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How an arcane-sounding tax proposal could affect your children's education

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The education associations are opposed to it. Lieutenant-governor candidate Mayor Tim Kaine has sworn to fight it.

But when it comes to the latest effort to shift public funds to private schools, neither may matter come November.

Less than 10 years ago, the idea of using tax credits to help fund private schools was known to think-tank intellectuals and just about nobody else. But now the proposal is a major front in a legislative war being waged between the left and the right, teachers' unions and conservative groups, and, this fall, between Democratic and Republican candidates.

The idea's advocates say it will help educate poor children and improve public schools by making them compete. Its opponents say it's a veiled attempt to strip tax money from the public schools and give it to ritzy private schools and conservative home schools.

Think this doesn't affect you? Think again. What happens with what advocates call school choice will affect every child in public and private school — and their parents.

And this November's elections probably will decide once and for all.

Del. Jay Katzen, R-Fauquier, brought the concept to the Virginia legislative battlefield. In 2000, Katzen sponsored a bill that was killed in the House Finance Committee. But a year later support had swelled in the assembly, and the conservative delegate's "school-choice bill" passed a closely divided Finance Committee.

But when Katzen's bill landed on the House floor things got tricky. Minority Leader Del. C. Richard Cranwell, D-Vinton, a wily political tactician, tacked on an amendment to the bill that would have forced private- and home-schooled children to take the Virginia Standards of Learning test.

Katzen, appalled, argued that nonpublic schools already have built-in accountability due to their existing high standards. Nonetheless, Cranwell's amendment passed 53-43. In the end, Katzen pulled his own bill from the floor, but vowed that he would continue the fight.

Now Katzen is the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. And he says the idea of tax credits for donations to schools is one reason he will be sitting in the lieutenant governor's office next year.

Here's how the idea would work: Katzen's bill offered a $500 tax credit to individuals and corporations contributing to scholarship programs for low-income students. The funds would then be bundled together into $3,100 scholarships (Katzen says that's the average annual tuition cost of a private school in Virginia).

Families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level could receive the full $3,100 scholarships — that would mean a $20,813 income limit for a two-person family, and $31,543 for a four-person family. Families whose income exceeded the limit would be eligible for lesser scholarships of $2,480.

"I'm confident that we will have many more Republican delegates who will be elected in the fall," Katzen says. That "strong Republican legislature," he adds, will reflect the public's support for his idea.

Katzen's opponents certainly are taking the idea seriously, mostly because they fear it may become a reality.

Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, Katzen's opponent for lieutenant governor, dismisses the proposal. He says he "supports choice within the public-education system," but doesn't want to see funds pulled from public schools and funneled into private schools, no matter how indirectly.

Kaine acknowledges that the "school-choice" movement is picking up steam. "Every year the margin gets closer," Kaine says. "It will depend heavily on the elections this fall."

The Richmond Education Association and the Virginia Education Association also are solidly opposed, arguing that the tax credits would suck tax money from public schools that need them most. REA President Vashti Mallory-Minor says defeating this initiative is at the top of her organization's agenda in the next legislative session.

Still, Mallory-Minor says she worries that strong support from the wealthy may push school choice over the top. "There is a strong possibility. It's pushing in that direction," Mallory-Minor says. "I think it's rich people who come up with these things. They have a lot of ways to benefit the rich."

Not so, say supporters. They point to Children First, a private scholarship program in Virginia. Families applying for this organization's $1,100 scholarships could have incomes no greater than $25,000; in fact, she says, the recipients' average family income was just $22,162. Even though the average tuition cost was $3,150, and the scholarships were $1,100, the parents were willing to make up the difference.

"These parents were contributing over half, even though they were low income," says Victoria Cobb, acting government relations director of the conservative Family Foundation, primary grass-roots supporter for the bill. "The claim is that low-income parents aren't active enough in their children's lives to pull them [from failing schools]. But it's already happening."

Besides, the concept could save money, Cobb says. With the per-pupil cost of $8,276 a year for Richmond Public Schools, Cobb says, if 20,440 students shift to private education in Virginia, according to a Family Foundation analysis, Virginia will realize annual net savings of $84 million.

Whatever the merits of the arguments, the real fight is political. And both sides say a major factor in the battle will be the loss of 10 "school-choice" opponents due to the recent Republican-led redistricting.

Cranwell's retirement may be the biggest single blow to the movement's opponents. The former majority leader employed his folksy oratory and a mastery of House procedural rules to become a powerhouse in Virginia politics.

"Without Delegate Cranwell to round up opposition and antagonize the school-choice movement, it will very likely pass in the 2002 session," says Cobb.

But whether or not it will sink or swim will be depend on November's elections, says University of Virginia public policy analyst Larry Sabato. He notes that the idea has strong support in the House of Delegates, while the Senate is lukewarm to it.

"It's a tossup based on results [of the election]," Sabato says. "If the Republican candidate for governor is elected, school choice will have a decent shot. If Mark Warner wins, even if it got out of the Senate, my guess is that he would veto it — unless it was a minor demonstration program."

Since Katzen has staked so much political capital on the idea, Katzen's performance at the polls also will be a factor, Sabato says. "If Katzen loses, the opponents [of school choice] will have a strong electoral argument," Sabato says.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Warner is strongly against using tax credits to help private schools, says Amanda Crumley, his communications director. But she declines to speculate on what might happen with a "school-choice" bill in the 2002 session.

Earley's press secretary, David Botkins, has no such compunctions.

"With Mark Earley's support as governor and significant support in the General Assembly," Botkins predicts, "it will be hard for the bill's opponents to continue to stand in the

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