February 19, 2009

February 19, 2009 | Education Notebook on Education, Parental Choice in Education

School Choice Gaining Momentum

EDUCATION NOTEBOOK:
School Choice Gaining Momentum

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By Dan Lips and Lindsey Burke

In 2009, more American children than ever are benefiting from school choice. According to a new report from the Alliance for School Choice, approximately 171,000 children in 10 states and D.C. are benefiting from private school scholarship programs -- an 8 percent increase over last year and an 89 percent growth since 2004.

Many more children may soon benefit from school choice, since a growing number of state legislatures are considering voucher or scholarship tax credit legislation. The Alliance for School Choice reports that 44 states considered private school choice legislation in 2007-08, six of which passed a bill in both legislative chambers.

In 2008, two states -- Georgia and Louisiana -- enacted private school choice measures. The Peach State created a new tax credit to encourage businesses and individuals to make donations to groups that award school choice scholarships. Louisiana launched a new school voucher program for low-income students in New Orleans.

School choice supporters have good reason to be optimistic thanks to increasing bipartisan support. Even larger legislative gains could be made in 2009 and beyond as evidenced by a growing number of Democratic state legislators backing school choice proposals. For example, Louisiana's new school voucher bill was sponsored by Democrats. In Florida, a third of the Democratic caucus backed a $30 million increase for the state's corporate scholarship tax credit program. State legislative chambers in Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island have approved school choice bills in recent years.

Outside politics, school choice measures may also be gaining increasing support from an unlikely ally: public school teachers. While teachers unions continue to actively oppose school choice, a 2008 Harvard University study for Education Next found that 65 percent of teachers supported tax credit programs that benefit both public and private schools. A third of polled teachers supported universal vouchers, and less than half opposed vouchers.

Moving forward, proponents of expanding parental choice in education face an uncertain political climate in 2009. Across the country, state governments are facing ballooning budget deficits. With tax revenues declining, state legislators may be focusing more on the difficult choices to be made instead of the new benefits to offer parents.

But lawmakers should recognize that offering families school choice can actually help states meet their budget challenges, since scholarships awarded are typically much less than what the public schools spend on each student each year. An evaluation of the fiscal impact of school choice programs between 1990 and 2006 found that scholarship programs have saved taxpayers $400 million nationwide. A fiscal analysis mandated by the state legislature found that Florida's corporate scholarship tax credit saved taxpayers $39 million in 2007.

Perhaps the biggest question for supporters of school choice policies in 2009 is the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Since 2004, this federal initiative has helped thousands of low-income students attend private schools in the nation's capital. Academic researchers evaluating the program have reported that the opportunity to choose has improved parents' satisfaction with their children's school quality and safety. Moreover, the initial results of a testing evaluation show that students who were offered vouchers were benefiting academically.

One might think that these initial benefits would be enough to convince Congress to continue or even expand the scholarship program to let more disadvantaged youngsters participate. But instead there is growing concern that congressional Democrats are planning to end the program. The Washington Post reported in January that congressional leaders may be planning to include legislative language in the looming omnibus bill that would create new legislative hurdles for funding D.C. scholarships.

The future of the program may ultimately rest with President Obama, who has sent conflicting signals about his position on school vouchers. He would surely face scrutiny from the National Education Association and other liberal interest groups if he fights to save the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. But the growing bipartisan support for school choice measures across the country suggests that it's becoming easier politically for Democrats to support such programs.

Of course, more than any elected official, President Obama could fuel the growing bipartisan support for school choice, paving the way for new legislative measures across the country. What better way to give disadvantaged children across the country hope for a better future than to fight for the principle that all families deserve the power to choose a safe and quality learning environment for their children?

Dan Lips is Senior Policy Analyst and Lindsey Burke is a Domestic Policy Research Assistant at the Heritage Foundation, Heritage.org.

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