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Tuition bill is gaining support

Some Utah families would get tax credit of up to $2,000

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A tuition tax credits bill in the works is expected to be a boon to low-income families, giving them up to a $2,000 credit regardless of how much they owe in state income taxes.

And that's helped Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, start winning over at least one member of a block of GOP moderates, who have held up House votes on the controversial concept three years in a row.

"Right now, it's really focusing on the low-income and will benefit them more than any other bill I've seen," Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, said before a school choice conference at the Davis campus of the Utah College of Applied Technology. Once a tuition tax credit opponent, Dillree says she is changing her mind about the concept. Still, she adds, she is "not absolutely a rubber stamp (supporter) at this point."

The Legislature has been split over tuition tax credits. While the Senate last year passed a measure that included other education reforms and a $90 million infusion for schools, the House avoided a vote for the third consecutive year.

A survey conducted for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV also found a mixed response.

Half of Utah residents said they somewhat or strongly oppose "an income tax credit for parents for private school tuition or for any person or company donating to a private school scholarship foundation." Forty-four percent said they somewhat or strongly favor the credits.

The poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates of 408 adults Dec. 27-Jan. 3, has a plus or minus 5 percent error margin.

Ferrin's bill, currently being drafted, proposes two different types of tax credits for private school tuition.

The first would give parents a 50-cent tax credit for every dollar they spend on private school tuition, Ferrin said. The credit could not exceed $2,000. Those with students already enrolled in private schools would be ineligible.

The tax credit would be refundable, meaning low-income residents with less than $2,000 in income tax liability still would be eligible for the maximum credit.

Utah's average private school tuition for students in kindergarten through eighth grade is $3,150 a year, said Doug Holmes, chairman of Education Excellence Utah, a school choice advocacy group.

The bill would also offer a universal tuition tax credit matching every dollar a business or person contributes to a private school scholarship fund. The fund would provide scholarships to low-income children for up to half what the parent pays in tuition above the credit.

So, a low-income family could end up having 75 percent of its private school tuition paid for through credits and scholarships, Ferrin said.

The bill also would aim to prevent scholarship fund donors from double dipping on tax benefits, Ferrin said. Basically, scholarship donors would claim the state tax credit but couldn't claim the same donation as a state deduction for charitable giving. They could, however, claim the deduction on federal taxes.

Backers have touted tuition tax credits as providing school choice for all children, rich or poor.

But that's not Ferrin's motivation.

"It's not my desire to subsidize private schools; it's not my desire to subsidize wealthy families. It's my desire to absorb some of the growth in the public system to alleviate some of that burden," said Ferrin, alluding to governor's office projections that 140,000 new students will enroll in Utah schools over the next decade.

Ferrin took public comment while crafting the bill.

"I appreciated talking with Jim Ferrin, and I appreciate the fact he listened," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, who voiced concerns on double-dipping. "No one has listened very well before. But I can't comment (on my support) until I see a bill."

Education groups, including the superintendents association and PTA, told Ferrin they oppose the concept. They say the credits would send public funds to publicly unaccountable private businesses. They also say they would drain state income tax revenues, all of which go to public schools and colleges.

Legislative fiscal analysts have not yet estimated the bill's financial impact.

Bill advocates say that if parents take even the full $2,000 out of school coffers, even more than that will remain in the school system and essentially make more money available for per-student spending. If a few thousand take the credit, districts wouldn't have to build so many new schools because of growth.

But school officials say things don't work that way.

Granite School District has been losing students for decades, and it has taken a financial hit because of it, school board president Sarah Meier said. Overhead costs remain the same whether there are 23 or 25 students in a classroom, and losing the state's per-pupil expenditure, valued now at $2,150, to help shoulder costs is painful.

Ferrin believes the bill either will be financially neutral or will slightly improve state per-student spending. Either way, he said, it deals with growth without a tax increase.

"I'm not sure there's enough tax money in the entire state to both absorb the growth and increase the funding per pupil," he said. "This is the only policy I can think of to stimulate a private influx of money in the education of children. That's what motivates me."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com