Choice Is Breaking Out All Over

Choice Is Breaking Out All Over
March 1, 1999

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)



Although school choice legislation already was under serious consideration in many states, those efforts have been bolstered by last year's Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Milwaukee voucher program. The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to hear a challenge to that ruling clearly signaled other states to proceed with similar programs. The legislative year for most states began in January, and school choice proposals appeared on many agendas.


Gov. Johnson Wants Vouchers for New Mexico

In his January 19 address to the New Mexico state legislature, newly re-elected Governor Gary Johnson declared education to be his top priority . . . and demonstrated his resolve by proposing the most aggressive statewide school voucher plan in the nation as the first of his eight education initiatives.

Competition will attract educational entrepreneurs from all over the country, Johnson said, and that competition will rapidly improve education. He pointed to how the U.S. Postal Service had suddenly improved when forced to compete for business with FedEx and United Parcel Service.

"We would lead the country in educational improvement with the simple passage of a voucher bill," declared Johnson.

The pilot voucher program envisioned by the governor would cost nearly $19 million in 1999 to cover 6,000 poor children already enrolled in private or parochial schools. Johnson estimated that as many as 100,000 poor children in public schools could also seek to take advantage of the voucher program during the first year. State funding for those children would follow them to the school of their choice. While conceding that private school seats were limited at present, Johnson predicted that would change quickly because of an influx of what he called "education entrepreneurs."

The voucher proposal would serve 100,000 poor students in the first year, expanding by 50,000 students a year to include all students within four years. In addition, 100 new charter schools would be established at the rate of 20 a year for the next five years. Provided with an educational voucher each year, parents would have a choice of educating their child at public, private, parochial, or charter schools. The state-funded voucher would go directly to the student for use at his or her chosen school.

Although New Mexicans want much better schools, the state's monopoly education establishment is unable to provide real and consistent reform, said Johnson, noting that his plan would increase freedom as well as improve education. He called for prompt action on his plan "for the children's sake."

"Give every New Mexico family the opportunity to choose where their children go to school . . . and then hold that school accountable for results," said Johnson, summarizing his proposal.


For more information ...

Governor Gary E. Johnson's education proposals, For the Children's Sake, are available from the Office of the Governor, State Capitol, Santa Fe, NM 87503, 505/827-3000. The plan also is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old document #2177601 (20 pp.).


Voucher Pilot Proposed for Texas

As anticipated, in his January 27 State of the State address to the Texas legislature, Governor George W. Bush urged lawmakers to adopt a pilot voucher program as part of a $1 billion plan to improve public schools. An integral part of Bush's plan is to end the practice of social promotion--advancing students automatically to the next grade regardless of whether they have mastered the material taught in lower grades.

"You and I have high expectations for every child--and we must have high standards to match those high hopes," said Bush.

Texas already leads the nation in improving its schools "by insisting on local control, high standards, and strong accountability," said Bush. In addition, during the past four years, the state has provided new outlets for education entrepreneurs with the establishment of charter schools, open-enrollment campuses, and public school choice. Those "bold experiments," as Bush termed them, have shown that parents from all walks of life "are hungry for a better education for their children."

"We must not trap students in low-performing schools," said Bush. "It is time to see if it works: Let's try a pilot voucher program."


Ridge Proposes Vouchers for Pennsylvania

Despite delivering his 1999-2000 Budget Address on February 2, when he was upstaged by Punxsutawny Phil, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge nevertheless gave the groundhog a run for his money with a budget proposal that not only increases funding to local school districts by nearly a quarter of a billion dollars but also sets aside $63 million to establish Educational Opportunity Grant programs--school vouchers--in six counties and several cities. In year five, the pilot voucher program would cost $164 million, for total spending of $587 million over the five-year period.

"Our allegiance must be to our children and their education--not to the system that serves them," declared Ridge, calling on the General Assembly to pass legislation to empower parents with school choice, to free local school districts from state regulation, and to intervene when schools are academically bankrupt. Allegiance to our children requires supporting "the right of every Pennsylvania parent to choose the school of their choice--even when that choice lies outside the public school system," added Ridge.

"When elected school district leaders embrace new and creative ways to provide public education--and when they're willing to be held accountable for the results--then the state should just get out of the way and free them from the tentacles of state control," said the governor. By the same token, communities, parents, and teachers should be given new tools to make dramatic changes to schools that are academically bankrupt.

The vouchers proposed by Ridge could be used to defray tuition costs for students in kindergarten through eighth grade at private or religious schools, or even at public schools outside the student’s home district. In the first year, the program would be limited to parents making $15,000 or less, with the income limit rising to $25,000 in the second year and to $35,000, $50,000, and $75,000 in subsequent years. An estimated 39,700 students would be eligible to participate in the first year, increasing to 176,300 by the fifth year.

The value of the voucher would range from $350 for half-day kindergarten students to $700 for full-day kindergarten through eighth-grade students. From the second year on, the value of the voucher would be increased to $700 and $1,400 for parents earning $15,000 or less.

Opponents wasted little time in sniping at Ridge's proposal. Randy Wenhold, chair of the Public Education Coalition to Oppose Tuition Vouchers, called vouchers "a ticket to nowhere," while Pennsylvania State Education Association President David J. Gondak recommended that "discarding the voucher component of the state budget should be the first act of the legislature."


Voucher Push in Arizona

A statewide voucher program for low-income students in Arizona will be one of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan's top priorities for the 1999 legislative session. Keegan's proposal, announced in December, quickly gained the support of both Governor Jane Hull and the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Senator John Huppenthal.

"The governor has always supported school choice," the governor's education advisor told the Arizona Republic. "She has always said that any kind of voucher bill is fine with her."


Giuliani Proposes Vouchers

While New York in January was still abuzz with news of the state's long-awaited approval of charter schools, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani pushed the school choice envelope by proposing that one school district in New York City implement a private and religious school voucher program, using the Milwaukee program as a model. Doing so would, said the mayor, "give poor parents the same opportunity to make choices about their children’s education that the richest and most affluent parents in New York City have."

"He wants to take the education debate to the next level," a mayoral aide told the New York Post, adding, "charter schools aren't the be-all and end-all."

Although Giuliani's proposal drew fire immediately from a number of sources, including the office of Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew and teacher union chief Randi Weingarten, the mayor is steadfast in his belief that a voucher program would create competition among public schools and force failing public schools to improve.

"People who oppose it will find all kinds of reasons why it isn't working," said the mayor. But, he added, "It makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? To create that kind of competition?"


Vouchers Proposed for Florida's Low-Performing Schools

With too many of Florida's schools under-performing and with no clear consequences when students do not learn, the most important mission of Governor Jeb Bush's new administration is to transform Florida's public schools into centers of excellence, according to the Bush-Brogan A+ Plan for Education, released on January 25.

In addition to providing opportunity scholarships for students attending failing schools, the key elements of the plan are: revising state education goals and standards; measuring annual student learning; grading school progress and reporting grades to parents; eliminating social promotion; rewarding successful schools and educators; putting under-performing teachers on probation; and improving school safety and discipline.

"Parents of students attending failing schools may receive a state-funded scholarship for their child to attend a public or private school of their choice," said Bush, calling this "a bold step to improve public schools while honoring our commitment to students and their families."

Failing schools would be provided assistance from the school district and the state Department of Education and given two years to improve, after which time sanctions would be applied for continuing failure. Parents with students in failing schools would be offered an opportunity scholarship to send their children to a higher-performing public school or a private school of their choice--resulting in cost savings for the school district and the state.

"We owe our children a quality education," declared Bush. "If the schools they are required to attend cannot provide one, then [parents] should be free to choose another school."


Alaska Voucher Bill Introduced

Saying he wanted to give parents in Alaska the means to pay for choices in their children's education, GOP State Representative Vic Kohring in January introduced a school voucher bill that would apply not only to private schools but also to homeschooling. Choice would beget competition and that, said Kohring, would produce change in the public schools.

"I would expect there to be an overall improvement in education," he told the Anchorage Daily News.

Although Kohring's bill calls for a change to the state’s constitution, which bars any payment "from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution," it is not clear that such a change would be necessary if the program were modeled after the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. There, the payment of public funds is for the direct benefit of parents, and any benefit to religious or private schools is indirect.


Virginia Tax Credit Introduced

A bill calling for two dollar-for-dollar state tax credits for K-12 education was introduced in both chambers of the Virginia legislature on January 13 (House Bill 1740 and Senate Bill 866).

Under the Virginia Children's Educational Opportunity Act, one credit would be available to individuals and corporations who make donations to nonprofit organizations offering tuition scholarship for low-income students to attend the school chosen by their parents. The second credit would cover most of the costs incurred by parents educating their child in a private school, home school, or alternate public school.

In a recent poll, over 59 percent of Virginia voters favored legislation that would "offer scholarships to low_income families and tax credits for other families, making it possible for parents to select the public, private, church_run, or home school setting of their choice." The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors recently voted 4_3 to endorse such legislation as a means of easing overcrowding and reducing the need for new school construction.


Vouchers for Mississippi Urged

Last August, in an article where he argued that vouchers were needed for educational choice, Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice asked: "How can Americans believe themselves to be free, when we cannot choose the schools our children attend?" In his State of the State address in January, Fordice declared that "the opportunity to choose good, safe schools should be accorded to all children, especially those trapped in Mississippi's lowest state_rated school districts."

While recognizing that school choice may take many forms, Fordice came out strongly in favor of vouchers, saying "I think true choice . . . is to be able to take a child of poor parents that's in a real bad, usually inner_city, school and give them a true voucher and let them go get their education wherever they can."


Nebraska Voucher Bill Introduced

Nebraska State Senator Ardyce Bohlke, chairwoman of the Education Committee, in January introduced a bill that would provide annual vouchers to cover the cost of tuition and books for students attending private or parochial schools. For families earning up to twice the federal poverty level, vouchers of up to $3,000 would be available for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, up to $4,000 for children in grade eight, and up to $5,000 for high school students. The value of the voucher would be halved for families making from two to four times the federal poverty level, and families with higher earnings would not be eligible for the vouchers.

School vouchers were one of the campaign issues of newly elected Governor Mike Johanns.


George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)