Advocates explain scholarship tax credits

Among issues the commonwealth’s Catholic leaders are following in the 2020 legislative session is a scholarship tax credit program. Kentucky’s bishops believe such a program would benefit low- and middle-income families in Kentucky by breaking down financial barriers to non-public education.

But myths and misunderstandings about scholarship tax credit programs abounded during last year’s session, supporters say.

Legislation that stalled in last year’s session offered tax credits on donations to organizations that provide need-based financial aid for students to attend non-public schools. A bill for this year’s session has not yet been filed but one is expected in the coming days.

The Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the public policy arm of Kentucky’s bishops, hopes to dispel some myths at the outset this year.

Andrew Vandiver, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, identified some of those misconceptions during an interview with The Record:

Myth #1 — Scholarship tax credits only assist the wealthy.

Past proposed legislation stipulated that the scholarships be awarded based on financial need as determined by a third-party.

That’s the point of the program, noted Vandiver, explaining that students from low-income families, in foster care programs and those with special needs do not have the same educational choice as students from affluent families.

Supporters hope the tax credits will encourage donations to organizations that provide financial aid, thereby increasing the amount of tuition assistance available to families choosing non-public schools.

There are a variety of reasons families choose non-public schools, Vandiver noted. Small class sizes, learning differences and religious affiliation are among them.

Within the Archdiocese of Louisville’s 49 elementary and secondary schools, there are small classes, specialized learning programs and faith-based education.

An increase in funding to the Louisville-based Catholic Education Foundation would enable more low- and middle-income families to choose Catholic schools, said Richard A. Lechleiter, president of the foundation.

“Approximately 40 percent of families (or nearly 1,000 families) who earned a tuition assistance award this fall had no ability to pay any school tuition whatsoever,” he said. “This determination was made by our third-party administrator taking into account reasonable living expenses for each family.

“For some of the families we assist, there is no way in the world they could afford Catholic schools without tuition assistance,” he said.

For the 2019-2020 year, the CEF, together with the archdiocese, its parishes and its funding partners awarded $6.5 million in tuition assistance to 3,250 students.

Myth #2 — Scholarship tax credits will take money away from public schools.

Proponents of scholarship tax credit legislation contend that the program will not be disruptive to public schools.

“This program is privately funded. Individuals or businesses donate money and in return receive a tax credit. No money will come out of the education budget. Money will not go from public schools to private schools,” Vandiver said.

Some states have adopted a voucher program, where government funding is assigned to a child and follows him or her from a public to a non-public school.

Scholarship tax credits do not work this way. Funding for the tax credits comes out the state’s general budget. Kentucky’s overall state budget for a two-year period is about $20 billion. Past scholarship tax credit proposals capped the tax credit budget at $25 million annually.

Supporters say the scholarship tax credit program may ultimately have little or no effect on the state’s budget in the long term.

The average per pupil spending in Kentucky is $13,887, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

A survey conducted by EdChoice KY, a non-profit organization that advocates for scholarship tax credits, estimates that the average tuition for non-public schools in Kentucky is $6,280.

In a review of past proposed legislation on scholarship tax credits, a study conducted by the Kentucky Budget Office found that a scholarship tax credit program would likely save the state money in the long term.

Currently there are about 650,000 students in public schools in Kentucky. And, there are about 70,000 students in non-public schools.

Myth #3
Scholarship tax credits will negatively affect public schools academically.

A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggests some states with school choice fared as well or better than those without. The NAEP is a congressionally mandated project that measures what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects. It’s also known as The Nation’s Report Card.

Florida — which has one of the largest scholarship tax credit programs in the U.S. with 100,000 participants — was the only state where students scored higher in math than two years ago. Florida was also one of nine states that showed gains on the reading exam given by the NAEP.

Opponents of scholarship tax credits, and school choice in general, Vandiver said, are often quick to argue that such measures will lead to the “destruction of public schools.”

“The truth is the states with school choice are doing fine and there is evidence of a correlation between school choice and improved outcomes in public schools,” Vandiver said.

Public schools in Florida  has shown some of the greatest improvements in public education over the last 20 years, according to the NAEP scores for public schools.

“The Catholic Conference of Kentucky supports these programs that give more families the dignity of choice, save taxpayer money and take nothing away from the good work happening in public schools,” Vandiver said.

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