School Choice Picks Up New Allies in States

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School choice advocates in Texas, Michigan, Colorado, and elsewhere are planning aggressive campaigns next year for vouchers and education tax breaks. And despite numerous legislative and ballot-box losses over the years, pro-voucher efforts may gain momentum thanks to new support from Democratic lawmakers and urban leaders.

"Liberal constituencies that have sided with unions are getting sufficiently frustrated with inner-city schools that they're willing to try vouchers," said William T. Dickens, a community-development specialist with the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington.

Voucher foes admit that the debate is broadening, but say the threat of vouchers' siphoning needed money from public schools is the same. "You can take a system that's not working well and make it a lot worse. That's what vouchers would do," said Andrew Rotherham, a legislative analyst at the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Texas Turnaround?

Voucher proponents in the Lone Star State are cheering Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock for agreeing to serve as the honorary chairman of that state's leading pro-voucher group, Putting Children First.

Mr. Bullock "wants a trial program to see how it works," his spokesman, Tony Proffitt, said. "He thinks it's time we try this at an elementary and secondary level."

The Texas legislature, which meets every two years, narrowly defeated voucher bills in its last two sessions. It reconvenes in 1999.

In the meantime, Mr. Bullock's endorsement could help Putting Children First--which spent about $500,000 on this year's voucher drive--organize a new voucher charge.

"He brings to this effort something we've said all along," said Jimmy M. Mansour, the group's chairman, "Which is that this is a bipartisan effort to improve education."

Cecile Richards, the executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, a grassroots community education group in Austin, and the daughter of former Democratic Gov. Ann W. Richards, saw Mr. Bullock's participation in a different light, however. "It's discouraging and disappointing that the lieutenant governor would sign up with a group that has no history supporting children in need," she said.

'Interesting Coalition'

But Democrats in other states are behind plans to send public dollars into private schools.

Pennsylvania Rep. Dwight Evans, a Democrat, has sponsored a bill to give students in Philadelphia's low-performing schools publicly funded $5,500 scholarships to attend private schools. No vote has been taken on the bill, which will carry over into next year's legislative session.

Mr. Evans, who is black and plans to run for mayor of Philadelphia in 1999, did not support such a plan until this year. He said his mind changed after Philadelphia school officials tried to shuffle staffs in two troubled schools. "The kids had to stay," he said. "Why not offer that option for parents and students?"

A Detroit group is hosting a state education summit Jan. 31 to begin a ballot drive on amending the state constitution to allow public funds to go to private schools. To get on the fall ballot, 308,908 signatures must be gathered by July 6.

Anita Nelam, a lifelong Democrat, is organizing the summit. "It's an interesting coalition between conservative whites and urban blacks," said Ms. Nelam, who is African-American.

Adele Robinson, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said there is still no broad support of voucher plans by liberal groups. "It's not as if the whole black caucus in a state or Congress has joined in," she said. "I think there's a lot more money being invested in vouchers now, and that's why it's so visible."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and People For the American Way, a liberal advocacy organization based in Washington, launched a campaign against vouchers in April. ("Nationwide Campaign Targets Private School Vouchers," April 9, 1997.)

Any help from Democrats and minorities could help stymie voucher critics. "Opponents are nervous," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group in Washington. "This brings credibility to a movement that's been easy to marginalize and portray as fringe."

Retrenching in Colorado

More-traditional voucher advocates are taking new stabs at voucher programs in their states. For example:

  • In Colorado, Tom Tancredo, a former Republican state representative and U.S. Department of Education representative in Denver under President Bush, will collect signatures for a 1998 voucher initiative. He succeeded in getting a voucher plan on the state ballot in 1992, but it failed with just 35 percent support.
  • The conservative Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus, Ohio, and some elected state officials have proposed a plan to expand Cleveland's voucher program statewide.

In July, the Ohio Supreme Court allowed Cleveland's program to continue to operate while it reviews a lower court ruling that the vouchers violate federal and state bans on government aid to religious institutions. Most of the 3,000 low-income students in the program attend parochial schools. It is the only voucher program in the country that allows state money to pay for tuition at religious schools.

Wisconsin's attempt to expand Milwaukee's private school voucher program to parochial schools is now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

  • New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson, a Republican, recently unveiled a school reform plan that would phase in publicly funded tuition scholarships over the next five years. The scholarships would be valid at private or parochial schools.

More Tax Credits?

In another approach to school choice, support appears to be building for tax assistance for education costs despite the defeat in Congress this year of a bill that would have given families tax breaks on savings for public or private school expenses.

Minnesota led the way this year by creating state income-tax credits of up to $2,000 per family to pay for computer equipment, tutorial services, and other education costs. The credits, which count dollar for dollar against tax bills, can't be used for private school tuition.

But Minnesota expanded its existing education tax deductions from $1,000 to $1,625 per K-6 student and $2,500 for 7-12 graders. The deductions can be used to offset the cost of private school tuition or other education fees. ("Minn. Expands Tax Breaks Tied to Education," July 9, 1997.)

In Indiana, state Rep. Robert W. Behning, a Republican, is considering using the Minnesota plan as a blueprint for legislation he expects to introduce next year.

Last month, Illinois lawmakers passed a bill to provide families with children in private or parochial schools up to $500 in tax credits. Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, has not said if he will sign the bill.

And the influential, market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich., unveiled a plan last month to provide dollar-for-dollar state tax credits to defray the cost of attending out-of-district public schools, or private schools.

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