Ah, September! Pumpkin spice lattes have returned, DC denizens are wearing flannel even though it’s still too warm, and Congress has returned from their month-long August vacation. But while that means I should be resuming meetings in the Senate’s basement coffee shop (rather than on Zoom) and your kids (if not homeschooled) should be back on their daily bus ride, this is still 2020, and nothing is how it normally is.

One new thing that this September ushered in is that seemingly every office on Capitol Hill wants to consult with the homeschool experts. In the past week alone, I’ve been approached by more Congressional offices who have alternative education proposals they’d like to introduce than I’ve had in the entire past two years. And I’m sure this is only the beginning. Educational freedom went from being a niche issue few people talked about to being one of DC’s hottest topics.

In the past, I have called out Sen. Paul’s SCHOOL Act as an example of what Congress shouldn’t do regarding educational freedom: use federal dollars to fund public school alternatives. (See my post linked below) Federal dollars always come with strings attached, and rather than creating more opportunity, unnecessary government regulation restricts education freedom.

But there are ways that Congress CAN help: ways they can allow families to use more of their own hard-earned dollars, and not government funds, to more freely pursue the education option that works best for them. So let’s talk about a few of those.

Tax Credits

Every American, regardless of whether their kids attend public schools or not—or if they even HAVE kids of not—contributes tax dollars to the public education system. But if your family is actively shelling out dollars for private school tuition or homeschool supplies, it seems unfair to pay for a service you aren’t using.

Enter the idea of education tax credits. A tax credit is an amount of money that taxpayers can subtract from taxes owed to the government. Therefore, the basic goal of education tax credits is to allow those families not making use of the public schools to keep some of those tax dollars in their pockets and put them toward their private education expenses.

There are numerous ways tax credits can and have been implemented across the country, and unfortunately, some do come with government regulations. And those tax credits are NOT what I’m advocating for here. But when they don’t come with that baggage—when they are a means of letting you and me keep more of our money to spend on what we want to—they can be a great way to make public education alternatives a financially viable option for more families.

Some in Congress are proposing various types of tax credits for families now educating at home due to COVID-19, and that could be a welcome solution.

Tax Deductions

Unlike a tax credit, which deducts the actual amount of taxes owed, a tax deduction reduces your amount of taxable income. But the end result is the same: the government gets less tax dollars from you, and you keep more of your money.

One yearly deduction that’s well known in the education area is the Educator Expense Deduction. Currently, “eligible educators” can deduct $250 of qualified expenses. But while principals, counselors, and aides, in addition to classroom teachers, are considered “eligible educators,” home educators are not—despite the fact that homeschool families spend money on the same types of material (curricula, office supplies, supplemental books) for the same purpose as these other eligible beneficiaries: educating kids.

Recognizing home educators as eligible for this deduction would be another way to keep private dollars out of the government coffers as well as remove the implication that home education is not as legitimate as every other form—especially in an age when so many families are now doing exactly that.

529 Accounts

529 accounts are tax-advantaged savings accounts: you put your own money into them, that money grows tax-free, and then you can withdraw the funds to use on education expenses.

Currently, 529s can be used for K–12 tuition but not for homeschool expenses. Senator Ted Cruz has been pushing to fix this for the past several years, and the time is ripe for Congress to finally get that done.

It’s an exciting time when government actively seeks ways to increase freedom, especially in the education realm. While the likelihood of any new legislation being voted on and passed between now and the election is slim to none, these conversations are critically important for the future of education in America. We at HSLDA Action are excited to engage in them and steer legislators toward solutions that would promote education choice for the long term.