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School Choice Comes To Virginia

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In 2013, the Virginia Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit (EISTC) finally cleared all the hurdles to become the Commonwealth’s best mechanism for creating new opportunities for educationally at-risk students.

So, two years later, last week’s celebration of National School Choice Week was an ideal time to examine the effects of that law, the kind of students its helping, and the benefits for donors looking to help children find a more appropriate educational placement.

Unlike other school choice options, such as Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or a state voucher plan, the EISTC doesn’t run afoul of state constitutional issues. Virginia is one of 37 states with a “Blaine Amendment” – a specific prohibition on state funding of any church-affiliated school. Choice advocates who have actually litigated the issue around the country have made it clear that passage of an ESA or voucher plan in Virginia that includes religiously-affiliated schools likely violates the state constitution. But, since the vast majority of private schools are secular, removing them from an ESA or voucher bill would pretty much create a school choice bill without schools to choose from – an exercise in frustration for those seeking new opportunities.

The Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit doesn’t face the same barrier.

Donors to state-approved scholarship foundations receive a 65 percent state tax credit for their donation, on top of their federal and state tax deduction. Those foundations, in turn, use at least 90 percent of their donations to provide scholarships for low and moderate-income children. Because funds neither come from the state nor even pass through state coffers, legal experts and years of case history make clear there’s no entanglement with Virginia’s Blaine Amendment.

In fact, the EISTC is a good deal for state taxpayers, as well. With an average $2,400 scholarship for each child, the state saves the difference between the cost of the tax credit for that scholarship and the average $4,290 state share of funding that will not be spent on that child’s public school education.

Today, nearly 1,000 students attend more than 60 schools because of generous donors to these scholarship foundations. That $2,400 scholarship by itself certainly isn’t enough to cover the cost of attendance at any school, but private schools frequently put together “financial aid packages” not unlike those of colleges – and the EISTC scholarships have proven to be critical in providing new opportunities for children who otherwise would see their options severely limited.

Children like the four siblings who lost their parents in a family tragedy and whose 22-year-old brother is now the legal guardian even as he works full-time and attends community college at night. Those children desperately needed the “small community” family-oriented education offered by their local church-affiliated school, and now they’re able to get it.
Or the Hispanic first grader in Northern Virginia who felt bullied and feels more secure in her new educational placement.

Or the military mom whose daughter was beaten by another student twice her size. Now deployed overseas, she wanted – and deserved – to know that her child was going to be in a safe and caring environment that could only come from a small school.

Or all the other students at All Saints Catholic school in Richmond, which is 55 percent African-American and 33 percent Hispanic, and which was on the verge of closing down a few years ago but now has a new lease on life for its students because of this scholarship program. The EISTC has proven to be a saving grace, helping to increase enrollment by 40 percent. Had the school closed, a hundred children – and the cost of educating them – would have been put back in the public schools.

Scholarship foundations offering EISTC scholarships run the gamut – some focus on geographic areas, some focus on offering parents schools with a religious affiliation … one even focuses on children with disabilities. A list of such foundations and their interests may be found here: And a new coalition of choice supporters, the Virginia Alliance for Student Opportunity, is busy spreading the word through its new website here:
With 1.2 million public school students in Virginia, the overwhelming majority of parents and children are, and will be, satisfied with their local public school. By every major indicator, Virginia continues to rank among the top handful of public education systems in the nation.

But there is a growing performance gap between economically at-risk students and their wealthier peers, and one way to help those students is to provide new academic settings. The Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit offers those who need additional choices opportunities where they had none before.

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