Tax-Credit Voucher Programs Before the Court

Yesterday, the Supreme Court began hearing arguments as to the constitutionality of tax-credit voucher programs — programs that fund school vouchers by collecting “donations,” and then refunding the donations in the form of dollar-for-dollar tax credits. In particular, the question is whether religious schools’ participation in these programs is a violation of the First Amendment.

I think it’s constitutional for state and local governments to fund voucher programs that include (but do not discriminate in favor of) religious schools. I also think there might be something to the argument that this “tax credit” shell game keeps the “donations” from becoming “government funds” in a legal sense. Yes, the government carved out a special exception to the tax laws to let people keep more money — and yes, the exception applies only if they use the money to support one of the government’s functions (providing K-12 education) — but the money never technically enters the government’s coffers. Thus, maybe these programs deserve less scrutiny than typical state-funded programs.

But I maintain my previous argument against these programs on the policy level. It is not a “donation” if you give $1,000 to a voucher program and then get a $1,000 discount off your tax bill. Such a program creates the exact same result that government funding does: The government is out $1,000, a voucher program is up $1,000, and you have no more or less money either way. It’s dishonest to pretend that putting a “donor” in between the government and the program it wants to fund somehow makes the funding non-governmental in any meaningful (as opposed to legal) sense.

If we want voucher programs — and we should — we need to convince the public to support them, not claim we’re merely in favor of “donations.” We are in fact in favor of giving government funds to parents so that they can choose how to educate their children, rather than having the government keep the money and make that decision for them. I, for one, am not ashamed to believe that.

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