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Gov. Bob McDonnell to lead school choice scholarship foundation in Virginia

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Local,Virginia,Education,Steve Contorno

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell is helping organize a nonprofit foundation to provide voucherlike scholarships to Virginia students who want to attend private schools, capitalizing on a new law he championed last year.

McDonnell has agreed to serve on the Board of Directors for Step Up for Virginia's Kids, a new foundation with a goal of becoming the state's largest player in a program that provides tax credits to individuals and businesses in exchange for k-12 scholarships. The position is unpaid, and the Attorney General's Office assured McDonnell there is no conflict of interest to sit on a nonprofit board while governor.

A McDonnell spokesman described the governor's role in the foundation as "limited," but those working with the group said the Republican leader adds instant credibility and the potential to reach deep-pocketed donors. McDonnell was first approached about the position last year by Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Richmond, the sponsor of the scholarship tax credit.

"It's such an incredible coup," said John Kirtley, who is working with the Virginia foundation after spearheading a similar effort in Florida. Kirtley said former Gov. Jeb Bush's help was invaluable in promoting Step Up for Students in Florida, talking to "CEOs who he knew that we were trying to recruit."

"[Bush] was tremendously helpful," Kirtley said. "So I'm sure we'll benefit the same way from Gov. McDonnell."

The Educational Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit on which the foundation will rely is off to a slow start. Since the state started providing the tax breaks on Jan. 1, it has approved $55,250 in tax credits, but just $325 have been claimed -- far from the $25 million annual cap. Virginia has so far authorized seven foundations, including two outside the state, to award scholarships.

Under the law, children in families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level -- $70,650 for a family of four -- are eligible for scholarships. But unlike traditional school voucher programs, the state will not give money directly to parents. Rather, it reimburses private entities about 65 percent of the cost of the scholarship through tax credits.

The Step Up foundation will focus primarily on students far below the eligibility requirements and won't favor particular parochial schools, like some of the foundations already registered, Massie said.

"What works best is a dominant statewide scholarship organization," Massie said. "The governor is interested in helping me attract directors and help raising money. We just want to help a lot of kids as best as we possibly can."

Opponents of the law said McDonnell is too focused on providing parents a choice and is not paying enough attention to fixing public schools.

"Anything that the governor does that takes away from that priority is a wasted opportunity," said Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. "Why aren't there more foundations and tax credits to put more private money into the public schools?"

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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