State Tax Subsidies for Private K-12 Education

Source: Carl Davis, Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), October 2016

From the introduction:
One of the most important functions of government is to maintain a high-quality public education system. In many states, however, this objective is being undermined by tax credits and deductions that redirect public dollars for K-12 education toward private schools. Twenty states currently divert a total of over $1 billion per year toward private schools via special tax credits and deductions. These tax subsidies are essentially backdoor voucher programs, or “neovouchers,” as they use the tax code to provide what amount to private school vouchers even when traditional voucher programs are unpopular with the public or outright unconstitutional.

Because of the ways that state and federal tax law interact, the subsidies offered in ten of these states turn the concept of a charitable “donation” on its head by offering upper-income taxpayers a risk-free profit on contributions they make to fund private school scholarships. In these cases, even taxpayers who would not ordinarily be interested in contributing to private schools may find the incentive too strong to ignore. Some states have seen an entire year’s allotment of tax credits claimed within days, or even hours, of being made available as wealthy taxpayers seek to capture their share of the profits associated with convoluted “neovoucher” systems. In effect, states that have encountered political or constitutional obstacles to spending public dollars on private schools have instead set up a system that allows wealthy taxpayers to enjoy a profit by facilitating such spending on the state’s behalf.

This report explains the workings, and problems, with state-level tax subsidies for private K-12 education. It also discusses how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has exacerbated some of these problems by allowing taxpayers to claim federal charitable deductions even on private school contributions that were not truly charitable in nature. Finally, an appendix to this report provides additional detail on the specific K-12 private school tax subsidies made available by each state.