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Good Chance For Choice

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While private school choice plans will continue to face obstacles, many analysts agree that in states with newly elected Republican governors, state school chiefs, and legislatures, the political climate for such plans has never been better. Mary Fulton, a state-policy expert for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, predicts that private school choice "is certainly going to be much more of an issue and will go further along in the legislative process than ever before.''

Supporters say it would give families that cannot otherwise afford a private school education for their children new opportunities. What's more, they argue, the competition from private schools would spur public schools to improve.

Opponents point out, however, that vouchers--particularly those that could be used in private schools--would drain the already hurting public schools of vital dollars. Such plans, they assert, would not necessarily provide enough money to really 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 the plan's 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 families 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 won the support of many politicians, business leaders, and parents.

Tim Sheehy, president of the pro-voucher Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, says the goal is not to destroy the public system but to "give low-income parents who are captive of a monopoly the opportunity to act like a customer.'' An expansion of the program may be imminent, he says, given that Republicans now control both houses of the legislature.

In Arizona, choice advocates are pointing to November'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 in the state for years. Gary Lewallen, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, believes the ultimate fate of any voucher bill will depend on how it is written. A pilot voucher proposal that includes religious schools could pass in Arizona's heavily Republican legislature, he says, but such a bill would probably end up in court.

"By and large, people are satisfied with their schools,'' Lewallen says. "So what this ends up being 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.''

Officials in Georgia, Florida, and Idaho also anticipate that some voucher legislation will be introduced in their states.

If the purpose of these proposals is to shake up the education bureaucracy and if that starts happening in other ways, such as through the increasingly popular charter schools movement, "people may start backing off vouchers,'' says Fulton of the ECS. She notes that vouchers have been introduced in some places as a threat in order to enact less radical reforms.

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C., agrees that voucher plans have served that purpose in the past and will continue to do so. But in some states, he says, "you're going to see a real effort.''

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