Thursday, January 06, 2011

An Oldie but Goodie: Freedom from the Feds

Thanks to Judy at Consent of the Governed, I learned that the issue of federal tax credits for homeschoolers is the topic in the Room for Debate section of the New York Times.

Apparently, according to this debate, one of the priorities for our new Congress is to give tax credits to parents of homeschooled kids. Which, if true, means that the Republicans still haven't got the message yet (they read the Constitution yesterday--did they notice it, though? I have to wonder.).

One of the people weighing in on this argument makes this point:

However, there are serious downsides to giving tax credits for home schooling. Don’t take my word for it: just play with the idea for a moment.
First, as all of us know, you don’t get something for nothing. The government will exact its price. Most likely that will mean greater accountability — perhaps audits, specific standards, tests — you name it. Second comes regulation. Throw all the freedoms that home schooling presumably provides away (and as many home school teachers would say, those freedoms are already being encroached with greater paperwork, syllabi, visits, etc). Forget your curriculum — do it the government way.

Yes, yes, and YES. In fact, this was my position on February 22, 2008, and it is my position again. Rather than dissect the NYT article further (but read the opinions of all for yourself--it's telling how many of them are advocating federal regulation of homeschooling), I'm just going to repost the article I wrote three years ago (I updated the links to the HOPE Tax Credit and Life Learning sections, but the rest is unchanged).

I strongly urge, with the most vehemence and passion I can muster, and I'm not afraid to rant about it some more (fair warning!)--homeschooling families--and everyone, really--to oppose any such proposed legislation, now and in the future. 

Also, it would be nice to voice your opinion to the HSLDA, too. They have generally been behind this legislation in the past (I don't know for sure if they are now, but I strongly suspect they are). They think they speak for all homeschoolers, and represent themselves that way. They have other agendas besides homeschooling. They act more like a Washington lobbying group than an advocacy group. Make sure they know that they do not speak for you on this issue (or other issues, if that applies).

Here's my post from three years ago:

I oppose a federal tax credit for homeschoolers. There. I said it.

This issue is a pretty hot topic among homeschoolers and proponents of both sides of the debate have good points. I have thought long and hard about this issue for quite a while now. My stance may surprise some of you who are familiar with my views on taxes.

Do I oppose the government(s) in our country taking about 35-40% of my money and spending it however they please? Yes.

Do I do what I can to make our annual tax bills the least amount of money possible? Double yes.

Do I take deductions and tax credits when possible in order to lower my tax bills? You betcha.

Do I hate that my government uses some of my money to finance our schools, and doesn't even ask me for permission to use it in that manner? Of course.

Wouldn't I love to keep just a leeetle bit more of my own money to offset the expenses that we undertake in order to home educate our children? Yes. Yes I would.

So why do I oppose a tax credit?

The short answer is that the cost would be too high.

Now you may be wondering: Errr? So I will 'splain.

Right now, we homeschoolers, ALL of us throughout the nation, enjoy a very, very rare thing: freedom from the federal government in this area of our lives. Most of us have hurdles that we must jump through in order to make our state education officials happy--paperwork, reporting, testing, etc. But we are FREE from the Feds.

Free. No hoops, no hurdles. It's only a sliver, but it's there.

Nobody at the Department of Education requires us to submit a form to them at the beginning of each school year, notifying them of our intent to homeschool our own kids.

The DOE does not require homeschooling parents to be college-educated or hold a teaching certificate.

No certified DOE person needs to look at our yearly portfolio, pronouncing judgment on our abilities to and methods by which we educate our children according to our values.

The DOE does not even have an accurate count of how many homeschoolers there are in the nation.

We are outside their purview, outside their reach, outside of their ideas of how we should best educate the little human beings who we chose to bring into the world, who we support financially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Free. We are free.

ANY involvement by the federal government in the area of homeschooling necessarily undermines our freedom--even so-called "good" involvement in the form of financial incentives. Imagine for a moment what you might have to do in order to claim the theoretical Homeschool Tax Credit. Here's an exercise to help you do just that.

  • First, go to the Hope Tax Credit Section of the IRS Publications.
  • Read it through, substituting the word "Homeschool" for "Hope."
  • Realize that every. single. sentence in that section is a condition or limitation on you--a hurdle you must jump through.
  • Recall that when the Hope Tax Credit idea was first floated, it was suggested that this would be a simple, one-line process.
  • Wonder if "Sports, Games, and Hobbies" will be covered (unlike for Hope). Even though you may consider your child's lemonade stand a valuable educational experience, the government might not.
  • Imagine how the IRS might define "Eligible Student" and how they will verify a taxpayer's claims to have an eligible student in the absence of a formal school bureaucracy.
  • Understand that WE will not be defining the word "homeschooling" or eligibility requirements. The federal government will be doing that for us, most likely with the assistance of the DOE, since they "help" the IRS with the other education-related credits and deductions.
  • Realize that for any kind of tax credit or deduction that you currently take--the mortgage interest tax deduction, for instance--you must provide proof of your eligibility for that tax deduction or credit through a statement from your mortgage company, or zillions of receipts.

It's not just the paperwork--it's the fact that we must then be accountable to some agency in the federal government in order to get that money back. The IRS and the Department of Education work together on the Hope tax credit and the Lifetime Learning tax credit, with the DOE helping to define terms for the IRS.* The IRS already uses DOE-related standards to determine eligibility for education-related claims.**

Consider one of the peculiar complications of a potential Homeschool Tax Credit: the definition of eligibility. Would it be enough to say that you are satisfying the requirements of your state? Currently, if the IRS has a question about someone's Hope credit, they can refer to the institution where the learning took place, because all schools are required to send that information to the IRS as well as send a statement to the student, just like your mortgage deduction.

This would be tricky in a Homeschool Tax Credit scenario, because unlike the current education tax credits where the student and the school are separate entities, the school essentially corroborating the parents' claim, the homeschooling parent is both the "institution" reporting the eligibility and the recipient of the credit. That's the kind of conflict of interest which would require lots and lots of paperwork, I think.

Sure--you'd have your receipts--but would the IRS accept your word that you have an eligible student? Would they require extra reporting by your state? It seems a reasonable conclusion. How would that work in states without reporting requirements? Who would pay for the additional administrative costs of the state reassuring the IRS or the DOE that you are actually in compliance with your state laws and therefore have an eligible student? I'm sure you can figure out the answer to that last question. :o)

Once the Feds get involved, there will necessarily be more reporting requirements, at the very least to our states, so that our ducks will be lined up just so and we can keep more of our money. Once the Feds get involved at any level, in any aspect of homeschooling, defining eligibility and limits and constraints and what happens to those who don't follow the rules, we will lose something that we may never be able to regain: the homeschooling freedom we currently enjoy from the Feds.

This is one small but very important area in which We The Parents are not beholden to the federal government. A very precious, unique opportunity. We are free. We owe the Feds nothing.

If we advocate for tax credits--beneficial as that money would be, as much of a right to that money as we have--we will essentially be inviting the federal government to notice us. To define us. To monitor us. To calculate us. To nickel and dime us. To determine us. This is an invitation that we cannot rescind. It's a way into our lives--a door, if you will. And once it is opened, it will never be closed--not by us and certainly not by them. It will only open wider and wider and our freedom will shrink ever smaller. And we will have invited this.

Yes, I want my money, but not at that price. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, we homeschooling parents have freedom from the federal government--if we can keep it.

Freedom, in a political context, means freedom from government coercion . . . It means freedom from the coercive power of the state—and nothing else.
--Ayn Rand, "Conservatism: An Obituary," Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 192.

*For example, on the Hope tax credit page, you will find these words (emphasis mine): "The standard for what is half of the normal full-time work load is determined by each eligible educational institution.However, the standard may not be lower than any of those established by the Department of Education under the Higher Education Act of 1965."

**One IRS requirement for taking either the Hope or Lifetime Learning credits is that the learning institution must be "eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the Department of Education. It includes virtually all accredited public, nonprofit, and proprietary (privately owned profit-making) postsecondary institutions."


Kash said...

Why do people persist in thinking that homeschool tax credit would be a positive thing? I remember seeing debates about the same topic when I first started reading about homeschooling–in 2001. It was a bad idea then and it's still a bad idea now.

Perhaps some of these people should talk to those who homeschool and live in highly regulatory states with regard to homeschooling: PA, maybe, or NY. As far as I know, even PA & NY homeschoolers don't get tax credits on state taxes, but they already have a lot of hoops to jump through!

Susan Ryan said...

Illinois has a tax credit. I wrote more about what I see here on my blog.
Many of us have been concerned about this over the years, and those concerns seem to be tying themselves together into that bureaucratic web schools would LOVE to weave for us homeschoolers.
Thanks for stopping by the blog, Jenn.