmakers are struggling to maintain a balanced budget, a costly multibillion subsidy for religious schooling is an incredibly bad idea," Lynn continued. "On this test, I'd give Bush an 'F.'"
When the President's education bill, sans the vouchers provision, was signed into law, many religious conservatives argued that Bush had abandoned them in his rush to embrace Senator Ted Kennedy and other liberal Democrats. It now appears to be payback time.
Tim Lamer, writing in World magazine, an evangelical weekly, points out that "while voucher programs remain political poison, tax-credit programs are quietly gaining political steam across the country." He argues that tax credits are better than vouchers because "they restore a measure of liberty to taxpayers.... They do not threaten the independence of private schools the way vouchers do."
The Center for Education Reform (CER), a nonprofit organization founded in 1993 to provide support to individuals and groups who are "working to bring fundamental reforms to their schools"--read, to support school vouchers, charter schools and tuition tax credits--observes that limited tuition tax credits already exist in Minnesota and Iowa. Arizona offers a tax credit for donations to privately funded voucher programs. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin are seriously considering the idea, and it has come up in South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Idaho, Maryland, Missouri and Oregon.
According to a mid-February Washington Times report, Congressional Republicans have been debating whether to back President Bush's tuition tax credit plan or any of a number of other tax-credit initiatives floating around the House. Democrats, who generally oppose the tax credits, think it unlikely they will make it through Congress this session. But even if the proposal fails this time--and especially if voucher supporters don't get the decision they want from the Supreme Court--education tax credits will surely arise again as a stealthy way to resuscitate vouchers.