Virginia scholarship tax credits are a beacon of hope for education

[This piece has been published in Restoring America to highlight how a Virginia policy expanding school choice options will benefit both students and parents.]

There’s more to love about education in Virginia thanks to the
Governor Glenn Youngkin signed the law into law on June 22, 2022. It contains the largest education budget in Virginia history at $3.2 billion, $900 million for historically black colleges and universities, a 10% increase in teachers and a statewide literacy initiative. Youngkin’s budget also maintained a $25 million cap for the Education Enhancement Scholarship Tax Credit Program (EISTCP), successfully fending off an attempt to
To cut
the EISTCP cap from $25 million to $12 million.

in 2012
by Governor Bob McDonnell, EISTCP provides
Virginia families whose household income is up to 300% of the federal poverty guideline (400% for students with special needs) for use in private schools. According to a 2021
38 scholarship foundations have approved 4,674 scholarships worth $12.8 million.

I was Virginia’s Secretary of Education when the EISTCP was under consideration, and I encouraged supporters to remember Virginia’s role in Massive Resistance and her use of taxpayer dollars to fund the creation of private white flight academies in the 1950s and 1960s. Why? Learn from previous political agendas and shift our public conversation from a fear-based notion of choice to a freedom-based notion of choice.

Ten years later, those engaged in opposition to the EISTCP are again using a fear-based notion of choice, either directly or semiotically. July 11, 2022
paints a very bleak picture of the EISTCP by exploiting a real tragedy experienced by families in Prince Edward County during the era of fear-based choice to justify painting Jim Crow over the door of private schools receiving today public funds from scholarship foundations.

The article justifies a reality check in three ways.

The EISTCP is not the segregationist academies of your grandparents: The authors’ insight into segregation in Virginia, the role scholarship foundations played in establishing white-only private academies, and public school closures in defiance of Brown v. Board of Education decisions is an important story. However, the author’s subtle insinuation that a state-funded private school program in Virginia in 2022 is analogous to a 1950s fear-based ideology of choice is uncreative fiction.

To begin with, the EISTCP requires scholarship foundations to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is a piece of legislation not available during the early years of the fear-based choice movement in Virginia. Second, if the EISTCP is an extension of the white segregated academies of the past, someone forgot to tell Anna Julia Cooper School and Cristo Rey High School which massively benefit students of color or schools with a body integrated student.

Religious schools should have public support: The author identifies St. Andrew’s School, Elijah House Academy, and the Catholic-focused McMahon Parater Scholarship Foundation as religious schools that receive public funding from the EISTCP, or as a reference person in the article calls it “taking money they otherwise owed in taxes.

Long before the creation of the EISTCP a decade ago, Congress understood the public good provided by religious schools, authorizing public funding and tax benefits to support them. Examples include federal Title I and Title II funds, and a federal charitable income tax deduction for contributions to nonprofit religious organizations.

For many years, federal and state governments have relied on tax incentives that can be used to support private and public initiatives through:
education savings accounts; the
New market tax credits
economic development support program for communities in difficulty; the
Education Tax Credit Program under the Neighbors Assistance Act
support nonprofit organizations that provide education to low-income students through public, church, and after-school programs; and the
Communities of Opportunity Tax Credit
support access to housing in high-income areas for low-income families.

Similar to these programs, supporting access to private education for low- and middle-income Virginians through the EISTCP improves their chances for economic and social mobility.

Wealthy Donors Matter: According to the author, it’s a problem that “98% of program contributions claimed on tax returns over the past six years come from people with six-figure or higher incomes.”

It should come as no surprise that wealthy individuals are the biggest donors to 501(c)3 organizations that offer scholarships to Virginia students. Wealthy people are essential players in pre-K-12 education across the United States. Nearly 90% of affluent families donated to charities, according to a report, focusing their donations on basic needs, religion and education. While wealthy households represent 3.1% of the population, they
for almost a third of all charity in the nation. They donate four times more to educational organizations than the US population (21.6 to 5.0%). Wealthy donors matter.

In conclusion, the EISTCP expands the freedom families have to choose a school. EISTCP is not perfect, nor is it a choice for all families. Nonetheless, it remains an educational beacon of hope in Virginia.

This article originally appeared in the AEIideas blog and is reproduced with the kind permission of the American Enterprise Institute.

Julio V. Miller