Heartbroken by Choice Bill Defeats, Hoping for Some Scholarship Tax Credit Love

I tend not to get into all the icky Valentine’s Day stuff (flowers, pink hearts, greeting cards), except to the extent I can stuff my face with candy. Even so, some events that transpired yesterday at the Capitol nearly broke my heart.

Ed News Colorado reports on the Thursday afternoon state senate committee hearing that resulted in the sad and awkward — but given political realities, not terribly surprising — death of two tax credit bills that would have increased students’ educational options. Senate Bill 131 would have provided up to a $500 credit for families who pay for an outside “education or academic enrichment service.” The only downer on SB 131 was the small negative impact forecast for the state budget.

Also going down on a 4-4 vote, Senate Bill 69 would have provided a direct credit to families paying private school tuition (up to 50 percent of state per pupil revenue) or home school expenses (up to $1,000). The Colorado Education Association lobbyist expressed skepticism at the nonpartisan fiscal analysis showing the proposal would save tax dollars, claiming instead that research of an Arizona program showed a negative impact on that state’s treasury.

The trouble is, a 2009 economic analysis of Arizona’s Private School Tuition Tax Credit found the program produces a net taxpayer savings anywhere from $44.5 million to $186.2 million. But sometimes, facts have a bad habit of inconveniently getting in the way of politics.

While some groups probably will seek to malign any effort to expand private school parental choice, it seems an even better approach would be to enact tax credit scholarships for students from low- and middle-income families. The way it works would be to give donors to qualified nonprofit scholarship organizations a dollar-for-dollar tax bill write-off up to a certain amount. Currently, there are 14 such programs in 11 different states, enhancing educational opportunities.

Why this approach, similar to what Florida’s longstanding Tax Credit Scholarship Program has accomplished? Because they not only save taxpayer money, promote achievement gains, and have positive competitive effects on public schools. They also are popular with parents (95 percent satisfaction) and the general public (72 percent approval), and have a perfect legal record in the courts.

Still, it’s a shame the latest proposals went down to bitterly ambiguous defeat at the hands of the majority party. Though the union lobbyist rightly lauded Colorado’s relatively extensive public school choice, I believe our state can do even better for the many students who seek a scholarship but aren’t able to receive one.

That’s why my heart starts to break. That’s why I’d LOVE to see Colorado embrace scholarship tax credits.