School Choice Rejected in Virginia

Published April 1, 2009

Virginia state senators killed two school choice bills in February, but supporters are continuing their efforts and say the issue is ripe to gain a foothold.

On February 17 the state Senate Finance Committee derailed its version of a proposal by Del. Chris Saxman (R-Staunton) to create a tax credit scholarship program, by a 4-15 vote.

“The reality is that this bill is drawn to low-income and middle-income families who can have better educational options in their future,” Saxman told the committee.

Making Progress

Though this was the fifth consecutive year Saxman’s measure passed the lower house but failed to be reported out of a Senate committee, supporters say success is drawing near.

“We have made progress every single year,” said Whitney Duff, executive director of School Choice Virginia, an advocacy group launched last year. “When this passed out of the House for the first time, I think it took everybody by storm.”

On February 19 the state Senate Education and Health Committee nixed its version of a plan by Del. William Janis (R-Glen Allen) to fund private tuition scholarships for autistic students. The bill had passed the House by a substantial 59-39 majority.

Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, noted special legislative rules enabled the tax credit and special-needs scholarship to be approved alternatively through the budget conference process, but he said it was difficult to predict what might happen.

Facing Challenges

Virginia’s school finance system concentrates power at the local level, Braunlich said, which “makes it hard to pass a substantive and significant-sized school choice opportunity without invading local funds, and that’s just not going to happen.”

A December 2008 Mason-Dixon poll found 69 percent of Virginians favor tuition tax credits, and a January 2009 survey cosponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Institute and the Black Alliance for Educational Options found similar support among the poorer African-American communities around Richmond.

Duff said her organization will ramp up its efforts when Virginia holds elections for governor and state house seats this November.

“This year is our best opportunity,” Duff said. “We are going to make it an issue that the candidates are talking about, that parents are talking about, that communities are talking about.”

Moving Forward

Braunlich said highlighting dramatic funding disparities among students—especially special-needs students—in different school districts is key.

“The only way to equalize those disparities is to give parents those choices,” Braunlich said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Mason-Dixon poll, December 2008:

“Survey on School Choice Preferences in African-American Neighborhoods in Petersburg, Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson Institute and Black Alliance for Educational Options, January 2009: