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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- After two hours of debate, a Senate committee on Wednesday approved the tuition tax credit bill, sending it to the full Senate.
The measure, which passed the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee 4-2, would give parents up to a $2,132 tax credit for sending their children to private schools.
The credits are making their third appearance before the Utah Legislature in as many years. This year's sponsor, West Jordan Republican Sen. Chris Buttars, said he expects the proposal to win easy approval in the Senate. He predicted the bill will encounter more of a fight in the House, but expects the tax credits to become law.
The bill would not apply to families already sending their children to private schools except for those who are considered low-income. It would mainly apply to those students switching from public to private schools.
The measure was changed slightly Wednesday morning to keep next fall's kindergartners from being eligible and lets scholarship organizations spend 2 percent of donations on administration expenses.
Sens. Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, and Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, cast the votes against the bill.
It was standing room only in the committee room as about 150 parents, education officials and students spoke for and against the issue.
Education officials fear tuition tax credits would drain millions of dollars away from public education by encouraging families to switch from public to private education. They also question claims by credit advocates who claim the tax breaks could help relieve surging public school enrollment by freeing up space and money.
A fiscal note on the bill predicts that it would bring $90,900 to public education in its first year. That amount was questioned by opponents of the credits.
Patrick Ogden, associate state superintendent, said the fiscal note was based on the assumption that 1 percent of public school students would transfer to private schools and that most of those families will not take the full tax credit.
Ralph Haws, legislative co-chairman for the Utah School Boards Association, said the credit was bad fiscal policy and "an illusion being sold as a dream to low-income families." He said Utah schools are in a crisis and the tax credits "are no panacea for too many kids and too little money."
He said the state should be concerned with its 793 schools and that most parents want to send their children to neighborhood schools that have sufficient funding.
Blackham said he would push for a limit on how much a business could contribute to private school scholarships for low-income children in exchange for tax credits when the bill reaches the full Senate.
He said a business could wipe out its entire tax liability by giving to the funds, and he'd like that changed to 10 to 20 percent of the tax liability.
Blackham also wondered whether the credits would shortchange rural school districts that, in some cases, are seeing enrollment declines. Buttars said he would address those concerns before the bill is presented to the Senate.
About 2 percent of the state's children attend the approximately 80 private schools around the state. There are no solid estimates of how many children might switch to private schools if the bill becomes law.
Kathy Coleman, a single mother of eight children, said a scholarship for a private school has transformed the education of one of her daughters. She said she would never want to take money away from another child to educate her children, but she sees the credit as a "win-win situation for everyone."
Marco Diaz, the chair of Latinos for School Choice, said "many Hispanics feel that public education has failed them." He said the bill would be welcomed by the minority community, in which many families work multiple jobs to send children to private schools.
Christine Denbury sends her daughter to a private school but said Wednesday that she feels a responsibility to her local public schools.
"All parents have a commitment to public schools," she said.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)