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Republicans ready to reopen Minnesota school choice debate

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, on Tuesday, March 19, 2019, voiced his support for a proposal to offer state-subsidized opportunity scholarships for low- and middle-income students to attend private and parochial schools. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Senate leaders say debates about Minnesota school funding should include tax breaks for groups that fund private and parochial school scholarships.

At a news conference on Tuesday, March 19, Republican lawmakers said they'd again bring forward a bill that would fund up to $35 million in tax credits for people and organizations that fund scholarships for low- and middle-income families to send their kids to nonpublic schools.

Gov. Mark Dayton sunk a similar proposal during state budget negotiations in 2017. But with a new governor and control of the Minnesota Senate, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said bill supporters have more leverage.

"We'll fight for this one," Gazelka said. "This is a high priority for us, we think that it's a way to close the achievement gap."

Under Senate File 1872, a nonprofit scholarship granting organization would be established to take the donations and distribute them to families that earn less than twice the amount to be eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch in the state. It wasn't immediately clear how much capacity the program would open up for scholarships.

Donors would then receive a tax credit from the state valued at 70 percent of their contribution. And the state's cap on tax credits would be $35 million each year.

Eligible schools would have to administer and publish results of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments or other comparable tests.

The proposal will face a tough path forward in the split Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz, a former public school teacher, said he wasn't likely to support it.

“I certainly am not going to move a big chunk of the education funding into private entities, not even going to the parents,” Walz told reporters.

The bill's supporters said the measure was key to shrinking the achievement gap between students of color and white students in the state. Opponents, meanwhile, said it would pull funding that could otherwise benefit public schools and could run afoul of the Minnesota Constitution.

"It is clear that these children and these parents and these families need something new," bill author and state Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said. "This improves outcomes for these kids."

Private and parochial school leaders and family members of those enrolled in the schools said they supported the measure as it could give families more choice in their children's education.

Opponents including public school teachers and education groups raised concerns about the proposal violating the Minnesota Constitution by siphoning funds that could be flowing through the general fund and to public schools.

“Our public school districts have needs,” Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said. "The top priority of the Legislature should be to invest and fund our public schools and the 850,000 public school students that they serve."

The Senate Committee on Taxes on Tuesday laid the bill over to be rolled into a larger committee proposal. The bill's House companion had not yet been taken up in committee Tuesday and it faced long odds in the DFL-controlled House.