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Wealthiest Virginians are benefiting most from contributions to school voucher program

A black and white foto of St. Andrew’s School from the early 20th century.
Patrick Scott Vickers
A number of private religious schools in the Richmond area — including St. Andrew’s School, which is shown here in a picture from the early 20th century — have received the scholarship dollars. The largest single benefactor during the past few years was the McMahon Parater Scholarship Foundation, which last year received $3.2 million in scholarship funding to pay for tuition grants to private Catholic schools in Virginia. (Photo: Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Virginia lawmakers didn’t approve an array of new education voucher program proposals this year. But an attempt to limit an existing voucher program also stalled, due to a budget amendment from Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

The Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credits Program allows individuals to receive a tax break for contributing to foundations and private schools to fund tuition scholarships for low- and middle-income students there. More lenient income restrictions exist for students with disabilities.

Records VPM News received from the state department of taxation show that wealthy individuals have received nearly all of these specific tax credits in recent years. 

About 98% of contributions to the program claimed on tax returns during the past six years have been from individuals with six-figure incomes or above; more than one-third were claimed by those earning an annual income of $2 million or more.

A number of private religious schools in the Richmond area — including St. Andrew’s School and Elijah House Academy — have  received the scholarship dollars. The largest single benefactor during the past few years was the McMahon Parater Scholarship Foundation, which last year received $3.2 million in scholarship funding to pay for tuition grants to private Catholic schools in Virginia.

“The fact that you're getting a tax credit means this really shouldn't be characterized as a donation,” said Jessica Levin, a senior attorney with the Education Law Center. “Individuals and corporations are taking money that they would otherwise owe in taxes, and they're being allowed to give it to a voucher-granting organization and getting a tax credit.”

The credit is worth 65% of the monetary value of the contribution; in 2019 a loophole was closed that allowed people to claim the credit on both their state and federal taxes.

Lawmakers wanted to cap the program at $12 million in allowable tax credits per year; the current cap is $25 million. But Youngkin rejected lawmakers’ proposal to limit the program, even though last year was the first and only year in the past several years that claimed tax credits exceeded $12 million.

A Youngkin education official said the tax credit program “provides our poorest families in the Commonwealth to have the opportunity to make sure that they're choosing the environment, the learning environment that serves their students the best.”

Groups like the Family Foundation supported Youngkin’s proposal and urged residents  to voice their support, stating in an email newsletter that “the number of families searching for alternatives to Virginia’s public school system because of radical ‘transgender’ policies and the ‘woke’ curriculum that undermines their family values continues to rise.” 

Levin said these tax credit programs, though different than other voucher programs, are “just a little bit more of a roundabout way to divert what should be public dollars instead to private education expenses” and fuel school segregation. 

Voucher programs “have a toxic and ugly history” of being used in Virginia to avoid integration following the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, Levin said. The popular phrase “school choice” has a dark history in Virginia as well.

A history of segregation in education

Following the Supreme Court decision in 1954, Virginia lawmakers did everything in their power to prevent school integration. Leon Dure, a then-retired Richmond Times-Dispatch editor, developed the concept of “freedom of choice of association,” which was embraced by segregationists and contributed to the establishment of massive resistance.

Southern historian James Hershman said it was part of a libertarian philosophy supported not only by state lawmakers, but also economists like Milton Friedman, George Mason economist James Buchanan and University of Virginia economist Warren Nutter.

“They said, ‘We need to privatize things like social security and public education,’” Hershman said.

Dure also promoted the idea of private tuition grants.

“He said, these won’t be given out on a racial basis, but they’ll give parents a choice on where to send their children,” Hershman said.

According to Hershman, however, the true intent was to keep schools segregated. 

“What they were mostly used for was to set up segregation academies,” Hershman said. “There were 12 segregation academies that were created under the auspices of those grants.”

After lawmakers amended the state constitution in 1956 to allow public funding to be utilized for private-school education, they set aside a pot of funding for the tuition grant voucher program.

According to Brian Daugherity, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, the grants — later renamed tuition scholarships in an attempt to disguise them as race-neutral — went directly to parents to pay for tuition at private schools, “which would essentially allow families then to leave those desegregated schools and enter into the private school system without taking on an additional financial burden.”

The state of Virginia gave out millions of dollars of taxpayer money for these tuition scholarships during the late 1950s and 1960s, Daugherity said, most of which went into the private school system.

But that’s not all lawmakers did to thwart desegregation, said Daugherity, who’s written three books about the aftermath of the Brown v. Board case.

He said the state legislature also made it acceptable for localities to provide free transportation to private schools.

They also altered policies related to teacher retirement, so that when educators left the public school system and entered into a private school setting, they could retain some retirement benefits.

Additionally, localities were allowed to sell public school property, which in many cases could have been used to benefit newly established and racially segregated private schools. And they created an entirely new category of tax breaks available to citizens who donated to private schools, including those that were racially segregated.

Brian Lee, a history professor at McNeese State University, said in Prince Edward County — one of the districts involved in the Brown v. Board of Education case — residents were able to forgo up to 25% of their property taxes by contributing to the racially segregated Prince Edward Academy, which is now called Fuqua School.

“Rather than pay $100 for your property tax, you could pay $75 of your property tax and pay $25 towards the private school,” Lee said. “A lot of that money went to help build the permanent high school complex [of Prince Edward Academy]. So, public dollars helped build the private school which still exists today.”

Segregationist school funding in Prince Edward County

For the first year after it opened, Prince Edward Academy was tuition-free and “was funded by donations by local people and segregationists across the country,” according to Kristen Green, author of “Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County.”

“The United Daughters of the Confederacy did a book drive for the school, so that they could have the books that they needed in order to be accredited. And people just sent in letters and checks and cash to the school in order to support it,” Green said.

Prince Edward County became notorious for closing its public schools — locking Black students and some poor white students out of classrooms — for five years, rather than integrate.

“It just was extremely creative and nefarious for the time,” said Cainan Townsend, managing director for the Robert Russa Moton Museum. “And we had people coming from as far away as California to watch what was happening here.”

The school closures and the private tuition grants “essentially left Brown v. Board dead in the water,” Townsend said, because policymakers had “figured out a way to use public tax dollars to funnel money into a school that you could then exclude people from.”

According to Green, about 1,300 white students from Prince Edward County applied for and received tuition grants to attend Prince Edward Academy for the 1960-’61 school year.

While a federal judge blocked the grants between 1961 and 1964, that injunction was lifted briefly before a different judge barred tuition grants in Surry County, according to Brian Lee, who is writing a forthcoming book called “A Matter of National Concern: The Kennedy Administration's Campaign to Restore Public Education to Prince Edward County, Virginia.”

Lee said segregationists in Surry wanted to use tuition grants for the newly opened segregation academy.

Sensing the courts would soon bar the use of tuition grants in Prince Edward County again, Green said the county board of supervisors held a late-night, secret meeting that July to set aside $180,000 for 1,250 tuition grants.

“Later that night, hundreds of Prince Edward Academy patrons gathered at the town armory to accept grants that were being handed out, again, in secret,” Green said. “The next morning, three banks in town opened early for parents to cash the checks before a new court order could stop them.”

In December 1964, Lee said a federal court barred tuition grants to Prince Edward and Surry county residents as long as they sent their children to segregated schools.

Townsend said Prince Edward County resident the Rev. Al Francis Griffin was at the center of the fight to reopen schools and get rid of the tuition grants. He said Griffin was “basically the Martin Luther King Jr. of Farmville.”

“He had sued [various groups] every year since the schools are closed, basically,” Townsend said. “He’s like, look: The state had these grants that were able to be used, but there's no school for African Americans to go to at all.”

But Townsend said the 1964 decision banning the tuition grants was more about the school closures, not the grants themselves.

“It wasn't because, you know, ‘We think it's bad that these [tuition grants] are being used,” Townsend said. “It’s because literally Black students have nowhere to go to school at all. And so, because of that, you're misusing these grants, so we're taking them away.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1969 that the courts officially put a complete end to tuition grants statewide — after the NAACP mounted a statewide lawsuit against all Virginia communities that had segregation academies.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.