The debate over tuition tax credits intensifies.

Congress is considering proposals for tuition tax credits, whereby citizens could subtract from their tax bills a portion of the tuition they pay for sending their children to nonpublic schools. The idea is seen as a boon for the Christian school movement, since high costs have prevented many parents from sending their children to such schools. Those who oppose it see the idea as an economic threat to the public school system.

Experts argued each side of the issue at last month’s National Association of Evangelicals board meeting in Chicago. Speaking for tuition tax credits was James Skillen, a college professor and executive director of the Association for Public Justice. It is an organization of evangelicals working for justice in political issues.

Speaking against tax credits was R. G. Puckett, executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He is a Southern Baptist minister, and formerly an editor of Baptist publications. Following are highlights from the debate.

Skillen said there were no public schools at all in the country’s early history. Parents were understood to be responsible for educating children, and a variety of schools existed. Some of them were church schools, and some of them were not church connected, but all taught biblical morality. Around 1830, the situation changed with the influx of Irish Catholics into New York City. They brought their own schools, and began asking for some of the tax money that had been distributed to existing schools.

Eventually, public money was turned over to the New York Public School Society for distribution to the “nonsectarian” schools, which was to say non-Catholic schools. Skillen said that until relatively recently the nonsectarian schools, which became the public schools, still had a strong Protestant orientation, teaching the Bible and biblical morality.

He said parents have no business complaining about public schools since they have turned the business of education over to the government. What should be seen is that the government cannot be the agency primarily responsible for education. That responsibility should be returned to parents. Tax money to support education should be distributed proportionately among the agencies educating children. If Protestant Christian schools educate 10 percent of the children, they should get 10 percent of the public funds. If Jewish schools educate 10 percent of the children, they, too, should get 10 percent of the tax money. If public schools educate 10 percent of the children, they should get a proportionate amount of money.

Speaking against tax credits, Puckett offered five reasons why the idea should not become law.

First, he said, most of the money would flow into explicitly religious schools, thus violating the constitutional separation of church and state.

Second, in a democracy such as ours, he said, it is not enough that parents should be concerned about educating their own children. All citizens must be concerned that education is open to all. If quality schools are open only to those who can afford them or who have a particular doctrinal perspective, then the poor or those who do not have the proper background may be relegated to inferior public schools. That would damage the democratic precept that all citizens must be well educated.

According to Puckett, part of the problem with public schools today is that citizens have asked them to do what they cannot do: provide welfare types of food and health programs, and act as agents of social change. “I would like to suggest that we take an approach to education which teaches our young people how to balance their checkbooks and how to read an editorial in the daily paper,” he said. He called for Christian parents to become much more active in their local public school systems, and said, “We ought not to see the public school system as babysitters or caretakers, or as disciplinarians to handle problems that have not been handled at home.”

Third, Puckett argued that tax credits are fiscally unwise at a time when the federal government is trying to cut costs. He said early cost projections range from $2.7 billion to $7 billion.

Fourth, the idea would polarize communities along religious lines, he said.

Fifth, Puckett said tax credits invite more government intervention in the private sector, because “it is a rule of life. Where government money flows, government intervention follows quickly.”

Responding to Puckett, Skillen said the argument that tax credits harm public schools is similar to arguing that ending slavery in the South was wrong because it harmed the region’s economy. “If the public school system is by its very nature an unjust establishment … then to alter it is essential even if it brings a change in the structure of education,” he said.

In his rebuttal, Puckett repeated his assertion that “public education is not the responsibility of parents, it is the responsibility of citizens.” He defended public schools, saying, “I contend that the failure is not the public school system, the failure is the parents.”

In response to audience questions, most of them critical of public education, Puckett acknowledged the problem of humanistic philosophies that dominate public schools. He said it is wrong to teach evolution without creation, and it is wrong not to teach moral values. He also said morals and common decency can be taught without an explicit religious connection.

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