As the ice on the Potomac River reached its thickest level in a decade, the 108th Congress settled in to undertake its first round of school reform.
Landrieu Seeks to Aid DC Charters
The session began under unusual circumstances, with lawmakers needing to begin with last term’s unfinished appropriations business. Led by Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee for the District of Columbia, the Senate passed a bill that included a significant and welcome boost for District charters, in the form of $20 million in new federal funding targeted at improving facilities.
Currently, 15 percent of Washington, DC students attend its 35 public charter schools. While overall public school enrollment in the city has declined in recent years, the charter population has increased.
Only 14 of those 35 charter schools occupy permanent space, according to the District charter group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools. The rest rely on space leased wherever they can find it, a situation that complicates growth and adds uncertainty to future planning.
Often occupying what was formerly commercial space, charter leaders have expressed dismay that the District’s public school leaders refuse to make vacant school buildings available for use by charters. As with much of the nation’s charter movement, the challenge of securing safe and reliable facilities stands as perhaps their greatest obstacle to further growth.
Landrieu’s plan provides $15 million in revolving loans that charters can apply for to acquire, renovate, or maintain facilities. It also creates a new office of charter school financing in addition to allocating $4 million in direct support.
Another provision in the bill directs the General Services Administration to work with District authorities to assess the availability of all surplus buildings, and to draw up plans to utilize at least 50 percent of surplus space, with charter schools receiving top preference.
Reformers Seek to Establish Tax Credits
On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Zelman decision and the No Child Left Behind Act, some legislators see tuition tax credits as a logical next step to promote parental choice at the federal level. To that end, the Education Freedom Act was introduced in January by Representatives Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan), Mark Souder (R-Indiana), and Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado).
The bill includes provisions for an individual tax credit of 50 percent, up to $500 per family, and a corporate tax credit of 50 percent, up to $50,000. Both individual and corporate credits may be applied to contributions to qualified scholarship organizations and to public or private elementary or secondary schools; however, the credits cannot be applied against K-12 educational expenses made by individuals themselves.
President Bush’s budget does not include a line item for such a tax credit, as it did last year, a significant obstacle the plan’s supporters will have to address. It does, however, include $226 million in refundable tax credits for parents transferring a child from a public school identified for improvement under the NCLB Act. But supporters will enjoy more advantageous positions from which to argue their case, thanks to placement on key committees. Tancredo has won a seat on the House Budget Committee, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) now serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In his second term, Cantor authored one of last year’s most well-regarded tax credit proposals.
Hoekstra, one of Congress’s foremost champions of parental choice, described tax credits as a way for the federal government to partner with parents, corporations, and communities to bring new investment to local educational opportunities.
“Tax credits promote the ultimate flexibility to funnel cash to schools in need,” Hoekstra told School Reform News. “They reward schools that succeed and empower parents and local businesses to make the decisions to improve the education of children in their communities, while allowing the federal government to encourage and foster this local support and community involvement without unnecessary bureaucracy.”
Alexander Joins Senate Ed Committee
The Senate Education Committee will have one new face this session, one familiar to education reformers. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), former U.S. Secretary of Education, Tennessee Governor, and president of the University of Tennessee, took the place of Maine Senator Susan Collins, who departed the committee in favor of other assignments.
Alexander made bolstering charter schools an issue in his Senate campaign; in recent years he has been an outspoken advocate of parental choice in education, including vouchers.
Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].