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Tax credits for private-school scholarships shot down by Virginia Senate committee

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:40 PM

RICHMOND - The Virginia Senate's Finance Committee, after hearing emotional testimony from students and educators, voted along party lines Tuesday to kill a measure that would have given businesses tax credits for funding private-school tuition for needy students.

The bill, sponsored by Del. James P. Massie III (R-Henrico), would have given businesses that donated to nonprofits providing scholarships for private schools a tax credit worth 70 percent of the value of the donations. The scholarships would have gone to indigent children whose family incomes qualified them for the federal reduced-price or free lunch program.

Each scholarship could have provided up to the equivalent of local school aid, which ranges between $1,300 to $6,700 across the state. The total available tax deductions would have been capped at $25 million.

Supporters, including the Family Foundation, the Virginia Catholic Conference, the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools and several corporations, said the bill would let indigent students escape failing schools in districts such as Norfolk, Petersburg and Richmond.

Brijet Left-Samms, 17, of Chesterfield said she escaped dysfunction and violence at her public school by attending Elijah House Academy for six years. Left-Samms, a student in the 11th grade with a 4.0 GPA, told the panel she appreciates the Christian teachings, high academic standards and individualized attention at the academy.

"Growing up in a foster-care system is not always easy, but I was given help and opportunity, and I believe every student could have the same experience should they be given the same chance and opportunity," she said.

Pointing to the results of a similar program in Florida, Massie said that the measure would save the commonwealth money. Massie said multiple studies showed that Florida saved $36 million a year while sending 33,000 students - 75 percent of whom were minorities - to private schools. At least 9,000 more were on a waiting list.

He said a Florida Department of Education study found that the students' test scores improved after entering private schools.

Massie also said that when Florida's legislature first undertook the program in 2001, only one Democrat voted for it. In 2010, Florida voted to expand the system, and nearly half the state's Democrats backed the measure - including the entire caucus of Latino representatives and 10 of 17 black caucus members, Massie said.

Opponents, who characterized the measure as an attempt to create a school vouchers program, said Virginia had no business giving tax breaks to subsidize private schools while the state continues to reduce K-12 funding.

The Virginia Education Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents and the Virginia School Boards Association opposed to the bill.

"We can't afford it," said Rob Jones, director of the government relations and research for the Virginia Education Association. "Your constitutional responsibility is to fund the public schools."

Others noted that Virginia ranks 38th in spending on its schools - and that Florida ranks lower, at 41st. And the House of Delegates's budget, if approved, would cut more funding to Virginia's public schools, critics said.

The GOP-led House passed the bill Feb. 8 by a vote of 54 to 45, with three Democrats in favor. The Democratic-led Senate Finance Committee voted to let the bill die on a 9 to 6 vote.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said in a written statement, "Once again, Democrats in the Senate have unfortunately voted against innovative education reforms that would increase educational opportunities for Virginia's underprivileged children, and have instead decided to side with special interest groups and unions."

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