TAX CREDITS: The High Cost of Free Money

By Barry Peters (09.08.07)

Not long ago a tax credit bill was introduced in the Idaho legislature. It included homeschooling families and offered a tax credit to parents equal to the expenses they incurred teaching their children at home. It would have permitted the parents to offset their educational expenses dollar-for-dollar against their state income tax liability.

The bill was scheduled for hearing before the House Education Committee. That committee had a majority of members who staunchly supported our freedom to teach our children at home. We had a definite home-court advantage.

ICHE and CHOIS supported the bill because of the double-taxation issue. Parents who pay to have their children attend private school or who teach them at home pay twice for their children’s education. They pay when they are taxed for a public school education they don’t use and once again by footing the bill for the private school or homeschool education which they do use. To make matters worse, most homeschooling families suffer this double taxation on a single income.

But the committee hearing was an eye-opener for us. When the Representatives began to debate the bill after the public comments were closed, we watched in dismay as a number of our supporters on the committee voiced support for the bill, but then commented that, since the homeschoolers will now be receiving tax benefits, a system to provide accountability for those lost tax dollars will be needed. Even fine men and women who were philosophically opposed to the registration and testing of home educators were surprisingly willing to tolerate such interference as soon as we held our hands out to collect tax dollars.

At the conclusion of that hearing, the leadership of ICHE and CHOIS respectfully asked the bill’s sponsors to remove us from the bill in order to preserve our freedoms. And that has remained the position of both organizations ever since.

Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) joins us in this view. HSLDA President, Michael Smith, recently concurred that in Idaho, “Our precious freedoms are too valuable to be traded for government assistance.” In other states where significant government interference with home education already exists, tax credits may make sense, but not in Idaho.

Would a tax credit make a large enough difference to entice parents currently opting for public school to make the switch to home education? Perhaps a few. But the annual financial cost to teach one’s children at home is typically small, on average just $450.00 per child. Indeed, some have done an excellent job with little more than a library card. The far more substantial costs to families who home educate are the commitment of time necessary to do the job conscientiously and the willingness to tackle the job on a single income. Parents who are willing to commit the time will almost never be deterred by the financial cost.

We are sometimes asked why should those who don’t want the tax assistance keep those who want or need the credit from taking that benefit? The answer lies in the fact that the “accountability” imposed when a few home educators accept this tax credit will be imposed on all homeschooling families. Historically, many legislators have tended to lose sight of the distinction between traditional private homeschooling and the many hybrid approaches such as virtual charter schools and educational co-ops. We should not expect them to draw a careful distinction between families who accept the tax credit and those who do not. All will be lumped together once a tax credit is authorized that may be used by any. In the final analysis this question can and should be turned on its head: Is it fair to burden the many families who treasure their freedoms above the tax benefit just because a few other families want or even need the tax relief? We believe it is neither fair, nor prudent.

Could we set up a tax credit which precludes the government from regulating those families who receive the tax credit? Not realistically. Any built-in prohibition of such regulation would always be just one small modification away from being rescinded in subsequent years. More importantly, is it fair for homeschoolers to expect to receive unfettered tax dollars when we would be among the first to complain about any other group which asked for government assistance without any accountability.

Do we favor such tax credits for the parents of students in private or parochial schools? And if so, why should they be treated differently than homeschoolers? The answer is that homeschoolers are the only group to which the legislature has given near total autonomy. While we are legally required to provide an education that is at least comparable to that available in the public schools, we are not burdened with registration, testing, curriculum reviews, tax commission audits, standardized days and hours of instruction, mandatory course subject matters, or other governmental intrusions. Private and parochial schools are already government-regulated to one extent or another. They have fewer liberties that might be jeopardized by the creation of a tax credit. We are the only group that has asked for nothing, accepted nothing, and that continues to enjoy such remarkable freedoms.

Our tremendous freedom is rooted in the Idaho Code which gives to the parents of school-aged children, rather than to the government, the responsibility to ensure that those children are properly educated. The attachment of the “accountability” strings that will inevitably come with the receipt of tax dollars will erode the bright line which currently defines our parental preeminence in this arena. It will also open the door to the state beginning to compile a master list of the names of all children in the state who are taught at home, a compilation that we have opposed for many years. The high level of independence and freedom which we now enjoy reflects both our years of diligence in opposing governmental interference and the exceptional academic achievement of our children. We honor our liberties, in part, when our children academically outpace the students from all other types of schooling.

In Idaho, our legislators have repeatedly commented that private homeschoolers are a unique group in their experience. We are the only group that comes to the Capitol each year to display our accomplishments, but never asks for a government subsidy. That is part of the reason why we are so warmly welcomed each year at the ICHE Legislative Day and why many legislators so deeply respect parents who teach their children at home.

In turn, that is also, in part, why Idaho’s statewide private homeschooling organizations seek to distinguish themselves from the public virtual charter schools. We understand and even approve of the legislators’ urge to monitor and regulate those persons and groups who benefit from the state’s largesse.

This year expect to see a return of tax credit legislation similar to that which has been proposed in the past. Although we understand that this issue is one upon which reasonable home educators may differ, ICHE, CHOIS, and HSLDA are united in their opposition to any tax credit bill which does not clearly exclude homeschoolers. A generation of homeschoolers have thrived under the freedoms which have been so painstakingly protected.

Please join us in opposition to any bill which will place our liberties in jeopardy for the next generation. Our freedoms are too great to be traded for a few dollars of tax credit.

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