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Arizona school plan stays within bounds

Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 9:41 PM

THE SUPREME COURT will again wade into the controversial topic of school choice this week when it takes up an Arizona program that has come under attack by critics who claim it eviscerates the separation of church and state.

The Arizona program, enacted in 1997, allows private citizens to set up charitable organizations - known as school tuition organizations (STOs) - that accept donations from private individuals; some STOs also accept corporate contributions. Individual donations are capped at $500 per year;. Donors receive credit against their state taxes for the full amount of their contributions. They are prohibited from directing their funds to a specific beneficiary. STOs then award scholarships for private schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. They must take financial need into account and can't limit the scholarships to one school. Most of the 50 or so STOs proclaim a Christian affiliation. A few are founded by Jewish organizations, and a few are secular.

Several Arizona taxpayers challenged the program, arguing that it impermissibly puts the government in the business of funding religious education. Because donations are credited, dollar-for-dollar, against state tax obligations, they are as much gifts from the state as they are donations from private individuals. The taxpayers prevailed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, but we believe they are wrong.

The Supreme Court has upheld other school choice programs, including those that provide students who attend failing schools with tax-funded vouchers that they may use to pay for private schools, including religious institutions. The justices have found these schemes permissible as long as they are religion-neutral and individuals decide where tax dollars are spent. This describes the Arizona program, which provides students and families with a range of options.

The program is driven by a series of private choices that do not involve the government.

And the program has made private school an option for some middle-class families for whom tuition payments would otherwise be prohibitive; in the 13 years of the program's existence, some two-thirds of scholarship recipients have come from poor or modest-income families.

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