Minnesota braces for voucher fight

Minnesota braces for voucher fight

(Minn.) Although Republicans in this famously independent state only hold control of the state Senate—and that by a slim majority—GOP leaders say they are ready to fight for a voucher program.

The Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act would create a tax credit for donations made to a qualified foundation that, in turn, uses the money to provide a scholarship to a low-income student.

The proposal comes originally from an advocacy group led by several faith-based organizations, including the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Minnesota Association of Christian Schools, as well as supporters of school choice.

The legislation is authored by state Sen. Richard Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who is also chair of the taxation committee. So far, the bill has only faced one committee hearing—which took place Tuesday before Chamberlain’s committee. But already Democrats are rallying against the idea.

“It will not happen,” Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat and a former classroom teacher, said at a press conference this week. “I know this is an ideological issue for them but I’m not going to move a big chunk of the education funding into private entities.”

That said, Minnesota voters have embraced school choice programs many times in the past.

In the 1950s, lawmakers approved a tax deduction for school expenses. Decades later, the state pioneered the nation’s first open enrollment program. And in 1991, lawmakers passed legislation allow the creation of the first charter school in the country.

That willingness to try a new approach is what Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is banking on bringing the voucher plan forward.

“I’m willing to do something different to get different results,” Gazelka told the MinnPost this week. “Over the past eight years we’ve spent a lot of money doing the same things that we’ve always been doing, with no different results. This bill is a tool that I’m convinced will work.”

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have some form of a school voucher program, according to a 2014 survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The first was adopted by lawmakers in Wisconsin in 1989. Florida approved a system aimed at students with disabilities in 2001, and in 2007, Utah created the nation’s first statewide voucher program.

A number of states also utilize the scholarship tax credit as the means for funding the vouchers—including Florida, Arizona, Georgia and Oklahoma.

As the proposal in Minnesota would require, private schools typically must meet certain standards to be eligible, just as families seeking the scholarships cannot exceed specific income thresholds.

Although the state is not directly funding the scholarships, the number of tax credits that might be used in a given year can impact the state’s budget.

The legislation being considered in Minnesota would provide a credit equal to 70 percent of the donation with a maximum of $21,000 for married couples and $105,000 for corporations.

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