Are School Voucher Programs Becoming Mainstream?
Explosion in new school choice laws proof that voucher programs have gone 'mainstreamA historic piece of school choice legislation is sitting on the desk of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, awaiting his signature.
When the governor finally signs Senate Bill 131, Old Dominion will become the 14th state in the nation to allow students of qualifying families to attend the private school of their choice. McDonnell is expected to sign the new scholarship tax credit program into law at any time.
The state will give $25 million in total tax credits to individuals or corporations that donate money to scholarship programs for low-income students. While technically not a voucher plan, Virginia's tax credit plan achieves the same effect by allowing families to escape a failing or underperforming traditional public school in favor of an effective private school.
Since 2011, a number of states have passed school choice legislation: Eight new school choice plans have been enacted, and 11 existing choice plans were strengthened, expanded or restored, reports the American Federation for Children *in its latest School Choice Yearbook.
Among those are several promising school voucher or tax credit scholarship programs, which allow students to essentially use state money to attend the schools of their choice, including private or parochial schools.
The biggest school voucher victory occurred in Indiana, which will eventually allow all children from low- and middle-income to attend the public or private school of their choice.
Other major success stories include *Wisconsin* - which expanded its long-running voucher plan for *Milwaukee* students and created a voucher plan for Racine families - and the *D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program*, which was reinstated in the nation's capital as part of last year's congressional budget agreement.
School choice advocates are hopeful that lawmakers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Tennessee will add to that tally during 2012. If they do, it will only increase the perception that vouchers and scholarship tax credit plans are now "a major part of mainstream education reform," as the AFC proclaims in its yearbook.
Vouchers and tax credit scholarships: First cousins
Currently, there are 15 voucher programs benefitting a total of 82,000 students throughout Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, Utah and Washington D.C.
None of these voucher programs is universal. Instead, vouchers are given to students of families that meet certain criteria. Of the nation's 15 voucher plans, some are based on a family's income, while others are given to all students who attend a failing school district (Ohio and Louisiana). Other vouchers are designated for special needs students only.
States in which vouchers might run afoul of the state constitution are opting for scholarship tax credit programs. There are 10 such programs operating in the states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. (Arizona has three separate versions of the tax credit scholarship.)
These programs allow corporations or individual citizens to give money to a scholarship-granting nonprofit organization, in return for a tax credit from the state.
"At the end of the year, an individual or corporation receives a tax rebate, typically 100 percent (of their donation) but sometimes as low as 50 percent," explains* Malcolm Glenn*, national director of communications for the American Federation for Children. "It varies."
The additional step of having a nonprofit organization - instead of a state government - grant scholarships to students is often enough to avoid constitutional concerns, Glenn tells* EAG*.
There are 10 tax credit scholarship programs across the nation, which serve 129,000 students, the AFC reports. These programs are proving popular among corporations, because it allows them to directly help kids in low-income communities, Glenn says.
The program has proved so popular in Florida that the tax credit cap is being raised by 25 percent next year, from $175 million to $218.7 million. The number of Florida students receiving scholarships has more than doubled over the past 10 years, and will continue to grow with the tax credit cap increase.
A Bipartisan effort
Predictably, the nation's teachers unions oppose the voucher movement. A "Voucher Fact Sheet" published by the *American Federation of Teachers claims the research of voucher programs "shows that the achievement of students with vouchers is no better, and sometimes worse, than that of comparable public school students."
Voucher advocates have numerous scientific studies supporting the value of school choice. Perhaps the most eye-opening statistic is found in the graduation rates of voucher students. Washington D.C. students who made use of the city's scholarship program have a graduation rate 21 percent higher than their public school peers (91 percent to 70 percent). In Milwaukee, the graduation rate for voucher students is 18 percent higher, reports the AFC.
For voucher advocates, the debate over school choice comes down to what is morally and philosophically right - and not the minutiae of dueling scientific studies. They believe parents should be given the right to decide where their children attend school, instead of basing it on their zip code.
That's why school choice enjoys bipartisan support in most states, even though it pits some Democratic political leaders against their traditional allies in the labor movement.
Glenn notes that Florida's tax credit scholarship program had little support from Democrats when it was first introduced a decade ago, but that 40 percent of Democratic lawmakers supported a recent expansion of the program.
Also, North Carolina's new tuition tax credit plan for disabled children received support from 65 percent of the state's Democratic legislators, Glenn adds.
In New Jersey, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a popular Democrat, is supporting a school choice plan being promoted by *Gov. Chris Christie, reports MyCentralJersey.com.
According to figures from the American Federation for Children, this current school year finds some 210,000 students participating in a voucher or tax credit scholarship program, totaling just over $800 million. Those numbers will grow as school choice expands into new states.
"Vouchers" was once considered a dirty word. But now it has become a mainstream education reform that is supported by both political parties.
"It's very exciting to see," Glenn says.
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