Tax Credit Funded Education Savings Accounts

Jan 30, 2016 by

By Carole Haynes –

After decades of massive spending to improve public education, the results are discouraging as shown by student achievement data ― and already known by parents who see what their children are learning or perhaps not learning. The average reading level of a public high school graduate is the seventh grade. Across the nation, parents are demanding school choice that is not centrally planned.

Five states have adopted the latest school choice model, education savings accounts (ESA), with Nevada passing the first universal ESA in the nation. However, recently, the Nevada program was placed on hold pending a legal challenge filed by the lieutenant governor. Two other lawsuits have been filed, one by the ACLU and the other by a group of parents.

Critics claim the ESA program violates the Nevada Constitution which bans diverting public funds to private institutions and religious organizations. The majority of Nevada private schools are religious schools.

The historical basis for the constitutional issue can be traced to the late 19th century when public schools were de facto non-denominational Protestant institutions. As the Catholic population grew, there was an attempt to pass a Constitutional amendment, promoted by U.S. Senator James Blaine, to prohibit the public funding of religious — i.e. Catholic — schools. When the proposed federal amendment failed, states enacted their own version, which is found in nearly 40 state constitutions.

Today school choice opponents use the Blaine amendment as a legal block for vouchers and ESAs.

However, they have been unsuccessful when bringing legal challenges in the 16 states with scholarship tax credit laws.

A study just released by the CATO Institute explains how an Education Savings Account can be designed to avoid state Supreme Court challenges. Rather than using public funds, an ESA can be privately funded through tax-credit-eligible charitable contributions. The result is a unique blend of tax-credit scholarships and flexible spending accounts.

Individuals and corporations would receive a tax credit when they contribute to qualified nonprofit scholarship organizations.

The study suggests that the scholarship organizations could serve several functions:

  • collect donations and issue ESAs,
  • provide different approaches for families to educate their children, and
  • rate providers.

Policymakers must address the issues of student eligibility, tax credits and funding, spending flexibility, eligible educational expenses, and fraud protection when designing tax-credit legislation.The drawback is the amount of tax credit scholarships will be limited as compared with using public funds for ESAs.

By using tax credits to fund ESAs for states where a Blaine amendment poses a constitutional challenge, lawmakers can avoid violations because public funds will not be appropriated and financial aid will not be limited to private or religious schools.

Donors could have choice options themselves by being able to select only those organizations that align with their values.

Source: Tax Credit Funded Education Savings Accounts | Education Reform | NCPA.org

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