Roman Catholic leaders and Missouri public school officials are butting heads over a potential constitutional amendment that would allow tax credit scholarships to benefit private education.
Thousands of signatures are being collected in Catholic parishes across Missouri to go to voters in November with an initiative that would give tax credits to anyone who donates to foundations that support public or private schools.
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The measure, called the Children’s Education Initiative, would set up a $90 million tax credit program intended to leverage private donations to public and private school foundations. Donors would get a 50 percent tax credit for giving to a nonprofit organization that supports private or public schools, including special education programs.
“Our intent on this was to cover all levels of education in the state of Missouri,” said George Kerry, legislative consultant to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson.
The tax credit program bears some similarities to proposals that school choice proponents have pushed unsuccessfully in the Legislature. As more Catholic and Lutheran schools lose students and close their doors, leaders from both denominations have looked to Jefferson City for a change in public policy that could help stem the loss.
Among the bills that failed in 2013 was a narrower proposal to establish a tax credit scholarship program for students living in unaccredited public school districts, such as Normandy and Riverview Gardens in north St. Louis County.
But unlike previous attempts, the Children’s Education Initiative would give the largest portion of the tax credits — 50 percent of them — to those who contribute to school district foundations, in hopes of winning over public school supporters. Forty percent of the credits would benefit private schools. The rest would go to special education.
Increasingly, public schools are turning to private fundraising though district foundations to help make ends meet. Charter schools frequently solicit donations through nonprofit foundations. St. Louis Public Schools has one, as do the Ladue and Kirkwood school districts.
Nevertheless, the Missouri Association of School Administrators calls the proposed initiative harmful. The group is urging people to not sign the petitions. According to the association’s website, the initiative would redirect $90 million away from the state’s general revenue fund “when those resources could be used to help fund the state’s foundation formula that is underfunded by nearly $600 million,” it says.
“Our big issue with this as far as public schools, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer,” Roger Kurtz, the association’s executive director, said. Many rural and low-income school district’s don’t have foundations, he said, adding that the initiative would produce a different funding distribution formula.
The initiative would also give the education commissioner authority to determine which foundations get a tax credit and which don’t if the demand for credits exceeds the number available.
“That is a legitimate concern,” Kurtz said.
The proposed initiative was filed with the Secretary of State’s office last fall by Barbara Swanson, a former assistant superintendent of Catholic schools in the Jefferson City Archdiocese.
The largest financial backer is the Catholic Church itself. In October, the Archdiocese of St. Louis gave $300,000 to help Missourians for Children’s Education get off the ground and mobilize the signature collection efforts, according to a Missouri Ethics Commission filing.
School leaders in the Archdiocese have been working for years on ways to expand scholarship opportunities and stabilize enrollment. The Archdiocese has 148 elementary and secondary schools in the city of St. Louis and 10 eastern Missouri counties, with about 49,000 students. Enrollment has been on the decline for more than a decade.
“It would help the mission of the Archbishop in terms of stabilizing and hopefully expanding Catholic education,” Kerry said. But, he stressed, “This is not just a Catholic or Lutheran effort. It’s intended to improve all education.”
About 85,000 signatures have been collected so far, Kerry said, adding that about 225,000 signatures must be collected by May 4. Kerry said he was more hopeful of winning over parents than legislators. But James Shuls, director of education policy for the Show-Me Institute, said success would require a lot of hard work.
“It will be an uphill battle to get this on the ballot,” said Shuls, who supports efforts to broaden school choice. “When you have the education establishment coming out and saying this isn’t good for children, you’ve got an uphill fight.”