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Tuition assistance tax credit expands education options for Kentucky families

I am greatly blessed to have spent the last two decades working to improve teaching and learning in K-12 schools, first as a teacher in my own classroom and then as an assistant principal, principal, district administrator, and now as a professor of education administration training the next generation of school leaders.  Most of my life's work focuses on helping teachers improve the quality of their classroom teaching and helping leaders build their capacity to support great instruction, since research shows that is key to student learning.

But teaching and school administration also takes place in a very specific political and policy context.  The way we organize and fund schools and deliver education greatly shapes - and sometimes limits - the work of teachers and school leaders to make good on their best intentions for great instruction. 

The vast majority of families rely on the local public school to meet their children's educational needs, and for a myriad of reasons those schools are unable to meet the individual needs of some children.  That's why I believe that, in addition to our many efforts to improve the quality of our traditional public schools, we need to also make sure every family has access to the widest array of additional education options possible, including charter schools and high-quality non-public schools.

The Black Alliance for Educational Options calls this the "three sector approach:" every community should have a rich set of educational choices for families, including high-performing traditional public schools, public charter schools, and non-public schools.  People interested in improving education should advocate for great schooling options in all three sectors.

I've written extensively about my support for charter schools, since Kentucky is now one of only eight states that do not have this option available for families.  But another approach also worthy of Kentuckians' consideration is a tuition-assistance tax credit proposal, such as the one outlined in House Bill 384, sponsored by the bi-partisan team of Tommy Thompson (D-Owensboro) and David Floyd (R-Bardstown), and currently under review by the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

HB 384 would allow private citizens or corporations to make donations to tuition assistance programs that would provide subsidies for children who cannot afford private school tuition, and then receive a credit on their state tax bill for half the amount of their donation.  These tuition assistance programs would provide help to poor and middle class families with annual household incomes up to $60,000, with $10,000 added to that threshold for each additional school-aged child in the family.

Also, HB 384 would allow citizens and companies to make similar donations to the Commonwealth School Improvement Fund (CSIF), which was established by the state legislature several years ago to support struggling public schools in their improvement efforts.  These donations would also be subject to the 50% state tax credit.  In this way, HB 384 is a great mechanism for supporting both public and non-public schools.

Among the many reasons Kentuckians should support HB 384:

1.  Tuition assistance tax credit proposals do not rely on any public money to support non-public school students.  The funds for tuition assistance programs come exclusively from private donations.

2. Most non-public schools educate children at a substantially lower per-pupil cost than traditional public schools.  In this way, HB 384 could actually save taxpayers a substantial sum of money, which could then be redirected to support struggling public schoolsEvidence from other states suggests that millions of dollars could potentially be saved.

3. Non-public schools make a vital contribution to a diverse, vibrant community, and successfully educate millions of students each year.  Studies show that private schools are especially adept at educating students from at-risk backgrounds, and that private school students are even more tolerant and engaged in their communities.  Ashley Rogers Berner argues that educational pluralism (public policies that encourage a diversity of both public and private school options) makes for a healthier democracy and reduces some of the divisive debates over the role and purpose of public schools.

In short, Americans agree that schooling is a public good.  But we don't have to assume that government-run schools are the only way to deliver that good to our communities.  Tuition assistance tax credit proposals like those in HB 384 help support diverse educational options in Kentucky without spending an extra dollar of taxpayer money and give families new choices to meet their children's needs. 

HB 384 is truly a win-win for the Kentucky's schools and deserves widespread attention and support.

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