Would tax credits for private school tuition hurt or help education in Utah?

Legislative leaders took a step toward finding out Tuesday.

The Legislative Management Committee set details on what questions an independent, tuition tax credit study should answer, including financial impacts on the state and school districts. Now, the state will seek proposals from people eager to study the perennial controversy.

Both sides of the issue think the study will prove their arguments.

"I feel it will be fairly unbiased," Ronda Rose, legislative vice president of the Utah PTA.

"We look forward to seeing the results," said Royce Van Tassell of Parents for Choice in Education, a tuition tax credits supporter.

Tax credits for private school tuition have been one of the most controversial proposals facing lawmakers the past four years.

Supporters say they will entice more people to choose private schools, ease school crowding and save money on teaching costs and buildings.

Opponents say the tax credits will financially devastate schools in Utah, where all income tax revenues go to education.

Utah spends the least per student in the country, despite a relatively high tax burden. Utah public school enrollment also is projected to increase 33 percent, or by 163,000 students in the next 11 years, the management committee's request for proposals (RFP) states.

The RFP seeks a third-party analysis that can foster informed policy discussion. The 2004 Legislature set aside $150,000 for it.

The study seeks detailed information, including effects of a tuition tax credit bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Ferrin, R-Orem, this year.

The bill, which Ferrin pulled in the session's last days, basically offered a tax credit worth half a child's private school tuition, with a maximum credit of $1,500 for kindergartners and $2,000 for older students. Current private school students were ineligible. The bill also once offered a tax credit for contributing to private school scholarship funds.

The study also would determine effects of a $1,000 credit under the bill and capping the credit at how much in taxes a person owes. Other long-term estimates and data would include:

• Personal and business tax revenue losses;

• Range and most likely number of taxpayers and students, by Wasatch Front and rural school district, who might use the credit;

• Number of students, by rural and Wasatch Front districts, who would go to private school only because of the tax credit;

• Impacts on per-student funding (including local money) and growing, shrinking and stable school districts;

• Building savings estimates;

• How a tax credit for private school scholarship donations would affect fund raising for school district foundations;

• Impact if home schoolers participated.

Applicants must reveal references, conflicts of interest and proposed methodologies, among other information. The deadline for proposals is June 3. The Legislative Management Committee projects awarding the bid June 15. The study should be completed by November.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com