February 2005 Friedman Report: School Choice Roundup

Published February 1, 2005

California * Florida * New Jersey
South Carolina * Texas * Wisconsin


Gifted Student’s Lawsuit Could Have Impact on Voucher Plans

Levi M. Clancy and his mother have brought a civil lawsuit against the state of California, charging the state’s public schools failed to deliver on their promise to provide a “free and equal educational opportunity” to all children.

Clancy is a highly gifted 14-year-old who left public schools for college when he was just seven. California’s compulsory-education law requires that the state provide “a free and equal education” for all minors until age 18.

Clancy’s mother took him out of the public schools in 1997. Since then, he has found success at Santa Monica College and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), according to a report in the November 26 issue of The Washington Times. He is currently a junior pre-medical student at UCLA.

The complaint says UCLA is able to provide Clancy with an education, but it’s an education he can’t afford. It maintains the public school system should have given him other options or paid for him to attend college.

Richard D. Ackerman, attorney for Clancy’s mother, notes the state spends on average $6,800 to $7,200 annually for regular students in the state’s public schools. Special-education students, on average, cost the taxpayers between $10,000 and $11,000 apiece. The complaint says that at the very least, Clancy should have been able to receive the average state expenditure for his age group to apply to his college education.

“One size does not fit all when it comes to the education of a child,” Ackerman told The Washington Times.

The case could provide a boost to school voucher programs, as it addresses the idea that public school funding is a benefit for each individual student and should be applied wherever the student is receiving an education.
The Washington Times
November 26, 2004


Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program Approved in Florida

Florida parents have a new education option to consider, after lawmakers approved a universal pre-kindergarten program in December. The program is expected to be ready to accommodate 150,000 four-year-olds by August 2005.

A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Jeb Bush last spring. But the governor called the revised bill a “first-class proposal,” according to the December 17, 2004 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, and he is expected to sign this bill into law.

The revised bill requires lower teacher-student ratios than the previous bill did and aims to have every teacher with a bachelor’s degree within the program’s first eight years.

“I’m very happy that they made these changes, and I believe we can implement this,” Bush said. “It is a practical solution to a very important undertaking.”

Though most legislators believe the program still needs to be tweaked, many called it a strong first step. Libby Doggett, executive director of the Trust for Early Education in Washington, DC, said the program “needs to be refined and it needs to be well funded. That’s the next fight.”

House and Senate leaders expect the new program to cost about $400 million a year. Participation in the program is to be free and voluntary.
St. Petersburg Times
December 17, 2004

Florida Supreme Court to Rule on Voucher Law

Florida’s school voucher law has been in effect for nearly five years, but some opponents still consider it unconstitutional. When a lower court agreed with those opponents in November, Gov. Jeb Bush and other voucher supporters appealed to the state Supreme Court. The court is required to take the case.

The law allows public school students to attend private schools on state vouchers if their school is deemed failing two out of four years. Seven hundred students in seven districts applied to private schools under the law during the current school year.

Florida has other school choice programs that are not included in the lawsuit. Those programs include vouchers for disabled children and a corporate income tax program that gives privately funded scholarships to poor children.
Tampa Bay Tribune
December 14, 2004


The Reality of School Choice in New Jersey

Advocates for school choice in New Jersey are contemplating a new opportunity to make changes in education. No Child Left Behind gives students the right to transfer if they are in a school categorized as “in need of improvement” according to criteria specified in the law.

But because so many public schools in the state’s urban areas fall into that category, some analysts maintain school choice exists only on paper, rather than in reality.

Mary McElroy, director of the New Jersey Alliance of Catholic School Families, told The Jersey Journal on November 22 that “the district is supposed to offer choice. But it has become an issue of what kind of intradistrict choice do you offer when there are so many failing schools.”

Supporters of school vouchers believe they have the answer. They would like to give parents the option of using money usually allotted for public schools to send their children to a private school as well.

The New Jersey Choice Alliance is circulating a petition to expand school choice to private schools. McElroy says 120,000 parents have signed the petition so far. That number, along with polls taken in New Jersey, suggest many parents would support a voucher program.

According to the November 22 Jersey Journal story, 18 of 33 elementary schools in Jersey City are in need of improvement. In addition, according to the article, five of the city’s six high schools fall into that category. The one high school in Jersey City that is performing well doesn’t have room for more students, leaving parents with no real choice at the high school level.

Former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler told The Jersey Journal that “almost 20 percent of the city’s ninth-graders are not finishing 12th grade. Where is the justice for those children?”
The Jersey Journal
November 22, 2004


Sanford Visits Milwaukee Schools

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford recently went to Milwaukee to visit schools and learn more about the successful education voucher program in the city. His goal, he said, is to bring that knowledge back to South Carolina to help in the implementation of a school choice program in the state.

In the 1990s, public schools in Wisconsin were failing. Since their school choice program began, test scores are up and dropout rates are down, according to advocates cited in the December 10, 2004 issue of The State.

Sanford noted Milwaukee schools are on average smaller than those in South Carolina, allowing for closer relationships between teachers and students. Sanford said the smaller size gives teachers better control in the classroom and helps children become better students, according to The State.

The State article said Sanford is continuing to push his Put Parents in Charge Act, proposed in 2004, which would offer a tax break to parents who home school or send their children to private schools.

The plan is estimated to cost $234.4 million and would be implemented over five years. Advocates of the program say it’s worth the cost because it allows parents to choose the best education for their children.
The State
December 10, 2004


Many Texas Students Attending Failing Schools

More than a quarter of a million Texas students are eligible to transfer to another school because their own public schools are rated among the worst in the state.

The Texas Education Agency issued a list of poorly performing public schools in December, and the numbers have gone up significantly in the past year. This year there are 420 schools on the list, representing 293,000 students. Just 126 schools made the list last year.

In the past year, the state’s achievement test was redesigned and performance standards were increased. State education officials believe those are the primary reasons for the large increase in schools categorized as failing.

Despite the fact that so many students now have the right to transfer to a better school, few are expected to do so. Since the late 1990s, when Texas implemented the Public Education Grant program to give students the right to transfer from failing schools, fewer than 2,000 students have taken advantage of the program.

Why aren’t students clamoring to attend better schools? Critics of the program cite two main reasons: Transportation is not provided for students choosing new schools, and school districts are not required to accept students who want to transfer.

According to The Dallas Morning News, school choice activists may use these facts to push for further reforms. They see the low participation in the Public Education Grant program as proof Texas needs additional options. Republican leaders are expected to make one of those options–school vouchers–a priority in the coming year.
The Dallas Morning News
December 17, 2004


Review System May Be Next for Milwaukee’s Choice Schools

School voucher advocates in Wisconsin are planning to do something about the concerns they’ve been hearing. They know some see a problem in what has been characterized as a lack of oversight of the program, so they hope to develop a new review system for their schools, according to a December 12, 2004, story in the Duluth News-Tribune.

Ensuring that schools are evaluated on general standards by an independent group of educators is one option mentioned by Brother Bob Smith, president of Messmer Catholic Schools. Smith told the Duluth News-Tribune there have “to be some basic standards that apply to everybody.”

Milwaukee’s voucher program currently supports 14,800 students at 122 schools. The complaint is that the 122 schools offer curriculum and standards that differ from one school to the next.

The state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) does have specific requirements for financial reporting, but education leaders would like a system of checks and balances that encompasses more than just the finances, independent from the DPI, according to the Duluth News-Tribune.
Duluth News-Tribune
December 12, 2004