States Devise Escape Routes from Failing Schools

States Devise Escape Routes from Failing Schools
June 1, 1999

George A. Clowes

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



During 1999 more than ever before, governors, big-city mayors, and state legislators have taken over from policy analysts and public interest groups the leadership role in advocating school choice as a means of directly addressing the problem of students in failing public schools.

In part, their heightened interest comes from an awareness that public opinion polls consistently show citizens rating education a number-one concern. Other polls have shown growing public support for school choice.

Most importantly, last year's Wisconsin Supreme Court decision lifted the constitutional cloud over vouchers, assuring lawmakers that students can legally use publicly funded vouchers at religious schools.

Today, legislators across the nation are considering a wide variety of school choice options: vouchers, tuition tax credits, and tax credits for donations to scholarship organizations. Enhanced public school choice options, such as charter schools and open enrollment policies, also are under consideration.



Voucher Proposals

Arizona: On March 25, the Senate Education Committee approved a statewide voucher bill that would provide state-funded Parental Choice Grants of up to $4,900 toward the cost of private school tuition for low-income students. The bill, which has the support of Governor Jane Hull, was first proposed last December by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan as her top legislative priority for 1999. To reduce the cost of the program, the Senate added an amendment to restrict eligibility to students transferring from public schools.

California: Although approval of voucher legislation is unlikely this year, Republican State Senator Ray Haynes introduced a measure that would permit students in low-performing school districts to use vouchers to pay for tuition at private schools. Democrat Governor Gray Davis, who does not support vouchers, acknowledged in January that if the state did not fix its schools, "we're looking at vouchers or some other seemingly attractive concept that will be imposed on us by the voters." Two ballot initiatives are being prepared for that possibility.

Tim Draper, a venture capitalist and former state Board of Education member, is organizing efforts to place a school voucher initiative on the March 2000 ballot. The plan Draper has submitted to the state attorney general calls for taxpayer-funded scholarships of up to $4,000 for private school tuition. In addition, an Oakland-based political action committee, Parents Against Substandard Schools (PASS), has developed a District Choice Initiative, which would allow citizens in failing school districts to approve voucher programs for their schools through elections.

The state's voucher movement may tap into backlash against an anti-charter school bill recently introduced by Democrat Assemblywoman Carole Migden. Her measure would make all charter school staff subject to the sponsor district's collective bargaining unit, severely restricting the freedom of charter school operators. "If this passes, we might as well close all charter schools and start fighting for vouchers," commented Yvonne Chan, principal of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a school lauded by First Lady Hillary Clinton and members of Congress.

Georgia: The Early HOPE Scholarship Act proposed by Senator Clay Land would have provided vouchers worth approximately $3,500 to children in failing schools for use towards private school tuition. The bill failed in the Senate Education Committee, but Land hopes the idea will be taken up by Governor Roy Barnes' education review committee later this year.

Louisiana: Pointing out that one in six of the state's elementary and middle school students are in "academically unacceptable" schools, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana in March proposed a pilot voucher program to give children in the worst public schools a better opportunity for a quality education. A total of seven school voucher bills were introduced in the current Louisiana legislative session, with two of these also targeting students in the state's worst schools. Another two bills would provide vouchers for all K-3 students to use at nonpublic schools, and the three other bills would provide limited area or statewide vouchers worth up to the average per-pupil cost of education in a district, phased in one grade a year.

Michigan: A coalition of urban leaders, Catholic activists, nonpublic school parents, and business representatives, calling itself "Kids First! Yes!" is planning a drive to place local option school vouchers and teacher testing on the November 2000 ballot. The initiative would amend Michigan's constitution to permit indirect aid--vouchers, tax credits, or other per-pupil support--for children who choose to attend nonpublic schools. The plan would provide vouchers worth half the state's annual per-pupil expenditure of about $6,000 to children in the worst-performing districts in the state. The local option would permit voters to expand school choice in their area.

Nevada: Under the provisions of SB 385, a voucher bill introduced by State Senator Maurice Washington, low-income children in "dilapidated and inadequate" schools would receive state funds to attend private or parochial schools.

New Hampshire: Under a proposal introduced by State Representative Marie Rabideau, children in failing schools would be eligible for scholarships that could be used at other public schools, private nonreligious schools, or home schools. The scholarships would be available only in districts where the governing board had voted to authorize them. Scholarships would be worth $2,000 for K-8 students and $3,500 for students in grades 9-12. Nonpublic schools accepting scholarship students would not be required to comply with additional laws or rules, except as specified in the bill itself.

New Mexico: In February, GOP Governor Gary Johnson warned the Democrat-controlled legislature that he was "very, very serious about vouchers" and would veto the education budget if it did not include his statewide voucher program. After a four-year phase-in, his plan would provide all children with a state-funded educational voucher for use at public, private, parochial, or charter schools. The state's legislative session ended on March 20, with Johnson having twice vetoed budget proposals that excluded his voucher plan. The governor called lawmakers back into special session on May 4 to reconsider his proposal.

New York City: In January, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani proposed that one school district in New York City implement a private and religious school voucher program, using the Milwaukee program as a model. This 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."

Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew threatened to resign after the mayor tried to win school board support for his plan in March. Giuliani tried another approach when he presented his budget in April, proposing to run the voucher program from City Hall. The budget must be approved by the city council by June 5.

Pennsylvania: Governor Tom Ridge's education plan includes a statewide public school choice program and two voucher programs. The first voucher measure is a five-year pilot program that provides grants of up to $1,400 per child to allow low- and middle-income families in seven counties to send their children to the private school of their choice, including religious schools. The second voucher program is an "academic recovery" plan targeted at nine districts. The plan would permit the 240,000 students in those districts to take approximately $3,000 of per-pupil education funding and use it at the school of their choice.

Texas: During last year's gubernatorial race, Governor George W. Bush campaigned in favor of vouchers for students in failing schools. On March 24, the Senate Education Committee approved a scaled-down version of State Senator Teel Bivens' school choice bill. The revised SB 10 would allow approximately 40,000 public school students in 83 poor, low-performing school districts across the state to use a voucher worth 80 percent of per-pupil state aid--about $4,000--to attend a private school, including religious schools. Any public school losing a student to the program would keep the remaining 20 percent of per-pupil state aid, or approximately $1,000 per student.



Tuition Tax Credits and Deductions

Illinois: When Governor George Ryan campaigned last November, he pledged to sign a $500 tuition tax credit bill that his predecessor, Jim Edgar, had vetoed. The state Senate has approved a bill giving parents a credit of up to $500 against their state taxes for 25 percent of private school tuition and other K-12 educational expenses. The bill awaits action by the Democrat-controlled House.

Maryland: Concerned about the state's failing schools, House Delegate Nancy R. Stocksdale has introduced a bill to give families a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child or a tax deduction of $1,500 per child for educational expenses not part of the regular K-12 school curriculum, such as tutoring and music lessons. "How can we help the parents whose kids go to these failing schools?" she asked, saying the children were "locked in" but that parents wanted what was best for them.

Michigan: A group called "School Choice YES!" is preparing to collect 300,000 signatures to place on the November 2000 ballot a constitutional amendment that would permit tuition tax credits to be provided to parents who choose nonpublic schools for their children. Based on a Universal Tax Credit plan developed by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the measure would allow businesses or individuals to take an income tax credit of up to 80 percent of the cost of private or public school tuition. The maximum individual tax credit would be $2,800.

Missouri: Several bills were introduced to provide tax deductions for nonpublic school educational expenses. State Representative David Reynolds' bill would authorize an individual income tax deduction for certain private, parochial, and home school educational expenses. State Senator Harry Wiggins' bill would provide a tax deduction of up to $2,500 per dependent for tuition and other K-12 educational expenses, while a similar measure from State Senator John Schneider would apply only to grades 9 through 12.

Montana: A bill providing a tax deduction for school-related expenses recently won 51-49 approval in the Montana House. The measure, introduced by State Representative Peggy Arnott Bergsagel, provides parents with an annual tax deduction of up to $600 per year per child for educational expenses incurred at private, public, and home schools. Eligible expenses include tuition, tutoring, textbooks, and computers.

Virginia: A bill providing a tax credit of up to $2,500 a year for private school or home schooling expenses was rejected 16-8 by the state's House Finance Committee earlier this year.



Tax Credits for Scholarships

Missouri: Together with other legislators, State Senator Steve Ehlmann and State Representative Tim Green have sponsored bills to provide tax credits for donations to organizations that provide scholarships for needy children to attend private and religious schools. The $5 million measure was attached to HB 753, an economic development bill providing $35 million in state aid to film makers and other for-profit private businesses.

New York: On April 6, State Senator Serphin Maltese introduced an educational tax incentive bill that would permit parents and other individuals to receive an income tax credit of up to $500 for donations to a school tuition organization, a public school, or for the purchase of materials for home schooling. One of the benefits cited is that the credit would "help relieve the financial burden on public schools by reducing the public school student population."



Other School Choice Advances

Massachusetts: In March, Governor Paul Cellucci chose James Peyser as the new chairman of the State Board of Education. Peyser, president of the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy, strongly favors educational freedom for parents through vouchers and charter schools.

Oklahoma: On March 10, the state Senate approved by a 26-22 vote a public school choice bill that would permit parents to choose another public school for their child with only the approval of the receiving district; currently, approval from the sending district also is required. Opponents railed that school choice "is to abandon those who need help" and that such "simplistic answers are not going to work."


For more information ...

“Education Accountability and the Role of School Choice,” published by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana,” may be ordered from the council for $5. Write to P.O. Box 14776, Baton Rouge, LA 70898-4776 or call 225/926-8414. It also is available in two 12-page parts through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old documents #2184443 and #2184444.

George A. Clowes

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