School Choice & Charters

Choice Surges Despite States’ Fiscal Woes

By Michele McNeil — April 22, 2008 4 min read
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Despite states’ growing budget woes and Utah voters’ repeal five months ago of the nation’s first universal state voucher program, the school choice movement is gaining some ground as legislatures advance proposals that would indirectly funnel taxpayer money to families who want to send their children to private schools.

The Georgia legislature this month created a tax credit for families and companies that donate to private-school-voucher funds. Louisiana approved a new tax deduction for families that pay private school tuition. Two more states are advancing tax-break legislation: Florida and Oklahoma.

And in a twist that could rejuvenate vouchers for students in failing schools in Florida, school choice advocates are trying to persuade a special commission that meets only every 20 years to put a constitutional amendment legalizing vouchers on the November ballot.

The spate of activity suggests that the school choice movement is avoiding the especially divisive issue of universal vouchers, which would let any public school student receive state aid to move to a private school. Choice advocates are still stinging from the November repeal of Utah’s recently passed voucher program after a heated referendum process. (“Utah’s Vote Raises Bar on Choice,” Nov. 14, 2007.)

Instead, legislatures are sticking to targeted voucher programs for students deemed at risk academically and tax credits that encourage individuals and companies to donate to privately run voucher programs, said Robert Enlow, the executive director of the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.

“It may be a different name, but it’s still the same solution,” said Mr. Enlow, whose organization advocates school choice.

Georgia’s Example

For voucher proponents such as Mr. Enlow, Georgia has provided one of the biggest victories.

If Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue signs the legislation passed earlier this month, Georgia will become the sixth state to offer tax credits for donations to private organizations that give vouchers to students for private school tuition.

The legislation would offer credits of up to $2,500 to families, and even more generous credits to companies, equivalent to the maximum value of their donations, although there’s a statewide $50 million cap.

Gov. Perdue has until mid-May to make a decision on the bill. Georgia already has a voucher program for students with disabilities, which Gov. Perdue signed into law last year.

Louisiana this year enacted a new personal tax deduction—which is typically worth less than a tax credit—for families that pay private school tuition. The deduction, which is worth up to $5,000 per child, was signed into law last month by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who took office in January. Meanwhile, Gov. Jindal is pushing a new private-school-voucher program for New Orleans families.

States are debating such tax breaks and choice programs amid growing budget deficits.

That’s the argument opponents of a tax-credit bill are making in Oklahoma, which is facing a deficit of $114 million this year as legislators crafted their budget.

Under a proposal advancing in the legislature, individuals could get a tax credit equal to 50 percent of their donations to an organization that gives out vouchers to free- and reduced-price-lunch students in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties, with a statewide cap of $2.5 million. The individual tax credit would be capped at 50 percent of a person’s total tax liability, according to a recent version of the bill.

“Any time you divert money, that money has to come from somewhere,” said Mark Bledsoe, the executive director of the United Suburban Schools Association, which represents 56 of the largest suburban schools in Oklahoma.

Florida Constitution

In Florida, the most significant advance could come from a special commission created under the Florida Constitution that meets every 20 years to re-examine the state’s budget and tax landscape.

The 25-member citizens’ Taxation and Budget Reform Commission can send a constitutional-amendment directly to voters.

The commission is considering trying to revive a voucher program that was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 as unconstitutional. Created under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican and a big proponent of vouchers, the Opportunity Scholarships gave tuition aid for attending a private school to students from failing schools, as defined under the state’s accountability system.

The commission is considering a constitutional amendment that would authorize the legislature to spend public money on private or religious entities. The previous program was struck down because the high court found that the Florida Constitution allowed the legislature to spend money only on a uniform system of public schools. (“Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional,” Jan. 11, 2006.)

The full commission earlier this month failed to muster enough votes—17 of 25—to place the amendment on the November ballot. However, through a procedural maneuver, the panel may reconsider the proposal and vote again this week, said Patricia Levesque, a voucher supporter who is a member of the commission.

Ms. Levesque is the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, started by Mr. Bush, and she was his education adviser while he was governor.

The Florida legislature also is considering a new voucher program for students in foster care, similar to one in Arizona. Also up for debate is an expansion of an existing Florida tax-credit program for donations to voucher organizations, which provides companies with a dollar-for-dollar credit up to 75 percent of their donation, capped statewide at $88 million.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2008 edition of Education Week as Choice Surges Despite States’ Fiscal Woes

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