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Revival of Private-School-Voucher Plans Predicted

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Private school choice, a concept that has suffered setbacks in recent years, may be picking up steam in states where voters have ushered in a wave of conservative leadership poised to rattle the education bureaucracy.

Over the past four years, ballot initiatives that would have given parents state-financed vouchers to send their children to public or private schools of their choice have failed soundly in California, Colorado, and Oregon.

Now, after the Republican gains in the November elections, analysts are predicting a revival of voucher proposals in legislatures in at least half a dozen states in the coming months, including Arizona, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

Measures to allow quasi-independent charter schools within the public system are still likely to be among the most popular of school reforms, observers say, and private-school-choice proposals, considered more controversial, will encounter familiar obstacles.

But in states with newly elected Republican state superintendents, governors who won on pro-voucher platforms, and legislatures that gained g.o.p. seats, the political climate for school choice is at its peak, many analysts say.

Political Impetus

Private school choice "is certainly going to be much more of an issue and will go farther along in the legislative process than ever before," predicted Mary Fulton, a state-policy expert for the Education Commission of the States, which is based in Denver.

Supporters say such legislation gives new opportunities to families that could not otherwise afford private schools, and argue that it spurs public schools to improve in order to keep up in a competitive marketplace.

But opponents argue that voucher proposals drain public schools of vital dollars, do not necessarily aid those in need, and may violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

In Wisconsin, the home of the nation's only state-financed private-school-choice program, supporters are looking to expand its scope and eliminate its restriction to secular schools.

More than 800 students currently participate in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which offers up to 1,500 low-income parents in that city a $3,200 state tuition grant to send a child to any private, nonreligious school in the state.

Although the four-year-old program has received some negative reviews from experts, it has also won substantial backing among local politicians, business leaders, and parents. (See related story )

Those supporters are aiming to make the vouchers available to all students meeting the income requirements, and to enable parents to redeem the vouchers at any school, including religious schools.

Tim Sheehy, the president of the pro-voucher Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, said that allowing religious schools to participate makes sense because "that's where the capacity is."

The goal is not to destroy the public school system, he said, but to "give low-income parents who are captive of a monopoly the opportunity to act like a customer."

Mr. Sheehy said an expansion of the program may pass in the next session of the legislature, now that Republicans have gained control of both the House and the Senate. In addition, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican who is a longtime supporter of the voucher program, may seek more money for it.

Although more Republicans than Democrats back voucher plans, advocates are quick to point out that support cuts across party lines.

In a bold and unusual move last week, the soon-to-be speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly, Republican David Prosser Jr., announced his intention to appoint Democratic Rep. Polly Williams to chair the Urban(See ducation Committee. Ms. Williams was the author of the groundbreaking 1990 choice bill.

Jersey City Plan

Lawmakers in New Jersey, meanwhile, expect to consider a voucher plan for low-income families in Jersey City that was proposed by the state education commissioner, Leo Klagholz. The pilot program would give state-financed "certificates," redeemable at any private school, to a small group of low-income parents.

Although public school groups aim to kill the plan, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City, both Republicans, support it. The experimental program would involve only children entering 1st and 9th grades, and would automatically expire after five years.

In Arizona, choice advocates are pointing to last month's election results as a mandate for a voucher plan.

Gov. Fife Symington, a Republican, has been trying to enact a private-school-choice bill for years, and it was defeated narrowly in the Senate in the last session.

According to Jeff Flake, the executive director of the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based think tank, lawmakers who voted for the plan were concerned that their pro-voucher stance would jeopardize their re-election.

"There was a [false] perception that voting for vouchers would be electoral suicide," said Mr. Flake, whose organization supports school choice.

And Republican Commissioner of Education Lisa Graham's solid victory over her Democratic opponent also increases the likelihood that a voucher bill will pass, Mr. Flake said.

"In Arizona, that position does not have anything to do with legislation except as a bully pulpit, but that's effective," he said.

Gary Lewallen, the vice president of the Arizona Education Association, said the ultimate fate of any voucher bill will depend on how it is written.

"The devil is in the details," Mr. Lewallen said, echoing the sentiment of observers nationwide. A pilot voucher proposal that included religious schools could pass in Arizona's heavily Republican legislature, he said, but such a bill could end up in court.

"By and large, people are satisfied with their schools," Mr. Lewallen said, citing the low number of students who participate in the state's public school open-enrollment program.

"So what this ends up being," he argued, "is a diversion of public money into private schools. Kids whose families have been paying for the privilege now want you to be paying for the privilege."

In Connecticut, State Rep. Tim Barth plans to reintroduce a "local school option" bill that was defeated in a tied House vote last year. The proposal would allow school districts to opt for a school-choice program for low-income families that included public, private, and parochial schools.

Mr. Barth said he is hopeful because Connecticut elected its first Republican Governor in 24 years last month, and the g.o.p. gained control of the State Senate.

School officials in Georgia, Florida, and Idaho--all states that elected Republican state schools chiefs last month--also anticipate that some voucher legislation will be introduced.

But whether or not such bills pass often depends on more than just which party controls a state's elected offices.

Confounding Factors

In states whose constitutions prohibit public funding for private schools, proponents must ultimately take the issue to a referendum and face skeptical taxpayers.

In states that can pass private-school-choice measures through legislative votes, voucher plans may be scrapped in favor of other choice legislation, such as charter-schools bills.

If the purpose of the voucher proposals is to shake up the bureaucracy, and that starts happening in other ways, said Ms. Fulton, "people may start backing off vouchers." In the past, vouchers have been used as a threat in order to enact reforms that are seen as less radical, she said.

David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, said that has certainly been done and will continue to be done.

But in some states, he said, "you're going to see a real effort."

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