Families voice support for parental choice in education bills

Last Monday was the final day of the 2011 regular session of the Minnesota Legislature with lawmakers and the governor at a virtual impasse regarding finance and revenue bills.

While we are fortunate that two parental choice in education bills have survived to this point, their prospects for passage are nil because they are contained in omnibus bills that are certain to be vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton by the time this article goes to print.

The enrollment-options program in the Omnibus Education Finance Bill is a limited scholarship program for families of modest means. To qualify, a low-income family must be enrolled in a persistently under-performing public school in a city of the first class (i.e., Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth). Under this program, a student is awarded a scholarship based on the average per pupil revenue or the cost of private school tuition, whichever is the lesser amount.

The second measure in the Omnibus Tax Bill would add private-school tuition as an eligible credit to the Minnesota K-12 Education Tax Credit and Subtraction program. Under this measure, low-income families would receive a 75 percent tax credit or refund of up to $1,000 per child for tuition paid to a private K-12 school.

Offering support

The Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC) testified in support of these measures and shepherded them through the legislative process.  During a special session, we will continue to attempt to have these measures passed into law.

In order to find out the true impact these measures would have on Minnesota families, we elicited comments from some Catholic school parents.

A northeast Minneapolis parent wrote that he and his wife “strongly support the efforts to provide an enrollment-options scholarship program that would help to support immigrant, minority and low-income families in the inner-cities with the means to attain educational excellence for their children.  Expanding the tuition tax credit to add nonpublic education would further increase access and availability to parents and children seeking an improvement in educational options and outcomes.”

A single parent from Ramsey County wrote: “When considering a school for my son, I did not like the choices of the public schools in my area. School choice means giving parents the power and opportunity to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child. School choice allows for better and more abundant educational opportunities for lower-income families, not just those who can afford them.”

Another school parent endorsed these school choice bills by stating that “despite the hardship of paying for our children’s education, [enrolling in a Catholic school] was worth the sacrifice. I would highly support a voucher system if that system would afford our more socio-economically challenged families to benefit from a private education and all that comes with a small learning community.”

Our Minnesota Catholic bishops’ support of these measures is rooted in the principle, grounded in Catholic social teaching, that the family is the central social institution, and that parents are primarily responsible for equipping their children with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in life.

Political institutions should craft just and fair legislation that provides access to basic necessities, such as a quality education of the parents’ choosing. While not a panacea, paren­tal choice in education programs move in the direction of promoting social and economic justice.

When a special session is called, we will work diligently to promote both these school choice measures because we believe parents and students will be the beneficiaries of enhanced access to the array of educational programs.

Peter Noll is education director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota.

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