ECA gets extra boost from AZ tax credit program

KINGMAN - The city's only private school is doubling its efforts to teach parents how to effectively use a long-time state program that allows individual and corporate donors to designate funds for students' tuition in return for a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit.

Emmanuel Christian Academy, which was founded in 2000, is offering monthly tuition relief training to help parents take advantage of the Arizona School Tuition Tax Credit Law, which was enacted by the Arizona Legislature in 1997. ECA began the training last year in earnest and because of it, has almost doubled its enrollment from 52 students last year to 90 so far this year. There are nine teachers at the school.

"We want parents to understand that Arizona is a great state to live in if they want their children to go to a private school," said Robyn Christiansen, public relations director for ECA. "Providing a good education shouldn't depend on a family's financial situation. Parents should have an opportunity to get their children into the schools that are best for them."

Scholarship tax credit programs are an alternative to school voucher programs and are being used in 14 states - including Arizona - to allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private, nonprofit organizations that issue scholarships to students in private schools. The scholarships are used to pay tuition, fees and other related expenses.

If taxpayers have already met what they owe Arizona using payroll deductions, they will receive their donation back on their taxes. And if they still owe the state, their donation becomes a tax credit toward what they must pay. For tax year 2014, the credit for individual donations is $528 for single taxpayers or heads of household, and $1,056 for those filing a joint return. The credit for corporate donations is $525 and $1,050, respectively.

Arizona was the first state to dive into the tax credit-funded scholarship pool and now has about 60 state-certified School Tuition Organizations that provide scholarships to students designated by a donor. The schools must be private, tuition-charging facilities, accept students in kindergarten through 12th grade and whose teachers are fingerprinted.

Other requirements vary for students, including the amount of family income, depending on the School Tuition Organization. Donors cannot designate funds for their dependents, and cannot swap donations with other parents.

Most students at ECA will take advantage of the program, said Christiansen, as well as other scholarships offered by the school, to pay part of their tuition. Christiansen said she handed out 400 information packets about the tax credit to prospective families last year, and expects to disburse about 1,000 this year. The school gets scholarships from eight School Tuition Organizations in Arizona.

The program has supporters and opponents across Arizona, acknowledged Christiansen. Supporters say the credits save the state money because the annual tuition at a private school is typically less than the per-pupil cost at public schools. Opponents point out that districts whose students leave for private schools are harmed because they can't proportionately reduce their fixed facilities and transportation costs.

ECA charges $4,120 for annual tuition. Arizona's per pupil spending average is $7,848.

"We are removing students from overcrowded schools and we are saving the state money because it's less than Arizona would spend per student in a public school," said Christiansen. "I think it's great that Arizona provides a way for students to go to private schools. And I always tell people they need to know all their options when it comes to education."