School Choice Initiatives Launched in the Old Dominion

Published February 1, 2003

Two members of the Virginia House of Delegates are proposing that the 2003 session of the legislature advance both vouchers and tax credits as ways to expand K-12 education choice in the Old Dominion.

At a General Assembly conference on school choice sponsored by the Lexington Institute, Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) announced he was introducing an amendment to the state constitution that would bring Virginia in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last June upholding under the federal Constitution the use of vouchers to promote “true private choice” in education.

The Lingamfelter amendment must pass two sessions of the General Assembly before going to Virginia voters for a final decision. Lingamfelter noted that even if the state constitution were amended, the General Assembly still would have to pass legislation to authorize and fund vouchers.

After the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Cleveland’s voucher program in the landmark Zelman case, the Institute for Justice reported Virginia was one of the so-called “Terrible Twelve” states that still impose rigid prohibitions–some of them dating to nineteenth century anti-Catholicism embodied in the Blaine Amendments–against all aid that benefits religiously oriented schools.

“It is time,” said Lingamfelter, “that we removed this arcane language and prepare ourselves to consider programs similar to those that have been very successful in Cleveland. We should have the flexibility to consider the full range of school choice options. Right now we don’t.”

Lingamfelter noted it is likely a federal voucher program will eventually be enacted. “Depending on how such a program was constructed,” he pointed out, “we might find ourselves unable to access matching funds if our constitution is not amended to give us needed flexibility.”

Tax Credits Also on Agenda

Virginia would become the seventh state offering tax credits to advance school choice if the Assembly were to pass, and Democratic Governor Mark Warner to sign, a bill sponsored by Delegate Kirk Cox, a teacher in a Richmond-area public high school. Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, is proposing a corporate tax credit for donations to organizations awarding tutorial or tuition scholarships to needy students.

Priority would go to students from low-income homes who are in failing public schools, or who are classified as learning disabled, or who have failed one of more of the Virginia Standards of Learning tests. Scholarships could cover up to $500 of tutorial services or $5,000 of tuition annually at qualifying private schools.

Participating private schools would have to be accredited by the Virginia Council of Private Education. As an additional measure of accountability, the schools would be required to measure their scholarship students’ annual progress in reading by means of a national norm-referenced achievement test.

Cox and the chairman of the department of economics at the College of William and Mary, Carlisle Moody, argued tax credits could save the state millions of dollars by relieving the government of the cost of educating children who chose to transfer to private schools and easing the need to build so many new public schools.

“Public schools have been moving toward choice themselves,” said Cox, noting the rise of Governor’s Schools, alternative schools, and specialty centers in his own school district. By extending the range of choice to include private schools as well, Cox said his colleagues in public education could accomplish such objectives as reducing class size and giving at-risk pupils in substandard schools greater educational opportunity.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].