Mary Zimmerer crunched the numbers and figured it would cost nearly $17,000 to send her four sons to Catholic schools this year. It’s a steep price for Mary and her husband, Matt, who are both educators.
But the Chandler family hopes to get a helping hand in scholarships from the state’s private school tax credit program, which, in the past, has paid as much as half of the boys’ tuition at St. Mary-Basha Catholic School.
The program allows taxpayers to donate up to $1,000 to scholarship programs, then get the money back in their state tax refunds the following spring.
“Being strong Catholics, we really wanted them to have a Catholic education. And I always felt really strongly in a K-8 education, and at the time, there weren’t really any public schools with that format,” Mary Zimmerer said. “I know over the past nine years (the scholarships) have helped us tremendously. There were a few years we weren’t sure we’d make it, but it always ended up working out.” The amount of money available to families like the Zimmerers has increased sharply in the past several years.
In 2006, more than $51 million was donated to private school tuition groups — a 20 percent increase over the previous year, according to data from the state Department of Revenue.
The state credits much of the growth in the donations to a measure passed by the Legislature last year that raised the cap on donations for joint filers from $825 to $1,000.
“I think it’s a combination of the increase in funds, and more exposure to the public and people’s knowledge of it growing,” said Ann Chadwick, who works with the Arizona Private School Fund in Scottsdale. “But there are a lot of people who still don’t understand it.”
Private schools in the East Valley brought in more than $9.2 million dollars.
And that’s not including corporate tax-credit donations, which could be as high as $10 million statewide, a figure that won’t be reported by the state until later this summer.
Individual scholarships doled out by the 56 tuition scholarship organizations in the state ranged from $60 to $13,000 this year.
The majority of the private schools that benefit are faithbased. Most, but not all, are Christian.
Two Islamic schools in Phoenix and Tempe received more than $400,000 in scholarship money. And the Scottsdalebased Jewish Community Day School Scholarship fund benefits Jewish schools throughout the Valley.
More than 60 percent of children in Jewish day schools get scholarships, said Linda Zell, the fund’s administrator.
Scholarships are given on a sliding scale based on income, and they make a big difference for families, she said.
“None of these kids would be in Jewish day schools if we didn’t have a fund,” Zell said of the roughly 400 scholarships her fund provides.
But tax credit programs have their share of critics, including the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“Part of our opposition to it is using public money for potential religious instruction. Part is the lost revenue from the credits,” said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association. “The revenue collected by the state through the taxation system needs to be used for public purposes and to meet the state’s obligations. We just don’t think tax credits are good economic or social policy.”
He doesn’t support tax credit programs for public schools, either, which allow taxpayers to make similar donations, but in much smaller amounts. Tax credit donations in public schools can only be used to support extracurricular activities.
Mesa resident Kristine Tolman, who teachers at a Phoenix elementary school, doesn’t like them, either.
“I think it just leads more to the crumbling of public education, which doesn’t seem to be valued the way it used to be,” she said. “I know I can donate small tax credits to a public school of my choice but it’s not nearly as big an amount.”
Tolman wishes the state would put money into reducing class size in public schools, which she sees as the biggest challenge in her second-grade classroom.
Tax credits have proven to be a sticking point in state budget negotiations for the past two years. This year, two measures — a longer donation period and the ability to deduct tax credit donations from employee’s payroll accounts — held up negotiations.
They were both left out of a tentative budget which is expected to be passed on Monday.
The programs are also the target of a seven-year-old lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. The suit is currently pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Supporters of the tax credits, however, maintain the program is constitutional because, they say, the money in question is not public money.
While the increased flow of the money going into scholarship organizations is a good thing, more important is the number of children the scholarships are helping, said Harry Miller, president of the Arizona Scholarship Tuition Organization, a group of tuition organizations that work to “self-regulate” each other.
“It’s good to see the growth, but what I look at, what the bottom line is, is how many children we’re able to help,” said Miller, who also runs the Tempe-based TOPS for Kids, a tuition organization. “Those are continually growing year after year.”
In 2006, 24,678 children statewide were awarded scholarships, up 9 percent from the previous year.
Miller’s organization raised nearly $1 million — up 47 percent from last year — and gave awards to more than 1,300 children.
At $10.1 million in donations, the Catholic Tuition Organization of the Diocese of Phoenix — where the Zimmerers get their funds — is one of the state’s largest.
Last year it awarded more than 13,000 scholarships.
Even so, Zimmerer said she never assumes her family will get any of those. She learns each summer how much, if any, scholarship money her children will get.
“We don’t ever count on getting it. Our thinking is we will always do what we can to make sure our kids are in school there, even if it’s a huge sacrifice,” she said. “But if we get that money, that’s wonderful. “
Where credits go
• Northwest Christian School, Phoenix: $1.26 million
• St. Mary’s High School, Phoenix: $1.14 million
• Brophy College Preparatory, Phoenix: $941,356
• Scottsdale Christian Academy: $888,155
• Grace Community Christian School, Tempe: $650,579
• Phoenix Hebrew Academy: $622,883
• Xavier College Preparatory, Phoenix: $582,601
• Surrey Garden Christian School, Gilbert: $575,694
• Paradise Valley Christian: $458,440
• St. Mary-Basha Catholic School, Chandler: $361,556
NOTE: These are top 10 East Valley and Phoenix private schools in tuition tax credit donations.