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‘We’ll fight for this one’: Gazelka says bill creating tax credits for private school scholarships is a GOP priority

Chamberlain, Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain speaking at a Tuesday press conference as Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, right, looks on.

A proposal at the core of the differing education policies favored by Minnesota Republicans and DFLers might end up on the table for end-of-session negotiations between Gov. Tim Walz and Senate majority Republicans.

The bill is called the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act, and it would allow donations to scholarship foundations to be credited against state income taxes. The foundations would use the money to give private school scholarships to low- and middle-income students.

It is a version of private school vouchers and tax credits that have been used in other states (and to some extent in Minnesota) that have often raise constitutional questions, though the bill’s chief supporter believes the structure of the proposal would allow the program to pass muster with the courts.

A bigger question may be whether it will pass muster with the DFL House majority or the state’s public school teacher in chief, Gov. Tim Walz.

Probably not. Which is why Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka raised the idea of the proposal potentially being part of the back-and-forth that has become an end-of-session ritual in recent years: “Certainly the governor has a lot of proposals that we have not been agreeable to,” he said. “Negotiations at the end are a bit of give and take and this is a high priority for us.”

“We’ll fight for this one,” Gazelka said. “We think it matters for kids in Minnesota.”

How it would work

Providing alternatives to traditional schools and enhancing public school accountability are two central tenets of GOP education policy. In talking about the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act  at a press conferenceTuesday, Gazelka pointed to achievement gaps between white students and student of color as a reason to try something different. “I’m willing to do something different to get different results,” the Nisswa Republican said. “Over the past eight years we’ve spent a lot of money doing the same things that we’ve always been doing, with no different results. This bill is a tool that I’m convinced will work.”

Here’s how it would operate: Individuals and corporations could contribute to scholarship foundations, which would have to be registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. Donors could then claim a state tax credit of 70 percent of the amount given. As a credit, the money is deducted from taxes owed.

The bill caps how much individuals and corporations could give: $30,000 for a married couple filing jointly, and $150,000 for a corporation. The total amount that could be claimed statewide is $35 million.

The foundations would take applications from families and make decisions on whether the applicants were eligible based on the income standards in the bill; that is, families could have incomes twice what they would have to qualify for free or reduced price lunches. For a family of four, that would be up to $93,000 a year. The parents, not the foundation, would decide where to use the scholarships.

Minnesota already has tax deductions and tax credits related to K-12 costs, some of which apply to private school costs. None are as generous as the opportunity scholarship bill would be, however.

‘It will not happen’

Gov. Tim Walz was asked about the bill after his transportation pitch in Anoka Tuesday and he was not enamored of the idea. “I know this is an ideological issue for them,” Walz said. But, he added, “It will not happen. I certainly am not going to move a big chunk of the education funding into private entities, not even going to the parents of these students.”

A hearing on the bill on Tuesday showed just how far it is from where DFL constituencies are. Two public school teachers and the state school boards association opposed the measure — not because of the details but because of the fundamentals. “Before you give a tax break to corporations and rich individuals who donate to the schools of their choosing, you should first tax them so you can fund all schools,” said Melanie Olson, a teacher from Buffalo.

Another teacher, Ron Hustved, from Elk River, said private schools don’t have to meet the standards or the accountability of public schools. And Kirk Schneidawind, the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said public schools are already short-funded, especially in the area of special education. And he noted that Minnesota already has permissive school choice programs, citing the state’s homeschooling laws; charter schools; magnet schools; online offerings; post-secondary enrollment (which lets high school student earn college credits); and open enrollment (which allows students to attend schools outside their home district).  

Officials from Walz’s own Department of Revenue also spoke against the bill. Joanna Bayers, legislative director for the agency, said the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act would treat donations to scholarship foundations much more generously than donation to other charities. Charitable donations are deducted from an individual’s income before taxes are calculated, while credits are deducted from the amount of taxes owed.

Constitutional concerns?

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, the chair of the Senate Taxes committee and the prime sponsor of the bill, SF 1872, to offer corrections. Donors can’t dictate which schools benefit from a donation, and the bill requires schools receiving scholarship students to administer state or other similar norm-referenced tests and post the results on school websites.

“We are not here to blame anyone. We are not here to point fingers at anyone. This is not an either/or situation,” Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said. “It’s not public schools or nothing. It’s not private schools or nothing. It’s both/and.”

Chamberlain also referenced polling that shows support for such a program, especially among African-American and Latino respondents.

A bill to be heard Thursday would offer a similar tax credit for donations to affordable housing projects. That measure, however, caps the value of the credits at $25 million statewide. Why is that less than the scholarship program? “Education is much more important,” Chamberlain said. “These kids, these families need it. So it’s much more important.”

The bill, he said later, is meant to give low- and-middle-income families the same ability to choose private schools as better off families. He appeared with principals, parents and students from Twin Cities private schools who, wearing matching yellow scarves, are supporting the bill. “All parents need this choice,” said Sheila Young, whose son attended Ascension Catholic School in North Minneapolis and whose grandson attends now.

Benito Matias, the principal at Ascension, said he tracks high school graduation rates of his student after they leave his kindergarten-through-eighth-grade program. He said it ranges from 95 percent to 100 percent and that 95 percent of his students are what he termed “scholars of color.”

In the Taxes Committee hearing, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, raised concerns about the constitutionality of the bill: both federal and state. Minnesota’s Constitution mandates that the state make ample provision for public schools, and Minnesota is one of the states that have what is called “Blaine Amendment,” which bans the use of state money for religious schools.

Benito Matias
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Benito Matias, the principal at Ascension Catholic School in North Minneapolis, said he tracks high school graduation rates of his students. He said it ranges from 95 percent to 100 percent and that 95 percent of his students are what he termed “scholars of color.”
“I would hate to be spending money defending something that, on its face, may be unconstitutional — both by moving money from the general fund to support private school … and secondly by the religious piece.”

Chamberlain said he expects a legal challenge. But he also said he’s received legal opinions that argue the bill would be found constitutional because of its nondiscrimination and accountability requirements, and because the state wouldn’t touch the money or decide how it would be spent.

In fact, he admitted later, the political challenges may be more daunting than the legal hurdles. “I’ll be completely honest,” Chamberlain said. “It is a tough sell. But I don’t intend to give up, these parents don’t intend to give up, the kids won’t give up.”


Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 03/20/2019 - 11:14 am.

    Difficult for me to understand why investing in viable public schools is difficult for repubs.
    But then again…when you look at the tax cuts they propose, they’re generally for the wealthiest who seem to be only who they represent.

  2. Submitted by Bill Mantis on 03/20/2019 - 11:20 am.

    How about a tax credit to childless households who pay high property taxes to support the public schools we already have, which, in turn, provide a service we don’t use?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/20/2019 - 09:22 pm.

      It just slays me when I hear this short sighted idea.

      Do you ever use the services of people who are educated in public schools? You know, like the carpenters, plumbers, electricians and painter who built your domicile? Or the architect who designed it? The building official who made sure the roof wouldn’t collapse on you?

      Have you ever seen a doctor or nurse? Have you used soft ware that was written by someone educated in a public school?

      Do you drive an automobile, or ride on public transit? Do you think they may have been engineered by people who were educated in public schools? Have you ever owned an automobile that needed to be serviced?

      Do you eat food that was planted and harvested with machinery engineered and built by publicly educated people?

      Students educated in public schools today will be paying FICA taxes so you can have economic security in retirement. They may also care for you when you are old and no longer able to do that for yourself. Because if everyone stops having children today, who will fix you teeth when your 80? But hey, no school taxes would be better, I guess.

    • Submitted by Elsa Mack on 03/21/2019 - 08:14 am.

      I am also childless, but I am happy to pay taxes for public schools. I’d much rather live in a society where people get the education they need. Children grow up and they become our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers. For those of us who do not have our own children, somebody else’s child may be our caretaker when we’re getting towards the end of life. Everyone benefits from a good public school system.

    • Submitted by Leon Webster on 03/21/2019 - 09:49 am.

      My children are all grown and so I guess you could say that I no longer “use” the public schools — except that I prefer to live in an educated society, hopefully populated with folks who might have read John Donne’s Devotions, especially the one that begins “No Man is an Island”.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/21/2019 - 04:47 pm.

      Or how about we live in a democracy where tax dollars can serve a highly useful purpose. If you don’t like that, I suggest you tell your Republican legislator to give you a bigger tax cut instead of the wealthy who never pay their share.

  3. Submitted by Jim Smola on 03/20/2019 - 11:21 am.

    This is another backdoor attempt to create vouchers and undermine our public schools. I would also question the constitutionality of it. Another example of Republicans not supporting public schools and addressing the issues facing them.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/20/2019 - 11:22 am.

    Well some of us are well aware of the difference between a private education and a public school education depending on where your child goes to school, and were willing to pay the differential. The “R’s” may actually have the best interest of all folks in mind, Guess we really would like to believe that, but their record has proven otherwise. So what this really looks like is an end run to get public money funneled into religious institutions. Its that pesky first amendment that they would like to get rid of, would make all this shenaniganry unnecessary.

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/20/2019 - 11:32 am.

    This will never happen because of the power of the DFL – special interest -trickle down – government funded – education union monopoly, – and their bought and paid for politicians, that trap students in the system and refuses to empower families to have “choice.”

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 03/20/2019 - 06:18 pm.

      Except that the Republican plan would only serve a few. So if you are above the limit you don’t get the scholarship. And are they full scholarships? As it makes no sense if you can’t afford to pay the rest. And is it until the child graduates? So what if the family increases their income, do they have to go off the plan? Most schools already have private donors who contribute towards scholarships. Seems to me the Republican plan is more trickle down than the Dems. Also would these schools take special needs children, say autism and do they have the resources to educate kids with special needs. Sorry but life is not that simple.

    • Submitted by Alice Gibson on 03/20/2019 - 09:49 pm.

      Gotta admit, it’s hilarious when the trickle-down apologists start complaining about “trickle-down.”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/21/2019 - 09:06 am.

      You have every right to chose to send your children to public school. You just don’t have teh right to demand that the state help you pay for it.

      I have every right to live in a sprawling pile of a “mansion” on Lake Minnetonka. Should the state give me vouchers so I can pay for it?

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/22/2019 - 09:21 am.

        Let’s fund kids! What do you have against kids?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/22/2019 - 02:44 pm.

          Absolutely nothing! Let’s fund kids by making sure the state meets its constitutional obligation to to establish a general and uniform system of public schools, and secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

          No one is saying you don’t have the right to send your children to a private school. Send them to Blake, send them to Shattuck-St. Mary’s, send them to that “school” set up on the folding tables in the basement of your local House o’ Hossanas–it’s your call. The state, however, has no reason to finance your preference any more than it has the right to pay for your preference in food or clothes.

          Education is not an amenity for parents, nor is it just a system of vocational training for the greater glory of Minnesota business. Public education has been instituted for the benefit of the entire state, childless or not. It’s a policy determination that it is better to have an educated populace than to have an uneducated one.

  6. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 03/20/2019 - 12:32 pm.

    When private schools have to take any child who shows up like public and charter schools, then maybe. Until then, the Legislature needs to focus on public school finance, not finding ways to make life easier for private schools.

    • Submitted by stephanie snow on 03/21/2019 - 06:50 am.

      I’m with you. When they have to comply with all regulations that public schools do, have all the services for children with needs then maybe.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/20/2019 - 12:35 pm.

    Republicans love to find ways to drain the tax base. Parents in public schools spend significant dollars out of their own pockets to enhance their schools. Allocate a couple thousand dollars per student whether they are public or private, but don’t make it open ended. A tax credit for 20 very low income persons, who pay low taxes, could cost no more than one award to a family with moderate means. This proposal needs to be costed out, as it could create a huge hole in our state budget Republicans will never willingly cover from other sources.

  8. Submitted by Alice Gibson on 03/20/2019 - 12:52 pm.

    Of course the rich would have the rest of us divert our tax dollars to their private schools. I’m sure they’d love for us to pay for their Ferraris and ski vacations in Gstaad, as well.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/20/2019 - 01:01 pm.

    My advice to Democrats: When your opponent is making a mistake, it’s rude to interrupt them. Don’t try to “compromise” with this crap, just let Republicans “fight” for private schools, and State take-overs of local governments, and then bash them for blocking effective legislation and budgets that would have actually solved problems and delivered results come election time.

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/20/2019 - 07:34 pm.

    Mr. Gazelka and Mr. Chamberlain have come closer than do most Republicans to winning a “doublespeak” award by calling this proposal the “Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act” when its obvious purpose is INequity and UNequal opportunity. We shouldn’t have to rely on luck, but I’ll invoke it anyway, and hope that the courts and the legislature will quickly dispense with the smoke screen of the act’s title and call it for what it is: state-supported religious and private education.

    The bill violates the clear mandate in the state Constitution for a “uniform system of public schools.” Nowhere in the Minnesota Constitution is there an endorsement of private or religious schools being sanctioned by the state. The state Constitution goes on to say that “The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.” Public schools in Minnesota are already underfunded by the legislature. Proposing religious and / or private schools as an alternative when the legislature is already failing its duty to adequately fund public schools is unconstitutional on its face, especially in the case of religion-based schools.

    Further, “In no case shall any public money or propertyt be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught.”

    Mr. Gazelka and Mr. Chamberlain seem fine with returning Minnesota to the 18th century, when religious and private schools were all that were available, and most of the populace was barely literate, if that. I certainly hope my own House and Senate representatives will vote, loudly and with expressed disgust, that this attempt to drag the state back into the past is dispensed with quickly. Then Republicans can turn to something approaching real work to benefit students and families instead of ALEC and / or their ideological sycophants. That would include addressing the inexcusable gaps in facilities, training, salaries, instructional materials, and other issues that currently separate school districts and individual schools from each other.

    Minnesota already has private schools and religious schools, and parents send their children to those schools by choice, even though public schools are available to them. If families make that choice, there’s no reason why the rest of us should subsidize it by providing state support, whether financial or otherwise.

  11. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/20/2019 - 08:00 pm.

    So I am a supporter of public education and now I am suppose to pay for people who send their children to private schools ? Maybe not directly but you know how that will work out. And the wealthy will again be subsidized with my taxes. My My ….Well one good thing coming out of this bust of the “get my kid into a special school” scandal is the amount of information coming out suggesting it does not matter. And in the end so it is with this in reality hateful and ignorant classist proposal. We continue to DeVos opps debase our so society. I am ready for some good old fashion democratic socialism in a hurry.

  12. Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/20/2019 - 08:33 pm.

    I’m guessing that Catholic school principal isn’t including all the kids he kicked out before they finished in his 95 percent. He certainly isn’t counting the kids who weren’t let in there in the first place.

  13. Submitted by David Lundeen on 03/21/2019 - 04:22 pm.

    Support for private schools in ventures like this is funding religious education through taxpayer expense. We live under a secular constitution, and if any private school (especially religious private schools) wants to accept scholarships funded through tax credits they must be forced to give up their tax exempt status. This is such a joke of plan by Republicans. They’ve never had an serious ideas about education, or cared about education.

  14. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 03/21/2019 - 07:54 pm.

    Some people might want to try something different if they had the worst minority graduate rate in the country…others wouldn’t be bothered much.

  15. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 03/25/2019 - 12:03 pm.

    Rather than wasting money on subsidizing private schools, let’s bring all the public schools up to the standards of Minnesota’s best private schools: small classes (no more than 15), an enriched curriculum with arts and literature, lovely campuses, and a full range of extra curricular activities.

    For anyone who says that public schools cost too much, the tuition at Minnesota’s best private schools, Breck, Blake, and St. Paul Academiy, STARTS at $25,000 a year for the elementary grades.

    Nothing says, “We don’t care about you” than a rundown school with a limited curriculum, teaching to the test, and harried teachers who can’t meet the desperate needs of their students with 30 or more kids in each class.

    And the students respond accordingly.

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