For years, the debate over Arizona’s Private School Tuition Tax Credits has been mired in debate over whether the subsidy serves a public good. Proponents argue it is advancing school choice, the idea in which parents decide what kind of education their children receive, improving the public schools, too, by creating competition for students. Opponents counter it’s little more than rhetoric cloaking an effort to take money from the public school system.

No side can prove definitively the otherside wrong.

As the state Legislature debated whether to expand the private school tax credits in May, the Tribune began an investigation into how the program operates.

Reporters scrutinized records from the Arizona Department of Revenue, the Internal Revenue Service, the Arizona Corporation Commission, and the U.S. Department of Education, as well as scholarship charities’ internal finance records, to piece together how the tax credits work and who benefits. Many interviews with private school parents explained how the system works outside courtrooms and the statehouse floor.

Private schools do not release information about the income levels of their students. They do, however, provide the U.S. Department of Education with enrollment data that breaks down their student body’s ethnic demographics.

Arizona experienced a seismic shift in its demographics between 1996 and 2008, particularly among school-age children.

Hispanics, long the state’s largest minority, nearly became a majority of students in the public schools.

The Tribune analyzed enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics for the 20 Arizona private schools that received the most tax credit scholarship money in 2008.

If tax credits provide access to private schools for all students, then private campuses should have seen similar, if not equal, Hispanic enrollment growth as public schools. But nearly all did not.

To ensure its methodology was sound, the newspaper presented its research to two of Arizona’s leading demographers — Bill Schooling at the Arizona Department of Commerce and Jim Q. Chang at the Arizona School Facilities Board. The demographers confirmed that the Tribune’s analysis has reached an accurate conclusion.

Copyright 2009, East Valley Tribune

Reporters: Ryan Gabrielson and Michelle Reese

Project editor: CeCe Todd

Web content producer: Jayson Peters

Photo illustration: Darryl Webb

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