Arizona lawmakers are considering two bills that would expand the scope and limits of public school state tax credits; one would benefit low-income high school students and should be supported, while the other is well-intentioned but could reduce the amount of already inadequate money available to K-12 education.
Arizona offers dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to public schools. Currently, the money can be used only for science lab materials, extracurricular activities like band or athletics, or character education.
A bill, HB2232, would increase the tax credit donation Arizonans could make to a public school, taking it from $200 to $500 per year for a single taxpayer, and from $400 to $1,000 for married couples filing jointly. The change would make the public school tax credit more in line with the tax credit Arizona allows for donations to private school tuition organizations.
We understand the impetus to expand the tax credit program and, in better financial times would, and have, supported such a move. But the tax credit donations can be spent so narrowly it comes at a cost to general K-12 education. Arizona is facing a roughly $1 billion shortfall for the upcoming budget year, and it doesn’t make sense to divert money from the general fund.
However, we do support House Bill 2066, which would allow those dollars to cover the costs of standardized tests for college credit or readiness, like the ACT, SAT, International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement tests; and career and technical industry certification assessments.
These tests have fees, and allowing schools to use tax credit donations to pay for them is a good idea. HB 2066 has passed the education committee.
While extending the tax credit to testing fees will benefit families who can afford the fees without assistance, it also would benefit students who may not take the tests because they can’t afford the fees.
Schools will sometimes pay for needy students’ testing fees out of their own budgets. Allowing schools to solicit tax credit donations specifically to help students take the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement or career and technical certification tests will take pressure off schools’ individual budgets and increase the number of kids who can take these tests without worrying about finances.
For example, the SAT registration fee is $52.50, plus more for subject area exams. The ACT test, with the writing option, is $54.50. Students can take the tests multiple times, and many do, to improve their scores.
Some schools, such as in Vail School District, administers the ACT to all high school juniors for free. A grant from the Helios Foundation pays for two-thirds the cost, and the schools pay the remainder. It costs the district $8,000 to $10,000 per year to test about 800 students, said Aron Schmidt, director of high school instruction and career and technical education.
Individual schools will on occasion pay for or help students with fees for other tests, including the $89 Advanced Placement exams. Scoring well on an AP test allows a student to earn college credit at many universities. It’s a good investment in a student’s future.
“We have students who need to take that SAT and can’t afford it, or who have done well in AP calculus and could earn college credit but $89 to take the test is just too much,” Schmidt said.
Schools now must use money from their budgets or earned revenue, through vending machine or rental proceeds, to defray testing costs for students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program.
Expanding the public school tax credit program to include college credit, preparation and career testing fees is a smart move for Arizona. It would allow schools to seek out sponsorships with businesses or community organizations to help middle- and low-income students be as prepared as they can be for their future.