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Senate OKs tuition aid for non-public schools

PIERRE--A plan to give state tax credits to insurance companies, for donations they provide for tuition aid at non-public K-12 schools in South Dakota, won approval Wednesday from the state Senate.

PIERRE-A plan to give state tax credits to insurance companies, for donations they provide for tuition aid at non-public K-12 schools in South Dakota, won approval Wednesday from the state Senate.

The vote of 24-11 sends the legislation, SB 159, to the House of Representatives for further consideration. It would allow insurance companies to donate up to $2.5 million and receive tax credits of $2 million.

The South Dakota constitution specifically prohibits state aid to sectarian schools: "No appropriation of lands, money or other property or credits to aid any sectarian school shall ever be made by the state, or any county or municipality within the state."

Sen. Phyllis Heineman, R-Sioux Falls, said there is a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing for tax credits to be used. She is the measure's prime sponsor.

"The check itself can't be made out to the school. It has to be made to the parent," Heineman said. "It can be sent to the school, but the check can't be made directly to the school itself."

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She said the plan would be revenue neutral because it would reduce state government's cost for aiding public schools.

A financial analysis performed by the Legislative Research Council indicated 1,036 scholarships could be possible and they could help 761 students switch from public schools to non-public schools.

Sen. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City, said the impact on public schools would be a funding reduction of $3.7 million.

"I'm not saying that's right or wrong or anything," Solano said. He continued, "As you look at the fiscal note, it does have real ramifications."

Sen. Bernie Hunhoff, D-Yankton, said there's no reason the Legislature can't be for all students and all schools. Hunhoff said the scholarships could make "a real difference" in the lives of some students and could bring greater diversity to non-public schools.

"It took me a while to come around to this way of thinking," Hunhoff said.

The bill's lead sponsor in the House is the House Republican leader, Brian Gosch of Rapid City.

Last year, a version of the same concept from Heineman and Gosch passed in the Senate, but stalled in the House on a 31-31 tie over whether to let the full 70-member House debate it.

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This year, Heineman and Gosch have 31 House co-sponsors in addition to Gosch, approximately double the number on the 2015 bill.

Heineman described the legislation Wednesday as a parents-choice measure.

"What's best for families?" Heineman said. "Most families are going to choose the public schools."

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