More States Adopt Public Money for Private Schools Programs

A growing number of states are embracing legislation that allows parents to use tax credits towards tuition payments at a private schools, with Alabama as the latest state to approve a $3,500 tax credit that supporters believe will unshackle students from underperforming public education system.

Ealine S. Povich of Pew’s Stateline blog writes that including Alabama, 13 states have either adopted or expanded ways to allow public funding to be spent on private school tuition in 2013. Not every state goes in the same direction as Alabama. While tax credits are popular, so are tax-free scholarship funds and traditional vouchers. Seven states took similar steps in 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The pushback against spending public money on private education has also become more enthusiastic. School voucher programs have been particularly vulnerable to criticism and action. While the Supreme Court approved such programs in 2002 in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Florida’s voucher program – the Opportunity Scholarship Program – was rejected by the state Supreme Court because it violated the state’s constitution in 2006.

In Alabama’s legislature this spring, a conference committee considering a much narrower piece of education legislation suddenly expanded it—with little debate—to include the scholarship tax credit and a personal tax credit for private school tuition, drawing howls of protest from Democrats and teacher groups.

It took until the middle of June for the state education department to come up with the list of 78 “failing” schools. It defines a “failing” school as one that lands in the bottom 6 percent of state standardized tests three or more times in six years, or one listed as “low performing” in the state’s most recent school improvement grant application.

So far, the Alabama program has withstood legal challenges, with the court declining to stop the implementation of it while the case is ongoing. Povich writes that this gives parents what could prove to be a limited time window to take advantage of the tax credit by pulling children out of public school and enrolling them in a private school instead. The late passage of the bill will probably limit its impact this year, but a dramatic increase among those participating is expected for the 2014-15 academic year.

Recovering state revenues are fueling the growth of such programs. For a decade, South Carolina failed to approve a tax credit scholarship program, but it succeeded this year. Wisconsin, which had a voucher program limited to the Racine area, expanded it this year statewide, with up to 500 more students eligible this year and 1,000 next year at a cost of $14 million.

North Carolina replaced its tax credit program with a voucher plan. The vouchers are worth up to $6,000 a year so that low-income families with no taxable income are eligible to participate. Iowa increased its cap on the total value of the tax credits it will grant to $12 million from $8.75 million, and Georgia increased its cap to $58 million from $50 million, according to the Friedman Foundation.