04/2000 School Choice Roundup

04/2000 School Choice Roundup
April 1, 2000

George A. Clowes

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



California * Colorado * Connecticut * Florida * Georgia * Indiana * Kansas * Kentucky

Maryland * Michigan * Missouri * New Hampshire * New Jersey * New Mexico

New York * Pennsylvania * South Carolina * South Dakota * Utah

Vermont * Virginia * Washington * West Virginia


CALIFORNIA

Voucher Initiative Under Way

Silicon Valley venture capitalist and children's advocate Tim Draper is spearheading the collection of 1.1 million signatures to qualify a statewide voucher initiative for the November 2000 ballot.

The initiative, titled "The National Average School Funding Guarantee and Parental Right to Choose Quality Educational Amendment," is a blend of idealism and practicality. While Draper believes vouchers will solve the problems of public schools, he says some schools might just need more money. The initiative achieves both.

As well as providing a guarantee for funding public schools at a minimum of the national average per-pupil funding, the initiative would make all parents, regardless of income, eligible for a $4,000 educational scholarship redeemable at nonpublic schools. The scholarship amount would be at least one-half the amount of the per-pupil funding for public schools. Full details of the initiative effort are available at http://www.localchoice2000.com.

"I believe that when this initiative passes, every child in California will get a better education. Parents will have a choice, and the public schools will be better funded with no increase in taxes," said Draper.



COLORADO

Voucher Plan Defeated

On February 9, Democrats and Republicans alike on the Colorado Senate Education Committee voted 6-1 to defeat a bill that would have provided state-funded vouchers to parents dissatisfied with education in the public schools. The proposal, SB 46, would have granted larger vouchers for poorer parents. But GOP Senator John Andrews' pleas on behalf of the less-influential members of society fell on deaf ears.

"This is the best opportunity you will have to do something for the less fortunate, less influential people who don't have a lobby, who don't have PACs," said Andrews, mentioning truck drivers and welfare moms as examples.

Andrews and other GOP conservatives introduced the voucher proposal after Colorado Governor Bill Owens failed to include school vouchers in the education reform package he unveiled last December. Owens had said the state had "a moral obligation" to help parents find a decent school for their child, "be it public or private or parochial."



CONNECTICUT

Rowland Proposes Tuition Tax Credits

In his State of the State address in February, GOP Governor John G. Rowland called for increased funding for Connecticut’s existing school choice programs--charter schools and magnet schools--but surprised teacher union officials with a call for a state income tax credit of up to $500 for tuition at private or religious K-12 schools. Rowland had agreed not to push for school vouchers during the last legislative session because of strong opposition by teacher unions and Democrats.

"School choice increases competition and raises expectations," said Rowland. "But we need to do more to provide working families the same kinds of choices others have."

With both House and Senate controlled by Democrats, prospects for passage of the tax credit bill are uncertain.



FLORIDA

Anti-Voucher Campaign Launched

A coalition of school voucher opponents launched a $75,000 advertising campaign to promote their views to the public in February, just before court hearings began on a constitutional challenge to the state's new voucher law brought by members of the same coalition.

The trial judge in the case, Circuit Court Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr., has said he will first rule on whether the wording of the law is unconstitutional and then--depending on the outcome--would look at whether the law is unconstitutional because of the way it is implemented.

The coalition's print ads, phone message, and even the name of its Web site--www.stopvouchers.org--all make its strong opposition to vouchers very clear. However, the group's name is the neutral-sounding Citizens Committee for Public Information on School Vouchers. That riles Patrick Heffernan, president of the pro-voucher group Floridians for School Choice.

"They describe themselves as a citizens for public information on school vouchers, and try to give themselves a sense of objectivity and independence, but it is very clear that they are opposed to vouchers," Heffernan told the Miami Herald.

The nature of that opposition became clear when the court battle opened on February 24 and voucher foes presented their narrow constitutional challenge to the Florida program. They argued the state could fulfill its constitutional duty to educate children only through the use of free public schools and that the quality of those schools--and the views of parents--were of little importance in this matter.

"From a constitutional point of view, it is irrelevant whether parents of voucher students are satisfied or dissatisfied with the education that these students are receiving," declared Bob Chanin, general counsel for the National Education Association.

Frank Shepherd, managing attorney of the Pacific Legal Foundation's Atlantic Center in Miami, said the school boards and teacher unions are just trying to protect their own turf. Opponents freely admit in their court briefs that "the program is expected to expand exponentially over the course of the next few years."

"The plaintiffs are basically conceding that they cannot meet the people's desires, but they won't allow someone else to try something that may work," said Shepherd, who is representing a group of public school teachers who support school vouchers.



GEORGIA

Voucher Provision Fails in House

Georgia Governor Roy Barnes' education reform bill was approved by House lawmakers on February 10, including a controversial provision to abolish tenure for new teachers hired after July 1 this year and another provision that would allow students in failing schools to transfer to another public school.

What didn't survive the House vote were Republican amendments to give vouchers to children in failing schools and allow them to transfer to private schools as well as other public schools.

The voucher provision was crafted by Republicans who considered the Governor's public school choice plan inadequate. Under the GOP proposal, low-income children in schools graded as failing by the state Board of Education would be eligible for vouchers good not only for tuition at private schools but also for books, uniforms, and transportation.

"Unfortunately, today, way too many children are being left behind in failing schools," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson when the plan was announced in January. Religious leaders, including Alveda King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., supported the plan.

The governor's plan did not offer "a true route" out of a failing school, said Senator Clay Land, arguing that a child's school should be chosen by parents, not the government. Land's voucher provision, called Early HOPE scholarships, was offered during the Senate debate on the reform bill but was voted down.

The final version of the reform bill, which includes the provision to eliminate teacher tenure, was approved by the Senate on February 24.



INDIANA

Two Choice Bills Introduced

Two bills introduced into the current session of the Indiana Legislature aim to enhance parental choice in education, one through open enrollment and the other through school vouchers. House Bill 1164 would allow parents to send their children to any public school in Indiana by 2005-2006, with the child's home district responsible for paying the tuition at the chosen school and for providing transportation.

Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Republican Senator Luke Kenley, would provide school vouchers to students from low-income families in the Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest school system in the state. All students who qualify for the federal and reduced price lunch program would be eligible to receive the vouchers, which students could use toward the cost of tuition at a private school. For each child that used a voucher, IPS would lose the per-pupil allotment from the state.

Although Kenley's voucher bill finds much support among school choice advocates, it's likely to find few friends in the Democrat-controlled House, according to an Indianapolis Star report on a January 19 Senate Education Committee hearing.

Last October, the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation selected Indianapolis, together with Evansville and South Bend, as test markets for a national media campaign to advocate school choice. The $500,000 campaign involved airing public service announcements on local television stations with the aim of promoting public debate about school vouchers, tuition tax credits and homeschooling as alternatives to the public schools. A national campaign now is being planned.



KANSAS

Voucher Pilots Spark Interest

For years, Kansas State Representative Kay O'Connor has offered up voucher legislation to lawmakers in Topeka, only to see her proposals crushed in committee or on the House floor. But in January, when she again introduced her voucher legislation, the Olathe Republican felt the warmth of a new wind blowing across Kansas: Her proposal was augmented by two new voucher plans from leading GOP members of the House and Senate. These new plans, which would involve setting up voucher research projects in the state, have attracted a significant amount of interest among lawmakers.

O'Connor's plan targets the plight of low-income families who want to remove their children from troubled schools. Her bill would provide vouchers for a limited number of these children to transfer to another school--public or private--of the parents' choice. Some of these students are in "emergency situations," the lawmaker said.

"The state of Kansas should not be in the business of sacrificing children on the altar of waiting for inner-city schools to improve themselves," she declared.

The House voucher research plan, proposed by House Majority Leader Kent Glasscock and the House Education Committee chairman, Representative Ralph Tanner, is part of a comprehensive education reform package. The plan would establish a three-year pilot program where 300 at-risk children would receive scholarships to attend either public or private schools of their choice. The effectiveness of the program would be assessed after the three years based on the achievement scores of the students.

"Kent and I decided that we ought to look this proposition squarely in the eye and give it a test under a highly controlled set of circumstances," Tanner told The Topeka Capital-Journal, explaining that neither he nor Glasscock was settled on the voucher issue.

In fact, Glasscock is a voucher opponent but said "we owe it to our children" to find out more about school choice. House Education Committee members were not as open-minded, however, killing the proposal by a 14-6 vote on February 21.

The Senate voucher research plan is sponsored by the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Senator Barbara Lawrence. Her bill would provide vouchers for a four-year period to 100 first- through fifth-graders from low-income families in each of the city school districts in Garden City, Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita. The vouchers would be used to pay for the children to go to a private school selected by the parents and would be worth 80 percent of the state's base aid for each pupil, about $3,000 a year. The state also would pay $1,000 to the public school district for each voucher student who left.

Admitting that her bill doesn't have the votes to get out of committee, Lawrence said she doesn't plan any action on her pilot proposal.

The full text of the two Kansas pilot voucher bills, SB 29 and HB 204, are available on the Internet at www.ink.org/public/legislative/fulltext.cgi



KENTUCKY

Vouchers and Tax Credits Proposed

"The four most important issues we'll talk about this session are education, education, education, and education," declared Governor Paul E. Patton in his January 5 State of the State speech to the Kentucky Legislature.

While Patton's attention was focused primarily on the public schools, education also is an important issue to the parents of the more than 60,000 students who attend some 200 independent schools in Kentucky.

For school choice advocates, the two most important bills for the current session were filed three weeks after Patton's speech. One, HB 455, would create a state voucher program for students from families with incomes less than $42,000 a year. Vouchers would be worth as much as $3,000 for elementary students and $3,500 for high school students.

The other bill, HB 442, would provide a $500 tax credit for private school tuition paid by families with adjusted gross incomes of $75,000 a year or less. Supporters of this bill, which include the Kentucky League for Educational Alternatives, say it has the backing of at least 40 legislators.

"This would be a major break for parents in deciding whether or not they can send their children to a nonpublic school," the League's director, Harry Boarders, told The Cincinnati Inquirer.

"They made the choice; it's their responsibility," shrugged the editorial writers of the Lexington Herald-Leader, arguing that "parents who opt for private education for their children should bear the full burden of that decision."



MARYLAND

Take Credit for Learning

In January, Maryland Delegate Nancy R. Stocksdale introduced HB 31, "Take Credit for Learning," a bill that would allow families to take an income tax credit or deduction--depending upon income--for education-related expenses other than regular tuition.

Although teacher unions and advocates for public schools had made clear they would oppose any legislative proposal to aid private or religious schools, the narrow definition of educational expenses in Stocksdale's bill has muted resistance from other groups and lawmakers.

Under HB 31, educational expenses would exclude regular school fees or tuition charges but would include expenses for supplemental tuition and tutoring, music and art lessons, computer hardware and software, drivers ed, and textbooks. For families earning above $33,500, those expenses could be used as a state income tax deduction up to a maximum of $1,500 per child in grades K-6 and $2,500 in grades 7-12. For families earning $33,500 or less, the expenses could be used as a refundable income tax credit of up to $1,000 per child or $2,000 per tax return.

Despite the careful crafting of the measure, which was based on existing tax credits and deductions in Minnesota, Stocksdale's bill proved short-lived and died in the House Education Committee in February. However, the Westminster Republican vowed to bring the bill back next year.

Another battle has erupted over the agreement of Democrat Governor Parris N. Glendening to budget $6 million for textbook purchases by the state's 500 independent schools, which educate 134,000 students.

With the state's average spending at $6,600 per public school student, advocates for the independent schools argue they save taxpayers some $800 million in school taxes each year. But teacher unions, PTAs, and other organizations insist the dollars should go only to public schools. Some Democrat lawmakers would allow the dollars to go to private schools--but only if the private schools met certain conditions and submitted to state standardized tests.



MICHIGAN

Voucher Petition Filed

The petition drive organized by Kids First! Yes! passed its first milestone on February 24 when the group filed petitions containing more than 460,000 signatures with the Michigan Secretary of State, far in excess of the 302,711 required to place the organization's voucher question on the November 2000 ballot.

The group's three-pronged school choice plan first would modify the state's constitution to remove the current prohibition against indirect aid to private schools. Second, in districts where the dropout rate exceeds 33 percent, students would be eligible to receive vouchers of up to $3,100 to help pay for tuition at a private school. Third, other districts could adopt vouchers by a vote of the people or the local school board.

Kids First! Yes! raised and spent over $1 million in 1999 and hopes to raise another $5 million to support the ballot initiative this year. While Republicans in general support proposals for vouchers and increased school choice, GOP Governor John Engler opposes the initiative, saying "It just doesn't work." Engler, however, also had predicted the initiative would never secure enough signatures to get on the ballot.

Disagreement between Engler and GOP Chairwoman Betsy DeVos over vouchers and other issues led to DeVos's abrupt resignation from her party post in early February. DeVos's husband is Amway executive Dick DeVos, founder and cochair of Kids First! Yes!

The Rev. Eddie Edwards of Detroit, cochair of the effort with DeVos, said the speed with which the signatures were gathered was an indication of the depth of support for the proposal throughout Michigan--and "great momentum for November."

A group calling itself ALL Kids First! has geared up to fight the ballot proposal.



MISSOURI

Scholarships and Tax Credits

Despite the opposition of Governor Mel Carnahan and other elected officials, several bills promoting parental choice in education have been introduced in the Missouri legislature.

The most innovative proposal--the Challenge Scholarship Bill--is from Rep. Rich Chrismer of St. Peters and co-sponsor Rep. Harry Kennedy of St. Louis. Their bill, HB 1373, would give tuition scholarships to students from poor families in St. Louis and Kansas City, where the desegregation mandate now is being phased out in favor of more parental choice.

Other proposals pending in the House are HB 1299 from Rep. Catherine Hanaway, which provides a state income tax credit for donations to scholarship charities; and HJR 39 from Rep. David Reynolds of Florissant, which abolishes the "Blaine Amendment" from the Missouri constitution. This amendment, which became a part of the Missouri Constitution during a period of anti-religious bigotry in the nineteenth century, prevents parents from using part of their education tax dollars to pay for educating their children in a religious school.

In the Senate, a bill introduced by Senator Gary Wiggins, SB 531, would allow tax credits for contributions to organizations that fund tuition scholarships for poor children. SB 599, introduced by Senator John Schneider, would provide an income tax deduction for tuition payments and other education expenses.



NEW HAMPSHIRE

Constitutional Change Proposed

In February, the New Hampshire House Education Committee heard arguments for and against a constitutional amendment that its sponsor, Republican State Representative Pierre Bruno, believes will promote free enterprise in education and lead to better schools.

Bruno would remove an 1876 prohibition on granting or applying tax dollars for use by religious schools--a provision he said was added to the constitution by Protestants who did not want to support Catholic schools. The state's Catholic schools currently educate 10,396 New Hampshire children for a little over $2,000 a year each, far less than the cost of education in the public schools.

Removing the prohibition would permit the state to create a voucher program that included religious schools, according to Brad Cook of the Catholic Diocese of Manchester, which supports Bruno's bill. The New Hampshire School Boards Association and New Hampshire Civil Liberties Association opposed the measure.

The Committee also considered a bill introduced by GOP Representative Warren Henderson to make it easier to fire teachers. He said incompetent teachers have too much protection under the current system.



NEW JERSEY

Studying Vouchers

New Jersey has 47 charter schools in operation and is just starting up an inter-district school choice program . . . and now a new organization, Excellent Education for Everyone--E-Cubed--is laying the groundwork for a new push for school vouchers. The effort is likely to be fueled by recent revelations that Newark's failing schools are still gushing red ink despite a takeover by the state.

E-Cubed is headed by long-time voucher advocate Bret Schundler, the Republican mayor of Jersey City; Newark city councilwoman Cory Booker, a Democrat; and South Jersey businessman Peter Denton, a Republican. After a recent fact-finding trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, organized by the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities group, the trio said they would organize a statewide conference to publicize the voucher issue.

"This is just the beginning," Schundler told the New Jersey Star-Ledger.

It's likely to be the beginning of a fight, too. The state teacher union killed Schundler's earlier attempts to bring vouchers to Jersey City and last year sued to block the state Board of Education's decision to start up the mildest possible form of parental choice in education: inter-district public school choice. Last October, the New Jersey Education Association charged that Education Commissioner David Hespe had no legal authority to implement the plan, which in February produced a scant 150 choice students in 10 pilot districts.



NEW MEXICO

Johnson Again Pushes Vouchers

According to a University of New Mexico poll released in mid-February, New Mexicans don't think much of their public schools, with only 45 percent giving an "A" or "B" grade to their public schools, compared to 60 percent nationally. The 1,033 New Mexicans polled were more concerned about low standards in their schools than were respondents in the national sample.

Just a month before, in his January 18 State of the State Address, New Mexico Governor Gary E. Johnson had declared K-12 school improvement as "priority one," and presented a plan to create healthy competition among the state's public schools by giving school vouchers to all New Mexico families. Calling vouchers "the heart and soul of real educational reform," the governor said giving parents more educational options would address persistent systemic problems in public schools and promote positive changes for the benefit of all K-12 students.

"What is missing from public education is not money; what is missing is competition and choice," declared Johnson, outlining his plan to permit students to use a voucher worth about $3,000 to attend the public, private, or religious school of their choice.

The plan would be phased in over four years, starting with the poorest children first, and would cost an estimated $16.8 million in the first year. Johnson also called for more charter schools, expanded statewide testing, merit pay for teachers, performance-based budgeting, and improved comparative reporting of school performance for parents. Last year, a similar plan from the Republican governor was defeated by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

On January 9-10, the Indianapolis-based Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation funded a school voucher fact-finding trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for nine New Mexico state lawmakers and 23 other New Mexicans. The group, headed by Kevin Teasley, has organized similar trips for lawmakers in Colorado, Indiana, and New Jersey.

"I want to know how beneficial this has been to indigent children, especially in areas that have a high dropout rate," Representative Ray Begaye told the Albuquerque Journal. The only Democrat taking the trip, Begaye said he wanted to learn more about how vouchers work.



NEW YORK

Tax Credits for Scholarships

A $500 New York state tax credit proposal for contributions to public schools, private school tuition scholarship organizations, or for home school expenses is gaining supporters in both parties--Republicans, who control the New York State Senate, and Democrats, who control the New York State Assembly. Last year, for example, 9 Senators cosponsored the legislation. Thus far, at least 15 of the 60 senators have cosponsored.

The legislation is identical to that passed last year in Arizona, which also passed constitutional muster in that state’s highest court. In New York, the lobbying effort is being headed by Timothy Mulhearn of United New Yorkers for Choice in Education, with support from Frank J. Russo Jr. of Citizens for Educational Freedom. UNYCE's phone number is 576/292-1224.

Last December, Christian and Jewish leaders gathered in the state capitol in Albany to make an "interfaith call" for the New York State Legislature and Governor George Pataki to adopt school vouchers or a tuition tax credit system. The religious leaders argued it is morally right and legally acceptable for parents to have access to public funds to send their children to private or parochial schools.



PENNSYLVANIA

No State or Local Vouchers

In late December 1999, the Commonwealth Court of Appeals ruled 7-0 that the Southeast Delco school board lacked authority under Pennsylvania state law to implement a district-funded voucher plan. The board's plan would have used taxes to provide partial reimbursement to parents for the cost of sending their children to private schools or non-district schools.

The court did not address the merits of the plan or whether it represented a constitutional church-state conflict.

"It wasn't a rejection of vouchers per se," board member Byron Mundy told The Philadelphia Inquirer, while indicating that further appeal was unlikely. He hoped state law would be changed to give local boards the authority to issue vouchers.

The Southeast Delco board approved the local voucher plan in March 1998 in an effort to avoid expenditures related to a growing public school population and to provide parental choice. The plan provided tax benefits for families who sent their children to private schools or public schools in other districts, thus relieving the district of the expense of educating them at the public schools. This innovative exercise of local control was challenged by the teacher union and others, who alleged violations of the state constitution and statutes but did not raise federal constitutional issues. The board was defended by the Institute for Justice.

In October 1998, the Delaware County Court ruled against the school district, holding that the program exceeded the district's statutory powers. The board appealed the case, Giacommuci v. Southeast Delco School District, to the state court of appeals.

Although Governor Tom Ridge did not include a state plan for school vouchers in the proposed 2000-01 budget he presented in February, the state's two largest teacher unions weren't happy with a $3.8 million item that called for testing a sample of veteran teachers to determine what kind of professional development teachers needed. The Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers issued a joint statement denouncing the measure. The PSEA also objected to Ridge's proposals for contracting out educational services and for expanding alternative teacher certification.



SOUTH CAROLINA

GOP Promotes Choice

Although the measure is given little chance of passage in an election year, 20 Republican members of the South Carolina House of Representatives are supporting a public school choice bill. The proposal, HB 4335, would allow parents to transfer their children from a failing public school to another public school in the same district or to a school in a different district. A failing school would be one considered "unsatisfactory" according to academic standards established by the state in the 1998 Educational Accountability Act.

In addition, Representative Lewis Vaughn (R), a voucher supporter, has drafted a bill to establish Arizona-style tax credits for donations to organizations that provide scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools.

Representative Bobby Harrell (R), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has introduced a bill to ease South Carolina's strict requirements for racial balance in charter schools, which have been an impediment to the opening of charter schools in minority areas. Harrell's amendments were approved on the House floor and his bill now faces review by the Senate. Representatives of the NAACP and Legislative Black Caucus condemned the amendments, even though strict racial requirements like those in South Carolina have threatened the operation of predominantly African-American charter schools in other states.



SOUTH DAKOTA

Two Voucher Proposals Fail

On February 2, the South Dakota House of Representatives voted 44-25 to defeat a limited voucher bill that would have allowed groups of parents to create their own state-authorized public school with funding provided by the average per-pupil state-aid payment--about $3,600--for each student that attended the school. Democrats generally opposed the bill on the grounds that existing public schools couldn't afford to lose the money that would go to the new schools, while Republicans said parents should have more educational options for their children.

The following day, the Republican-controlled House voted 41-28 to kill a broader voucher bill that would have provided vouchers worth about $1,200--one-third of the average per-pupil student-aid payment--to parents who sent their children to private or religious schools. Although the sponsor of the bill, House Speaker Roger Hunt, assured members the measure would meet constitutional tests, some Democrats still objected to what they called putting money into religious schools--money they said was needed in the public schools.

"Whose dollars are these?" countered GOP Representative Scott Eccarius, pointing out that education taxes belong to the taxpayers and the citizens of the state. He noted the state's private schools send a higher percentage of their students to college than do public schools.



UTAH

Tax Credits for Scholarships

A recent Deseret News editorial was critical of a legislative task force on public school accountability for dancing around the issue of school choice, and for "avoiding the v-word" when "clearly the system won't change significantly until it is pressured by competitive forces" such as those provided by school vouchers. Republican State Representative John Swallow has introduced a bill that would introduce significant competitive forces into the education marketplace in Utah but still not rely on publicly funded vouchers.

Swallow's bill, HB 401, “Income Tax-Private Investment in Education,” would establish tax credits for donations by businesses and individuals to foundations that provide private school scholarships, with particular emphasis on low-income families. The goal would be to transfer up to 10 percent of Utah's current student population to independent schools over the next decade, which would reduce class sizes and increase per-pupil spending in the public schools.

According to Swallow and Utah Children's Scholarship founder Jordan Clements, the measure could save taxpayers more than $1 billion over the next 10 years.

"Utah has too many children for taxpayers alone to support the public system," warn Swallow and Clements in a recent op-ed piece where they describe Utah's education paradox:

  • Utah taxpayers spend a larger share of personal income on public education than taxpayers in any other state;
  • Utah spends less per student than any other state;
  • The average classroom in Utah has more students than any other state;
  • Compared to other states, Utah has the lowest portion of school-age children enrolled in independent schools (less than 3 percent).

"The solution lies in private sector investment in education," argue Swallow and Clements.



VERMONT

Educational Freedom Districts Proposed

Republican State Representative Howard Crawford has introduced a novel school choice bill, H 827, that would allow voters of local supervisory unions--Vermont's local school districts--to create their own Educational Freedom Districts.

The legislation would allow each community to set up the education reform plan best for that individual community--as determined by the citizens of that community, not the state, county, or some other government body.

To create an Educational Freedom District, local residents would first vote to approve its formation and establish a local commission to design an education reform plan for that district. The commission would review a wide range of options to include in the district--such as full parental choice of public, charter, independent, and religious schools; assistance for homeschoolers; alternative teacher certification; and contracting out of services--and present its plan to the voters for approval. The plan would go into effect only if approved by the voters, who also would need to re-evaluate the district every four years because of a strict sunset provision.

"One great virtue of the educational freedom district proposal is that it lets local parents, educators, and civic leaders redesign their school systems in a way that makes sense to them," said Ethan Allen Institute President John McClaughry, who developed the proposal.

"The other great virtue is that Crawford's bill doesn't require everybody--or for that matter anybody--to do anything," added McClaughry. "If the people of Wilmington or Enosberg Falls or Sharon want to try out their preferred reforms, it doesn’t affect other towns that are content with the educational systems they now have."

Another bill, S 3, which would allow parents and children to choose there own public schools, is stalled in the Senate Education Committee. The proposal has been so altered by amendments that Vermonters for Educational Choice no longer supports the bill.



VIRGINIA

Universal Tax Credit Defeated

An innovative and comprehensive universal K-12 tuition tax credit bill was defeated on 13-9 vote in the Virginia House Finance Committee late on February 9, also effectively killing an identical bill (SB 336) pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure was vigorously opposed by advocates for public education. In particular, People for the American Way distributed a highly critical but incomplete analysis of the bill that excluded any mention of how tax credits for charitable donations to scholarship organizations would benefit low-income families.

"I don't know where they got their figures,” Virginia Family Foundation lobbyist Robin DeJarnette told The Virginian-Pilot. "It doesn't appear that they've read the bill."

HB 68, the Virginia Children's Educational Opportunity Act 2000, would have established educational benefits for three groups of parents through different types of tax credits that would be phased in over a five-year period:

Homeschooling families would have been eligible for a $550 annual credit per child. The total credit received could not exceed the family's income tax liability.

Families earning more than $36,000 a year would have been eligible for a maximum tax credit of $2,500 annually per child enrolled in a private school. Again, the total credit received could not exceed the family's income tax liability.

Families earning less than $36,000 a year would be eligible to apply for scholarships for their children of up to $3,100 a year from private school scholarship funds. Businesses and individuals who contributed to these scholarship funds would be eligible for a tax credit of up to $500.

"Family income should never be a barrier to a good and appropriate education, yet it is today," lamented DeJarnette. With the scholarships, children from low-income families would have access to private schools.

By excluding the tax credits for homeschooling families and for donations to scholarship organizations, PFAW estimated the ultimate cost of the bill without any student transfers would be $144 million annually. Taking all credits into consideration, the Virginia Family Foundation estimated a total cost of $460 million annually, which would be offset by savings of $319 million a year because of a projected public school enrollment decline of about 91,000 students.



WASHINGTON

Charter Proposal Resuscitated

Prior to this year, laws to enable charter schools in Washington state have swum successfully through the state House only to be drowned in the Senate. This year's legislation was taken underwater in the House by an amendment that was like a brick tied to a kitten.

House Democrats insisted on adding an amendment to allow charter school teachers to be in the same teacher union--the Washington Education Association--as teachers in the local school district. When Republicans balked at this addition, the clock ran out on a deadline for moving the legislation from the House to the Senate and the bill, HB 2415, was declared dead. The declaration proved to be premature.

Although most of the charter school students would have come from public schools, it also was expected that some students would be drawn from private schools and home schools, creating additional costs for the state school system. House Republicans had included a $2 million line item for this in the proposed state budget.

That attention to detail proved to be a lifesaver for the charter school bill, since the House-to-Senate transfer deadline applied only to bills not referenced in the state budget. The charter school death certificate--which would have been the fifth in six years--was withdrawn.

Nevertheless, charter school advocates no longer are relying on state legislators for action. Long-time charter school supporter Jim Spady, who spearheaded a losing charter school initiative in 1996, told The Seattle Times he planned to file a citizen initiative to put a proposal for a pilot program before the voters. In addition, billionaire Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, recently emerged as a supporter of charter schools.



WEST VIRGINIA

Tuition Tax Credits Debated

A public hearing was held in the West Virginia House chamber on February 14 for lawmakers to hear citizen input on a bill that would provide income tax credits for parents who homeschool their children or send them to an independent school.

The bill would allow a $500 annual tax credit for homeschooling parents and a $1,000 annual tax credit for parents whose children are in private schools, the credit taken upon completion of the school year.

Opponents of the bill raised concerns about "precious education dollars" going to private schools, according to an account of the hearing in The Charleston Gazette. But Delegate Tim Armstead, a Republican cosponsor of the bill, explained the measure was not designed to take money away from public schools.

"What we're talking about is money that will be used one way or another to educate children," he said. Other speakers agreed, including Steve Flanagan of Faith Christian Academy.

"It's our tax money, so why can't we use it for our children as well?" asked Flanagan.

George A. Clowes

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