A friend of mine recently handed me a brochure about a charitable project at his church, and he asked me to participate. And when I got home and looked over the information, I was appalled at what I saw.
The church that my friend attends, like many other churches in the East Valley, owns and operates an elementary school. The brochure I was given was inviting me to take advantage of Arizona’s tuition tax credit law, to make a contribution to a tuition-granting institution and then request that my donation be given to the church’s school.
In case you’re not familiar with this process, some clarification: Unlike most states, Arizona allows those who pay state income taxes to redirect a portion of the money they pay the state in the direction of private schools. The way this works is simple. You make a donation to one of the many private, authorized “tuition granting organizations” around the state, and the amount you give the tuition organization can be deducted from your state tax bill, dollar for dollar. In turn, the tuition organization distributes the money to needy students, in the form of scholarships.
It’s an amazingly productive and positive policy, and likely one of the best ideas to emerge out of the Legislature. And to make matters even better, when you donate to a tuition organization, you can make suggestions as to whom your “scholarship money” is given.
What I was being asked to do by my friend and his church was all completely legitimate, legal and noble. But the way this process was explained in the church’s brochure made me furious.
The headline was inviting me to take advantage of Arizona’s tuition tax credit law and thereby allow the school to take advantage of — and I am directly quoting here — “free money” from the government.
“Free money?” What in the world is this supposed to mean? What “free money?” And who wrote the brochure? And what were they thinking when they wrote it? I wish it weren’t so, but situations like this lead me to believe that we are living in a era of economic illiteracy.
Think about this: American adults can do profound things in the course of their day-to-day activities; negotiate business transactions, educate children, create new technologies, save lives, and so forth. And when we gather at houses of worship on the weekends, we may contemplate the deepest things of life, including God, humanity and the hereafter.
But ask people to articulate what happens to their own money when it gets deducted from their paycheck, or collected at the point of sale as a “sales tax,” or paid out from their mortgage account as a “property tax,” and too many minds can too quickly devolve to something akin to Sesame Street economics.
So let’s get something straight: there is no such thing as “free money.” Whether you earned your money yourself, or it was freely given to you — perhaps in the form of a “gift,” or a “grant,” or even as a “scholarship“ — it doesn’t much matter. The money you possess was earned by somebody, and it did not just spontaneously come into existence.
And the same holds true for the money that is “possessed” by our federal, state, and local governments. In fact, the term “government money” is a bit of a misnomer from the get-go, because government agencies don’t produce any money at all. All the money that governments have is money that was taken from you and me, in the form of taxes. It is, therefore, “our money,” and it is most certainly not “free money.”
The formulation of Arizona’s tuition tax credit law was a modest step toward allowing “we the people” a greater level of influence over how our money gets spent on education. At the same time, it was and continues to be a monumental idea, and hopefully will be the beginning of a much broader trend in the future.
But for now, the state law is what it is, and it is good. And those of us who believe in the virtues of educational choice, and market competition, should take advantage of the tuition tax credit law and donate to a tuition organization.
But nobody is well-served when people try to perpetuate something so silly and childish as the notion of “free money” — not a church, not a school, and certainly not the broader community.
And any institution that chooses to play such childish games isn’t deserving of my tax dollars.
Austin Hill of Gilbert is a host for Arizona Web TV and is heard on XM Satellite Radio. He is co-author of “White House Confidential: The Little Book of Weird Presidential History,” and is an editorialist for the national news and commentary site