A “war” that leaves one side well outgunned

It’s almost become flippant for Democratic lawmakers to
disparage a school voucher as “a war on public education,” as Virginia
Senator Henry Marsh declared recently
in opposition to a tax credit scholarship
that
passed the state House of Delegates Wednesday
. But if it’s war Marsh sees, a
look at the numbers shows the conflict is pretty one-sided.

It’s almost become flippant for Democratic lawmakers to
disparage a school voucher as “a war on public education.”

Unlike many existing scholarship programs that award an
attractive dollar tax credit for every dollar in contributions, Virginia would allow
individuals and businesses to write off only 65 cents for every dollar they
donate to a nonprofit scholarship organization. And lawmakers capped state
funding for the program at a paltry $25 million a year. Even with these baby
steps, it took Republican Lt. Governor Bill Bolling to cast a tie-breaking vote
last week in an evenly divided 40-member Senate to pass the bill.

The vote was mostly along party lines, showing that Virginia
Democrats learned nothing from members of their party in Florida, particularly
those in the Black Caucus, who since last
year
have urged their brethren to look at this option differently. A
similar program in Florida awards taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar credit for
their donations to a scholarship organization and is currently capped at $175
million. Even at these numbers, the Florida program has still managed to hang
onto the support of nearly half the Democrats in the Legislature. That’s not
that surprising; the 40,000 children now on the scholarship are among the most
impoverished constituents of these lawmakers.

If Marsh had looked
at his legislature’s own bill analysis
, he’d see how silly his hyperbole
is. The fiscal note looked at Florida’s program, in particular, and found that
enrollment last year only came to 2.3 percent of the eligible population in the
Sunshine State. This program has been enrolling students for more than 10 years.

Consider, too, Arizona, where the legislature just doubled the maximum tax credit the state will award individuals and married couples who
contribute to a scholarship organization. The program, the oldest of its kind,
now benefits 25,000 students – or 2.3 percent of Arizona’s public school population.
And it’s not even restricted to poor households.

The same can be said for a third: Georgia’s tax credit
scholarship. Lawmakers in the Peach State didn’t means-test the scholarship,
but they established a $50 million ceiling on the program. Enrollment amounts
to a half-percent of the state’s K-12 public education system.

A $25 million cap in Virginia is one way to keep scholarship
enrollment artificially low. Restricting tax credits to 65 cents for every
dollar in contributions may assure the cap is unreachable in the first place by
making it less attractive for corporations and wealthy individuals to open
their wallets. So while Marsh may be pounding his chest for his base of
support, talk of war only looks, at best, aloof. At worst, callous.

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