Remember the stealth voucher bill Senator Phyllis Heineman (R-13/Sioux Falls) offered last year? That plan to launder public dollars to support parochial schools passed the Senate but narrowly failed in the House last winter. Rep. Lee Schoenbeck snuck it into his proposal last summer for raising teacher pay (a proposal he may just be waiting to spring pending the outcome of this afternoon’s debate on the Governor’s sales tax for teacher pay bill).
Now Senator Heineman revives the proposal in full as Senate Bill 159. The bill allows insurance companies to get a break on their premium and annuity tax for giving low-income kids scholarships to attend private K-12 schools in South Dakota. The state would give up to two million dollars each year (down from four million in last year’s bill) to insurers to compensate them for up to 80% of the amount they spend on private-school scholarships.
Senator Heineman wants to give tax dollars to private schools. That’s unconstitutional and unwise, so Senator Heineman wants to use insurance companies as the middlemen for her stealth vouchers. That might be unconstitutional; it’s definitely unwise.
I don’t know who all the insurance salesmen are who want to support private schools instead of paying their taxes, but we shouldn’t let them shirk their duty to support the public schools that, as Rob Monson of the School Administrators of South Dakota reminded the Senate Education committee before they voted wrong yesterday, won’t ever kick any child out just because that child’s family is poor.
Like last year’s version, SB 189 targets its scholarship assistance very poorly. Families have to meet an income standard (earning less than or equal to 150% of the income threshold to qualify for free or reduced-priec meals) to qualify for a tax-offset scholarship, but once they’re in, the insurer can keep handing that family and getting a tax break for three years (or, for high school recipients, until the student graduates), even if the family recovers from a temporary income drop and gets back to earning good money.
Seriously? The state doesn’t keep giving citizens Medicaid or food stamps for three more years if those citizens land a good job and break out of poverty. The state targets aid to people who need it, not to people who needed it two years ago but now are doing fine.
But the bigger issue with Senator Heineman’s stealth vouchers is that we shouldn’t be giving this aid in the first place. The state exerts itself mightily to provide a free and adequate public education system to all 131,000 K-12 students in this state. If parents aren’t happy with their local public school, we let parents open-enroll their kids in any other public school they want, with no tuition charge. If that’s not enough for some parents, they are welcome to send kids to private school or home school on their own dime. But all of us, including insurance companies, have an obligation to continue paying our fair share for the public education that keeps our society together.
We’re having a hard enough time agreeing to spend more state dollars on public education. We don’t need to sacrifice any public dollars for private education.