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Equity and Opportunity Scholarships Help Students Access Quality School Options

The Senate Taxes Committee heard empowering testimony Tuesday morning in support of the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act (S.F. 1872), a bill that would provide alternative education options for low-income Minnesota families through tax-credit scholarships.

Minnesota continues to struggle with stubborn education shortcomings, and these scholarships would provide new opportunities for students in need of a learning environment that works best for them. Senator Roger Chamberlain, author of the bill, testified on the importance of expanding education freedom and the impact it would have on Minnesota families.

“In Minnesota there are many great schools and great teachers, but something is wrong. Too many kids are being left behind. Allowing parents to choose the education setting that is best for their child puts the right people in charge. We need to give every child in the state the opportunity to achieve greatness. We need to give them hope. This is a solution to solve that problem.”

Students from various schools filled the hearing room’s seats and were proudly wearing bright yellow National School Choice Week scarves as their school leaders and other supporters of the bill testified. The theme was consistent: different schools work for different students, and financial barriers should not prevent students from accessing high-quality education options that meet their individual needs.

The tax-credit scholarships would be funded through private contributions made to non-profit scholarship granting organizations with 501(c)(3) status that have been approved by the Minnesota Department of Revenue. Contributions to the qualified organizations would be eligible for a 70 percent state tax credit up to certain limits. Eligibility for the scholarships would be income-based, but the scholarships would also be available to students in special education programs.

Students and families would be able to use these scholarships to access a range of K-12 school options, including public schools or school districts in Minnesota serving 30 percent or more of low-income students. Transportation scholarships would be available, as well, to help transport students to the desired school.

But certain committee members were quick to pushback against the proposed legislation.

Senator Melisa Franzen questioned the constitutionality of tax credits for private schools and was adamant the program would “hurt” public schools by taking money away from them.

The Institute for Justice Minnesota looked into the unconstitutional claim and found the proposed tax credits do not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution or the Blaine Amendment of the Minnesota State Constitution.

“Such individual, deliberate choices of parents and qualifying foundations to provide tuition to private, sectarian schools is constitutionally attributed to the aid of recipients, not the state. Furthermore, by empowering tens of thousands of low-income families to freely choose private schools of all kinds for their children’s education, the proposed tax credits would bring new hope and opportunity to communities of need. The financial aid received by religious schools that provide low-cost but highly effective alternatives to the public schools would be fairly attributed to the constitutional free choice of individual parents to choose the education provided to their children.”

For students who receive the scholarships, the state would not have to appropriate per-pupil education funding. The tax credits could even lead to savings in education funding, as annual tuition at a private school is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools.

Additional criticism of the bill came from public school representatives, who claimed the tax credits would “diminish” opportunity and harm test scores because private schools “are not as accountable.” (Their first claim was particularly ironic considering these representatives currently serve students who needed alternative education opportunities themselves in order to be successful.)

The bill requires the participating schools to administer the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (state tests in reading, mathematics, and science) or a norm-referenced test. The schools must also annually report student performance on the tests on the school’s website.

There are nearly 20 states with similar tax-credit scholarship programs already in effect. It’s time for Minnesota to adopt new strategies to better serve our students most in need of new opportunities.

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