Equalize tax treatment of school textbook fees

At the beginning of each school year, families in Indiana’s public schools are hit with bills that include activity fees and textbook costs. Textbook rental fees cost parents on average about $100 per child.

Indiana is one of only eight states that charge for textbooks. That is why several state legislators are discussing a bill that would shift the cost of textbooks from parents to the state. But indications from the Statehouse are that such a bill has little chance of passing this year, perhaps even of getting serious consideration.

It seems odd that in a public school system, which students attend for free, a family can pay hundreds of dollars in required fees, but it stems from one part of the Indiana Constitution, which reads:

“It should be the duty of the General Assembly to encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual scientific, and agricultural improvement; and provide, by law, for a general and uniform system of Common Schools, wherein tuition shall be without charge, and equally open to all.”

That one phrase, “wherein tuition shall be without charge,” opens a door to all sorts of fees a school district can assess, which are neither stated nor implied in the constitutional language.

But there’s a simple solution, even simpler than crafting a bill shifting textbook costs to the state.

Several years ago, the General Assembly passed a bill that allows taxpayers to claim up to a $1,000 tax deduction per dependent who “is enrolled in a private school or home schooled in Grades K-12 and incurs costs for tuition, fees, computer software, textbooks, or school supplies.”

The rule has not been changed in the wake of the expansion of school vouchers, which help many Hoosier parents send their children to private schools. Thus, some parents get most or all of private school tuition covered by a state voucher and qualify for a tax deduction for books and supplies.

To make the system more equitable, all that legislators need to do is amend the existing tax rules. By inserting the words “or public” to make the section read “enrolled in a private or public school,” all parents would be eligible to claim the deduction for each child. Other sections of the tax code would have to be altered slightly to reflect the change, but that’s the gist of it.

Textbook costs and other fees can impose a burden on many Hoosier families. Equalizing treatment in the tax code would help parents across the state.

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Textbook costs and other fees are a burden for many Hoosier families.

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Rather than the state assuming the costs of textbooks, a simpler solution would be to broaden to all families the tax deduction enjoyed by parents of private-school students.