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Another View -- Stephen Cobb: As an atheist, I have no problem with tuition tax credits

January 31. 2013 8:50PM

As a devout atheist, I would be first to cry foul if New Hampshire's new tuition tax-credit program promoted a particular church or diverted taxpayer money to religious institutions. Fortunately, it does neither.

When tax credits are used, the state government neither provides the funding nor decides who gets it. Those decisions are made by the parents who choose the schools and the businesses that donate the money. Claims that tax credits "divert" taxpayer funds depend on a backwards interpretation of taxpayer funding.

We justify taxation for providing "public goods" (such as an educated populace) because we expect that people otherwise will not contribute voluntarily. When people do contribute, they demonstrate that public financing is not necessary, and taxes are reduced by some corresponding but lesser amount - 85 percent in the case of the tuition credits, much less in the case of donations to 501(c)(3) non-profits. The loaded term "diversion" is thus incorrect. We simply have a reduction of the state's need and justification for funds.

Principled reasons should suffice to allay any church-state concerns, but we should support tax credits also for practical reasons. The New Hampshire tax-credit program is extremely modest: $2,500 annually per pupil compared with New Hampshire's average of $15,700 per-pupil in public school spending. Considering that parents would voluntarily take $2,500 to forego an entitlement worth $15,700, one might think taxpayers would be disinclined to make the mental contortions required to mischaracterize tax credits as diversions.

In Duncan, et al. v. State of New Hampshire, Americans United, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, all organizations with a mission to support human rights, sued to have the tuition credits struck down. How could they completely ignore the right of parents to choose the best school for their children? Whose interests are they really promoting? Not those of the children, the parents or the taxpayers.

One might think that they are in the pockets of the teachers unions, but teachers would also benefit from school choice; there would be more schools, so teachers would have as many more options as the kids.

If adherents of one religion (or non-religion) are upset that some church-associated school is getting business, they should compete, not complain. Given a level playing field, secular schools will compete successfully. But without some form of school choice, secular private schools are "disadvantaged," since currently only wealthy or highly motivated parents send their kids to private school.

Church-state separation is critically important, but it requires another condition: a free market. Otherwise, the greater the sphere of government, the less room for religion. In a completely socialist society, religion would be squeezed from all areas of life. As an atheist, I could selfishly promote that outcome, but it would be intellectually dishonest. The biggest remnant of American socialism is the public schools. Let's restore choice, for all stakeholders.

Stephen Cobb is an electrical engineer in Nashua.

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