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Better education through vouchers

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 1, 2003

Jose Quizo, 13, of Tucson, Arizona found himself worrying more about schoolyard ruffians than reading and writing. The bullies would push the good kids into a cage and then throw rocks at them. Even the teacher's assistant was cowed by the bullies and refused to intervene.

Thanks to a scholarship, Jose's mother, Maria Elena, was able to send Jose to the Push Ridge Academy whose more orderly environment is much conducive to learning.

Similarly, Cecilia and Heriberto Pinnuelas of Tucson have been pleased that several of their children have been able to receive scholarships to attend schools that are instilling the values they deem to be important.

These parents do not receive blank-check scholarships, they work hard to help pay the tuition costs for their children. But they are grateful for the assistance provided by the Arizona School Choice Trust, a program established in 1992 to provide privately funded tuition scholarships for low-income families.

Not enough families throughout this country are as fortunate.

Too many parents this fall will be sending their children to public schools that are flat-out dysfunctional and in desperate need of an overhaul.

Trent Franks

Fortunately, in Arizona, a dynamic, creative state legislator named Trent Franks passed legislation six years ago to set up a tuition tax credit system in the state to encourage conscientious individuals to fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private and religious schools. Thanks to Trent Franks' leadership, Arizona instituted a scholarship tuition tax credit program six years ago. This year alone, more than 20,000 children will be able to attend a school of their parents' choice thanks to scholarships.

In fact, the number of Arizona taxpayers participating in the tax credit program in 2002 numbered nearly 50,000, an increase of six percent over the previous year.

Now, Trent Franks is serving his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is sponsor of H.R. 2347 -- the Children's Hope Act which would encourage states to institute their own tuition tax credits.

Rather than a mandate, the Children's Hope Act would provide an incentive for the states to increase the educational options of parents.

The Children's Hope Act would institute a federal tax credit of $100 ($200 for joint returns) for those who have donated money to a scholarship program that disburses at least half of their scholarships to low-income children.

In order for the taxpayers of a state to be able to claim that federal tax credit, their own state must enact a scholarship tax credit of $250 or more.

Nine states lack an income tax. In those cases, it would be possible to take a dollar for dollar credit against property taxes.

This fall, many parents are apprehensive about sending their children back to public schools because they are rightfully worried about their children's safety and the quality of their instruction.
Furthermore, many parents want their children to receive instruction that reinforces the values that they are learning at home.

Legislation like the Children's Hope Act can make a real difference between realizing the hopes of those parents or having them remain unfulfilled as their children remain trapped in failing schools.

Furthermore, the Children's Hope Act, if enacted into law, could help to invigorate community spirit, because civic and fraternal organizations, churches and religious institutions, and professional associations would have a real incentive to form scholarship organizations. Virtually everyone pays federal income taxes, and therefore virtually everyone would be eligible to benefit from the Children's Hope Act provided their state enacts a scholarship tax credit program too.

Plus, the public schools, their monopoly endangered, would be given a real incentive to improve.

Even seemingly modest donations of $50 or $100 to a scholarship fund can be very helpful for a family struggling to send a child trapped in a failing public school to a private or religious school.

The Children's Hope Act has drawn powerful co-sponsors who serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee, including Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), the chairman, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI), chairman of the Select Education Subcommittee. Significantly, Danny Davis (IL) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX), two Democrats representing urban districts, have also signed on as co-sponsors. Both are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But the drive is still on to find additional co-sponsors for the Children's Hope Act, which must first wend its way through the Ways & Means Committee before being sent to the House floor.

This is one issue in which the grassroots can make a real difference and it is a timely issue now given the start of a new school year. Calls to radio talk shows, letters to editors, and talks before civic groups can not only inform the public about existing scholarship plans but also explain how enacting state and federal tax credits can help to spur further support.

The difference in enabling children to live meaningful lives is education. Too often, children from low-income families will find their desire to achieve short-circuited by dead-end public schools. Now, thanks to Trent Franks, many parents in Arizona have been able to obtain the quality education for their children that they once could only wish to provide. There is no reason that Arizona's success with the scholarship tax credit plan cannot be shared by other states and also receive support at the federal level. If Trent Franks is able to have his way, the doors of opportunity may soon be opening for many schoolchildren across the nation who are hoping to move onward and upward in life.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

More information about the Children's Hope Act can be found at www.house.gov/franks while information about the Arizona School Choice Trust can be found at www.asct.org.

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