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Home, private school vouchers weighed

by Shawn Gainer

STAFF WRITER

CHARLESTON -- A bill which would grant a two-tiered tax credit for home and private schooling will likely face stiff opposition from state teachers' unions.

House Bill 2151 would amend the state code to allow a $500 per child income tax credit for parents who engage in home schooling and a $1,000 per child credit for parents who choose to enroll their children in a private school.

At a public hearing conducted by a House Education subcommittee Monday, parents of private school students, students and private school administrators packed the floor of the House of Delegates Chamber to speak in support of the bill, while representatives of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers spoke against it.

Supporters of the bill said parents who would choose to send their children to private schools are often forced to place them in public schools because they cannot afford both tuition and the taxes they pay to support public schools. Opponents said the credits would deprive public schools of much-needed funding.

"We have school choice in West Virginia, but only for the wealthy who can afford double taxation," said Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, one of six sponsors of the bill.

Tom Lange, president of the WVEA, said the organization does not oppose school choice, but believes it should not be "subsidized by the state."

"Our public schools are doing a great job, but we still have students who are in poor facilities, where buildings are in poor condition and lack proper equipment," Lange said. "Tax breaks would take away funding that public schools dearly need."

Bob Brown, representing the American Federation, was sharper in his opposition. As well as saying the tax credits could cost the public school system "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Brown claimed the credits would "undermine a cornerstone of democratic society."

"This has more to do with racial, economic and social stratification than anything else," Brown said.

Many supporters of the bill challenged that remark and characterized the teachers' unions as entrenched special interest groups that were defending their own interests rather than the interests of children.

Dick Casey, representing the Catholic Schools of West Virginia, said many non-Catholics attend Catholic schools and six percent of their students are minorities.

"That's a good reflection of West Virginia's minority population and 80 percent of our students receive some sort of financial assistance," Casey said.

Bob Lee, a private school instructor and resident of Berkeley County, said private and Christian schools have higher graduation and college-rates than public schools and do it for far less than the approximately $6,200 per student per year spent by the state.

"Many are afraid to challenge the power of the teachers' unions, but we feel there is a strong grassroots base of support for choice in education," Lee said. "Most of our parents are of average income and really struggle to put their children in our school.

Lee added that he believes the "subsidization" goes the other way -- from parents to the state.

"People are taxed to support a public school system that will not support their values," he said.

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