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Upholding law would be victory for low-income kids, religious liberty

Attorney General Mike Hunter
Attorney General Mike Hunter

Kudos to Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter for joining 17 of his colleagues in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a law that helps mostly low-income students attend private schools.

The high court heard arguments Wednesday in a case from Montana, where lawmakers approved a program that grants tax credits to companies or individuals who donate to a scholarship program. The scholarships can be used by students at private schools, which often are affiliated with religious institutions.

A lower court judge said Montana’s tax credit didn’t involve spending state money, and thus didn’t violate that state’s constitutional prohibition against using public funds for religious purposes. The state’s Supreme Court disagreed.

If the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Montana law, it would be a victory for low-income children and religious liberty, and a potential — and long-overdue — crippling of versions of so-called Blaine Amendments.

These amendments stemmed from anti-Catholic bigotry in the 19th century and are named for Rep. James Blaine, a Maine Republican who wanted a federal constitutional amendment banning public support for religious schools. He didn’t succeed, but many states, including Oklahoma, inserted the language in their constitutions.

In 2011, the Legislature approved the Oklahoma Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act to allow creation of tax-credit scholarships. The program is capped at $5 million annually; efforts to raise the cap have been unsuccessful.

The program has been a winner for children, and for the state. A 2017 report by researchers at Oklahoma City University noted that in 2016, the state provided $3.4 million in scholarship tax credits but that $8.8 million from all tax sources (including $4.2 million in state funds) would have otherwise been spent educating those students in public schools, creating a net savings of $5.4 million.

For every dollar the state forgoes through the education scholarship act, it’s estimated the state gets $1.24 in return.

In an essay last summer, Ray Domanico, director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, cited estimates by EdChoice that roughly 275,000 U.S. students benefited from tax-credit scholarships in the previous school year. That’s fewer than 5% of private school students. “A large need remains, particularly in poor areas,” Domanico wrote. “Tuition tax credits are a cost-effective way of meeting it.”

Hunter argued in his brief to the Supreme Court that providing tax credits isn’t the same thing as direct state aid, and that upholding the Montana high court’s ruling could hurt school choice programs nationwide.

“In states that follow the Montana Supreme Court’s lead, the result would be to wholly eliminate those states’ tax-credit scholarship programs,” Hunter’s brief says. “This would risk harming students in those states, many of whom are low income or have disabilities. It would also punish parents for exercising their religion in the use of a facially neutral program …”

It's a sound argument. Here’s hoping the Supreme Court views this issue the same way.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›

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