Divided senate OKs help for private schools

Repub Lt. governor pushes controversial funding initiative through

By Zack Budryk
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In yet another bill that divided Republicans and Democrats down the aisle, on Feb. 17th the Virginia Senate passed legislation to provide tax credits for individuals and businesses that fund scholarships for low and middle-income students to attend parochial and private schools.

Senate Bill 131, sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Moneta, would provide a 65 percent tax credit for individuals and corporations that donate money for such scholarships. The state would cap the total tax credits at $25 million per year. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-26th, sponsored a bill capping the tax credits at $50 million.

SB 131 was debated on the Senate floor for nearly an hour. Then all 20 Republican senators voted for it; all 20 Democrats voted against it. The bill passed when Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican, cast the tie-breaking vote.

Proponents of such “school choice” legislation assert that it would give students access to a quality of education that their families otherwise could not afford.

Low income help?

Under the bill, scholarships supported by tax credits must go “only to students whose family’s annual household income is not in excess of 300 percent of the current poverty guidelines or eligible students with a disability.”

That means a student from a family of four with an annual income of $69,150 would qualify for a scholarship. (Under the federal government’s 2012 guidelines, the poverty level for such a family is $23,050.)

The tax credit program would fund about 7,300 private-school scholarships, according to an analysis of SB 131. The bill would establish “Education Improvement Scholarships Tax Credits.” These credits would go to taxpayers “making monetary donations to scholarship foundations” approved by the Virginia Department of Education.

State funding of religion?

Senate Democrats condemned the bill, saying it amounted to taxpayer subsidies for religious schools and a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, argued that the bill would violate the Virginia Constitution, which forbids “any appropriation of public funds, personal property, or real estate to any church or sectarian society.”

“The purpose behind that [article] in our 1971 constitution is quite clear: We don’t appropriate to private entities; we give the money to public entities,” Petersen said. “That’s why we’re a public body.”

Sen. Janet Howell, D-Reston, said SB 131 would undermine the public school system.

“I think if you were to look at any history of this county … the reason why people have been lifted out of poverty is the public school system,” Howell said. She said the bill is part of an effort by Republicans to sap resources from public education.

“Right now it’s a trickle of blood,” Howell said. “But if we keep this up, this will be a hemorrhaging of blood from our public schools.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, expressed similar sentiments.

“Our public education system has issues; it needs more funding. But what we don’t need to do is run away from it,” Deeds said. “That’s what this bill does.”

Republican social agenda

“We have heard for quite a while from many that it takes a community to raise and educate a child. And paradoxically, the burden has been placed on the state to do just that with taxpayer dollars managed by a distant government agency,” Stanley said. “This bill will initiate the real change needed to encourage investment by offering solutions tailored to solve specific problems as determined by those closest to the situation.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell has long been a proponent of such legislation. The Republican governor, who headlined a rally for “school choice” earlier in the month, praised the vote.

“Virginia students deserve a world-class education regardless of their ZIP code and socio-economic status. Public and private-sector entities must come together to provide every possible opportunity for students to get the education they need to fill the good jobs available in the 21st century,” McDonnell said in a statement following the vote.

“This legislation will increase the ability of nonprofit organizations to provide education improvement scholarships so low-income students or students with disabilities can attend the nonpublic school of their choice. It is a common-sense measure that will spur private support in educating the leaders of tomorrow and will give students a new opportunity to learn the skills they need to be successful in the future.”

SB 131 is the latest in a series of bills this session concerning hot-button issues for social conservatives; others include abortion, voter identification and drug testing for welfare recipients. This was the 10th tie-breaker Bolling has cast.

On Tuesday, the House passed its own bill providing tax credits for private-school scholarships. The 64-35 vote also was along party lines.

House Bill 321, sponsored by Delegate Jimmie Massie, R-Richmond, would support scholarships for students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program. (A family of four qualifies for that program if its annual income is below $41,348.)

Under the House legislation, corporations would receive a tax credit equal to 70 percent of their donations to the scholarships.

On the Web

To monitor or comment on Senate Bill 131, visit the Richmond Sunlight website:

Here are the 2012 poverty guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under SB 131, scholarships supported by state tax credits could go to students from families that make up to three times the poverty levels: http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/12poverty.shtml

How They Voted

Here is how the Senate voted Friday on “SB 131 Income tax, corporate; tax credits for donations to organizations, etc.”

Floor: 02/17/12 Senate: Read third time and passed Senate (20-Y 20-N)

YEAS – Black, Blevins, Carrico, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Vogel, Wagner, Watkins – 20.

NAYS – Barker, Colgan, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Herring, Howell, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, Marsh, McEachin, Miller, J.C., Miller, Y.B., Northam, Petersen, Puckett, Puller, Saslaw – 20.

Mr. President (Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling): YEA

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