March-April 2011 Selected Content
Taking Charge - Larry and Susan Kaseman
Tell Legislators "No Thanks to Tax Credits"
Interest is increasing in privatization of education, including tax credits for homeschoolers. An example is a January 4, 2011 piece on The New York Times Web site. However, tax credits would undermine our homeschooling freedoms. It is time for us to tell our federal and state legislators that we do not want tax credits, especially since legislators will be hearing directly and/or through the media from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a national organization that supports tax credits and is giving legislators and others incorrect and misleading information.
This column discusses reasons why tax credits would lead to increased government regulation of homeschooling and counters statements by an HSLDA lawyer in the Times piece. It suggests action we can take and includes a sample letter to legislators.
Our previous column (HEM, JF/11, Beware of Privatization of Education) explains why tax credits for homeschoolers are likely to be part of a general move toward privatization of education by the new Republican majority in the US House of Representatives and many state legislatures. Although Republicans have generally been more supportive of homeschooling than Democrats, so-called government "favors" for homeschoolers come with strings attached.
The Times Web site includes a series called "Room for Debate" in which "The Times invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss news events and other timely issues." On January 4, 2011, the topic was "Do Home Schoolers Deserve a Tax Break? Some conservatives want a federal credit for families who teach their children at home. What are its chances in the new Congress?" Seven people with various backgrounds, political affiliations, and perspectives responded. Do Home Schoolers Deserve a Tax Break?
(A quick aside: Some people see such media pieces as examples of the media stirring up controversy to catch readers' interest, sell subscriptions, and keep advertisers happy. Such pieces have consequences, giving the issue prominence and giving visibility and power to the contributors they have selected.)
Why Tax Credits Would Lead to Increased Regulation
There are at least two major reasons why tax credits would lead to increased state regulation of homeschooling. First, increased government regulation of homeschooling would no doubt either be written into tax credit legislation or would quickly follow it. See the comments by Chester E. Finn Jr., Rob Reich, and Susan Neuman in the Times piece. Finn, an advocate of privatizing education, writes, "In return for the financial help [from tax credits], however, home-schooled students should be required to take state tests, just as they would do in regular school, charter school or virtual schools. And if they don't pass those tests, either the subsidy vanishes or the kids must enroll in some sort of school with a decent academic track record. . . Children will benefit twice, both from the financial help and from the results-based accountability." Reich writes: "Want a tax credit to home school? Accept a requirement to register your child as being home schooled and that the child take the same state tests as other public school students. Federal dollars come with strings attached, and these particular strings are in the best interests of children, anyway." Neuman, who was a high ranking official in the US Department of Education in the George W. Bush administration, says, "First, as all of us know, you don't get something for nothing. The government will extract its price. Most likely that will mean greater accountability - perhaps audits, specific standards, tests - you name it. . . .[Homeschoolers] know that tax credits are good for nothing but greater federal intrusion."
Even without tax credits, many legislators and members of the general public feel that the government needs to use tests, review and approval of curriculum, and other approaches to ensure that homeschoolers are receiving "a good education." They don't understand why homeschoolers would not want their children to excel at the kind of education that is offered by conventional schools or why homeschoolers who are "doing what they are supposed to do" would object to tests that everyone else takes. In addition, the idea that children benefit from the government holding their parents accountable (seen in the quotes from Finn and Reich above) strengthen the case for increased regulation and add an emotional wallop.
Homeschoolers have managed to keep state regulation to a minimum by using arguments such as the following:
• Private schools, including homeschools, do not receive tax dollars. Therefore, although the government can use tax dollars as a basis for setting standards and requirements for public schools and holding them accountable, a similar case cannot be made for government regulation of private schools, including homeschools, that do not accept tax dollars.
• State statutes require compulsory school attendance, not compulsory education. Therefore, homeschoolers should not be required to prove that they are being educated.
• Millions of homeschool graduates have successfully entered conventional schools, college, and the work force.
If we accept tax credits, we would be giving up the first of these arguments, which is one of the best ones we have.
It's especially important that we not accept tax credits from the federal government. The US Constitution does not give the federal government authority in education. The authority it has at present flows from the money it gives to states for education, which it can withdraw if a state doesn't comply with federal regulation. Federal tax credits for homeschoolers would create a whole new arena for government involvement in our in homeschooling. For more, see Neal P. McCluskey's comments in the Times piece.
Second, the bureaucratic regulations that are an inevitable part of government programs, grants (such as vouchers), tax credits, etc. would increase government control over homeschooling. When legislation is passed authorizing new programs or tax breaks, it includes requirements that individuals or institutions must meet to qualify for the program or tax breaks, a list of what expenses are acceptable, provisions of the program, etc. In addition, the government agency responsible for implementing the legislation is almost always granted authority to draft and finalize regulations that have the force of law. As a result, the government ends up with increased power and authority over potential recipients. In the case of tax credits for homeschoolers, either the legislation itself or regulations written by a government agency would define homeschooling, determine who is and who is not a homeschooler, and decide what expenditures qualify for tax credits. Anyone claiming tax credits can be audited by the IRS to ensure that they meet the requirements and are complying with the regulations. (See the comments cited above by Neuman, who has personal experience working in the US Department of Education.) Do we really want to give the government that much power and authority over homeschooling?
HSLDA Supports Tax Credits and Apparently Misunderstands the Issues Involved
One of the biggest obstacles to preventing tax credits for homeschoolers is the fact that some homeschoolers request them. Such requests give legislators and others the erroneous impression that most homeschoolers would welcome tax credits. This provides strong support for non-homeschoolers who are promoting such tax credits for their own goals that have little or nothing to do with homeschooling, such as privatization of education. One of the loudest proponents of tax credits is HSLDA. Their position and incorrect information are particularly damaging because they are often viewed by the mainstream media and others as representing most homeschoolers. For example, William A. Estrada, a lawyer from HSLDA, was included in the Times piece.
The HSLDA piece is misleading. First, Estrada writes, "Tax credits are superior to vouchers because the family keeps its own money and is not the recipient of federal funds. This eliminates any First Amendment concerns if a family purchases religious educational materials, or any danger of federal control coming along with the money."
It is naive to think that the complex questions surrounding separation of church and state can be resolved so easily. The Times piece doesn't contain any support for these statements, but the HSLDA Web site claims three court cases show that tax credits for homeschoolers are constitutional and do not violate the First Amendment. However, one of these cases (Mueller v. E Allen in Minnesota) upholds a state law that requires the state to refuse to give tax dollars to private schools for them to spend on religious materials. Another (Kotterman v. Killian in Arizona [page 23]) upholds tax credits under certain conditions for contributions to private organizations that then donate money to conventional private schools (not homeschools) for them to use for scholarships. While these cases may indicate small cracks in the wall that separates church and state, they hardly justify HSLDA's sweeping claims and assurances. The third case was in Illinois, where Christian Liberty Academy, a long-standing homeschooling organization, strongly urges homeschoolers not to use the tax credit because doing so is very likely to result in regulation of homeschooling in Illinois. (Do a search for http://www.homeschoolfreedom.org/class.pdf)
Sample Letter to a Legislator
Dear Senator [last name] OR Representative [last name]:
As a homeschooling parent, I ask that you oppose any legislation that may be introduced to provide tax credits for homeschooling expenses. This may surprise you. Many people assume parents would welcome such financial assistance. However, I value my freedom to homeschool my children according to my principles and beliefs. I realize that any government money or favors comes with strings attached, in part because the government has to account its use of taxpayers' money, which would lead to further and unnecessary government regulation of homeschooling.
[Add any other points you want to, especially those that are likely to persuade your legislator given his or her political affiliation and perspectives. Or simply go on to the next paragraph.]
You may also hear from the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a national homeschooling organization that supports tax credits for homeschoolers. If you do, please remember that they represent only a minority of homeschoolers.
Thank you for considering this request. If you have questions, feel free to contact me.
Estrada also writes, "There would be no need to create federal regulations to ensure that the educational tax credit was not being abused." As we have been explaining for years, and as Neuman points out in her piece, tax credits would mean increased government regulation of homeschooling.
Note that Estrada does not say increased regulation would not be a problem. Instead he incorrectly claims it would not happen. Presumably even HSLDA opposes at least some forms of increased regulation, although they do accept more regulation than most homeschoolers want or think is necessary.
In sum, HSLDA is suggesting that homeschoolers play with fire by assuring readers that they can and will use legislation and court cases to prevent increased state regulation of homeschooling. (HSLDA's track record in substantive court cases is not reassuring.) Our homeschooling freedoms will be much more secure if we refuse tax credits and other favors and thus avoid giving an opportunity to increase regulation to legislators and others. This is especially true since homeschoolers are a small minority with little political power and most people don't understand homeschooling and especially the importance that we homeschoolers place on freedom to make choices that may differ from the values, standards, and practices of conventional schools.
What We Can Do
We can tell our federal and state legislators that we do not want tax credits for homeschoolers. Now is a particularly good time since newly elected and re-elected legislators are starting new legislative sessions and selecting issues they will focus on.
A postal letter may be most effective. However, a phone conversation with an aide who works on education would be next in effectiveness, and if you only have time for a quick email, that's still valuable. (Be sure to identify yourself as a constituent and include your land address.) For contact information for US Senators, go to http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm. For US Representatives, go to writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml. For state legislators, do a Google or other search for the name of your state and the words: legislators contact information.
As more attention is focused on the question of tax credits for homeschoolers, it is increasingly important that we let our federal and state representatives know that we oppose them. If we remain silent, many legislators are likely to assume both that we want tax credits and that HSLDA speaks for us and other homeschoolers. It is our responsibility to correct our legislators' assumptions and information.
© 2011, Larry and Susan Kaseman
Read more about Homeschooling, Tax Credits for Homeschoolers, Greater Regulation of Homeschooling and the Government Tax Breaks