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Published in Print: October 12, 2005, as Choice Proponents Gearing Up for 2006 Legislatures

Choice Proponents Gearing Up for 2006 Legislatures

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School choice advocates from conservative-leaning state policy groups gathered here recently to compare notes and map out strategies for expanding families’ school options during the 2006 state legislative sessions.

Attendees at the State Policy Network’s annual conference, held Sept. 28-29, predicted that school choice bills will be introduced and debated in the coming year in Arizona, Missouri, South Carolina, and other states. The SPN, based in Richmond, Calif., links conservative state policy organizations across the country.

Missouri is among the states where new legislation is most likely to prevail in 2006, some here predicted.

“Of all the places [looking at school choice], I would say Missouri has the best chance of doing something this coming session,” said Brian McGrath, the director of programs and state relations for the Indianapolis-based Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which promotes school choice.

Earlier this year, a proposal in the Missouri House called for a $40 million plan to create scholarships worth $3,800 to $4,000 each for students in St. Louis and Kansas City who met one of several requirements, including thresholds for low income. The plan didn’t make it to the floor, but Mr. McGrath said 2006 could be different.

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican who has voiced support for school choice, recently convened a meeting of business leaders in St. Louis to build support for the plan, Mr. McGrath said.

The Friedman Foundation plans to take a group of Missouri business leaders to Milwaukee soon to examine that city’s voucher program, enacted by the Wisconsin legislature, which allows about 15,000 students from low-income families to attend private schools using state-funded vouchers worth about $6,000 each.

Building Support

Meanwhile, the battle over school choice in South Carolina also appears to be far from over.

Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, plans to make his proposed Put Parents in Charge Act one of his key legislative goals again this coming year, after the menu of voucher-style programs failed to pass the GOP-controlled legislature in 2005.

The legislation would have allowed up to $4,000 in reduced state income taxes for each child that a family enrolled in private schools or transferred to other public schools. It also would have allowed unlimited corporate-tax-credit scholarships, in which corporations get tax breaks for donations to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools.

Gov. Sanford spoke at the conference here, but the press was not allowed to attend.

“The governor is still just as committed to school choice as he ever was,” said Randy Page, the executive director of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, an advocacy group based in Columbia, S.C. “The question is not whether we’re going to have school choice in South Carolina, but when.”

In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano may call a special legislative session on several policy matter before the end of this year, during which the Republican-controlled legislature is expected to pass a bill adopting corporate-tax-credit scholarships in the state, school choice supporters here said. Arizona already has tax-credit scholarships that are funded by contributions from individuals.

Gov. Napolitano earlier this year vetoed a plan to provide $3,500 corporate-tax-credit scholarships, infuriating some Republican legislative leaders who believed the governor had agreed to sign the legislation, said Darcy A. Olsen, the president of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute, a think tank that backs the plan.

In Utah, school choice proponents hope to build on last year’s legislative victory on special education scholarships.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, signed a law providing $1.4 million in scholarships for students with disabilities whose parents wish to transfer them to private schools or other public schools. So far, the demand for the program has been weaker than anticipated. ("Utah Lacking Takers for New Special-Needs Voucher," Oct. 5, 2005)

School choice activists in Utah hope to add a tax-credit-scholarship program next year, said M. Royce Van Tassell, the executive director of Education Excellence Utah, a Salt Lake City-based group that supported the new voucher program and is now pushing for the tax-credit scholarships.

Vol. 25, Issue 07, Page 15

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