President George W. Bush today released a new plan to offer $2,500 tax credits to pay for tuition at religious and other private schools, including home schools.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it is wrong for the federal government to subsidize private religious education.
"This tax credit proposal is actually a back-door voucher scheme," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "It takes money from the public treasury to finance religious and other private schools. Congress should quickly reject this misguided gambit.
"At a time when lawmakers are struggling to maintain a balanced budget, a costly multi-billion subsidy for religious schooling is an incredibly bad idea," Lynn continued. "On this test, I'd give Bush an 'F.'"
Bush's tax credit proposition is included as part of the White House budget released today. According to the plan, a $2,500 tax credit would be available to parents of students attending "failing" public schools. Administration officials told reporters over the weekend the credit would also be able to cover the costs of setting up a home school. If enacted, the plan would cost the government about $3.7 billion over five years in lost revenue.
Another controversial education feature of the White House budget proposal is a "Choice Demonstration Fund." Media reports indicate the fund will use $50 million to support local education experiments, including aid for private schools.
The president's education measures are being unveiled about a year after Bush initially proposed a multi-billion-dollar voucher scheme. Vouchers were dropped in negotiations with congressional Democrats, and the compromise education package drew criticism from Religious Right groups.
To respond to these concerns, the administration has now proposed the tax credit plan. AU's Lynn believes Bush's proposal is a political payback.
"This tax credit plan appears to be a payoff to Religious Right pressure groups," Lynn said. "If the president truly wanted to ensure that no children get left behind, he'd abandon this useless plan. It diverts resources away from real public school reform."
In December, top White House political strategist Karl Rove expressed concern that evangelical Christian voters turned out in smaller-than-expected numbers in 2000 to cast ballots for Bush. He suggested that the administration may have to do more to earn this voting bloc's support.
The proposal's timing is also evidence of its political motivation. Just last month, Bush signed into law a bipartisan education reform bill, which did not include aid for religious schools. Now, the president is suddenly putting forward an entirely new, controversial and expensive program to subsidize religious education.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.