Leaders of the nation’s “New Right” warned President Reagan last week that they would withdraw their support for federal tuition tax-credit legislation if it fails to include language that adequately protects private and religious schools from “harassment” by the Internal Revenue Service (irs).
“If the Administration presents the right kind of bill, we will support it,” said Paul Weyrich, president of the Coalitions for America, at a press conference sponsored by several conservative groups, including the Moral Majority, the National Pro-Family Coalition, and the Conservative Caucus. “If not, tuition tax credits could be defeated as soundly as they were the last time they were proposed.”
The conservative leaders indicated that although they support the President’s decision not to grant tax credits to parents who send their children to schools that discriminate on the basis of race, they want to limit the authority of the irs to regulate the practices of private schools.
The conservatives are concerned, they say, that the tax-credit proposal might give the irs excessive authority to define and seek remedies for discrimination in private schools.
Such broad authority, they said, might be construed as allowing the irs to deny tax-exempt status to private schools that maintain racially discriminatory policies on the basis of the school officials’ religious beliefs. They said they would support the bill only if it contained language that would specifically prohibit the irs from interfering with the schools’ admissions policies.
“There is widespread concern throughout the private-school community that tuition tax credits will open the door for additional harassment and entanglement by the irs and other governmental agencies,” said Ronald S. Godwin, vice-president and chief operations officer of the Moral Majority. "[We are] aware of this widespread concern, and we will not support tuition tax credits if there are not sufficient safeguards against irs harassment in the final version.”
Education Department officials have said, however, that the tax-credit proposal is entirely separate from the issue of tax-exempt status for private institutions. Tuition tax credits, they say, pertain to families’ personal income taxes, not to institutions’ tax status, so the question of exemptions need not be addressed in the bill.
Conservative leaders and federal officials have been at odds over the tax-exemption issue for more than a decade.
Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would settle the question by hearing two cases regarding tax exemptions for Bob Jones University and the Goldsboro (N.C.) Christian Schools, two educational institutions that maintain discriminatory policies based on religious beliefs.
Last January, the Reagan Administration, in a move it now concedes was a major political embarrassment, announced that the irs did not have the legal authority to withhold tax-exempt status from schools that practiced racial discrimination and would no longer do so. The Administration, reacting to heavy pressure from civil-rights and some religious groups, quickly shifted its position and said it would ask Congress to adopt legislation denying tax exemption to schools that discriminate.
The President’s bill, however, has not been acted upon in either the House or the Senate. It is opposed both by liberals, who consider such legislation unnecessary, and by conservatives, who believe it gives the irs too much discretion over the practices of religious institutions.
Mr. Godwin of the Moral Majority added, however, that the conservative groups would also withdraw their support for the tax-credit bill if it failed to contain a provision forbidding the extension of tax benefits to parents who send their children to schools that discriminate on the basis of race.
Robert E. Baldwin, executive director of Learn, Inc., a recently created conservative education foundation, explained that the organizations’ two demands were not contradictory.
Although the conservative organizations oppose racial discrimination in education, the federal government should not punish schools that practice such policies by refusing to grant them tax-exempt status, Mr. Baldwin said.
In order to decide which parents should be denied the tuition tax credits, the government, he said, could require private schools to file a statement or oath indicating that their schools do not discriminate on the basis of race. Officials of schools that continued discriminatory practices after filing such an oath could then be prosecuted for perjury, he said.
Speakers at the press conference did not explain how the government or the irs would be able to determine from federal income-tax forms which parents should be denied the tax credit as a result of sending their children to a school that discriminates.
President Reagan unveiled his long-promised plan to institute a system of federal income-tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools at last month’s meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association. (See Education Week, April 21, 1982.)
The President’s proposal would provide parents with tax credits equal to one half of tuition costs for each child in private school, up to maximum credits of $100 per child in 1983, $300 in 1984, and $500 in 1985.
The President’s tax-credit plan, however, has drawn little support in either the House or Senate, and many observers give it only a marginal chance of passing during the current legislative session.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York and an ardent supporter of tax credits in the past, recently conceded that the Congress probably will not have adequate time to act on the President’s bill. Senator Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has also announced that the tax-credit bill will be a low-priority item for his panel.
Despite those predictions, Mr. Weyrich of the Coalitions for America said that a tuition tax-credit bill would stand “a greater chance of passage now than in any other time during the past 20 years.”
“Private schools are opening now at a rate of at least four to five per day,” he said. “Before it was mainly the urban Catholics who pushed hardest for this type of legislation, but now we’re seeing support for it in areas like the South where you used to see strong opposition.”
Mr. Weyrich also rejected the argument that members of Congress would be hesitant to act on a controversial proposal as the tuition tax-credit bill during an election year, saying, “I can’t think of a single politician who would vote against tax relief near election time.”
“I believe that, politically, it is possible to pass a piece of legislation like this, especially if there is a great drive across the country to see that it happens,” he said. “And we plan to spearhead that drive.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1982 edition of Education Week as Conservatives Want Restraints On I.R.S. Power Over Schools