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Education Notebook on Education

January 20, 2006

January 20, 2006 | Education Notebook on Education

Arizona Governor Vetoes School Choice for Underprivileged Children

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK: 
Arizona Governor Vetoes School Choice for Underprivileged Children

January 20, 2006

Republicans pushing school choice in Arizona are beginning to look like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, with Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano playing the role of Lucy and pulling away the ball once again.

During negotiations last summer, Gov. Napolitano agreed to budget $5 million in tax credits for corporations contributing to private school scholarship funds for low-income students currently attending public schools. School choice for low-income families has long been a priority for Republicans in the state legislature. The governor-long opposed to choice-explained at a news conference that "the $5 million tax credit was not a bad price to pay" to reach a budget compromise with Republican leaders.

But days later, Napolitano changed her mind and vetoed the measure. "There's only one way to put this," explained Republican House Speaker Jim Weiers at the time. "The governor lied to me." According to the Arizona Republic , Gov. Napolitano justified her veto on the grounds that the tax credit wouldn't automatically "sunset," as she had requested in the negotiations.

Fast forward to 2006: On January 11, the Republican state legislature again passed tax credits for school choice-this time, including the sunset provision that Gov. Napolitano had requested. On Wednesday, Gov. Napolitano vetoed the measure, saying that she will only consider a tax credit during budget negotiations in the spring.

Republicans will have to try once more this summer to provide choice for Arizona 's low-income students. Assuming the legislature is able to pass tax credits a third time, Gov. Napolitano will face another choice: honor her promise or once again veto this popular program.

For Napolitano, this isn't an easy calculation. Democratic leaders across the nation face a similar dilemma-school choice legislation forces them to choose between core constituencies.

The families who will benefit most from school choice are those that are most underserved by the current public school system: namely, low-income and often minority children. This is the case, for example, with the Arizona tax credits for school choice. But those most opposed to school choice are another core Democratic constituency: public school interest groups, such as teachers unions, that provide campaign funding and grassroots manpower to Democratic campaigns.

Across the nation, Democrats are parting ways with the teachers unions and embracing school choice programs that help underprivileged families. Democratic Mayor Anthony Williams and Senators Robert Byrd (D-WV), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) provided critical support for the new Washington , D.C. , voucher program. Last year, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell approved legislation to expand the state's private school tax credit program. In New Jersey , a coalition of Democratic state legislators is pushing a school voucher program to help poor, inner-city children.

In Arizona , Gov. Napolitano-up for reelection in 2006-faces the difficult challenge of striking a balance between the demands of the 30,000-member Arizona Education Association and the needs of Arizona 's children, as well as public opinion. In all, more than 100,000 Arizona children attend charter schools or private schools thanks to a 1997 scholarship tax credit program. A 2005 poll found that 65 percent of Arizonans favored a school choice proposal.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin faces a similar quandary. Like Napolitano, he faces reelection in 2006 and must choose between the educational establishment and students. Wisconsin is home to the Milwaukee school voucher program-perhaps the most successful school choice program in the nation. This program helps 15,000 low-income, inner-city children attend private school and has been shown to boost graduation rates.

The Milwaukee voucher program has proven so popular that more families are applying for scholarships than are available under the law. The program limits participation to 15 percent of the student population. Gov. Doyle has vetoed several proposals to raise the cap. Because of these vetoes, thousands of inner-city children currently benefiting from the voucher program could be sent back to public schools this fall under the state's system for rationing vouchers.

That will it take to change these Democratic governors' political calculus and make them real supporters of school choice? As more and more parents recognize the promise of school choice to improve their children's lives, a growing number of Democratic leaders will be forced to choose whether to stand with the teachers unions or with underprivileged families.

Dan Lips is Education Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.

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