Call for Congress to Debate School Choice

Published March 1, 2001

The decisive defeat of voucher referenda in California and Michigan last November apparently hasn’t stunted the development of school choice proposals in states and cities across the country, particularly where aggressive voucher proponents–like New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson–are involved.

The inclusion of a school choice option in President Bush’s education plan also has helped promote national interest in parental choice in education, and generated a prominent call for Congress to debate school choice for low-income families.

The call for a Congressional debate on school choice came from Dr. Howard Fuller, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, in response to pre-inauguration musings from Fordham Foundation President Chester Finn Jr. and his colleague Michael Petrilli, who suggested a more measured and strategic approach to school choice at the federal level.

Subsequently, a group of moderate GOP legislators in the Republican Main Street Partnership, which dismisses “even the most ambitious ‘choice’ or ‘voucher’ programs” as not being comprehensive enough, predicted a legislative “freeze” if vouchers were included in President Bush’s school reform package. Fuller reacted strongly to the idea that parents who needed vouchers for their children now could simply just sit and wait patiently until legislators decided that a voucher bill finally was ripe for Congress to debate.

“I do not agree with their approach,” declared Fuller, a former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and now Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University. “No parent seeking a better school for their child has urged me to wait a few years, in the false hope that this issue will ever become non-controversial.”

While those who called for moderation were worried about a legislative “train wreck” if voucher supporters didn’t back off, Fuller said his concern was “the train wreck [that] occurs daily when millions of low-income parents send their children to schools that don’t work.” This disproportionately hurts children of color, he noted, who don’t have a choice of schools because their parents are poor.

“Instead of putting school choice off limits, we should move in the opposite direction,” urged Fuller. “State and federal officials need to hear the mounting evidence that school choice helps families and public schools,” he added, pointing to the publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida, and privately funded programs across the country.

Eric V. Schlecht, director of congressional relations for the National Taxpayers Union, also warned it would be “extremely unwise” for Bush to exclude vouchers from his education plan. Doing so would represent not only an error in policy but also a missed political opportunity to reach out to inner-city minority communities where support for school choice is highest.

School Choice on State Agendas

While there was no less controversy over school choice proposals at the state level, at least one state chief was willing to expend his political capital “for the children’s sake” and promote an aggressive school choice proposal.

Republican Governor Gary Johnson of New Mexico is again using this year’s 60-day legislative session to press the Democrat-controlled legislature for approval of his voucher plan. State lawmakers decisively rejected a plan he put forward in 1999.

Here are the key school choice developments that took place in the states during the first month of 2001:

After-School Vouchers for Chicago?

Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago recently proposed giving parents vouchers worth up to $100 to help defray the cost of after-school programs. The vouchers in the mayor’s proposal would be limited to the fees parents pay for programs that boost learning, such as tutoring programs in arts, science, reading, and sports programs. Many after-school programs are offered at churches and parochial schools.

“My theory is that anything you do to help educate your child should be something that the government helps you with financially,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Voucher Champ Promoted in Kansas

Clearly pleased with the way Representative Kay O’Connor promoted school vouchers for many years in the state house, voters in Olathe, Kansas, promoted her to a new forum in the state senate last November.

Although she has not yet introduced voucher legislation, O’Connor told the Kansas City Star in January she would support just about anything that would extend taxpayer money to private schools.

The Kansas Catholic Conference plans to lobby the state legislature for tuition tax credits during this year’s legislative session, according to Kathy O’Hara, assistant schools superintendent of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas.

Parental Choice Scholarships in New Hampshire

New Hampshire Representative John Alger is drafting a bill that would establish parental choice scholarships to ensure that children of low-income families have access to schools that are satisfactory to the parents.

The scholarships, which would be worth up to 80 percent of the state’s adequate education grant, would be limited to families with incomes no greater than 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Paid directly to parents, the scholarship funds could be applied to K-12 tuition and other educational expenses at a public or nonpublic school within or outside the state.

Scholarships would be available to all children in a school or district that had scored in the bottom one-third of state assessment tests for the previous two years. They also would be available to the first 1 percent of public school students that applied in any school district; if more than 1 percent applied, the governing body of the district would have to vote to approve the allocation of more funds to the scholarship program.

Tax Credits in New Jersey

Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler and Morristown-based Parents for Free Choice in Education ( have launched a drive to marshal support for two school choice bills that are to be introduced in the state legislature.

One bill would give parents and guardians a partial income tax credit for out-of-pocket educational expenses such as tutoring, tuition, textbooks, supplies, and computer hardware and software. The second measure would increase scholarship aid available for middle- and low-income families by establishing a state tax benefit for contributions to K-12 scholarship foundations.

Milwaukee-Style Vouchers for New York?

Presenting his eighth and last budget for the City of New York in January, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani renewed his push for school vouchers to give low-income students the same access to quality education as their more affluent peers. Modeled on the voucher program in Milwaukee, Giuliani’s $12 million proposal is for a pilot program that would be offered in one or two school districts over a three-year test period.

While voucher opponents criticized the plan for “siphoning” money from public schools, Giuliani said vouchers were inevitable and if they didn’t come today, they would in six months, or in a few years.

“How can we, in confidence, tell parents whose children are in schools that have been put on the state’s list of [failing] schools for three or five or seven years that the schools will turn around?” asked Deputy Mayor Tony Coles, explaining the mayor’s voucher plan.

Special Ed Vouchers in Oregon

Republican House Speaker Mark Simmons in January proposed a publicly funded school choice program where English learners and special education students could switch to another public school or to a privately run program that provided better educational opportunities for them.

According to Oregon’s Statesman Journal, voucher opponents immediately blasted the idea–even though it would leave the sending district with more money and relieve them of responsibility for the students educators frequently complain are the ones who would be “left behind” in a voucher program.

Each of Oregon’s public school students brings an average of $4,800 to the school district the student attends. Each of Oregon’s 56,309 special education students brings an additional $4,800, and each of the state’s 37,472 ESL/bilingual students brings an additional $2,400. Simmons’ proposal is to leave 100 percent of the base funding with the school district, but to allow parents to spend the additional funding at another educational facility of the parents’ choosing.

“They can’t run special ed programs on that,” huffed lobbyist Ozzie Rose. He said Oregon school administrators would oppose the measure, doing whatever necessary to make sure parents would not be allowed to test his hypothesis.

Tax Credits in Utah

Utah’s government school system is projected to have 100,000 new students by 2010, costing an extra $2 billion in tax money for 4,000 additional teachers and 172 new schools.

To reduce the crunch on the government schools, freshman Representative John Swallow plans to introduce a bill in the legislature to offer up to $2,500 in tax credits to parents, businesses, and organizations who pay the tuition for a student to attend a private school. The $2,500 is roughly half of what Utah currently spends for each student in the government schools.

“We need to get our children taught on someone else’s nickel,” Swallow, a Republican from Sandy, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s one way to save public schools.”

Advocates say the plan could draw new private-sector money into K-12 education, cut class sizes in the government schools, increase teacher pay, and reduce the need for new construction and hiring. However, school officials, teacher union spokespersons, and the office of Republican Governor Mike Leavitt were cool to the idea.

Tax Credits in Virginia

In January, about 2,000 people gathered at the Virginia state capitol in support of a bill (HB 1961) that would offer parents a tax credit of up to $2,500 annually for private school tuition and $550 per child for home-school materials.

In addition, businesses and individuals would receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $500 for donations to scholarship organizations. Children in low-income families would benefit from those organizations by being allowed to receive scholarships of up to $3,100 per child annually to attend private schools.

One of the leading advocates for the bill, the Virginia Family Foundation, says HB 1961 overcomes many of the common arguments against school choice proposals: The legislation helps poor children, gives the state potential savings of $154 million on public school expenses, and avoids constitutional questions of church-state entanglement.

No Tax Credit for Colorado

Representative David Schulteis (R-Colorado Springs) introduced a tax credit bill, HB 1180, into the Colorado legislature in January, but the House Education Committee killed the bill on a narrow 6-5 vote before the month was out. The bill provided a tax credit of up to $3,000 for tuition expenses and up to $1,500 for home-schooling expenses. The credits would have been refundable and available only to students in schools graded as being in the lowest 2 percent of the schools in Colorado.

No Voucher Plans for Texas

School vouchers are not expected to receive any serious consideration from legislators during this year’s session of the Texas state legislature. The group that spearheaded vouchers in previous years, Putting Children First, has been disbanded, and many voucher advocates are focusing on other education priorities.

Two years ago, Senate Education Committee Chairman Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo) introduced a bill to establish a limited voucher program for low-income students in Dallas and five other counties. Despite the backing of Governor George W. Bush and Lt. Governor Rick Perry, the bill was never called in the Senate because of the unbending anti-voucher stand taken by a Republican legislator.