Support for Vouchers by DC Officials Continues to Grow

Published July 1, 2003

At a May 9 hearing of the House Government Reform Committee, prominent District of Columbia officials expressed their unprecedented support for bringing vouchers to the District.

Mayor Anthony Williams, a Democrat, told the committee he had been impressed by research demonstrating that school choice boosts the academic achievement of inner-city African-American students. He shared his views on what a successful voucher program would entail, and he praised Education Secretary Rod Paige and his team for meeting with district officials and for inviting them to work together to develop a plan to improve educational options for district families.

“I cannot say to thousands of our young people and their parents that they should not have more choices and opportunities to receive an education of which all of us can be proud,” he concluded.

At the same hearing, DC Councilman Kevin Chavous, a popular citywide official who chairs the council’s education committee, declared, “expanded school choice leads to expanded educational opportunities for parents–which, more than anything, serves to strengthen our traditional public schools.” District Board of Education President Peggy Cooper Cafritz acknowledged the demand for vouchers from district families would likely be great, and she gave specific guidance for how such a program should be established.

District public school parent and PTA President Jackie Pinckney-Hackett described her experience with the limited public school choice system already in place. She discussed how at the middle and junior high school level, the best public schools accepted 239 out-of-boundary students, despite receiving more than 2,200 applications.

“The condition of the DC public schools is no secret,” she told the committee. “Our children should not be left to suffer while we wait to improve academic performance in DC public schools.”

Not all the witnesses endorsed choice. District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) voiced their objections, claiming vouchers for the nation’s capital would interfere with local control and reduce federal funding for public education.

Details of the proposal being worked out between District and Bush administration officials are expected to be made public in the coming weeks.

Franks Pushes Tax Credit Plan

An innovative new tuition tax credit proposal by Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona) is generating enough of a buzz on Capitol Hill that some feel it may be “the one” that can ultimately build enough support to become law.

Franks, the author of Arizona’s first-in-the nation scholarship tax credit and now a freshman member of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced his federal plan in May. The plan’s influential roster of original cosponsors included House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Appropriations Committee member John Doolittle (R-California), and House Ways and Means Committee member Eric Cantor (R-Virginia).

Various tuition tax credit plans have been introduced in the House of Representatives in each of the past several Congresses, but none has passed. Franks’ plan differs from these by choosing an approach designed to encourage states to pass credit programs of their own.

Under his plan, individuals participating in state scholarship credit plans could take an additional $100 credit–$200 for joint filers–on their federal return for contributions of $250 or more. States that do not impose income taxes can offer a dollar-for-dollar credit against their property taxes.

“This approach improves the entire public and private education systems across the board and places children at the very top of the … priority list,” Franks said. “Families have waited far too long for these reforms, and Congress has an ideal opportunity–by offering incentives to states that enact their own state scholarship tax credits–to employ a proven method to help make this happen.”

Tuition tax credits are currently offered in six states: Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. The Arizona plan has raised $56 million since 1998; some 57,000 scholarships have been awarded.

To qualify for Franks’ federal plan, state credits must be for contributions to qualified scholarship organizations that give 90 percent of contributions as scholarships to students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. The plans in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota would not qualify.

“I’m particularly pleased that Congressman Franks’ legislation provides a true incentive for states to create a scholarship tax credit, ensuring that any commitment made at the federal level is not only matched but exceeded by the states,” said Boehner. “This legislation provides an important financial tool that would help place that choice into the hands of parents.”

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].