It’s that time of year again when you can bring a little holiday cheer to an underfunded Arizona public school -- and that includes every public school in the state. Funding for K-12 education is down 17 percent from where it was six years ago, so all our schools are hurting financially. You can give $200 to the school of your choice -- $400 from a couple - at absolutely no cost to you thanks to the Arizona School Tax Credit. There’s no need to have a child in school or live in a certain school district. If you pay Arizona income taxes, you qualify.

Here’s how it works. Choose a school you want to contribute to. It can be any public school in the state, which includes both district and charter schools. You can even divide the money between a number of schools so long as you don’t exceed the $200 per individual or $400 per couple maximum. Make your contribution before Dec. 31, then when tax time rolls around, take that amount off your taxes, dollar for dollar. This isn’t a standard charitable deduction that lowers your total income and takes a portion of that off what you owe. It’s a 100 percent tax credit. Even if you don’t itemize deductions, you can use it.

Of course, you have to owe at least as much in Arizona income taxes as you contribute to get the credit. If you don’t know how much you’ll owe next year, check last year’s tax return to see what you paid. That’ll give you a reasonable idea.

Most school districts make it easy for you to contribute by putting an “Arizona Tax Credit” link on the home page of their websites. You can usually pay by credit card or by check. If you don’t find a link, give the district or the school a call. Chances are they’ll be happy to explain it to you.

The way the tax credit law was written, the money can only be used to support extracurricular activities. I’m not happy with the restriction, but that still means you can fund plenty of activities that are important parts of children’s educations and contribute to their success in school, things like art, music, drama, sports, clubs and field trips. They’re all part of a well-rounded education.

Where should you give your contribution? If you have a child attending school, most likely that’s where you’ll send your money. But if you don’t, let me make a suggestion. Direct your dollars toward a school that’s likely to receive less tax credit money than others. Usually, those are the schools whose students come from low-income families, since many of the parents and community members don’t pay enough in taxes to qualify for the credit. They’re the same children whose parents don’t have the money to pay for much extra educational enrichment, meaning those schools are in the greatest need of funds. TUSD (Tucson Unified) is the only local district supplying a list of schools that received the lowest dollar amount per student last year. My contribution will go to one of those schools.

If giving a School Tax Credit contribution makes you feel good (generosity benefits the giver as well as the receiver), you can feel even better by also taking advantage of Arizona’s tax credit for charitable organizations. If you give $200 - $400 for a couple -- to a qualifying charitable organization by the end of the year, you can get the money back at tax time. Google “Qualifying Charitable Organizations Arizona 2013” to see a list of the hundreds of qualifying organizations.

This is pretty much a no brainer. Go ahead, help out a public school and some needy families at no cost to you. All it takes is a few minutes of your time between now and the end of the year.

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