PROVIDENCE — Supporters of a program that allows corporations to receive tax credits for donations towards private school scholarships turned out at a hearing at the Rhode Island House Finance Committee last week to ask lawmakers to expand the amount available in credits.
Currently, about $1.5 million is set aside for the credits, assisting a little over 400 children from minority and lower income families to attend private schools, including Catholic institutions. Backers of the program are pushing to expand the cap to $5 million through a bill sponsored by Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston.
The program benefits families whose household incomes are at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That comes out to a maximum of $61,500 for a family of four, according to Sheila Konis, the director of Rhode Island Families for School Choice.
“Our organization is not against public education if it is the right fit for the child, but in our most economically disadvantaged areas, graduation rates are below the state average,” Konis said. “For example, Providence’s graduation rate is 75 percent, Woonsocket’s is 64 percent and Central Falls’ rate is 70 percent, which fell from 81 percent just in the last year. This shows … more than ever the need to increase the cap to provide a quality education for the other 30 to 40 percent of students who were in a school that was not the right fit for them.”
“National studies provided by Edchoice.org, formerly known as the Friedman Foundation, and many other national study groups demonstrate that underprivileged students excel when the opportunity to enroll in the school of their choice is provided. The cap should be raised for these students who seek this educational opportunity,” added Ed Bastia, the business administrator for the Catholic School Office at the diocese.
In the current school year, 223 Catholic school students benefitted from the program, according to figures Bastia provided to the Rhode Island Catholic.
In his testimony, Lancia suggested that the program is particularly important to help Latino students in the state. The tax credits do that without subtracting any funding from the state budget for education, Lancia said.
In fact, according to Bastia, the program saves taxpayers money. Since 405 students were enrolled in private schools last year that means that there were 405 fewer students that public schools needed to educate. “Using the State provided average cost per pupil published by the Rhode Island Department of Education in the same year, the tax credit program provided an equivalent of $5.2 million in educational cost reductions,” Bastia said.
Lancia, who is an ordained Baptist minister, said helping religious schools is also important because they are a source of moral values.
One parent whose two children received tax credit-funded scholarships agreed. Sandra Olivo Peterson said she and her husband ended up sending her son Darien to the Bishop McVinney Catholic Elementary School in Providence after public school authorities told her he was too young — by three days — to start in kindergarten. Now her daughter attends Bishop McVinney.
“Bishop McVinney’s culture is about caring and respect and this is the main reason why we fought to keep our children in this school,” Peterson said. She added: “We prefer to keep our children in a Catholic school community because it prepares students to become kind and educated citizens.”
Peterson expressed gratitude to the diocese for helping to provide funding to her and her husband, both working parents. “Every penny counts in our family,” she said. “And every dollar that has been given to us by the diocese has always been appreciated.”
Other Christian schools and Jewish institutions also can participate in the tax credit program. One supporter who testified was Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, the dean at the Providence Hebrew Day School.
“Parents should not have to send a child to a school based on ZIP code,” Rabbi Scheinerman said.
He said the program is good for both businesses and families.
“Tax credits are an incentive for Rhode Island businesses to remain in Rhode Island. We have heard testimony this evening about Rhode Island having the reputation of being business unfriendly,” Scheinerman said, according to a written copy of his remarks. “The hundreds of struggling families who send their children to our school thanks to the scholarship program, are grateful to the many donors who have contributed.”
One the business side, one argument in favor of expanding the program is the number of businesses who are interested in contributing but cannot due to the $1.5 million cap.
“In 2017, 130 corporations applied, but only 15 were selected. This very limited availability of corporate tax credits is very disappointing to local business owners. The cap should be raised to provide a more friendly business climate in the state of Rhode Island,” Bastia said.
Compared to other states, the increase from $1.5 million to $5 million would be quite small, according to Matt Fitzgerald, the president of the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation.
Georgia, for example, allocates $58 million to a similar program in its state, aiding 13,600 children. Florida is even larger, with $698 million tax credits funding scholarships for some 106,958 students, according to Fitzgerald.
Even a modest increase would have a “huge impact” for local children, Fitzgerald said. “It’s ultimately the children we’re helping, so please consider that as you hopefully support the bill,” Fitzgerald said.