Wednesday, May 25, 2016

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State Catholic Conferences Push Legislators to Prioritize School Choice Programs

Representatives of several state Catholic conferences, which communicate the public policy interests of the bishops, recently told The Cardinal Newman Society that Catholic schools rely heavily on supportive school choice programs that enable families to choose a Catholic education for their children, but this support is lacking in many states where school choice is not prioritized or is outright battled due to anti-Catholic legislation.

In states where school choice programs are readily available, enrollment in Catholic schools is thriving, based on comments from state Catholic conference representatives. In other states — crippled by legislatures that prohibit government aid to private schools — Catholic school closures are at an all-time high, parents face the financial difficulty of paying public school taxes and private school tuition, and families are overall less able to choose schools that will academically and morally form their children.

Tax Credit Scholarship Programs

Tax credit scholarship programs give individuals or corporations tax credits for donating to organizations that provide private school scholarships. The tax credit amount varies state by state, but overall, these programs encourage donations, making more scholarships available for families who need tuition assistance. According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, various versions of tax credit scholarship programs exist in 16 states.

Pennsylvania has two tax credit programs, and was the first state “to create a groundbreaking program that empowers parents to choose the school they believe is best for their children,” Amy Hill, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, told the Newman Society.

Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program was established in 2001, and “provides businesses with a tax credit for donating to nonprofit scholarship or educational improvement organizations,” said Hill. Under the EITC, students from families with eligible incomes can apply for scholarships to aid tuition costs for non-public schools. In 2012, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) program was also established to expand the number of scholarships for students, particularly those living within the district boundaries of low-achieving public schools.

Hill shared that the Conference is continuing to lobby for increased funding to the state’s two tax credit programs. “Each year there is a waiting list of companies that wish to donate,” said Hill. “The demand for tax credits is high and so is the demand for scholarships.” The Conference is also currently pursuing legislation “to create grants for pre-K students that could be used at private or religious pre-schools, and a program that could help children with special needs attend the school of their choice.”

In November, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia urged legislators to approve corporate tax credits to increase scholarships for low-income students attending Catholic and private schools for the 2016-17 academic year. These credits “assist many thousands of needy children … by enabling Pennsylvania businesses to donate to qualified scholarship organizations,” Archbishop Chaput reportedly stated.

The impact that these programs have on Catholic education is not negligible, Hill shared. “Parents have the duty and responsibility to provide the best education possible for their children. Catholic school may not be the right choice for every family, but we can attest that EITC and OSTC has helped many students choose a Catholic education,” said Hill. “More students in our classrooms is good news for our schools; more students will help keep Catholic schools vibrant and available to more families.”

In Virginia, the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) program has been in place since 2012 and provides a 65 percent tax credit to donors who give to eligible foundations providing scholarships to private schools.

Programs like the EISTC are “a win-win across the board,” said Amanda Jay, associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference. “It benefits our donors because they receive the tax credit and it benefits our schools because we have more students who are able to receive a Catholic education and keep Catholic schools open.”

The Virginia Catholic Conference is currently lobbying to increase the EISTC’s tax credit to 90 percent for donors in order to further incentivize charitable giving. “Compared to other tax credits across the country, 65 percent is actually very low, so in order to encourage more corporate donors, we’d like to increase it to 90 percent,” said Jay.

Jay confirmed to the Newman Society that the EISTC had resulted in an increase of families choosing Catholic schools. “One of the missions of our schools is to enable low and middle-income families to attend Catholic schools, and a core goal for our scholarship foundations is to provide this education for students who would otherwise not be able to attend,” said Jay. Since the EISTC’s implementation, the Conference has seen an increase in students entering Catholic schools at kindergarten and first grade.

In many states, school choice may not be prioritized in fiscal budgets. Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, told the Newman Society that Illinois has a modest $500 state income tax credit which is part of the Illinois Kids Campaign, a coalition that seeks to create scholarships to Catholic and other private schools for low-to-middle-income students.

The tax credit “allows parents to essentially subtract certain education-related expenses — like tuition, lab fees and book fees — from what they owe the state when they file their annual income taxes,” Gilligan explained. “As any parent will tell you, every little bit counts.”

However, the $500 tax credit has proven somewhat unsubstantial in aiding families who choose non-public schools. “Private school tuition can range anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000,” Gilligan pointed out.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois, together with the Illinois Kids Campaign, is currently lobbying to increase the existing $500 tax credit to $1,000. Such an increase “would be of great value for all school parents,” said Gilligan. Another proposal involves the creation of a corporate scholarship program, but this is proving difficult because Illinois has not yet passed its budget for the 2015-16 fiscal year. “What we’re trying to do here is incumbent upon the legislature passing a budget,” said Gilligan, and with state money tight, it remains unclear how much priority will be given to school choice programs.

School Vouchers

School vouchers allow parents to receive all or a portion of the public funding that would normally be spent by the state to put a child through the public school system. The Friedman Foundation reports that school vouchers exist in 14 states.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, told the Newman Society that in addition to a modest scholarship tax credit program, Indiana benefits from a thriving school voucher program that provides tuition assistance for families based on their income level.

The voucher program allows parents to receive up to 90 percent of the tuition that the state would cover for a student in the public school system. For example, “if the state supports a public school child at $5,000, the amount that a non-public school family could receive is up to $4,500 depending on the cost of tuition at the chosen school,” Tebbe explained.

The Indiana Catholic Conference was “instrumental” in lobbying for Indiana’s school choice programs, and subsequently in the programs’ design and implementation.

These programs have “definitely made a difference” in Indiana, said Tebbe. “The trend in enrollment has been fairly steady in Catholic education in Indiana, but without the programs, I think we would have seen dramatic drops.” Moreover, these programs are not instituted “to save schools,” noted Tebbe, but to enable families to make authentic choices in their children’s education.

Education Savings Accounts

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) allocate a percentage of state funds that would educate a public school student and allow parents to put the funds towards private school tuition and other expenses. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee currently have ESA programs.

ESAs are particularly attractive due to their flexibility in customizing each child’s education, as the funds can potentially go not only to private school tuition, but also to school supplies, tutoring, online programs, special needs programs and other education expenses.

Last year, Nevada instituted a universal school choice act which allowed parents to access 90 percent of the funds that the state would spend on their child in the public school system. For children with special needs and low-income families, that number increases to 100 percent.

“This is a great step for Catholic education, because in Nevada we had 450,000 kids whose only educational option was the public school system,” Lindsey Burke, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, told the Newman Society in an interview last year. “Now, these kids and families have control over a substantial portion of what Nevada spends on education and can take those dollars to any school of choice.”

“This will absolutely be a boon to Catholic education,” Burke opined. “So many families who may have wanted to pursue Catholic education in the past, but did not have the financial means, now can.”

But, as previously reported by the Newman Society, two lawsuits were subsequently filed utilizing the state’s Blaine Amendment language and other discriminatory provisions in the state constitution to block the program under the grounds that it would harm students in Nevada by creating a “non-uniform system of schools.”

Blaine Amendments Crippling School Choice

Blaine Amendments, named for former Speaker of the House and U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine, are provisions currently found in 37 state constitutions prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds at “sectarian” schools. After Blaine’s failed attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution with the proposal in 1875, versions of the amendment were “added to state constitutions in order to enforce the nativist bigotry of the day” against Catholics, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The provisions are now being interpreted to discriminate against non-Catholics as well.

The extent to which Blaine Amendments prevent school choice varies state by state. Some states, like Indiana, benefit from relatively weak Blaine Amendment language in the state constitution, allowing school choice programs to flourish. Elsewhere, such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, certain school choice programs are ruled to be constitutional, despite the Blaine Amendments. In the case of tax credit scholarship programs, “the money for the scholarships comes from private donations; no public funding goes to the Catholic schools or even the students’ families directly,” Hill pointed out.

But in states where restrictive legislation prohibits school choice, the adverse effects are obvious. When fewer families can choose and afford Catholic education, more Catholic schools are forced to close their doors and more students are forced to stay in low-achieving schools because there are no other options.

Michigan suffers from one of the most restrictive Blaine Amendments, said Paul Stankewitz of the Michigan Catholic Conference. While some Blaine Amendments can be worked around in state constitutions, Michigan’s is particularly challenging because “it not only prohibits direct or indirect government aid to nonpublic schools, but it specifically prohibits tax credits, tax deductions and tax vouchers in its language,” said Stankewitz. In other states, if a tax credit program is proposed, the constitutionality of it can be debated or considered, but due to Michigan’s restrictive Blaine Amendment, this is generally not possible, Stankewitz explained.

The results have been disheartening for Michigan’s Catholic schools. “We believe that this is causing enrollment in Catholic schools to go down much faster overall,” Stankewitz lamented. “School choice would certainly assist a number of families.” But legislatively, “nothing can be done in Michigan until the Blaine Amendment is addressed.”

New York’s Catholic schools are similarly struggling due to a lack of school choice programs and restrictive Blaine Amendment language. “Even though New York religious and independent schools educate 450,000 children (including more than 200,000 in Catholic schools), there are no school choice programs in the state to help tuition-paying families,” Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference, told the Newman Society.

“Catholic schools are in crisis here in New York state,” said Poust. “We have closed 75 schools in the last five years, and more than 300 in the last 20 years.” School closing factors include “rising costs, due largely to the transition from religious to lay faculty and administration, and the inability of parents to afford the increasing tuition that is necessary to meet those costs.”

The New York State Catholic Conference “has advocated for school choice for decades,” said Poust, but their efforts have been frequently foiled by “the opposition of the extraordinarily powerful public school teacher unions.”

Currently, the Conference is focusing on the tax credit model — in particular, an Education Investment Tax Credit that would “incentivize private giving to scholarship-making organizations to allow low-income families to send their children to Catholic or other non-public schools.” This program would not take any tax money from public schools and would actually increase private donations to all schools. “We came very close the last two years to success, and the bishops continue to prioritize it this year,” said Poust.

“Without bold action from the state, our schools will continue to face these challenges and to close,” Poust lamented. “This is a tragedy on so many levels.”

“Beyond how Catholic education impacts the students who attend it, it has tremendous benefit to the state, both in producing productive, well-grounded, moral citizens and in saving taxpayers in the state $4.6 billion every year,” said Poust. “The state cannot afford to lose our schools” and “must do its part for the families who save the taxpayers so much money and produce such tremendous citizens.”

In a testimony to the Joint Legislative Budget Hearing, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany — representing the New York State Catholic Conference — implored legislators to consider the Education Tax Credit program, in order to provide “desperately needed assistance to public schools and tuition-paying families.”

“Families who enroll their children in religious and independent schools desperately need and deserve your help. Public schools, likewise, need and deserve your help,” said Bishop Scharfenberger. “The Education Tax Credit proposal is a balanced and fair way to do both. If this proposal had already been law, many of those schools which were forced to close would be successfully educating students today. How many more fine schools must we lose?”

Disclaimer: Bishop Scharfenberger is a relative of the author.

Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.

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