The Virginia Senate voted narrowly Friday to give tax credits to those who donate private- and parochial-school tuition to poor, middle-class and disabled students, a move that Republicans said would change lives for the better but that Democrats warned would undermine public education.
After a prolonged and passionate debate, the evenly divided Senate split 20-20 on the measure, with Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) breaking the tie with a vote in favor.
Republicans urged passage by sharing personal stories about people — parents, a wife, themselves — whose lives had been transformed by the chance to get a good education.
Sen. Dick Black (R-Loudoun) recalled how his wife, born to poor, uneducated parents, went from lagging student to spelling-bee runner-up once she had the opportunity to attend parochial school. She went on to earn a college degree and an MBA, graduating second in her business school class, he said.
“What we’re talking about is hope for poor children,” he said.
Democrats agreed that education was the way to lift children out of poverty, but they said the measure would hurt public schools by siphoning off students and the dollars attached to them.
Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) noted that her four grandparents grew up very poor but “all rose to the upper middle class” because they’d had access to good public schools.
“Now what we’re doing is diluting the funding for public education that’s available to every child and putting that into private education,” Howell said. “If this were a sincere effort to help children, there would be tax credits as well for corporate giving to foundations [that benefit] public schools, but that’s not the case.”
The bill, proposed by Sen. Bill Stanley (R-Franklin), provides a state tax credit to individuals and businesses donating to nonprofit organizations that supply scholarships to elementary- and secondary-school students.
Eligible students would come from low- and middle-income families. Democrats complained on the floor that the family income limit goes all the way up to $70,000 a year.
The tax credit would reimburse donors for 65 percent of the money given. Some critics of the bill noted that tax deductions are already available for charitable giving of that sort.
The program is capped at $25 million year. The tax credit would expire in 2017, although Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw(D-Fairfax) said he was so sure it would never sunset that he promised to parachute off the Capitol if did.
A similar bill has passed the House of Delegates. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) strongly supports the bill and will sign it into law.
“While I continue to be a strong supporter of public education in Virginia, no child should feel trapped in a public school system that is not meeting their educational needs simply because their family does not have the money to send them to a private or parochial school,” Bolling said in a prepared statement. “By making these educational opportunities more available to students in low- and middle-income families, we will make certain that these children can get the education they need to succeed in life.”