Religious conservatives embrace Cruz tax break for private schools

WASHINGTON – With the Republican-led Congress heading toward final passage of major tax cut legislation decried by Democrats, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz already has begun campaigning on a school choice provision in the bill that gives tax breaks to families that home-school or send their children to private or religious schools.

In recent weeks since the Texas Republican narrowly secured his “Student Opportunity Amendment” in the GOP tax bill – with an assist from Vice President Mike Pence, who cast the tie-breaking vote – Cruz’s 2018 Senate campaign has been heralding the measure to a key Texas constituency: Religious conservatives.

In a soaring campaign-style video and a series of email testimonials, Cruz and his backers have described the measure as a turning point in the conservative struggle to allow public funds to open the doors of private schools.

In an email to supporters last week – the latest of at least four this month – the Cruz campaign highlighted a recent opinion piece by Drew White, a senior policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, calling the Cruz measure a “game changer.”

The amendment would allow $10,000 per child to be taken from tax-privileged 529 savings plans each year. In a significant policy win for Cruz as he heads into an election year, it was included in Friday’s joint House-Senate conference bill, now headed for final passage this week.

According to Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, it would cost the Treasury about $500 million over 10 years, representing a major win for conservative advocates of school choice, which Cruz has called “the civil rights issue of our time.”

Many Democrats and some Republicans have opposed the tax benefit as a sop to affluent families that can afford to send their children to private schools. But the issue has received far less debate than the partisan battle over the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax cut package, which affects almost all U.S. households, though it confers most of its direct benefits on corporations and the well-to-do.

While the education measure has attracted little notice outside of conservative media, it has been a top agenda item for Christian conservatives and others in the movement to boost charter and private schools as an alternative to public education.

“Such an idea has been a long time in the making and a cornerstone of the conservative education policy vision,” White said.

Among those backing the change is President Donald Trump’s Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, who called the measure a “step forward” in the push to provide tax savings to families who put their children in private or religious schools.

Cruz’s amendment would expand popular 529 college savings plans to include K-12 elementary and secondary tuition, including educational expenses for home-schooled children. Much like Roth IRAs, the 529 plans use after-tax contributions to accumulate and grow tax free.

Currently, more than three-quarters of families using 529 savings plans make less than $150,000, a fact Cruz points to in describing the benefit as a boon for the middle class.

“Expanding 529’s ensures that each child receives an education that meets their individual needs, instead of being forced into a one-size-fits-all approach to education, or limited to their zip code,” Cruz said in a floor speech introducing the measure.

Opponents say it would do little for low-income families with little in savings or practical choice about where their children go to school. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, argued against Cruz’s provision, saying it amounts to a subsidy for upper-income households at the expense of public schools.

“This is nothing less than a backdoor assault on the public K-12 education system,” Wyden said during a Senate debate on Cruz’s amendment. “The real goal seems to be to take more and more children from the public schools and put them into private schools and shrink the funds that would be available to the public schools that give all of America’s children the chance to get ahead.”

The vote to include Cruz’s amendment on the Senate floor earlier this month divided the Senate 50-50, with Republicans Lisa Murkowksi of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joining all Democrats in opposition. In one of the more dramatic moments of the months-long tax debate, the tie forced Pence to rush into the chamber to cast the deciding vote in a late-night session to finalize the Senate version of the GOP tax bill.

Cruz’s amendment would prove to be the only one outside of the GOP leadership to be added on the Senate floor.

The House version of the legislation contained a stronger measure that was left out of the final Senate-House agreement. It would have permitted parents to open 529 accounts for unborn children. Pro-abortion rights advocates such as Planned Parenthood balked on the grounds that it could become a way of restricting abortion through the tax code.

‘Pro-family initiative’

Even in its milder Senate form, conservatives have rallied around the Cruz amendment, which is now part of a sweeping rewrite of the U.S. tax code, the first in more than 30 years. Cruz backers argue that it provides a measure of fairness to families who take their children out of public school systems they’re forced to support through their property taxes.

The Cruz campaign recently distributed an opinion piece by influential conservative commentator Erick Erickson, who praised Cruz for angering liberals.

“It is actually really funny to see a bunch of liberals who think the GOP is hurting poor people with tax reform spitting mad this morning now that they realize what Senator Ted Cruz has done,” Erickson wrote. “Yes, the left is mad that Ted Cruz got a pro-family initiative put into tax reform.”

But while conservatives have cast it as an issue of family values and universal choice, opponents of the measure say it would deepen class inequality in education.

The Not One Penny campaign, which has fought the entire GOP tax bill, cited a recent paper by Harvard University’s Richard Murnane and Stanford University’s Sean Reardon showing that enrollment in private schools has remained stable for the past half-century while middle class students increasingly rely on public schools.

The study also found that between 1972 and 2010, wealthier parents spent increasingly on the education of children under 6. The gap between their spending and those of poorer families has increased four-fold since 1972, and has appeared to widen since 2010.

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