On the surface it looked innocuous: a State Senate committee recently approved Senate Bill 693, which gives a tax credit to new teachers for classroom expenses they incur. The behind-the-scenes story, however, is much sadder: in exchange for this mild reform, the bill’s author, Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, had to agree to the demands of committee Democrats to strip out a key provision of his bill which would have empowered parents with real school choice.
Originally, the bill would have helped low- and middle-income parents pay for their children’s educational expenses at public or private schools. Parents with incomes at or below 200 percent of the eligibility guidelines for the federal free-or-reduced-lunch program would have received a $500 annual non-refundable tax credit against their state income taxes for specified education-related expenses.
Thus, for example, low-income parents who wanted to send their child to a private Catholic elementary school would have been eligible for the $500 tax credit, which would have helped them with a variety of expenses, including tuition. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, the average tuition for a Catholic elementary school is $3,673.
In addition, families with incomes at or below 300 percent of the free-and-reduced-lunch guidelines would have been allowed a deduction of $2,500 from their taxable income. Both the tax credit and deduction for parents were amended out of the bill.
The best research available shows that choice programs that include private schools significantly improve the performance of students.
Politically, it is significant that SB693 was authored by a Democrat whose district includes Santa Ana, where nearly eight out of 10 residents are Latino. A 2012 survey conducted by the American Federation of Children and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options found that 69 percent of Latino voters in five swing states supported school-choice programs that included an option to attend private school.
Latino voters are more likely than most to say that education is a leading issue. Unfortunately, notes Julio Fuentes, president of HCREO, a lot of our Latino families come from low-income areas [where] choice is the only way that they are going to be able to achieve that American dream of graduating high school and going on to make something of themselves.
State Senate Democrats had a great opportunity to pass a bill by one of their own that would have empowered parents and improved the quality of education for the state’s most at-risk students.
The last week of January is National School Choice Week. Correa deserves great credit for trying to give low- and middle-income parents the opportunity to choose a better education for their children. As his bill originally stated, quality education is the foremost duty of individual parents and teachers and state tax relief can help empower and engage low- and middle-income families in personally caring for their own school children’s needs, which they know most intimately. Too bad this truth was lost on his party colleagues.