Washington State Considers School Choice

Published June 4, 2013

A tax-credit scholarship bill introduced by Washington state lawmakers would “allow maximum freedom to parents to provide for the educational needs of children,” the bill states. House Bill 2063 would accomplish that by allowing businesses to receive tax credits for donating to K-12 scholarships.

“We are ridiculously backward in this state when it comes to education policy,” said Jami Lund, an education fellow at the Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Olympia. “Folks here are unaccustomed to talking about school choice.”

In 2012, Washington citizens approved a ballot measure allowing the state’s first charter schools, although none will likely open until 2014. Washington currently ranks 38th on the Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power Index, which measures parents’ access to and information about quality education opportunities.

If the bill passes, Washington will be the thirteenth state with such a program. Eligible students would come from households earning up to 225 percent of the federal poverty level, or $53,000 for a family of four. After receiving a scholarship, students can remain eligible if family income rises to no more than 275 percent of the poverty level.

Poor Kids Priced Out
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Liz Pike (R-Camas), says she looked at successful education tax credits around the country, such as Florida’s. This allowed her to pull from best practices, such as ensuring scholarship funds not only offset tuition costs but can also cover “education-related transportation fees, and other instruction-related expenses” such as textbooks, tutoring, and online learning, which has a strong presence in Washington. It also provides targeted assistance to special-needs students.

About one in fifteen Washington students are enrolled in private education, according to the Freedom Foundation, but low-income and even middle-class families are denied access because they can’t afford tuition on top of taxes, though many private schools are not full, Lund noted.

“Unless you are a privileged child,… you have no hope of attending a private school in this state,” Pike said. “[This program] is about giving our lowest income kids a chance to have a top education.”

Saves Millions
All the credible studies of the fiscal impacts of such programs have shown they achieve substantial savings, says Jason Bedrick, a Cato Institute policy analyst.

Florida’s program saves $1.44 for every $1 of lost revenue, he says. The Freedom Foundation studied Pike’s proposal and concluded it too would save money.

“Each student transferring [to a private school] saves the state’s usual expenditure of $6,300,” Lund explains, and with the basic scholarship capped at $5,000, “savings of $20-$60 million are possible in the 2013-2015 budget.”

The bill caps total tax deductions at $100 million, which automatically increases by 40 percent when students use 90 percent of the previous year’s cap.

Pike introduced the bill in a special session, so progress most likely won’t happen until January 2014, she said.

“Without this, our lowest-income kids will never have a chance at a private education,” she said.

Image by camknows.