Is government the servant of the people, or the master of them?
That’s at the heart of the case the New Hampshire Supreme Court will be considering today, regarding the Granite State’s school tax credit program. For as important as the court’s ultimate verdict will be in deciding the fate of school choice in New Hampshire, it might say even more about the relationship between citizens and their government.
The case involves a program of tax credits, which a bipartisan majority in the Legislature overrode then-Gov. John Lynch’s veto to enact. The program gives businesses tax incentives to contribute to organizations that provide student scholarships to attend private schools. We have enacted similar programs in Louisiana.
That all sounds simple enough. The dollars should follow the child instead of making the child follow the dollars. This should be absolute common sense. But the ACLU and other organizations that filed the suit allege that the Legislature enacted the tax credit program to funnel money to religious institutions. To them, the fact that businesses might contribute to the scholarship organizations, and that parents might apply for scholarships, and that some scholarship monies might go to religiously affiliated schools, is enough to warrant legal intervention. Think about that logic. Under this line of thinking, a veteran would be ineligible to use GI Bill funds to attend Notre Dame or St. Anselm College.
Sadly, a trial court agreed. It found that, absent the tax credit program, the money the businesses contributed to the scholarship organizations would have otherwise been paid in taxes to fund government-run schools. Instead, with the tax credit program, those funds are now being used to provide student scholarships, some of which are being used at religiously affiliated institutions.
Think about that. The basis for the trial court’s ruling was that government had a claim on the businesses’ money before it was even paid in taxes. No less an authority than the United States Supreme Court has disagreed with this premise; in Arizona Tuition Scholarship Program v. Tilton, the court explicitly overruled the position that “income should be treated as if it were government property even if it has not come into the tax collector’s hands.”
Yet that’s exactly what the ACLU lawsuit purports to assert — that tax funds are perpetually the property of government, and not the individuals and entities that earned the funds in the first place. Heaven forbid a business think that some private schools could do a better job teaching children than some government institutions, and attempt to redirect some of its funds toward what it considers to be better ends. The point isn’t that every child should attend a private school; rather, the point is that parents are the first and best educators and should be allowed to make the best decisions for their children. Every child learns differently; that is why choice and competition are so important in education.
As damaging as this lawsuit will be to the children of New Hampshire if it succeeds, I will give the plaintiffs credit for their candor. Like many other members of the “educational-industrial complex,” the ACLU doesn’t want to allow parents to make their own choices about the best place to educate their children — and isn’t afraid of saying so publicly.
We’ve seen this same phenomenon in my state of Louisiana. Believe it or not, the head of our state teachers union publicly said that low-income parents have “no clue” how to pick schools for their children. And our efforts enacting school choice — to allow students in failing schools more educational options — won us a civil-rights lawsuit from the federal Department of Justice.
Notice a pattern here? The ACLU doesn’t want businesses giving their money to organizations other than government schools. Union leaders in Louisiana don’t think parents are well-equipped enough to choose the “right” schools for their sons and daughters. And the Justice Department doesn’t believe that allowing poor minority children to escape from failing schools advances the causes of racial integration.
All this reminds me of the old axiom that “to govern is to choose.” Those who want to deny you — the parents and citizens of New Hampshire — that right to choose what’s best for your sons and daughters do so because they want to arrogate that power for themselves. They believe you exist to serve the government — when it should be the other way round.
I believe that governmental decisions are best made by public bodies closest to their citizens. In many cases, policy should be made not in Washington, but at the state level, or even by local governments. And in the case of education, that means giving local parents a stronger voice.
That’s why I passionately believe in expanding school choice options, and why today’s arguments in Concord are so important. With our nation having recently celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, I can’t help but recall that Lincoln closed that famous oration praising government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” — not “of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites.” Here’s hoping the Supreme Court remembers its history too.
Bobby Jindal is governor of Louisiana.