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Scholarship tax credit bill advanced by House committee

Scholarship tax credit bill advanced by House committee

Dustin Hurst
March 6, 2014
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March 6, 2014
[post_thumbnail] Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, is sponsoring a scholarship tax credit bill intended to increase school choice.

When government red tape restricted Michael Sage’s ability to help one of his two sons receive additional help from a public school, the Boise parent turned to private education.

Now, he’s pushing for Idaho lawmakers to allow more parents to use private schools to enhance educational options for all Gem State pupils.

Sage, speaking at a House Revenue and Taxation Committee meeting Thursday, told lawmakers that government rules prevented him from paying for a classroom aide to help his son, who suffers from a minor learning disability.

“The school was willing to let my son fail due to government policy,” Sage told the committee, explaining that public school officials worried about security and fairness issues surrounding a privately funded school aide.

During a three-year process, Sage and school officials tussled, the parent trying to persuade administrators to give his son extra help. School officials, citing lack of resources, told Sage his son wasn’t disabled enough to warrant special attention.

Sage subsequently turned to Cole Valley Christian Schools, a private Christian program that serves students in Idaho’s Treasure Valley. In the Christian schools, Sage told lawmakers that his son thrived and has learned to effectively manage his learning disability.

Sage asked lawmakers to back House Bill 507, a measure that would allow up to $10 million in tax credits for individuals or corporations who donate to organizations handing out scholarships to private schools. The measure, sponsored by Nampa Republican Rep. John Vander Woude, would give a 50 percent credit for funds donated, but would not be refundable.

Jean Lockhart, vice president of the Boise Rescue Mission, backed the bill, telling lawmakers that it would help displaced kids that her organization also serves. “We’ve got to get our underprivileged children excited about schools,” Lockhart said. “Our kids are the ones who really benefit.”

The Boise Rescue Mission now sends six students to Cole Valley Christian Schools on full scholarship.

Phil Homer, the lobbyist for the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Association of School Administrators, warned that the measure would ultimately hurt public education by reducing appropriations to schools statewide.

Due to how Idaho’s tax system works, donors to private schools also receive a deduction on taxes, a point of contention for Boise Democrat Rep. Grant Burgoyne, who tried to send the bill to the House amending order to force lawmakers to choose either a deduction or a credit.

The maneuver failed on a 4 to 7 vote.

The Idaho Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, also testified against the legislation, arguing that it might be unconstitutional. Idaho’s Constitution prohibits the state from directly appropriating funds to sectarian schools. Paul Stark, the IEA’s general counsel, suggested that Vander Woude’s bill might fall into that category.

Robbie Rhinesmith, a senior analyst for the Friedman Foundation for School Choice, countered Stark, noting to lawmakers that several states with similar constitutional language have survived comparable legal challenges in recent years.

With some pluck, Vande Woude pushed Democrats to vote for the bill. Normally, the legislator pointed out, Democrats are pushing to spend more money to reduce class sizes under the liberal belief that it will improve education. “Maybe this will reduce some class sizes,” a grinning Vande Woude said.

Democrats opposed the bill anyway, falling on the losing end of an 8 to 3 vote to pass the measure. It now heads to the Idaho House.

The House passed a stronger measure last year on a very narrow tally before the bill died in the Idaho Senate.

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