Conference happy to see two scholarship bills move in Legislature

| Peter Noll | March 30, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following is a legislative update provided by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, which advocates on behalf of the state’s bishops for public policies and programs that support the life and dignity of every human person.

Last week was active at the Min­nesota Legislature with the deadline for bills to be heard in finance committees.

To add to the excitement, school choice advocates saw two private school choice bills make it into omnibus bills. Not since the Carlson administration has private school choice legislation been passed by a finance committee, let alone by two finance committees.

As it stands now, a scholarship program is incorporated into the House Omnibus Education Bill, and a tuition tax credit expansion program is included in the Senate Omnibus Taxes Bill. Both omnibus bills appear headed for a floor debate in the respective bodies in the near future.

The Minnesota Catholic Confer­ence testified in support of these measures with the caveat that government mandates should not be imposed on participating private schools. Rather than the imposition of government mandates, MCC has suggested that participating private schools be accredited with a state-recognized accrediting agency. This compromise would provide accoun­ta­bility without government intrusion into private schools.

The MCC has partnered with the Minnesota Business Partnership on both the scholarship and tax credit legislation in order to add programs designed to help close the yawning achievement gap in Minnesota. The achievement gap is the gauge by which children of color achieve compared to the overall population.  Minnesota has the second-largest discrepancy between minority and majority students in the nation.

Promoting justice

Catholic social teaching recognizes the family as the central social institution and that parents are primarily responsible for equipping their children with the knowledge and skills necessary for success in life. The Minnesota Catholic bishops believe political institutions should craft just and fair legislation, providing access to basic necessities, such as a quality education of the parents’ choosing.  While not a panacea, these school choice bills move in the direction of promoting social and economic justice.

Representative Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine), the sponsor of the scholarship bill — House File 273 — describes his legislation as a “limited scholarship program for low-income families.” To qualify, a low-income family must be enrolled in a persistently low-performing public school in a city of the first class (i.e., Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth).

Under this program, scholarship awards could be the average general education per pupil revenue or the private school tuition, whichever is the lesser amount. A student’s parent or guardian would receive the scholarship check and endorse it to a participating private school. Private school participation in the program would be voluntary.

Sen. Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) sponsored a companion bill, SF 388, that was laid over by the Senate Education Committee, but was not included in the omnibus education bill in that body. There is hope that the Nienow bill language could be added during conference committee if the omnibus education bills in the two bodies need to be reconciled.

Expanding opportunities

Regarding the second bill, freshman Sen. Benjamin Kruse (R-Brooklyn Park) has rallied strong support for his education tax credit bill (SF 764), which would add tuition to private school 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 up to $1,000 per child for tuition paid to a private K-12 school. Kruse described this bill as an expansion of opportunities for needy families.

Woodard sees targeted scholarships as a free-market tool expanding parents’ school choices that could improve educational outcomes for at-risk students. The program would take effect only in cities of the first class. Those eligible would be families earning a maximum of 175 percent of the federal poverty level with a child who has spent at least one year in a school ranked as low-performing according to federal guidelines for at least three years.

“These are the kids who are part of the achievement gap,” Woodard said. “We need to educate, not perpetuate.”

Let your state representative and senator know how you feel about these measures by contacting them today and asking them to support parental choice in education.

Peter Noll is education director for the Minnesota Catholic Con­fer­ence

Get involved

Join the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s action alert network, MNCAN, to receive timely information regarding legislative activity. To subscribe to MNCAN, visit MCC’s website at http://www.mncc.org .

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