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School Funding Battle Already Heating Up Democrats See Tax Credit Idea As Deceptively Appealing

A move to offer tax credits to teach kids at home or enroll them in private schools will sound deceptively appealing to some parents, area Democrats said Friday.

As 1995 begins crawling to a close, Democrats are prepping themselves for what is expected to be among 1996’s most contentious political battles: school funding.

The latest hot spot in that battle is an Idaho Citizens Alliance push to get a tax credit initiative on next year’s ballot. Parents would pay $500 less in property taxes per child, if their children attend private schools, according to the proposal.

Republicans appear split on the issue.

GOP Governor Phil Batt has said the ICA plan would be hard on public schools, costing an immediate $6 million for students already outside the public system.

But Boise lawmaker Fred Tilman plans to propose a $750 and $1,000 tax credit this spring in the Legislature. With state coffers already suffering from other income cutbacks, big changes are not expected to pass in the legislature this year.

Alliance founder Kelly Walton has acknowledged passage will be “an uphill battle,” but opponents are still uneasy. Kootenai County Democratic leaders said the initiative needs to be challenged because residents could be misled by it.

“When people hear about this they often say, ‘That seems fair,’ ” said opponent Judy Hyatt, a Canfield Middle School English teacher. “Well it’s not.”

Democrats argued the initiative would be unfair to retirees and single people, who already pay their share toward public schools without deriving a direct benefit.

Kootenai County Clerk Dan English, a Democrat, said the initiative inaccurately looked at property taxes for public school funding “as a direct user fee.”

“You pay because you get the benefits of living in an educated society,” he said.

Democrat Buell Hollister, who lost a bid for the Legislature in 1994, argued with English, saying many kids leave public schools these days without learning to read or write. He blamed the problem on conservatives who he said put too little money into public education.

Walton has said the initiative would work to fight the problem Hollister raised. It would draw more parents into the private school system, thereby giving public schools much needed competition.

If parents had $500 a year more to put toward private schools, that would also reduce the number of students per classroom, he has said.

Opponents argued the measure might be unconstitutional because it used public money to support primarily religious private schools. Supporters have said that’s not the case because a tax credit just returns tax dollars to the public - it doesn’t commit them to a religious organization.

Attorney General Al Lance has said the initiative could probably withstand a constitutional challenge.

, DataTimes