By Brittany Vessely
Today, 29 states and Washington, D.C. embrace parental choice in education options through a voucher, education savings account (ESA), tax credit scholarship or individual tax credit/deduction program. Simply defined, vouchers and education savings accounts allow a portion of the state funds that would have been spent on a child’s public education to instead pay for that child’s private school tuition. Education savings accounts differ from vouchers because they allow for customization with funds, so families may tailor their child’s schooling with a variety of education tools and services. With tax-credit scholarship programs, individual or corporate taxpayers receive tax credits when they donate to scholarship granting organizations (SGO) that distribute private school scholarships. Individual tax credit/deductions allow families to receive state income tax relief for education expenses. With these four vehicles of parental choice in education programs, hundreds of thousands of children across the country have been able to access Catholic education for the first time.
In the 2017 legislative year, 11 states expanded parental choice in education: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin governors signed legislation that expanded and/or refined their existing programs. Illinois, New Hampshire and North Carolina passed new parental choice programs. New Hampshire is still likely to pass another new program before 2018.
Eight states made strong attempts to push forward parental choice in 2017, but were unsuccessful, including Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and Tennessee. Minnesota, in particular, passed an omnibus tax reform bill, which included a tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. But Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the bill. Missouri passed a unique tax-credit-funded ESA out of their Senate and House Rules Committee, yet the legislature adjourned before final action. Each state is likely to make a fresh attempt in 2018. States that made significant impact to the parental choice landscape this year are Arizona, Illinois, and New Hampshire.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an expansion of Arizona’s pioneering education savings account (ESA) program in March that would allow nearly every student in the state to be able to choose the schooling option that best fits their learning needs -- public, private or customized learning. However, the program is under legal challenge and hasn’t been enacted. Arizona’s current ESA program has expanded eligibility five times previously to include children entering kindergarten, with special needs, from underperforming schools, from active-duty military families, in foster care, of fallen soldiers, and from tribal lands. This new expansion will allow every student in the state, who has been in public school at least 100 days, or is entering kindergarten, to access parental choice in education.
In August, Illinois became the 31st state to pass parental choice in education when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law a new $75 million tax-credit scholarship program for students from families whose income level is at-or-below 300 percent the federal poverty line. This program allows individual and corporate taxpayers to make donations to a nonprofit scholarship granting organization in return for a 75 percent credit on their income tax liability. The new program has the potential to serve up to 20,000 low-income students in the next school year.
In addition to modifying their current tax credit law to allow the program to act as an ESA, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signed a “town-tuitioning” law in June that will provide state grants for students who attend nonreligious schools. However, New Hampshire is also considering a nearly universal education savings account law, which would allow students to use funds for parochial education. The bill passed the Senate and House Education Committee. The full New Hampshire House will consider the legislation in January.
While there was significant state advancement in parental choice, there also was a major ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States that could potentially remove state legislative barriers to parental choice, called “Blaine Amendments.” Blaine Amendments are 19th-century, originally anti-Catholic provisions that were embedded into
37 state constitutions to prohibit state government from giving financial support to religious schools. On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the plaintiff in the case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which concerned the church’s ability to seek a state child safety grant to refurbish their playground with used tire material. In the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “... the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”
Following Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court also accepted two additional cases concerning Blaine Amendments: a Douglas County, Colorado school voucher case, Doyle v. Taxpayers for Public Education and a New Mexico private school textbook case, New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools v. Moses. Upon review, the Court vacated the rulings back to the Colorado and New Mexico Supreme Courts, and ordered them to reconsider their decisions. After nearly 200 years of the anti-Catholic, bigoted Blaine Amendments, the Supreme Court of the United States may open new doors of education opportunity through parental choice, without arcane Blaines.
In 2015 Pope Francis said, “I have called for inclusive education which makes room for everyone... strive to ensure that Catholic schools are truly open to all.” The best way to make sure Catholic schools are open to all students is to empower families and children with the funding they need to attend and enjoy the benefits of Catholic schooling. As more states consider parental choice in education policies, our schools will continue to benefit, too.
Originally published in NCEA's "Momentum" Winter 2017 edition, which can be found here.