Law & Courts

School Choice Loses Legislative Momentum

June 07, 2005 6 min read
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So much for school choice advocates’ banner year in state legislatures.

Even with Utah’s adoption of vouchers for students with disabilities, and with enactment of school choice measures still plausible in Arizona and Ohio, 2005 hasn’t brought the strong showing that school choice supporters predicted it would.

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Table: 2005 School Choice Legislation

Lawmakers in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, South Carolina, and other states shot down prominent bills that would have created or expanded major programs facilitating private school choice.

“It was a year of steady but incremental gains, and it’s still not over,” said Clint Bolick, the president of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group that works in many states to support such legislation.

Other school choice supporters saw an even brighter lining in the clouds.

“This has been somewhat of an unprecedented year,” said Robert Fanger, the communications director for the Indianapolis-based Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, which also works to advance vouchers and other options. “We’ve seen more school choice legislation introduced and discussed more seriously than we have at any point in time.”

But opponents of publicly financed tuition vouchers and other forms of state-supported options for private education said this year’s legislative defeats mean the school choice movement is losing ground.

“My perspective on the 2005 legislative sessions is that many of the pro-school-choice, pro-voucher legislators did not have a huge record of success,” said Kay A. Coles, the state-legislative-policy specialist for the National Education Association. “It really is a repudiation of the concept of vouchers.”

The efforts of political-advocacy groups supporting school choice, including financial contributions to legislators and on-the-ground support, did not result in many victories for their cause.

Setback in South Carolina

Nowhere was that more evident than in South Carolina, where Gov. Mark Sanford, a first-term Republican, saw his ambitious choice proposals fail in a legislature controlled by his own party. (“Legislatures Hit With Surge in School Choice Plans,” Feb. 23, 2005.)

Legislation there would have allowed $4,000 in reduced state income taxes for each child that families enrolled in private schools or transferred to other public schools. The plan also would have allowed unlimited money to be raised for corporate-tax-credit scholarships. In such programs, corporations get tax credits for donations to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to students to attend private schools.

“This was a specific abandonment of our public schools,” said Paul Krohne, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, which fought the bills. “And that just didn’t ring well with our legislature.”

Supporters say they’ll be back next year.

“You can bet on it,” said Will Folks, Gov. Sanford’s press secretary. Until legislative leaders warm to the idea, “parents are going to continue to be faced with the dilemma of having kids stuck in failing schools,” he said.

In Indiana, legislation narrowly failed in committee that would have created vouchers for about 25,000 students at schools labeled as needing improvement, mainly in larger school districts. The legislation also would have allowed tax credits for private school tuition, starting at $1,000 per student and expanding yearly to $3,000.

Some business leaders will continue to fight for the legislation, said David Holt, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of workforce-development policy. Serious debate about the plan is most likely to come in two years, he said, because the 2006 session is expected to be a short session dealing with the second year of the state’s two-year budget.

“The business leaders around the state of Indiana believe that competition is very, very important to ensuring successful kids,” he said.

Officials with an Indiana teachers’ union also will not give up when it comes to fighting such measures, said Judith A. Briganti, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s NEA affiliate. She said the school choice debate detracts from more serious needs in the state, such as higher school funding and all-day kindergarten.

“We will continue to try to stand up for what our schools need, rather than for diverting it to other entities,” Ms. Briganti said.

In Texas, a plan to provide vouchers for students in urban districts failed in a series of narrow votes in the House on May 27. It was the first time since 1997 a voucher bill had reached a floor vote in the Texas legislature.

Missouri lawmakers did not take a floor vote on a proposed $40 million House plan to create scholarships worth between $3,800 and $4,000 for low-income students and for students with 1.9 grade-point averages or lower, who have been removed from public schools for discipline reasons, or whose parents have been incarcerated, said Donayle Whitmore-Smith, the president of the St. Louis-based Missouri Coalition for School Choice.

The bill had bipartisan support and was backed by freshman Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, but the year’s legislative session was dominated by school finance. (“Missouri OKs School Aid Plan; Likely Plaintiffs Unimpressed,” May 25, 2005.)

In Florida, another Republican, Gov. Jeb Bush, saw his push to expand the state’s current voucher programs fizzle in the GOP-controlled legislature. (“Gov. Bush’s Voucher, Class-Size Proposals Fail in 2005 Session,” May 18, 2005.)

He wanted $5,000 vouchers for up to 170,000 students scoring at the lowest level on state reading tests for three years in a row.

In Ohio, lawmakers passed competing plans to expand vouchers in Cleveland and offer vouchers to thousands more students across the state. A legislative conference committee was set to begin work this week to merge the competing plans, said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate that is fighting Ohio vouchers.

Ohio Waits

Ohio senators passed a bill on June 2 that would provide private school vouchers worth $4,200 for grades K-8 and $5,000 in grades 9-12 to about 10,000 students in some 70 low-rated public schools, he said. The Senate also passed a plan to raise the amounts of Cleveland’s existing vouchers to $3,450 for all students in the program. Cleveland voucher students now receive $3,000 in grades K-8 and $2,700 in high school.

House members had previously passed a plan to provide about 18,000 students with vouchers worth $4,000 in grades K-5, $4,500 in grades 6-8, and $5,000 in high school. The plan would offer vouchers to all students in some 30 low-rated school districts, Mr. Mooney said. The House also passed a plan to expand Cleveland’s vouchers into 11th and 12th grades, but would not change the voucher amounts.

Elsewhere, the GOP-controlled Arizona legislature approved a plan to create $3,500 scholarships using corporate donations to nonprofit groups in exchange for state tax breaks. Arizona already has tax-credit scholarships raised through contributions from individuals. The lawmakers also raised the state’s current tuition tax credits from $625 to $1,000 for married couples who send children to private schools.

Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, vetoed the corporate-tax-credit scholarships, but the plan could survive. The governor may call a special session in the coming weeks, and could negotiate a deal that would allow lawmakers to pass the scholarships again without the veto threat.

In a clear victory for voucher proponents, Utah Gov. John Huntsman Jr., a Republican, on March 10 signed into law legislation to provide $1.4 million in scholarships for students with disabilities whose parents wish to transfer them to private schools or other public schools. (“Utah Legislators Delay Action on NCLB Bill,” March 9, 2005.)

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