Testimony on House Bill 1480 (Tuition Tax Credits)

To: House Education CommitteeFrom: Christopher T. Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: House Bill 1480 (Tuition Tax Credits)
Date: January 26, 1999

The North Dakota Catholic Conference supports House Bill 1480.

Our position stems from a belief in two fundamental principles. The first is that every parent has a fundamental right to choose the means of education for their children. The United States Supreme Court has recognized this right. The second principle is that every child has a right to an education and that the state has an obligation to help financially support that education. This principle is well established in our nation's history and is a key to our nation's success and the preservation of democracy. This obligation is what is meant by public education.

Our society generally accepts these two principles. However, for various historical reasons, some of them rooted in anti-Catholic movements, our present system treats them as mutually exclusive. In our present system, if parents exercise their right to choose they can be denied the right to government assisted education. If society provides the education, the parents must lose their right to choose. The mere fact that some parents choose a government school and their child gets a state-supported education does not negate the fact that the system does not recognize both rights as

It is for the coexistence of these two principles that we support HB 1480. We are not here because we want assistance for Catholic schools. HB 1480 does not provide assistance to Catholic or any other nonpublic schools. We are not here because we believe the government school system has failed. The North Dakota Catholic Conference supports the public school system and insists that the state fully support that system. We are here because every child deserves an education and because the state has a duty to assist in that education, even if the parent happens to exercise their right to choose a nonpublic school.

When society helps relieve the burden placed on families that choose a nongovernment school, it accomplishes several things. First, society affirms their belief in public education. Public education is society's support, financially and otherwise, of a child's education. We do this because we recognize that a basic
education is essential to a person's development and dignity, the support of families, the preservation of communities, and the maintenance of a democracy.

Second, when society alleviates the burden it empowers parents. Allowing parents to choose the means of education for their children and providing the concrete conditions for exercising that choice, places parents in their rightful position as the primary educators of their children. If you want better parents, you treat parenting, including parental choice in education, with respect. Our present system, however, penalizes parents for their choice if it involves a nongovernment school.

Third, when society relieves some of the burden of choosing a nonpublic school, it helps achieve justice. When the parents of children who are not in government schools pay twice for education - once to the government system and again for the education of their own children, but receive nothing from the state in return, justice is denied. When poor families do not receive the same opportunities to choose the school of their choice available to affluent families, justice is denied. When parents are penalized for choosing a school that best reflects their philosophical convictions, justice is denied. HB 1480 will help address some of these problems.

A few points should be made about HB 1480. First, HB 1480 is constitutional. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Mueller v. Allen, 463 U.S. 388, held constitutional a Minnesota statute providing a tax deduction for tuition and textbook expenses for public and nonpublic school parents. There is no constitutional distinction between a deduction and a tax credit. (See e.g., Luthens v. Bair, 788 F.Supp. 1032 (1992) [upholding Iowa's tax credit on the grounds that it was indistinguishable from a deduction.])

Nor does HB 1480 violate our state constitution. Art. VIII, section 5 of the North Dakota Constitution merely states that "[n]o money raised for the support of the public schools of the state shall be appropriated to or used for the support of any sectarian school." Assistance through tax credits, however, is not assistance from money raised for the support of the public schools. Moreover, the assistance provided through tax credits is assistance to parents, not sectarian schools. Indeed, if tax credits were construed as support for sectarian schools, the U.S. Supreme Court would have reached a different conclusion in Mueller v. Allen.

Second, HB 1480 does not take money away from the public schools. The argument that tuition tax credits will financially hurt public schools is a false argument because it is based on a false premise. Tax credits do not take money away from public schools any more than roads, medicaid, the public employees' retirement system, lignite energy tax breaks, or any other public program takes money away from public schools. The state can provide relief to parents without affecting funding for government schools.

In short, there really are no valid reasons to deny this relief to parents and the time has come for HB 1480. We urge a Do Pass recommendation on this bill. We would be happy to answer any questions the committee may have.