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A new tax credit, approved by the Virginia General Assembly, would offer breaks to individuals or corporations that donate to nonprofit organizations providing educational scholarships to low-income students or those with disabilities.

The tax credit is being touted by state Republicans, who say it will generate greater access to private school choice options for parents.

The legislation Senate Bill 131 and House Bill 321—awaits the governor’s signature before becoming law.

“Virginia students deserve a world-class education regardless of their zip code and socio-economic status,” Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said in a released statement. “I have supported this effort to provide a tax incentive for individuals and private corporations that will spur their investment in students. This legislation will increase the ability of nonprofit organizations to provide education improvement scholarships so low-income students or students with disabilities can attend the non-public school of their choice.”

Moves toward education reform through private and charter schools began as early as the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

“There are increasingly states that are passing these kinds of laws,” said George Mason University professor Gary Galluzzo, an instructor in the College of Education and Human Development. Virginia is the 14th state to pass a scholarship tax credit of this kind.

“In a sense the issue here is expressed in a parent’s rights to be able to pick the school that they want to send their kids,” Galluzzo said. Reforms like vouchers, charters and choice continue to roll forward, usually backed by Republican support. However, the Obama administration has also supported some of these reforms through Race to the Top, which included incentives for states to promote the creation of charter schools.

Galluzzo describes the relationship between these reforms and public schools as a zero sum game, where money does end up going somewhere other than public school budgets.

This is one of the reasons Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Dist. 34) of Fairfax said he voted against the tax credit.

“To me, we’re a public institution — the General Assembly — and we don’t fund private entities,” he said. “Public schools are in need of funding. We’ve, over the past couple of years, cut funding. You’ve got more children coming to the schools but the same level of funding,”

According to the state, Virginia’s funding of K-12 education has hovered around the same level since 2007; however, the governor’s budget for fiscal 2013 included increases in funding to help offset costs under the Virginia Retirement System, a fund which includes teacher retirement benefits.

Republicans in the General Assembly argued that the tax incentive provided low-income students and families of children with disabilities greater choice in where they can attend school if their school system fails to provide needed services.

“In Fairfax County, the bill doesn’t make much sense because we have really good schools… You’ve got to think of it in terms of a school in a tough neighborhood,” said Del. David Albo (R-Dist. 42) of Springfield, who voted for the tax credit.

As part of the legislation, the state would cap the total tax credit at $25 million annually. Scholarships are limited to students whose family income falls below the current poverty guidelines and certain students with disabilities.

“If the issue is really about, ‘OK we have these kids who have these specific needs and the schools aren’t offering them or meeting them’ … then yes, one option is private schools. But another is to look at the public schools and see what is needed to meet these needs,” said Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President Steve Greenburg. “Then everyone’s needs are met without pulling money away from the public school system.”

Since assuming office in 2010, McDonnell has championed school reform issues such as school choice and charter schools. Currently there are four charter schools in Virginia, according to the state Department of Education: one each in Yorktown and Richmond, and two in Charlottesville. Only one of the schools, Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts which serves 150 students grades kindergarten through fifth in Richmond—has opened during McDonnell’s term in office.

While the legislation cleared the House of Delegates with a solid majority, held by Republicans, the Senate’s 20-20 vote on the tax credit was broken by Lt. Governor Bill Bolling (R) in favor of the legislation.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com