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Considering scholarship tax credits with an open mind

Right now, we have a dire need for targeted strategies to address the achievement and opportunity gaps in Minnesota; this policy aims directly at that.

Nathan Strenge

As a current Minnesota teacher with experience in both private and public schools, I feel compelled to weigh in on the scholarship tax credit legislation currently being considered.

At my core I am a champion for public education. I believe public education can be the great equalizer, giving every young person – no matter his or her circumstances – the opportunity for a life-impacting education. I truly believe it will be innovations made within public schools that will ultimately give all children the education they deserve. I will spend my entire career working to drive these innovations and help public education meet the needs of its vast and diverse student body. I feel it important to start here, because often we assign motives to ideas we find controversial. Rather than engaging in substantive conversation, we make assumptions that create a caricature of dissenting viewpoints. In this context, it is vital we understand the problem scholarship tax credits aim to impact, and why they should be considered with an open mind.  

Our reality: achievement and opportunity gaps

Right now in Minnesota, we must face the reality of our achievement and opportunity gaps head on. The need for targeted strategies to address inequity has never been more pressing. There are myriad factors that explain why we continue to see discouraging educational results for students from low-income families and students of color, and not all can be attributed to schools. Even so, the school a child attends has an enormous impact on his or her future, so making sure the mission and culture of the school fits what each child needs is vitally important.

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There is simply no blanket statement that adequately describes what type of school is best for every student. I have taught in three very different school models — traditional district, arts-focused charter, and independent – and each one serves a unique purpose and inspires students differently. This is not to say all of our schools are effective; sadly, we have too many schools that are not meeting the needs of large swaths of students. The inability of schools to innovate away from the passive industrial model cripples student engagement and often leaves youngsters feeling like their education is a mandatory sentence rather than a purposeful learning experience. It should be the intention of every education stakeholder to push for more active and relevant school environments.

Enter the scholarship tax credit. This policy aims to create tax incentives for Minnesotans to contribute to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships for our most vulnerable students to have equitable school choice. With a rich history of independent schools and pioneers in the charter world, we as Minnesotans have long held choice as an integral component of our education ecosystem. The idea of sponsored scholarships is not new, and the results are excellent. Take a look at Cristo Rey in Minneapolis for an example of sponsored scholarships done well. The most important component of this, educationally speaking, is getting students to buy in to their own education. When students see the purpose of learning and are supported in a stimulating environment, every child will be successful.

Schools shouldn’t feel entitled to students

A common argument against scholarship tax credits labels them as an assault on public education. I feel this viewpoint is misguided. Fiscally, the tax subsidies do not draw from education funding; the allocated state money designated for public education therefore is not negatively affected, as many would lead you to believe. While public schools are financially supported largely by per-pupil funding, no institution should feel entitled to students. Arguments that schools “lose” funding when students go elsewhere are troubling, and this entitlement breeds complacency. Because of this, it is not a stretch to imagine scholarship tax credits indirectly incentivizing schools to innovate and explore better learning models.  

Policy-wise, there may be ways to improve the language of the proposed bill on scholarship tax credits; perhaps independent schools choose to opt-in by giving a nationally or state-normed assessment. That can be debated, but the urgency of the situation to address inequity cannot. Though tax-credit dollars are not pulled from education, we should be diligent to ensure any public money is applied purposefully.

Right now, we have a dire need for targeted strategies to address the achievement and opportunity gaps in Minnesota; this policy aims directly at that. It is time our education decisions prioritize students over institutions, equity over entitlements, and innovation over inaction. Simply considering this with an open mind without vilifying its champions is a start.   

Nathan Strenge now teaches math at the International School of Minnesota. He has won Solution Tree’s national Redefining Excellence in the Classroom Award and has been nominated for Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.


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