California’s toe in the water on school “vouchers”?

Editor’s note: Progress in the parental school choice movement is measured not only by big gains in states like Indiana and Louisiana, but by the flurry of incremental developments in more states every year. Peter Hanley, executive director of the California-based American Center for School Choice, offers a look at encouraging developments in his home state.

California has the nation’s largest charter school program, with 982 charter schools serving 412,000 students. But with nearly a two-thirds Democratic legislature heavily influenced by the California Teachers Association, tax credit scholarships or vouchers have been entirely off the table. In fact, charter schools’ flexibility is under near constant attack. Now, though, two legislators have introduced innovative approaches that address a unique feature in California’s constitution and attempt to bring educational tax credits to the state.

Unlike any other state, California has a voter-initiated constitutional amendment (Prop. 98) that sets a floor on the percent of general fund monies that must be spent on education. Anything that removes money from the general fund will instantly trigger the public education coalition to oppose it. So these legislators, one Democrat and one Republican, have proposed models that benefit both public and private schools.

Senate Bill 1542, introduced by Democratic Sen. Gloria Negrete McCloud, provides individual and corporate tax credits to Local Educational Advancement Program (LEAP) organizations. They will assist K-12 students from families with demonstrated financial needs to receive critical services before or after school, on weekends, or during the summer. SB 1542 precisely aims to ensure academic services – such as diagnostic evaluations, tutoring, summer school, and college and career planning and counseling – that have been heavily damaged by the extraordinary recession California has experienced since 2008. Although many more fortunate families in the state continue to be able to provide such services for their children, those with low and moderate incomes cannot and are disproportionately suffering. Children from public and private schools would be eligible for these services.

The Senate Governance and Finance Committee is expected to hold a hearing on this bill within the next few weeks. The future likely depends on whether it can be fit into the state’s budget, with questions now revolving around whether both individuals and corporations will be eligible for the credit, how large the credit will be, and whether it will be a straight credit or a percentage of a donation. Notably, the committee has not raised any objections about private school participation.

Assembly Bill 2582, sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Brian Nestande, takes a more traditional approach.

It proposes an individual and corporate tax credit program for tuition support to low- and moderate-income families provided through scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). It balances that with tax credits that can be claimed for contributions to public schools to support co-curricular activities (art, athletics, community service, and academic clubs) and STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Again, these are programs that have suffered significantly as California’s education budget has been reduced.

The corporate tax credit, which could be up to $300,000 under the proposal, would go to districts under the most financial stress, generally those in low-income communities. The price tag on the initial proposal – $1 billion divided equally between public and private schools – is too high to be passed. But the bill will be heard before a committee this year with action possible next year.

The fact that this legislation has even begun a journey through the California legislature is progress. It still has long way to go. But by offering help to public schools as well as private schools, it could pick up some supporters.

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BY Peter H. Hanley

Peter H. Hanley is director of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, the successor to the American Center for School Choice. The Center remains dedicated to bringing school choice to the center of the political spectrum since Peter led the merger in June 2015. He successfully created the national Commission on Faith-based Schools, which continues at Discovery, to improve the understanding of the important part these schools have in American education and the need for expanding public support for parental choice. In addition, he is the board president of a charter management organization with schools in Oakland and Richmond, California, sits on a Waldorf-inspired charter school board in Oakland, and is in his fourth term as an elected board member in San Mateo, California.