The GOP’s best choice for ed­u­ca­tion re­form

A schol­ar­ship do­na­tion tax credit would help needy chil­dren at­tend bet­ter schools

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Peter Mur­phy

Repub­li­cans in con­trol in Washington have to de­cide whether to ex­ert them­selves on a range of is­sues to im­prove the eco­nomic and so­cial con­di­tions for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans or merely tin­ker at the mar­gins with small-potato ap­proaches.

When it comes to ed­u­ca­tion, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress have a his­toric op­por­tu­nity to im­me­di­ately im­prove the ed­u­ca­tional land­scape and lives of count­less chil­dren from fi­nan­cially needy and work­ing-class house­holds by in­clud­ing a schol­ar­ship do­na­tion tax credit in tax re­form leg­is­la­tion un­der con­sid­er­a­tion this year.

For decades, Repub­li­cans have been preach­ing that the fed­eral bu­reau­cracy and forced con­form­ity to tra­di­tional pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion mod­els won’t solve the ed­u­ca­tion cri­sis, par­tic­u­larly for Amer­i­cans in need. But they’ve never de­liv­ered a na­tional so­lu­tion that moves the nee­dle.

A stronger char­i­ta­ble tax in­cen­tive to off­set in­come and cor­po­rate taxes would en­cour­age pri­vate do­na­tions to pri­vate schol­ar­ship funds and ex­po­nen­tially ex­pand the pool of K-12 re­sources avail­able to stu­dents. This would help fam­i­lies of lim­ited means pro­vide the ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties they need for their chil­dren — some­thing up­per-in­come fam­i­lies take for granted.

Us­ing the fed­eral tax code this way would be seam­less and sim­ple. It would not af­fect or re­order ex­ist­ing fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion funding, in­clud­ing Ti­tle I and other pro­grams, nor would it im­pede states and school dis­tricts’ abil­ity to im­prove pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

Schol­ar­ship or­ga­ni­za­tions ex­ist now to help fam­i­lies ac­cess school op­tions be­yond the district pub­lic school as­signed based on res­i­dence. A fed­eral schol­ar­ship tax credit should en­cour­age char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions to schol­ar­ship-grant­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions that em­power fam­i­lies to have a wide range of schools to at­tend.

The Chil­dren’s Schol­ar­ship Fund based in New York City pro­vides nearly 24,000 K-8 stu­dent schol­ar­ships ei­ther di­rectly or in part­ner­ship with or­ga­ni­za­tions across the coun­try so that stu­dents can at­tend the non-sec­tar­ian or re­li­gious school of their par­ents’ choice.

Sim­i­larly, Catholic dio­ce­ses across the coun­try op­er­ate, or part­ner with, schol­ar­ship en­ti­ties to fi­nan­cially en­able stu­dents — Catholic and nonCatholic — to at­tend its schools.

The reach of schol­ar­ship funds re­mains min­i­mal com­pared to the need for qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional op­tions. When the Chil­dren’s Schol­ar­ship Fund opened its doors in 1998, the par­ents of 1.25 mil­lion chil­dren ap­plied for only 40,000 avail­able schol­ar­ships. And while 17 states cur­rently have a schol­ar­ship do­na­tion tax credit, only four — Florida, Penn­syl­va­nia, Geor­gia and Ari­zona — are siz­able enough to have an im­pact.

When dis­cussing ed­u­ca­tion re­form, Pres­i­dent Trump of­ten refers to the prob­lems plagu­ing large ur­ban school dis­tricts that short­change their mostly low-in­come African-Amer­i­can and Latino stu­dents.

En­act­ing a fed­eral schol­ar­ship tax credit would in­crease the fi­nan­cial ca­pac­ity of schol­ar­ship­grant­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions and en­cour­age new ones to spring up. This would bring tan­gi­ble and im­me­di­ate ed­u­ca­tional ben­e­fits to thou­sands of chil­dren in need in every state, not just those in trou­bled ur­ban dis­tricts.

The kinds of fam­i­lies who would po­ten­tially ben­e­fit from K-12 schol­ar­ship pro­grams met re­cently at a par­ent fo­rum at the Im­mac­u­late Con­cep­tion School, a Catholic school in the South Bronx where the poverty rate is more than dou­ble the na­tional av­er­age.

Par­ents like Leslie Lom­bardo talked about the pos­i­tive im­pact of schol­ar­ships and the larger need: “With more schol­ar­ships, stu­dents can at­tend these schools and have a stronger ed­u­ca­tion, lead­ing peo­ple out of poverty.”

An­other par­ent, Jessica San­ti­ago, a se­nior court clerk, added that her child’s Catholic school in the Bronx is “a fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment, and I just wouldn’t feel safe send­ing him any­where else.”

Trey Cobb, a teacher at Mt. Carmel Holy Rosary School in East Har­lem, said, “I see kids go from the [hous­ing] projects to [pub­lic] school every­day and I know they would be way bet­ter off with us, but a lot of them can’t get there be­cause they don’t have the funds.”

Repub­li­cans (and Democrats, for that mat­ter) need to lis­ten to these par­ents. There are count­less more such “schol­ar­ship moms” (and dads) whose chil­dren would ben­e­fit from a fed­eral tax credit schol­ar­ship pro­gram.

Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos ex­pressed ear­lier this month in her speech to the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion that “We must shift the par­a­digm to think about ed­u­ca­tion funding as in­vest­ments made in in­di­vid­ual chil­dren, not in­sti­tu­tions or build­ings.” She’s right.

A schol­ar­ship tax credit would do just that. It’s a move that would sig­nal con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans un­der­stand that bet­ter, qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion and lift­ing peo­ple out of poverty go hand in hand.

In­deed, ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy from the fed­eral level needs to fi­nally be about em­pow­er­ing real peo­ple in the near term — not some­time in the dis­tant fu­ture laden with still more fed­eral man­dates and dol­lars trick­ling down to bu­reau­cra­cies and school dis­tricts.

How Repub­li­cans pro­ceed on ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­nity ei­ther will help thou­sands of fam­i­lies like the San­ti­a­gos, or again re­sult in va­pid, un­met prom­ises. It’s up to them. Peter Mur­phy is vice pres­i­dent for pol­icy at the In­vest in Ed­u­ca­tion Foun­da­tion.

Ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy from the fed­eral level needs to fi­nally be about em­pow­er­ing real peo­ple in the near term — not some­time in the dis­tant fu­ture laden with still more fed­eral man­dates and dol­lars trick­ling down to bu­reau­cra­cies and school dis­tricts.

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