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Catholics backing school-choice initiative in Missouri

Updated: 2013-10-14T05:06:53Z

By DAVID A. LIEB

The Associated Press

— Entities affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church have contributed more than $300,000 toward a Missouri ballot initiative that would authorize state tax credits benefiting private schools.

A committee called Missourians for Children’s Education was established last week to finance a campaign for the ballot initiative, according to records at the state Ethics Commission. It was launched with a $300,000 contribution from the Archdiocese of St. Louis and more than $11,000 from the Missouri Catholic Conference.

The church’s financial backing is being paired with an effort to mobilize members to help gather the thousands of petitions needed to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the November 2014 ballot, said George Kerry, the legislative consultant to Archbishop Robert Carlson.

“The cost of education, the tuition, has become a real obstacle for parents in order to continue the enrollment of their children in Catholic schools today,” Kerry said. He added: “We believe this would very much help to stabilize enrollment — and hopefully to grow enrollment — within the Catholic and private schools.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis has 148 schools with about 49,000 students enrolled in grades K-12 in the city of St. Louis and 10 eastern Missouri counties, Kerry said.

The ballot initiative, which was approved for circulation last month, would allow a 50 percent tax credit for businesses and individuals who donate to nonprofit organizations that benefit schools. The groups could offer scholarships for children to attend parochial and private schools or provide financial aid for programs in public school districts.

The measure would allow up to $90 million of state tax credits to be claimed annually, an amount that would be adjusted yearly to keep pace with inflation. Half of those tax credits would be allotted for donations to organizations that benefit public school districts, 40 percent would be reserved for contributions benefiting private and parochial schools and 10 percent would go to support special education programs in either public or private schools.

Supporters of school-choice measures have failed repeatedly to get similar proposals through the Missouri legislature. Among the bills that failed this year was a less expansive proposal to create a tax-credit-scholarship program only for students in unaccredited public school districts.

Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill this year that authorizes scholarships for special-needs children to get services at private facilities or other public schools. But it’s to be financed through grants or donations, not subsidized with state tax credits.

The Missouri National Education Association, which represents teachers, generally has opposed efforts to use state money or tax credits to help students attend private schools.

Association lobbyist Otto Fajen said there was no organized opposition yet to the newly proposed ballot initiative. But that may be coming.

“Public investment of whatever form for education should primarily flow to public schools, because those are the schools that are accountable for standards imposed by the state,” Fajen said.

Missouri provides more than $3 billion annually in basic aid to public school districts. But that’s roughly $600 million short of what’s called for under a 2005 school funding law.

Follow David A. Lieb at: http://www.twitter.com/DavidALieb

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