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Choice for taxpayers

National | Tax-credit program empowers Arizonians to help students attend private schools

Issue: "Dr. Laura: Taking static," April 8, 2000

in Arizona - Sandwiched between Arizona's South Phoenix slums and South Park Mountain foothills is 52-year-old Anna Gamble's tiny oasis of hope-a three-acre stretch of desert currently populated by straggly palm trees, three abandoned buildings, and cracked asphalt. But if this grandmother of 13 has her way, it will soon become the Begin to Dream Christian Academy for students from kindergarten through 8th grade. "The public school district here is based entirely on academics; the whole character is not addressed," said Mrs. Gamble, whose gang-infested community has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation. She should know. As a child in South Phoenix public schools, Mrs. Gamble was labeled a "slow learner" and given busy work to pacify her. "There was something in me that kept telling me all the time that it wasn't true," Mrs. Gamble said, claiming that when she became a Christian she became motivated to go beyond that label. Now, 40 years later, Mrs. Gamble is earning her associates degree and wants to help other children escape the same stereotypes. Donated to her by Christian neighbors, Mrs. Gamble's sandlot of dreams is protected from graffiti-littered strip joints and boarded-up storefronts by rows of rural wooden homes cluttered with rusty clotheslines, roaming farm animals, and struggling vegetable gardens. "The Bible teaches us that a person without vision perishes, and that's why these children are perishing," said Mrs. Gamble, whose brown eyes peer intensely beneath a gray derby hat. "I want to show them that they have a divine purpose." Her dream could become reality as early as this September, and when it does, some students will be part of it because of Arizona's Voluntary Tuition Tax Credit law. Passed in 1997 on the heels of a failed voucher proposal, the law allows individuals who donate to groups that provide private-school scholarships a tax credit up to $500. To prevent parents' contributions from directly benefiting their own children, donations are funneled through 20 scholarship foundations around the state. Taxpayers can designate the school that their money finances, but the foundations make the final decision on which students receive the support. The Arizona program has provided a second wind for school-choice proponents beleaguered by sticky church-state voucher debates. At least 11 other states have similar proposals currently pending in their legislatures. The courts, so far, have been hospitable. "This tax credit may provide incentive to donate, but there is no arm-twisting here. Those who do not wish to support the school tuition program are not obligated to do so," said the Arizona Supreme Court, countering critics' charges that tax credits allocated to religious schools violate the separation of church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court also rejected appeals. But Arizona's public-school establishment remains unconvinced. "This tax credit is just a voucher in disguise and a tax loophole for the wealthy," argued former Arizona Education Association president Kay Lybeck. "We need to improve public schools, not siphon off money to private and religious ones." Never mind that Arizona, where public-school funding has increased more than 160 percent in real dollars since 1970, has the nation's second highest high-school dropout rate. Or that under the new law-which also allows taxpayers to receive a $200 credit for donations made toward public-school extracurricular activities-public schools have received a total of $23 million from 177,000 donors. (The program has raised about $15 million for private-school scholarships.) The real question beneath all the huffing and puffing is, whose money is it? With voucher programs, the government redistributes money from all taxpayers to parents, who then choose how to spend it. With tax credits, however, the taxpayer himself is in charge of where his money goes. "The money is not the state's money until it is received by the state, so going from a private citizen's pocket to a private organization is not a conflict," said Mary Gifford of Arizona's Goldwater Institute. That distinction was enough to allay the fears of Kathy Lane, assistant principal at Valley Cathedral Christian, one of Phoenix's largest private schools. "We fear that if vouchers are used, the state will come and say you have to teach this or that, or you won't be allowed to talk about God or teach religion," said Mrs. Lane. "We do not have that fear about tax credits." Of Valley Cathedral's 300 students, 65 depend on tax-credit scholarships, including 7-year-old Sonjie Hayes. With soft brown hair falling over tiny spectacles, Sonjie painstakingly struggled over five-letter words in her first-grade reader. Asked by WORLD what she likes about the Christian school, Sonjie whispered, "I can pray," and quickly returned to her reader. Later, Sonjie's teacher confided that the little girl often requests prayer for her mother, who suffers from physical ailments resulting from a car wreck that killed Sonjie's brother. The tragedy forced Sonjie's mother, Kim Hayes, to enroll her daughter in a public school rather than homeschool her. "It was depressing taking her to school every day," said Mrs. Hayes, who said she applied for a private-school scholarship three years before Sonjie started her public-school kindergarten. "She was scared half the time and couldn't get the attention or supervision she needed." Circumstances changed last year, however, when a tax-credit donor decided to support a Valley Cathedral student. "We checked the mail and there it was," said Mrs. Hayes, recalling her shock at receiving the letter informing her of the scholarship. "I just couldn't believe it. I just kept re-reading it and grabbed her hand and started crying." But thousands of other students still remain relegated to scholarship waiting lists, said Chambria Henderson of the Arizona Scholarship Fund, who has 1,200 children on her list alone. While word of the new program spread quickly among national organizations, few Arizona taxpayers are aware of the program. Of the state's 1.8 million taxpayers, only about 35,000 donated to private-school scholarships over the last two years. "We have no media advertising except for whatever the newspapers choose to do," said Mrs. Henderson. "There is not enough money for television or radio. It's really word of mouth at this point. Though powerful, it's very small." If promotion increased, Mrs. Henderson estimates private-school tax credits would attract at least 800,000 donors. To bolster interest, school-choice advocates have proposed legislation that would include a private-school/public-school tax-credit check box on state income tax forms. Other groups, including the Goldwater Institute, are working with businesses to encourage automatic scholarship-fund payroll deductions later reimbursed by tax credits. Meanwhile Grandmother Gamble is wasting no time setting up shop at her south Phoenix school, filling abandoned warehouse rooms with tiny plastic chairs and covering the walls with bright phonics charts. Next on the agenda is fresh asphalt for the cracked sidewalks outside. "This is the dream," she said, sweeping her arms about the empty room. The challenge for Arizona's education reformers is to make everybody's vision so clear. "I don't think people understand the potential of the tuition tax credit," said Goldwater Institute's Mrs. Gifford. "We really could have nearly every household in Arizona donating to private scholarship organizations."

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