Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Democrats support school choice

There are many examples of Democrats being on the right side of school choice. We the people through our government should recognize education as a constitutional right and allow parents as much choice as possible in determining what's best for their child. There is no way a government (no matter how smart or well-intentioned) can make better decisions overall for thousands of parents than the parents themselves.

Craig Farmer
making the word "liberal" safe again!
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Here is one story about progress towards choice:

Tax credit scholarships give students choice

Amelia Kah struggled through her freshman year of high school in the Providence school system. She was teased and mocked by classmates when she raised her hand in class, and was even beaten up a few times, she says.
Dispirited, Amelia started arriving late to classes and her grades began to fall — even in math, her favorite subject.
Her parents, Genesis and Zoe Kah, refugees from the civil war in Liberia, worried their daughter would not fulfill her potential. They began hunting around for other schools. But with seven children at home and limited finances, their options were limited.
Then friends told the Kahs about St. Raphael Academy, a Catholic high school in Pawtucket, and a new state scholarship program for low-income students that could help the family send Amelia there.
Last fall, Amelia was accepted to St. Raphael for her sophomore year, aided by the Rhode Island Scholarship Alliance, a tax-credit scholarship program supported by Governor Carcieri and passed by the General Assembly three years ago.
Amelia was one of 278 students last year to receive the tax-credit scholarships in the program’s first year. The average scholarship ranges between $3,000 and $5,000, and the scholarships are available to families who earn 250 percent or less of the federal poverty level, defined in 2007 as a yearly income of $51,625 or less for a family of four.
Businesses are permitted to donate up to $100,000 each year into the scholarship program, receiving a tax credit of up to 90 percent of their donation. The program is capped at $1 million a year in tax credits.
Supporters say the program enables low-income parents in struggling school districts to send their children to private schools — a choice already open to middle class and wealthy parents who can afford tuition. They also say the program, which takes $1 million a year from state tax revenues, doesn’t cost the state any money, and may even save money — because scores of low-income students leave the public school system.
Critics, who include the state’s teachers unions, say the program unfairly benefits private school students at the expense of public school students. They also question whether the program saves any money because most of the students who receive the scholarships already attend a private school. Last year, 75 percent of scholarship recipients were already in a private school; fewer than 70 students were new to a private school, according to the scholarship alliance.
THE NATIONAL Alliance for School Choice says tax-credit programs have been successful in providing school choice to low-income families. Five other states provide a tax-credit program and seven offer voucher programs, said Andrew Campanella spokesman for the national group.
“Fundamentally, it becomes an argument about do parents have a choice,” Campanella said. “If you are rich, school choice is a reality. You can write a check. But if you are low income and come from a working family and are struggling to make ends meet, and you want your kids to go to a better school and have a better life, you can’t.”
Studies have shown that tax-credit programs in other states have saved millions of dollars and are growing in popularity. Campanella cited Pennsylvania’s seven-year-old tax-credit scholarship program as an example. The cap was originally set at $30 million a year and has grown to $75 million, allowing 38,000 students a year to take part. One study estimates the program is saving Pennsylvania $327 million a year.
However, because Rhode Island is the only state without a statewide education funding formula, and because the program is still relatively small, Campanella said it would be difficult to determine what cost savings are achieved here.
“If Rhode Island does not have a funding formula, then it’s difficult to gauge the specific dollar impact,” Campanella said.
Robert Walsh, executive director of National Education Association Rhode Island and an opponent of the tax-credit program, said dozens of students from the same grade level in a district would have to leave the public system at once in order to achieve a significant cost savings.
“They would have to lift an entire classroom from a district and not have a teacher in place to save money, and that is certainly not the case,” Walsh said. “It’s disingenuous to say it saves the state a dime. It’s essentially $1 million the legislature has designated to private school scholarships and the corporations are a pass-through. And that is $1 million in these tough economic times we’d rather have in the public schools.”
Programs in some other states require that tax-credit scholarships be exclusively awarded to students who are leaving a public school as a way to bring more low-income students into private schools for the first time. But, Campanella said, Rhode Island’s approach — dedicating just 25 percent of the scholarships to new students — is valid.
“In the case of Rhode Island, it is a fair program because a lot of these kids might not have been able to stay in private school were it not for the scholarships,” he said.
ABOUT 60 PRIVATE schools participate in the Rhode Island program, said Kate Nagle, the Rhode Island Scholarship Alliance’s executive director. These include more than 50 Catholic schools, 2 Jewish day schools, 2 Christian academies and 4 secular private schools that serve urban students.
“Without these scholarships, many of these students would be unable to attend private school,” Nagle said. While the average scholarship is between $3,000 and $5,000, some students may get as little as $1,000 or as much as $10,000.
Some of the state’s most select and expensive private schools, such as Moses Brown, Wheeler and The Lincoln School, do not participate. Dan Corley, president of the Rhode Island Scholarship Alliance and head of the private Community Preparatory School, said their omission was intentional during the first few years of the tax-credit program but that they may be asked to join in future years, especially if the $1-million cap is expanded.
“One of the knocks against the program a few years ago was that people were saying, ‘We’ll be giving money to elite institutions that don’t need the money,’ ” Corley said. “So we basically were not encouraging those schools to join at this moment, and focus instead on schools that are seen as serving low-income students.”
The scholarship money comes from businesses that in turn receive from the state a corporate tax credit equaling 75 to 90 percent of their donation. If a company donates $100,000 for one year, the maximum contribution allowed, it receives a tax credit of $75,000. If the company promises to donate $100,000 a year for two consecutive years, it receives a tax credit of $90,000 for each year.
The program is capped at $1 million a year — meaning $1 million a year comes off the tax rolls. In each of the last two years, about $1.1 million has been donated by about 40 businesses — including Amica Insurance, Bank of America, Citizens Bank, CVS/Caremark and FM Global.
Those companies and about a dozen more appear in Alliance newsletters. A full list of the participating companies was not made public by the state because the tax information is considered private, according to David Sullivan, a tax administrator with the state Division of Taxation
Besides the state tax break, the businesses who donate can also claim a federal tax deduction, Sullivan said.
IN THE CASE of Amelia Kah, the alliance has cut the cost of her attending St. Raphael Academy about in half. The scholarship gives her $4,000 toward St. Ray’s $9,250 price tag. A scholarship from the school and the Kahs cover the rest.
Amelia’s parents, who have seven children and have helped raise several nieces and nephews, say her education is worth the sacrifice.
“She feels free to do better in class and speak up and answer questions,” said Amelia’s mother, Zoe Kah. “Here, she is free, she’s happy. She can show her true self.”
Now a junior, Amelia says she loves going to school. “I was looking for a place that supports people and promotes learning,” the 16-year-old said. “In my old school, the kids would get mad or jealous if you do better than them on a test. Here, everyone wants to do well.”
Amelia’s grades have improved and she is already thinking about college. She is considering becoming a lawyer, a pediatrician or a teacher. She volunteers in a nursing home, wants to run outdoor track this spring and says physics is her favorite subject.
“I like an environment where I am compelled to do better,” Amelia said.
“Here, the teachers come to you and push you and really want to teach you. I feel accepted here.”
jjordan@projo.com

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