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Tax credits for tuition under fire again

Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff

With Utah lawmakers flush with a budget surplus, proponents of tax credits for private education say 2006 is the year the Legislature should provide parents more choices for educating their children.

A hot topic for years on Capitol Hill has been whether parents whose children attend private schools should receive tax credits or "vouchers" from the state. "I don’t like the idea personally," said state Rep. Ross Romero, a Democrat who represents portions of western Summit County and Salt Lake City. "I personally, and I think a lot of Democrats feel the same way, don’t feel that we have adequately funded public education."

Utah schools are last in the nation in per pupil spending and the amount public education would lose through vouchers could be the boost the state needs to shed that distinction, Romero said. "We could do, I think, so much better if we gave them that little bit more money," the representative said, adding, "the analysis should be, shouldn’t we be investing in the education system that exists currently to a higher degree to move us from the 51st to the 50th, as opposed to creating a whole new avenue of funding for the private school community."

But people have a right to send their kids to any schools they choose and tax credits are critical for providing all parents that opportunity, said Royce Van Tassell, communications director for Parents for Choice in Education, a pro-voucher organization. "Too often, the parents have unfortunately been relegated to roles of being told what their children are going to do," Van Tassell said. "We believe in parents they know more, they care more about their children than anyone else." In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court determined tax dollars could be used for private education, he added. "A tuition tax credit, or a voucher, puts parents squarely in charge of their child’s education," Van Tassell said. "No law or constitution says you can only be educated in these schools that happen to be run by the state."

In 2005, his group supported a proposition from state Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, to provide parents with children in private schools a $3,750 tuition-tax credit, Van Tassell added. "Unfortunately, the opposition has thus far succeeded. But I think they’re on the wrong side of history," he said about the fight over tax credits in Utah. Ferrin’s bill did not pass.

Studies conducted by state officials show that tax credits for tuition would save Utah money, Van Tassell claims.

The budgets and per pupil spending in many school systems that have adopted voucher programs have increased, he said, adding that public schools spend more educating each student than their private counterparts. "The resistance to choice is driven by unions whose sole interest is protecting the union when children start paying union dues the unions will start caring about them," Van Tassell said. Park City School District board member Kim Carson, who opposes tax credits for private education, disagrees with Van Tassell’s analysis. "If we lose a student, that’s not going to have a big impact on an individual schools. We still have to pay for the lights pay for the teachers, and that doesn’t get reduced," Carson said. "If they could guarantee the school districts that we would not lose a dime or be penalized from it then it might be something to consider." ‘Compromise bill’

During the 2006 legislative general session, scheduled to begin Jan. 16, state Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, says a "compromise bill" could end the debate over school vouchers.

"I’m trying to get the bill to where it will meet the parameters of what education has to have out of a voucher bill as well as what choice has to have," Dee said. Dee says he still opposes tuition tax credits as proposed last year by Ferrin, adding, "I want to make sure that those monies flow to the district from which the student leaves so that the state does not have overall power to divvy up those savings and pass them to other places." "Will both sides support the bill? I don’t know," Dee said.

But Utah’s public school system already provides parents ample choices for educating kids with open enrollment policies and by allowing students to attend charter schools, Romero said.

He adds, "we need to not be diverting more money now into these private ventures."

Romero expects most Democrats this year to oppose tuition tax credit proposals. "When [lawmakers] talk about giving these dollars away to private institutions, when they won’t even fund us adequately, I just find that difficult to comprehend," Carson said.


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