Tax-credit scholarships offer school choice

The Sacramento Bee (CA), May 7, 2009

How many parents would send their child to a better school if they could? A boy I know was going to school in a gang-infested neighborhood, kept getting in trouble and was suspended several times. His parents wanted to send him to a better school but couldn’t afford it. Finally, they were able to place him in a Christian school in another state with scholarship assistance, where he is now excelling.

While California boasts some excellent public schools, far too many are mediocre or worse. More than 21,000 students, including many girls and minority students, just failed the high school exit exam. One out of three high school students drops out, according to the California Dropout Research Project.

Instead of dumping billions more into the school system status quo, as Proposition 1B on the May 19 ballot would do, California can truly lead, stir competition, stimulate dreams – and save money – if we provide tax credits for scholarship programs for lower income families to send their children to the school of their choice.

Under the Great Schools Tax-Credit Scholarship Program (AB 279), introduced by Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, qualified California taxpayers could claim credits worth up to 50 percent of their state tax liability for donations to charitable, nonprofit organizations that distribute scholarships to students from low- and middle-income families.

Parents could use those scholarships to cover all or part of the tuition and fees, including transportation to a school outside of the student’s school district, at either a public or private school.

Parents in six other states, including Arizona and Florida, are using tax-credit scholarships to send their children to schools of their choice. Like many Hispanic students in California, Arizona Latino students were trapped in bad schools. Because of Arizona’s program, Jose Magana, who was struggling in a school with low test scores, became valedictorian at a Phoenix-based private school. “I got lucky,” he said, “I got a choice.”

Florida’s program enabling low-income students to attend private schools using scholarships financed with corporate income tax credits is so popular that the Legislature just expanded it with vigorous bipartisan support, including from the Hispanic caucus.

Because private schools typically cost about half the amount of public schools, over time, this school tax credit saves money. Florida’s program saved the state $1.49 for every dollar it reduced state revenue in fiscal year 2007-08, according to the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.

There is every reason to believe that school choice can happen in California. California has a long history of granting tax credits for worthy causes, including for employer child- care programs, job creation and many other goals. Just recently, legislators passed a $500 million tax credit to keep film production in Hollywood.

Isn’t it more important for children to have an equal chance for a good education than to give multi-million dollar film companies tax relief? Unless our children are better educated, our economy will suffer no matter how many movies are made here.

Not only would school choice blow the winds of enthusiasm into homes throughout the state, it would also dispel the myth that the California Teachers Association union has perpetuated for decades – that our schools will succeed with more money.

There will never be enough money to make California schools better because money is not the answer.

A recent report by the Charter Schools Association found, for example, that the Academic Performance Indicator for Oakland Charter Academy, with 91 percent of students from low-income families, reached an impressive 902 – up from 736 from five years ago.

Yet the school receives thousands of dollars less per student compared with the average California public school, according to an analysis by the Pacific Research Institute. In addition, other public, non-charter schools in similar socioeconomic areas do better than neighboring schools that spend more.

Catholic schools also provide superior results for less while serving a large percentage of minority and inner-city students. The average per-pupil elementary school tuition for Catholic schools is about half that of California’s public schools.

Money will not cure our state’s educational woes. Educational freedom is the answer. More competition between schools can lead to more cooperation, as superior schools help struggling schools enact practices that work.

The Great Schools Tax-Credit Scholarship Program would get kids out of the clutches of the CTA and give them a choice.

The days of dismissing the desires of lower-income families in California to send their children to good schools may finally end.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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