This article was written by a tax lawyer in New York who advises executive directors and asked to keep his name confidential.
In an article published by a CPA who works predominantly with not-for-profit organizations, the author accuses religious-school parents of having a low-priority attitude towards paying tuition for their children. The author tries hard to show that tuition payments should be a top priority not a low priority. It’s in the attitude – he claims.
Attitude is certainly a factor. But, the real problem is not with the parents’ attitude. The real source of the tuition problems which religious schools face, is the attitude of school administrations.
One factor which burdens religious families, is the tax law which prohibits tax deductions for tuition payments. Charitable contributions to religious organizations are tax deductible. Payments for religious services provided by churches or synagogues are tax deductible. Membership fees in religious organizations are tax deductible. But, if the payment is “tuition” rater than “donation”, then, the payment is not tax deductible.
Religion cannot be taught in USA public schools. Therefore, the teaching of religion is confined to private religious organizations. Synagogues, churches, mosques, etc. can provide their members with unlimited religious education funded by donations. The teaching of religion is not considered a tangible benefit, therefore, payments for religious teaching can be classified as a donation without receiving a tangible benefit. Such payments could be tax deductible if only the organizations agreed to cooperate and classify such payments as donations. There are schools which teach both religious subjects and secular subjects. Payments for the secular portion of the education are legitimately classified as tuition. Payments for the religious portion of the education can easily be classified as donations if the education is provided by a synagogue or church rather than by a school. It is easy to operate as two separate organizations – one religious and one secular. Yet, most religious schools refuse to help the parents and refuse to classify the religious portion of the payments as donations. With such an attitude, how can schools accuse parents of having a bad attitude?
There is one religious organization in the USA which did classify all payments for religious education as donations. This is the Church of Scientology. After mounting a fierce legal battle against the IRS to be recognized as a religious organization, they earned a tax deductible status for all the donations they receive. The IRS issued the Church of Scientology a private letter ruling (No. 93-73) which recognizes all payments for their religious education as tax-deductible donations. The most difficult challenge which the Church of Scientology faced was achieving recognition as a religion and a religious organization. Once they were recognized, tax deductions for their religious education followed.
The Jewish religion does not need to fight for recognition as a religion. All Jewish religious organizations are recognized by the IRS as not-for-profit organizations. Every Jewish religious school has or should have a synagogue. There is no limit on how much religious education synagogues can provide their member families. Payments for religious services and education provided by a synagogue are legitimate tax-deductible donations, even when such donations are fixed rather than voluntary. Membership fees in Synagogues are also fixed, mandatory, and tax-deductible. (Fixed donations for religious education are explicitly allowed in private letter ruling 93-73). Yet, Jewish religious schools refuse to cooperate with parents. With such an attitude, how can schools accuse parents of having a bad attitude?
A Jewish CPA in California sued the IRS, claiming that he can deduct the religious portion of his payments to his children school. He lost. He lost because the school issued him one receipt for “tuition”. The school refused to issue two separate receipts – one “tuition” receipt for the secular portion of his children education, and a separate “donation” receipt for religious services to his children. Having only one receipt, the government needed to get entangled in having to determine the correct percentage of the religious portion of the payments. The court ruled that such entanglement is prohibited. The Church of Scientology, on the other hand, does issue separate receipts for religious services and for non-religious education. Students at the Church of Scientology schools can deduct the religious portion of their payments because their schools cooperate with them. Students in Jewish religious schools cannot deduct the religious portion of their payments because their schools refuse to cooperate with them.
The problem is indeed in the attitude. Not the attitude of the parents, but, the attitude of the schools.
Practically all religious schools in America depend on charitable donations by supporters. The reality in most schools which provide a religious education to children, is that the person responsible for collecting donations for the school is the highest paid individual in the school. There are executive directors (the American euphemism for fund-raiser) who earn salaries or commissions of more than a quarter million dollars a year, while teachers in the same school are paid a salary which qualifies them to buy food with food stamps. The high salaries of the executive directors is not something which they will easily give up. Being the top decision makers in most schools, executive directors will do everything in their power to maintain the dependence of their schools on donations.
In the USA, public-school tuition is funded by the government. Property taxes are the primary source of this funding. Every child in America has the right to attend public school without paying a penny in tuition. All property owners have to pay school taxes regardless of whether they do or do not have children in school. Every tenant who rents a home also pays this school tax as part of the rent. There is, however, a class of parents with children in school who have to pay twice for their education. They pay the school tax like everyone else, and then, they also have to pay tuition for their children who attend a religious school. The anti-religious discrimination in USA public schools denies religious families access to free public education, unless they are willing to compromise their religious observance and values.
The political power of the Jewish population in America is infinitely stronger than the political power of the Church of Scientology. The Church of Scientology mounted a merciless battle against the US government and the IRS and won the recognition and tax-exempt status they sought. In a different arena, America has laws against sex discrimination. Yet, every public-school building in America has rooms into which boys or girls cannot enter strictly because of their gender. Bathrooms are the most expensive areas of a building to construct, yet, separate bathrooms are provided for boys and girls, despite the additional cost, so they don’t have to compromise their feelings and values. Why should Jewish religious students have to compromise their feelings and values if they want to avail themselves to public funding for education? The boy-scouts and the girl-scouts in America receive government funding despite the gender-based separation. Many charter schools in America which cater to specific populations are funded by the government. The only ones who are not fighting for equal access to public funding for education, are the leaders of the Jewish communities.
In a landmark decision, in 2002, the US Supreme Court (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639) permitted the use of school tuition vouchers in religious schools. This decision removed the last legal obstacle to government funding of parents’ tuition expenses in religious schools. If the Jewish leaders in America really wanted their children tuition to be funded by the government, like all other children in America, they could have achieved it. The problem is that the Jewish organizations in America are dominated by executive directors who are paid exorbitant salaries or commissions for their fund-raising abilities. If tuition were to be paid by the government, there would be no need for school executive directors. This is something the decision-making executive directors cannot afford. So, the parents are requested to foot the bill instead of the government, and, when the burden becomes too heavy, the schools accuse the parents of having a bad attitude towards paying tuition.
One Jewish community did not give up. The Jewish parents asked their town for tuition vouchers. The town refused and said that the Jewish children are welcome to attend the local public schools. So, all the Jewish students in town showed up at the local public schools. The schools were overwhelmed by the number of students for which they were not prepared, and begged the community leaders to take their children back to their original Jewish schools. The leaders agreed on condition that the town funds the parents’ tuition expense. This time, the town agreed.
As we can see, it’s all in the attitude. Everything is possible with proper leadership, courage, and unity.
The secular portion of the education is now available for free over the Internet. This way, Jewish religious children can easily be isolated from undesirable influences in public schools. Internet filters are extremely easy to setup to isolate the children from undesirable Internet contents too. The filters can also be designed to allow access only to the Internet school and nothing else. The quality of the over-the-Internet education is far superior to the quality of the secular education in most of the Jewish religious schools in America. By attending over-the-Internet secular education, religious-school expenses can be cut almost in half. Parents’ tuition cost can also be cut in half. Yet, the schools resist the transition to over-the-Internet secular education. Some schools go as far as expelling students who dare to avail themselves to this superior secular education. Again, the parents are requested to foot the bill instead of the government, and, when the burden becomes too heavy, the schools accuse the parents of having a bad attitude towards paying tuition.
Yes, the problem is indeed in the attitude. Not the attitude of the parents, but, the attitude of the schools.
If you are a parent, you are already paying your fair share in school taxes. You started paying school taxes before your first child was born and you will continue paying school taxes long after your youngest child will graduate. Don’t feel guilty if you cannot pay twice for your children education – once as school taxes and a second time as tuition.
If you are a director at a school, don’t blame the parents for your failure to fight for tuition vouchers from the government. It is easier to navigate a ship in the harbor than in the ocean, but, this is not why a ship needs a captain. It is also easier to milk parents for tuition money than to deal with the government, but, this is not why you are a director at the school. The Supreme Court removed the legal barriers to religious-school tuition vouchers. Now it is your turn to act. One Jewish community did the right thing and succeeded. With courage and unity you can do it too.