Take Advantage of Public Education Tax Credits

Here's a last minute reminder about Arizona's tax credit opportunities. You get to give money to some of your favorite causes and organizations, then get it all back—100 percent of it—at tax time if you owe enough in state income tax. The three tax credits I strongly recommend are for public schools, charitable organizations that help the working poor and foster-care organizations.

The time is drawing nigh. Most giving has to be done by Dec. 31 to qualify for this year's tax credits (though there's an exception with the public school giving). Since most organizations take credit cards online, there's still time—a few days—to make your donations. You can give $200 per person, $400 for a couple, to each of the three and get it all back at tax time if your total Arizona income tax bill is more than the amount you give. That's as much as $1,200 you can give to worthy organizations and get it back later.

Today I'll look a the public school tax credit. I'll post about the other two tomorrow.

Here are the rules about public school tax credits. You can give your money—$200 for an individual, $400 for a couple—to one school or split it up over a number of schools. Both district and charter schools qualify, and most of them make it easy by putting links to the information on their home web pages. The hitch is that the money has to go to extracurricular or character education programs. I don't like that restriction, but that's the way the law was written. Still, lots of important education and recreation happens in schools outside the classroom—sports, music, art, science, field trips, clubs. Especially in schools with lots of children from low income families, the donations can be the difference between the kids participating or being left out.

My recommendation is, if you haven't already picked out a school or schools for your tax credit dollars, go with a school with low income children since they always come out on the short end when it comes to giving. When family incomes are low, parents pay little or no state income tax, so they can't take advantage of the credit. Even if they pay some income taxes, they're living from day to day and week to week financially, which makes it difficult to give money now even if they know they'll get it back later. It's another of those rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer situations. Schools in well-off communities get lots of money, and schools in lower income communities get very little.

TUSD's tax credit page links to a page with a list of schools that received the lowest dollars-per-student donations in 2014. According to the page, the 25 listed schools received between $11.41 and $25.67 per student, while the average TUSD school received $55.71. The disparities between high and low income schools are similar pretty much everywhere.

You can use your donation to pay for a students' fees if you want, for your own child or someone else's. This is another of those rules that's most beneficial to well-off parents who can pay school fees with tax credits while lower income parents often can't, but it also allows some parents of modest means to get a break on school fees. Here's an explanation of how it works at TUSD.

One final wrinkle. You can give the public school tax credit for this year as late as April 15, 2016. Don't wait! Do it now! But for those people who can't afford to part with the money for a longer period of time before they get it back, they can send it when they file their tax returns.