Tax panel OK’s private school scholarship credits

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Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene

Sen. Bob Nonini says Idaho can enable more than 3,000 students to attend private schools — and save the state and school districts $5.8 million — by encouraging Idahoans to contribute to private school scholarship programs.

In the end, the House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 12-4 to send Nonini’s income tax credit bill to the House floor with a do-pass recommendation. A House vote could occur early next week.

The committee’s support for House Bill 286 came after a two-hour hearing — punctuated with questions about cost savings and the Constitution, and marked with impassioned testimony from private school supporters. The bill is opposed by three education groups: the Idaho School Boards Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators and the Idaho Education Association.

The underpinning of HB 286 is a plan to provide income tax credits to individuals or corporations that contribute to scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs. The SGOs would then award the money to students from households earning less than 185 percent of the poverty level.

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Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa

Scholarships would be available only to students transferring from public schools, incoming kindergartners or students whose families have recently moved to the state — and not to students already in private schools. “Our idea is to reach out to those who would want more school choice,” said Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, a co-sponsor.

The income tax credits would be capped at $10 million per year.

But the state would still save money, supporters say, when students move from public schools to private schools. The state would be able to reduce its public schools payments, which are calculated based on average daily attendance. The state’s savings would come to $3.3 million. Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he hoped the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee would put this money back into schools’ discretionary accounts.

Opponents questioned Nonini’s math — particularly his assumption that school districts would realize nearly $2.5 million in savings. The districts’ fixed costs — such as payroll, transportation and utilities — do not instantly decrease with a drop in enrollment. Rep. Neil Anderson, a rancher and Blackfoot Republican who joined Democrats in opposition to HB 286, used an agricultural analogy to argue this point. Culling two cows from a herd of a hundred does not greatly reduce the cost of feeding the herd or driving hay out into the field.

The constitutional debate was less homespun. It centered on whether HB 286 directly, or indirectly, would provide unconstitutional support to religious schools.

Since the money would pass from donors to SGOs and students — and would never pass through state coffers — supporters said the bill passes constitutional muster. Nonini cited an attorney general’s opinion that said HB 286 was legally defensible.

Paul Stark, an attorney for the IEA, cited language in the state Constitution which bans the use of public dollars “to help support or sustain” a parochial school. He described HB 286 as a “scheme” that would achieve that very purpose. ”This is essentially a voucher program.”

But private school advocates — including principals and a parent — touted this as a matter of choice, and a way of making school options more affordable to families. Lawmakers also heard this message from Alex Knoll, an 8-year-old who said he is taking science and Spanish in second grade, because his parents are able to send him to LAM Christian Academy in Coeur d’Alene. “The burden we are discussing today falls on my parents. … Please make me proud and help my parents.”