By Dan Lips
Last year was the most successful year ever for state school choice initiatives. This year could be even better. Just last week, lawmakers in Georgia and Utah voted for sweeping school choice plans, and New York's new liberal governor made a pitch for private school tuition breaks.
On Wednesday, the Georgia state Senate approved a plan that would offer tuition scholarships to public school students who qualify for special education services. The plan is based on Florida's McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities, which currently serves 17,000 students. In all, about 186,000 public school students in Georgia would be eligible for scholarships to attend a school of their parents' choice. The legislation will now go to the state's General Assembly.
Wednesday also marked an important political victory for school choice backers in the Empire State. Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, included a tax break for private schooling in his education budget proposal. Under Spitzer's plan, families whose children attend private school could claim a $1,000 tax deduction per student. The tax deduction could provide as much as $30 million annually in relief from double taxation for families that pay private school tuition and taxes to support public schools. Similar tax breaks for private school families are on the books in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.
Governor Spitzer's deduction would be worth, at most, a few hundred dollars per family each year. But it's noteworthy that the proposal is being advanced by a leading Democrat, since it signals philosophical support for parental choice in education.
No surprise, the usual special-interest groups aren't on board. Even though Spitzer's overall education plan calls for $7 billion in new public school spending, public education interest groups have come out in full force against the tuition tax break. David Ernst, a spokesman for the School Boards Association, warned that "It would be the camel's nose under the tent."
The most significant victory for school choice last week came in Utah, where the state House of Representatives narrowly approved a sweeping proposal to offer vouchers to all of the state' s 500,000 public school students. Under the plan, families with children in public school could receive a voucher worth between $500 and $3,000, depending on their income, for private school tuition. Current private school students would be ineligible for vouchers unless they qualify for the federal school lunch program, but all children entering kindergarten would be eligible.
School choice supporters are cautiously optimistic that the legislation will become law. The state Senate has passed similarly broad voucher plans in the past, and Governor Jon Huntsman, a Republican, is an outspoken supporter of school choice. If enacted, this would be the most significant school choice proposal ever implemented in the United States. It puts Utah on the road to true statewide school choice modeled on Nobel laureate Milton Friedman's vision of universal school vouchers.
This voucher plan is school choice opponents' worst nightmare. By 2020, all children in Utah would be eligible for vouchers to attend a public or private school of choice. State Representative Sheryl Allen, a Republican who opposes the plan, put opponents' fear best: "This is not the camel' s nose in the tent; this is the whole camel in the tent." Americans would finally see whether the sky actually falls, as the teachers unions have always claimed, when parents are empowered to choose their children's school.
The school choice initiatives in Georgia, New York, and Utah aren't the only exciting developments. Legislators across the country are looking at school choice plans. In Austin, Texas, thousands of parents rallied in favor of school choice bills being considered at the state capitol. In New Jersey, a bipartisan group of lawmakers continues to push for a school choice plan to help children escape failing inner-city schools. In Maryland, a Democratic legislator is expected to reintroduce an education tax credit bill with strong bipartisan support.
These are only a few examples of school choice efforts across the country. According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, 17 states have already filed school choice legislation this year and many more are expected to follow suit.
If this week is any indication, the year ahead could be a good one for school choice. That's good news for parents everywhere who hope to have the opportunity to send their children to the best school possible.