- - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

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 non-Catholic — 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 scholarship-granting 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.

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