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Fall 2003 Vol. 11. No. 1 Focus on Understanding School Choice

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Some push to see choice extend to private schools

By Kate Nelson on Dec 9, 2009 02:53 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

One controversy about school choice is whether funds now going to improve struggling public schools should be redirected to helping individual students pay for private school.

To some, true “school choice” means using public funds to allow students to go to private and religious schools as well as public schools. 

Since the 1990s, well-organized campaigns to extend choice to private schools have led to government-supported programs allowing enrollment in private schools in several cities and states. 

Generally established through state laws, these programs include publicly funded vouchers, private assistance programs, and a variety of tax credits supporting the costs of attending private school. 

Pennsylvania has a tax credit program and private assistance programs. 

Publicly funded vouchers

While hotly debated here, publicly funded vouchers have not been authorized in Pennsylvania, despite several attempts by former Governor Tom Ridge to win approval for a statewide voucher plan in the 1990s.

Vouchers allow public education funds to be diverted to tuition costs at a family’s chosen private school. Voucher amounts can fall short of tuition costs.

The longest running publicly funded voucher program, started in 1990, is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where students from low-income families can receive up to $5,783 towards private school tuition.

Publicly funded voucher programs have been approved in four states: Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and Colorado. Voucher programs in each state are targeted to lowincome families or students in struggling schools.

One particularly controversial aspect of some voucher programs is the use of public funds to pay for tuition at religious schools. Critics have argued that such programs violate the separation of church and state. But the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld a program in Cleveland where vouchers can be used at religious schools.

What could become the first federally funded voucher program passed the U.S. House by just one vote in September. The plan would provide $10 million in vouchers to 1,300 District of Columbia children.

Private assistance programs

These programs give private funding to families to offset the cost of a private education and often require families to pay a share of the tuition to demonstrate a vested interest in the decision to send their children to private schools.

Several private assistance programs exist in Philadelphia, including Children’s Scholarship Fund, one of the larger national private assistance programs, which has given scholarships to over a thousand families in Philadelphia. Some are supported by tax credits.

Tax credit programs

Another form of government support for private school choice allows corporations or individuals to receive a tax credit for contributions they make to nonprofit organizations that provide school tuition assistance.

In 2001, the Pennsylvania legislature passed such a program into law, called “Educational Improvement Tax Credits,” allowing up to $20 million in business tax credits a year to fund nonprofit scholarship organizations.

Under this law, corporations receive a tax credit worth 75 percent of their donation to a scholarship organization. The tax credit jumps to 90 percent if the business makes a written commitment to give the same amount for two years.

To be eligible for the scholarships provided through the plan, a one-child family must have an income of less than $60,000. Another $10,000 is allowed for each additional child.

The Lancaster Sunday News reported that in the program’s first year, 1,347 corporations claimed tax credits, with about $18 million directed towards private school tuition. At least 10,000 students statewide received private school vouchers. The law allows these scholarships to support students who are already in private schools. Arizona and Florida have similar programs.

A growing number of states have passed laws creating tuition tax credits that allow parents to make deductions on their tax forms for private education costs, such as tuition, books, or school fees.

Supporters and critics alike often consider tuition tax credits a proxy for publicly funded vouchers. But in contrast to publicly funded voucher programs, which are typically targeted towards low-income families, many tuition tax credit programs are applicable to all families who send their children to private school.

Pros and cons

The idea of using public funds to support private education has been a controversial one. Supporters of these programs say they give parents the freedom to send their children to private schools, to find a school that they feel coincides with their value system, and to help low-income families to get a better education.

Critics of these programs say there is no fiscal or academic accountability for public money that goes to private schools, that funds may go to schools that practice discrimination, and that vouchers drain scarce education funds away from public schools that need improvement.

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