Advocates push for Tax Credit expansion to benefit private schools

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PROVIDENCE — When the time came to pay tuition for her son at St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket earlier this year, Jan Vargas was starting to fall behind.

Vargas is a newly single mother whose income as a receptionist and part-time office worker isn’t enough to cover what she owed for tuition, even after financial aid was factored in.

Her son, Jordan Severino, is in his third year at St. Ray’s. An honors student who runs track and is on the drama team, Jordan is hoping to go college to study computer science. Vargas says she decided to send her son to a Catholic school because he had always tested at a higher level in school. She was worried that he would lose interest in his studies if he wasn’t challenged in class.

In previous years, Vargas had help from Jordan’s father. But now, in the wake of a divorce, she is on her own — providing not just for her teenage son, but also her younger daughter and elderly mother who lives with them in an apartment in Providence.

“I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen,” Vargas said.

Then she noticed additional funds from a scholarship had been deposited in her son’s account at the school. “You couldn’t imagine the relief that I felt,” Vargas said.

That scholarship was made possible through a state-run program that allows corporations to receive a tax credit in exchange for donations towards scholarships for students. This year, advocates for the program are pushing for its expansion to help more students like Jordan and their parents.

In the current school year, the program steered $300,000 in scholarships to 223 students at Catholic schools from the kindergarten to high school level across Rhode Island, according to Ed Bastia, the business administrator for the Catholic School Office at the diocese. A total of 405 students benefitted that year, including those who attended other religious or private schools, according to Bastia.

The program is geared towards lower-income families. To be eligible, household income must be at 250 percent or less of the federal poverty level which, for a family of four, is currently $25,100.

The program is presently capped at $1.5 million. Bastia and other advocates for school choice are hoping the General Assembly will approve a bill boosting the amount up to $5 million. The House version of the bill was scheduled at press time to come before a hearing of the House Finance Committee earlier this week.

Bastia said the diocese needs an expansion because it is currently able to meet only 10 percent of up to $25 million needed by local families to send their children to Catholic schools. Plus, more businesses are interested than tax credits are available, according to Bastia.

Sheila Konis, the director of Rhode Island Families for School Choice, said the program empowers parents, enabling them to send their children to the best schools when local public schools may not be adequate. “They’re your kids. It should be your choice as to where they go to school. Your ZIP code should not determine your child’s education,” Konis said.

The program was created under Governor Don Carcieri in 2006 at a $1 million cap. It was modeled on similar programs in the states of Florida, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, according to Bastia. In 2013, under Governor Lincoln Chafee, it was extended to $1.5 million.

“Increasing the cap to 5 million dollars is an extremely modest increase and to put it in perspective there are about 18 other states that have this type of program and Rhode Island has the lowest cap of any program out there and would still be one of the lowest even with the increase,” said Matt Fitzgerald, the president of the Rhode Island Catholic School Parent Federation.

For example, Fitzgerald noted that Georgia’s program has a $58 million cap and aids 13,600 students. Virginia allocates $25 million to benefit 3,281 children, he added.

“Rhode Island can do better than helping only 405 students. The legislation is important to us since the higher the budget cap, the higher the pool of available money to help ensure parents can select a Catholic school as the best educational environment for their children,” Fitzgerald said.

But supporters are running up against concerns over a rising state deficit, which was $60 million this year and is forecast to grow to $200 million next year, according to Rep. Robert Lancia, R-Cranston, an ordained Baptist minister who is the prime sponsor of the House version of the bill, H-7055.

He said the House fiscal staff had produced an estimate of the fiscal cost of the bill that showed the state losing money. Had it been implemented in the current year, the estimate says the state would have lost $1.7 million in revenue. That figure would approximately double in the second year.

In theory, the state would lose money because the tax credits means it receives less in revenue. However, Bastia says that taxpayers save money overall because Catholic schools educate students at a lower cost than public schools. In some cases, particularly at the lower grade levels, he said parochial schools could enroll three students for the price of one at a public school. An analysis he provided shows a savings of $5.2 million in the 2016-2017 school year.

Lancia says he has introduced bills to find savings elsewhere in the budget. One would institute an Inspector General program, to investigate wasteful spending. A second proposal would institute zero-based budgeting, requiring departments to justify every dollar spent in their individual budgets, rather than receiving funding based simply how much had been allocated to them in the previous year. Also, the bill does not subtract any funding from the state education budget, Lancia added.

Lancia notes the program helps religious schools at a time when church attendance is on the decline. He says those schools are a place where students are taught moral values. “They offer that element that’s needed,” Lancia said.

Lancia and Bastia noted that a number of those who benefit are from the Latino community in Rhode Island.

Ultimately, supporters note that the bill benefits not just students but businesses as well. “It’s a win-win,” Konis said.

She expressed optimism that this bill, which has been proposed before, would pass this year. Part of her excitement is stemming from the fact that it’s the first time there has been a companion bill in the state Senate, S-2655, which is sponsored by Elaine Morgan, a Republican who represents Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond and West Greenwich.

Advocates for the tax credit program are urging families who support it to contact their legislators. They can do so by visiting www.edchoiceri.org and clicking on the blue button on the front page that says “Contact Your Legislators.” That will open a page that will allow supporters to send a message to lawmakers.

Since 2013, supporters of the program have made a number of unsuccessful attempts to raise the cap. One more ambitious plan was to institute vouchers. Now supporters are hoping for success with a more incremental approach.

“From what we’ve learned, you have to ask small,” Konis said.