Emancipating children

Posted: Apr 07, 2005 12:00 AM

Rep. Trent Franks, 47, works out of his office in the Longworth Building just south of the Capitol, where a bust of Lincoln and a small statuette titled "Jesus With Children" are on display. From that small office is coming legislation that could free thousands and then millions of children from bondage to public schools harmful to their educational health.

 Franks, a second-term congressman from Arizona, pushed through his state legislature in 1997 the Arizona Scholarship Tax Credit Bill. That law allows Arizona taxpayers to receive up to a $500 dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit when they make private, voluntary contributions to charities that use at least 90 percent of the money to provide scholarships that allow children to attend the school of their parents' choice.

 Since 1997, Arizona taxpayers have made 120,000 donations, and this year the program is likely to raise $30 million for scholarships. Through the program, over 24,000 scholarship-receiving students in Arizona are attending a private school this year. Franks says: "Even the poorest child now becomes royalty in the system. In the past, only wealthy parents could afford their children such an opportunity."

 As Arizona goes, so goes the nation? That's the congressman's goal, but only two other states now have scholarship tax credits. In Florida, corporations can transfer up to 75 percent of their corporate income tax liability to non-profit Scholarship Funding Organizations; currently, over 30,000 parents have applied for scholarships for their children. Pennsylvania also has a scholarship tax credit for businesses. Franks wants to give 47 other states incentives to follow these leaders.

 The Children's Hope Act, to which Franks has attracted nearly 70 co-sponsors, tells state legislators that if they enact a scholarship tax credit of $250 or more, all residents of their state will be eligible to take part in an additional federal tax credit. The additional federal tax credit is only $100 ($200 for joint returns) and only for those individuals contributing to organizations that distribute at least half of their scholarships to low-income children, but that's what Franks believe will get some state legislatures moving.

 He accurately points out that a dollar-for-dollar tax credit is much more of an incentive than a deduction of 10 percent to 38 percent. A tax credit is also better than a voucher, in that vouchers require governments to distribute money that already has come in -- with tax credits, officials never get their hands on the funds and have far less opportunity to attach strings. Tax credit funding of scholarships to religious as well as secular schools is clean sailing constitutionally, since parents and not officials are making the educational decisions.

 That's why conservative pillar Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation praises the Children's Hope Act: It provides "a powerful incentive that encourages the principal reform effort to be undertaken at the state and local level, rather than a sweeping master plan whose purse strings will be controlled at the federal level by bureaucrats cloistered in offices at the Department of Education. Furthermore, because the scholarships are delivered to parents, it is they who have full power to choose the school their child attends."

 The Children's Hope Act now has support from the GOP House leadership -- but opposition, as well, from legislators, including some Republicans, who are sour on school choice. Others are concerned about the federal deficit, but the estimated cost of $200 million over the first three years of the plan is, sadly, chickenfeed in Washington these days -- and it could readily be offset by the slaughter of even one of the educational turkeys that federal officials keep on feeding.