October 28 2013

Time to Pursue Education Innovation

The Denver Post

Krista Kafer

Automated answering services are especially frustrating when the available options do not offer what you really need. Amendment 66 is a bit like that. The Colorado legislature has given us only two options this election: Press one to raise income taxes by nearly $1 billion for education. Press two to keep tax rates and education spending at current levels. If only there was a "press three" for real education reform.

There have been few education innovations since Gov. Roy Romer signed the Charter Schools Act in 1993. Although there are now more than 200 independent public charter school campuses across the state, thousands of students linger on waiting lists.

Over the past two decades, voters have been asked multiple times to increase taxes or spending for education. Most of the time, Coloradans declined for good reason; the state already compares well with other states — 26th in education spending and 26th in total tax burden per capita. Rather than ask families again for more money, the General Assembly should embrace a new kind of innovation.

Lawmakers need look no further than Arizona for ideas. In 1997, that state adopted the nation's first scholarship tax credit program. Under the program, individuals can receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to $1,000 for donations to one of the state's 52 scholarship organizations. The organizations provide students with scholarships to attend a private school of their choice. Taxpayers may also receive a tax credit for up to $200 when they give to public school extracurricular or character education programs. The state has since added two more tax credit programs: one that serves special-needs students and foster-care children and another that enables businesses to earn tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations.

Because the tax credit amount is substantially smaller than the cost to educate students in public schools, the state saves money. A study conducted by Charles North, economics professor at Baylor University, found that "the Private School Tuition Tax Credit saves Arizona taxpayers somewhere from $99.8 million to $241.5 million due to students enrolling in private rather than public schools. The revenue reduction of only $55.3 million from the tax credit program is substantially less. The program is win-win for taxpayers and the children of Arizona."

Since 1997, 12 additional states have passed tax credits for individuals or businesses that make donations to scholarship organizations. Seven states have tax credits or deductions for individual tuition costs. Research studies have documented substantial cost savings in these programs.

Of course, savings to the state is not the best part of the education tax credit revolution. Students are the ultimate beneficiaries — kids like Michal from Pakistan and Truc Anh from Vietnam, whose parents fled persecution to come to this country, and Alfred, a first-grader with a traumatic childhood. Each attends school with the support of ACE Scholarships, a philanthropic organization here in Colorado.

Colorado is home to several scholarship organizations such as ACE Scholarships, Parents Challenge, Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust, and the Challenge Foundation. At coloradokidswin.org, the testimonies of families and students supported by these organizations illustrate just how much of a lifeline scholarships are for kids who need them.

Unfortunately, not every child now can get one. ACE alone has had to turn away 5,797 students because there is not enough funding. A scholarship tax credit program would vastly increase donations and enable far more children to benefit. Regardless of what happens this November, legislators need to move past the status quo in education and embrace new ideas.

Krista Kafer is director of Colorado's Future Project, an educational iniciative of Independent Women's Forum, and co-host of "Backbone Radio," airing Sundays from 5 to 8 p.m. on 710 KNUS.

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