Mar 28, 2012 6:29 AM by AP
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Louisiana House backed a proposal Tuesday to give a dollar-for-dollar state tax rebate to people who donate money to nonprofits that give scholarships to help students attend private and parochial schools.
The proposal by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, is part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education overhaul package. Talbot said the bill goes hand-in-hand with another Jindal proposal to create a statewide voucher program that would use state tax dollars to send children to private schools.
Supporters say the tax rebate would give children in failing public schools more opportunities to get an improved education.
"It's about giving a parent a choice," Talbot said.
The measure headed to the Senate for debate with a 66-37 House vote.
Opponents say it would damage public education in the state by siphoning off children to private schools. They said it could cost the state money it doesn't have in times of budget shortfalls. And they questioned whether the financial set-up devised in the bill would meet state constitutional standards.
Talbot said dollars lost to the treasury from the tax rebate would be regained in education savings because the public school funding formula would have to pay for fewer students. He said the state could save money because the private school tuition could be cheaper than the state's costs for a student in public school.
The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office, which analyzes the financial impact of bills, said it's impossible to ensure the tax break won't cost the state because some students who may get scholarships and grants to private schools were never going to public schools.
"There's nothing in this bill that prevents someone who's never been in public school to not get this funding, this scholarship," said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, an opponent of the measure. "Plus, schools have same operational costs even if a student leaves. You still have to have teachers. You still have to have lights. There's really no savings."
To be eligible, families would have to earn less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, the same income requirement as the Jindal voucher bill. But the tax break program wouldn't be limited to students who come from schools graded with a C, D or F in the state's accountability system, like the voucher program. Attempts to restrict the measure to match the voucher bill were rejected.
The proposal would begin with donations for tuition in the 2013-14 school year. It would set caps on the scholarships to be rebated at 80 percent of the average per student payment in the public school funding formula for kindergarten through eighth-grade students and 90 percent for high school students.
The nonprofit organizations doling out the private school tuition money could keep 5 percent of it for administrative costs, which could mean the tax rebates represent 95 percent of the donation.
House debate came Tuesday after hundreds of southwest Louisiana teacher protested on the state Capitol steps against Jindal's education agenda, which includes a revamp of teacher pay and job protections and public school financing.
Talbot failed to get passage of a similar tax cut bill last year, but the proposal wasn't pushed by the governor.
Talbot said the proposal was modeled on a Florida program. Nearly 38,000 students are going to private schools through that program, according to the Jindal administration. In Florida's program, however, tax breaks are limited to corporations.