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Minnesota considers tax credit for private school tuition

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A national battle over education made its way to the Minnesota Capitol on Tuesday, as lawmakers considered a measure to extend an education tax credit to cover private school tuition payments.

The proposal would allow parents to include private school tuition payments when calculating an educational expenses tax credit. Supporters, including bill author Rep. Ron Kresha said it would give parents more options for educating their children. Opponents, including teachers union Education Minnesota, say it would sap resources from public schools.

Parents “may be able to give their kids an opportunity that they may not have sought,” Kresha, a Republican from Little Falls, said.

With a majority in both chambers, Republican lawmakers have the muscle to get the bill through the Legislature. Two House education committees considered the bill Tuesday.

The proposal comes amid a national debate about shifting public money toward private schools. President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is a major supporter of an educational voucher system.

Amber Jones, education organizer for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, one of the groups protesting the bill, said that underserved communities will be left behind if lawmakers move forward with the legislation.

“The voucher bill is the first step to implementing the DeVos system in Minnesota,” Jones said.

Laura Bloomberg, associate dean in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and former public administrator, said she “could imagine that some people would interpret tax credits as vouchers,” though a traditional voucher system is more like a state-funded scholarship. Still, she said, the credit is a step toward a voucher system and shares a common goal of moving state funds toward private education.

Minnesota residents flooded the Capitol building Tuesday morning to lobby both for and against the legislation. The bill is being heard this week because Sunday marked the beginning of National School Choice Week, an event put on by education think tanks and advocacy groups. DeVos was previously chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, one of the groups that funded the event.

The debate and rhetoric around school choice is messy, Bloomberg said, because school choice doesn’t mean the same thing to every supporter. Some believe that parents should be able to send their child to any public school, while others want to include private schools in the mix, she said. Allowing private schools to receive public funding opens them up to a wide array of issues, such as religious freedom and academic standards, to which they aren’t usually subjected, Bloomberg said.

That was on display at a committee meeting Tuesday, where Rep. Jim Davnie, of Minneapolis, peppered Cristo Rey Jesuit High School officials with questions about whether they would accept students living in the U.S. illegally if Trump repeals Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA, that allows certain people who entered the U.S. illegally as minors to receive deferred action for deportation. Rep. Erin Maye Quade, of Apple Valley, raised similar discrimination concerns about LGBT students at a separate committee meeting. Both Democrats’ concerns were early evidence of the scrutiny that private school officials would face if they began to receive state funds.

The proposal would allow parents to include private school tuition payments when calculating an educational expenses tax credit.

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