1997 a Banner Year for School Choice

Published March 1, 1998

Nineteen ninety-seven was a breakthrough year for market-oriented education reform. A record number of choice proposals were introduced in states and local communities across the country, signaling robust support for vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools . . . even if most plans were ultimately rejected by the politicians.

Education Tax Incentives

Expanding on existing tax deductions for charitable donations to private and religious schools, tax incentives also were proposed to encourage donations to education savings accounts and organizations providing K-12 scholarships.

Minnesota increased its long-standing tax deduction for K-6 education expenses from $650 to $1,625 per child, and its grades 7-12 deduction from $1,000 to $2,500 per child. Low-income families qualify for a refundable credit of $1,000 per child, $2,000 per family.

Effective January 1, Arizona taxpayers qualify for a tax credit of up to $500 when they make donations to organizations providing scholarships to private and religious schools. In Illinois, a tuition tax credit bill overwhelmingly passed the state legislature but was rejected in January by lame duck Governor Jim Edgar. Missouri‘s proposed tax deduction of up to $2,500 was rejected by a House-Senate conference committee.

Tuition tax credit proposals are still under consideration in the legislatures of Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Utah. In Oregon, the School Choice Task Force is drafting a constitutional amendment to create a tuition tax credit program, while the Loudoun County, Virginia, county board is considering a plan that would provide up to a $1,250 tax credit per child, $3,000 per family.

In Congress, a filibuster defeated Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell’s “A+ Education Saving Account” bill. The proposal–which would permit families to save up to $2,500 in after-tax dollars in a tax-free savings account for K-12 education expenses, including religious school tuition–is expected to resurface in 1998.

Vouchers and Scholarships

CEO America‘s private scholarship programs increased their enrollments to nearly 14,000 in 1997. Charitable donations created many new funds, including the School Choice Scholarships Foundation in New York City, A Better Choice in Albany, and the Washington Scholarship Fund.

Voucher proposals–even those introduced by the state’s top executives–stalled in many state legislatures. Governors in California, New Mexico, and the Northern Mariana Islands introduced far-reaching voucher programs to their respective legislative bodies, but no action was taken on the measures in 1997.

Similarly, programs introduced by state elected officials generated much enthusiasm among parents and taxpayers, but little respect from the sponsors’ legislative colleagues. Delaware Representative Deborah Capano’s bill never left committee. A Florida pilot plan stalled after getting out of House and Senate committees. In Kansas, Representative Kay O’Connor’s plan received no legislative action. In Louisiana, the Senate Education Committee defeated Senator Tom Greene’s proposal. A New York bill garnered sponsors, but the legislature took no action on it. And in Pennsylvania, Representative Dwight Evans sponsored a bill that was not taken up in 1997.

Proposals to amend state constitutions were offered in Michigan, where a grassroots initiative is under way to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voter approval, and in Oregon, where a legislative proposal to amend the constitution died in committee. In Colorado, a 1998 ballot initiative would allow for the creation of a statewide voucher system.

In several states, school choice battles are being fought in the courts. In Colorado, 3,500 parents have sued for vouchers to rescue their children from failing Denver public schools. In Maine, parents have filed suit challenging the exclusion of religious schools from the state’s long-standing “tuitioning” program. The Vermont Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of using tax dollars for tuitioning at religious schools. In Ohio and Wisconsin, the state supreme courts are reviewing the constitutionality of choice programs already in place in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Choice proposals are springing up on the local level as well. In Lincoln Park, New Jersey, a local school choice program, which permitted $1,000 vouchers to be redeemed at private schools, was rescinded by a newly elected school board. The Southeast Delco, Pennsylvania school board proposed a local voucher program, while the Lake Travis, Texas board approved a program that offered $3,000 tuition scholarships for use at private or religious schools.

At the federal level, Congress defeated the HELP scholarship bill, which would allow local school districts to use block grant money to fund vouchers for low-income students. A bill to offer vouchers to students in the nation’s capital passed the Senate and awaits further action. If the measure clears the House this year, it faces an almost certain veto from President Clinton.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].