VA school choice advocates push tax credits for scholarships

By   /   January 18, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Hannah Hess | Virginia Statehouse News

RICHMOND — Parents of children who are struggling in some of Virginia’s most troubled public schools could get more choices, if Republicans win tax breaks for companies that make donations for low-income students to attend private institutions.

The plan provides corporations with a tax credit that covers 70 percent of a donation to a nonprofit that provides private school scholarships to the 38 percent of Virginia public school students eligible for free and reduced meals at school. Parents could choose faith-based schools or other private learning environments they deem appropriate for their children. The model has seen success in Florida.

“Virginia has great public schools, but the public school environment is not a one-size-fits-all for all kids,” Delegate Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, said Wednesday. Massie is sponsoring the bill in the House, and he has championed the same school choice bill in past years.

Gov. Bob McDonnell also has tried to secure tax credits for corporations as part of his “Opportunity to Learn” agenda. An identical measure cleared the House by a 54-45 vote last year, but the measure was killed in the Democratic-controlled Senate Finance Committee.

Opponents of the school choice proposal say the scholarship program undermines the public schools by siphoning away money and motivated students.

To refute critics’ arguments, state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisburg, the Senate sponsor of the scholarship tax credit program, pointed to a Northwestern University study of Florida’s educational system.

The study, published in the winter 2011 edition of Education Next, a nonpartisan K-12 education reform journal, found that public schools responded to the competitive pressure of the state’s tax credit program by improving performance. The districts that lost the most public school children to private alternatives experienced the biggest education gains in the state.

“The vision I have for our school system is an all-of-the-above approach, in which our public schools are incited to do an even better job for families and for kids in those areas,” Obenshain said Tuesday.

He presented the school choice initiative as a key point on the agenda of the Conservative Caucus. Obenshain co-chairs the coalition of conservative lawmakers from both chambers, which increased in size after the 2011 legislative elections.

Some opponents argue that using public funds for tuition at faith-based schools violates the separation of church and state, although the Supreme Court decided otherwise in 2002 — Zelman v. Harris-Simmons.

The Family Foundation, a nonprofit pro-family advocacy organization, is throwing its support behind the measure as a solution for Virginia parents who aren’t finding what they need in the public education system.

Academic issues, behavioral issues or a decision about “where a parent wants to put their child in a faith-based school setting because the values taught match the values they have at home,” explain the necessity of offering school choice, said Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb, who plans to speak on behalf of the bill as votes approach.

The scholarship tax credit proposal also may receive a boost during National School Choice Week, a week of events and educational programs Jan. 22-28.

Cherie Nielsen, 41, of Brunswick County, has organized an outing Jan. 27 at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton. Parents are scheduled to discuss school choice and virtual education.

Nielson serves as president of the Virginia Chapter of National Coalition for Public School Options and home schools her twin 9-year-old sons and her 6-year-old daughter.

“Parents and families should have choice, and thankfully Governor McDonnell supports that,” Nielson said. “This is a wonderful state to live in because we are on the cusp of going out and expanding that.”

Massie said his proposal would be cost-neutral, at worst, and the state may come out with a financial gain.

The nonprofits receiving the money can allocate 10 percent of corporate donations to administrative costs, while the other 90 percent will be paid in scholarships to low-income students. The state provides a tax credit for 70 percent of the donation, but it saves money because it won’t have to provide public school funding for the student receiving the scholarship.

Massie’s bill, HB 321, has been referred to the House Finance Committee. Read it:

Oberstain’s bill, SB 241, has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee. Read it:

Find more info on School Choice Week events:

See a video interview with Massie:

See a Massie’s spreadsheet explaining funding for the bill: