Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation Wednesday to allow individuals to divert more money they would otherwise owe the state to instead help children attend private and parochial schools.
The new law provides a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit of up to $500 for money donated to organizations that provide scholarships to help pay the tuition and fees of students at these schools. Married couples could get a $1,000 credit.
This is in addition to an existing program that provides a tax credit of up to $503 for donations to scholarship organizations. In 2010, the most recent year figures were available, the credits — the amount not paid to the state treasury — totaled $43.2 million.
The measure was pushed by Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, who said he was concerned that the amount of money donated under the current program has not kept pace with requests by students to get financial help to attend private and parochial schools.
Brewer vetoed legislation last year to increase the amount individuals could donate. She said the state could not afford the loss of tax dollars.
This new law, however, was crafted to address her concerns by including a requirement that the scholarship funds could go mainly to those who initially switch from public schools. Murphy said that will save money by taking students out of public school classrooms.
That apparently was enough to convince Brewer.
“This is a narrowly crafted law that will open new educational opportunities for Arizona children,” said gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson. And he said the governor, who convinced voters two years ago to temporarily hike state sales taxes to balance the budget, does not believe this new program will cut into needed revenues.
“For the bulk of these children who would be moving from a public school into a private facility, the state would get some savings from that,” Benson said. He estimated the actual net loss to the state in the neighborhood of “a few million dollars, likely even less than that.”
“This law advances educational freedom in this state and it does so at a minimal cost to the general fund,” he said.
Costs aside, the legislation picked up opposition from the Secular Coalition of Arizona. Serah Blain, the group’s executive director, pointed out that much of the money winds up being diverted to schools that can discriminate on who they admit.
Many of the largest scholarship organizations are set up to help only students who want to attend specific schools. That includes funds run by the Phoenix and Tucson Catholic dioceses as well as the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization.
Benson said that fact does not bother the governor.
“The public interest is served when students and parents have as much choice as possible in where they attend schools,” he said. And Benson said this is more than an academic discussion, given the limited funds Arizonans have been willing to donate to the current program.
“We have some 5,000 kids in this state who are trapped in institutions, trapped in schools where they don’t want to attend, where they’d like to go someplace else,” he said. “And if this law can address in some way shrinking that waiting list, then it’s a good thing.”
Not all of the students who will be eligible for the new scholarships need to switch from public schools. The funds also are available to military dependents who are stationed in Arizona.
And any “switcher” who gets an initial scholarship under this program is eligible for continuing funds through his or her public school career.