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A Matter of Right versus Wrong
by Vicki E. Murray 6/29/07

California can learn something from Iowa, which recently proved that giving parents choices about their children’s education is a matter of right versus wrong, not right versus left.

On May 29, 2007, Iowa Governor Chet Culver approved a 50-percent expansion of the state’s parental choice tuition scholarship tax credit program. Enacted last year, under the Educational Opportunities Act Iowa residents can receive a credit on their personal state income taxes equal to 65 percent of donations to School Tuition Organizations (STOs), which are non-profit charitable organizations that distribute private school scholarships to low-income students.

Vickie E. Murray
[Courtesty of Pacific Research Institute]

Pacific Research Institute

Here’s how the program works. Residents who make a $1,000 contribution to a scholarship-granting STO reduce their state income tax liability by $650. Because STOs are recognized 501 (c)(3) charitable organizations, Iowa residents can also take the full $1,000 donation as a deduction on their federal income taxes.

The Educational Opportunities tax credit scholarship expansion is part of Iowa’s fiscal year 2008 budget, which raises the tax credit cap to $7.5 million up from $5 million. Moreover, the expansion approved by the Gov. Culver now allows STOs to accept “non-cash” gifts such as gifts of stock and apply them to private school scholarships Contrary to popular perception that parental choice in education is part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Iowa has a Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature and a Democratic governor.

Parental choice in education is shaping up to be civil rights issue of our times, and elected officials across the political spectrum in other states are taking note.

Arizona passed more new or expanded school choice programs in 2006 under Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano than under any Republican governor in that red state’s history: two K-12 voucher programs and a corporate tuition tax credit scholarship program, as well as a higher education voucher program. In addition to adopting the country’s first-ever foster care voucher program, Arizona’s new K-12 programs benefits special needs children and children from low-income families statewide.

Like Arizona Gov. Napolitano, Democratic Governors Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin all signed bills into law expanding parental choice in 2006. Governors Napolitano, Rendell, and Doyle all handily won re-election. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack honored his term limit pledge and did not seek re-election.

In contrast, Republicans paid a steep price last year for their timidity in advancing policies important to their base constituencies like parental choice. Just ask middle- class parents. Some will tell you it’s getting harder to find rigorous public schools with available spaces in their neighborhoods. Others will tell you they’re struggling to pay out-of-pocket private school tuition on top of taxes for district-run public schools that don’t work for their children.  And state taxes hit Californians especially hard.

Someone earning $44,000 is taxed at a personal income rate in excess of nine percent—a rate second only to Vermont. Factor in the cost of California’s oppressive tax, regulatory, and legal climate, and the average Californian winds up with an annual state and local tax bill of more than $5,600.

Ten years ago, Arizona became the first state to adopt a parental choice tuition tax credit scholarship program. Today, Iowa is one of five states that offer such programs. Iowa, along with three other states, also offers tax credits for educational expenses, including school tuition.

More than a decade has passed since any such legislation has even been introduced in California. While choice for school children remains anathema in the Golden State, dozens of other tax credit programs have earned Sacramento’s imprimatur over the years. They include tax breaks for purchasing California-grown rice straw, using prison inmate labor, and sprucing up habitats for salmon and steelhead trout.

Thirty years ago, California was a national education leader. Today it ranks near-bottom with about four out of five students scoring below grade-level proficiency in reading and math. Adopting a tuition tax credit scholarship program is a policy that should be embraced by Californians of all political stripes. It would give parents a choice, students a chance, and taxpayers a break. CRO

copyright 2007 Pacific Research Institute



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