Proposed legislation to benefit Catholic schools, prospective families in need

| January 26, 2017 | 0 Comments

A bill that can help middle and low-income families afford a Catholic or private school education made headway among Minnesota Senate and House committees Jan. 24.

The proposed Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act, H.F. 386 and S.F. 258, would enable middle- and low-income families to receive scholarships to attend the schools of their choice. The bill would give a 70 percent tax credit to corporations and individuals who donate to Minnesota Department of Revenue-approved non-profits that fund the scholarships. The bill would also expand on the current tax programs in Minnesota that help with education expenses but don’t include assist with private school tuition.

In two of the three Jan. 24 hearing sessions at the State Capitol, a Senate committee voted 5-4 in favor of the bill, while a House committee voted 9-7 in favor. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, a Republican from Lino Lakes, and Rep. Ron Kesha, a Republican from Little Falls, co-authored the bill.

“Too many families throughout Minnesota have little or no options when it comes to a good K-12 school,” said Chas Anderson, Executive Director of Opportunity for All Kids, in a statement. “A child’s future should not be determined by the ZIP code they live in or by a parent’s economic situation. All Minnesota parents should have the opportunity to access the best education option for their children. We need to remove financial barriers that prevent children from being able to attend schools that meet their needs.”

Reynolds-Anthony Harris, a parishioner at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, speaks at a rally for school choice in the State Capitol Rotunda Jan. 24. Harris, the founder of Minnesota Harvest Initiative, formerly served on the board of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. Courtesy Opportunity for All Kids

OAK, a statewide agency that supports school choice, held a rally Jan. 24 at the State Capitol rotunda in between the hearings. A diverse crowd of adults crowded the rotunda at the rally in support of school choice. They heard from several speakers, including former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan. Arizona is one of 17 states that has a scholarship tax credit program.

Partnering organizations with OAK include the Minnesota Catholic Conference, Minnesota Independent School Forum, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Jewish Community Relations Council, Minnesota Association of Christian Schools and Minnesota Harvest Initiative.

MHI founder Reynolds-Anthony Harris, a parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, testified at the hearings and spoke at the rally. Harris came to the sessions with an understanding of Catholic schools’ value from serving on the board of directors at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis.

“We think that the parent is the ultimate arbitrator with the intent of creating a collaborative relationship with institutions, and what that means is a collaborative relationship with the teacher,” Harris said.

Ascension School, Minneapolis, principal Benito Matias also testified.

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, partnered with other groups to oppose the legislation and held a press conference Jan. 24 at the Capitol. While they support low-income families, they don’t want to see a reduction in funding for public schools, they said.

A press release from Education Minnesota stated the tax breaks from the bill, “are the same as vouchers. They exacerbate inequity by directly draining critical funding away from public schools, hurting low-income and greater Minnesota schools that need the funding most.”

OAK reports on its website that, “nearly 40 percent of our state’s public high school graduates who attend post-secondary education require remedial education.” The organization also reported that of the “lowest performing 15 percent of public schools, more than half are in suburban and rural districts.”

The Opportunity Scholarships Program, which could begin in 2018 if the legislation passes, will have a cap of $35 million in the 2019 fiscal year and $70 million cap in the following two years. Families qualify for the program based on income, which coincides with the limits for free or reduced lunch eligibility.

The rally and hearings took place during National School Choice Week, an annual week for raising awareness about the variety a variety of educational options for children.

 

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