Ted Cruz, Coverdell ESAs, homeschooling, and 7 Mountains

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Fans of Ted Cruz's opponents have been spreading a lot of misinformation designed to dissuade homeschoolers and evangelicals from backing Cruz. They're trying to make him out to be so naive or dishonest as to invite federal interference in homeschooling. They're also claiming that he's the minion of a kooky cult that will frighten general election voters and lead to Republican defeat if Cruz is the nominee.

One of the issues they've raised is Cruz's sponsorship, with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, of Senate Bill 306. Cruz's detractors are claiming that the bill would set the stage for federal regulation of homeschooling. RedState's Strieff thinks this is ridiculous:

The crux of the issue: the Coverdell Education Savings Account. The Coverdell ESA works much like one of the standard 529 plans with this major exception: it allows you to set aside money that can be withdrawn tax free for high school and elementary school expenses. This is where homeschooling takes place and you can incur non-trivial expenses if you are homeschooling. Fourteen states have provided guidance that affirmatively define homeschooling as being the equivalent of elementary through high school education. Thirty-six states, however, are silent on the issue.

Why is this important. If you have a tax audit in one of those 36 states and you are a homeschool family that has set up a Coverdell ESA you will find yourself having to prove that your plan is allowed and that you aren't liable for taxes and penalties. You may prevail. You may not. But it will be a stressful, expensive, and non-productive exercise. Moreover, a discrepancy like this allows the IRS to engage in rule-making and, given what we've seen of how they treat anything that looks vaguely conservative, they could very well put the plans off limits to homeschooling parents.

You may not have a Coverdell ESA, but perhaps, like me, you have a Health Savings Account. With an HSA, you set up an account with a bank of your choosing, you deposit your own money into the account, you use the checkbook or debit card on that account to pay for doctor's visits, lab work, urgent care, and prescriptions. When you file your taxes for the year, you get to deduct the amount you paid into the HSA from your taxable income. If you happen to be audited, you have to be able to produce receipts showing that the money you took out of the account was used only to pay for medical expenses.

A Coverdell ESA works much the same way, but the qualified expenses are things like tuition and fees, books, tutoring, and school uniforms. An important difference: Unlike HSA contributions, contributions to a Coverdell ESA are not tax-deductible. The main financial benefit is that any interest accruing on the account is not taxable.

Regarding qualified expenses, the key phrase is "in connection with enrollment or attendance at an eligible elementary or secondary school." Who determines eligibility? According to IRS Publication 970, it's the state. "This is any public, private, or religious school that provides elementary or secondary education (kindergarten through grade 12), as determined under state law."

Where state law explicitly defines homeschools as private schools, it's clear that Coverdell ESA funds can be spent on the aforementioned expenses. Where homeschooling is allowed, but not defined by state law as a private school, there's enough ambiguity to make it risky for homeschoolers to use Coverdell accounts for expenses. Cruz's S. 306 tells the IRS: Homeschool families can use their own ESA money for educational expenses, even if in a state that doesn't explicitly define a home school as a private school.

A story on The Resurgent quotes Will Estrada, director of federal relations for the Home School Legal Defense Association, explaining a possible source of confusion:

"In some ways [a Coverdell account] is actually even better than a tax credit or tax deduction, because those require you to show documentation to the IRS. The Coverdell has your own money in it; it isn't something the IRS needs documentation for," Estrada explained. "It is even more safe, if you will, from government regulation, than a tax credit."

Estrada optimistically thinks that part of the confusion over Cruz's stance on home education comes from the nature of S.306. The bill has several unrelated sections, some of which deal exclusively with a federal program that home schooling families are not eligible for, and that could be where casual readers of the legislation might conflate the Coverdell education savings account portion with the federal program portion of the bill.

HSLDA has an explainer on Coverdell ESAs and S. 306 on its own website.

The other popular topic among those seeking to undermine Ted Cruz's support among evangelicals is claiming that he is an adherent of "7 Mountains Dominionism."

I have yet to find any occurrence of Ted Cruz mentioning 7 Mountains, but for the sake of argument, let's suppose he has some connection to the "7 Mountains" concept. What is it exactly, and is it a cult or theocratic in some way?

"7 Mountains" is a concept of cultural influence that was first articulated back in the 1970s by Bill Bright, founder of the evangelical campus ministry Campus Crusade for Christ, Loren Cunningham of Youth with a Mission, and Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer. I say "concept" because I find a number of organizations that make use of the concept, sometimes incorporating into their name. Nomenclature varies: "7 Mountains of Influence," "7 Cultural Mountains," "Seven Spheres of Influence."

The list of seven varies somewhat as well. Here's the list from 7culturalmountains.org: business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family, and religion.

The common thread of thinking is that, while Christians were once involved and prominent in these spheres of influence, during the 20th century, they withdrew under pressure as the Left carried out its "Long March through the Institutions." Large groups of evangelical Christians created their own parallel institutions and ceased to be engaged in the broader mainstream culture, resulting in a further loss of influence in society.

Because Christian ideas about human nature and moral behavior are grounded in God's revelation to mankind in the Bible, these ideas are aligned with reality, while competing secular notions are not. To the extent that cultural institutions reflect and reinforce a true understanding of human nature, a society will be peaceful and prosperous, to the benefit of everyone, even those of other faiths or no faith at all. (Kind of like herd immunity, which protects even the unvaccinated.) But when false ideas about human nature are dominant, the natural consequence is societal chaos.

The 7 Mountains concept is that Christians should pursue careers in the mainstream of society, to be "salt and light" in the world -- an allusion to Jesus' words to his followers in the Sermon on the Mount. There's nothing "dominionist" about the idea. From this perspective, a career in the "secular" world is just as much a divine vocation as working as a full-time religious minister. (This is an understanding of vocation that was recovered during the Protestant Reformation but has faded over the intervening centuries.)

The aim is influence, not compulsion. The FAQ page at 7culturalmountains.org does a good job of explaining the difference:

Q: Is the Reclaiming the 7 Mountains strategy about Christians taking over?

A: No, it is about encouraging Christians to serve the culture by solving societal problems through love, compassion and service as following the example of Jesus Christ. It is about serving those in key cultural spheres that the Church has abandoned. The original mandate in Genesis 1 calls for Adam and Even to exercise stewardship over the earth as God's representative. However, when Adam and Eve fell this mandate could only be restored through the death of Jesus (Luke 19:10, Col. 1:19). We do not believe Christians are to control the world or seek to have a utopia in society. However, we do believe we are called to serve the culture as we live out our faith to be salt and light in all aspects of society.

Christians are not called to extend God's kingdom by means of the sword of the invading army or the sword of the ruler. (That's the way Islam extends its reach, because its "god" is a weakling.) But Christians are called to love our neighbors, to make the most of our skills and abilities, and to be witnesses for Christ in the world.

As I said, I have not found any occurrence of Ted Cruz mentioning the 7 Mountains concept, but it wouldn't bother me if he had. Cruz is certainly living out the ideal of loving God and his neighbor by developing and applying his gifts in a field of cultural significance. All Americans would be blessed with Ted Cruz in the White House.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 29, 2016 12:20 PM.

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