Rubio’s Bold Call for Scholarship Tax Credits Should Fuel Choice in Colorado

Last week, as the honored recipient of the 2012 Kemp Leadership Award, Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio laid out a vision for parent-empowered education reform. On one point especially, Coloradans should take heed.

When a Republican politician speaks competently, compassionately and courageously about real education reform, my ears perk up. When that politician happens to be hailed as one of the GOP’s top contenders for the national ticket in 2016, I also smile optimistically.

Rubio framed the education message in his D.C. award acceptance speech around the goal of opening wide the doors to America’s middle class. A linchpin is his bold proposal to expand educational choice at the federal level in a way that has not really been pursued before:

Third, our tax code should reward investment in education. If you invest in a business by buying a machine, you get a tax credit for the cost. If there is a tax credit for investing in equipment, shouldn’t there be a tax credit for investing in people?

Let’s provide tax encouragement to help parents pay for the school of their choice. Lets create a corporate federal tax credit to a qualifying, non-profit 501(c)(3) Education Scholarship Organization, so that students from low income families can receive a scholarship to pay for the cost of a private education of their parents choosing.

It’s not completely surprising that Rubio should make this argument. During his first elected term in the state legislature, Florida became one of the first states to adopt such a program. Today more than 35,000 low-income Sunshine State students receive an average scholarship of nearly $4,000 to cover private school tuition. Contributions to scholarship organizations provide businesses a dollar-to-dollar credit on their state corporate tax bill.

The benefits of choice and competition fostered by Florida’s 10-year-old scholarship tax credit program have been well documented. Students who receive the scholarship to attend private school demonstrate “modest but statistically significant [test score] gains,” while public schools have tended to show more improvement when private schools taking scholarship students are nearer, more plentiful, and more diverse. Not to mention the fact the program has helped to save the State of Florida money and boosted parental satisfaction.

So when is a similar-style scholarship tax credit program coming to Colorado? Wish I could say it will be soon. Democrats who rule the roost have shown very little or no interest. In recent years, various bills have been proposed (and killed) that would have expanded school choice through the tax code. The closest version to registering any sort of success was House Bill 1048, sponsored by Rep. Spencer Swalm in 2011. Even with Republicans then in charge of one chamber, they couldn’t even get it onto the floor for a vote.

I don’t take it as a call to give up, but as a summons to rethink the structure and mechanism to answer some common objections. And get out there and diffuse the mythology that underlies the remaining opposition.

Senator Rubio’s vision provides just the sort of platform to get the idea moving again in Colorado.

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