School-choice advocates hailed this week's U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding Arizona's tax-credit scholarship program.
The 5-4 ruling affirmed a 2002 high court decision for a Cleveland voucher program, and gives added support to the 10-year-old Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) program which awarded $106 million in private tuition grants to 28,927 last year.
As in Florida, a group of nonprofit organizations in Arizona disburses tax-credited donations to eligible families. Opponents challenged the Arizona program, arguing that the state was unconstitutionally "establishing" a religion because some of the participating families chose to send their children to religious schools.
Proponents responded that since it was parents -- not the state -- making the investment decisions, the program did not breach the church-state separation.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, drew a bright line between individual liberty and state action. "When Arizona taxpayers choose to contribute [to a school tuition group], they spend their own money," he said, not the state's money.
Defenders of the scholarship program said the stakes went beyond the schoolhouse door. Noting the narrow 5-4 margin, the Wall Street Journal opined:
"If one justice has flipped, it would have created a broad avenue of legal attack against school choice, as well as for lawsuits against everything from Medicare payments to Catholic hospitals to student loans for Jewish colleges."
Social conservatives applauded the decision, with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins declaring, "It shows private citizens who voluntarily use their own money to send their children to religious schools should not experience discrimination in the tax code."
But others warned conservatives will come to rue the decision because nothing will stop the tax-credit scholarship funds from flowing into all manner of religious schools, including fundamentalist campuses run by Muslims.
In its decision, the Supreme Court effectively declared that church schools cannot be challenged by dissenting taxpayers.
The biggest losers in the case appear to be teachers' unions that depend on a steady influx of students into union-run public schools. Any expansion of state-administered scholarship programs that promote private education chips away at the virtual monopoly enjoyed by unionized public schools.
As such, education researcher Terry Moe, author of the new book, "Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools," writes that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers will continue to battle school-choice programs in the courts and at legislatures.
Meanwhile, education reformers in the Florida Legislature may be emboldened by the high court's ruling to build on the school-choice initiatives launched by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
One idea in the hopper would give companies a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on their contributions, instead of the current 75 percent break.
Another proposal would expand eligibility rules for the separate McKay Scholarship Program, which pays private-school tuition for students with disabilities. Under one plan, more than 50,000 additional students would qualify for grants.
During the 2009-10 school year, the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program awarded $106 million in tuition grants to 28,927 students from low-income families.
Those students -- 76 percent of whom are minorities -- were enrolled at 1,033 participating private schools in the state. The number of FTC scholarship recipients increased 16 percent over the year before.
Pegged at $4,106 per student for private school tuition and fees, individual grants are awarded through four Scholarship Funding Organizations: Step Up for Students (Jacksonville), the Carrie Meek Foundation (Tampa), Light Bearer's Inc. (Daytona Beach) and Educate Today (Tampa).
Funding for the FTC comes through corporate donors who receive credits against their corporate taxes, insurance premium taxes, self-accrued sales tax liabilities, alcoholic beverage taxes and severance taxes on oil and gas production.
The total value of tax credits was capped at $140 million this fiscal year.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.