ST PAUL, Minnesota — GOP lawmakers are moving legislation aimed at making private schools more affordable to children from lower to middle income families.
The "Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act" would allow private donors to make tax deductible donations to nonprofits, which in turn would grant tuition scholarships to children.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka calls it an effort to close the achievement gap, asserting that traditional public school programs haven't made enough progress. Those tax deductions would divert $35 million in tax revenue that would otherwise go to state coffers
The chief author of the Senate version of the bill, Sen. Roger Chamberlain, said this type of school choice system has already been held up by the United States Supreme Court because it's not a direct transfer of funds from the state's coffers to parochial schools.
"The dollar that goes to the families, to the scholarships, never gets to treasury. It’s not State money," Sen. Chamberlain, who heads the Senate Tax Committee, told reporters.
"The State is being neutral as to what school it goes to."
Chamberlain donned a yellow scarf for the event, and was flanked by private school students, parents and educators wearing identical scarves. He cited higher graduation rates for children who spend at least part of their academic careers in private schools.
Skeptics at the Capitol say it's not just an issue of whether the system holds up to the US Constitution. They're averse to the idea of money being shifted to church-affiliated schools that aren't bound by Minnesota's anti-discrimination laws.
"It is simply wrong to send the public’s money to unaccountable private schools that can, and do, discriminate against families based on their religion, wealth and need for special education services," said Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teacher labor organization.
"The track record of these voucher programs around the country has been terrible for students but great for millionaires and CEOs who don’t want to pay their fair share for the services and infrastructure that benefit everyone."
Benito Matias, the principal of Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis, said he hoped lawmakers would put the children ahead of political arguments over tax dollars.
"What we’re really talking about is what’s best for kids. And so, if we can sometimes get out of our own way we can make decisions that are best for our children."
He said the tuition at Ascension, a K-8 school on the city's north side, is $1,400 per year. The actual cost of educating those children, according to Matias, is closer to $8,000 a year per child and is made up from other funding sources.