President vetoes education tax-break bill

Thursday, July 23, 1998

In another setback to supporters of government subsidies for private schools, President Clinton vetoed a tax-code amendment late Tuesday that would have provided tax breaks to parents who send their children to public, private or religious schools.

Clinton said in a prepared statement that the amendment would drain federal money from public schools and help only wealthy parents.

An override of the veto is unlikely.

The Parent and Student Savings Account Act, sponsored by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., was passed in both chambers earlier this year. However, both votes were well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

The amendment would have provided tax breaks for families who deposit money into special savings accounts to finance their children's elementary- and secondary-school education expenses, including tuition at private religious schools. Specifically, the bill would allow tax-free withdrawals from the accounts for “tuition, fees, tutoring, special-needs services, books, supplies, equipment, transportation, … for the enrollment or attendance at public, private, or sectarian school.”

Supporters of the proposed amendment, such as the Christian Coalition, argued it would have helped families — especially those with lower incomes — send their children to private schools. Many believe that private schools provide a better education than the nation's poorer public schools.

Arne Owens, director of communications for the Christian Coalition, said that Clinton had become an obstacle to education reform.

“He chose to side with the education unions rather than with America's children,” Owens said. “Although prospects for a congressional override are not good, the American people have an opportunity in November to vote their values on this issue and certainly have an option in the year 2000 to elect a president who favors giving parents a choice in their children's education.”

Civil liberties groups applauded Clinton's action and called the proposed amendment an attempt to obtain public subsidies for religious schools.

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a D.C.-based civil rights group, said the amendment would not provide real education reform and would unconstitutionally permit federal funding of sectarian education.

“Parents already save money for their children's education and of course they should be encouraged to do so,” Benen said. “The amendment, however, has nothing to do with saving for education and has everything to do with providing federal subsidies to religious schools. Congress has failed so many times to garner public subsidies for religious schools and this was its latest attempt.”

Owens called Benen's argument ridiculous.

“What the bill does is extend to elementary and secondary education what already applies at the collegiate level, which is a tax-free incentive for parents to save money for their children's education,” Owens said. “The money is saved by parents and when it leaves their hands it goes directly to a school of their choice. There is no basis in the argument that government would be funding religious schools.”

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mueller v. Allen that Minnesota taxpayers could claim a deduction on expenses incurred in educating their children at sectarian schools. The five-justice majority concluded that if the tax break is available to all parents (including those with children in public schools), is one of many deductions, and if the aid is granted to the parents and not directly to the sectarian schools, then the legislation does not confer an appearance of government endorsement of religious schools.