President Trump’s tax-reform proposal was already historic, with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin boasting that it called for the largest tax cut the nation has ever seen. But if Trump wants to make an even deeper impact, he’ll consider one addition: a federal tax credit that would pay the way for an unprecedented expansion of school choice.
During the campaign, Trump pledged to expand school choice with $20 billion in federal funds. Now he can win two victories at once: enact tax-reform and fulfill his school-choice promise.
Here’s how such a proposal could work: Individuals and corporations that chose to donate to eligible K-12 scholarship-granting organizations would be able to lower their tax bill by the amount of the donation. The size of the tax credit could be capped, and the scholarships funded by the donations could be targeted to low- and middle-income families.
Legislation could also potentially limit the total combined amount of tax credits allowed in a calendar year. Florida’s program, for example, hands out tax credits on a straightforward first-come, first-served basis.
A federal tax credit holds many advantages over other school-choice proposals that would involve setting up new programs and funding them annually through the federal budget process. Using the tax code avoids the DC bureaucracy that conservatives fear might someday meddle in private schools by tying strings to federal funds.
It’s true that lots of meddling takes place via the tax code, but if the legislation is carefully crafted and sticks to the basic details, there’s much less reason to fear federal overreach.
Although tax credits would cost some federal revenue, the idea will be more palatable to voters than diverting existing funds away from public schools. Tax-credit scholarships would expand America’s investment in education with private dollars rather than shift public money.
Seventeen states have passed tax-credit laws to encourage individuals and/or corporations to donate to scholarship groups that make private options — including religious schools and non-sectarian academies — more accessible to low- and middle-class families. Arizona and Florida are tax-credit pioneers, launching tax-credit-funded programs in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Over the past 15 years, both states have shown marked improvement on national “gold standard” assessments of fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading proficiency.
Some have suggested that any federal tax-credit program be limited to the 17 states that already have such programs. But this is silly.
It’s states like New York and New Jersey, which have seen private and parochial schools shuttering their doors at an alarming rate, where tax credits could help the most. Last month, St. Anthony in Jersey City, home to Bob Hurley’s storied championship basketball teams (and a near 100 percent college-acceptance rate), will close in June. If St. Anthony can find a donor to help it hang on for another year, the tax-credit bill might be enough to turn around its finances.
Of course, it’s not just Catholic schools that would benefit. Take, for example, the independent Trey Whitfield School in East New York, Brooklyn, or The Learning Tree in The Bronx, which provide an extraordinarily high-quality education to low-income children. Many of their students receive scholarships to help with tuition from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a nonprofit that funds partial scholarships for 24,000 low-income students.
“A federal tax credit would greatly expand our ability to help more children access tuition-based schools that provide an amazing education, yet struggle to survive,” notes CSF’s president, Darla Romfo.
Thousands of other non-state-run schools — both religious and non-religious — across the nation stand to benefit from a scholarship tax-credit. Longstanding research suggests that low-income students benefit from the academic preparation, values and sense of community these schools provide. And they typically do it for less than half the cost of public schools.
Using the tax code to encourage donations to scholarships for needy children is the simplest, most palatable, most stable way to foster greater educational choice in all 50 states. Washington should embrace this elegantly simple, yet powerful idea.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post
Lawrence J. Mone is president of the Manhattan Institute.