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Are vouchers, tax credits the answer for viability of schools?

Published: April 25, 2009   
Vernell Bowen

For the past 16 years as a Catholic school educator, I have been asked why Catholic schools cannot receive assistance from the state or tax credits for parents. My answer regarding assistance from the state is that Arkansas has Blaine laws in the state constitution that prohibit any private or religious-based school from receiving state money.

Recently, in researching what school choice proponents have been working on to receive benefits for parents with children in private or Catholic schools, I have found there are different approaches.

There seem to be three avenues organizations supporting private education have been pursuing and these are: vouchers, tax credits for families and corporate tax credits.

  • Vouchers: Vouchers are set up for low-income or students with special needs to attend private or parochial schools from public schools that are failing or are not able to meet the student's special needs.

    Since 2005, Ohio is one of the states that use vouchers for educational choice for parents. The EdChoice program provides vouchers for students in K-12 to attend schools in private or parochial schools. Students are eligible if they attend public schools that are in Academic Watch or Academic Emergency status and have been for two of three years. Scholarships are worth up to $5,300 per year and can be used at any of the 313 private or parochial schools that are registered. After a student is admitted, the private school submits the scholarship application directly to the Ohio Department of Education. Once a child obtains a scholarship, they may continue to receive the scholarship through graduation.

    There are always opponents who are continuously looking for ways to eliminate the voucher or tax credits for private schools. Just recently in Washington, D.C., Congress eliminated the voucher system for students attending private and parochial schools. This will send approximately 1,700 students back to the failing Washington, D.C., public schools at a cost to taxpayers that exceed what the voucher system cost for sending them to private schools.

    The Arizona State Supreme Court recently ruled that the voucher for special needs students to attend private schools was unconstitutional because it violates the state Blaine amendments.

    Nationwide, the momentum behind support for voucher programs such as the one in Milwaukee has been limited, and most likely has lost further steam with the election of President Barack Obama. Although President Obama favors charter schools -- generally, independent publicly funded schools that have more public accountability than private schools -- he has not favored vouchers, and the Congress, controlled firmly by Democrats, more than likely will not support such plans either. This is based on past history of what happens when the Democrats rather than the Republicans control Congress. This is not to say one is better than the other.

    But in Milwaukee, the voucher program keeps growing. Participation -- limited to low-income children who live in the city and attend schools in the city -- has gone up every year since 1998 when the state Supreme Court ruled it was legal to include religious schools. There are currently 19,538 full-time students enrolled. At one of the area Catholic schools there are 1,000 students attending kindergarten to eighth grade on vouchers.

  • Tax credit for families or corporations: A few states have begun to implement tax credits for families and for corporations who wish to contribute to private or public schools. Pennsylvania and Arizona are two states that have implemented tax credits for individuals and corporations. In visiting with superintendents in the Diocese of Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., and the Diocese of Greens boro, Pa., it seems the Catholic schools have greatly benefited from these tax credits in the form of scholarships to students. The states of Georgia and Louisiana this past year have implemented tax credits for private school costs and scholarship donations. Tax credits have been able to withstand court cases more so than vouchers.

    In Pennsylvania the tax credit is called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. This provides a 75 percent tax credit for corporations with a cap set for donations to non-profit scholarship or improvement organizations. The improvement organizations aim to assist improvement in public school programs and for scholarships for children to attend schools of their choice. In Arizona the tax credit allows an individual to claim a credit for making contributions for paying fees to a public school for support of extra-curricular activities or for scholarships to approved private or religious schools. It essentially has the same tax credit benefit for corporations as Pennsylvania.

    During the current Arkansas legislative session a bill was introduced by Sen. Denny Altes of Fort Smith to establish an income tax credit for educational expenses of dependents. This bill would provide for a tax credit to a taxpayer who has one or more dependents who are full-time students enrolled in a kindergarten through 12th grade education program at any school for tuition, book fees, and laboratory fees if they exceed $300 and shall be equal to 25 percent of the amount for these fees. This bill was submitted to committee and did not make it out of committee.

    Before we offer support for tax credits, I feel there needs to be a task force of private and parochial school parents to study the impact of the tax credits in Pennsylvania and Arizona. A plan then could be developed that might benefit both public and private education. I feel that tax credits would be more beneficial than vouchers. What must be ensured with any law that allows tax credits or vouchers is that by accepting these benefits there are not burdensome regulations that hamper the ability to teach children better.

    Are tax credits the sole answer to the viability for Catholic schools? My answer is "no" that there are many more issues involved with the viability for Catholic schools than just this one issue. This might help with tuition and provide more opportunities for students to attend Catholic schools. However, more importantly we must stay focused on our mission to make sure that students are receiving a quality academic education as well as providing for their spiritual development by ensuring we are teaching the Church's teachings.

    If readers would like to comment on the idea of tax credits, feel free to e-mail me by clicking this link.

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