The Catholic Spirit: Why you should support school choice proposals before the MN Legislature

(April 25, 2016 – The Catholic Spirit – by Bob Zyskowski)

Expanding parental choice in education through tax credits and other programs is a proven investment in the future of our children and our communities, said Shawn Peterson, associate director for public policy of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

“It is important that every person in the pew help educate legislators and the public about the benefits of more school choice,” Peterson said.

MCC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, supports the following proposals currently before the Legislature:

• House File 798 / Senate File 1224: Expand the current state law providing Education Tax Credits and Deductions for educational expenses and include private school tuition as an allowable credit, which would help nearly 95,000 Minnesota families with the average family qualifying for just over $1,000 in direct tax relief.

• HF 1369 / SF 1396: Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would allow individuals and businesses to receive a tax credit for donating to charitable entities that award K-12 scholarships to children from income-qualifying families.

• HF 1529 / SF 1313: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which would enable 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.

Peterson answered The Catholic Spirit’s questions about the proposals via email:

Q: What is the impact that is hoped to be achieved if the state’s current Education Tax Credit is expanded to include the cost of tuition?

A: More kids having access to an education where they can flourish. Too many are trapped in underperforming schools because they live in the wrong zip code or cannot afford another option. A refundable tax credit for low-income families to help them pay tuition will literally help save lives. The tax credit would have a powerful impact by helping many low-income families overcome some of the financial obstacles that limit their choices in education.

Q: Will the tuition tax credit benefit only families in minority communities in the metro area?

A: No. Including tuition as an eligible expense in the credit would benefit any family in Minnesota earning less than $47,500. Qualifying families can receive the refundable tax credit of up to $1,500 per child, even if they do not pay state income tax.  Including tuition in the tax credit will benefit low-income families throughout Minnesota, from urban St. Paul to rural St. Peter.

Q: Why is the Catholic Church in Minnesota supportive of the proposals like the tuition tax credit, the tax credit for scholarship donations and the Education Savings Accounts for parents with disabilities? Why are these religious issues?

A: As Catholics, we believe that parents are the primary educators of their children. Because parents have this God-given duty, they also have the corresponding right to choose schools that best fit the educational needs of their children.

Pope Francis just affirmed this in Amoris Laetitia, and said that “parents themselves enjoy the right to choose freely the kind of education—accessible and of good quality—which they wish to give their children in accordance with their convictions. Schools do not replace parents but complement them.” He also said that “all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization.”

Financial obstacles can limit real parental choice in education. By removing some of the financial barriers to Catholic and non-public education, these policies will enhance parents’ ability to live out their God-given responsibility as the primary decision-makers in their child’s education.

Another core component of Catholic social teaching is the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Inadequate educational opportunities play a big role in keeping kids from low-income families trapped in a cycle of poverty. This legislation will help underprivileged students beat the odds by giving them access to a better education, and ultimately, a better future. We need to be pursuing creative solutions to freeing people from the yoke of crushing poverty, which can truly inhibit human flourishing.

 Q: Will any of these proposals help to close the poverty gap between the majority community and people of color?

A: Yes. A mound of independent research demonstrates that there is a “Catholic school advantage” for kids from underprivileged backgrounds. Local and national data show that African-American and Latino students at Catholic schools have better academic outcomes than their peers attending public schools.

Additionally, the poorer and more-at-risk a student is, the greater the relative achievement gains in Catholic schools. Even if we look right here in our own Archdiocese, we see a number of “gap-closing schools” like Ascension, Cristo Rey, Risen Christ and many others. These schools are helping make real, measurable progress at closing the achievement gap in communities of color and in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The achievement gap and the broader issue of racial disparities are complicated problems, but what’s clear is that expanding parental choice in education needs to be part of the solution.

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