School representatives seek to increase corporate tax credit scholarship program

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PROVIDENCE — The House Finance Committee heard testimony on May 23 on legislation that would expand the state corporate tax credit scholarship program, increasing the amount of scholarship funds available to Catholic and other private school students in financial need.

Rep. Robert Lancia (R-Cranston) sponsored the bill, which would increase the total amount of available tax credits from $1.5 million per year to $5 million beginning in fiscal year 2018. The legislation also provides for an increase of 15 percent following any year in which applications for the program exceed the limit by at least 10 percent.

“That would provide a lot more money to the scholarship-granting organizations to disperse to kids across that state that need it,” said Sheila Konis, a former president of the RI Catholic School Parents Federation and former director of RI Families for School Choice, prior to the committee hearing. “I believe it’s going to help sustain the Catholic schools we have.”

The corporate tax credit scholarship program, introduced in 2006, allows participating businesses to apply for a state tax credit in exchange for donating to one of six scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) that support K–12 students who meet certain financial requirements in the state’s religious and independent schools. Donations intended for students at Rhode Island’s Catholic schools are distributed through Financial Aid for Children’s Education (FACE of RI), an SGO administered by the diocesan Catholic School Office.

According to Edward Bastia, business administrator for the Catholic School Office, demand from both companies and schools has far exceeded the financial limit of the program since its creation, with only 22 of the 107 businesses that applied last year selected to participate. Increasing the limit on the program would increase the number of businesses that are able to participate, therefore increasing the scholarship funds available to SGOs and students of their member schools.

“If the cap gets raised, we’re able to address students at that level which we were not able to do before,” he said. “We should have a lot of support because our diocesan money would go further.”

Sister Maria Francesca Wiley, principal of St. Pius V School, Providence, offered written testimony in a letter addressed to Committee Chairman Rep. Marvin Abney. Citing the benefits of a Catholic education for families who are able to choose this option for their children, Sister Wiley encouraged lawmakers to enable more students to attend private schools by increasing the tax credit limit.

“Forty percent of our students depend on partial scholarships to attend St. Pius V by receiving assistance from our school and from the Diocese of Providence,” she wrote. “Raising the cap for the education tax credits will enable the diocese to provide more tuition assistance to allow more needy students to attend Catholic schools like St. Pius V School.”

Representatives of other private and independent schools throughout the state also offered testimony on the effects of the program, including Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, dean of Providence Hebrew Day School, who spoke with Rhode Island Catholic prior to the hearing. Rabbi Scheinerman expressed concern about the effects of rising tuition on families and the possibility of large numbers of families leaving the state to relocate to areas with greater legislative support for non-public education.

“We all face insurmountable challenges of the tuition crisis. We’re finding families moving as far west as Ohio to places with tuition tax credits,” he said. “Probably at least five to 10 families have moved to Cleveland, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, Wisconsin, found new jobs and transplanted their families because tuition wasn’t affordable.”

Rabbi Scheinerman also expressed concern about the selection process for the program, which administers a lottery to allocate tax credits to selected companies every July. Due to the large number of applications, SGOs and the schools they serve are unable to determine the amount of scholarship funds they will receive from the program until after the lottery.

“We just never know what to allocate, so just from a budgeting perspective it’s a nightmare,” he said.

Though the legislation was held for further study, Bastia said the opportunity for parents and school representatives to voice their concerns before the committee was a positive step toward raising awareness of the program and increasing support for it in the General Assembly.

“We’ve never been to this point yet. We’ve never had a bill in the House or in the Senate to raise the cap, so this is a step in the right direction,” he said.