Legislatures Hit With Surge in School Choice Plans
Conservatives Hope for Political Payback With Vouchers, Tax Credits
Mark it down: 2005 may be a banner year for private school choice in state legislatures.
Citing the success of President Bush and other Republicans in the November elections, along with years of grassroots organizing and struggles to break into the political mainstream, conservatives are hoping it’s time for some payoffs on the school choice front.
And there are signs that their hopes are warranted, particularly as the movement is reaching states where few signs of deep political interest in vouchers, tuition tax breaks, and similar programs were present just a year ago.
“This was the first year that school choice forces weighed heavily in state legislative elections,” said Clint Bolick, the president and general counsel of the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Phoenix.
Mr. Bolick said political action groups that support school choice stepped up their donations of time and money to the campaigns of many legislative candidates. That help, in his view, likely gave new incentives to some legislators to push for measures to increase parents’ educational options—and boosted support for choice among others. “There’s no question that they elevated the issue of school choice in a number of states,” he said of the political action groups.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act also may be helping to fuel school choice proposals. The law requires states to give options to students in persistently low-rated schools, and some choice proposals are aimed at those schools, said Julie Bell, who follows education policy for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
While school choice legislation is getting serious looks from lawmakers in several places, analysts said last week it was too early in the legislative year to predict which bills would pass.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Mark Sanford and members of the GOP-controlled legislature want to open public schools to private-sector competition.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Ohio lawmakers are studying expansions of their well-known school voucher programs. The Texas legislature is considering a limited voucher proposal. Other plans are brewing in Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri.
In South Carolina last week, Gov. Sanford spoke at a rally on the Statehouse steps, championing his proposed “Put Parents in Charge” Act. He argued that it would help struggling students through its mix of competition and income-tax credits.
Rally in South Carolina
“It has a pretty good chance of passing,” said Barbara S. Nielsen, a Republican and former state education superintendent in South Carolina who has advised Gov. Sanford on education and backs his choice plan. “It was a bill that was uniquely designed for South Carolina.”
Mr. Sanford addressed thousands of people at the Feb. 15 rally, most of whom represented private schools and home schoolers, according to local news reports.
The governor’s plan would give families earning up to $75,000 in taxable income—covering almost everyone in the state—a credit on their state income taxes for the cost of public or private school tuition of up to 80 percent of the state’s average per-pupil cost. The amount would increase with the child’s age, and initially would be capped at about $4,000.
Public school districts would receive the local and federal dollars for students who left, while the state per-pupil aid would follow the student, Ms. Nielsen said.
Home schoolers would not be eligible for the tax credits, but parents would be allowed to deduct textbooks costs, membership dues, and online services.
The plan also would create South Carolina’s first corporate tax-credit scholarships. Unlike similar programs in Arizona and Florida, the South Carolina plan would allow businesses to make virtually unlimited contributions to nonprofit scholarship groups in lieu of paying state corporate taxes. Those groups would then provide scholarships for school tuition.
Gov. Sanford argues that his plan would be a major economic-development boon.
But opposition is mobilizing.
The South Carolina School Boards Association and other education groups say the tax credits could cost the state huge amounts of money and would undermine the institution of public education.
Debbie Elmore, a spokeswoman for the school boards’ association, said that tens of thousands of students could leave public schools under the programs within a few years—disabling a system that works for many students, she said. “This proposal is unaffordable, unproven, and unaccountable,” she said.
Through the tax-credit scholarships, Ms. Elmore contended, private and religious schools would be able, in effect, to divert massive amounts of public money with little oversight. “It’s too wide-open,” she added.
The South Carolina debate could be a prologue to showdowns over private school choice in other states, as policymakers weigh the value of employing competition to spur overhauls of their K-12 public education systems.
Buckeyes and Bucks
“We have made progress [in public education], but it isn’t fast enough, and it isn’t for all kids,” argued Ms. Nielsen, now a policy fellow at Clemson University’s Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “Whose children are these? Are they the parents’ children or the government’s children? And that’s not a far-right comment.”
Academic progress, indeed, is one of the themes being sounded in Ohio, where Gov. Bob Taft has proposed expanding the state’s 8-year-old, $17.9 million voucher program currently operating in Cleveland.
The Republican’s proposed fiscal 2006 budget, presented on Feb. 10, would set aside $9 million for the new scholarships.
The Cleveland voucher program now provides up to $2,700 for private school tuition. The new “Ohio Choice Scholarships” would offer up to $3,500 per student from specific elementary and middle schools in the state—those in which two-thirds of students have failed both mathematics and reading tests for three consecutive years.
Currently, 70 Ohio elementary and middle schools fall into that category, based on data collected from the 2001-02 through 2003-04 school years. If approved, the new program would begin in the fall of 2006, said Mark Rickel, the governor’s press secretary. Some 2,600 students could receive vouchers.
The delay is intended to give the targeted schools a chance to improve, and to allow private schools a chance to prepare for voucher recipients, he said. Gov. Taft “has lost patience with the schools that were persistently failing,” Mr. Rickel said.
The program would provide full tuition for participating private schools, which must agree to limit tuition to the voucher amount. In contrast, the existing Cleveland program allows the participating schools to charge additional tuition on top of the value of the voucher.
Also, students in the new program would be required to take the state assessment, like students in public schools, and would have to show progress in order to continue receiving the scholarships. Students in the Cleveland voucher program must also take tests, but test scores showing progress are not a requirement.
The Ohio School Boards Association is “adamantly” opposed to Gov. Taft’s voucher proposal, said Fred Pausch, the group’s director of legislative services. “We need to allocate more money to failing schools before we start allocating money to a whole new program,” he said.
He noted that the Ohio legislature is just beginning to review the governor’s budget. “We’re basically in the first inning of the baseball game,” Mr. Pausch said.
Another Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, has proposed a $4 million tax-credit scholarship plan that would allow 1,500 low-income students in low-rated schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul to attend private schools. The scholarships would come from corporate donations made to nonprofit organizations in exchange for tax breaks.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican, has proposed a pilot voucher program for students in low-rated schools in some of the state’s largest school districts.
Other programs are on the table in Indiana and Missouri. An Indiana voucher bill has gained support in the largely Republican state legislature, and the Missouri program would offer tax-credit scholarships for families with moderate incomes, and has backing from new Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin House and Senate have passed bills that would lift an enrollment cap on Milwaukee’s voucher program, though Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle has threatened to veto the legislation.
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