Private Lessons 

Will a new push to offer state tax credits for private schools undercut public education?

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Hunter Country Day School is slated to open this fall for kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils at a quaint, red-brick outbuilding of the Dover Baptist Church on a leafy Goochland County road a few miles west of the Richmond Country Club.

Its founder is Ann McLean, who has an art history doctorate from the University of Virginia and has said that she wants to offer an education rooted in more classically conservative, Christian values than are available in the area's public school systems. Her school, which isn't tied to the church next door, will charge about $6,000 a year for tuition — a bargain, considering typical private school tuition in the Richmond area can run upward of $18,000.

The new school may be opening just in time. After years of bitter fighting, the General Assembly has taken the first of what could be several steps to make it easier to enroll children in private schools and start new ones. Individuals and corporations can get tax credits of as much as 65 percent for contributions they make toward private school scholarships for students of low- and middle-income families.

"We're hopeful it will open up more opportunities for more students to attend private schools," says Dan Zacharias, executive director of the Old Dominion Association of Church Schools, a Broadway, Va.-based organization representing 35 Baptist schools statewide.

Critics say the law is just a first step in a conservative movement to undercut public education, funneling resources away from the state's public school systems. "I think it is a step in the wrong direction," says Kim Gray, a member of the Richmond School Board. "This is a softer approach to vouchers."

Indeed, Virginia's shift is part of what some people say is a national, right-wing movement to promote private schools. Malcom Glenn, the spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based, pro-school-choice lobby, says the Old Dominion is one of several states, including Louisiana, Arizona, New Hampshire and New Jersey, that recently have made breakthroughs to promote alternatives to public education.

Although Glenn says it isn't so, critics in Virginia and elsewhere say the advances in school choices are part of a closely orchestrated conservative agenda related to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts proposed laws for state legislatures. Julie Underwood, dean of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who for years has studied the council known by the acronym ALEC, says that the organization has been trying to get laws passed favoring private schools since 1985.

She says large corporations write the templates for such laws, pay for experts to brief state legislators and then lobby for them during legislative sessions. "ALEC has been very powerful and at the end you see for-profit education companies such as K-12 Inc. get benefits," she says.

The Virginia law is based on a council template too, says Kitty Boitnott, president of the Virginia Education Association, which has fought laws favoring private schools for years. "It started in Florida and it's going gangbusters," she says. "It is part of a much bigger program."

Generally, laws to push private schools tend to help more religious ones, such as Protestant Christian schools or Catholic parochial schools, as opposed to the more expensive and venerable institutions such as St. Catherine's and Collegiate schools that for years have taught the children of Richmond's moneyed elites. All of the schools have suffered with the 2008 recession. Private schools have found that many parents no longer can afford high tuitions while public school systems face layoffs and course cuts.

With money tighter, the legislative debates over tax changes favoring private schools have become more animated. Public-school advocates such as Boitnott say that tax breaks for private schools help them in a zero-sum game in which scarce education money inevitably leaves the public system mandated to educate all children in favor of a cosseted few. Proponents of the private-school tax advantages say that public education doesn't meet the needs of all students and often comes with politically unacceptable dogma.

One conservative who's a strong supporter of school choice is James P. Massie, a Republican delegate from Henrico County. His bill to give tax credits to private-school scholarships was one of several that managed to survive this year's raucous General Assembly session. At the Capitol, newly elected, socially conservative Republicans seized control of the House of Delegates. They brought national attention from "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" for pushing bills that would have forced women considering an abortion to undergo invasive ultrasound tests that served no clear medical purpose.

Many believe that Massie's beach-hold victory on private schools will expand into full-scale campaign. Others aren't so sure. Professor Underwood from Wisconsin, for instance, believes that ALEC got its wings clipped after a slew of large corporations such as Coca-Cola, Mars and Yum Brands fled it after a controversy involving the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida this year. The man who is accused of killing Martin, a black teenager, said he did so legally under a Florida self-protection law that had been backed by ALEC. S

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