A victory for choice?

The 2016 legislature is poised to enact tuition relief for private school parents.

Low and middle-income parents might receive a tax break from the 2016 Minnesota legislature to help send their children to higher quality private schools, according to parent-advocate insiders at the Capitol.

That relief could arrive as part of a bill to expand current law providing education tax credits and deductions for educational expenses. Already in conference committee, the measure would help nearly 95,000 Minnesota families, with the average family qualifying for just over $1,000 in direct tax relief. The bill would include private school tuition as an allowable credit.

Passage of that bill would be considered a significant victory for Opportunity for All Kids (OAK), an advocacy organization formed last January to focus solely on building grassroots and legislative support for parental choice in education. OAK is currently chaired by longtime choice advocate Mitch Pearlstein, founder of Center of the American Experiment.

“This will lower the barriers for families when they make decisions about school choice,” says OAK Executive Director Chas Anderson. “They will have a new tax credit to help pay for private school tuition.”

And there is evidence to suggest that many Minnesotans would opt for private schools if cost were not a factor. A poll conducted in 2015 by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found that the number of Minnesotans who would choose private schools would grow five-fold.

When asked if they could “select any type of school” for their children without regard for outside factors, 45 percent chose private schools. Currently only eight percent of students attend private schools.

Governor Mark Dayton also proposed expanding the tax credit deduction in last year’s legislative session. His version included more families, but limited its use. House Republicans added the tax credit for private school tuition.

OAK will also push this year to enact a bill to enable individuals and businesses to receive a tax credit for donating to charitable entities that award K-12 scholarships to children from income-qualifying families. The Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow an individual corporation to deduct up to 80 percent of their tax liabilities toward these constibutions.

“If you had a $100,000 tax bill, you could apply $80,000 to that scholarship tuition organization, which will then be able to grant scholarships to low and middle income families,” Anderson said. Qualified families would be a family of four with up to $95,000 in income.

Scholarship tuition organizations would be approved by the Department of Revenue. Scholarship organizations would be required to serve two schools.

The group is also organizing to enact legislative that would create education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents of children with disabilities to select a school of their choice based on the needs of the student. An estimated 127,000 students in Minnesota who receive special education services could qualify for the ESA program, Anderson says.

Pearlstein and Anderson both say they were encouraged by the fact that 20 Minnesota legislators joined them at a Minnesota Summit, hosted by the Friedman Foundation in Chicago this fall for what they called a “school choice boot camp” to discuss legislative priorities.

“OAK’s mission is to ensure that every child in Minnesota has access to an education that will help them thrive,” Anderson said. “We need the help of every Minnesotan if we are to truly make a difference, change lives and create better opportunity for all kids.”