A legislative proposal to increase access to private schools is set for a committee hearing at the state House Thursday.
The proposal has two main parts: One would extend an existing tax credit for educational expenses to include school tuition. That credit currently provides the lowest-income families up to $1,000 per child.
The other part would attempt to encourage donations for several purposes: support for high-poverty charter and public schools and — the most controversial piece — private school scholarships.
Donors to state-approved nonprofits could get a tax credit for 70 percent of their donations. The statewide cap for credits would be $35 million a year, limited to $10,500 a year per person and $105,000 a year per business.
• Interactive map: Where are Minnesota's private schools?
In the case of private school scholarships, organizations would then fund low- and middle-income students. Scholarships would be limited to 70 percent of average per-student general education funding, which in 2017 is $5,964.
"We know our achievement gap is made up of students that may not have gotten the best start in life. So let's target them specifically," said chief author Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. "Let's help them and give them more choices rather than less."
A 2016 survey of 107 Minnesota private schools found an average tuition of $4,438. High school tuition averaged $9,583, with lower costs at schools serving only young children.
The survey calculated actual tuition paid, since most schools offer financial aid.
But critics worry these ideas are a backdoor to siphon state money from public education and let donors direct funds to private schools.
Public schools depend on funding that's allocated based on enrollment, said Julie Swietzer, College and Career Readiness Consortium director at the University of Minnesota.
"Students are real money, and so it ultimately has a direct financial impact if more students who would have otherwise been in traditional publics move to privates," she said.
Tax credits for scholarships are used in 17 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Minnesota proposal would require less regulation than some. For example, some states require achievement tests for students who get scholarships. Kresha's bill would not.
"I think the accountability lies with the parents," Kresha said. "I suspect if you have a school that does not have a high graduation rate or kids going off to college they're probably not going to do very well and not be around long."
Minnesota private schools are exempt from testing requirements if they're accredited, and accreditation is optional.
There are also concerns about access. Minnesota has 472 private schools, according to the state Department of Education, but they're heavily concentrated in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. Low-income families also may not find out about the scholarships or be able to apply.
"The early bird gets the worm, and if you're working two jobs and don't have internet, you're not always the early bird," Sweitzer said.
The bill also does not prohibit schools and scholarship-granting organizations from prioritizing students of a particular religion, which is another concern with critics.
The measure would need to pass through the taxes committee before heading to the floor. Its companion bill cleared a Senate committee last month.
Map: Minnesota's private schools, 2011-12 school year
Minnesota is home to nearly 500 private elementary and secondary schools, most of which are concentrated around the Twin Cities metro area. The information in this map reflects responses to the National Center for Education Statistics' Private School Universe Survey, sent to private schools, which responded voluntarily with information about the 2011-12 school year.