Progress on school choice in the statehouse and courtroom during 2002 set the stage for an ambitious 2003 legislative agenda in many states and the U.S. Congress. Most significant, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that voucher programs do not violate the Constitution even when participating schools are overwhelmingly religious. Before the one-year anniversary of the Court's decision, Colorado Governor Bill Owens signed into law the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, which will provide vouchers to low-income students in low-performing school districts. The Maryland legislature enacted a charter school law.
Meanwhile, the body of research supporting choice grew considerably. This research, the Supreme Court's landmark legal opinion, and the increased legislative activity on choice provide a foundation for new programs that will empower parents to choose the schools that best meet their children's needs. Eleven states have publicly funded voucher or tax-credit programs, and 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws. The 2002 legislative sessions saw the introduction of more than 40 school choice bills, and 2003 holds the prospect of even greater progress.
Despite the growth of choice programs over the past few years, the vast majority of poor children remain trapped in failing schools. The nation spends more than $422 billion each year on elementary and secondary education, yet the results of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in math, science, reading, history, and geography were deeply disappointing. Nearly six in 10 high school seniors lack even a basic knowledge of American history, and more than half of the nation's low-income 4th graders cannot read at a basic level.
Moreover, America's children have fallen behind many of their international peers on tests of core academic knowledge, particularly in math and science. Despite higher than average per-pupil expenditures, American 8th graders ranked 19th among their counterparts in 38 countries in math and 18th in science on the most recent international comparison of proficiency, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R) of 1999.
Lawmakers can now make decisions informed by a growing body of research that demonstrates that choice can improve academic performance of at-risk students, promotes parental satisfaction, and fosters accountability in public school systems. In 2003, Congress will consider new choice legislation as well as the reauthorization of several key federal education programs, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This presents Congress with an excellent opportunity to expand school choice, especially for the children who need it most.
- Provide vouchers to students in Washington, D.C. Congress should give children in the District of Columbia access to schools of excellence. Despite high per-pupil expenditures, children in D.C. schools continue to suffer from high dropout rates and low academic achievement. There are hundreds of private schools in the D.C. metro area, most with tuitions that are less than the per-pupil expenditure in public schools.
- Expand choice for students with special needs. Congress should follow the recommendations of the bipartisan Commission on Excellence in Special Education and provide the parents of special-needs children with a variety of educational options. Florida's McKay Scholarship program, which grants vouchers to special education students to attend a private or public school of choice, provides a model for such a program.
- Hold oversight
hearings on choice.
Congress should hold hearings on how well the states and school districts are implementing the choice and supplemental services provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. If it becomes clear that there is insufficient will or capacity to give students meaningful public school choice, Congress should enable students to receive Title I vouchers under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to use for tuition at a private school of choice.
2002 was a momentous year for the school choice movement. In addition to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upholding Cleveland's voucher program, progress was made in the state courts against Blaine amendments, which prohibit tax money from flowing to religious institutions. Vestiges of a 19th century anti-Catholic movement, state-level Blaine amendments have been used by some courts to strike down voucher programs, while other courts have upheld choice programs despite the provisions.
New studies have added to the growing body of evidence showing that competition created by school choice produces improvement in the public school system and that when parents are empowered to choose their children's schools--whether they choose public, public charter, private, or home schools--all students can benefit. Congress and the states now have an historic opportunity to give parents new and meaningful options for the education of their children.
Krista Kafer is Senior Policy Analyst for Education at The Heritage Foundation.