Local Catholic school officials are excited about the Children’s Education Initiative (CEI) and how it could benefit students in both private and public schools.
However, public school leaders across the state are worried the initiative would reduce the amount of state revenue to fund public schools.
Thousands of signatures are currently being collected in Catholic parishes across Missouri to go to voters in November with an initiative that would give tax credits to anyone who donates to foundations that support public or private schools.
The proposed constitutional amendment would allow tax credit scholarships to benefit private education.
The Children’s Education Initiative would set up a $90 million tax credit program intended to leverage private donations to public and private school foundations. Donors would get a 50 percent tax credit for giving to a nonprofit organization that supports private or public schools, including special education programs.
Under the CEI, any person donating to an educational foundation would be given a state income tax credit for 50 percent of that dollar amount. For example, a person giving $500 would receive a $250 credit applied against their Missouri tax liability.
Supporters say the measure does not hurt public schools because it would give the largest portion of the tax credits — 50 percent of them — to those who contribute to public school district foundations.
Forty percent of the credits would benefit private schools. The rest would go to special education.
More public schools are turning to private fund-raising though district foundations to help make ends meet. Charter schools also frequently solicit donations through nonprofit foundations.
Fr. Mike Boehm, Our Lady of Lourdes pastor and school administrator, said the initiative has the potential to make a huge difference in all branches of education — public, private and special.
“The funds are coming from a new source of income, donations to nonprofit foundations, which will be used to enhance and supplement other funding that schools rely on so much,” Father Mike said.
“We have a unique opportunity to make a difference here and work together,” he added. “I think it’s a great opportunity for public, private and special education leaders to stand up together and support one another to improve all aspects of education — what an opportunity we have before us.”
Kevin Mabie, principal at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, said the Children’s Education Initiative is about creating true choice.
“If I choose to send my son or daughter to a private school, I would like it to be because I have chosen the benefits of that private school over the benefits of the public school,” he said. “My choice should not be limited by my financial means.”
Mabie noted he spent 12 years in public education before spending the past two in private.
“After experiencing both, I can see that both systems offer benefits to the families who choose them,” he said. “However, the current system that gives no tax credit to families who choose private schools creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ philosophy that suggests that choosing one is a vote against the other.”
Mabie said the initiative will allow the choice to be more about the school than the affordability of one option compared to another.
“And it should be noted, the Children’s Education Initiative will help public schools, too,” he said. “Families of public school students sometimes pour thousands of dollars into programming. The CEI will allow for those gifts to earn a tax credit, as well.”
George Kerry, legislative consultant to St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, said the intent of the initiative is to cover all levels of education in the state of Missouri.
Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said public school advocates would rather see the state fully fund public education, rather than provide another tax credit program since Missouri already offers more tax credits than any other state.
“The state foundation formula is already underfunded by $600 million, which is why this new initiative just doesn’t sit well with public school supporters,” VanLeer explained.
“My biggest concern centers around inequity,” she said. “Those who are able to contribute to educational foundations are those blessed with the ability to do so. Those are the folks that benefit from a tax credit.
“To further complicate that matter, the school foundation formula or state funding is supposed to provide assurance that equity exists in schools, that it’s not about the haves and the have nots,” she added. “If we can’t fund the foundation formula currently, how can we expect to by instituting more tax credits?”
VanLeer said the initiative provides for a federal charitable contribution write-off and a tax credit.
“To me it’s all relative — if the state can’t fund schools, taxpayers pick up the slack,” she said. “The initiative certainly has pros and cons and I don’t want it to create any strain on our working relationships within the school community of Washington.”
The Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA) calls the proposed initiative harmful. That group and NEA (National Education Association) are urging people not to sign the petitions.
According to the MASA’s website, the initiative would redirect $90 million away from the state’s general revenue fund “when those resources could be used to help fund the state’s foundation formula that is underfunded by nearly $600 million.”
NEA says the initiative will inflict great damage on public school funding, and would eliminate the state constitutional ban on using taxpayer funds to support private or parochial elementary or secondary schools.
Supporters point out that general revenue for the state totals about $8.28 billion annually, and the $90 million allocated for the Children’s Education Initiative is only 1.08 percent of general revenue.
They also said if the $90 million went instead into general revenue, public schools would get 35 percent of funds (based on the current percentage of general revenue funds allocated to public schools) and under the proposed program, public schools are allocated 50 percent of funds.
Proponents also said many public schools have nonprofit foundations that can participate and if not, could easily establish one.
School leaders in the Archdiocese have been working for years on ways to expand scholarship opportunities and stabilize enrollment. The Archdiocese has 148 elementary and secondary schools in the city of St. Louis and 10 eastern Missouri counties, with about 49,000 students. Enrollment has been on the decline for more than a decade.
“It would help the mission of the Archbishop in terms of stabilizing and hopefully expanding Catholic education,” Kerry said. But, he stressed, “This is not just a Catholic or Lutheran effort. It’s intended to improve all education.”
Approximately 250,000 signatures must be collected by May 4 to get the initiative on the ballot.