School Choice Legislation Is All the Rage in 2005

Published May 1, 2005

To date, 2005 has been a banner year for school choice legislation, with at least 17 states considering choice proposals.

In addition, President George W. Bush’s 2005-06 budget calls for expanding the federal school choice plan: The $50 million “Choice Incentive Fund” would allow cities to receive federal funds to pay for tuition vouchers at private and religious schools.

Governors Pave the Way

According to the Alliance for School Choice, governors are leading the charge on the state level. For example, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has proposed a tax credit program that would give families earning up to $75,000 a credit on their state income taxes for the cost of public or private school tuition up to 80 percent of the state’s average per-pupil cost.

Public school districts would still receive the local and federal per-pupil dollars, but the state’s per-pupil aid would follow the student. The plan also creates a corporate tax credit scholarship program. Unlike similar programs in Arizona and Florida, South Carolina’s would let businesses make unlimited contributions to nonprofit scholarship groups in lieu of paying state corporate taxes. Those groups would then provide tuition scholarships to low-income children.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (R) has proposed a pilot school choice program to help children in failing schools. The Texas Freedom Scholarship would offer scholarships to students in the five largest urban schools with the greatest percentage of economically disadvantaged students. In addition, the funds a district receives for a student (such as for special education, ESL, etc.) follow the student and are not subject to the 90 percent cap.

Midwestern Governors Push Choice

Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) is backing a tax credit scholarship for lower-income families with children enrolled in failing schools. The $40 million tax credit proposal allows businesses and individuals to donate to nonprofit groups, which would award students scholarships to attend private or better-performing public schools. Sponsors say more than 10,000 of the state’s neediest children could receive scholarships. An average scholarship would be $3,800, up to a maximum of $6,500.

Similarly, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) has proposed a $4 million tax credit scholarship plan that would allow 1,500 low-income students in failing schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul to attend private schools. The scholarships would come from corporate donations made to nonprofit organizations in exchange for tax breaks.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) supports a school choice program that would give parents money to transfer their children to other public or private schools if their current public school fails to meet annual academic targets. In addition to the voucher provision, the bill would give tax credits to parents who pay private school tuition or pay a fee to send their children to another district.

Many Other States Considering

Several other states also have school choice bills pending:

  • Illinois: the Opportunity Scholarship Act includes a $15 million pilot program offering $500 scholarships in Chicago for after-school tutoring services from approved providers, or $3,500 to help meet tuition costs at qualified and participating public, private, nonsectarian, or religious schools of the eligible family’s choice;
  • Iowa: a bill modeled after Arizona’s tax credit program, giving credits to individuals who contribute to a school tuition organization that provides scholarships to children to attend the schools of their choice;
  • New York: a bill to provide income tax credits up to $3,000 for families sending children to private schools;
  • Pennsylvania: a bill to expand the Education Improvement Tax Credit;
  • Vermont: a voucher bill allowing parents to receive certificates worth $5,000 (for high school) or $2,500 (for elementary grades) to educate their children at independent schools; and
  • Virginia: a tax credit proposal allowing scholarships for students in under-performing or crowded schools to attend another public or private school.

Vetoes Expected

While many governors have led the charge for school choice legislation in the states, a few may veto their legislature’s school choice bills.

For example, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) on March 28 rejected a bill, introduced as part of Arizona’s overall budget package, to expand the state’s tuition tax credit for private and parochial scholarships by allowing corporations to participate.

A statewide school voucher proposal, SB 1506, would allow any Arizona child to use public funds to transfer from public to private school or to start kindergarten in a private school. Although the measure had momentum early on, the Arizona Republic reported on April 4 that the measure was “three or four votes short of the 31 it needs in the House to get sent to Napolitano.”

Clint Bolick, president of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice, told the newspaper, “It’s not surprising … that some legislators would get cold feet, because the special interests on the other side are aiming most of their fire at this.” The voucher measure would give parents a yearly grant for private school tuition up to $3,500 for kindergarten through eighth grade and up to $4,500 for high school. Students already attending private schools are disqualified from the program. Unlike other public voucher programs, the Arizona proposal does not limit eligibility to students of low-income families or those attending failing schools.

The Arizona Senate also has taken up a more restrictive voucher bill that would provide state-funded vouchers to parents of children who have failed to test at grade level on a standardized test. SB 1192 also would make vouchers available to disabled students or English language learners.

New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) may veto the “School Choice Certificate,” which passed the Senate in February and is currently pending in the House of Representatives. The plan would establish 1,200 vouchers for first graders in the initial year of the program, with the total number of vouchers expanding to a maximum of 16,000 after eight years for students in grades 1 through 8.

The voucher would be worth 80 percent of the state adequacy grant each district receives per student. The state adequacy grant is expected to be $3,580 next year, which means the maximum a voucher would be worth is $2,864.

In Wisconsin, the state legislature passed a bill to raise the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program’s enrollment cap by 1,500 students, for a total of 16,500 students. Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is expected to veto that measure.

Expansions Proposed

In addition to Wisconsin’s “lift the cap” effort, Florida and Ohio are considering expanding their school voucher programs.

Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) introduced a plan to expand Florida’s 2001 voucher law that now allows students at public schools that earn a failing grade from the state two years out of four to attend a private school on a state voucher. The new proposal would give a “reading compact scholarship” to any public or charter school student, at any school, who scores in the lowest level on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) for three years in a row; private school students are not required to take the FCAT.

In Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft (R) has proposed a $9 million expansion of the state’s voucher program, which would offer vouchers to approximately 2,600 children. Children in kindergarten through eighth grade would be eligible for Taft’s program if they are attending a school that failed to meet state test standards in reading and math for three years. The Cleveland voucher program now provides up to $2,700 per student for private school tuition. The new “Ohio Choice Scholarships” would offer up to $3,500 per student.

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is education director at the Reason Foundation.